Friday, May 30, 2008

The Paradox of Decision Making

Talking with my brother the other day we discussed the importance of making timely decisions. My brother, who is a business consultant, made an interesting comment, saying, “No decision is making a decision.” In the context of our discussion he is right. Too many times, out of fear, sometimes we don’t step up and make hard choices. By not taking action we sometimes miss opportunities.

Then the other day I was listening to a sermon about David in 1 Samuel 21. David was on the run from King Saul and in his exile he came to a priest by the name of Ahimelch and asked for the consecrated, holy bread, in the tabernacle to feed his fleeing army. In verse 8, David makes the statement as justification for his actions “the king's business required haste.” The fact of the matter is David’s words were not correct. God’s business is seldom done in haste. Indeed, God’s business is usually very slow. Perhaps it’s because we are finite creatures and bound by the shortness of our time on earth that we wish God would hurry things up a bit. David misrepresented God’s working in his life and so it is with many of us when it comes to making decisions.

If you were to ask me what is the most difficult thing about serving God it is patiently waiting for God’s direction in my life. To “be still and know that I am God,” is often excruciating. I want to make things happen. After all, I’m not getting any younger; the clock is ticking. It’s tough for me to remember that, though I’m in a hurry, God is not. His work does not require haste.

Certainly there are times when God makes it clear that we should act and I believe it is wrong, perhaps sin, if we don’t move forward when we see clearly His will in a matter. It’s a lack of faith and trust in Him if we take no God directed action. However, do we have the courage to wait on God when opportunity knocks? Do we sometimes try to make it happen and spiritualize it by saying that “the King’s business requires haste”? Making the right decision is often a paradox. No decision is indeed making a decision. Sometimes not making that decision is not doing His will; sometimes not making that decision is allowing God to work out His will in His time.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Gift of Encouragement

When my friend handed me a card recently I was dumbfounded, even more, I was embarrassed. Inside the card were six one hundred dollar bills. When I asked why, he said that he and his wife had been praying about giving a financial gift to people who had invested in their lives and Sandy and I were one of those they wanted honor with a gift. Speechless, I finally squeaked out, “Well, thanks.” My response sounded so wimpy. How do you say to one of your closest friends in the world, “Hey, I know you guys love and respect us, but you don’t have to give us money to show your affection.” But I didn’t, and “thanks” was the best I could do and sheepishly put the card in my pocket. When I asked him if he wanted me to deposit through my organization so he could deduct the gift from his taxes he said no, “Just use it anyway you want.”

People give gifts for a whole host of reasons. This past week we sent a check to a family members daughter who graduated from high school. We hardly know the girl, but out of respect to the family we gave a gift. Some people give out of duty. I know some dear old people who go to church every Sunday just so they can pay their tithe. Some people give because out of guilt, others out of deep gratitude. For others giving is a business transaction and they seek those who offer the best ROI.

Paul, wrote this note to a donor church while he was in prison,

As you know, you Philippians were the only ones who gave me financial help when I first brought you the Good News….No other church did this….I don’t say this because I want a gift from you. Rather, I want you to receive a reward for your kindness (Phil. 4:15 – 17.

Paul saw the generosity of this congregation as an act of kindness, but more than anything else, he saw their deed of charity as a vote of confidence…an act of encouragement. I can only imagine the emotional and spiritual valleys Paul must have experienced; alone in prison, wondering if all this suffering was necessary. And then he receives a message, perhaps not a Hallmark card, but a note from a group of people who believed in him. Other churches had received the Good News from Paul’s preaching, but it was just this Philippian congregation who took up a collection for his physical needs. Paul said he didn’t need it, but he accepted it because he wanted them to receive a reward for their kindness.

I know there are many missionaries who read this blog. They, like myself, know that with every gift they receive it is more than just dollars for their ministry. Each donation is a symbol of encouragement. So, in spite of the awkwardness, even at times the distastefulness of receiving monetary support, at the end of each month I look at the list of those who have given financially and, though I see the dollar amount, I am more aware of those who have sent a vote of confidence. My prayer is that (a) I betray not that confidence and (b) God will richly reward their kindness.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Seeing and Meeting the Need

When our family lived in Kenya there was a woman in Tulsa who wrote and asked if there was anything she could send us? I was working on verse-by-verse Bible studies in Swahili and this dear lady, named Kathy, supplied me with commentaries for three years to help me in this project. She also sent regularly women’s magazines to my wife and comic books to my daughters. Kathy saw a need and met it.

Recently I mentioned in my monthly E-letter of a conference I was underwriting in Orissa, India. A church in Sherman, Texas sent me $1,500 to cover the cost. This congregation went beyond just monthly support, they gave extra to meet a need.

When I let it be known that a pastor in Kenya asked if I could find a used computer, Larry in California dusted off his perfectly good working IBM laptop and sent it to me which I gladly took to pastor Paul. Larry turned his outdated computer into a tool for God’s work in Africa.

While churches go through the process of determining if their congregations can support the ministry, people like Casey and Becky, Keith and Lorna, Tom and Judy, Allan and Edith, Jim and Diana, the Vangergrifts, the Martins and other individuals and families become monthly partners in the work. Like Gideon’s band of warriors, we are not large in number, but it's an army diligent in the task who see a need and do what they can to meet that need.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Analogy of Parenting and Missions

In a Q and A session in a Kenyan church one young man stood and read his question.

“You missionaries,” he stated, “come here and do some very good things. However, you live in nice houses and drives cars, but you don’t leave assets for the local church to build on so they can sustain themselves.” This man’s particular point was that they needed electricity on their church compound, which would be beneficial for them to start a nursery school. For a mere $4,000 the power line could be hooked up and they could generate some income for the church.

My answer to this veiled personal criticism was two-fold. First, I agreed that in the past some of us were shortsighted in our church-planting ministry. In hindsight, it would have probably been better if I had concentrated on building fewer quality churches rather than trying to establish many churches. Perhaps if I had concentrated my resources on establishing a quality Bible school rather than on trying to establish churches in the bush of Pokot and Turkana it would have served those regions better. But that’s hindsight.

Though I understood and accepted the critical analysis of the questioner, I took issue with his premise, i.e., that if we had helped them stand on their own they would be better off today. The problem for me 25 years ago was, and still is today, how much is enough? When does aid become dependency rather than laying a good foundation? I reminded the congregation that when I started working in the area there were not even good roads, much less electricity. My investment in every church plant, thirteen in all, was meant to help them get to a place where they could move forward on their own, not permanently underwrite their ever need. I also reminded them that as one who understands African culture, Kenyan’s always feel they are too poor to do anything on their own and that, in fact, they are many times unwilling to sacrifice to reach their own desired goals. I recounted the story how that in my days on the field people would drop one cent pieces into the offering plate but would pay the witchdoctor in the area a goat to ward off evil spirits. In today’s economy many of those in the congregation can afford cell phones and cars, but for some reason can’t come up with enough money to get electricity to their church compound.

While I admitted my failings as a missionary, I told them that being a new missionary is like being a parent; it’s on-the-job training. Like a parent, we learn as we go and often can look back at how we could have done it better in both raising our children as well as serving the church. Sometimes we did things right, sometimes, in retrospect, we could have done things differently. While I may regret some of my strategies of thirty-five years ago, I can take comfort that both my kids and the churches we established have a strong foundation for their future. A missionary’s or parent’s legacy should not be how much they provided for their children or ministry, but rather how much they instilled in them to go forward on their own.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Vulnerability as Strength

Standing behind his son’s casket, pastor Ngure spoke for at least an hour. John, twenty-five years old, hung himself two days before and there were a lot of questions that accompanies every suicide. Why would he do such a thing? What was so wrong in his own world that it would push him to take his own life? Many questions, no good answers.

The short answer -- the motivation for John to end his life was the breakup with his fiancĂ©. The boy and girl loved each other, wanted to get married, but the parents of the girl opposed the marriage because their daughter was going to the university and John had only attended a technical school after high school. When the discussion broke down, John became despondent and even told his girlfriend of his plans of ending his life. The girl sent an SMS to John’s sister of his intentions two days before he carried out his plan. Of course all funerals are sad, but this was particularly difficult. The death of young person is tragic at every level, truly senseless.

As the service continued (it was three hours long) I was interested from an anthropological perspective, how Kenyan culture handles these situations. In America suicide is something one does not talk about; it’s an embarrassment to family. My friend, working in Japan, informs me that suicide can be an act of honor, resolving a conflict or a bad circumstance. This funeral revealed to me again how Kenyans view vulnerability as strength, not weakness.

People in the West not only do not highlight their vulnerabilities, they actively conceal them. Call it pride, egotism or even denial from reality, either way, most people in America and Europe will not show their weak side because it reveals our limitations. Africans, for the most part, do not mind sharing their frailties. Pastor Ngure talked at length about his relationship with his son, including the day before he found him hanging in the bathroom. He talked to the young people assembled, John’s friends, telling them that no situation, even a broken heart, is worth taking your own life. He talked to the parents, encouraging them to remain close to their kids and keep the lines of communication open, even as he tried with John. For an hour, along with a grieving mother, three sisters and a younger brother, Pastor Nugre revealed his vulnerability as a sign of strength. Incomprehensible behavior for me, respected by everyone else assembled.

Jesus belonged to culture that believed vulnerability was weakness, yet His Father allowed Him to die in a shameful manner on a cross to show the world His strength. The world has never understood vulnerability as strength, yet it was God’s way of providing salvation to His creation who disdain the idea of bowing a knee and asking for forgiveness. I am reminded of this truth, standing by a grave in Africa.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Going To Work

As my wife drove me to the airport she asked me if was excited about the trip.

“Not particularly,” I replied, “it feels like just going to work.”

If you have traveled very much in your life then you understand that after awhile the romance or excitement of going overseas loses its edge. The long layovers in an airport; the 14 hour flight from New York to Delhi; the sleeping in strange beds and eating local food becomes a part of the job, it’s no longer an adventure. Though I have visited forty countries I still get a bit anxious about customs, catching the right train and trying to figure out the exchange rate. Since I am in the ministry and don’t have a huge budget, my seat on the plane is 40J not 4A and a five star hotel is something I read about in the in-flight magazine while sitting in the back of the plane, knowing that the best I can hope for in accommodations is AC and a private bath in the guest house where I will teach.

Understand, I am not complaining. I love what I do, training and teaching others how to serve the Lord cross-culturally. If I didn’t I certainly wouldn’t subject myself to the long days away from family and the isolation of traveling alone for weeks at a time. The point is, it ain’t all that exciting.

Years ago a man told me that when he first heard me speak he did not believe in supporting missions or missionaries. He said that there was no way he was going to give his hard earned money for me to travel the world. He confessed that it was several years later, after reading my reports, that he understood that I was living anything but a life of leisure, fun and adventure.

There is a reason that 5% of the global mission force quits every year. Ministry is, and should be, a job. And, like all jobs, there are benefits, but there are also some negatives. Daily work is not always enjoyable, and compound the emotional stress of daily activities with dynamics of living in a culture that is not your own and it can be debilitating. I like what I do and thank God each day for the role He has given me for His kingdom work. But I don’t wake up each morning excited, going to work isn’t always that much fun.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Life Goes On

Arriving early Friday morning at the Jomo Kenyatta Airport, the taxi was taking me to my friend’s house in Nairobi. My mind, of course, thought about that day, over thirty-years ago, when I first landed in Kenya. With my wife and two little girls, 5and 1 1/2 years old, the memory was, like all memories, bitter/sweet and sadly, it’s the bitter memories that cause an emotional stir.

There are certain things about the African culture that is difficult – the poverty, corruption and the sense that the people will never progress. One can blame these conditions on many things. The secularists will point to the World Bank, to poor education and tribalism. It’s no doubt some of these things are the cause of their lack of progress, but the underlying problem is a culture that is in its own prison of disobedience against God, which then translates into disobedience toward others.

The sweet side of my return is the fond memories of a house full of laughter when our daughters came home for their one-month school breaks to our home upcountry; the many dear friends that were and are today, a part of our life and ministry. But even with those good memories, a cloud of sadness creeps in when I think of the many friends I worked with who have passed on, though with a silver lining knowing that they are at rest with the Christ they served faithfully in harsh and difficult conditions.

As my mind wanders in the thick of the morning traffic jam, a matatu (mini van taxi) passes. On the back window a sign reads, Life Goes On and I am struck by the simplicity yet profundity of those three words. As the leaders of Kenya work through the healing of a bitterly contested election which resulted in riots, the loss of property and 1,500 souls, the people try to go work and eek out a living because life goes on. The great expectations of the past are renewed once again and people move guardedly forward, as they must, because life goes on. Knowing that when I arrive upcountry I will be inundated with requests from people who see me as a resource to solve all their problems here on earth I will no doubt disappoint a few and my emotions will range from sadness to frustration, but life goes on.

Life goes on, and it seems to go by so quickly. I started my journey in Africa over 30 years ago; I cannot hope to have that many years ahead of me. So, as we weave through the congested streets of Nairobi, I anticipate the week ahead for good and bad to come my way. There isn’t a lot I can do about it, as life goes on.

This morning another matatu drives by, for perhaps just my benefit, and on the back was written God Provides.