Sunday, July 29, 2012

Late to the party

As I sit down to write this post, I have to wonder: how did I miss it?

I am a huge fan of musical theatre - it's my favorite thing about New York and even London. (Although right now the Olympics are a pretty cool London thing.) And I've loved Elton John's music since middle school. So how did I go until last night without seeing Aida, or even knowing much about it?

For those as clueless as I was, Aida is a musical with music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice. It's a story of love and war, fate and choices, life and death, set in ancient Egypt. The short synopsis from goes like this:
Egypt has enslaved Nubia and the great power's prince, Radames, is engaged to the fashionable Amneris. However, when Aida, the princess of Nubia, comes to the palace as a slave, love turns everything upside down and leads everyone down paths they never could have imagined.
A complete synopsis can be found here.

So last night, I went to see a local production at Tallahassee Little Theatre. It was extremely well done with some talented actors and singers, and I was spellbound. In fact, I've been humming the tunes from it all day long. But it was not just fun - it was a compelling story in so many ways. I want to briefly write about just one. To set it up, watch this video of the one song from the show that made it into popular music:

This song takes place as the Egyptian prince Radames and the slave (and Nubian princess) Aida realize that their love is doomed by the hatred and war between their two nations. It is born of frustration, and causes them to wonder about whether they had any choice at all, or was their love some cruel twist of fate.

We all wonder things like this sometimes, don't we? Things go wrong, tragedy strikes us, or even we have a bad day, and we think, "why me?" Is it, as the play asks, just some god's experiment in which we have no say? Is this stretch of mortal time all that we are good for? Or is there something more?

These are excellent questions! I love when culture asks all the right questions. and this is a question for which the gospel has an answer. There is a greater purpose. When we go through suffering, it is just the birth pangs for something much greater, the coming of God's Kingdom. Yes, for each of us some day. but even more important, for the world. The Scriptures make clear that we are to welcome the chance to be like him in suffering, because it gives us the chance to effect change in the world.

Aida portrays a model of that. Because although the lovers are doomed to die for their treason (come on - you didn't see that coming?), their deaths inspire Princess Amneris (Radames' fiancé) to bring about peace between their two kingdoms, and so they didn't die in vain. Yet another redemption story that provides a reflection (albeit dim) of the redemption that Jesus' death brings to us.

Another great story, giving a glimpse of the Great Story. I'm glad I saw it. Even if I was about twelve years late to the party.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Dark Knight trilogy: A fitting conclusion

SPOILER ALERT: Read only after you have seen The Dark Knight Rises.

Who am I? What is my purpose?

Themes that haunt all of us as human beings. And themes addressed in great depth by Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. Whatever the answers given in the movies, there is no doubt that they ask the right questions.

This Batman is one that has been searching for answers his entire life. After the murder of his parents, he grew up fearful and alone. His beloved Gotham City is under the total control of evil, and he is under the spell of one of the most evil of emotions - revenge. As the series progresses through the first two movies, he wrestles with revenge, and at an even deeper level, he wrestles with this question:

How evil does a society have to be to warrant tearing it down and starting over?

Grace vs. karma.

On the night TDKR opened, you all know that there was an unspeakably ghastly act of cowardice and evil at a movie theater in Colorado. As I write this, twelve are dead and scores more injured by gunfire. It is hard to even imagine what it must be like for those families. Acts like this tempt us to ask that same question: Is our world so evil that no one is worth saving. What would it take for God to reach that conclusions?

In the movie, Bruce Wayne (Batman) battles a lot of demons. He still feels guilt and anger over his past.  He only sees his own value in the symbol of The Bat, and so he has become a recluse as society has appeared to recover. Deep down, he knows the recovery is built on a lie. And whatever the good intentions, a lie is always a shaky foundation. Deep down, he knows this.

Well, despite the spoiler alert, this is not intended to be a synopsis, so I jump to the point.

Grace vs. karma.

Whatever demons he is fighting, Bruce is never, ever willing to give up on the people and the city he loves. At great personal cost, he fights. And the interesting thing to me is that he fights not the evil and the crime itself, but another force (The League of Shadows) that believes it's time to give up. Kill them all. There's no hope for redemption.

Uh uh, says Wayne. Nolan's Batman is, at his heart, a warrior for grace.

Over and over, the Scriptures say that YHWH is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. He exercises so much grace, grace that we don't deserve. We are so corrupt. We have anger, bitterness, revenge, selfishness, and so much more in our hearts. Always getting ready to bubble to the surface. Why is it tolerated?

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)

Because of his character. No other reason. He loves us, and wants to give us every opportunity to come back to him. There will come a day when it's over. But not yet.

Ands so, for all his faults, Bruce Wayne is fulfilling an important purpose in this movie. He is an agent of grace and patience, and thus he is helping to carry out God's purpose. Even with the pooler alert, I'm not going to talk about the ending, but let's just say that in the willingness to sacrifice everything, he found peace.

The Dark Knight Rises was an awesome movie, just as the series was. It deals with dark themes, and some have associated that with the tragedy surrounding it. I think that's a mistake. I think it asks questions that can only be answered by the good news of Jesus. And anytime art can get us to think about that, it's a good thing.

What is your purpose? How can you be an agent of grace in your world?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Only a moment

So I sat in the chair, waiting for the doctor to come in. This medical procedure was not going to be pleasant. No, you don't know want to know any more, trust me. And it's not important.

What does matter is that I knew it was going to be full of, as doctors like to say, "discomfort". A lot of discomfort.

As the time passed, I got philosophical, trying to psyche myself up for it. I reminded myself of some great truths.

  • Compared to all of eternity, it was only going to be a moment. I could take that.
  • It was going to be nothing compared to the pain endured by the great saints as they were tortured for their faith.
  • It is only physical pain. Physical pain is a warning system for a house that is temporary anyway. Physical pain is minor compared to spiritual or emotional wounds.
And so on.

The time came, and it was not fun. But it's over now, the results were good, and life goes on.

And so now I am reflecting on the waiting time. You know, the perspectives I reflected on are just as true about the sufferings of this life. If our hope is in the Messiah Jesus, anything the world throws at us is only temporary. There is a surpassing joy not only in the future, but now, that overshadows the difficulties of life. Stress at work. Grief. Arguments at home. All of those things are only a moment.

And so I can not only survive, but thrive. Because my joy is from another Kingdom, not this one.

Bring it on.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Africa slideshow 2012

Here's a slideshow from our trip this year, featuring the music of Ryan Long (check him out). What amazing kids. What an amazing team. What an awesome God.

Addis, until next time...

Monday, July 9, 2012

Ethiopia 2012: Wrap-Up

It's over. We're all back home after about a 30 hour journey. I am glad to be home with family and friends. But my heart also will always be with the people of Ethiopia, and I am determined not to forget them. It's not all about just one week a year. It's about finding ways to love the children we've met, when we are near and when we are far. As we sit here at home, they are still there dealing with obstacles that are hard to imagine. We must not forget.

We had six first-timers on our trip. All of them were used by God in incredible ways. And I am convinced they will carry this time in their hearts and look for ways to love the people we met - from afar by support, by going back, or both.

Six people. Six very special people. All using their unique spiritual gifts for the kingdom of God.

All of them had an amazing love for the children. You could not look around without seeing them surrounded by kids, and you could see grins for ear to ear. They loved these children with their whole hearts. I could talk about that for each one, but it was true for all of them.

I'll miss working with this team. But more that that, I will be grateful for the privilege of working along beside them. God put this team together; we didn't even know of the trip would happen three months ago. But it did, with just the right people. God is good.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Day 7 - End or launching pad?

Today we spent our last day with the kids in Korah. It was sad knowing that we would be leaving, but also think we got the most out of it. Lots of play, a gospel message from Grant, lots of hugs, a time serving lunch to the children, and also an opportunity to meet some of the needs of the ministry. A great day...but a sad one. I never will forget the dozen or so children whom I bent over to hug, and found that intend they kissed me on the cheek. It was hard to leave.

Mark. Melissa. Grant. Melinda, Macy. Jenny. These people have been real heroes working for God's kingdom this week, and I cannot imagine having this adventure without them. Give a prayer of thanks for them.

And as we prepare to head home tomorrow night, I ask for your prayers.

  • I ask that you would pray with me that God would continue to do great things in this community. His presence is so strong there, and he has many servants here full time, and many more from a distance like us who are coming in waves.
  • I ask for prayers that the things we did would not be the end, but a lurching pad. Certainly a launching pad for things God will do there after we leave as a result of our visit. And a launching pad for those on our team who will feel called to stay involved with the work there - by returning and/or advocating for those kids back in the States. Pray that each one of us will know what if anything God is calling us to do as a result of this trip.
  • And of course we ask for God to guide our way home, as he guided our way here. (But just maybe with a little less drama, Lord?)
Thank you for the prayers. Let me end with just a few snapshots of our last full day...

God bless all of you for praying for us!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Day 6 - Packed with love

First a logistical point - I'm renumbering the day designations. I should have counted from the day we left all along. Now that that's out of the way...

As we come to the close of our fourth full day in Addis, weare tired. But as they say, it’s a good kind of tired. It’s a good kind oftired because it was the fullest day yet. We had a solid morning in Korah andthen an afternoon at the Kidane Mihret orphanage. Nothing earth shattering,just a day of why we came. Lots of time with children, lots of joy, lots oflove.

Some highlights:
  • We tried whiffle ball for a sports activity with the kids and it was huge success. They lined up and took their turns and really had fun. It was a great way to spend time leading them.

  • A great message for the kids from Grant. He talked about how Jesus' trial and crucifixion was part of God's plan, and that like Jesus the kids can trust God no matter what happens to them.
  • Another VO team arrived today - a large team, around 30. I got to see three friends from past trips, and some of them took the lead on our arts and crafts. This freed up our folks to jump in a do the crafts with smaller groups of kids, a great time for them.

  • As mentioned yesterday, there is construction going on and a lot of cement arrived today - without incident. For a little while I helped shovel cement. I would have done it longer, but some of the staff kept showing me how to hold the shovel to do it efficiently and I obviously never got it right. After about 15 minutes, they gave up on me and took the shovel from me. Oh well, I tried!
  • We brought a solar-powered water purification device designed by Macy's friend Emily and we gave it to the women of Mission Ethiopia. They were so happy to get it! Macy, who is an engineering student, brought it and demonstrated to them how to use it. She did such a good job explaining it that I think even I could do it!
  • At the K-M orphanage, we played some sports with the older children. But we also went upstairs and visited the infants, including some with special needs. It was heartbreaking, but there was also a sense that we were doing exactly what Christ calls us to, whether the children were aware of it or not. I believe it does make a difference, even when we can't see it.

  • It was fun to watch Mark teach a few of the kids to play HORSE (basketball). They caught on very quickly! We have a feeling they'll be playing it for a while.

  • A mission group from Lebanon was there as well, and did some singing with the children. It was awesome to meet others following God's call from the other side (well, right now this side) of the world.

Well, I can't believe we have only two more days here, and only one at Korah. It will be a very emotional day tomorrow, as it will be so hard to say goodbye. Please pray for us - that God would provide strength for our team to have a productive last day, comfort as we say goodbye, and mostly that  God will use our work there in ways we can't see long after we're gone.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Day 5: another level

I thought I was going to take a break from blogging tonight – I really did. A morning in Korah, an afternoon of rest and relaxation to build team unity and gear up for the rest of the week…not much to see here, right? Wrong.

Did I say God changed our plans yesterday? Ha! It turns out that it was only a glimpse. Well, a glimpse and a foreshadowing of what he had in mind for today. It was at a whole new level.

Background: one thing I didn’t mention yesterday was that Mark and Melissa’s sponsored child had been hard to find for the first two days, and we were getting a little discouraged about getting their home visit in. As we should have expected, it was all God’s timing. Our friend Denae located him shortly before we were ready to leave for the day yesterday, and so we planned to visit this morning.

We planned to do that, but what we didn’t plan for was to pull into the community and see a huge dump truck tipped over to the right, with a bunch of cement mix spilled out! It was right in our path and right near our meeting area, so it was not safe to have kids around it. And we had to face it – we’re kid magnets. So the audible for this morning was to concentrate on the home visit and then get out of the way while the staff worked on clearing it all up.

Fortunately, we were scheduled for a free afternoon so after the visit we could go back to the plan – lunch, a travel-related errand, some souvenir shopping, and then back for dinner.

The home visit was an awesome experience, as it always is. I think that half hour may have been worth the trip over here all by itself. 

As we darted around Addis seeing the city this afternoon, we had some great conversations with our guide and translator Luam. She has been awesome and, as Melissa pointed out later, she probably doesn’t even realize how important her job is to the Kingdom work going on here. And then tonight, we had a great time of worship, discussion, prayer, and fun as a team. Another great day!

“Great” is inadequate. We could see God’s sovereignty playing out as it has all week, beginning with our flight challenges. How? If we had found Lingeru earlier in the week, we would have visited him yesterday and been left with an empty morning today – the timing was perfect. Also we ran a little behind getting to Korah this morning, a fact that helped make sure there were fewer children around when the dump truck tipped. It seems obvious to me that everything about this week has been carefully orchestrated by the Father. We have a team with a perfect blend of talents, gifts and personalities for this unique week in the summer program here.

I’m not sure when I’ve ever seen God’s hand intervening in such easy-to-see ways. But it is awesome, and I am grateful.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Day 4: Audibles

Many are the plans in a man's heart, but it is the Lord's purpose that prevails. (Proverbs 19:21)

This is a perfect description of our day in Africa. We had our day planned out, and it looked a lot like yesterday (with some lessons learned), but God had something different in mind. Something different and significant.

It started out fairly normally. We arrived at Korah a little earlier than yesterday, and it was raining. Because of that, a small number of children had gathered by the time we arrived. We got out of the van and began kicking the soccer ball around with some of the kids. As we were getting ready to move on to the next activity, we learned that something important was about to happen in the community. Would we be willing to help?

It turns out that there were three elders of the community whose health had worsened to the point where they needed to be taken to the hospital. There were circumstances that required extra help: the men were unable to walk, and the road was so muddy that the van could not get down to where they were living.

So we went to help. Over the course of the next 90 minutes or so, our team worked as such a, well, team. A couple of us went with the men to the hospital and helped get them into the building. And others made sure that the children continued to get the love we came to give them – leading them in songs, play, and a Bible lesson. By the time we gathered for lunch, we could look at each other and know that we had fulfilled the Lord’s plan for our morning – not ours.

After lunch came what I was most looking forward to – the awesome privilege of visiting the homes of two Project 61 children that are being sponsored to attend a boarding school. They and their families are so glad to have us there, and thankful for what God is doing in their lives. Both visits included a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, complete with hand-ground coffee beans…and popcorn. Very moving that they go to so much trouble for their guests – and, oh yeah,  the coffee is the best. 

Some of the best days are the ones that you don't plan. Especially when you are convinced that it was the Lord's plan all along. Yep - another great day in Africa.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Day 3: Joy

Here on our first full day in Ethiopia, we made the trek over to Korah for the first time. I was anxious for my team members to get their first glance because it is a place I love - a place where God is moving amidst incredible poverty and pain. And, through the power of Christ, a place of incredible joy.

As is always the case, I find it impossible to put into words my feelings for this place and the experience of being there. Every attempt feels like I’m trying to describe nuclear physics using the vocabulary of a first grader. Do a search on this blog word Ethiopia and you’ll see what I mean. Inadequate.

But a couple of things really stood out to me today:

  • The amazing way our team bonded with the children right away. We discussed tonight the question of whether these children thought we came to love them or to see – a question of the heart really. Two things were obvious to me: this group of Christ-followers came to love.  And the children knew it. You can’t fool children, they’ll see right through you. And these kids could tell; we came to share the love of Jesus.

  • The fact that Jesus brings joy that does not depend on circumstances. This afternoon, we spent time with a group of women from Mission Ethiopia. They are employed making beads – a very tedious process – and the sale of the resulting necklaces and such help make possible their much needed jobs. Are they down about it? Quite the contrary. While we were there, we asked if they ever sing while they work. They didn’t just tell us; they showed us. A celebration of song and dance erupted that made time seem to stand still. We had so much fun because they had so much fun. Their zeal for life did not depend on things. They sang (in Arhamic) about how God will fight for them, about the fact that Jesus is coming back, and about the fact that he is their story.  

So, quite a day! I am blown away by Grant, Jenny, Macy, Mark, Melinda, and Melissa. The way they jumped right in, and their insight about what it means for the Kingdom challenges me. I can’t wait for tomorrow, and the rest of the week. It’s going to go too fast.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Impossible? The trip to Addis

The word rang out, piercing my brain like a screeching whistle through a bad headache. “Impossible.”

Around two hours earlier, I had been approaching the Atlanta airport on I-85 when we got a message from Frank, our Visiting Orphans trip coordinator. The first leg of our flight to Ethiopia had been cancelled. Immediately, Frank began doing research and did an awesome job of sharing our options with us. But it didn’t look great – there was only one flight into Washington-Dulles that would get there in time, and there were only a few seats left on it.

The next few hours are a blur. When we arrived at the airport, I ran in to try and get changes made while Macy and Jenny circled the drop off area. Another team member, Grant, arrived. As it appeared we might get on that flight, his parents helped us get luggage out and take my car to a parking space. There was just all sorts of teamwork trying desperately to get to Washington on time, because there’s only one flight a day to Addis Ababa and we so wanted to get to the children of Korah.

It turned out that there the seats on the flight we wanted were gone by the time I got to the counter. The agent said our only option was to shift to a Delta flight that arrived at 9 am, about two hours before our departure to Addis on Ethiopian Airlines. Sounds great except the Delta flight was going to the wrong airport! We would have to land, get off the plane, collect our luggage, find transportation, ride across town, and check in all over again for an international flight. Huh?

And so there was that word. Impossible. When we got to the Delta counter, the agent said it couldn’t be done. She said we needed to look at other options to get us there by another airline and/or another city. Amsterdam. While I was on the phone with Frank (who continued to give us outstanding guidance), Dubai was suggested. (Macy and Jenny loved that idea!) But regardless, she thought we were crazy to try our plan. We. Would. Not. Make. It.

Maybe not. But we talked about it and there was one thing we were sure of. This mission was prayed up beyond our imagination. And so God was up to something. Whether we made the flight or not, something great was about to happen. What did he want to accomplish through this?

Impossible is a theme that pops up throughout the Scriptures. It was impossible for the children of Israel to escape the clutches of slavery in Egypt. A virgin can’t possibly bear a child. How can a rich man enter the Kingdom of God? And each time the concept arises, it is answered with a variation of the same phrase: With man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

I write this blog post from seat 37D on flight ET501 to Addis Ababa. The scheduled flight. Because with God, all things are possible.

It was an amazing adventure that unfolded, and we marveled at God’s provision, literally laughing every time something happened that never happens:

  •        We got boarding passes for row 10 (the very first coach row) allowing us to be the first off the plane.
  •        The plane landed 20 minutes early.
  •        When we landed, we found out that Grant’s cousin would be waiting to pick us up and rush us to Dulles.
  •        Traffic was very sparse… in Washington, DC!
All in all, we got to our gate before boarding had even begun. And we laughed out loud, giddy with what we had just seen. The great thing that God had wanted to do was to teach us that impossible should not be in our vocabulary this week.
Some would say it’s impossible to make a difference on this type of short-term mission. Seven Americans flying to the other side of the world, simply to spend time with children and let them know they are loved – how could that possibly make a significant difference? How can a single week of semi-organized chaos change the lives of children living lives of extreme poverty? But now we know. With man, yeah, impossible. But not with God. And so we go. And be. And love.