First a word from our sponsors…who aren’t really our sponsors, but they’ve got a website that can help you understand some of my shorthand: netlingo.
Now for the long-overdue update:
Why I’ve stayed…
Within about a week of my split with MIBI I got a call from the sisters at the Diocese: “Your kids are here!”
…haaaaa, no words. They definitely aren’t mine because they don’t listen to me. Even though a lot of parents might say that’s the way theirs actually respond. I guess some things cross cultures…and ‘hard-headed’ kids are probably one of those.
I can’t help but smile at them though, because they’re funny. The video reminds me of that. But it also reminds me of their situation. In particular, what the little man and his brother looked like when we met them:
As much as I wanted to help them, I was leery about bringing someone else’s kids home and cleaning them up. So we found them new gear and the sisters…
…huge. You may notice, however, that the kids looked happier before the scrubbing. Which may explain why, when I saw them about a week later:
This picture was actually taken about three weeks after they were cleaned up when I took them back to see the sisters, who were…ticked. On the other hand, pessimism had already insulated me from shock…at least in this case.
I guess that’s sad, but I knew we were taking a chance. When I got to meet their mother, the language barrier prevented me from saying much. So all I could really do was get her permission to take them to see sisters to get them cleaned up. And I’m not sure how clear that came across, as the “before…after…back to before” probably shows.
It was awesome to see sisters’ response to the re-transformation though. They weren’t completely surprised, but they were completely unsatisfied. The sister who oversees the nuns told me it’s a response you might expect from kids being treated as a source of revenue. Simply stated: it’s hard to make money begging in clean clothes.
…again…no words. I mean it makes total – even if twisted – sense. My speculation as to why ran in about three other directions, but what she said fit with the challenges we had with them up to that point.
What to do next though…?
We took them to the local office of Child and Community Development—since the sisters were willing to keep trying, but needed a referral to offer the attention it seemed the boys needed. I was overdue to visit their office anyway. I had randomly met a brother from another congregation who works there. He and the sister who oversees much of their work invited me to bring the kids by and discuss a plan for them. But the little dudes roam…one day here, another there. So it can be difficult to find them, much less on a day when I have time to make the hike. Even I could see that this was probably the right time though.
When we got there, Child Development took it seriously enough that I began to worry whether I should have brought the kids in that shape. Stateside I’ve always associated Children’s Services Offices with termination of parental rights…so I started to panic little. Since, as you can see, we mounted up and were off to find mom…immediately.
It worked out though. Finding her with those who could interpret both the language and options was huge. Simply stated: she’s not able to look after them, but she has worked with us. On the other hand, they have a lot of freedom…and at that age that’s not always best. Especially because they aren’t thrilled with the option we gave them: more school.
School here is free, but the local government option is not structured enough to provide many of their basic needs. Thus, these little guys travel between the local transit station, markets and businesses hustling what they can—often instead of going to school.
I use the term hustle because that’s already what they’re learning to do. The explanation that the sister gave for their clothes is just the beginning. Too often, the kids in their circle develop a “by any means necessary” approach to getting money. Any story, any angle will do. In those photos it’s not difficult to see that they actually look uneasy about going back cleaned up.
It’s hard to explain just how flipped the priorities can become. But they come from a position in the culture where succeeding through school seems absurd. Moreover, sitting still all day can seem lame compared to freedom. So even with the option of an environment where they can simply have the things for which they now beg—they RUN back to the streets. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it, but that’s the struggle.
Within about two weeks of splitting with MIBI, I decide to take some time to just hoop (translation: play basketball). I’d usually go early in the morning when the court is empty. But I got a late start one day, so I just went over the noon hour—the same time a few kids were at the court on break from school.
“Will you teach us to play?”
I’m like…??? The guys I play with back in the states would laugh at the thought of someone asking me to teach them anything related to basketball. :] I’m out here trying to fix my own game, so my first reaction is: “I’m not sure there’s anything I can teach you.” I’m conflicted because there are so many ways to teach a jump shot, and neither my shot nor my way are the best, so I’m still like…?
But then I think: they asked you for a reason.
I was stuck in the memory of how my game was often received stateside, where brothers can be quick to dismiss you if you aren’t a scorer—which I’m not. Some of what I recall came from brothers speaking truth that eventually helped me get better. Some of it was just…? But I remembered after playing here a while that this is a soccer culture. They have a completely different attitude toward players who pass and set up the score—because that’s most of what a soccer match is: the build-up to the goal. I remembered that I’d hear an occasional word about the way “the black American” plays, and it came with a level of respect I wasn’t used to. Much of that is the skill differential, but there are plenty of guys here who can really play.
I appreciated the response. So I calmed down, put aside my anxiety, and taught the kids what I knew. Sure enough, they went from barely hitting the rim…to hitting a few buckets. They were happy enough that they started bringing other friends, and occasional setbacks aside…
This isn’t a story of how they’re headed for a scholarship stateside; but you never know. What happened though, is that the kids who are in the streets started playing together with the kids in school.
I’m going to chalk that up to divine intervention, because one of our biggest challenges is getting kids who might fit academically integrated socially. Even at an early age the social barriers are huge. Imagine, kids taught that it’s better not to wash—trying to fit with kids conditioned to wash daily. You don’t have to imagine…
…notice how the little guy just disappears. That’s not an accident…it’s not a coincidence, and encouragement hasn’t helped so far. The downside may be apparent: he is the most reluctant to mix with the school kids, even though he’s at the best age to make the transition.
Either way, there’s an upside: notice the way they cheer for each other. That’s an age thing. These are our younger kids, and they’re simply less socially inhibited. They cheer for each other more freely, listen more easily, and get less upset at each other’s success.
Did I mention that some things transcend culture?
Anyway, it feels like divine intervention to see something I never intended to do, bringing together kids we never even foresaw working with. But the dilemma remains: how to get little man and his brother to stop running back to the streets?
As I wrote that last sentence it struck me as an African version of an African-American story I’ve seen.
About 10 years ago I volunteered with a group of college basketball prospects. One of the highest rated played for a traditionally strong local program, but he was one of three kids on that team to get a Division I (the most athletically elite) college offer. Let’s call these three Mac, Jay and T.
We worked directly with Mac. As first expected he was recruited heavily—most notably by Michigan State. But they lost interest after he broke his collar bone in the state football tournament his senior year. Mac was resilient though, and still made it at a mid-major college program. He even did well during March Madness (the national tournament) his senior year—ironically, playing on the same team as Jay. They’re both doing well now playing professionally in Europe.
T turned down his offer though; it was from Columbia. Yes, Ivy League Columbia. I was shocked when I heard he wouldn’t go, so I asked Mac: Why’d he turn it down…?
…he didn’t want to leave the clique. (translation: he was in a gang, and wasn’t trying to leave).
I was floored…to this day I don’t know what happened to him. I can’t explain to you why the streets hold some kids, but they do…and that’s the challenge here. I actually saw another perspective on it just before finishing this section: Russian Street Kids…Cheated of Childhood. We have two kids who have an opportunity to change their lives soon, but we’re not sure they’re willing.
Obviously we’d like your prayers.
On the bright side, if it doesn’t work out for the two we’d hoped to get in school, there are others. Some of that has to do with a likely, but still unlikely hero.
Even though I rarely even watch professional sports now, athletes still encourage me. More than any sports franchise, I tend to identify with players—and I’ve grown almost fanatical in my fandom of #30.
One of the sermons I post on Facebook from time to time is called “The Consequences of Preaching the Truth.” It’s become a go-to sermon because the challenges the brother describes seem familiar. #30 has likely become my go-to inspiration because the rough side of his success seems familiar. I followed his experience being overlooked by major colleges, then being overlooked in the NBA draft, and then being ridiculed when frequent injuries seemed to prove his critics right.
I felt a connection to his adversity. The irony is that I overlooked him too. I had a chance to meet him when he was in high school but didn’t go out of my way. Why? :] I saw him and was like…”He’s little.”
…I laugh when I think about it now, but it’s perfect.
As overlooked as I had frequently been, I was still way too likely to overlook. Smh, anyway, I may have nothing in common with either his success or that of the brother who knew the consequences of preaching on a grand scale—but there’s still something about their struggle that spoke to me.
I’m not alone.
The night that the Golden State Warriors came back from the edge of elimination to make it to the NBA finals, it was morning here…Sunday morning. #30 had just led them back to win a series that even had brothers on this side of the ocean talking.
On my way to church, there was a group of about ten more kids: “Will you teach us to play?”
Maybe it was a coincidence, but I need to pause and say…whoever you are…yes you: don’t give up, and don’t settle. I don’t mean settle in the sense of never becoming rooted. Because your purpose may require you to settle into a difficult situation. But please don’t settle for someone else’s limited image of you…and your potential. You don’t know who’s watching…and you can’t be sure that they see you the way your critics do.
The road to #30 twice being named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player went through critics who said he never should have been in the NBA. Not everyone is called to succeed on his level. But on a smaller scale, I had spent so long listening to what I wasn’t good at on a basketball court, that I almost passed on an opportunity: (1) to help two groups of kids overcome class issues, and (2) to possibly help some transition off of the streets.
The Golden State Warriors went on to take a very devastating loss in the 2016 NBA Finals. Maybe even more than his success though, the way that #30 consistently responds to losing impresses me. Part of that has required him to overcome criticism that has to challenge his self-image. But one of my favorite preaching instructors taught and re-taught how much more we need a healthy God-image: a deep understanding of the way that God sees us.
I’m pretty sure that’s what #30 has developed. It’s what I’m learning to do now, because the greatest tragedy in losing touch with our God-image probably isn’t personal. Few things with God are that narrow. Those most injured when we let criticism strangle our potential may be the people whom we have been put here to help.
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Ephesians 2:10 (ESV)
God has equipped you to bring blessings to places your critics may not even be interested in going. So please…don’t give up, and don’t settle.
For more on Steph: Against All Odds; Excerpts From Steph Curry’s First MVP Speech
As I was reviewing photos for this month’s newsletter, I was surprised at how quickly the clouds moved in a single minute-long sequence. But as I was on break during Chichewa class a few days later, that was a distant memory. It was cold and it had been for weeks. Not like just go find a heater cold. Often enough the sun is the heater here. So when I saw it, I was eager to catch a little heat before heading back inside. But as soon as I hit the doorstep…yep. Clouds.
I was like: “It figures.” …and might have had about as bad an attitude as Jonah when his shade tree died. (Jonah 4:5-11) But then I remembered the clouds in those photos. Sure enough it wasn’t a minute before a long bright patch of sun had me ready for the next half of class—happy that I didn’t indulge my typical detour from “it figures” to “woe-is-me” to – if I’m not careful – bitter.
After class I went back and proofed the photos again. I realized that part of the reason they seemed to move so quickly in one frame was my camera angle. Haaaaa…I felt dumb. But even that mistake led to the true epiphany: just wait. It was a strong enough lesson in a small frustration—that it helped me reconsider my response to bigger ones.
It also helped me realize something else: sometimes patience, sometimes perspective. Beyond better appreciating patience, I had to evaluate my own perspective to truly understand what I saw in those photos. It reminded me that changing perspective can be a part of waiting effectively.
I wish I had the formula for when to wait, when to shift viewpoint, and when a shift suggests it’s time to move…but I’m pretty sure that’s why I search the Word.
I was talking with a brother a few weeks ago about our writing styles. I told him that one of my favorite rappers calls himself a bible plagiarist…and I think that sums up my work at its best. Too often we drift into this view of the bible as a rule-book, but it’s just not written that way. Even its statements of law evolve from its stories.
It’s honestly a lot like the U.S. justice system. The difficulty in the bar exam is in taking the law and applying it to the varied ways that people can twis’ it up. Likewise the Bible. God gave a very clear statement of the law, but the application of that law is lost if you don’t see how it looks in the lives of His people—and His Christ.
So even when I finally awaken to wisdom that I’ve been neglecting, it’s little more than a fleeting thought if I don’t link it to the life of someone who struggled at the same crossroads. The cool thing about the Word is that it often gives multiple examples of those who handled their crossroads well—and those who…not so much. I’m at my best when I understand both. Thus, my process.
In the last few months, this particular awakening “sometimes patience, sometimes perspective” reminded me that things haven’t been so bad here. We’ve had enough new opportunities to stay encouraged:
A conversation the day after the MIBI split led to an opportunity to guest teach at a local college. If nothing else, going up the side of a mountain by motorcycle to get there was worth it.
Beyond that though, getting to talk God – even if it was just through the ethics of global development – was a relief. It got me back into the classroom without compromising my focus. And although it was a short engagement —it’s one I still appreciate.
One thing leads to another, and coaching has led to a possible opportunity to work with younger kids at a local school. Even more than the college though, it’s an opportunity that allows me to teach without compromising my focus. God is less of a taboo in the school systems here, which could mean the opportunity to speak freely. Something we may already have less of stateside than we realize. I’ve learned to hold modest expectations, but of course we’d love prayers – offered up in His will – for where all this leads.
As with the church in many a city, the churches of Christ here have endured many a split. So after leaving Chisiri, it took a while to build trust with the original church of Christ in Dedza. Building trust led to an invitation to preach there in March though—and that invitation has turned into more.
In my first opportunity we talked about Sampson’s folly: his power and skills almost became a drug, one which allowed God to become an afterthought. We discussed the danger of praying after we’ve already developed dysfunctional habits and unhealthy relationships.
At my next opportunity we talked about generational sin: the bitter cup. The way in which a single pet sin can be magnified through the people to whom we are attracted and tend to form relationships. Early on, we can find even their dysfunctional tendencies attractive, since we may actually share them. But those close to us can give us a bitter dose of tendencies we may have once denied were sins at all.
After the bitter cup, we discussed the other extreme: weak tea—becoming bland through watered-down integrity. When money is low, we can be tempted to stretch resources. Tea is one that is common here, but we’re not able to stretch it very far before it simply loses its flavor. Those serving it watered down will sometimes hide it by loading it with sugar or cream. But if you tasted what was actually brewed, disappointment might be an understatement. Integrity functions much the same way—thus the Word’s metaphors about flavorless salt, fruitless trees, and waterless clouds. If we’re watering down the strength of God’s flavor, we may simply be damaging His brand—making alternatives to God more attractive.
In my most recent opportunity we discussed the ways that we can be tempted to water down His strength by settling for only that portion of the truth that allows us to fit in.
Leaving MIBI tempted me to nurse this new preaching opportunity—but I wasn’t getting ‘nurse it’ sermons. Moreover, there was something that I needed to address directly—the talk spinning around my relations with other ‘denominations’.
When I talked to the church about maintaining integrity, we also looked at the 7 churches in the Revelation. There was an irony in the ‘doctrinally sound’ church—the church at Ephesus. In spite of their insight and ability to spot false apostles, their loss of love led Jesus to warn them that He was about to remove them from the 7—completely. The only other church to get a similar warning was Laodicea…the lukewarm church. Of the remaining 5—the 3 who were rebuked were warned that God was going to come and deal with those who had strayed. He didn’t threaten to remove the entire congregation.
The irony: Christ threatened to remove Ephesus completely, even though He had no criticism of their doctrine. #love
Its members would have been wise not to join in the errors taught at Pergamum, Thyatira, and Sardis—but foolish to think that association with the true saints there was beneath them. Christ recognized saints at those 3 congregations, so any failure by the Ephesians to do so may have been more a condemnation of their vision—than of those saints.
Likewise, understand how Jesus Himself consciously went into Samaria and provoked more repentance there (John 4), than He typically did among the Pharisees. The Pharisees considered themselves too holy to mingle with Samaritans. The Pharisees were right insofar as they recognized that the Samaritans’ doctrines were horrible. But Christ prophesied that many of the Pharisees were the ones who would actually die in their sins. (John 8) #love
Finally, recall how the church at Jerusalem did not condition fellowshipping the church at Antioch on adopting Jerusalem’s worship practices. Instead, Jerusalem rebuked its own members who tried to make Jerusalem’s traditions mandatory. (Acts 15)
The point: Jesus never lost His strength or integrity either in Samaria or among the Pharisees—because He remembered why he was there. The irony: the church today is laden with many who are too holy to mingle with ‘the denominational world’ on Sunday—but common enough to gossip, backbite or lie with them any other day. Living out the contradiction that it’s ok to advance personal interests in partnership with non-believers—but not ok to advance kingdom business with believers who differ doctrinally.
Uniting the ‘denominations’ isn’t the point; getting along well enough to fill voids in our ministries is. The missionaries who started some of the most conservative congregations here decades ago actually understood that. I’ve talked with them.
The message produced a subdued response, so I wasn’t sure if I’d be asked to speak again. That shouldn’t matter, but I still deal with the temptation to consider it. #overcoming. I could see some processing the passages as we moved through them though. Later in the week greetings indicated that many understood, and were comfortable acknowledging as much. Since most won’t hesitate to shun you if they aren’t comfortable with what you’ve said.
The message also produced a conversation with a key brother who’s uncomfortable with any member of the church associating with the ‘denominations’ though. Somewhat surprisingly, that conversation produced a common understanding…and eventually peace. The brother was honest enough to acknowledge the irony in things privately considered acceptable to do in fellowship with the ‘denominational world.’ But, moreover, he had already been troubled by the number of needs that our congregations simply weren’t yet equipped to meet—because of progress lost to doctrinal disputes. The needs here are so obvious and so pressing that even the most conservative members can find them moving. For me, finding people ready to properly care for these kids was only one of those needs.
Working with those kids had nothing to do with my original mission here—but at times has brought me into a working relationship with various denominations. Those relationships have now potentially opened a door for the church in the local schools.
Dealing forthrightly with the propriety of having relationships with different denominations produced some disagreement. But it brought that issue away from side conversations and suspicion—into a direct discussion that produced peace. That opened opportunities to move beyond preaching, to actually begin getting to know other believers here at the Dedza Church of Christ. But more on that later…
In the meantime, even as clouds pass over this ministry, we’re still seeing sun. At least for now, that means we’re still seeing new opportunities. Beyond potential opportunities though, this phase has reminded me that genuine relationships may be impossible to develop…without candor.
So just as I’ve asked you not to quit, I’m asking you to pray for the courage to be more than just prudent, but honest in your relationships…and that you’ll pray for me to do the same!