…how it’s going
For those following the Woodley v. Thompson story who, like Thompson, can’t seem to see how race has much to do with this. In case you missed some of the response to their second fight…
Biblically there’s a difference between the seven nations God told His people to beware…
1 “When the LORD your God brings you into the land…[of] the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, 2 …You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.
Deuteronomy 7:1-2 (ESV)
…and the rest of the Gentiles—whom He COMMANDED His people to love:
18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
Deuteronomy 10:18-19 (ESV)
Likewise, there’s a difference between the world that a disciple of Christ hopes to reach…
1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people…3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
1 Timothy 2:1, 3-4 (ESV)
…and the world that threatens that disciple’s soul:
4 Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. 5 For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. 7 Therefore do not become partners with them…11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.
Ephesians 5:4-7, 11 (ESV)
My next post was supposed to be the newsletter updating my return to Dedza. God willing, it now will be. But much like the promotion of the rematch to a fight I wrote about while in the U.S., there’s some “unfinished business” scheduled for resolution tonight. Two Christians are going to fight – again – as Tyron Woodley fights Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson for a mixed martial arts welterweight championship.
While many thought the punishment Thompson took in that first fight amounted to a one-sided beating. Others saw his survival as a heroic part of a fight that was simply too close to call.
I’ll let you guess the general ethnic breakdown of those opinions.
But much like the build-up before the first fight, Thompson’s fans berated Woodley—and moved Thompson back to the front of the line for an immediate rematch. One his face didn’t seem to suggest he deserved.
Other excellent fighters are waiting, but any empathy that Thompson has for them seems to run a distant second to his personal ambitions. And again, any empathy that he had for Woodley was barely apparent—as his fans berated Woodley into a rematch, while ridiculing Woodley for even suggesting that racism has any role in his life as a fighter.
See the pattern? #compassionforwho
“Wonderboy” can be an incredibly courteous guy. But what’s courtesy without sincerity? …kindness without love? …sportsmanship without brotherhood?
I’m writing about this for the same reason I’ve written about other social issues that expose lingering ethnic divisions in the church. Beyond our open, obvious “Sunday morning” type divisions, there’s this false peace that I see replacing genuine affection. It’s an idol—an empty token offered to replace the shared suffering that produces genuine unity. Where kind, gracious words are plentiful…when they cost nothing to utter.
If he wins tonight, Stephen Thompson will almost assuredly be gracious as he gets what he wants. Even if he loses, like last time, he might even raise Woodley’s hand…
Either way, Thompson’s courtesies won’t genuinely bring him closer to Woodley—until he separates himself from the non-believers helping to promote his career…at his brother’s expense.
19 “You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit. 20 You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother’s son. 21 These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself. But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.
Psalm 50:19-21 (ESV)
Luke 14:33 English Standard Version (ESV)33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
Hebrews 2:10-12 English Standard Version (ESV)10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.
Psalm 103:10-11 New Living Translation (NLT)
10 He does not punish us for all our sins;he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve.11 For his unfailing love toward those who fear himis as great as the height of the heavens above the earth
1 John 1:5-6 English Standard Version (ESV)
5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.…Ephesians 5:6-11 English Standard Version (ESV)
6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. 7 Therefore do not become partners with them; 8 for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light 9 (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.2 Corinthians 6:14-18 English Standard Version (ESV)
14 Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 What accord has Christ with Belial?[a] Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,“I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
17 Therefore go out from their midst,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
then I will welcome you,
18 and I will be a father to you,
and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty.”
…she’s from the Congo. I walked into a part of town not far from where I grew up, but one now culturally miles away. It’s been redeveloped and a wealthier crowd has moved in. About a mile in one direction and old mixes well with new. About a mile the way I walked today and…?
She was serving coffee and she was pleasant. It was only after I realized she had trouble with my southern grammar that it clicked: she’s not from here.
Getting to talk with her reminded me how one of my boys greeted me when I first moved to Malawi. He simply said “Welcome home!” Until then I hadn’t spent more than a month in Africa. But he knew. And talking with her for little more than five minutes reminded me: no matter how abundant Africa’s problems, it has a Living Spirit that can put you at ease in almost any environment…if you let it.
Honestly that Spirit lives anywhere His people do, and we aren’t dead yet. It feels somewhat presumptuous to just claim to be His. He’ll reveal the truth in that one day. But I’ve still got hope, and frequently enough it’s fed by souls He brings my way. She was one, and she reminded me…
…that “Hello” doesn’t have to be complicated,
…that kindness is more valuable than new money…or even old,
For now, I’m back in the states and it’s election day. But today it was good meeting someone who reminded me that my job is to at least try to be someone’s light…in every situation.
Hopefully we’ll be that no matter what happens tonight. God bless! :]
What follows was #6’s original ending. I removed it because it’s about things that distract me from the work here, at a time when I’m trying to focus on what’s ahead. I also withheld it because I didn’t want to overreact. I wanted to see…
…what would happen in America over the next month? …would things get better? …would the discussion become more insightful? …would Christians add a noticeably spiritual perspective? …or just a few religious clichés?
I wrote it because I noticed something else in proofing #6’s photos…
Malawi is one of many countries around the world where heavily armed police/military, regularly mingle with what we would call armed civilians…and no one gets shot.
Often enough I get questions about America’s police shootings. They’re a trend that found surprising support from America’s general public—who provide a seemingly endless supply of excuses. Most disappointing is hearing some of the most rigid, stale excuses stream from church pews.
Look, I get it. When Mike Tyson was being accused of rape, many of us (young black Americans, especially young black males) felt personally attacked. A community starved for heroes doesn’t easily turn on its idols. But there was a certain point at which Mike’s crazy outweighed his appeal.
His opinions about women didn’t necessarily surface until years later. But even before then, things he said became clearly unstable. The way that he went at Evander Holyfield—who I’m not sure ever openly disrespected an opponent. Then claiming he wanted to eat Lennox Lewis’ kids. The most telling red flag possibly being the way he tried to cover the crazy in kid-eating…
…randomly invoking God, without living God’s character. At a certain point it simply became clear that Mike had a fundamentally different value structure than anyone who legitimately claimed to follow God.
So as much as we may love them, maturity requires acknowledging the flaws in our heroes—even those in law enforcement.
If we’re honest as Christians, in tough times we bluntly question God…unless you’re somehow more noble than Job, more humble than Moses, or just smarter than the prophets. But when it comes to law enforcement – especially when they’re accused of hurting ‘minorities’ – questioning becomes taboo. Shrouded in sympathy for the difficulty of their job, it’s almost like we empathize more with police—than with the God we claim to worship. #idolatry
In contrast, not only do we question God, we see the flaws in ‘minority’ communities. Those flaws seem to supply endless justifications for the levels of force used against even the elderly and disabled. (Elderly Man Left Paralyzed) No matter the phrasing, those justifications typically seem to boil down to little more than: “C’mon…you know how they are.”
Well “they” are all over Africa – carrying machetes – and “they” aren’t getting shot.
Even in countries that have recently overcome bitter civil wars, “they” aren’t frightening police as much. It’s sad when the only nation in Africa to which America’s police shootings might be accurately compared, is Apartheid South Africa—possibly the only other nation in Africa to impose American-style segregation on its black population.
So could it be that something has lingered – un-repented – since our middle passage into slavery. Something fueling divisions that have never really healed?
It’s quite possible that we (African-Americans) deserved to be enslaved. I mean, even Israel was enslaved for its sins. But there was a limit. Those who ruled over them them crossed it, but felt no conviction for their barbarity until God’s judgment was upon them.
Habakkuk 2:6-8 (ESV)
It’s impossible to repent that which we won’t even confess though.
Mike Tyson got better when he got rid of his Yes Men. But too often, the church supplies the Yes Men and a bag full of excuses for behavior no less stunning than Mike’s insanity: Ft. Lauderdale PD – multiple officers fired. Replacing the difficulty of spiritual discernment, with simple “good guys” v. “bad guys” fiction…as if evil conveniently wears a jersey or a uniform—and the good guys’ misconduct is confined to a few exceptions: San Franciso PD – leaked correspondence, resignations; Baton Rouge PD – leaked correspondence, officer resigns; FBI exposed Florida cops linked to KKK ; Louisianna officer fired for ties to the KKK; West Virginia police lieutenant linked to the KKK; Georgia officer arrested for spitting on woman and calling her a nigger. Never stopping to think that even one or two exceptions…in police departments across the country…daily lording over citizens they don’t like—produces the kinds of degrading, violent interactions becoming common: Former California Highway Patrol officer beating mentally ill grandmother; DC PD taking down man in a wheelchair; Detroit Police raid wrong home, shoot 7-year-old girl. Where unarmed citizens walk on eggshells for simply recording interactions with police: Philadelphia Police – disrupting phone recording, NYPD caught falsifying report related to confiscated cell phone. And even black police officers are in danger when they are out of uniform. A Special Peril; NY Officer Killed by Colleagues; Rhode Island Officer Killed by Colleagues; RI Officer Beaten, Disabled by Colleagues; Oakland Officer Killed by Colleagues; Maryland Officer Killed by Colleague; Ex-officer Shot More Than 40 Times by Other Cops; NY Cop Assaulted by Colleagues Awarded $15Mill; NY Deputy Police Chief Accosted by Junior Officers; Florida Cop With the Courage to Stand Alone
Leaving at least one question that won’t go away: if racial bias has nothing to do with this, why aren’t black cops equally as in danger of being shot by other black cops?
Today, many in the church seem to recognize misconduct at about the speed of pagans. Acknowledging it only when just about everyone else in their secular circle agrees. While we claim to be indwelt by the Spirit of truth, we apparently can’t see truth any more quickly than agnostics.
Which begs the question: is the spirit at work in some of us really from God? …and what’s the evidence?
Those who reflexively support anything reject discernment—and discernment is a sign of Spiritual maturity. They camp in a place that seems safe, but even secular leaders warn that it’s dangerous:
Forfeiting the difficult work of discernment to generic loyalties is shallow. Even Jesus and His disciples warn of the need to discern wheat from tares, sheep from things in sheep’s clothing, productive fig trees from those barren, true disciples from waterless clouds, etc. He gives many metaphors. But unless it’s a doctrinal dispute, we have a growing number of believers who actually consider ignorance a badge of honor—claiming to be neutral, perpetually unsure or – let me decode this term – color blind.
As though they coincidentally end up in predominantly white neighborhoods, with kids in predominantly white schools, families generations deep in predominantly white churches, passionately affiliated to predominantly white political organizations—parroting the excuses fed them by media organizations who more and more shamelessly promote an almost pro-white message.
Have I gone too far? …is the Klan’s growing, public affection for all of these institutions a coincidence…really?
…and do you really think that God’s going to congratulate you for recognizing the epidemic “worldliness” in the church—while remaining “neutral” to the ways that the world institutions you favor grow darker?
Do any of you stop to wonder why police departments need internal affairs divisions?
I remember working for a state Attorney General’s office—handling the civil side of DWI prosecutions. It brought me into direct contact with many of the officers whose work I evaluated as a public defender. Seeing prosecutors with the same response to some officers that we had as defense attorneys was eye-opening.
That kid who never ‘applied himself’ in school – or life – doesn’t always get weeded out in job interviews. He or she sometimes – too often – convinces others to let them be a cop. More disturbing than working with them though—is meeting the nice church-going folk who can excuse just about anything they do.
The irony is that the same tendency that produces criminals often produces bad cops. That tendency: excuse-making. Excuses are the filth in which America now seems to fester. And while fingers point between right and left as causes for national decline, the church joins in…rarely adding anything remotely Spiritual to the discussion.
You might have noticed that I’m criticizing the right more heavily here—without apology. Jesus had problems with both the Pharisees and Sadducees, but made no apology for going at the Pharisees with brutal candor. (Matthew 23) He didn’t offer a one for one criticism to the right and the left to make them feel better. But to be fair, there’s blame to be apportioned everywhere: Ghetto Excuses. I’m just not sure that it’s wise to take comfort in the reality that “we’re all guilty” to some degree. David was possibly as guilty of murder as Ahab or Saul—but there’s a reason he found repentance, while they…?
David didn’t have to be prodded to either confess or repent. Saul would do neither without coercion. Ahab was great at confessing when he was in trouble, but repentance…? And in the church today…confession and repentance have been replaced by levels of denial considered crude even among secular psychologists. (Tendencies of Emotionally Manipulative People)
David found forgiveness because his heart famously sought God. But the question remains: are we really forming our opinions after God’s heart for ALL OF HIS PEOPLE?
Large portions of the church are enduring the resurgence of open racial hatred—at which roughly half of the ‘church’ yawns: Even the Pagans see it; Simply for winning; Leslie Jones – sign of the times; Racism on Social Media; Twitter Reacts to “that nigger”; Racism on College Campuses; The New Normal in Politics. If you’re comfortable going to see God never having asked Him if your yawn reflects His heart…? #betteroddsinvegas
The fact that racism doesn’t tend to hurt you or yours now, doesn’t mean that it’s simply our cross to bear. And when I say our—I don’t just mean people of color. I’ve seen people of color eagerly trade their integrity in hopes of simply fitting in. It’s still an issue in too many places here in Africa—one that partially explains the middle passage. Quite simply, we helped sell each other. And I guarantee you that many of Africa and African-America’s struggles result from this fact: in some ways we’re still doing it. On the other hand, I’ve seen white people suffer for being among the few with the courage to step away from the herd—when “we” won’t. (Former Baltimore City Officer Crystal; Former Baltimore City Officer Wood; Former NJ Officer Taska; Former Alabama Officer Hanner; Former Richmond, California Police Chief Chris Magnus)
This may come as a surprise to some, but I do believe that the true we are Christians. However not all “we” who claim to be Christians are truly of Christ. Most of us just want to fit in.
Is that you? The very fact that your actions may evidence numbness to pain in other parts of this spiritual body is a sign…and it’s not a good one.
To preserve the body, prolonged numbness in a physical limb can lead to amputation. God’s remedy for growing Spiritually cold isn’t much different.
I found that personally concerning because I’ve begun to grow numb to the suffering on both sides of America’s racial/social divide. And my feelings that haven’t grown cold aren’t completely healthy either. The things I’ve seen recently have provoked a war within in me…raging against the root of bitterness. I fight it because God has warned that bitterness is not just a danger to me, but to others. (Hebrews 12:15)
I don’t think I’m alone.
There’s something consuming the soul of America and its church. The re-emergence of “monkey” and “nigger” as common hate speech, and killing as common expression, allow it to ooze through the denial draped over it. It’s shameful to witness how much of the ‘church’ has found a role as Yes Men in that denial.
But maybe the bigger shame…is the absence of shame at this irony: a poor black man may now be safer holding a machete near police in the “3rd world”—than he would be empty-handed in “the greatest nation on earth.”
For those who doubt the power of prayer…
…telling you to stop doubting would be completely hypocritical, because way too often I still doubt it. But times like this remind me why we fight through the doubt. Not only did we find the kids we were looking for, we found ones we weren’t. I’ll try to explain in detail later, but in the meantime thank you…please keep praying for them…and if you’ve got a few to spare, for me too! #tired
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.
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.
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!
This is a cautionary tale about the mission field. Like our congregations—it’s too often shrouded in secrets and pretense. Thus, even after careful preparation, it’s easy to enter either one knowing only a fraction of what you need to. This may swing the pendulum back too far the other way, but hopefully understanding my story so far will help you…
If the internal link to the meeting audio doesn’t work, I’m attaching the recording here:
Likewise, I’m attaching a separate PDF with some of the correspondence more fully visible, along with the full SIBI Satellite School Handbook.
Even though this situation seems to have gone far beyond a simple dispute between two brothers, I chose to at least try the Matthew 18 approach. But efforts to resolve this privately with the school’s Board of Directors failed. I’ve made the requested change to the Newsletter that one of the Board Members sought. But my correspondence with the Board and both responses I received from them are attached.
If you have any questions or think that I haven’t included enough information though, feel free to comment here or message me privately.
With this post though, I’m looking to turn the page. My plan is to stay here working independently, because there’s so much to do even in a small town like Dedza. But, God willing, more on that next month…
So…what do you think we should call it?
There are so many times in life when I have to tone down the temptation to just say it, whatever it is. So when I looked up and saw this, I can’t lie…I thought it was hilarious. It just made sense; just call it what it is. Pretty sure there isn’t much funny about a hangover. But if you’ve spent very much time feeling bottled up by pretense – or if the straight ‘lost in translation’ component wasn’t lost on you – then I probably don’t have to explain why this one screamed photo opp…smh…wow.
Alright, on to business…
Servant of all
I used to think that I was really workin’ when I cut my lawn with a weed-whacker—because I was too cheap to buy a lawnmower. But then I met this brother…
and this brother…
and realized that around Dedza, that’s generally just how it’s done. It was like the next step in the progression of my understanding of work. But then someone explained to me where all that wood that the sisters tote on their heads came from…and for a while I simply refused to believe it. But it didn’t take long for me to wake up and realize that – much like the sisters we see hauling it daily – these brothers…
…hauled this wood
down from this mountain…
And it didn’t take me much longer to realize that I wasn’t just working with the wrong definition of work, or servant…I had no idea.
And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”Mark 9:35 (ESV)
Back in the states, there were few if any non-criminal jobs which came to mind that I just wouldn’t do. But looking at what work means here, I had to confront my gut reaction to some of what I saw: “…there is no way.” I couldn’t deny it, I bounced back at the thought of cutting the grass with a hand-held blade—and like I told you, I went into denial when I learned that folks hauled wood down the side of Dedza mountain on their head for a living. But that was almost small in comparison to what I heard when I asked one sister how much she charges for the wood…?
Understanding how hard folks in villages like this all over the world are working for what we consider change, caused me to realize that servant is a word I may not have been equipped to understand. And if my understanding of servant was that far off, how much more my – or maybe even our – assumptions about final judgment?
22 He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. 23 And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, 24 “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 25 When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ 26 Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ 27 But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ 28 In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 29 And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. 30 And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” Luke 13:26-30
Adding any other words to Mr. Chan’s illustration seems wrong, but what seems even more wrong after all this—are the unstated, faulty expectations I’ve had for what the “reward” ahead might be like…smh.
Just a little more…
Don’t let what I say next become your excuse for continuing to hug your balance beam, but please don’t misunderstand me either: poverty does not equate to righteousness. That quote from Luke says “some”, and it’s connected to an Old Covenant principle:
“You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” Leviticus 19:15
As much as the “first” world may live in luxury by exploiting the “third” world’s poverty, for every person in the “third” world hauling wood down the side of a mountain, there are at least two who seem willing to exploit those working on that mountain.
You don’t really even have to leave the states to see it. …drug trade anyone? …prostitution? Poorer countries with lower crime rates simply seem to manifest it in different ways, because poverty – wherever it exists – seems exceptional at exposing some of the best, and worst in human nature. I’ve heard stories about the ways that life in concentration camps exposed both the heroic and obscene sides of those imprisoned. But I’m becoming convinced that a less extreme version of that experiment plays out in impoverished parts of the world every day. Deep need exposes the tendencies of exploited persons to become exploiters—who sometimes do so as callously as those who actually prosper from oppression.
So if the tendency to misuse others doesn’t appear to have been assigned an income bracket, what does that mean? It may mean false comfort to those who quietly take pride in the superiority of their particular demographic—for whatever reason. Those proud of being working class…because the world would stop without labor. Those proud of their degrees…because the world wouldn’t be much without ambition and smarts. Those even proud of their poverty…because “it’s obvious” that the rich are the ones exploiting the poor. The common denominator being pride—and that brand of it probably most dangerous to those of us in the church, may be pride in our “saved”ness or church affiliation.
Jesus taught a parable about wheat and tares. (Matthew 13:24-30) I heard TD Jakes caution his listeners not to ignore the proximity of the tares to the wheat—and the timing of their separation. The tares were sown so closely among the wheat that pulling them too soon threatened the wheat’s very existence. So when we take comfort in having found the enemy that we see in another demographic—we often make ourselves excellent targets for the enemies within our own.
Not too long ago I was involved in a negotiation that seemed to illustrate it. We made an expedited acquisition for one of the students from a local Christian businessman. He sold us a used good at a certain price that seemed high—but we were in a hurry. He guaranteed us that this was the fair price for the used version. So we negotiated him down a bit and made the purchase.
Not long after, we randomly stumbled upon a shop run by one of the local Islamic businessmen. We asked his wife the price of the brand new version of what we had just bought and – without haggling – she quoted us a price less than $2 more than the used goods we bought from the fellow-“believer.”
I put believer in quotes, because James’ epistle warns of the dangers in faith alone—without the works of true righteousness.
I mention that because, as an American doing business in a foreign culture, there’s no way to be completely certain about the candor of this negotiation. But I checked the standard price for the new and used good before we bought anything. And of the 3 people we eventually asked, the only person who advised us to buy used at that price, was the fellow-“believer” who was selling at that price.
He got the benefit of our trust and our immediate need. But as I told him before we made the deal: you’re not short-selling the American, you’re short-selling the Malawian kid that this is going to. And sure enough, a student ended up in a tattered version of the blessing that others got to enjoy brand new.
Why would I write about an isolated example of a bad deal with a fellow-Christian? I don’t think that I would. I’m writing because this is an example of a recurring problem that I’ve seen manifested in different ways, in “believers” from completely different cultures.
I’m writing in hopes that it will sharpen both the wisdom of those tempted to place too much trust in “believers,” and those “believers” who have enough—but find themselves – at the expense of another brother or sister – tempted to negotiate for just a little more.
Question bread and answer bread
Alright…enough of the heavy handed morality tales. I come from Houston, the land where good BBQ meets great shrimp. Whatever the preference the local common denominator…is meat. So the bread metaphors in the bible were symbols I simply couldn’t relate to. Thus the title: question bread.
Bread simply raised questions for me. For restaurants, bread seemed to be what they offered to keep customers from cutting into their profit margin. For us, it was what expanded in your stomach to steal the coveted space that well-seasoned meat so rightfully deserved. So when I tasted what restaurants typically serve as bread…it simply made me wonder: why?
Moving here, I’ve begun to understand why. Enter, answer bread:
Yes, I’ve had the bread sticks at Olive Garden, the crescent rolls we KILL around the holidays in my family, much of what Panera has done to revive the dignity of bread stateside…so on and so forth. But those are still just side dishes…plate fillers.
Daily bread still seemed to be a symbol of poorer biblical times. But living here, I’ve begun to better appreciate the value of a thing – anything – well-done. When done well, bread – just bread – is a thing to be desired…a comfort food if you’re not careful. And even though the pic might not look like much more than a glorified dinner roll, that loaf’s texture and flavor is only enhanced by its utility. Finding genuine satisfaction in something priced so well is a huge blessing. It gives me something to look forward to in the mornings. It gets me out of the door in even less time than it took me to get going stateside. And it’s definitely not all that we eat, but it’s a shot in the arm to my budget here.
Bread well-done isn’t a daily dole, as much as it can become a daily craving.
Here’s the point: what are you producing? …is it someone’s daily dole? …or their daily craving? Can you honestly say that you’ve honed your craft – no matter the value society puts on it – into something that God would say that His children should crave.
You’ll never be able to please everyone. That’s just not how this world works. But I’ve reached a point where a great piece of bread beats a poorly cooked steak most any day. So even if your job is what those who look down on you would consider a “bread” trade, are you doing it with the expertise that outshines bad steak?
I know plenty of lackluster lawyers who have helped earn the trade the down side of its reputation. But I’ve also met awesome secretaries and paralegals who seemed exceptional at three or four more jobs than the one that they were hired to do.
Which of those honestly describes you?
And if an honest look in the mirror reveals that you’ve allowed yourself to become question bread, wouldn’t it be a relief – years later – to look back on this day as the day that you turned it around to become the answer?
Have you ever broken your routine just long enough to realize just how much of a rut you were in? I had to take care of some business in Lilongwe not long ago, but the star of that trip might have been the container of…errrr…ummm…joy, right here:
Please don’t rush out looking for whatever brand this is as though this is an endorsement…because it’s a straight mission field thing. This was the right thing, at the right time, providing the right lift. Your favorite brand of your favorite desert might whip this one in a taste test…daily. But that whole experience was so much bigger than ice cream…yessir.
Maybe putting it next to this photo will help. Finding joy often requires toning it down: expectations, demands, etc. These kids know how to appreciate recess without a real ball. So maybe interacting with them – even in passing – has helped me tone it down. Thus, that ice cream fix was…yeah.
Christmas with the sisters
Similarly, I’m not sure that there were many things that made my mom feel better than having a group of sisters take me in over the holidays…and I literally mean sisters. I finally moved into rental housing in January. But near the beginning of December, the local Catholic church took me in to help cut costs—tremendously. I had been in local lodges until then. Even more, the sisters were quick to extend the invitation to spend the holidays with them and, in case you couldn’t tell, it was hilarious. Don’t let the hats fool you, the young sisters are just as nunned up as the elders on the couch. And if the hats didn’t give it away, they had rhythm for days…it was too funny. I saw one of them on my way back to finish-up this article, and I told her that I found the pictures from Christmas…she just laughed. Good times!
But about that work…
I had absolutely nothing to do with this one, but it’s still good to see the brothers producing baptisms…this time at a church I’ve been to since making it to more congregations around Dedza. God willing, we’ll be seeing more of these as we settle into 2016 at MIBI.
Speaking of which, finals are this week! It no longer carries the same panic that it used to for me—since I’ve had to make the test instead of taking it. That actually means that my cram week was last week, and it somewhat explains why this newsletter is so late. The other reason has to do with why you probably didn’t see a January edition. We’ve had to make some adjustments for 2016, and the report that went to the school’s board took the place of the January Newsletter. Thus the title Newsletter Issue #4, when you may have never seen an Issue #3. Thanks for your patience though. The progress that we’re looking for will hopefully produce even better news going forward.
For now though, please know that the guys are nearing the end of Old Testament History with me, and have had their study guide for this Wednesday’s final in hand for about a week now. God willing, the preparation that they’ve done will produce great sermons more than anything. Hopefully the numerical grades will simply reflect what they’ll retain for improving lives…those of their listeners—but foremost their own. As usual, praying the same for myself as I’ve learned a HUGE amount prepping this class for them. I’m hoping to make the most of my blessing, by making sure that their retention is strong, and their communication of the lessons is even stronger.
In the meantime though…I’m tired! So thanks for accepting a less formal version of my Newsletter this month. But like this guy, I’m about to take a minute to just…
As always though, God’s best to you as you go forward in Him…