Wednesday, March 30, 2011

It's Wednesday! Beatings for everyone!

Woke up this morning to the sound of beatings... then went back to sleep.

Kids were already in their classes at 6 a.m., that's right, an hour before the Sun came up, and apparently an entire class managed to irritate their teacher enough to earn a universal caning. In America the teacher would have been fired, brought up on criminal charges, and the school would have been sued. Here, it was a Wednesday. I'm not sure which is better... I'm not even sure which is more entertaining.

Incidentally the school administrator made a surprise early visit this morning to check on the teachers. Who got hammered? The teacher giving his arm a workout at the expense of a cane and a bunch of kids? Nope, the teachers whose classrooms were full of students waiting to learn, but didn't show up till 30-60 minutes after they were supposed to. They weren't caned, kinda funny if they were, they just had to work the rest of the day without pay.

The sort of freedom you find out here sucks sometimes, usually in the lack of accountability for those in charge. But at least it allows you to see the nature of those in charge. Sure the country is full of little "big men" who are busy building their own kingdoms and making lives miserable for all those around them. But at least they aren't disguised by "regulations", "systems", and "procedures", they're just small minded dicks flopping in the wind for everyone to see. This cultural system sucks because there is very little teaching and training that improves the quality of the leaders (there are a few notable exceptions), but it excels at revealing the nature of people - which I'm grateful for. It also enable some ingenuous compassionate, good people to come up with original and effective ways of loving people. Specifics are often hidden, but the fruit seems to be on the surface for all those interested in seeing.

Though probably an anarchist or libertarian in most of my political positions, I willingly admit government has an important role to play in society. I just think, given a good choice and two bad ones, most governments will find a much worse fourth option and cling to it like rats on a log. Give a bad king power and he will try to take more, give a good king power and he will do everything he can to give it away.
And therein lies the rub.

We all want a "good leader" to run our lives, make the tough decisions, and tell us exactly what to do. Problem is, a good leader knows, for all the real good his or her dictatorial proclamations and aggressive action can bring about, the greatest good may in fact be to protect people from lousy leaders in the future, this means limiting themselves as well.

The more I see, the less I'm interested in politics and the more I'm interested in people - this doesn't stop me from being an antisocial political zealot sometimes. I think God is the same way, I think we see it in the way He valued freedom right from the start. Giving humans free will wasn't a good business decision; it was an essential relational decision. Without freedom, none of us would know who we are; with freedom, we are allowed to inflict others with our Jackholedness. God chose the more interesting option. It seems we are often afraid to do the same. Successful, big, interesting people, who lead well, only reveal themselves when given the freedom to suck and fail. This is true for business, family, politics, and ministry.

Regulations and laws are often necessary but always limited in value, they don't create good people, they simply limit the reach and impact of the bad.* At some point we need to decide what we value more. Is our highest value the regulation of bad or the enablement and creation of good? Freedom isn't primarily a political issue it's an issue of personal value. Do we want to be free and deal with the fruit, or ruled and pass the burden off on others? This is NOT political rhetoric, but a question placed to every aspect of our lives.

*obviously, some laws protect those who cant protect themselves, creating a freedom of sorts; hence, the necessity of some. The point is, enforced laws don't make bad people good, governance just inhibits them. If we want more good people we need an option other than more laws.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Vegas mindset (U.N. Pt. 3)

"You're so money baby and you don't even know it!"

I hate asking for money - with a passion. So much so, that I'm decimating my bank account as I spend time overseas. A few friends help me out from time to time, but for the most part I'm living off past jobs (this probably points to my pride more than anything else). My limited resources definitely impacts how I live out here. There are people I haven't been able to help and things I've had to say no to because I didn't have the funds, I'm not sure this is good. At the same time, I don't think it is altogether bad.

As a white person I'm constantly racially profiled, not to the same negative effect as some different races in America, but profiled and judged none the less. People see me and treat me by my race before they get a chance to know me. Beggars chase me down, kids passing me on the street ask me for bikes and sponsorship, others ask for jobs, and everyone assume I'm rich. After all, America is like heaven, nothing bad ever happens there and we all live in mansions. People don't believe me when I tell them America has dirt roads and homeless people, or that anyone in Uganda with a job has made more money than me in the last year and a half.

Here is where this sucks. When in a developing country I constantly find myself questioning who my friends are or why people try to be my friends. Most Africans are nice people who are genuinely friendly and happy to have visitors in their countries (drawing on a couple years travel experiences), differentiating these people from all the others who think I'm a walking ATM is painfully difficult and makes me cautious and defensive toward anyone who is nice to me or want's to have a conversation - this SUCKS! I've totally blown people off, because I didn't want to get scammed, only to find out later they were legit. This does not make you feel good about yourself. At the same time it's freaking frustrating when you are having a conversation with a new person, everything seems to be going great, and then this person, a stranger up until a few minutes earlier says, "so... I was wondering... could you..." and I realize they were playing me the whole time, building up for a request you or I would only make of a close friend.

Here is the dirty little secret of poverty, money doesn't fix it. Properly used it can be a powerful, and perhaps necessary tool in the fight against it, but in and of itself money can actually make things worse. As charitable westerners, who want the feel good freedom of throwing money at problems and walking of with our arms held high like victorious prize fighters, this can be an unwelcome lesson to learn. Struggling economies can be destroyed by large influxes of relief cash, the shipping of excess food from America to countries in need can create dependence and deeper problems because local farmers, unable to compete with the charity, lose their jobs or stop farming.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't help our neighbors, just that we need to learn what true help looks like. In general we have brought our stereotyping on ourselves, content to settle for the "easy fix" cash and fancy presents represent, we've often neglected relationship and long term commitment to our neighbors. Not surprisingly, the people getting the presents are willing to accommodate lack of commitment.

Some simple truths #3: Churches, ministries, and communities need money. God doesn't. Our plans have often been impacted, stymied, and changed due to our finance or lack there of. God has never been impacted by a lack of money. The more time we spend asking what God wants to do, and the less deciding what we want to do, the more likely we are to find we have exactly enough to accomplish God's will. Give, give often, but don't limit your giving to your bank account, it is very limited in what it can accomplish... you aren't.

One of the challenges of STM, and to a certain extent long term missionaries, is the allocation of resources. There are four STM teams coming to my part of Uganda over the next 4 months. Their airfare alone will come over $100,000. If this money were simply given to the locals for specific projects, a lot more physical development could be accomplished. If the visitors truly cared about the community and making a difference, wouldn't they just stay home and send money? I used to wonder about this, but not anymore. First off, anytime you spend money on coffee, clothing, entertainment, cars, vacations, etc. you are choosing yourself over someone else. We spend most of our money on things that are unnecessary or nicer than what we truly need. As extravagant, and seemingly irresponsible, as STM spending is there is something they offer that sending cash, buying $100 jeans, and drinking $5 coffees don't, the opportunity for relationship. There are stupid uses of money that a lot of STM and missionaries make, but the cost of them being there isn't one. If you want to judge the lack of financial stewardship represented by STM, when there are so many people starving and dieing of diseases, you expose yourself to that same criticism every time you open your wallet. Maybe this is a good thing.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The left and the right hand (U.N. Pt. 2)

The problem isn't that I know what's best, it's that you do to and so does everyone else. If only we weren't all wrong...

It used to be missionaries, and foreign aid workers (the secular goody-goodies don't get let off the hook either), would role into town see how jacked up everything was (a.k.a. non-western) and start "fixing"things. Schools and hospitals got built, infrastructure was improved, the heathens were converted and taught how to dress properly (seriously hate whoever thought this was a good idea... the clothing part), and the locals were exposed to an amazing new world. Good, right? Mostly, but not without a cost.

Unrealized, or ignored, was the reality that most of the programs were transplanted western solutions for western problems. The local culture, the one the liberals were so distraught about the west destroying, remained alive and well. The clothing and language may have changed, as happens with all cultures, but the mindsets, values, and concepts of logic remained mostly untouched. Pastors and politicians became the new chiefs, witchdoctors did business right along side the hospitals and churches, and the same food was grown and eaten as always (often a great tragedy to my mouth, and the overall health of many communities. At least in east Africa). Mosquito nets were used as fishing nets, Catholic educated and converted children went back to subsistence farming and traditional religions when they graduated, religious tracts were used for toilet paper, and new schemes were born to scam the foreigners, often to the deprivation of those they came to help.

The enlightened solution? Let the locals tell the foreigners how to help them, after all, they're the ones who know their lives the best and will have to live with the consequences. This would be a great solution if it wasn't for the slight problem that the way they've been doing things doesn't work so well either. There is a reason the Third World is the Third World. I'll give you a hint, it isn't because capitalism hosed them or because colonialism stole from them (though these things may have happened).

Knowing how things work in the U.S. is not the same as knowing how to fix things in Mexico or Uganda - it's a good place to start though. I'm with an American organization that's been involved with a Ugandan ministry for the last seven years or so. Over those years both organizations have learned they are right about issues and arguments about as often as they are wrong. Through the often difficult relationship both organizations have improved and learned better how to serve and minister to the community. Neither side was qualified to fix everything that was broken, but together they have made a decent effort in the small community.

It's freaking difficult to tie your laces with one hand, you kinda need two to make a go of it. Effective missions, short or long term, depend on relationship much more than "right"answers.

Some simple truths #2: Unless you live somewhere, you don't know what it's like to live there. Books, past experiences, and theory my help you get your bearing and a starting point, but they won't fix anything or tell you about your new neighbor. Likewise, just because you have always crapped in the front yard, given kickbacks to the "big men", and circumcise your daughters doesn't mean that's the way things should be.

If you role into someones home, tell them what's wrong with it, and how you are going to fix it, you have earned "Mass Douche-bag" status. Even if you are right, you are still a D-bag. Please don't set the tone for the rest of us or paint the picture of a frat boy Jesus cruising through town dixie cupping it with a popped collar pink polo. I'm still trying to convince people you don't need to wear a three piece suit to be a christian and it's best to keep the mosquitoes outside, I'd rather not deal with your wreckage.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Uninhibited Negligence (Pt. 1)

Uninhibited Negligence initials out to U.N. I find this hilarious and appropriate, but beside the point. I was actually thinking about the missional mindset of the wealthy and successful.

I read a friends link to a post about short term missions (s.t.m.) and was reminded of a lot of other conversations and experiences. It didn't warn against doing s.t.m., just raised some unfortunate issues.

We have money, power, resources, and know how. Many of us even have a desire to help those "less fortunate" than ourselves, spiritually or materially. Here is the problem, good intentions aren't enough. Hit and run missions, as fun as they are can cause more damage than good (that doesn't mean they will just that they can). This concept builds on the previous post about relationship and it will spill over into some future posts as well, but for now lets state the obvious. Everyone wants to get and do the things that make them feel good. Actually doing good often gets little more than lip-service in the internal dialogue of desire.

Here is the unfortunate reality, if you want to help bring about long term help and growth, spiritually or physically, it is going to take a long term commitment of time, resources, and love. This doesn't mean you can't role through for a week with a bunch of high-schoolers, build some houses, sing some songs, and talk about the love of Jesus, it just means for that to have any real benefit in the community it will need to be carried out as part of a larger longer term relationship.

Some simple truths #1: S.T.M. are for the benefit of the missionaries... there is nothing wrong with this as long as you understand it. Mexican ghettos and African slums didn't get the way they are overnight and 25 teenagers from the burbs won't fix them in a week, no matter how trendy their work cloths, how many pictures they take, how many babies they hold, or how many people give their lives to Jesus in the last outreach service. This doesn't mean nothing good took place. A dusty snot-factory baby getting held and loved on is a good thing, a family getting a new house (even if it isn't done the way they wanted) is a blessing, but the real winners are the 25 teenagers who had their eyes wrenched open, hearts broken, and worldviews shattered. Heck, they may even spend the rest of their lives trying to learn how to love and help those people, and others like them, because of the impact one S.T.M. had on them and the way God used it to talk to them, this is a win. Dumping cash, giving the impression that all Americans are wealthy and their lives perfect, and teaching the locals that the best way to get gifts from Westerners is to show up to their meetings, raise their hands and come forward at the right time, isn't.

As a side note, if you, or someone you trust, isn't going to stick around, be in relationship with, and disciple people, DON'T do an alter call. I once saw a missions team put on a three day conference/crusade in Zambia. Thousands gave their lives to Christ and got free Bibles and resources, a bunch of them did it every night. I'm not saying there weren't some genuine commitments, I'm just saying it's a shame and a sham when the impact of the gospel is reduced to hands raised and Bible given rather than lives lived and relationships built. If the unintentional impact of an outreach is the creation of the impression that saying yes to Jesus means you "get stuff", the outreach is actually watering down and hindering the gospel. The lesson shouldn't be "don't preach", but "learn how to teach".

Friday, March 18, 2011

If I ruled the world...

This is not how I would set things up.

Yesterday,after spending a bruising and sunburnt day in Gulu, I sat down to an Indian meal with some new friends. Thankfully the Indian didn't inflict damage on the six hour bus ride this morning (chorus of "hallelujah"). The new friends are highly qualified westerners doing some cool stuff in the wrecked yet recovering norther Uganda. One of the lessons we are all learning is the highly unwestern principle of relationship. It's not that westerners dislike relationship, or avoid it, its that we compartmentalize it. We have our work and our relationships, we are trained not to mix friends and money, we think a good plan has value in and of itself, and in a certain context there is wisdom here. Not so much in the African context.

Africa, where good ideas and well thought out plans are engulfed in flames and drag people to the pits of depression, self doubt, and self-righteous anger, teaches a brutally difficult lesson to learn: If it isn't built on relationship, it isn't going to last. Plans aren't all bad, good intentions and brilliant ideas are a good place to start, they get you moving in a direction. The problem is, once they are expected to stand on their own they are dead. The way things last, they way they grow, is when they come out of relationship.

Seeing problems and solutions isn't enough, you need to see the solutions that work within the context. The problem is I've only seen this come from relationships, relationships that take a while to develop, relationships that are difficult, relationships that develop independently of "the plan", relationships that are sometimes annoying. As much as this sucks, it is also a blessing, it forces you to see people.

While preaching last week I blurted out "Christianity isn't about magic, it's about relationship." I wanted people to understand the difference between being a christian to "get" and being a christian to "be". God created us to be in relationship with him, not to get passing prizes or have our lives work slightly better. This is easy to remember when I preach, but freaking difficult when I live. Being in relationship with God, for the the sake of being, requires being in relationship with others for the same reason. If a plan or a solution for a situation comes out of it, well then great, the best ones do. Unfortunately, that isn't the reason for them.

The sucky thing about relationships, at least the ones of value, is they need to happen for themselves.

Monday, March 7, 2011

God is a nudist, seriously

More of what I've been working on:

To plagiarize C.S. Lewis, We all carry the weight of glory. Glory being the nakedness of God. If seen for who we are, we would more closely resemble angelic beings than mere animals stuck in meat suits.

This raises the stakes in how we relate to each other and to God. To paraphrase Lewis, we have never met a mere mortal. This places a huge burden on us to love others in relation to who God has made them rather than what we see on the surface. We do not possess the right to deny compassion to those God endowed with beauty and love. In the end, each may fall like Lucifer or rise like Christ, but until then, the burden is on us to love.

An often unstated aspect of ‘glory’ is nakedness. The “glory” of God is the “nakedness” of God - the pure revelation of who He is.

Miroslav Volf, in his book Free of Charge, addresses the issue of a seemingly petty or emotionally incomplete God who desires/needs others to give him glory. Volf states:

But we don’t need to give up on the idea that God seeks God’s own glory. We just need to say that God’s glory, which is God’s very being, is God’s love, the creative love that wants to confer good upon the beloved. Now the problem of a self-seeking God has disappeared, and the divinity of God’s love is vindicated. In seeking God’s own glory, God merely insists on being toward human beings the God who gives.

The image emerging from the shadows of obligation and payment owed, becomes one of participation and revelation. The glory God seeks, the glory God demands, is not a product of our creation, used to fuel a Zeus-like ego; rather, it is the participation in the revelation of God’s nature and desire in creation.

Do we believe we can bring God - the creator of the universe, giver of all, more beautiful than all the sunsets scattered across the horizons from the day of creation till the end of days – glory through our faulted and imperfect actions, or is it through our actions the glory of God is revealed? Does marriage glorify God or does marriage reveal the glory of God?

Marriage, love given others, worship for the sake of worship, tithes, prayers, etc. do not add to God or endow Him with any greater glory, you can't make the ocean more the ocean. These actions reveal and participate in the fullness of God, His identity and nature, which is His glory. To make God naked in the world, through our actions, thoughts, and words, is the greatest honor we can give God. To say, “This is who God Is.”, and have Him agree, is to say and give everything that can be said or given.
As our understanding of God’s desire for “His own glory” develops we see an amazing transition in how we relate to God. Watch what happens when we substitute "nakedness" for "glory" in a handful of scriptural passages:

“The heavens declare the nakedness of God; the sky displays his handiwork.” - Psalm 19:1
“When Jesus heard this, he said, “This sickness will not lead to death, but to God’s nakedness, so that the Son of God may be revealed through it.”” – John 11:4
“Jesus responded, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you would see the nakedness of God?”” - John 11:40
“But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked intently toward heaven and saw the nakedness of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” – Acts 7:55
“…for all have sinned and fall short of the nakedness of God.” – Romans 3:23
“Receive one another, then, just as Christ also received you, to God’s nakedness.” – Romans 15:7
“So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the nakedness of God.” – 1 Corinthians 10:31
“For a man should not have his head covered, since he is the image and nakedness of God.” – 1 Corinthians 11:7a
And we all, with unveiled faces reflecting the nakedness of God, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, which is from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” – 2 Corinthians 3:18
“…and the temple was filled with smoke from God’s nakedness and from his power. Thus no one could enter the temple until the seven plagues from the seven angels were completed.” – Revelation 15:8
“The city possesses the nakedness of God; its brilliance is like a precious jewel, like a stone of crystal-clear jasper.” – Revelation 21:11
“The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, because the nakedness of God lights it up, and its lamp is the Lamb.” – Revelation 21:23

All joking aside, the exchange of nakedness for glory adds an intense intimacy and clarity to these passages. No longer is the purpose, or the power, linked to some ethereal concept or self-aggrandizement. The purpose and power of God is now linked with the clarity of His self-revelation. We can do all things to the glory of God, a concept difficult to conceptualizing, because everything good, everything of value, even in the most pedestrian way, has the capacity to reveal God.

The love of a father to a son, even in a secular family, reveals the nakedness of God in His desire for His creation. A father’s love for his son mimics, and in fact participates in, the nature of God. A Muslim man loving his child glorifies God, regardless of his or your theology, because through participation in God’s nature, the beauty of God is revealed and affirmed. God does not receive more glory; rather, the fullness of His glory comes more into light.