Yesterday as I reflected on our trip to Ethiopia, or perhaps more accurately reflected on our futures now that we have been to Ethiopia, there is one key aspect of mission trips, especially this one, that I failed to mention.
This trip wasn’t about producing a product, and it wasn’t even primarily about building relationships with the boys, although that was a huge part.
A large part of the reason we went, and an especially large part of the reason I went, was to support and encourage Adam. He’s a thirty-something Philly boy living in a foreign culture with fifteen former street boys. Visitors from home can help soothe the homesickness and provide a much-needed infusion of energy and enthusiasm.
Mission trips have the potential to accomplish something that cannot be counted by simple utilitarian measurements. There’s something powerful about the Body of Christ spread across continents but united in heart and mission.
It was Christ himself who told us that the world would know we are His disciples because of our love for one another.
Post written at the end of the third day of the trip, August 15
Today we visited the “Red Terror Martyrs” Memorial Museum, which recounts the horrors suffered by the people of Ethiopia at the hands of General Mengistu, the leader of the Derg ruling party.
As our impromptu tour began, seemingly just because we were a willing audience of foreigners, our guide spoke passionately about Ethiopia in the Derg regime, emphasizing repeatedly how a person or a group had been killed without due process.
I didn’t quite understand our guide’s passion until he revealed how he had been tortured in the traditional manner, hung from a pole cuffed and shackled as his feet were whipped. He described how prisoners would have their nipples pinched off toenails removed, and molars pulled with pliers. Women would suffer genital mutilation.
Formerly a monarchy, the government of Ethiopia was overthrown by a communist rebel movement known as the Derg after the Emperor, Haile Selassie, failed to respond to a terrible famine which killed countless people.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the Derg began greater abuses of power than Selassie ever had. Mengistu and the Derg tortured and killed hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians.
Perhaps the most powerful moment of the tour, aside from the personal revelation made by our guide, was when we stepped into a room, an ossuary of sorts, filled with the remains of those who had been killed. Pulled from mass graves there was shelf after shelf of human skulls and bones, most of which have never been identified.
In a society where speech is free and elections are democratic in theory but all too often not in reality, though it is 20 years after the overthrow of the Derg, the significance of this museum, recounting in vivid detail and depiction the horrors of a tyrannical government, simply overwhelmed me.
The museum’s slogan is “Never, ever again.” And our guide continued to say that we cannot forget what happened so that it will never happen again.
So that’s what this is, an attempt to honor that commitment to remember in an attempt to prevent… but what the astute reader may recall is that thousands were disappeared or jailed following protests against an unfair election in 2005, actions frighteningly reminiscent of the those taken by the current government’s predecessors.
Lily’s father was an alcoholic who beat his mother, and so one day his mother took his sisters and moved back in with her parents, leaving Lily and his older brother with their father.
Mom was the breadwinner so when dad ran out of money he sold their house for cash to purchase booze. At seven years old Lily was homeless, left to fend for himself on the streets.
Eventually, Lily and his brother made their way from their hometown of Dessie to Addis Ababa, the capitol of Ethiopia. There Lily connected with a group of street boys who begged, sold, borrowed, and stole to survive.
When Lily was around 13 a young woman began saying “hello” to he and his friends as she walked by. A simple “hello” led to conversations and conversations led to shared meals. Birukti, the young woman, began to take them to dinner nearly every week.
One day she brought a group of Ferengi, white people, with her to dinner. Lily took one of them to see the place where he slept, a drainage sewer in the middle of a busy road.
A few months later that man, Adam, would relocate from America to Ethiopia and help Lily and his friends get off the streets.
Adam is famous around our church. He sold his belongings, left a job with a six-figure income and moved half-way around the globe to serve 20 boys, but he’s not who this story is about. In fact, this story is not even really about Lily. This is the story of Birukti.
Birukti felt a prompting from the Holy Spirit to say hello to the street boys she walked by every day on her way home from work. And hello turned into conversations and conversations turned into meals and meals turned into changed lives.
I think so often we hear stories like Adam’s, and we feel like he’s in a totally different world. He inspires us for a moment, but the thought of moving to Africa or Asia or the inner-city seems so far beyond us. And so instead of moving, we just move on. We go back to our everyday lives, failing to see the connection between our lives and the life of this incredible person.
But you see, Birukti didn’t move anywhere. She wasn’t even the one who got the boys off the streets and into homes and schools. Her first step wasn’t all that remarkable. She began simply by saying “Hello.” She said hello to the people who no one else had time for. She said hello to the people society failed to value.
She took small steps and started relationships.
At my church we take a lot of missions trips and we have a monthly day of service where we go out and bless the community. These are great things. They help us understand the issues facing our city and our world and teach us how we can practically love others.
They are great, but they are not enough. If our engagement with the people whom Jesus commanded us to serve is limited to nine days a year or three hours a month, then our impact will be limited as well.
Change happens through relationships and small steps.
The next time you think about someone like Adam Taylor and think, “That could never be me,” remember Birukti and ask yourself, “Who do I need to share a meal with?” “Who do I need to have a conversation with?” or even just, “To whom should I say hello?”
If Birukti hadn’t said “Hello,” there would be no story of Adam Taylor. If Birukti hadn’t said “Hello,” Lily would still be living on the street.
“In the end language runs out. In the word “holy” we have sailed to the world’s end in the utter silence of reverence and wonder and awe. There may yet be more to know of God, but that will be beyond words.” -John Piper
What does it mean for God to come to earth, wrestle a man, and lose that wrestling match? How do we understand the tension between God’s sovereignty and our free will. How can our finite minds grasp an infinite God? Is there any way we can we unpack these mysteries?
I love where I work. A couple of e-mails went around the NCC staff this week with links to videos that have been created by our our staff and volunteers. And when I say created I mean all of it from ideating to writing to pre-production, production, and post-production.
As I was browsing through our videos looking for what I wanted to post, I realized that most of this is coming out of our Kids and Students teams. They, along with our media guys, especially Andy, are doing some incredibly creative stuff.
The goal is to tell you what to think about abortion, racism, and sexuality
Has our faith come down to statements: Don’t drink. Don’t dance. Don’t let your kids play with atheists.
This doesn’t reflect our faith. The mindset was awful.
You’ve probably had people come into your office and want to talk about why the church should split or why they should take their kids out of school because of the bad influence.
So I’ll ask them, what brought you to this decision?
Then I’ll ask them what in the Gospel, what in Scripture brought them to this?
And they’ll begin to speak about their education or a vague notion that they have or a gut feeling.
As far as I can tell in Scripture, the Cross and the Way and the Gospel define everything about us. And if they don’t define everything about us, then the Gospel is not what we say it is.
We need a renewal in thinking, coming back to the ways of Scripture, back to the ways of the Gospel.
Christianity gives you a frame for thinking about all of life. Typically the conversation goes to a worldview, but there’s been a recent shift in the conversation of worldview. That helps us as thinking beings, but we are more than that. James K.A. Smith says we are agents of love, and it is what we love that defines who we are.
So the perspective has been shifted to story. There is a story rooted in your heart and mind that is dictating our lives. Many of us believe this is the Gospel for us but we are mistaken.
I want to give you four large, meta-stories that we encounter everywhere: education, television, media…
A story is supposed to describe the way the world is so should be abandoned if it is wrong
Personal fulfillment, the pursuit of happiness – As a result we consume: entertainment, products, even other people. Even our housing industry is based on this want for more. Everyone else in this story is just a supporting cast for you. You should be happy. If you are not, then something is wrong. Difficulty and suffering are always wrong.When the feeling of happiness erodes, we try something new. New job, new marriage, etc. So we horde, accrue debt… it makes us miserable. It doesn’t work. Solomon proved this thousands of years ago. He had it all, but it didn’t make him happy.
Pluralism – History teaches us that the US is a melting pot. All of these different cultures, foods, ethnicities, and religions came together and mixed.Religious pluralism is especially popular. It says that all religions are equally valid and valuable and are to be accepted. The central figure in pluralism is tolerance. There is nothing demanded of you. There are no arguments over dogma. Everyone can go to Heaven… until there is a terrorist, and then he can’t. When something comes along and says it has the truth, it can’t be true.A house divided against itself cannot stand. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t make sense.
Naturalism – There is nothing beyond just the physical universe. There is nothing outside of the universe and nothing outside of it is needed to explain the universe.A couple tried to have doctors and psychitrists determine if they were truly in love and could get married based on their brain patterns. That is the epitome of naturalism.Naturalists say that religion is useless.The problem with naturalism is that there’s too much that isn’t explained by what’s in the box, by what’s in the physical universe.
Therapeutic moralism, quaint moralism – This is especially held in the southern part of our country. God withholds blessing from the bad and gives blessings to the good, but this is a chaotic, disgruntled, grumpy God.You are the main character here, and God is merely supporting you.Paul says that quaint moralism is the worst. It destroys you. When you make a list of things not to do, you’re making yourself God. God is your cosmic puppet. You do some good things, and he has to respond to you.I drove by all of these old churches in my hometown, huge churches with no one in the parking lot. The problem is quaint moralism. The average doubter and seeker intrinsically knows the ridiculousness of moralism. If I do 2,800,000 bad things but 2,800,001 good things, but God is going to be happy with me? That’s absurd.
There are roughly 200 million people in the US that claim to have some sort of Christian story, but really they have their own story and just have some nice Christian stuff on top. When you dig, it’s not the Gospel. We’re humanists during the week, but on Sunday we’re Christians. We’re legalists with Christian stuff on top. It’s our sermons, our parenting strategies…
The Gospel to us is a best a paradigm shift. If you don’t horde your stuff and start sharing, God will bless you. It’s just a surface change. It’s not in your heart.
This leaves us with one of two options.
There are a lot of cultural Christians that aren’t saved. That aren’t truly born again.
Or there is an inseparable divide between their heart and mind that is never bridged by the Gospel. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a lawyer say there’s no relation between my church and my law practice. Schaeffer has this to say: Christianity is not a series of truths in the plural but a Truth with a capital T.
I have great hope, great hope for the church, for the Gospel… Why? Because we have been entrusted with the most powerful thing in existence, the power of God. The Gospel is powerful. It doesn’t need to be defended, just let out of the cage.
The Gospel is dependent on Jesus and his completed work.
We teach our folks creation, fall, redemption, restoration. And that’s great, but something has to come before that. We have to teach something that powerfully breaks people out of their moralism, their naturalism, their pluralism, their hedononism.
Plato’s cave metaphor: Imagine people were chained facing a wall and had only ever seen shadows cast by a fire. Imagine they were set free and turned around to see the fire. Imagine how amazed they would be by the sight of the fire. Now imagine someone took them outside the cave, and they saw all of creation, they saw the sun. Imagine their wonder now.
Jesus is the Sun. He is the one that brings light. With the rising of this sun we begin to understand what reality is. Why? He is the image of the invisible God, the radiance of the glory of God, the exact imprint of God, the one holding the universe together by his very word.
When men and women encounter him, everything changes.
This happened to Saul. His desire for fame and glory faded away. He encountered the king and the power of the king. He was instrumental in bringing down the Roman empire.
When you’re in Christ, it’s changing all of your reality. Your past, present and future is redeemed. You are in him. Everything he has done you have done. He lived a perfect life, and you have lived a perfect life.
This message changes the heart, mind, and soul of a person. When this happens, old stories fall away. New stories develop.
So how does this define what we think about abortion, racism, sexuality.
A rationalist says you are just the rising of animalistic urges.
A legalist says there’s a written code: Don’t engage in sexuality until your married, so just stop it.
But the Gospel says there’s a great king who created you in his image and likeness, and he created you for a promise, for covenant. HE created you male and female to bring together in a beautiful covenant. It’s a signpost of the glory of God. And it’s worship of the Most High God.
If you’re a pluralist, the idea is that you’re equal to other people, and so you ought not treat them badly.
If you’re a legalist, you say you shouldn’t treat other people badly, so stop it.
But the Gospel says that there will be a day when people of every tounge, tribe, and nation will stand before the King and you will look around and realize that they are all brothers and sisters and sons and daughters of the Most High God. And I would never mistreat my brother and sister. And suddenly it’s bigger than just don’t do that. I begin to organize a church that works to solve these problems. We want to worship the King by loving his sons and daughters.
If you’re a naturalists, who cares? It’s just a hunk of tissue.
If you’re a legalist. It’s the same old drum. Just don’t.
I’d like to submit to you that as the people of God we’ve taken the easy way for far too long. We’ve tried to just change policy. Should we do that? Yes. But that’s not the end of the process. That’s the beginning.
We’re not the first ones to deal with this. In Roman culture, infanticide was acceptable. The Christians said they would not do that because those babies were created in the image of God and were beautiful. But they didn’t stop there, they began to search for the places where people would abandon their children and families would take them in. And the church would support it. And people hated them for it, but they hadn’t seen anything like it.
If we’re going to be hated, let us be hated for our brotherly love above all things. If we’re going to be hated, let us be hated because we’re too sacrificial. If we’re going to be hated, let it be because we refuse to allow any child anywhere to be an orphan. That will give us an audience with the world we haven’t had in 1700 years.
I stood outside the White House last night as a mass of people chanted “U-S-A” and “Na, na, na, na; na, na, na na; hey, hey, hey; good-bye.” It was as if I was experiencing an Olympic victory and a Final Four rout at the same time. People waved flags and dressed in costume. There was singing and dancing and cheering.
To be honest, it reminded me of scenes of Muslim extremists dancing in the streets after the 9/11 attacks.
It was the celebration of death.
The Christian response to the killing of Osama bin Laden must stand against that. It must not be jubilation but sorrow, sorrow at the death of a man created in the image of God, a man who by all accounts did not know Christ.
Now, before I get pigeonholed as a terrorist sympathizer, let me clarify that I am not attempting to make a value judgment as to whether or not the American government should have killed Osama bin Laden. I personally believe their actions were justified and am grateful for the Navy Seals and CIA agents who risked their lives, but that gets into a debate about pacificism, the appropriate use of force, just war, et cetera, going far beyond what I can possibly cover in this post.
I merely want to examine what our attitude as Christians should be, and it doesn’t matter if you are a pacifist, anarchist, militarist, or pragmatist, we must express sorrow at the violent end of a man created in God’s image and loved by him, even as we are relieved and perhaps even jubilant at the end of his reign of terror.
As we read Scripture we find over and over again this affirmation that we are created in the image of God. It is this possession of a reflection of the divine that gives a man worth. Surely this image is corrupted. We do not reflect God as we should, as we were designed to. Perhaps this reflection is especially dim in some, but we all maintain some glimmer of it, presenting to the world a piece of the divine. And the violent end of any part of the image of God is a somber occasion.
Bin Laden’s death serves to remind us that we are all sinners in need of grace, that “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. … [But] while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 3:10b-12, 5:6-8).
And it was this same Christ who commanded us “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” (Matthew 5:44b-46a)
Scripture makes it abundantly evident that no matter how evil a man, how much relief we may feel at his death, the Christian response to such an end is sorrow, perhaps not the same unadulterated sorrow that we feel at the passing of most, but sorrow nonetheless.
Thoughts? Do you agree with me? Disagree? Let me know in the comments.
Pastor Heather Zempel dives head first into the mess of community, drawing on 10+ years of experience on staff at NCC, a masters in biological engineering, and many attempts at intentionally creating community among small groups of people. I cannot recommend this book to you highly enough.