Thursday, October 5, 2017

10 Answered Prayers

As of September 7th, we have lived in Tanzania for five years! Usually this time of year we put out a “Year In Review” video, but this year with all the travel back and forth to Mwanza, chronic illness, and finally bringing our daughter home, we just haven’t been able to commit the time to making a video. However, I do want to take a moment to celebrate and share all that God has done since we arrive back in Tanzania in January. Truthfully, we felt pretty overwhelmed at that point, because so many needs, dreams, and timelines flew at us as soon as we hit the ground. While I have seen God do amazing things here in the past, I must admit that I am human, and sometimes I get scared. I get scared of failing, of not being able to fulfill promises, of letting people down… So in January I started a prayer list. These prayers have often lasted for many months, because sometimes my timing is not God’s and progress is slow. However, as I look back today, I can see how God was at work and answered each one of the prayers.

  1. Majid’s Desk and Bathroom--In 2016, we were grateful to see a young boy named Majid walk for the first time thanks to many of your donations. We also started the year with enough money to enroll him in Agape Lutheran English Medium Primary School. However, in January I received word that the school could not admit him unless money could be found to build a special desk to accommodate his leg braces and a bathroom that was handicap accessible. By God’s grace, one of our partner families stepped in and provided the money for the desk and the bathroom. Majid has now almost completed kindergarten and will be entering Standard 1 next year!
  2. Deaconess Celebration—At the end of January, we
    learned that the next class of deaconesses would be consecrated in early March. In the past, we’ve given new Tanzanian deaconesses handmade deaconess stoles in honor of the occasion. However, given that the stoles hadn’t been made yet and still had to be shipped across the world, we weren’t sure if this gift would make it in time. We are so grateful to Deaconess Ann Maki and the members at First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Longmont, Colorado for jumping into action and getting the stoles made. They were sent from the U.S. on February 17th, but we weren’t sure they would arrive in time for the consecration on March 11th. In the past, most packages had taken about a month to arrive. However, they did arrive in time! With a week to spare! The graduation/consecration weekend was a joyous celebration, made even more joyous by friends in the U.S. and a speedy delivery.
  3. Retreat— Sometimes God answers prayers that we didn’t
    even know we needed to pray. While we had a marvelous time with family and friends during our fall furlough in the U.S. last year, we never really had time away for spiritual rest and to reflect on what God is doing in our lives. We were delighted when the LCMS invited us to their East African missionaries’ retreat in Kenya, but quickly realized that we could not afford the travel and hotel costs. We sent our regrets explaining why we would not be able to attend. A few weeks later we received word that because other guests wouldn’t be able to make use of their stipend, the LCMS could cover all of our travel expenses! When we mentioned the trip to Global Lutheran Outreach, we found out that they had recently established a fund to help missionaries retreat for times of rest. They were thus able to help pay for our hotel costs! The week away turned out to be a beautiful and much needed time to be spiritually fed, to network with other missionaries, and make memories together as a family.
  4. World Federation of Diakonia— Last year I began to 
    dream about sending two Tanzanian deaconesses to the World Federation of Diakonia conference that is held every four years in different parts of the world. This year’s conference was in Chicago, and my deaconess community was helping to host it. Having been to this conference before, I knew it would be an amazing opportunity for some of my Tanzanian colleagues, but when we returned to Tanzania, I learned that the discounted registration ended in March! The thought of raising $3,300 for each person before that date was nerve-wracking. Then, toward the end of February, I realized the importance of having Bishop Makala in attendance to help with the interpreting, and so that he was on the same page as the diaconal leaders and could collaborate with them when they returned to Tanzania. So now I was looking at $9,900 to raise! However, God brought forward some wonderfully generous donors. We were able to register Bishop Makala, Deaconess Matrida Sanga, and Director of Education Grace Mutabuzi before the discounted registration deadline, and by the second week of May, the trip was fully funded. Then we ran into some snags in getting Matrida’s passport, praying desperately that it would arrive in time. It did! Little by little, all the details—how to get U.S. visas, how to get them a hotel during their long layover, who would pick them up, who would drive them, etc.—came together.  As I watched (via pictures) our colleagues interact with the servant leaders from around the world, my spirit leapt for joy. The whole trip truly felt miraculous, and our friends came back spiritually rejuvenated and bursting with new ideas to integrate into ministry here.
  5. Laboratory for Mwanza Lutheran Secondary School—In
    January we also received an email from our friend Bishop Gulle of the East of Lake Victoria Diocese concerning the Mwanza Lutheran Secondary School. In the past we had connected them with partners to help them build two more classrooms and bathrooms for the new school. However, now the government was requiring a completed laboratory before the school could open, and Bishop Gulle implored us for assistance again. They had already completed the walls and roof for the building, but didn’t have the money to finish it. Since we were already doing another fundraiser for the Diakonia conference, we told him we wouldn’t be able to help at this time. However, a few weeks later, our friends at St. John Lutheran Church in Cypress, TX, who had previously been instrumental in getting the classrooms and bathrooms built, asked about progress of the school. We told them about the request, and they agreed to match any donations that came in up to $7,000. However, this summer they took that one step further when their Vacation Bible School raised the remainder of the money needed to build the lab. The lab is currently under construction now and should be ready in time for the new school year in January! Praise the Lord!
  6. A New School for Baraka—We have been walking along side
    our friend Baraka and his family for almost our entire time here in Tanzania. Since he was born without eyes and experiences some developmental disabilities due to early life seizures, he didn’t start preschool until he was age 7. We were able to get him into the Lutheran preschool here and hired an aide to help him. However, after two years, it was clear he had outgrown the preschool. When we arrived back in Tanzania, the search began for a new school. There are very few schools for the blind here in Tanzania, and even fewer that provide boarding, and fewer still will accept kids with developmental disabilities. We and Baraka’s parents called numerous places and met many dead ends. Finally in March, one school in Dar Es Salaam agreed to meet with him, so we sent Baraka and his mother. They told us that they couldn’t accept him yet because he didn’t have all the skills he would need to board. Therefore, his family began intentionally working with him on that list of skills. Then in July, we learned of an even better opportunity at a school closer to home. We sent Baraka and his mom to the school, but their trip was delayed when Baraka fell ill with malaria. Finally in August, they met the school administrators who agreed to accept him at Mwereni Intergrated School for the Blind in Moshi. Not only that, but they also said they would be willing to teach Baraka’s younger brother Amani, who was also born without eyes, when the time comes. Praise the Lord! Baraka has an aunt that lives near the school, and she reports that he is loving his new school.
  7. Michael’s Medical Bills— While we were in the U.S, we
    were able to get Michael into St. Louis Children’s Hospital’s International Adoption Center. This center particularly looks at children’s vaccine levels, tests for parasites and international illnesses that other doctors miss, and gives parents the support of an occupational therapist. We were so grateful because they determined that Michael had only had the measles vaccine, not the full MMR, and also found and treated a parasite in Michael’s digestive system. However, we got back to Tanzania, the bills started rolling in, and we discovered that our insurance company was not willing to cover all of these tests because they were outside of normal care. They lumped all tests into “wellness.” Since medical tests are expensive in U.S. hospitals and the insurance company only covered $500 of wellness, we soon received over $5,000 worth of bills we couldn’t pay! We sent in an appeal, but the insurance company still refused. We mentioned our plight on Facebook, and a dear friend Liz Neuf mentioned that she worked right next to the billing office at St. Louis Children’s. She put us in contact with someone, who put us in contact with another person, and we continued waiting. Finally in June, we learned that the hospital was going to comp us the remaining balance of our bills! We breathed such a sigh of relief and thanked God for Liz and all the people at the hospital that made it happen.
  8. A Safer Computer Lab— When we returned to school in
    January, we learned that the air-conditioning units for the computer lab had finally arrived. Thus, Eric and Sundi began packing up the lab for the installation of the air-conditioners and ceiling tiles. Because of setbacks in worker schedules, the room was finally finished in March, or so we thought... The first day Eric had the students in the room, one of the students mentioned that the computer—which was turned off—was hot. Sure enough, there were 240 volts coursing through the computer, which led Eric to discover that some short-cuts had been taken in the wiring when the computer lab was built last year. If he had not discovered this, someone could have been seriously injured or the building could have caught fire. We thank God for safety and that the situation could be remedied. Eric supervised the rewiring of over half of the lab. The electrical work was completed in May, and Eric has since been able to network all the computers and make the room as safe as possible. The students and teachers love being able to use the lab for study, practical applications, and research. 
  9. Work and Resident Permits— The story of these permits is
    literally a two-year journey. Here’s the briefer overview:
    - September 2015:  We applied for our resident permit renewals September 2015 and received the receipt that serves as the permit until the official one is issued. 
    - March 2016: We had still not received our permits, and a lawyer friend told us that we had waited an abnormally long time, even for Tanzania. We returned to the immigration office. They advised that we submit our papers to them again. 
    - March-August 2016: We experienced many more months of confused, frustrating meetings. Bishop Makala even came with us to the office a few times. We couldn’t get any straight answers.
    - August 2016: We were in Dar Es Salaam applying for Michael’s passport. We asked the immigration advocate helping us with the passport to check on our resident permit case. A few weeks later we learned from her that the original papers had never been received by the Dar Es Salaam office. Our papers from March 2016 had been received but shelved, because a law was passed in December 2015 that said that missionaries now needed work permits.
    - September 2016: Our advocate Rose helped us apply for work permits and resident permits again. 
    - January 2017: With Rose’s help, we received the work permits one week before we were supposed to return from the U.S. to Tanzania. That permit, along with our receipt, was enough to at least get us into the country. Praise the Lord!
    - January 2017-May 2017: We faced many obstacles—papers lost, people on maternity leave, people transferred to new offices, etc.  Rose was just as frustrated as we were.
    - May 2017: I (Linda) finally received my permit. Eric’s was still MIA
    - July 2017: We learned that when they had printed my permit, immigration archived both files without printing Eric’s. They were attempting to find the files.
    - August 2017: We flew to Dar Es Salaam to hand-deliver all the documents that would have been in the file if it had been found (thank God we had made copies!). However, then because the receipt of payment for our application had expired--being two years after our original application—we had to pay again and supply new updated documents for his permit. 
    - September 20, 2017: I finally picked up Eric’s permit myself in Dar, as well as the permits for new GLO missionaries Amber and Austin Reed. Thanks to our agent Rose, who we wouldn’t have found if we hadn’t been through this whole saga, the Reeds’ whole process—work permits and resident permits—took only 4 months. We have learned a lot through it all and we will never again attempt this process without Rose’s help. 
  10. Bringing Julia Home— And last but not least, we have
    endured a long prayerful journey to bring our daughter home. Our home study was conducted in September 2016 before our furlough, but due to circumstances outside of our control, we didn’t receive the home study report until April 1st. Then we learned that the Commissioner of the Ministry of Social Welfare was no longer housed in the Dar Es Salaam office. His office is now in Dodoma, a 7-hour bus ride from Dar. Thus, every single document that needs his signature must travel between the two cities, delaying the process by weeks/months. We braced ourselves for another long wait. Finally, on July 14th we received the letter to go and identify who our child would be. Long-story short, our daughter Julia only became eligible for adoption a few weeks before we received that letter. As painful as the wait was, had we received the letter any earlier, we may not now have our beautiful daughter. It took another two months and two trips to Dar Es Salaam to get the letter that gave us permission to bring her home. However, our joy was complete when on September 22nd, our little girl came home. 

Looking back even through the really tough times we can see God’s hand clearly at work. We want to say a special “thank you” to all of you have prayed along with us and partnered with us in these ministries. You are an answer to our prayers. The ministry continues as we head into Year Six. We are now praying a whole new batch of prayers, such as finding appropriate housing for new GLO missionary colleagues Amber and Austin, finishing construction of the clinic at our school, and finalizing the Tanzanian side of Julia’s adoption. We hope to be able to share many more answered prayers with you all in person Fall 2018. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

My Double Life

No, I am not a spy. While Eric and I did enjoy McGyver, Alias, Superman, etc. as young people, we don’t weekly assume alter-egos that jet off to exotic places for secret missions. Yet, as we packed and prepared at the end of our most recent furlough, I did have the distinct realization that I lead a double life.

Tanzania has been our home now for over 4 years, longer than I have lived anywhere except my childhood home in Richardson, TX. Our house here is a place that we have restored and decorated as a couple. It is filled with memories, including the majority of our memories as a family of three. Here we have meaningful work and our own routine. We have a community here that we love and who loves and supports us.  Whenever we return to the U.S., we live in the homes of others, adapt to their schedules and routines, and try to squeeze 1.5-2 years’ worth of presentations, doctors’ appointments, deep conversations, and memories into a few brief months. Furlough is exhausting. However, it is also exhilarating, because the U.S. is also home. We are back in the homes of our youth, which hold a tremendous amount of wonderful memories. Suddenly we can dive into conversations in our native tongue and therefore reach different depths of conversation. We can talk with people who have known and loved us for decades. We generally have a clearer understanding of cultural norms. We blend in and are not immediately identifiable as outsiders. There is something truly refreshing about that.

Two countries--both very much home. In each place, I am myself, and yet in each place, I am also different. Sometimes it almost feels like there are two Lindas—U.S. Linda and Tanzania Linda. Let me elaborate.

U.S. Linda

Tanzania Linda
My Alias
Linda Funke in the U.S. is Linda with a short I, and Funke pronounced like “funky.”
Linda Funke in Tanzania is pronounced “Leenda Foonkay.” This Linda is also called “Madam Linda” at school or “Mama Michael” by the community as parents are also given the name of their first child. Eric is also called “Baba Michael” fairly regularly.

My Gear
As soon as we return to the U.S., this Linda digs through the bins in Eric’s parents’ basement, unpacking items that serve my American persona—blue jeans, 120-volt hairdryer, skirts that show my knees, jewelry, a variety of shoes including boots and high heels, coats, hats, scarves, etc. U.S. Linda appreciates a comfy pair of jeans and enjoys trying out new styles. U.S. Linda almost never has anything tailored because of the expense. U.S. Linda enjoys occasionally wearing heals and being closer to her husband’s height.

As soon as we return to Tanzania, this Linda pulls out dresses with beautiful vibrant pattern, handmade to fit me. Tanzania Linda also loves the freedom of long skirts. Yes, you read that right—freedom. While they may not be suitable for more strenuous activities, for everyday activities that require sitting on the floor with my son, long skirts have a lot more give than the average American jeans and don’t require a belt to keep them from riding too low. Tanzania Linda almost always wears sandals, because they are comfortable and she doesn’t want to tower over her Tanzanian friends.

U.S. Linda uses cards to pay for most everything and may look a little foolish figuring out how the whole chip thing works. U.S. Linda also appreciates how you can find a lot of what you are shopping for in one or two stores. U.S. Linda can easily pick up random items at a nearby store on the way home from the day’s activities.
Tanzania Linda pays for everything using cash (which you may or may not be able to get at the ATM that day). Tanzania Linda goes to many open-air markets and little shops looking for items and may or may not find them. However, shop keepers are also often willing to go and get something for you while you wait if they know of another shopkeeper who has it. Tanzania Linda also is a bit more organized when shopping because town is 30 minutes away and we only go once a week.

Personality and Activities
U.S. Linda tries to make the most of every opportunity to be with people, and therefore is more likely to watch TV with family, go to playdates, concerts, shows and museums, go out to dinner with friends, etc.
Communicating and recognizing cultural nuances requires more attention here, so Tanzania Linda tends to be more introverted. She makes more time for reflective activities such as reading, writing, listening to podcasts, and going for walks in the neighborhood.

U.S. Linda so appreciates being able to eat out, having many foods pre-cut/prepared, and having a huge variety of foods. Seriously, every item of food has dozens of options—vegetables, fruits, ice cream, popcorn, milk, cheese, etc. We also love being home with our extended families where we usually don’t have to cook and can enjoy the company of other loved ones in the evening.
Tanzania Linda appreciates that there aren’t a lot of hidden additives in her foods. While it takes at least forty-five minutes to an hour to prepare a meal here, most of the ingredients are extremely fresh. There are not as many options here, but much of the produce they do have is so much better than in the U.S. You have not truly seen a “jumbo” avocado until that avocado reaches the size of avocados here. I have not met a banana in the U.S. as sweet as the ones we can find here.

Worship Life
U.S. Linda travels around to many churches during our visits. During our four months of furlough, we worshipped with 15 different congregations. We enjoyed the diversity of services, the ability to have other family members help us with Michael, the ease of listening more closely to the service in our native tongue, and the beautiful music with a wide variety of instruments and intricate choral parts.
Tanzania Linda generally worships at our small church in Mwadui and is accustomed to services going at least 2-2.5 hours. Tanzania Linda loves the dancing and the beauty of the human voice in the acapella music. She also loves how everyone brings what they have for offering and the produce and goods are auctioned off after service. Here we may either be distracted by Michael or struggling with the language barrier, so we supplement with sermon podcasts in English on Monday night. Here in Tanzania I also have time for a women’s Bible study so I can dig a little deeper with a small group.

My heart is divided, which is the nature of having two homes, two lives. In each place, there are struggles. In each place, there are people we love and aspects of our lives that we treasure. Having a double life isn’t easy, but right now I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Reflections on The Poisonwood Bible-- Part 3

The main purpose of The Poisonwood Bible is to bring to light how the domination of Western culture and political forces in the colonial times, and even today, has degraded the dignity and hope of Africans, particularly in the Congo. I am grateful for books like this one that help us to see history from new perspectives and hopefully help us to learn from our mistakes. While not the main message, the book does contain secondary messages that call various aspects of Christianity and the missionary life into question. I have recommended this book to other missionaries for that very reason and will continue to do so. I think it is important for us to be intentional about what we do or don’t do, to examine our own motives, and to see how our beliefs might be misinterpreted, or worse, twisted in ways that hurt others.

At the same time, missionaries already suffer under the weight of stereotypes, and I fear that this book might reinforce those stereotypes. Stereotypes typically have a grain of truth. There are numerous stories of missionary families like the Price family who have done extremely harmful things in communities in the past. Even in the present, I have encountered well-intentioned projects that didn’t really hit the heart of the need and weren’t sustainable. There are times when missionaries get sidetracked by their own agendas and forget to really listen to the people around them. I have seen missionary money create dependencies and lasting problems in communities.[1] I have encountered missionaries who saw the world in black and white, who came to teach and to show people how to live and believe rightly, but could never figure out how to work within their host culture. They left disillusioned and bitter, spewing venomous words towards the people in their host country and towards other missionaries living there. There is some truth in the stereotype. And yet, the stereotype leaves so much out…

In 2000, Robert Woodberry began to study the link between Protestant Christianity and democracy as a graduate student of sociology at University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill. He traveled around the world collecting data, and he discovered something remarkable. He observed that countries that were open to missionaries had better health outcomes and better access to democracy over time. Woodberry knew his research was controversial, so he continued to add variables such as climate, health, location, accessibility, natural resources, colonial power, and disease prevalence into the statistical model, but the connection between Protestant missionary work and global democracy remained significant. In 2005, Woodberry received a half-million dollar grant, hired fifty research assistants, and set up a database at the University of Texas. The results remained consistent: “Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.” He submitted his research to American Political Science Review in 2010. The editors were skeptical of his findings, so they asked for more evidence. He provided 192 pages of supporting material. His research was published by American Political Science Review in 2012 and won four major awards. So far Woodberry’s discovery has been supported by over a dozen studies conducted by other researchers.[2]

It turns out that even Congo, the setting of The Poisonwood Bible, had missionary advocates. Two Baptist missionaries, John and Alice Harris, took pictures of the atrocities in Belgium Congo described in The Poisonwood Bible and smuggled the photos out of the country. They then traveled around the United States and Britain raising awareness and creating public pressure to end the violence. Many missionaries throughout history have become activists against injustice.

There are many cross-cultural missionaries throughout history that I admire. I am equally inspired by the many local Christian leaders who daily show love to those around them, and I am truly grateful that in many cases the role of missionary has shifted from leader to partner in ministry. I love the growing diversity among missionaries. And I pray that as the world continues to become more and more of a global community, churches can unite together to fulfill our call to “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

[1] A great book on this topic is “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

[2] Much more information about Woodberry’s research can be found at The article Woodberry wrote can be found at

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Reflections on The Poisonwood Bible-- Part 2

In my last post, I explored some of the reasons why Nathan Price of The Poisonwood Bible never should have entered Congo as a missionary in the first place. In this post, I want to explore some of the theological differences between what he and his family believe and what I believe. To be fair, each of these topics could be blog posts in their own rights, but I will try to keep my thoughts somewhat brief.

Conqueror vs. Caretaker. The very first Bible passage quoted in the book is Genesis 1:28: “And God said unto them, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.’” Then in the very first chapter the speaker, Nathan’s wife, Orleanna, poetically muses over how the West came to conquer Africa and how her husband Nathan was likewise the conqueror. The way the verse in Genesis is used, one might feel justified in “subduing” a continent, a wilderness, a wife, a family. However, that is never how I have viewed this passage.  Throughout the Bible, it is clear that all things actually belong to God.  For example, Deuteronomy 10:14 declares, "Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the highest heavens, the earth and all that is in it.” Psalm 24:1 states “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” and this phrase is again reiterated in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 10:26. Similar statements can also be found in Genesis 14:19-22, Exodus 9:29, Exodus 19:5, Leviticus 25:23, Job 41:11, Psalm 50:10-12, Psalm 74:16, Psalm 89:11, Psalm 95:4-5, Psalm 104:24, Haggai 2:8. Therefore we are not owners, and we are not conquerors. We are stewards--caretakers called to value, nourish, prune, restore, and protect the world around us. There is much Biblical justification for showing love and appreciation for the natural world and the people around us, but Nathan Price missed it all.

Religion of judgement vs. Religion of grace. When Nathan Price and his family entered the community, the people of Kilanga welcomed them warmly, killing a goat, and preparing a feast. This was Nathan’s first opportunity to address the people, and what does he start with? He shamed the women whose breasts were exposed—which was appropriate to the culture— taking the story of Lot out of context in an attempt to justify his message. And all I could think was “Wow. He completely missed the point. What is critical to the message of Christ?” When Jesus approached people, especially those who eagerly showed him welcome, he led with love. He led with gratitude. He did not hold himself to be above others, but served those around him. The only group to whom he expressed anger and judgement were the Pharisees and teachers who thought they were above their neighbors—the Nathan Prices of that era. Yet, even among that group, some came to realize that the primary message of Jesus was love, a love not bound by anything we have done or could ever do, a love given freely as a gift.

Using shame to change behavior vs. Behavior change as a result of relationship. The destructive nature of shame and of using shame to try to change behavior has become increasingly clear to me over the years. I have especially appreciated and highly recommend the research and writing of Brene Brown. Nathan Price regularly used shame tactics to change people’s behavior, and again, I think Nathan Price missed the point. Christianity is not a list of things that one must do to please God—pray a certain prayer (check), get baptized in the river (check), go to church (check), read the Bible (check), memorize certain verses (check), dress a certain way (check), end polygamy (check)[1]… As Pastor Ben Stuart once said, “That is not Christianity. That is list-ianity.” Christianity is not a list. It is a relationship. It is understandable how Nathan Price missed this distinction, because there are many churches and even whole denominations who have lost this distinction. God is not “watching us,” as the Price children suspected, waiting for us to mess up. God is loving us, grieving with us, rejoicing with us, and longing for us to know him better. In its truest form, Christianity is simply a relationship with God/Jesus/Holy Spirit. Do our actions change in various ways as a result of that relationship? Of course! That happens in any meaningful relationship. The more time you spend with your best friend, for example, the more you may start to use the same expressions and act similarly. I do not pray because I am supposed to. I pray because relationships generally do not go well without communication. I do not read the Bible because I feel guilty if I don’t. I read the Bible to discover what words God might want to speak into my life. I do not go to church because I am being forced. I go because I know that as a human I was built for community and I need the encouragement of others in my faith. God is not a fan of coercion and does not want a relationship founded on fear and guilt. God wants a relationship based on love and trust. I become highly skeptical of any religious organization or person that wants to shame me into something. My God does not want to shame me. My God relieves me of shame and tells me I am beloved. I do not want to be pushed, guilted, or shamed; I seriously doubt anyone does. I want to be inspired J

Prosperity gospel vs. Actual gospel. Prosperity gospel is the idea that if you pray the right way, give the right way, and do the right things, God will “bless” you, meaning that health, wealth, success and happiness will follow. We see this ideology in both the U.S. and Tanzania. Here in Tanzania there is even a church called “Winners Church.” The concept is rampant in many Christian circles, and it is completely false. This concept is not the gospel—good news—of Jesus. Jesus did not experience a world without trouble. I mean, seriously, he was violently killed on a cross. Likewise, none of his disciples became rich, many of them were beaten, and all but one were killed for their faith. The belief that only good things happen to good people is more closely akin to karma than to Christianity. On the night before Jesus was killed, Jesus shared with his disciples how they would be scattered and how he would die. He said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Trouble, pain, and suffering are parts of this life. The good news is that there is a peace in God that transcends life’s circumstances, and there is a hope in Jesus that cannot die.  And yet, Nathan Price believed fervently that he would have success on earth if he just followed the magical formula. He believed that any problems that befell the Congolese were because of their lack of faith. He believed nothing bad could happen in his life because he was “doing God’s work.” He did not heed the warnings of others or ever consider that he might need to change his approach. As such, the people of Kilanga followed suit, and as soon as trouble befell the Price family, particularly in the death of their youngest child, the people assumed that Jesus could not be trusted. Nathan had metaphorically built his house on sand, and as soon as trouble came, his weak spiritual foundation collapsed.

The Bible as punishment vs. The Bible as a love story. Whenever Nathan Price wanted to discipline his children, he forced them to write 100 Bible verses with the last verse driving home whatever point he wanted to make. Or if he was in a particularly foul mood, he would drive the point home with his hand or belt. That’s enough to make any child hate the Bible. It is exceptionally hard for children to see God as a loving father when their own father expresses no love. It is impossible for children to see the Bible as a love story when it is used as punishment. Yet, it is a love story. Truly, there are many Biblical stories that are confusing. There are many passages that can only be understood in a certain historical context and with a more nuanced sense of the original language and culture. And honestly, there are parts I wish I could just forget about. However, this I know. The Bible was never meant to be a rulebook for the “morality police.” It was always meant to be the story of the love of our God. It tells of a Creator who never gives up on His creation, no matter how far it strays, no matter how many times it says “I don’t trust you. I will take care of myself and do things my own way.” As Pastor Truemper, one of my Valpo professors used to say, “God loves you, for Christ’s sake, and He will never let you go.” If you ever want to read the Bible in the form of a novel to get to the heart of the message, I highly recommend “The Book of God” by Walter Wangerin Jr.

Working for God’s favor vs. Trusting that you already have it. Throughout the book Nathan tries to overcome his survivor’s guilt by “saving souls.” The entire time he was trying to earn God’s approval. Many religions have this concept of do enough good and then you will get God’s approval, get into heaven, or reach some higher plane of existence, but that is not Christianity. If there is anything that makes Christianity unique from other religions, I feel it is that you don’t have to earn God’s approval. God loved us enough to reach out to us through Jesus and to do whatever it took to bridge the gap between us and God. All God wants from us is a relationship, for us to trust that He loves us and to let Him into our lives. A beautiful book on this topic is “The Cure: What if God isn’t who you think He is and neither are you?” by Bill Thrall, Bruce McNicol, and John Lynch. The book presents an allegorical tale of a person who comes to a fork in the road. One side says “Pleasing God,” while the other side says “Trusting God.” Which side would you choose? Nathan Price definitely chose “pleasing God” which led to a life of mask-wearing and sin-management instead of living by faith with the assurances of God’s love and grace. His wife, Orleanna Price, also felt this burden. Even when she returned to the U.S., she felt she had to hide her hurt; she felt that she could never be vulnerable. Unfortunately, even today the church is not always the best at allowing people to be real and vulnerable, but that is what we are called to do! We are all in the same boat, and the sooner we can take off our masks, the sooner we can experience the fullness of God’s love and share it with others.

Cringing at “unearned blessings” vs. Being thankful for every gift. Nathan Price felt that he had to earn every good thing that came into his life. He could not accept that God could give gifts purely out of love, with no strings attached. As an example, he became ashamed of sex with his wife instead of seeing it as a beautiful gift. He also felt that he had to completely detach himself from material goods. Because of his sense of guilt, he did not feel that he deserved joy or laughter. He could not take pleasure in the simple gifts—a beautifully decorated plate, eggs from his neighbors, the sighting of a kopi in forest, the laughter of his children… So much of his life might have been different if he had been able to embrace all the gifts of his Creator.

People as projects vs. People as people. Nathan Price has one goal—“saving the lost,” particularly through baptism in the river. It did not seem to matter to him whether or not the person actually understood or believed anything he said. He didn’t care to find out what they believed or how they saw the world. Nor did he care to find out why the people were so averse to going to the river (crocodiles).  He knew nothing about the people around him and did nothing to serve them or show them love. All he cared about was the end goal. Personally, I have never seen my role as “saving people from hell.” Good-grief, that’s a lot of pressure, and the whole notion of that is fear-based. Fear is not how I want to live my life nor what I want to impose on anyone else. In the book, one of the Price children wondered aloud what might happen to all the people who didn’t know about God. I can tell others about the peace I have in God’s promises for my future, but I will not tell anyone definitively what happens post-death or what has happened to one of their loved ones. There is so much we don’t know.  I am not God. I love how Phillip Yancey phrases it when asked about a similar topic, “I do not know the answer to your questions. But I believe strongly that at the end of time no one will be able to stand before God and say ‘You were unfair!’ However history settles out, it will settle on the side of justice tempered by mercy.”[2] Nathan Price could never see the people in Kilanga as more than a project. What might have happened if Nathan had seen the people in his community as people, as neighbors, as friends, as fellow passengers on a journey? I want to walk with people. I want to share in their joys and sorrows and share my joys and sorrows with them. Of course, in the context of our openly Christian school, I regularly share about my faith, but I also admit that I am still a work in process and always learning. I do not have all the answers, but I do want to offer what I have experienced and found to be true in my limited time on this earth. I unapologetically believe that the Holy Spirit works in people’s lives to bring hope and healing. I’ve seen it—in my own life and in the lives of others. When people are looking for hope, I am more than happy to share about the source of my hope. That being said, being a Christian or believing what I believe is not a requirement for my love or friendship.

In my final post, I’ll talk more about the reputation of missionaries—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Stay tuned…

[1] As a side note, I think cross-cultural missionaries have to be exceptionally discerning about what aspects of culture they want to see changed and why. I think this is a where a lot of things have gone wrong historically. When we try to transplant a certain way of worship, a certain way of dressing, a certain way of speaking, a certain way of interacting, we might just miss our core mandate to love. Change takes a lot of time and a lot of relationship. For example, while there are many reasons that polygamy can be damaging-- affairs due to lack of attention, spreading of diseases, jealousy and abuse among wives, etc.— encouraging an already married man to abandon some of his wives could be the very opposite of loving. Likewise, I think we always have to consider what aspects of our own culture could use to be changed and what we can learn from our host culture.
[2] Here is the context of that quote-- 
Phillip Yancey’s Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? (38-40): On a trip to Japan I found myself late at night in a pastor’s study in one of the largest churches in Tokyo. I had flown in that morning and had already endured a rigorous day of meetings. I wanted to check into my hotel room and go to sleep, but Japanese hospitality required this courtesy visit.

The pastor pulled out a sheaf of papers and, through an interpreter, told me that during his entire career he had worried over this one issue but was afraid of speaking to anyone about it.

For the next twenty minutes without interruption the pastor poured out the agony he felt over the 99 percent of Japanese who had not accepted Jesus. Would they all burn in hell because of their ignorance? He had heard of theologians who believed in people having a second chance after death and knew the mysterious passage of 1 Peter about Jesus preaching to those in Hades. Some theologians he had read seemed to believe in universal salvation although certain passages in the Bible indicated otherwise. Could I offer him any hope?

Thinking aloud, I mentioned that God causes the sun to rise on the just and the unjust and has no desire that anyone should perish. God’s Son on earth spent his last strength praying for his enemies. We discussed the view of hell presented in C.S. Lewis’s intriguing fantasy The Great Divorce, which shows people like Napoleon who have a second chance after death but opt against it. “Thy will be done,” says God reluctantly to those who make a final rejection.

“I do not know the answer to your questions,” I said at last. “But I believe strongly that at the end of time no one will be able to stand before God and say ‘You were unfair!’ However history settles out, it will settle on the side of justice tempered by mercy.”

Like Job, I reached that conclusion not through observation or argument but through encounter. “Surely God will be able to understand my doubts in a world like this, won’t He?” asked the Dutch prisoner Etty Hillesum from a Nazi concentration camp. I believe God will, in part because God’s revelation to us includes eloquent expressions of those very doubts.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Reflections on The Poisonwood Bible-- Part 1

A few months back a friend recommended the book The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver to me. I had heard of it before from other friends, but last month I finally took the time to read it. It is a fascinating, well-written, tragic story about a fictional missionary family in the Congo in the 1960s. Through this piece of historical fiction, I learned a tremendous amount about the history of Congo. It has given me a lot to think about regarding the West’s contribution to poverty, war, and corruption in many African countries, but it has given me even more to think about as a missionary myself. (Warning: This post will be full of spoilers so if you want to read the book yourself and form your own opinions, stop here).

The word “missionary” often comes with a lot of baggage. In one of my social justice and human diversity classes during grad school, we had many discussions about “trigger words”—those words that immediately bring a visceral reaction when we hear them. My professor openly admitted that “missionary” was one of those words for her. And I get it. There are tragic and true stories of missionaries—some well-meaning but ignorant and some more self-indulgent than well-meaning— doing immeasurable harm in the communities they were called to serve. There are stories of self-righteous, proud missionaries bringing disease and discord, destroying family and social structures in an area, and depriving people of the beautiful, unique aspects of their cultures. Many people immediately associate the word missionary with an “I’m right, you’re wrong” attitude. They hear about a missionary and assume that the person will judge and try to “convert” them. I have personally had a friend of a friend refuse to meet me because he heard that I was a missionary in Africa. As I said, there is a lot of baggage[1] and not completely unjustified.

Nathan Price, the missionary and villain in The Poisonwood Bible, is the archetypical proud missionary who demeans the people of Congo, as well as his own family. I would love to say that he was just a piece of fiction, but I know there have been Nathan Prices in our world and still are to varying extents. For that reason, great anger and sadness welled in my heart as I read about Nathan Price’s abuses. I hate that many people’s experiences with Christians have been largely negative and hurtful. I also hate that at various points in my own walk, I have hurt people. Some such situations are known to me and some I may never know. Because I am imperfect and always learning, I cannot claim to have done it all right in my life, much less in my work in my host culture. Yet, as I read the story, I was also amazed/appalled by how the fictional missionary caricature, Nathan Price, perceived the world and God and by how incredibly different his missionary experience was from my own.

There were so many red flags regarding Nathan Price.
Red Flag #1: He had emotional baggage from being the only surviving member of his unit to escape the Battaan Death March during World War II. Out of survivor’s guilt, he decided to earn God’s love and his way into heaven by “saving souls.” Instead of work as a missionary, he needed extensive therapy and to relearn the basic premise of Christ’s message-- “You can’t and don’t earn your way to heaven. I love you as you are, and want a relationship with you. I will do anything, even die, for that relationship.” Many missionaries these days are required to meet with a counselor before, after, and/or during their time of service, because whatever emotional baggage you carry with you is only heightened when you enter into a new place and culture. Before my missionary service as an HIV educator in Papua New Guinea, I attended a weeklong training where we learned many things about culture, expectations, and potential struggles I might have. I was asked to take four different personality tests and met with a psychologist to discuss the results and to increase my self-awareness. During my time in PNG, I had regular meetings with both American and Papua New Guinean mentors and completed monthly reports to the Education/Formation Director of the Lutheran Deaconess Association. I also met with a counselor for multiple sessions before and after my year in PNG. During my time in Tanzania I have also worked with a counselor via Skype on and off for the last 3 years. I’ve been taught that if you aren’t in a good place emotionally/mentally, you won’t be able to serve your community well. Unfortunately, Nathan Price didn’t have or want that kind of support, and his shame exhibited itself in many forms of abuse, including verbally and physically abusing his wife and children. He did not love the people around them, but only sought to manipulate them so that his own tortured soul could be saved.

Red Flag #2: He did not enter Congo with the blessing of a mission organization. In fact, the mission board rejected his request repeatedly but finally relented to give him a one year post. Thus he had little to no training or accountability. Later in the story, when Congo gained its independence from Belgium, Nathan Price and his family were told directly to leave. Yet Nathan refused and also would not allow his family to leave. As a result, he put their family and community at risk and became a burden to the very people that he was supposed to be serving. We have numerous missionary friends who have had to leave their homes very suddenly, and it is always exceptionally difficult. However, they realized that it is important for an outside source to be able to make that call, especially when children are involved.[2] Accountability, prayer, and support are so important in the work that we do. One of the things we love about our life in Tanzania is that we have multiple layers of accountability and support. We have individuals from eighteen different churches who pray for us and to whom we regularly report via newsletters and visits during furlough. A member of the Global Lutheran Outreach staff comes out to visit us at least once a year and guides us through reflection activities meant to assess our physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual health. What is especially unique to our situation, however, is that our primary accountability is to our Tanzanian colleagues.  We work directly for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania (ELCT); our permits list the ELCT as our employer. This is not always possible in countries with less established churches, but I do think that following the advice of mentors and leaders in one’s host culture is critically important. At school we listen to and act on the priorities of our headmaster, Rev. Nzelu. In regards to community development projects, we listen to the priorities of Bishop Makala and never initiate a project without his blessing. Nathan Price listened to no one—not the mission organization, not the local leaders, not his family.

Red Flag #3: Nathan Price believed in the Apocrypha. For those unfamiliar, the Apocrypha is a collection of writings that have unknown origins and are not generally considered part of Jewish or Christian scriptures.  Sometimes they are included in Jewish scripture or Christian Bibles as interesting and potentially useful texts, but not of the same caliber as other scriptures. Often the Apocrypha is in direct contradiction to texts that have evidence of being written by eye-witnesses and early disciples of Jesus. In the early days of the Christian church, leaders had to determine what would be part of the Christian canon (Bible) and apocryphal texts were considered but rejected. And yet, Nathan Price decided that they are of equal value to other texts in the Bible. It becomes hard to establish any kind of theological common ground if you can’t even agree on which texts should be considered.

Nathan Price also claimed certain phrases that sound like they might have come from the Bible, but absolutely didn’t. For example, “The Lord helps those who help themselves” is nowhere in the Bible and is actually against the very concept of grace. God helps all people, especially those who realize that they cannot of their own power help themselves. Likewise, “You have nothing to fear but fear” cannot be found in the Bible. Fear can be perfectly reasonable and a gift of protection or fear can be a prison. The Bible does say that perfect love drives out fear.[3] Unfortunately, Nathan Price only knew fear, the fear of God’s wrath. He never knew God’s love and was never able to extend love to others.

Red Flag #4:  Nathan Price was full of –isms. Racism. Ableism. Sexism.  He left the U.S. at the height of segregation and entered Belgium Congo at the height of colonialism. He had been taught that Africans were a cursed people, a curse which dated back all the way to the time of Noah’s son Ham. Because of this, Nathan only ever saw himself as the teacher and superior of the people in the village of Kilanga and never as their student and servant. Thankfully, the vast majority of Christians today have realized that the concept of “the curse of Ham” is incredibly inaccurate and damaging. I highly recommend the DVD series “Africa and the Bible: The Earliest Roots of the Faith” with Wintley Phipps. It shows how isolated Scripture passages have been used to justify racial oppression and explores the unique and meaningful role of the African continent in the Bible and in the early church. Admittedly, American churches and society generally still have a long way to go before all people are treated as equally loved and valued by God. However, I am glad that the church has generally denounced any “Biblical” reasons for racism.

Likewise, Nathan Price looked down on people with disabilities, which included a large number of people in the community given how hard their work was on their bodies. His own daughter, Ada, who was differently abled from birth, felt that she was valued less than others and actually found comfort from living in a community that did not look down on her for her limp. Nathan could not see Ada’s unique gifts and all that she could have taught him.

Nathan Price also looked down upon women. Instead of encouraging and nourishing the gifts God gave to women in his life, he saw the education of women as “a waste.” I was taught that men and women were both made in the image of God and are partners in life and in ministry. To this day, churches that cannot see this truth frustrate me. Again, this could be a post in and of itself. In fact there are many, many books written about how women are integral to the Bible and to Christian theology generally, so for now I will just say that had Nathan Price treated his wife as his equal and listened to her, much if not all of the tragedy in their lives could have been prevented.

Red Flag #5: Nathan Price believed he was only there to the change those around him, not to be changed himself. I was taught that if you don’t come back a different person than when you left, something has gone terribly wrong. The culture and people around you should change you as you learn from them. He believed he was only there to teach instead of approaching as a learner first and foremost. I was taught to find teachers and mentors as soon as you can when you arrive in a new country. One of my favorite definitions of humility is being teachable, and Nathan lacked any ounce of humility. If he had opened himself to learning, someone might have told him that with his mispronunciation instead of saying “Jesus is glorious” at the end of every service, he said “Jesus is poisonwood.” We were taught to learn to laugh at ourselves, but Nathan never learned to laugh at his mistakes or even admit he might make some. He also believed he had all the answers instead of acknowledging that there are some things for which we just don’t have answers and won’t this side of heaven. This book touches many huge questions that Christians have been wrestling with and writing about for centuries. How can a good God allow such suffering? Does God cause the pain?  I can’t fully answer that question, and though many have tried and there are some profound answers out there, I don’t thinking anyone can answer the question fully. What I do know is that much pain is caused by humans, not God. I know that God can use pain and suffering and can bring healing and resurrection, if we allow him to. I am skeptical of people and churches who believe they have all the answers, because if they do, where does faith come into play? Faith in and of itself means that we rely on something or someone that we do not fully understand. It means taking a leap without fully knowing what lies beyond. It means trust. While I definitely would love answers and have at times angrily told God as much, I am also glad that we have a God bigger than our comprehension. How sad it would be to have a God that was only as big as our mental capacity.

Based on these factors alone, Nathan Price never should have been allowed to pastor anyone, much less a community completely foreign to him. In my next blog I’ll further explore some of the theological concepts that he warped and used for evil. Stay tuned…

[1] As a side note, in churches it can be the opposite extreme—people putting you on some kind of spiritual pedestal. That can also feel like heavy baggage, but that is probably a different post for a different day.
[2] We were taught that when children are involved, missionary parents have to be especially aware of their children’s needs. Obviously there is always a period of adjustment for kids who move to a new country, so that needs to be taken into consideration. However we were also taught that you “never sacrifice your children on the altar of mission,” meaning that there are many ways to serve God. If serving in your living situation is jeopardizing your children’s long-term well-being, it is probably time to find another way to serve God. That being said, tragedy can strike in any land, even to the most discerning parents. My own great-grandparents suffered the death of a child when they were serving in China.
[3] 1 John 4:18