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

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

My Top 10 Tips for Toddler Adoption

Dear friends of ours in Tanzania will be bringing home their two-year-old little girl in the coming months. The recent celebration of Father’s Day and the upcoming growth of our friends’ family has led me to reflect on our own adoption journey. If I were to pass anything along to families adopting a toddler, this would be it.

My Top 10 Tips for Toddler Adoption
  1. Research. There are some great books out there that give practical ideas for helping you and your child connect and grow. My personal favorite is Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child by Patty Cogen. I also liked 20 Things Adoptive Parents Need to Succeed by Sherrie Eldridge, because it identifies dozens of other resources that will help us at various points in our journey. I paid the $25 for an online subscription to Adoptive Families Magazine, which gave me access to all current and past articles, as well as podcasts on a variety of topics. Whenever I’ve had questions, it’s been pretty easy to search for the topic in the magazine. I also recommend asking lots of questions of your child’s previous caregivers. What is the child’s typical schedule? What do they like to eat? What food do they dislike? What are they afraid of? What helps to calm them when they are upset? Thankfully, we were able to shadow Michael’s caregivers for a full day. It helped us to understand Michael’s previous norms and to make the transition as easy as possible for him. Regular visits with him before we brought him home also started the bonding process and helped ease the transition.
  2. Be gentle with yourself. I think it is important to realize that no matter how much parents prepare, they won’t be fully prepared. We were definitely figuring things out as we went. Actually, truth be told, we still are. ;-) It took about three months for us to find our new normal. Survival mode is a very real thing, especially when your child isn’t sleeping well.  Do whatever you have to do to keep your sanity. Self-care is so important, even as you are caring for another little person. I think those who have to wait a really long time to become parents are even more apt to try to be perfect parents. The dream of perfect parenting went away for me on Day Three when I was holding Michael and sobbing from exhaustion. I’ve realized that kids don’t need perfect parents. They need the love of imperfect parents who show them that it is ok to be imperfect.
  3. Ask for help. Communities know that parents with a newborn need help. In both Tanzania and the U.S., people will rally around a family with a new baby—cooking meals for them, helping with chores, etc. However, folks often don’t realize that adoptive families also need support. We have to ask. For us, that meant asking a Tanzanian friend to bring dinner for us our first night home with Michael. Looking back, I wish we would have asked our neighbors for more help in those first weeks. I know they would have been willing. We did finally come to our senses and realize that with Omary (our previous house helper) away at school, we needed more help. We bought a washing machine which cut back on hours of handwashing. We also hired Dinnah and taught her to do many different to chores to lighten our load. She has been an absolute Godsend. With the added support, we could spend more time with Michael, more time together as a couple, and more time sleeping.
  4. Take advice (including this blog) with a grain of salt. Somehow I thought that by living in Tanzania I would escape some of the “mommy wars” and the barrage of advice that comes with parenting. I was wrong. Everyone has an opinion. From Tanzanians, we get “What are you feeding him for breakfast? You should feed him this.” “He should play more with other children.” “You are carrying him too much.” “He should attend this school next year.” “You are putting him to bed too early.” “He needs a jacket. It is very cold (i.e. the temperature dropped below 75 degrees Fahrenheit)”… From the worldwide web, we’ve been told what we should be doing regarding Michael’s sleeping habits, weight, health, activities, etc. It can get very overwhelming. Some advice has been helpful and some hasn’t. I think I’ve come to more peace with it all as I’ve realized this is just part of parenting in today’s world. Take what works for you and leave the rest. The truth is that there are differences between a child entering a family by birth and one entering by adoption. There are differences between a child entering a family as a first child and one entering a family that already has biological or adoptive siblings. There are differences in adopting an infant vs. a toddler. There are differences in raising a child in Tanzania vs. any other country. There are differences in communities and housing arrangements. There are differences in parents’ personalities and parenting preferences. And there are differences in children, regardless of any other factor. What works for one child may not work for another and what is a struggle for one child may be a breeze for another. Parenting is in many ways a giant experiment, so we all have to try different things and see what works for our families.
  5. Weight lift before adoption. This was one that caught me by surprise. Toddlers are heavy! Parents who start their families biologically typically start with a kid 6-8lbs and work their way up. We started with more than 20lbs of weight. Then add to that the books saying how important carrying your toddler is for bonding, Michael wanting to be held only by me, and Michael wanting to be held all day long in those first months. I had some extremely sore arms!! Carriers definitely help (if the child is willing) so invest in a good one, but physical preparation beforehand also would have helped. 
  6. Prepare yourself emotionally for your child to bond with one parent before the other. I had this dream that Eric and I would be able to share in all aspects of parenting from the beginning, but that wasn’t the case. Michael bonded to me first. As an example, the very first day before we left Mwanza with our son, I needed to use the toilet--a dirty squatty-potty, not suitable for two. When I handed Michael off to Eric, Michael screamed and screamed and only calmed when I returned. In that first six weeks, both Michael and I were terribly sick with a cold that he had picked up before his departure from the baby home. Eric would have taken him so that I could rest, but Michael wanted me, every moment of every day. Michael’s third night home, I only got 4 hours of sleep because Michael would only sleep in my arms. The next day, he took a nap in the car on the way back from visiting our social workers and wouldn’t go down for his regular nap. Thus, Eric played with him on my stomach while I took a power nap on the couch. It was hard on both Eric and me. I felt like Michael wanted more from me than my sick-self had to give, and Eric felt like he had more to give than Michael would allow. This phase passed, but it was a tough one and one we didn’t expect. I reassured Eric that he was a great father and that I appreciated him doing all the behind-the-scenes work--preparing the diapers and pajamas, washing the dishes and diapers, cooking dinner, cleaning up the house, etc. Eric reassured me that I was a great mother, even when I was sick, exhausted, tearful, sore, and just wanted some space. Even though our job distribution didn’t originally go as planned, we were still a team. We are happy to say that now the balance is much more like we had hoped. Michael has bonded with both of us, enjoys time with both of us, and finds comfort from both of us.
  7. Make time for the transition. Toddlers joining a new family have a difficult road to travel, because they are going through the developmental stages of attachment and independence all at once. Two-year-olds by nature experience extremes, but I think it can be even more dramatic for kids with complex backgrounds. One day they want to be fed by you; the next day they want to do it themselves. One day they are content to lead the way on the walk; the next they want to be carried the whole way. We’ve had many people ask us, “Why is Michael still _________?” (sucking his fingers, wanting to be hand fed, wanting to be carried, wanting to be cuddled overnight, etc.) I try to explain that for a year and a half of his life, he had to share his caregivers’ attention with 20-50 other kids. He didn’t have a mother or father to dote on him.  Yes, he still uses some of his coping mechanisms from his time at the baby home, and yes, sometimes he regresses and wants to be babied. He is making up for lost time and has to regularly adapt to many new experiences and people. He had to learn how to ride comfortably in a car seat; he didn’t learn that as a newborn leaving from the hospital. He had to learn how to take a bath/shower in our bathtub. He had to learn what it means to share in a family meal at the table. It’s a process for him, and it is ok to take it slow. It has also been a process for us. So much changed when we became parents—sleep, food, daily schedule, work/ministry, hobbies, vacations, etc. I highly recommend making space in one’s life for the transition. That can mean different things in different families, but I think it helps to hold loosely on to expectations of what life will be like. Make time to grieve for the aspects of life that aren’t what they once were and to rejoice in the beautiful additions to your life.  You can help your child to do likewise.
  8. Intentionally connect with your partner and with God. I am pretty sure this is true with most new parents, but we discovered that Michael quickly became our lives. If we weren’t intentional about connecting with each other, it just wouldn’t happen. Once we started getting past survival mode and got the help we needed, we began to set aside time together after Michael’s bedtime. One night is specifically designated to listen to a sermon podcast together and discuss it. One night is date night when we read together, play a game together, watch a movie together, or just talk. This made a huge difference in our relationship and in our ability to parent well.
  9. Prepare your heart to be an ambassador for adoption. A friend of mine who has also adopted told me this bit of advice before we brought Michael home. Many people don’t know much about adoption or haven’t interacted with an adoptive family. They will ask questions and sometimes make insensitive, hurtful comments.  We have figured out our answers and responses to some of the more common questions and comments, but we know this will be part of our journey for the rest of our lives. Thankfully, we aren’t in it alone it. There are many other adoptive families who can help.
  10. Soak in the moments whenever you can. This post delves into some of the hard aspects of adopting a toddler, but it is truly worth it. Michael has brought us more joy than we ever thought possible. We have been able to watch Michael’s personality unfold as he has become more confident and secure in our love.  Our home has come alive in many new and wonderful ways. The first time that your child calls you Mommy or Daddy— or Mama and Baba—is magical, and with a toddler, you generally don’t have to wait quite as long as with infants. The brains of toddlers are sponges soaking up the world, and we get to witness it on a daily basis. New words. New activities. Every day is an adventure. Every photo reminds us of how far Michael has come and how far we have come as a family. A beloved professor of mine, who has two children by adoption and two by birth, said it well: “The love is the same. No matter how they come to you, the love is the same.”

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Right People, Right Times-- A blog revival ;-)

I have abandoned this blog for far too long. I think there are many reasons why…

  • There’s a lot to process in the first two years of living in a new place, so there’s a natural impetus to write things down. For me, that inertia started to diminish over time. I’ve noticed this trend for many other missionaries too.
  • We’ve been able to share a lot of our stories through other media, like Facebook albums. 
  • As we became further invested in our ministries, there were times when immediate needs took priority over writing.
  • After my last post in November 2014, we began the 2015 school year. We spent the first 5 months trying to get as much covered at school as possible and preparing for our first furlough (May-July 2015). Then shortly after our first furlough we became parents! That will change life for sure ;-)
  • I also think for me there are seasons in my life when I write and there are seasons in my life when I read. In the last year and a half, I’ve felt more inclined to read. And I’ve read some amazing things… Love Does by Bob Goff, all of Brene Brown’s books, Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child by Patty Cogen, etc.

All that to say, there are plenty of reasons why I didn’t write, but I’m starting to feel the nudge to do some reflecting and writing again. So where to begin?

As I look back at the year and a half gap in this blog, I’m just amazed at how people have come into our lives at exactly the right time. During the times when our journey seemed especially messy, I take great comfort in looking back and seeing how God pulled together other aspects of our lives.

Community Health Evangelism
In December 2011, we traveled to Jos, Nigeria, believing that to be where God was calling us next. During that visit, we were introduced to Fiona and Rick Jara and their girls. Fiona, a nurse midwife from Australia, had been implementing a Community Health Evangelism (CHE) program in villages outside of Jos. CHE is a world-renowned program that has been implemented in 119 countries to date. It is a biblically-based holistic health program that “equips communities to identify issues and mobilize resources to achieve positive, sustainable change.”[1]  While in Nigeria, I was able to shadow Fiona as she taught a CHE seminar on maternal health. We also visited a village so concerned about the poor maternal health rates that they had come together to renovate a building donated by a local leader and turned it into a birthing center. It was inspiring to see what communities can do when they have a shared vision and the education necessary. Fiona promised to make sure I was fully trained in CHE if I came to work in Nigeria.

After our visit, life changed. Violence, strikes, and kidnappings at that time caused many organizations to pull missionaries out of Nigeria. We received a new call to Tanzania that was an even better fit for our skills and passions. The Jara family moved to Ghana to work with an organization doing CHE there. And life moved on... until January 2015.

Almost four years after meeting the Jara family, we learned that they were considering a call to Tanzania and would be in the Arusha area for several months. Fiona asked if I still wanted to be trained in CHE, because she and Rick were hosting a Training of Trainers 1 seminar in Arusha. The answer was yes!

After the training, I was excited about the potential of CHE, but knew that if it was truly going to be community-owned, I shouldn’t be the one to lead the way. I would need Tanzanian help. Nine months later I learned that Holly Freitas, another CHE trainer, would be hosting a vision seminar in Mwanza. Thus we sponsored three representatives from our diocese, chosen by Bishop Makala, to attend the seminar. They came back passionate about the program, but we were delayed in putting anything together by my new role as mother. Finally, in March 2016 we held a vision seminar for leaders throughout our diocese, and the idea of Christ-centered community-based development gained momentum. We are now choosing pilot areas and preparing for a full Training of Trainers 1 (TOT1) at the end of the month. The diocese has also chosen Jeremiah Shauri as CHE coordinator. He will be traveling to Kenya in August for a 5-week course covering TOT2, TOT3, and many other topics. He will also receive internship experience there.

Everything has happened at pretty much the only time it could have happened. I met Fiona Jara during the one month we were in Nigeria in 2011. The Jaras were only in Tanzania for a few months in 2015 and are now currently living in Australia. Holly came to do the seminar in Mwanza in September 2015, shortly before she broke her neck in a crazy beach-wave accident. She has been in recovery since that time and has not held any other seminars in the Mwanza area. We could have never guessed how all of this would unfold, and yet here we are with many doors opening up. We don’t know exactly where all of this will lead, but we definitely have a sense that God is in it.

Language Mentor
I have a love/hate relationship with the Swahili language, which could actually be a topic for a whole post in and of itself. I remember when I lived in Papua New Guinea, I felt sorry for those teachers who spent most of their time at English-speaking schools, because it was so much harder for them to learn the local language. And now here we are in Tanzania in a very similar situation. It is a struggle to learn a new language, and in my opinion, Swahili is every bit as robust a language as English. Choose any sentence, and there are probably at least 10 different ways to say the exact same thing in Swahili. One language learning website estimates that for English-speakers it takes about 600 solid hours for individuals to become conversational in Spanish. For Swahili, they estimated it would take about 900 solid hours. Because we live in a community with many English-speakers and students who need us to speak English, it has been slow in coming. I’ve also always been one who does well with accountability—a teacher or guide. Give me a standard and I will likely surpass it. I do even better with fellow classmates with whom to commiserate and study. After language school, we had no designated teacher, no accountability, and no fellow classmates. We got to a level of Swahili where we could comfortably get around and then the learning slowed to a crawl. I prayed that I might find some way to reignite my language learning.

Then I attended the CHE vision seminar in Arusha in January 2015, and I met fellow participant Amanda. She told me about how she had a language coach and a language helper in her Swahili study. Her language coach provided accountability and language learning ideas. She would work with her Tanzanian language helper each week and then would report back to her coach. She offered to be my coach and encouraged me to find a helper. My friend Mercy agreed to be my helper, and the next six months of lessons reinvigorated my language learning. The lessons have been put on the backburner since Michael came home, but I continue to be grateful for how God answered my prayer in that season of my life.

We started thinking about adopting in Tanzania all the way back in 2012. During our time at language school in Morogoro, we spent quite a bit of our free time at an orphanage within walking distance. As we played with and got to know these precious children, we began to wonder, “Was it possible for expats to adopt in Tanzania?” When we moved to Mwadui, I searched for the answer via the internet. I found the Forever Angels website, which described the process for expats adopting. A few months later, I realized that Forever Angels was only 2.5 hours away from us, and we could actually visit the baby home (yes, I was a little slow on that one.) We visited the home in September 2013 and met the founder Amy Hathaway. Amy and her husband were originally from England. They had adopted 5 children themselves and had helped countless expat and Tanzanian families adopt. We learned that we couldn’t foster/adopt until we had lived in country for 2-3 years. We continued to think and pray about it and decided that we would probably benefit from talking to other Americans who had adopted from Tanzania because every country has such different policies. One night we discussed contacting the U.S. embassy.

The very next weekend, we took a trip to Mwanza and decided to attend the late service at the Lutheran cathedral. As we entered the compound, the earlier service was concluding and out walked a white couple with three white children and two black children. We were amazed, because we hadn’t seen them before and we knew all the expat Lutheran missionaries. We introduced ourselves and met Dr. Rob Peck, who is a pediatric surgeon at Bugando hospital, and Liz Peck who is a nurse and regularly volunteers at Forever Angels. Two of their beautiful children were adopted from Forever Angels. Their family have become dear friends of ours. They connected us with our lawyer in Dar Es Salaam and answered so many of our questions about adoption. They have encouraged us on our journey, offered medical advice when needed, and opened their home to us many times as a place of respite. Would we have met them if we hadn’t been in Mwanza that weekend? Who knows! However, God knew that we needed them in our lives and through them we have met many more wonderful people who have blessed our lives.

I have many more stories like this… friendships that God knew I needed even when I didn’t know… people who came to visit from the U.S. at the exact time I needed medicine or some other supplies…. people who spoke right to my heart when I needed it most.

There are definitely ups and downs in this life, and sometimes when we are right in the midst of it, we can’t see how God is working. Sometimes, it is only by looking back that I can begin to see the patterns of care and the faithfulness of God.