Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Difference Between Lent and Lint

Lent is a time of preparation of our hearts for ministry and service.
Lint is what we find in our belly buttons when we are navel-gazing.

Pretty clear distinction.

The reason that I bring this up is because I think the two often get confused around this time of year.  As Christians set aside time for reflection and penance during the season of Lent, our practices run the risk of becoming more about navel-gazing and less about preparation for action.  Jesus spent 40 days in the desert preparing for his ministry on earth, which basically involved being with and among the poor, the downcast, the sinners, and the lonely; this was the beginning of Lent.  Lent these days gets boiled down to eating fish on Fridays and attending an extra worship service on Ash Wednesday.  It's so easy to miss the point.   

During the next 40 days, how are we preparing our hearts to be with the poor, the downcast, the sinners, and the lonely?  How are these times of reflection and prayer leading to the living ministry of Christ here on earth through us?  How will we prepare our hearts to love sacrificially, give generously, and live radically during this season? 

World Vision has a great way of bringing activists together this Lent in what they are calling Relentless Acts of Sacrifice.  This is just one opportunity.  This Lent, I am trying to conscientiously prepare my heart for service, solidarity, and action through these relentless acts of sacrifice, with the Mozambique Initiative at the forefront of my practice. Tell me about your practice.  How are you preparing for service during this Lenten season?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Astronauts and Firefighters

You know how kids have all of these crazy ideas about what they want to be when they grow up?  Everybody I knew wanted to be something cool, like an astronaut or firefighter or clown or dolphin trainer.  My friend, Trisha, wanted to be President of the United States (and a fine president she would be).  Being an overly intense and somewhat precocious teenager, I wanted to be a missionary in Africa.  As soon as it was legal, I started working at a frozen custard stand and squirreling away money to go to Malawi.  I somehow managed to save the funds and convinced my parents that it was a good idea for me to go to Africa for the summer.  This is a picture of me when I was 16 in front of Lake Malawi (which borders the northwest corner of Mozambique).  This was the first of a number of trips that I took to Africa throughout the years as I continued to feel compelled to pursue this dream.

As I reflect back on this winding path almost 15 years later, it's amazing to think that the Mozambique Initiative Coordinator is exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up.  Although I couldn't have put my finger on it then, I realize now that this job is exactly the one I wanted.  I know that I am extremely privileged in many ways and not everybody has been given the opportunities that I have been given, but the point of this is that it's not naive to hold onto your dreams.  It's not silly to think outside of the box.  It's not childish to strive to be everything that God made you to be.  What do you want to be when you grow up?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


"Whenever cannibals are on the brink of starvation, Heaven, in its infinite mercy, sends them a nice plump missionary."  -- Oscar Wilde

I love this quote because it speaks to the ignorance and pride that have historically dictated mission work as we know it.  Missionaries, aid workers, and activists alike have, unfortunately, earned a reputation (and rightly so) of being nitwits.  Missionaries are known for their Bible-beating ways, bumbling around the world with the goal of "converting" people (whatever that means) and enticing the "unsaved" to believe in their blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus who speaks English.  Or if they are aid workers who are not focused on the Jesus angle per se, they are often equally guilty of inflicting their save-the-world-philosophy-of-the-day on unsuspecting souls followed by a prompt cut and run...  1/2 built hospitals, empty clinics, a pile of mosquito nets with nobody to distribute them...   Not ok.  In fact, not just not ok, but harmful, shameful, and detrimental to all parties involved.  Let's face it, American missionaries and aid workers have been the cannibals - tearing up countries, eating up resources, and then walking away fat and happy with themselves.  So, I've been pondering how to not be a nitwit.  Pondering how to live a radical life of cross-cultural service without inflicting my western assumptions onto all I come into contact with.  Here are some thoughts about things that may be important to keep in mind:
  • Mutuality/Partnership/Relationship - When we work for social justice, we are not lone rangers.  We are not the workers and they the receivers.  In fact, it's not an "us and them" scenario at all.  We are all in this together.  We share vision, we work side by side, we partner, we listen to one another.  We all give, and therefore, we all receive.  This is one reason that I love the Mozambique Initiative (MI).  The MI establishes relationships over a long period of time, and we share the burden and share the work and share the vision.  There are more Mozambicans on the MI staff than Americans, and this is how it should be.
  • Solidarity - We are not working on behalf of the poor.  We are the poor.  We are becoming poor in spirit and sacrificing those things that keep us removed from the plight of those who are suffering.  This is about consciousness raising and not buying into the lies our western world tells us.  This is about awareness.  This is about radical choices.  This is about truly "being with" through sacrifice, not just "being for" through convenience.  
  • Evidence-Based Practices - It is our job to work responsibly.  To check the research.  To find out what works, what doesn't, and why.  This doesn't mean that everything we do will have a rich foundation of evidence because science isn't there yet, but our actions cannot be based in ignorance.  Ignorant action is not just.  
  • Cultural Relativism vs. Cultural Universalism - Attention Americans: our ideas are not the only ideas.  And they might not even be the right ideas.  Cultural relativism is about understanding people's beliefs and activities in light of their culture, and realizing that there is not one, absolute way of understanding.  We are not in the business of inflicting our culture onto others (this includes our theology).  We understand people as coming from a unique, individual, cross-section of heritage, family, experience, and ritual.  It's not our job to rob people of these things that make them who they are.  It's our job to understand and foster these things.
  • Humility - I have a whole lot to learn. I need to remind myself of this everyday and remain open to each person that I meet.  "And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."
For more interesting thoughts, check out Laura Seay's blog post about what she calls "badvocacy".  She is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, where she teaches courses on African politics, conflict, and international affairs.

Please post thoughts, comments, questions, concerns... like I said, I have a lot to learn.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Shortlist (aka: I'm Not Superwoman)

I was in Columbia, Missouri all day yesterday for the Mozambique Initiative team leaders meeting, which is a business meeting where we discussed all of our current projects, the budget, and the training/transition of the new coordinator (that's me).  And as I was sitting there taking it all in, I began to feel slightly overwhelmed (ok, a lot overwhelmed) with all that I have my hands in these days.  Not just with the Mozambique Initiative (although that's enough to keep a team of 7 people busy), but with finishing the dissertation, and worship leading at The Gathering with my band (and I guess some people have spare time and family and friends??).

I'm not a workaholic - that's not my style.  I don't do well working 60+ hours a week and it's not who I am.  But, I've found myself brimming over with responsibilities during this chapter in my life and there are no other alternatives right now.  The Mozambique Initiative Coordinator position is my dream job.  I would regret it for the rest of my life if I didn't jump on this opportunity.  Jobs like this one come around once in a blue moon, and when the coordinator position presented itself to me slightly earlier than I had planned, I had to go for it.  Additionally, I MUST finish my dissertation.  I HAVE TO.  It's been almost 4 years of toiling away at this, and I would be very disappointed in myself if I did not finish.  And lastly, if I don't have music in my life, I go insane, and so it's best not to throw that out either.  In other words, there are no balls that I can drop right now...I have to keep them all in the air.  I have to.

BUT, what I am realizing is that I don't have to do it alone.  A former professor of mine, who is also my south city spiritual guru and an amazing friend, had an intervention with me the other day.  He asked me (half-jokingly) if I was superwoman, and when I said no, he suggested a strategy for getting through this period of my life.  During births, deaths, or crises, people call on their community.  When a baby is born, friends bring meals and help with laundry and run errands.  When someone is ill or dying, the community helps you get the oil in your car changed, and helps clean the house, and sits vigil.  He suggested that this next year is going to be one of those major junctures in my life.  He asserted that this period is going to be tremendously difficult, but also, it's not going to last forever.  I will (I must) transition successfully into the new job and finish the dissertation, there are no other options - but I would also be a fool not to draw on my community.  He suggested making a shortlist of people who are my go to people - be it for dropping coffee at my front door once a week, or walking my dogs, or picking up milk...or whatever.  He commented on the fact that I always take care of others and because of this, I've cultivated a pool of people who would happily do the same for me - I just have to ask.  I'm choosing to lay down my pride right now and ask for this help.  I am going to try to put aside this "I can do it all by myself" attitude and begin admitting that I'm not superwoman, I'm not a lone ranger.  I'm admitting that I need the help of my friends, I need you.  Volunteers for the shortlist are welcome.