On Blindness and Mirrors

About 4 months ago I received a swift slap to my face.  I’ll never forget that moment, and I hope that fact never changes.

I was on my way to a get-together one of my professors was having at his house for our small night class.  I was a little nervous, as I often was around this particular professor, as I tried to find my way to his house using a print off of Google Maps.  I’m not the only one who got nervous around my professor.  He is known to be pretty strict in class, dry, and sometimes maybe even overly harsh.  I remember a look he gave me when he handed back a paper I wrote in which I completely forgot to go back and insert citations.  I was almost sure I had my ticket to Heaven ripped in half for that one by the look in his eyes.

I eventually found the address, parked my car, and walked up to the front door.  Even though it fit the description he gave us in his email of how to find his place, I kept wondering if I was on the wrong street.  I don’t remember a whole lot between my standing on the cement steps and seeing him come to the door, but I do remember when he opened the door and I looked into his eyes.

*WHAM!*

I always had this idea in the back of my mind this this professor had some sort of animosity towards me.  Maybe it was that paper I wrote, or that quiz I didn’t do so well in.  Maybe he thought I was lazy.  Didn’t matter what it was; I was almost certain he hated me (or disliked me just enough to still pass as a christian).

I had been to my professors’ homes before.  They were comfortable, roomy, built in somewhat new developments around town, and always felt “upper middle-class-ish”.  I figured this particular professor lived in the same type of place, and somehow that made me feel like my passive attitude towards him was justified because he lived comfortably.

That’s why I got slapped in the face.

All that night, since I walked up to his house, I couldn’t shake this feeling of humility.  His house was eerily similar to the house I spent most of my life in.  It was small, and even though only about 10 of us students who were there, most all available seating in the house between the living room, entertainment room, and dining room was taken, and some were having to sit on the floor.

I talked with people, ate some really good homemade food, made some jokes, and eventually left.  I think the family I was living with at the time was out-and-about by the time I arrived back at their place, so I had an empty, quiet, dark house all to myself to let the divine hand-mark on my cheek sink in.

I’m not trying to say my professor is poor or deprived in any way.  In fact, he has a lot.  He has a good education; a doctorate.  His huge knowledge pool regarding certain issues, historical perspectives, and theology is far beyond my own.  He also has the privilege of doing some of the things that he loves doing.  But one thing I noticed, which is why I bring up the house he lives in, is how much he doesn’t need.

I’m sure this sounds so simple and obvious.  We all know this and have heard it, I’m certain.  But subconsciously I always assumed that the more education you obtain, or the more profession someone is, then the more material things they have.

I clean windows for a living.  I’m in homes all the time of people who are successful in their field of work, and it shows by how large their living rooms are, or what kind of counter-tops they have, or how dirty their teenage kids’ rooms are (interestingly, the wealthier our clients tend to be, the messier their kids’ living spaces are, on average).  So you can see how I would have that mindset.  A college professor lives in a nice, clean, and comfortably-sized house, and has a dog or two with a fire pit in the backyard.  A high school teacher lives in a generally nice suburb of his school district.  Elementary school teachers… who knows; depends on the age.

I’ve started reading more.  I just finished “Christian Atheist” today, about a week after I finished “A Charitable Discourse”.  I’ve just started reading “Serving With Eyes Wide Open” since I got it in the mail this afternoon.  I’m slowly learning Swahili and teaching myself American Sign Language.  It seems that I’m learning more at a quicker pace than I ever have before.  According to present-day America, that must mean I’m on the track to acquiring more ‘things’.

I’ve seen poverty in Africa.  Didn’t really hit me that hard, probably because I expected it.  What I didn’t expect was to see an American college professor, whom I now deeply respect, open up his humble home to me and my classmates and completely shatter my internal paradigm for how people like “him” normally live here in the States.

I’ve been saying for a few years that the more I learn the less I know.  I’ve also begun to notice that the more I learn, and the more I know, the less I need.  Everything I’m learning about, coupled with everything God has been revealing to me and all the things Christ has done in my life in the last few months, only solidifies that perspective.  And it’s not just a perspective of, “I don’t really need some of the stuff that I have”, but it’s becoming more and more of, “I should really start living with less”.

Simplicity, as I see it now, is a beautiful way for me to truly live a Spirit-filled life.

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Let’s leave this one untitled.

Took a nap today, and had a nightmare.  For some reason all it did after I woke up was remind me of some parts of my life I’d prefer to not dwell on for too long. I almost forgot that I mentioned a little of this in my first blog post.  It’s not often I’m reminded of those moments, but they always sober me up pretty well.

Few people can claim to have experienced genuine human friendlessness.  Especially for an extended period of time.  If you’ve ever looked at your cell phone and truly had no one in your contact list to text or call about anything not work-related, or if you’ve ever gone to sleep weeks on end without having one conversation with someone that was deeper than, “hi! how are you?”, or if you’ve had imaginary conversations with people that become so intense it feels like you’ve actually talked with someone and been shocked to realize you’re alone, then you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Welcome to my life 2007-2009.

It was a slow series of events that dragged out for a few years before, at one definable point, I had no friends.  It wasn’t that I was a jerk, or that there was major drama involved.  People moved away.  I lost contact with some after graduation.  Life takes us in different directions, and apparently I wasn’t permitted to have a traveling companion where I was going.  The only people I knew were either clients at work, my boss, or my church family; who all lived at least 30 minutes away.

I spent my 21st birthday with my mom and dad at Applebees.  I was hoping to have a party, but I could only think of 4 people who I was close enough to to invite.  The first two were my parents, and the other two were spending that weekend with their young kids.

It was a time that was dark, lonely, cold, and empty.  But I wouldn’t trade those years for anything, because I discovered something that has changed my life: there is a unique form of comfort to be found in deep-seated pain.  I’m not talking about any physical pain, or your boyfriend/girlfriend of 2 months breaking up with you.  I’m talking about the kind of pain that wracks you to your very core; that makes a home for itself somewhere inside.  This pain comes in many forms, and this was one of those forms for me.

But along with the misery comes an unexpected warmth.  It’s definitely comforting.  It doesn’t make things easier to bear, but it keeps things from breaking you.  It doesn’t numb the pain, or distract you.  It gives you just enough strength to breath, enough focus to get your through the day, enough patience to make it through, and enough wisdom to keep you from becoming self-destructive.

A prominent 20th-Century theologian held the notion that the person of Jesus Christ, the true reality of who he was, was fully realized on the Cross.  What he meant by that was this: the poor, the destitute, the maimed, the broken, the down-trodden, the prostitute on the corner, the homeless child, the murderer in jail…when you see these people you see Jesus.

Since my two-year ordeal, I’ve firmly held on to the idea that people generally have an extremely twisted view of discomfort.  Sure, we declare that to be a Christian is to allow ourselves to be in uncomfortable positions.  I’m not talking about being in uncomfortable surroundings, around weird people.  I’m talking about internal discomfort.  We avoid it.  We have entire belief systems dedicated to this strange idea that, “if it hurts, it’s wrong. if there’s pain, avoid it.”  Hedonism and Apathy are two main things I can think of right now that embody what I’m getting at pretty well.

I’ve seen this idea seep into the Church.  It’s like God’s ‘out there’ somewhere on the mountaintops, ushering us to Himself.  We see pain as moments of trial, and actually endure them for the sole purpose of coming out the other end of it a better person.  Pain is just something to get through.  Discomfort is simply one of the negatives to this whole “live like Jesus” thing.  We dedicate so much time to finding ways out of pain.

I find this so unusual when I really take time to think about it.  If we are, in fact, growing into people who will be like Jesus, and if the reality of Jesus is hanging on the Cross, then pain and discomfort of extreme degrees is going to become the identifying marker of our existence.  The Cross is where the nails are.  The Cross is where the blood-letting happens, where the spears pierce sides, legs are broken, throats are strangled, and our friends leave us.  And therein lies our one point of solace: here is Jesus.

Christ came to earth to identify Himself with us.  God came to earth and become a human.  The only thing I have found to be the grand unifier is pain.  The one thing everyone on the face of the earth can relate to is pain.  Not everyone has been poor, or experienced “need”.  Not everyone has experienced “wealth”.  We’re all different nationalities, backgrounds, life experiences, skin colors, etc.  But the one thing we all have in common is our shared understanding of “pain.”

Since we all know what pain is, and since we will all continue to experience it through our lives, I feel it’s important to keep reminding myself that the best thing to do in those instances where pain arises is to embrace it.  That odd comfort in the midst of pain I talked about earlier, it only came about when I embraced my situation; when I accepted its reality gave up looking for a way out, but I didn’t ignore it either.

For a long time I believed that God really was somewhere else.  Like I was in my demoralized position and God was watching, and He did feel my pain, but it wasn’t true association.  It was like (and I don’t have experience with this, but I picture it like this) I’m in prison, and God stays on the other side of glass as a visitor, talking to me through a phone on the wall telling me everything will be okay.  Truth is, that’s not how things are at all.

God’s not looking in on what’s going on.  God’s right there with you in those times, sharing every single emotion, carrying every single scar.  Literally, He is walking in your shoes.  That is the comfort I find when i go through times like that.

Fellowship with God is the single greatest power we can experience, but it only comes when  we choose to live in the reality of our circumstances.

Does it take the pain away? Nope!

Does it distract you from the pain? No

Does it make things easier? Not really

Does it make you happy? No, and sometimes it might not even make you joyful.

But, it is enough.

Yes, there are ways to avoid pain.  There are things we can do to keep ourselves from staying “there” for longer than we would like.  When we do that though, I think we miss an opportunity to see Jesus in a way we may have never seen Him before.  Not that He can only be seen in those instances, but it’s a side of Him we miss sometimes.

Maybe some people are in a place right now they’d rather not be in.  Maybe it’s a loss of a loved one, a prolonged season of some sort of situation you feel like no one else can identify with (and you may be right), depression… whatever it is.  I encourage you to not look away.  Where you’re at… it hurts.  I know.  Let it hurt.  Cry yourself to sleep.  Don’t try to convince yourself everything is “okay.”  Everything is not “okay” – you’re suffering.  I won’t even ask you to keep your head up.  Just do one thing: never forget who is sharing your pain.

Obviously, I say all of this out of my own personal experiences.  You always hear about the lights at the ends of the tunnels, the happy endings, yada yada yada.  After everything I’ve gone through, I’ve come to this conclusion: The only happy ending is Heaven, everything else is just a series of transitions.  So why is it we try to fool ourselves into thinking otherwise when times get tough?

On Retrospect and Thankfullness

It’s always found in the aftermath.  It is as if, in those moments when I’m caught in the midst of chaos – or what seems like chaos to me -, I shut down and only focus on what light there may be at the end of the tunnel.

Recently I’ve tried to stop doing that because I have noticed that I miss the smaller, seemingly insignificant displays in the middle of it all.  Even though that one moment of awareness never fails to take place, it simply does not do justice.  I’m talking about the sovereignty, the power, the mercy, the love, the benevolence, the grace, and the sheer vivacity of God.

I spent a lot of time today looking back over the last 7 or so years; from the time I was becoming a senior in High School until now.  Yes, there were those bold highlights when God’s omnipotence was on full display; giving me a driving passion for Architecture, and then a driving passion for His Church; sustaining me though 3 (soon to be 4) more years of schooling through Olivet Nazarene University; providing a new place for my family to live; bringing a godly man into my sisters life; etc.  -The big moments.

But what is going through my mind right now is not just the big moments.  What’s nearly driving me to tears in awestruck amazement and wonder are those little moments.  Hundreds of them, maybe even thousands of them.  The time when I took a year off after High School and then, out of nowhere, my uncle in Colorado needed someone to come work for him during that time.  The time when I graduated ITT-Tech at the top of my program, having had interviews with drafting companies, and watching God blow the hinges off doors as I drastically changed directions in life to pursue His calling on my life into the Ministry.  All those times my parents and I had no idea how we were going to make it through the next year the way finances were, and witnessing the power of prayer as God moved in mighty ways to sustain us.  Those private moments locked away in my apartment room where I was feeling cold, lonely, barely hanging on, and then feeling the overwhelming presence of God overtake me in a graceful and wholly intimate manner.  All those times I questioned my impact, even questioned my very existence, only to watch God bring into view all that He has used me for.

Even now I feel forcibly driven to humility, and I haven’t even touched the surface of all that God has done in my life.  And all of that happened in barely more than half a decade.  At times I have felt on the verge of losing my faith, or slowly walking away from my calling.  At times I have been bombarded by pain, by sorrow, by despair.  At times I have felt God’s own breath intermingled with mine.  And at times I have watched myself as God moves me, as if I’m not even doing anything; just watching it all happen.  In all of those times, God was always the same.  In all those moments, God was right next to me feeling my pain, drawing myself closer to Him.

The original story of Thanksgiving as referenced by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, cataloged in William Bradford’s ‘On Plymouth Plantation’ is an amazing moment in one of America’s early colonies.  It is not a story of racism, or theft, of murder, or anything like that – no matter what your teacher told you.  For years, the pilgrims of Plymouth had fought malnutrition, starvation, and disease.  But one year, those pilgrims decided to change their entire system of government.  Their new system of society was one no one had practiced before.  It was uncharted territory for them.  But, they trusted their Heavenly Father who led them to this strange new land, away from the persecution and constant migration in Europe, and they knew He did not bring them this far only to suffer death and starvation.  Later that year, at Harvest time, their crops yielded immeasurably more than they had ever hoped to get.  In response, they held a feast for one simple purpose: to thank God, the one and only God, who broke into their moment of desperation and refused to let His people succumb to the tragedies which surrounded them.

Thousandth of years, and God has never acted any differently.  He is faithful.  He is good.  He never abandons His people whom He loves, no matter what situations arise.

I, a single individual in a sea of billions, have attracted the attention of my heavenly “Baba”, and have become a LIVING example of His faithfulness and goodness.  Yet, so often I look around and see so many Christians living in worry.  I used to live this way myself.  There are plenty of reasons to live a life saturated with worry.  life is unpredictable, hard, uncomfortable, and we don’t know what tomorrow holds.  Who, logically, would not worry?  But, I have finally realized that the only real reason a Christian need worry is if they don’t believe that God is who He says He is.  And the only reason people would believe that is if they have never truly allowed God to be who He said He was in their lives.

I know times are difficult.  I understand the fear, the uncertainty that tomorrow brings.  However, by all rights I shouldn’t be here right now.  I should never have been able to be at ONU as long as I have been.  I should never have been able to go to Africa not once, but twice!  I know me.  I know what I’m capable of.  I also know that I should not be living this life.  It is by God, and God alone, that I can exist in this manner.  This story, my life, is a story only God could have authored.  It truly, deeply pains me to see people live their lives not knowing what this is like.  Yes, it is risky.  But, it is an adventure. A great, mysterious, vivifying adventure.  I wouldn’t trade this life for anything.  If I would, I’d be an architect right now instead of a minister!

All in all, what I’m really trying to say is this: Thank you, God… asanti sana Mungu. Asanti sana tene baba yangu (thank you again my daddy).

Bwana Asufiwe Wa Milele Na Milele (Praise God forever and ever)

On Black People and Hand Gestures

hanging out with my friends at the Mwanza church, shortly before the Sunday Morning service on May 13, 2012

Africa was always the place where no one wanted to ever end up.  That’s how it seemed when I was a kid, anyway.  “I would pray to God, ‘please don’t send me to Africa'” is something I would hear missionaries say when they came to our church.  So, naturally, I always wanted to be the one to go to Africa.  “Screw fear and reservation, I’m going to Black People Land!” is something I would always say to myself in response to the missionaries – maybe not verbatim, but something similar to that!

Last November my team members and I were individually selected (after applications and interviews), and after 6.5 months of preparations, training, and spending time getting to know each other, we all set out for our two-week Mission trip to East Africa!

Our purpose was pretty simple: Train pastors in basic theology and church doctrine, work with the children and youth in the churches, and spend time with the people.  It might sound weird hearing that one of our main objectives was to train pastors. I mean, our team was made up of one professor and his wife, one Resident Director (and part-time professor), and the rest of us were students.  How could we possibly know enough to train pastors!

The truth is, several places we’ve been in the country of Tanzania have an interesting exposure to Christianity.  Normally what happens, particularly in Tanzania which is where we worked for half of our trip, is missionaries come in, travel around, show the Jesus Film, and convert hundreds or thousands of people at a time.  At that point, the missionaries appoint someone in the “congregation” to be the pastor and then they move on.  Granted, every situation is different, but this has been a fairly common practice in some places.  So what you have are pastors of churches who know very little compared to what we know about Scripture, Theology, Christology, Ecclesiology, Soteriology, Escatology, and doctrine (which incorporates all of that).  For example, we’ve had pastors ask us questions such as: “Who is God married to?”  In America, we would never hear this question because we’re so well exposed to Christianity that the idea of God being married doesn’t even cross our minds.  Because of a lack of proper teaching many of those pastors have for many reasons, teams like ours go in and offer basic training. And that is exactly what we did in the cities of Mwanza and Tarime.

Among other things, we also were able to teach the pastors and other adults how to use the Evange-cubes as a way of telling others about the depravity of man, the love of God, the sacrifice of Christ, the forgiveness offered through the act Jesus took on the Cross, and our new found life in Christ!  I had the privilege of being a part of this teaching session in Mwanza, where my “rafiki” (friend) and I walked through the Evange-cube with pastors and adults.  Once we finished going through what everything meant, we had one of the pastors and one of the adult leaders come forward and walk through the Evange-cube in front of everyone else.  I can’t describe how it felt listening to them talk about the Salvation story with such excitement in their voices, and knowing that I was able to teach it to them using such a simple device!  Once the Evenge-cube demonstration was done, our leader felt that there were some in the group we were teaching who had not made the decision to follow Christ, so we gathered a couple benches together and had an altar call.  there were about 12 people altogether who either gave their lives to Christ for the first time or recommitted their hearts to him!  What an amazing experience it was watching lives being changed right before my eyes!  Not only that, but I had the incredible, humbling experience of being able to pray over that group. My mind is still going blank whenever I think of that… unbelievable!  Our God is so awesome! “Bwana Asufiwe!” (Praise the Lord!) “Bwana Asufiwe Tene!!”

Another great experience I got to witness happened with the group that was teaching the children.  In another building by where my “rafiki”, group leader, and I were teaching the pastors, most of our group was walking through the Evange-cube with the children.  One thing that’s important to know is that children in that culture are not valued near as much as children in America.  Though I don’t know exactly what the situation is like, it’s safe to say they are generally neglected, even when it comes to the church.  Anyways, once the group working with the kids finished walking through the Evange-cubes with the children – along with some of the children’s leaders from some of the neighboring churches in the area – they decided to take a break.  Well, once they did that, the children’s leaders got up, got some Evange-cubes, and each one gathered a group of children around them and began teaching the children the Evange-cubes!  I remember walking into that building with my group leader to get some supplies, and when he and I noticed what was going on I heard him say, almost under his breath, “this is why we’re here…”

This was the third trip my school has taken to this particular area of the world, and during the last trip we felt as if some of the people had become dependent on our visits.  It was almost like there wasn’t much growth going on in between our mission trips.  But this time, it was like something “clicked”.  The pastors began asking deeper theological questions, they started taking more initiative in applying everything we were teaching them, and they were so excited to learn anything and everything they could from us; not because we were visitors from America, but because they genuinely wanted to know more of who God is, they wanted to know what God wanted from them, and they wanted to know how He wanted to use them to help strengthen the Church not as an institution, but as a family of believers.

Also, I had the personal privilege of preaching to the congregation during their Sunday Morning service a sermon based on a simple phrase: “Napenda Tanzania, na nawapenda watu wote”, which was about how God loves the people of Tanzania, and how God seeks to have us, his children, share His love with others no matter what religion, or lack thereof, they follow.  Interestingly, our Matatu drivers were listening in during my sermon, and they’re Muslim!  -Quite an interesting experience to be able to share God’s love with Muslims! We left Tanzania on an indescribable high, as we had the opportunity to see the fruits of months of work right before our eyes as God moved in mighty ways!

From there, we ministered in the cities of Nakuru and Nairobi, both in the country Kenya.  We did similar work there, but it seemed different for me because most of the people knew English pretty well whereas in Tanzania no one except a handful of people we met spoke any English.  Swahili is the dominant language there, so translators went with us wherever we went.  Though I can’t say I got to see lives changed in Kenya like what I saw in Tanzania, I can say I got to see my group impact the lives of so many simply by sharing time together and being in fellowship with one another.

During our time in Kenya, I had a very unexpected personal experience.  We were en route to Nakuru, and I was sitting by my amazing friend who is really, really good at Sign Language.  She works with Sign Language ministries in Kenya, and during our ride she took the time to teach me some Sign (Kenyan and American Sign Language!) It was quite a fun adventure, and I discovered that I really enjoy using Sign!  I got to learn 2 new languages in Africa, haha.

About a month and a half ago I embarked on this journey to East Africa for the second time with 11 other people from ONU for the purpose of being used by God in whatever way He wanted to. Not surprisingly, when a group is dedicated to that purpose things tend to go awry, and right from the beginning of our 2-week trip my team and I encountered obstacles, and things always seemed to be going wrong even up until we finally arrived back in the States.  At first, our flight from Chicago to Amsterdam got cancelled, so our schedule was pushed back a day, two of our buses in Tanzania broke down, and we had to push one of them at one point on a dirt road on a hot day.  Hotels which we had booked suddenly didn’t have enough room for us so we had to find something else.  People kept getting sick on our team.  Road conditions made travel times much longer than they should have been, so we arrived at new location later than we wanted to.  And on our last day we were behind schedule all day, so we almost missed our plane from Nairobi to Amsterdam, and every layover on the way home was way too short, so we were literally running through Amsterdam and Paris just to catch our connecting flights.

But, in all things God’s peace rested on myself and my team.  Never once did I hear anyone complaining about the heat, the inconveniences we had to work through, some of the food we had to eat, the smells, the general lack of sleep… nothing.  And in all things God revealed Himself in ways I can’t even comprehend.  There was no obstacle that came our way that God did not overcome.  No danger that God protected us from.  No risk that God did not keep us through.  And God was constantly drawing us back to Him, which was what this trip was all about: teaching and equipping others so that others can experience the intimate, unexplainable love and providence of God.

I’ve seen lives changed.  I’ve seen unmovable obstacles which stared me int he face get torn down.  I have seen just a glimpse of the power and love of God displayed.  And all this in just 15 days… I’m excited to see what kinds of great works He will be doing in and through my life for the next 15 years, and beyond!