I was sitting in the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam a week ago. For no particular reason I remember eating the “London” breakfast meal at McDonalds amongst my exploration of the beautiful airport. Having a seven hour layover really built the anticipation of getting on that last flight and arriving back in DC. Once I finally boarded the plane, I had a hard time napping as I just wanted to fast forward the 8 hour flight. Between those 15 hours in Amsterdam and on the last leg of my journey home, my mind moved in and out of reflection on what truly was impressed on me, even in me, during my brief stay in Kenya. In no particular order…

Globalization is truly incredible. I had decent wireless internet service while I was at KIST. I was able to blog and email my wife. Cell service (though incredibly expensive and unused by me) provided full bars in practically every corner of Kenya. I’m fairly well convinced Kenya has better cell service than we do. A big however. Availability is not synonymous with accessibility. The extent and quantity of technology is extremely limited as poverty is widespread.

The competence and integrity of the highest level of organization leadership facilitates or impedes progress. It is quite impossible to excel at a level greater than that which you have been empowered or enabled to do. This is true in Kenyan culture where power is king and corruption is rampant and ministry leaders are in great tension over the place and their pursuit of power. This is also true of American culture and the requirement of clear, strategic vision that reflects mission and opportunity with proper human and financial resources. It is difficult to succeed when both are missing.

I am the husband of one wife. Never has such an obvious statement meant so much. Where polygamy is socially normative, integrity and purity in Christian leaders is critical. How pastors choose to handle the various complexities of polygamy in their ministries is essential to success.

The proximity and intensity of sensory interaction in one’s life is truly amazing. It’s not only a matter of choice but a state of being. It is cleansing to have very little interaction with vehicles and media. When the breeze, birds, occasional cow mooing, and personal conversation comprises the sum of your sensory interaction you have more energy and greater personal clarity. In America, the complexity and layers of sensory interaction (both permissive and contextual) is incredible and, in my ways, dulls our capacity to experience a regular, greater sense of freedom.

I was really comfortable in Africa. It was weird. Throughout my trip, I tried to put a finger on why I felt so at ease. In the months leading up to the trip, I had the idea that when I stepped onto African soil, I was going to have an intense emotional reaction. I didn’t. What I did feel was more significant than I could have imagined. Mentally, emotionally, and spiritually I felt at peace. God really prepared me for this and I felt available to take advantage of some really sweet opportunities. I spoke several times, from audiences of 50 to 1000+. I was never nervous or anxious. Again, just peace and clarity. Since I’ve been back I’ve found it so hard to describe that peace. Regardless of my surprise to its presence or my ability to explain it, I am grateful that it was peace that defined God’s gift to me and my experience in Kenya. It was truly special.

I hope to return to Africa.

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Last Day in Kima

February 22, 2009

Solomon has had the (un)fortunate privilege of hearing my speak alot this week. Today I traveled along with Solomon, a 2nd year student here at KIST, along with others (Steve & Marilyn Cook from the US, Rebecca the school Nurse/Academic Dean, and three other students) to his home town, Kakamega, to take part in his church service. Solomon was one of my companions to Obunaka Secondary School earlier in the week. Between the conversations on that walk and others during this past week, it never came up that he is married and has two young children. The lack of a wedding ring also failed to prompt questions on my end. Today I got to meet Solomon’s wife, son, and daughter. He hasn’t seen them in over a month. When we first arrived to Kakamega, we spent some time in his home. It is a typical home, not more than 20 x 20. The walls are made of mud that has been sealed with cow dung. The roof is thatched which makes the home cooler but requires regular maintenance. There’s a single, common room when you enter and then two rooms set off only by a curtain. Cuckoos (chickens) have free reign. Solomon’s wife shared tea and bread with us as we heard more about his family. His mother is the second wife of his father. His mother had five sons and he is the fourth. In order to afford the school fees at KIST, Solomon had to sell off part of the land which is his inheritance. 

After tea, we drove just a few hundred yards to his church. A very simple building made of brick and a tin roof. Inside, two rows of benches faced a make shift stage comprised of two small wooden tables in front row of plastic chairs draped with purple linens. To the left of this area was a set of a plastic chairs for the choir. Outside the church, to the right, two latrines stood with cement floors and a square hole in the floor. Past the latrines, a group of women were already at work, cooking lunch for us, their guests.

As people trickled in, I realized that the predominate demographic was young children and older women. Very few men of any age and only a handful of younger women were present. The latter was partly due to the cooking outside. Still I was quickly overwhelmed with the feeling that I ought to, on the spot, chance my message. Speaking on wisdom and what it looks like to make wise decisions seemed a little out of the sweet spot of children and older women. During the hour between the start of the service and my time to speak, I asked God for clarity and wisdom myself. I decided to go with what I was prepared to share. I tweaked it a good bit from the same topic I developed for my talk at Obunaka, and felt confident in connecting with the audience. In the car, as we were about to leave, Phyllis (a KIST student) shared a word of encouragement that was so meaningful to me. She said that my message was very clear and that the people heard it and that it should be helpful to them. In international contexts, my main goal in speaking is clarity. In that moment, I was very grateful that Phyllis chose to share her reflection with me. 

Our lunch, after the service, was a veritable Kenyan feast. I couldn’t tell you (I just don’t remember!) the names of all the foods that sat before us. Most of us ventured into each bowl out of curiosity and gratitude. We did have an opportunity to specifically thank the cooks before departing for the trek back to campus. 

Our group pulled into Kima as the Sunday afternoon chapel was beginning. We ran in and joined everyone. Afterwards, I caught up with Donald. He was insistent that he would meet us when we departed tomorrow about 7:30am. I have some notes for him from some of you that I’ll combine onto a single sheet and print off for him. I decided to give him the shirt I wore this week during our runs. (I had it washed!) It’s a yellow shirt with “running” in green and a nike swoosh and it’s dri-fit material. A great shirt for a great runner and something to remember our friendship. 

In other news, the huge fruit bats that have been attacking the tree outside the house are gone tonight. They have dominated the sensory landscape at night all week. Apparently they had their fill or, perhaps, they’re on to a new fruit tree. 

I’m packed and ready to leave for safari tomorrow. I could fly home instead and be completely content. I’d be lying though if I didn’t say that I may have trouble sleeping tonight. I love animals…almost as much as people.

I spoke in chapel at KIST again today. My point and purpose was twofold. I wanted to challenge the students to pursue honor as their primary pursuit as leaders rather than power. Power is everything in Kenyan culture. Power also is responsible for the prolific corruption at every level of leadership in Kenyan culture. As students training for ministry I suggested that they can choose to say, “I am, I have, I deserve this position and can do with it whatever I choose” or you can pursue honor which requires you to surrender your will and ambitions and realize that “my confidence is my God and my faith sustains me.” The other purpose of the message was to show them what honor looks like. I asked the faculty, staff, and administration to come to the stage and face the students. I then read a rewritten version of Paul’s introduction to Philemon.

I will always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers because I hear (and have seen with my own eyes) your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all these students. I pray that the faith you share with us all may deepen your understanding of every blessing that belongs to you in Christ. I have great joy and encouragement because of your love, for the hearts of the students have been refreshed through you, my brothers and sisters.

Then I asked them to spread out across the front and sides of the room and requested that the students join one of these leaders who had modeled honor to them, lay their hands on this person and pray a prayer of thanksgiving over them. It was so cool to watch. Lunch back at the house followed chapel. Chris Smith (Principal Don Smith’s wife) told me that she was so thankful for that time at the end of chapel and that she just cried as the students prayed for her and Don and their kids and their ministry at KIST.

Ronald and I ran again this afternoon. He finally confessed to me that he is a national runner. For those of you who know something of running, he’s done a 27 minute 10k and a 1:05 half marathon. Ridiculous. Great conversation after the run. A number of other students from a class (in which I guest lectured today) came over to join us. We talked together for about a half hour before heading our separate ways for dinner.

I have to share this from an email I received from Erin today.

Yesterday, out of the blue when we were eating spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, Luke said, “Daddy eat meatball?” I laughed so hard. I said, “Daddy probably isn’t eating meatballs right now. Daddy’s in Kenya.” To which Luke replied, “Daddy at Ganma’s house?” I said, “No, Daddy’s in Kenya.” His reply was, “Daddy Kenya gee-affe (giraffe) el-phant, ze-ba.” He was still muttering it when he went to bed last night, “Night night Daddy Kenya gee-affe, el-phant, ze-ba night night Joey, night night Cha Cha…” He is so funny!

Yesterday afternoon, as I sat talking with Ronald after our run, I was approached by a graduating student, Samuel about accompanying him to Obunaka Secondary School the following afternoon. Samuel was scheduled to speak but wanted to set aside his opportunity and requested that I speak instead. After confirming it was ok with Principal (and our gracious host) Don Smith, I agreed to go.

This morning I was asked to be the guest lecturer in Principles of Leadership. I interacted with the students over the principles of leadership they have learned so far this term and ultimately asked them to pick one principle that they felt could be the cornerstone of their philosophy of leadership. Lots of good conversation and fantastic questions.

When class concluded I quickly made my way to a second class, Strategies of Church Growth. When I was first asked to speak in this class I balked. My well founded argument centered on the fact that I don’t know anything about African church growth strategies. Fortunately the request was clarified. They wanted me to talk about the growing trend of cell (or small) groups. I immediately retracted my rejection. This class had only eight students. Loved it because the students were very engaged in the conversation as I shared three general approaches to cell groups, followed by conversation about the benefit of a mutual understanding of cell group environment.

After lunch and a sleepless 30 minute nap, I got dressed to meet Samuel for our walk to Obunaka Secondary School. Samuel and two traveling companions (KIST students) met me, and throughout our 2k  walk my new friends peppered me with questions, primarily about cell groups. They said they heard I had lectured on cell groups. They asked very good questions which also gave me further insight into the state of Kenyan church ministry.

We arrived to Obunaka, a very rare mixed gender school and the top academic school in the region, and made our way to a room to wait as students finished up their classes and moved toward the chapel hall. The room in which we were sitting allowed me a clear look outside to the path the students traveled toward the chapel. After losing track of the number of students carrying wooden chairs, I turned to the headmaster and asked about the approximate population of the school. “About 1000 students.” The idea of this many students had never entered my mind at any point in the past 24 hours. Then the headmaster warned me that they did not have a PA system and that I’d have to speak very loudly for them to hear me. I replied, “so you’re telling me I can shout at a 1000 students?”

My breath left me as I entered the chapel and turned my head slightly to my right. It took a few minutes for me to regain my composure. It wasn’t fear or anxiety but an overwhelming sense of compassion for a thousand kids, all in very worn blue uniforms. After some singing and a very kind introduction, I stepped up to a wooden table where I laid my bible and my notes.  At this moment, I was really thankful that I stayed up late the night before to make sure my words were simple and clear and that my point would be universal. My message was centered around a single question that I told them could change the course of their life. I have no idea how many tens or hundreds of orphans I was speaking to or how many had chosen or on the verge of pursuing a moral lifestyle that would cut their own lives very short. I was told that there were “many.” My question was about their decision making. “What is the wise thing for me to do?” (Ephesians 5:15-17). In light of my past experience, my current reality, and my future hopes and dreams, what is the wise thing for me to do? I did not form this question myself but was so convinced of its power when I heard Andy Stanley build a series around it. When I was asked to speak to students, I knew this was the question I wanted to develop my message around. I will never forget this experience and the series of images that were seared into my memory.

I arrived back to KIST as the rest of the team was beginning to eat dinner. It was really nice to have this group to talk with about my time at Obunaka. But the incredible day didn’t end at Obunaka. An older couple arrived today at KIST. There’s a long backstory of which I’ll share just enough to make tonight understandable. Lew (who turned 81 today), had lived for many years with his wife in Africa. She passed away last January and I believe is buried in the small graveyard here at KIST. Trace (pictured above), has spent a great deal of time in short term missions. Trace’s husband had divorced her 36 years ago and since then she had prayed that God would bring her a husband. Within the last couple of years, she confessed that she was now content and too old to marry. Trace claims that God reminded her of two words, “Sarah laughed” (check out Genesis 18:9-15). Lew and Trace were acquaintances and last summer they were introduced via email as Lew was at KIST and Trace was preparing to come for a visit to the school. The joke now is that Lew’s pickup line was, “can you bring my medicine when you come?” In the three weeks leading up to her visit, they exchanged 79 emails. There was no belying the interest that grew between these two. Lew proposed during Trace’s visit to Kenya and they were married at her church in Bellington, Washington. They are hilarious. After dinner we watched their wedding video. We all watched with great anticipation of humor and beauty. It was awesome and a tremendously fulfilling end to a fulfilling day.

This picture was taken by Logan, a member of our team, yesterday. Ronald and I met up again this afternoon to run. As gifted a runner as he is, Ronald is also gifted with patience. He gladly runs at a pace that allows me to keep up and, at least for a little while, for us to chat while running. Eventually, windedness and heat begin taking their toll and it’s quiet for the latter stages of our run.

Even more than the runs, I love the conversations we’ve had after running as we sit on the rocks nearby our finishing point. Ronald (27 by the way) is a devoted follower of Christ. His experience and perspective as a Kenyan is both fascinating and sobering.  Yesterday, Monday, we spent most of our time talking about our families. Today we moved into more serious matters. Most of our conversation surrounded dating, marriage, and AIDS. He was completely shocked that Erin and I did not get tested for AIDS before we got married. It is a reality in Africa. Ronald and I talked about the process of getting tested and the counseling you receive. He’s been tested three times in his lifetime. We talked about what dating is like and how and when you go with your girlfriend to get tested. We talked about the emotion of that in preparation of what you do if you’re negative and she’s positive – or vice versa. Today our conversation ended with me sharing pictures of my family that I brought along. It’s a simple plastic photo album including a picture of Erin, Luke and I, a couple other pictures of Luke, as well as a few of my siblings, parents, and (of course) Chandler and Joey my cats. My two favorite comments from Ronald were, “If I ever get to meet your family I feel like I’ll already know them from these pictures and from our conversation” and “wow, those are cats? Do they eat the rats?” To the latter I said no, we feed them dry cat food to which he responded, “you mean they are pets?”

I really enjoyed speaking in chapel this morning. I felt completely at peace. A couple of times during the singing my eyes drifted out the open door in front of me to the bright blue sky along with the trees swaying gently in the breeze. For whatever reason, something Alan said and showed me the other day popped into my mind right before going on stage. With his iphone, he had taken a close-up picture of the very short hair on the back of my head and called it an “African pineapple.”

Guest house in Nairobi

Redeemed Gospel Church outside Nairobi

We arrived safely in Kisumu Sunday evening, flying from DC through Amsterdam to Nairobi. We stayed the night in Nairobi at a beautiful guest house with great security. Apparently many call Nairobi, Ni-robbery as the crime rate is extraordinary at night. Despite this, I was amazed at the cleanliness and beauty of the city and surrounding area. We spent Sunday in Nairobi before catching an evening flight into Kisumu where KIST (Kima International School of Theology) is located. Sunday morning we attended Redeemed Gospel Church. This is Charlie’s church. Charlie was one of our drivers in Nairobi as well as safari guide later in the trip. The stories he told about Masai Mara on the way to church has me crazy excited about the safari. But that’s later. I love animals and as once in a lifetime as safari is, I came to invest and be invested in KIST.

I’ve had a great time in Kisumu. We’ve been here for only 24 hours but in a word it’s been fulfilling. Phenomenal ministry conversation. There is an incredible amount of worldwide ministry experience among the people that have gathered here for the week. Not a huge team – 10 of us – but everyone is dripping with the abundance of life (joys and frustrations alike) spent serving God. I can’t remember the last time I have soaked up so much so willingly.

Tomorrow I speak in chapel. The first of a two part series as I speak on Thursday as well. Tomorrow I’m speaking on the necessity of focus in one training for and, ultimately, living a life of ministry. The apostle Paul uses three illustrations in 2 Timothy 2 that when overlayed provide a fantastic point of reference for us: the solider, the athlete, and the farmer. Thursday, the purpose involves the reality that who and what you listen to will impact what you do.

In the world of life goals, I fulfilled one today. I ran with a Kenyan. I ran with a Kenyan who was literally half my weight. Granted I have about 5 inches on him but still. I’m really glad I’ve lost the first half of my 30lbs before arriving in Kenya. In any case, I was pretty giddy for most of the run. According to Ronald we ran at a level C. I think we finished at an H. We started by running around a field a couple times and then took off down a dirt path where we arrived at the top of a hill overlooking a soccer field. We ran down to this field and around it a couple of times before running back up the hill. Ronald glided up the hill (in soccer cleats) as I lumbered behind him. We returned to the school via the same trail and began what I thought was a couple warm down loops. 1 loop, 2 loops, 3 loops, and I began to worry, 4, 5 and now I was breathing like an ox. I slowed down and he raced off. I waited for him to come back around. As Ronald approached, he started trotting, imploring me to join him. By trot, I mean that kind of run you do when you’re crossing the street and you feign quickness to the car that’s waiting to turn.  And today was simply my “orientation.” Ronald convinced me that we should run everday this week. I may lose that other 15lbs before returning…no joke.

After our run, we sat down on an adjacent rock and shared about ourselves, our families, and schooling. Ronald (not married but “searching”) and his family are refugees from a town in Kenya that was affected by civil war in the very recent past. He showed up to KIST with only the clothes on his back. Now in his second year, Don (the principal here) tells me he’s one of the sharpest students in his theology class. I have a feeling we’ll be spending some time tomorrow talking about my chapel message. I couldn’t believe how excited he was when he found out I was speaking.

That’s all for now.

20 years ago this month

December 5, 2008

A couple of years ago, Erin created a scrapbook with various things I’ve written – small notes, ideas, whatever she found amongst my mess of files that she thought was significant and represented my spiritual journey. When you open the book, on the first page, there is a paragraph I wrote in 3rd grade. Of all places in Africa, I wanted to go to Mali because I knew a missionary family living there that my church supported. Stories they told about life in Africa fascinated me. I wanted to know the people they lived among.

Years later they moved to France. In the summer of 2000, I did my undergrad internship with Don in France. Now, 20 years after originally writing a note about living in Africa, I have an opportunity to finally travel there and do what I described below, even if it is for only 2 weeks.

What I Want to be When I Grow Up