Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Let Your Light Shine in 2014

The mythical start of all things new, except the only thing that will really change by tomorrow is the date. Most of us will still wake up in the same bed, in the same house, with the same life that we went to bed with the day before. Many times we cannot change our lives, at least not quickly. Not in a magical week of sticking to our New Year’s Resolutions any way. However, even as the world around us does not change, our perspective on it can, and the Bible has a fairly simple, if not always easy way of (ahem) looking at it.


“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!" ~ Matthew 6:22-23

The eye was considered the window to the soul and for the Israelite population to which this was written the eye that shows light coming out signified a generous, spirit filled person who sees good in others. The eye that shows darkness signified a selfish, narcissistic person that has a heart only for themselves and their own making their actions bad for everyone else. As Jesus points out in Mark 7, it is what comes out of us that makes us clean, good, spirit filled, and loving. What do our eyes, and subsequently our view of the world tell us about ourselves?

There are three easy questions we can look at to tell us whether or not we are seeing the world with light filled eyes or a darkness that looks more to ourselves than to others.


1. How do you interpret other people’s actions?

If someone is late and you assume that they are lazy, but when you are late you understand that it was because of traffic then you are very normal…but maybe not very Biblical. It is natural to interpret other people’s actions in a negative light and ours in a positive one. But what would happen this year if you gave your co-workers, family, friends, and spouses the benefit of the doubt? Try it and see how it affects your relationship with them as well as your own attitude. See what kind of light can shine out of you.


2. How do you see your future?

I know that this upcoming year is going to be a hard one for us. We have many things going on that are at the hardest stage of growth. They have passed the planning stage and are ready for execution, yet no one is used to them, they are not self-repeating, or automatic for anyone involved. We don’t have one ministry, church, or start-up project that is on autopilot. It is going to be a hard year professionally and personally as we continue our studies and expand our family. Yet we can choose to look at the opportunities and allow this to fill us with energy or we can look at the difficulties and be drained of energy before we start. This is probably the hardest one for me personally because I am a natural troubleshooter, predisposed to see all possible problems, snags, sinkholes, walls, barriers, stumbling blocks…I think you get the idea. Yet how we see the future, hope-filled or hopeless makes a huge difference. How bright is that light coming forth?

3. How do we see our role in the world?   

Are we looking to be blessed in 2014 or to be a blessing to others?

This is probably one of the most important. I was surprised when I started studying this passage to find that what the Israelites referred to as the evil eye was a person who thought of nothing but themselves. Their hunger for their own advancement made them evil in the eyes of the community. As we enter this next year fixated on improving ourselves, having a banner year, or out doing what ever it was we accomplished in 2013 we also need to think about what our true role is. The Bible makes it clear that our purpose is not to be blessed, we trust in God for our blessings. Our purpose is to be a blessing to others. For me this could possibly be the best New Year’s Resolution that we could make. Find ways in 2014 to be a blessing, whether it be small, large, funny, serious, in times of need, or just for the heck of it.


Let your light shine, FOR OTHERS, in 2014.

Monday, December 23, 2013

3 Things I Learned on My Birthday

As I sit with a few different open browsers, 9 Signs That Your Church is Ready to Receive Unchurched People, 5 Signs Your Kids are Entitled, My Top 5 Books on Poverty, I am noticing a trend and it certainly isn’t the reading material. So with that in mind I will share the 3 things I learned on my birthday.

1. I am another year older.
This should be a surprise for no one, yet I don’t know how many times this year I have wished for time to slow down. I have wanted more time to finish one job or another. I have needed a deadline extended or a meeting pushed back. I have celebrated when someone has had to cancel on me because I was trying to figure out how to fit it all in. I also wished for more time with family and friends, a few more hours in the day to make that visit I never got around to or to teach my son how to tie his shoes or skype more with my sister. I am another year older and I need to be okay with that. Time slows down for no one and rich or poor we all get 24 hours in a day. Hopefully being another year older will help me spend my time better.

2. Big Things Don’t Bring Joy, Small Things (especially 6 and 1 year olds) Do
When I got back to the house from my second or third meeting of the day I was greeted Derrick bursting out of the house singing Happy Birthday, one of the few English songs he knows. He had been asleep when I left the house around 6 am and was greeting me for the first time by singing me happy birthday. I walked in to my wife making a birthday cake. I sat down on the floor and Kaleb came up all on his own and gave me a kiss. It was the most amazing five minutes of my day. I have learned that small things bring more joy than larger things because they are accomplished within the moment and are recognizable as good things. Big things, long term goals, strategic plans, and the big picture while all things that I tend to focus on and am good at working towards do not bring that much joy. They take to long to accomplish and are made up of many different moments, of which most cannot really be claimed as our own. I want to start celebrating the small things.

3. I have given up on changing the world
Possibly the most important of all, I have given up on changing the world. It is just too much work. I am still committed however, to changing one person at a time. As my birthday was coming to a close and we were getting the kids ready for bed one of my friends, as Liz calls them, showed up at the house. He was crying, which is not normal for these street tough kids. He had been beat by his guardians and denied food all because he had tried to get medical treatment earlier in the day, something we help him with because he has sickle cell and all of the related illnesses that go with it. It was the end of the day, I was exhausted, and Liz needed help with the kids, but he needed someone to talk to. We sat outside for half an hour and it ended with him coming inside, getting dinner, and spending the night until his guardians could calm down some. Things tend to happen on my birthday. In 2007 my mom passed away on my birthday and it has been hard to celebrate it ever since. This year though, was a little easier. You see, my mom had this thing about focusing on the individual, the one person, student, parent and encourage them, make their day better, provide a small joy at the right time. This became evident by the many heartfelt cards, letters, and well wishes that came as she was sick and the months following her death. The effectiveness of her strategy was made clear. This year was slightly easier though, because I am pretty sure at this point in my life, six years later, that she would be pretty proud of me as I am finally starting to understand the many lessons she had for me and the life that she raised me to live.

I will succeed in using my time well, in small celebrations, and in small steps, one person at a time. Even on my birthday.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Condom Love Tree

Photo: Ulishawai kuwaza jinsi mzunguko wa kimapenzi unavyoweza tokea? Cheza mchezo wa DUME Love Tree, Bofya hapa  http://goo.gl/LgMjK ili kujua.
This ad says, "Do you think you are alone...think again."
The above picture is an ad for Dume Condoms that came across my newsfeed on Facebook. The translation is in the caption at the bottom. This ad got me thinking...

A lot of branding and commercialism happens around Christmas time, this picture is just one 
example that came across as a sponsored ad on Facebook.  So what is our brand? What message is the church putting out at this time of year to the community? Is it loving? Is it well crafted? Is it relevant? A CONDOM COMPANY has used a very Christian idea, love others as much as you love yourself, and is now using it to promote condom sales…and consequently safe sex in an area where there is a prevalence of HIV/AIDS and where husbands cheat on their wives and then refuse to wear condoms.

Now I am not advocating that the church enter the commercialism race. We don’t have the money to compete and we honestly have better things to do, but I do wonder how well we are getting out that message. That is why #GivingTuesday makes me so happy. Not just because we received great support for our ministries, but because it helps get a message out (though again, it was started by a secular organization).

One of my favorite Christmas texts is John 1. John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” If God’s glory is full of grace and truth we have to ask what we are doing to share this grace AND this truth. How are we getting this out there. Gamasara UMC just finished teaching on female circumcision, they did this the month leading up to female circumcision in Gamasara. Tarime UMC has a ministry with street children and leaders spend every Monday visiting the homes of families with children living on the streets trying to reconcile the families and  children and put them back together. They also provide emotional support, prayer, and counseling for families already reconciled. Mwanza UMC is offering free tutoring for neighborhood children while they are off of school for the month of December. 

These are ministries happening in our churches in Tanzania right now. We would love your support for these ministries to continue and grow, but even more so I want to ask…What are you doing to show grace and truth to the world outside YOUR church?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

It's Beginning to Feel a Lot Like Christmas

Sometimes it is hard keeping track of the holiday seasons, but based on random Facebook pictures it seems like the US is gearing up for yet some holiday cheer. Some go getters are putting up trees, lights, and cranking out the Christmas music. We have had our own Christmas season indicator reports from some of the areas that we have churches in. We have heard reports of murder, mugging, and robbing homes as people try to get the money to celebrate the holidays. I don’t want to make Tanzania look bad, but it is reality for some of our church members.  The drive to have money for the holidays causes some to do inhumane things to others. Lacking the chance for a white Christmas, these are some of the things that remind us that the holidays are just around the corner. They are odd indicators to be sure. I have never quite understood the drive around here to steal and kill in order to get money to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, but there it is.

For us though, they are reminders of why we continue investing our time, money, and lives into this area and our churches.  They are reminders of why we are looking to spend another holiday away from our families. They are reminders of what the most important things to invest in are. We have a firm belief that our lives are better spent investing in others than always thinking about ourselves. We believe that the treasures we are able to store up in heaven are not things, but the records of the lives of people that we have invested in. We have a firm belief that spiritual transformation is necessary before physical development can take place, and that is why we continue to work on investing in leaders, youth, and church homes so that foundations can be set, lives changed, and transformation can take place. Maybe in years to come Christmas here will be marked more with good cheer, good deeds, and people who understand why their Prince of Peace came to earth.

As the Christmas season is starting, even earlier this year, as I have recently learned about “Brown Thursday”, the opening of stores on Thanksgiving Day so that people can thank God for everything they already have before going out to buy more stuff. I only ask that you think about what you are investing in this year and how this action reflects our thoughts on the holidays. Here in Tarime it makes no sense to kill for money that will be used to celebrate the Prince of Peace. There it makes no sense to buy a lot of things to celebrate the birth of someone who said, “don’t store up treasures here on earth…but in heaven.” If you agree we would love for you to participate in #GivingTuesday, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, where you can support the work we are trying to do here (more information on the last page), but really we would be happy with anything you do this Christmas season to reflect the nature of the person we are celebrating. Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. 

**This was the article written for our newsletter. Because of the size of the newsletter (I think) it didn't reach a lot of people this month. If you are super interested in other things going on, please let me know and I will try to email out the short updates that we do at the end of the newsletter. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Being the One in the Back

Well, we made it half-way through. It is Saturday, the pastor seminar started on Monday and it will end on Thursday with a celebration at our house with all of the pastors that have attended the two week seminar. It has been a first in many ways, most of them good.

It has been the first time we have hosted a multi-day teaching by someone that is not me.
It is the first time that we have hosted pastors for a seminar from outside of the Mara Region.
It is the first time to really start looking out how this pastor’s college/education center that we want to establish here in Tanzania may possibly work in bringing in teachers, bringing together pastors, and taking another step in the right direction for the United Methodist Church in Tanzania.

The teachings have been amazing, with Claude Kayler, from Covenant Community Church in

Asheville, NC working through sickness, jet lag, and a language barrier to really try and connect with the pastors. From what all of the pastors are saying he has succeeded.

The pastors are connecting, getting to hear about common challenges, and looking at positive ways forward. They are excited about this chance, and have shared with me many things that will be incorporated into future trainings and conference wide projects, some of which are already in the works as early as this December, and others which are still mainly dreams.

One of the best parts of all is that I get to serve. Many times here I am the one up front, but this week I get to be the one in the back. I am making sure food gets delivered on time, things are bought and paid for, small problems (like a tooth extraction for on of our pastors) are taken care of,  and all the while great discussion and teaching is going on…without me. It has been a great time for me to be able to serve and receive the gift of being able to do for others, and to model our calling as Christians to be servants first.

All in all, it has a been a good, if tiring week.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Three-Way Match for Giving Tuesday

We got an email a few weeks back about a matching funds program that is going to be running on December 3rd through the Advance Special Fund, the giving arm of the United Methodist Church. The email stated that all funds that are given on-line on December 3rd will be matched dollar for dollar. That is pretty cool. So cool it was almost hard to believe at first. So I looked into it.

#GivingTuesday is a movement that started in 2012 as a response to the incredible coverage and hype that is received by Black Friday. The thought was that if retailers, who only goal is to make a profit and finish off the year in the black, could benefit from putting so much hype into one day, why can’t the non-profit world do the same thing. So now, to balance out and help us recover (refocus) from Black Friday and the stampedes, and Cyber Monday and credit card debt, there is Giving Tuesday and an actual focus on helping others. For you the “others” can be the churches and ministries of the Lake Zone in Tanzania.

Maybe I should not too surprised at an offer like this. We are used to funding programs and ministries through a two-way matching gifts system. The churches here give time, labor, material, and funds that are then added to by contributing groups from outside of Tanzania. These matching funds become enough to continue the ministries taking place here in Tanzania.

Our goal has never been to be fully funded through outside donations. We actually would prefer to be fully funded from the churches here in Tanzania. Until we grow some more though we have found that taking goals that the churches here create themselves and own and just moving them a little bit closer is a pretty good strategy. There is nothing more important in our work than ownership of that work by the churches.

This last week it was so great to hear a church talk about and plan on how they can build “their” church. It is not my (the missionary’s) church, but theirs. Locally owned and operated so to speak. This wasn’t just talk either. This very week labor and materials are being donated that will make up almost half of the cost of the current phase of construction. It is hard work and it pulls people away from their gardens and work and literally putting food on the table, but it is their work.

Now, on December 3rd, we have a chance not for a two-way match, but a three-way match. Supporters can make donations on-line that will then be matched dollar for dollar by Global Ministries. Don’t believe me or want more details check it out here. Those matched funds will then make their way to Tanzania where they will be matched a third time by the contributions and work of the local churches and ministry programs. 

Our goal is $50,000 in donated funds which will then turn into $100,000 which will then turn into who knows how much as it is matched by churches here. This amount would allow us to focus on ministry, and the sharing of successes and celebrations for the 2014 year instead of always looking for our next fundraiser.

We already have $2500 pledged. We look forward to more. Check out the ministries that would be receiving this report on the donations page of this site. Email ericsoard@umcmission.org or esoard@umcmission.org with any questions, encouragement, or pledges.

And thank you in advance for you support.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Sacred Space and Missing Tradition

*So much has been happening lately that I have been very regular in updates, thoughts, or just about anything. Hopefully I will start catching up soon. At least I will get this one in, even if nothing else follows*

When I first heard about the Jewish understanding of sacred time and space in college I have to admit that it grabbed my attention…but probably not for the right reasons. I have always been a little bit of a nerd and internal romantic (which I believe all nerds are) and am captivated by almost anything that is larger than life for the simple fact that it is larger than life. The realm of myth, legend, and the sacred have always held a fascination for me. So the idea of sacred space and time was captivating to my internal senses. As I left college and entered work in the church world, specifically youth work, I became captivated by something else. A lack of constraint on our time and/or space with God. The idea of communion with crackers and soda, having church in a warehouse or a person’s home, and that the most spiritual hours were between 1 am and 4 am, and the pizza and donut binges of lock-ins. However, I still had the long-standing (some would call it institutional church) to fall back on.

I do not think I realized how much I was falling back on the established church until it wasn’t there. Here in Tanzania the United Methodist Church is still young. Very young. Like around 20 years old. Which makes it younger than I am. Which is weird. This also means that we don’t have very many traditions, ways of doing things, or…sacred space. At first I thought it was sooo cool that we would worship outside, in people’s homes, under tents, or in rented movie theater

space. But eventually I started to miss something and it was my brothers and sisters in Christ here in Tanzania that helped me start to figure it out. They were the ones that wanted church space, a concept I was at first against because I had seen church buildings in the US becomes idols, and, well, it is more expensive than worshiping under a mango tree.

But there is just something about sacred space, the heaviness, the tradition, and the tangible layers of prayers that have been laid on a place year after year, crisis after crisis, and celebration after celebration. There is something about a space being devoted to something bigger than ourselves and our normally daily activities that is special…and well, sacred. Home is where I eat, sleep, laze on the couch, hug aaaand sometimes yell at my kids, make-out with my wife, and clean up anything from toys to mud the dog brings in to baby poo. It is just not the same. Part of the concept of sacred space is designated space, a place where you go, enter with respect, because this space serves a higher purpose than your own selfish designs. It is there for a higher cause and for more than just one person. It is sacred in its designation, use, and devotion.

It was with all of this in mind that we finally agreed to start helping in the construction of churches and the creation of a homes, not for an individual family, but a common, sacred relationship that connects people around a central Creator, first-born brother, and counselor/teacher.

We have been able to buy or receive donated land for five churches and have reached different stages of construction for four of them. We have prayed, celebrated, and given of our time and labor to see these spaces created and they are being used for baptisms, weddings, the dedication of babies, and community meeting space. We have blessed the foundation stone for one church with several more to go.

It is an exciting thing to see these spaces created, used, and start to layer on prayers, community celebrations, and the heaviness of time that will in the future make them pillars for the community and the church, a piece in others own sacred journeys just as other places have been for me.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Christian Math of Life: A Reflection From the Westgate Attack from Someone Who Lived It in Their Head

This last week has had its normal busyness, travel, childcare, homework, and life in general. This in itself is usually enough. However, added to that this week has been an event a few hundred miles away which has stayed in my head and my heart as it unfolded. The attack by terrorists on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.

It may be that it is close to us being within a day’s drive, it may be that for once I had to go through a rather long list of people to make sure that no one I knew was inside the mall when it happened. It may be that my wife and son spent quite a bit of time there only days before the attack started and that the pictures being shown, filled with blood and people stuck in a horrific situation were set against too familiar of a backdrop. Whatever the case may be I have spent the last few days constantly checking the news websites, trying to find it on TV if I was around one, and praying. Praying for those inside, for their families, and for a world where this is becoming more and more common.  And selfishly and honestly praying prayers of thanks that my family had left Nairobi a few days earlier and that I was not one of the people anxiously waiting on news of loved ones and their safety. 

As I have reflected on this drawn out attack and coverage on Westgate, my mind, while concerned with thoughts of international politics and how each country, whose citizens were affected, were going to respond, kept asking why? Not what the organization had to gain through this attack, but why would individuals follow through with something like this. The answer in my mind is incredibly simple in its scope…selfishness.

There is a theology of selfishness that runs throughout our faith as Christians that tries, not to justify, but to make sense of the fallen world we live in. It simply looks like this:

Sin comes from selfishness
Sin = death
Selfishness = death

And that was the horrible example that we saw unfold this week because we live in a world where the ideals of a handful is worth more than the lives of many. Because the cause of a few is placed above the very life of others, others usually characterized not by their shared humanity, but by their differences. It is a story that has unfolded a hundred times over in our world. When people decide that something is worth killing for they are putting their ideals or their desires or their gain over and above the lives and well being of others. And the result in the end is death, never more real in my life than this week.

As Romans 6:23 puts so simply, “The wages that sin pays are death…” This along with Romans 6:8 gives us a full picture, “The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death…”

However, the pictures didn’t stop with just bloodshed and death this week. The newscast also showed pictures of the help of many from police that responded, to people who became instant neighbors in light of this tragedy, to those willing to risk their own lives to help others. A picture that still stands out in my mind is a Kenyan police officer running with an Asian baby cradled in his arms. The sight of people of different nations, races, and most likely religions coming together to help each other, sometimes at the risk of slowing down an escape from a building full of death, but unwilling to leave others behind. These images help complete the picture of the fullness of our theology and more importantly our hope for the world. Romans 6:23 finishes with “…but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The final gift is life and Romans 8:6 may put it even more appropriately, “The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, the attitude that comes from the Sprit leads to life and peace.” 

Christ’s selflessness = salvation
Salvation = life
Selflessness = life

The selflessness of Christ leads to our salvation which leads to life. This week I was able to see that lived out in the flesh as people stopped, even at the sake of their own safety, to selflessly give the hope of life to others. As we continue to reflect on and process this week, and there are many more days ahead for the people involved in this tragedy, it is good to remember that when we put ourselves above others the only result that can be found is death. We have to consider this as the world will start to turn from mourning to words like justice and retaliation. We have to remember that our faith says the only hope of life for the world is a spiritual attitude, a selfless attitude that will lead to life and peace. That side was seen as well this week and I pray that the beauty of sacrifice seen this week will live long after the ugliness starts to fade, and influence us far more than the selfishness displayed this week by a few.

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” ~ Mother Teresa

Lord, let us remember our commonality more than our differences, let us focus on the breath of life that you put into each person, and let us live our lives for each other and not for ourselves. In this way may the life that you intended for us be brought to reality here in this world, and the prayer that many of us pray each Sunday be made real in our lives. “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Friday, August 30, 2013

We Are Building Our Church

Wilbert with 5000 bricks ready to go!
He sometimes gets up as early as 4 or 5 am and his neighbors say that they have never seen this kind of behavior from him. His name is Wilbert and he is the youth chair at Gamasara UMC. He is getting up at 4 or 5 in the morning to start making bricks out of mud. These bricks will soon be fired and ready to build with. Brick making is a fairly common activity around here and can generate good income and requires very little start up capital. The thing about Wilbert though is that he is not making bricks for himself. All of these bricks are for the church.  

Wilbert used to work for a gold mining company, but found that he was working long hours and not getting anywhere. After covering the cost of living so far from home and sending money back to his wife and kids he found nothing left at the end of the month. He came home feeling slightly defeated, and lost. Ever since he entered the church in Gamasara though, he has been a changed person. Never having gone to church in his roughly 30 years of life this has been a big, but welcome change to what his life used to look like, including the purpose with which he now lives. He says that he owes Gamasara UMC for the changes that have taken place in his life and this is one way that he can give back.

Gamasara UMC has almost completed the foundation of the church building and they will then be ready for walls. In the mean time church members have been making bricks, women have been bringing water to mix with mud, others have helped with mixing, but it has been largely the effort of Wilbert that has seen the completion of over 5000 bricks. YEAH, 5000! This work done by the church will save almost $450 on material costs and does not count the other volunteer labor they have been contributing for construction of the foundation. And this is the first 5000, with another 5000 planned after this rainy season to finish construction. That is $900 total that will be saved by the efforts of church members just on bricks. People who make on average $30-50 a month have made a big contribution to see their community have a church that cares about the people around them.

If you are as excited about the changes that our faith can make in someone’s life as I am I would invite you to think about your own contribution, either personally, as a church , or even as a Sunday School group. Can you match Wilbert’s effort? Can you contribute $450 to the building of the church in the Mara District?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Never Too Late

I have heard several pastors lately talk about retirement not being a Biblical practice, that we should never get so old that we stop sharing our faith, being active, and participating in the community. Personally I think these pastors have never met my grandparents. Grandma and Grandpa Soard have been retired for a while now and we are all still waiting for them to slow down. I think the crux of all of this is how involved we chose to be in our communities after the time when we stop working and “contributing” to society in the way that society sees as most productive. I have been privileged to know many people of retirement age, even those that have retired from a professional job, but that have not stopped sharing, being part of the community, and working to make the world around them a more love filled place.

Benard Anigra, one of the local pastors I get to work with is one such person. I have personally had the privilege to sit at his metaphorical feet and learn from his experience of applying scripture to his life and finding ways to live as a servant of God. He is approaching retirement age yet he is still working hard to raise his children well, grow spirit-filled Christians in his church, build a house, and he wants to start school to become a better pastor. He is showing no signs of slowing down or going into retirement. His latest plan is making bricks. He hopes to sell them to help pay for his upcoming wedding.

It is common here for people to become husband and wife without having a formal wedding either in the church or in front of the local government. One day they just start living together. Benard and his wife have always been faithful to each other and are raising their children in a great home, but they have never had a chance for their wedding to be blessed in front of God and the church. When Benard talks about the wedding, what they want to do, and why he is willing to work so hard to through an expensive wedding when he has already been with his wife for so many years, you can hear the love he has for his wife and family come out.

Benard remains an inspiring person and someone that makes me a little less afraid of growing up (a secret fear of mine). Maybe someday I can be just like him. Watch the video below to see a little of the craziness that is this pastor. He is the one dancing and his wife is the solo singer. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Home Life

I have been privileged to do some cool things in the course of the church work we have been involved in here in Tanzania and it is always exciting to see buildings, programs, and churches grow. As much as I am not one for big events, lots of fuss, etc. it is still exciting to see how many people come out for a big event or to see a church that is only two years old have to move because their current space is just too full of people. However, it is often the normal, boring, quite things that I think most show God’s love for His people.

A few weeks ago we had the privilege of being involved in some of this normal, everyday stuff, that will hopefully turn into a great love story at some point between God and a little boy. One of our churches in Tarime has a ministry of presence with the street children in Tarime. Basically we have some church members that keep tabs on them, keeping track of who is coming and going, how they are getting money for food, and being a surrogate parent when needed. It is not a ministry that we get to be involved in very often because of our crazy schedules and traveling. However, this one time the relationship between church leadership and these kids found that one of them has sickle cell and his blood count had become dangerously low. We were called in to see what we could help with. We contributed a little bit and he was able to go to the hospital and be tested for his blood type so that we could know if anyone in the church was a donor match. It turns out that I was a match. Long story short I was able to go to the hospital, donate blood, make sure he got some other medicine to help him produce more blood, and he spent three days resting and recovering at our house. It was nothing special, and we certainly didn’t act alone. He joined in with our other kids in playing and eating and on Monday of the next week we were able to reunite him with his grandmother, though there is still tension at home and still work to be done in restoring that relationship and the things that made him run to the street in the first place.  That is where the church ministry is stepping in to help make this transition possible, and hopefully as they continue to learn the church can continue to reunite families and children.

In the end it took some time, a little bit of money, but mostly being available to do the little things in the midst of big plans, meetings, and other “more important” things. It was a simple act to welcome another child into our home, it seems like on some days, between our children, Derrick’s friends, and visitors we have a pretty full house anyway. One more was not a stretch for us, and he did his own laundry J. We can only pray that this ministry, of which we were able to be a part, will result in a life long relationship of love between him and his Father. I pray that you can also find ways, ordinary, simple, right in your own home, ways to Be the Church. 

**no picture posted for obvious reasons
**If you want to head over to another blog that we facilitate you can see how you can support the Tarime UMC street children ministry, and other ways that the church in Tanzania is trying to Be the Church. www.dontgobethechurch.com  Check out the especially the T-shirt section.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Tanzania Annual Conference

Leave at 6 am only to arrive home again at 10 or 11 pm pretty much sums up our experience of hosting the Tanzanian Annual Conference. Which is probably why so much of it was a blur, however of the parts I do remember it went pretty well. The Mara District, where we are, is the newest district in the conference, which means that we don’t have a lot of people or resources to pull off hosting 80 people for a 3 day meeting. Yikes! Yet, we received a lot of compliments from everyone attending. They enjoyed the choirs (video on Facebook), worship went well, the special guest showed up to opening worship, everyone got enough food, and we finished almost on time every night. Not too shabby considering it was not only our first time to host Annual Conference in Tanzania, but the first time for all but three people from our district to even attend an annual conference in Tanzania (Liz and I included).

The end of Annual Conference concludes the second chapter of a time where perspective is becoming increasingly important in my life. I am realizing that how big or small our view of our life and situation is makes a large impact on how we see and understand things. This was true during my grad classes as I was able to pull back from life in Tarime, TZ and look at the bigger picture of my call and place in my work (possibly more on that later) and it has been true during Annual Conference.

Perspective for our district. The churches within our district all sent people to help with Annual Conference. We had choirs from different churches, people to help cook and serve food, people to help with transportation of delegates, people to run the sound system, people to make sure that everyone had a place to sleep (a hard job when we had to arrange for almost 100 people to stay in hotels or in people’s homes). All of these people have been active in our local churches, some for years, some for a few months. Almost none of them had any idea how large the United Methodist Church is. They had never seen anyone outside of our 6-7 churches here in the Mara District. They had certainly never met anyone from outside of Tanzania associated with the United Methodist Church (except for us). As we wrapped up the meeting they were all tired from working so hard, but they were also all inspired by the perspective they had gained, that they are not alone, that they were part of a much larger organization, a much larger church than they previously thought. It was a shift in perspective of many of our church members who were present at Annual Conference.

Perspective for our work in the district. When I read out final numbers for our district report to the Annual Conference we got a round of applause. We don’t have large churches, only 549 men, women, and children between 7 churches. We can sometimes get frustrated with the 2 steps forward 5 steps back progress that we seem to be making with most of the projects or churches we are working with. What I was reminded of was that in 2011 when one person went to Annual Conference that she only had a report to give from one church of maybe 30 people. All of the others had either closed or had lost connection with the district because of a rash of bad leadership within the district. In just two short years the Mara District has made large leaps and bounds of progress, I just had to be reminded of that.

Perspective on our work as missionaries. No matter what you may think, I don’t like to be the center of attention, certainly not in front of that many people. I like talking about other people or other things, but under no circumstances am I comfortable talking about myself...or having others do so. I was fighting to not turn red in the face, and Liz lucked out as she was outside at the time when we received a large dose of needed encouragement. One of the special guests to Annual Conference was Joseph Mulongo from DR Congo. As still relatively new missionaries we can never be sure how well we are doing. Rev. Mulongo, a district superintendent of a large district in North Katanga Conference of the DRC was quick to assure us, in front of the entire conference, that we were clearly coming to our work in Tanzania as servants. That is a label I can wear with some confidence. A posture that we strive for, but can never be sure if we are achieving.

Overall Annual Conference, as tired as we were on Monday as all of the guests left, was a time of perspective as missionaries and church members alike gained a good perspective of the work of the church and our place in it.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Staying at the Table

Sooo, I am back in school. I mean, I knew it would come one day, but that doesn’t make it any easier. This week I started a three week intensive residency in Uganda, Kampala. Before the residency I had to read, write papers, read, and write more papers. Did I mention the reading? Because I am talking about over a thousand pages. After all of that preparation I am happy to be in residency, in class, and in discussion with an amazing mix of people. I am working on a Master’s of International Development and am sitting in a classroom with American’s working all over Africa, with a Congolese working in the USA, and with a Canadian, and of course African’s working in Africa, mainly Malawi. It has enriched the discussion and has brought a vast amount of experience and culture into one room.

What I have learned so far...stay at the table.

Our first class was on economic development. It was the class I was dreading the most. It has math, and graphs, and economic theories that have global impact, in differing ways, and scales, and... Does it sound confusing, because it was/is. What I found though was that I could get it, I could figure it out, if I stayed with the material and engaged in the conversation going on in the class at the time.

I have been in Tanzania over three years now and I am finding that I make a decent cultural translator. I understand the Tanzanian culture and can explain it to others. AND the other Africans in the room agree with me. Which means I am getting something right. That is only possible because of the dozens of conversations had, meals shared, tears shed, questions asked, and observations made. This may sound like a small thing, but it is kind of a running joke among Africans that interact with Americans about how much we tend to miss, misinterpret, and how many times we generally, unknowingly put our foot in our collective cultural mouth. In full disclosure, I have had my fair share of these moments over the last three years. We learn from our failures as much as our successes.

Through all of this I have learned that we need to stay at the table. In all of our discussion, we over and over again returned to relationships. Most of us, while we are studying international economic theory actually work in a small area, with small groups of people. That is where development really takes place. In all of our discussion about how to avoid patronage, how to attract buy in, how to lead in multi-cultural settings, how to do community development the conversation inevitably turned back to relationship building.

Relationship building is impossible if you don’t stay at the table.

When we don’t learn the language, when we don’t listen to the stories, when we don’t pause to build relationships with people outside of our socioeconomic class (deep relationships). We fail to stay at the table, we fail to do ministry, and we fail to BE the CHURCH.
So go forth, take the light of the Christ into the world, and park it at a table with someone you don’t know. It will be worth it.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Be the Church...Another Manifestation

This site has always attempted to be about following God. Liz nor I have ever been very good at following just with our thoughts or our mouths. We have never been able to  talk about wanting to do something without getting the itch to do it. This has taken us to some interesting places and into some interesting situations. Some of which has even made it into this blog.

Well, this desire to be active, present, involved in the lives of others has taken on a new shape recently. We want to try and share a few more of these stories with you and we want others to share their stories with us. And we want to remind people in a strong, but hopefully not offensive way, that all Christians are called to Be the Church.

With that in mind I invite you to check out this site that has just opened up:
A site that is all about being active in our pursuit of God and present with others.

*If you want a cool t-shirt that helps remind you to be active in the world and that will get people asking questions then swing by that page of the new site and find out about a new thing we are trying out to support the church here in Tanzania so they can expand ways in which they are already being the church.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Methodism IS Still Useful

**For reference to the title see my earlier blog found here.

There is a website for everything. I am convinced of this after I searched for light bulb jokes (you know…how many (insert group here) does it take to change a light bulb) and found that even this has a website dedicated to it. I searched for light bulb jokes on different denominations of the Christian faith. This is a small sample of what I found. 

How many Charismatics does it take to change a light bulb?
                - Only one since his/her hands are in the air anyway.
How many Calvinists does it take to change a light bulb?
                - None. God has predestined when the lights will be on.
How many Pentecostals does it take to change a light bulb?
                - Ten. One to change the bulb and nine to pray against the spirit of darkness.
How many TV evangelists does it take to change a light bulb?
                - One. But for the message of light to continue, send in your donation today.

As you can probably guess there are many, many more light bulb jokes for the Christian faith, but I figured you got the point already.

So what about the United Methodists?

How many United Methodists does it take to change a light bulb?
                - 25. Twelve on the church council to appoint a task force. Five on the task force to investigate   different kinds of light bulbs. One to actually change the light bulb. Two to worry about the             ecological impact and five to talk about how the old one was better and we don’t need to     change the light bulb we just need a renewal movement of said light bulb.

What you may ask does this have to do with our ministry, life in Tanzania, or ANYTHING of any significance on planet earth? It is this.

Methodism is frequently translated into Swahili as “taritibu” which means process or the order of doing things. While this is not a bad translation and no one will argue that Methodists don’t like their committees I had a chance this weekend to teach the church in Mwanza where the name “Methodist” really came from. I had a chance to teach about our rich history, how the overhead view of England’s development and challenges at the start of Methodism can be reflected in modern day Tanzania, and how this new movement used the means of grace, works of piety and mercy (among other things) to move forward God’s kingdom in a time when it was badly needed. We discussed how the name Methodist comes not from our love of the Robert’s Rules of Order, but from the way in which early Methodists regularly observed prayer, Bible study, confession, fasting, and helping the poor among their neighbors.

It was something that came alive for the church in Mwanza. Earlier that day I had discussed with the church leaders some of their challenges for ministry. They included women wanting to study the Bible, but not being able to read or write, the church wanting to come together for a special day of prayer but people not being able to take a day off of work or risk the income that allowed their families to eat. Another, obviously painful challenge, included the frustration of the leaders who confessed to wanting to help the people in their church family with food or money for a hospital visit, but not having enough money in their own pockets to give. These challenges were brought to a new light as we started talking about the two sided coin of works of piety and mercy, of a faith that followed the laws of loving God and loving neighbor in a way that sees both the follower and the neighbors transformed. This church wants to follow God, but they understand that this means also having the means to help others.

In the end, as we were finishing up, I issued a challenge to the church that brings together works of piety and works of mercy in a way that I think pays strong head to our heritage as Christians and Methodists. It is a challenge that I am taking up and that I would like you (who are reading this…yes you) to think about as well.

I asked them to pick one day a week to fast. Any money they saved on food that day would go to the church fund for emergencies which they use for food, hospital bills, funerals, etc. as people have need. I am starting this today and will be sending the money I save to the various churches we work with who have an emergency fund. I would like you to consider the same. Send it the money to a food pantry or some other ministry that helps people without enough. If you don’t know one you can always send the money over here. I know plenty of people that can use it.

How much of a testimony to our heritage would it be if a whole church did this and could help fund a food pantry from the results of our fasting and prayers?

I hope that our heritage as Christians is not just a nice trophy to put on the mantle, but a living, breathing guidance for our lives today.

**In full disclosure I made up the light bulb joke on United Methodists. Others exists, but I didn’t like them as much.