Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Mighty God: The Greatest Christmas Gift

This morning, as I was up early reading, Kaleb woke up and came and cuddled with me. It is Christmas Eve and since this is only his second Christmas in the US in his seven years of life he does not always understand the unspoken signs that Christmas has arrived since they are so different from what we have in Tanzania. So we started talking about Christmas Eve, Christmas day, what we are celebrating, why we give gifts, etc. It is one of those quiet moments that I value so much with my children when I get to share without the constant background noise that seems to invade the life of a family of five.

Mostly Kaleb and I talked about why we give gifts and what gift to us does Christmas represent which is the most important gift of all. Today I want to look at the amazing gift we receive on Christmas by reflecting on the second title bestowed on Christ through the prophecy of Isaiah 9:2-7, Mighty God. Feel free to check out my reflections on Wonderful Councilor here. Walter Brueggemann focuses in on two major points with this name. The first is that the term Mighty refers to military might so that Jesus is being recognized as the Lord of Hosts or as the prince over the forces of the heavenly realm. The second point is that Jesus is a carrier of the divine. It was an understanding in the nation of Israel that the king was the connection point between the people and God, and therefore was a carrier of the divine. Jesus works to take this a step further in that he is not just a connection between the people and God, but by being divine himself, he carriers the spirit of life inside of himself and brings it as a gift to all people through his birth.

Psalm 103:3-5 talks about what this new gift of life is like. Jesus comes to forgive, heal, redeem, satisfy our desires with good things, and crown us with love and compassion (emphasis added). Jesus, as the carrier of the divine, brings us these gifts on Christmas. Does this match up with the gifts that we normally feel like we are getting on Christmas?

When I was a youth director I would take the youth Christmas shopping a few Saturdays before Christmas with the goal of having some fun and giving the youth a chance to buy Christmas presents for their families. We certainly had fun, but I am not sure how many presents were purchased for their family members J. It was a crazy time of the year to be at the mall because at that time of year the mall was full of hurried, harassed, harried people trying to get ready for Christmas, trying to get ready for a life giving Christ by finding the perfect thing for others.

We do this too often. We are trying to buy our way into this life we have been promised by the birth of a Mighty God onto earth, when it will never be possible. I have enjoyed over the last several years the shift I have seen towards experiences over things, but I don’t think we are quite there yet because the focus is still on a fulfilment by something temporary, just as the Israelites made the mistake of trying to find security in an earthly king who would one day pass away.

I hope that we can focus even for a few moments this year on receiving the gift of a Mighty God, the gift of a life giver, and reimagine what responding to that gift should look like by thinking of how we can…
·      Give of ourselves to others
·      Give ourselves a break (let’s stop being afraid of missing out)
·      Give ourselves in worship* to God

How can we give life to others in a variety of ways so that this world can be filled with life as God intended it to be instead of the death of morals, death of community, death of individuals who have been overwhelmed by lack of connection, death of authenticity and honest living, death of caring for those outside of our tribe? The list of precious things dying could go on and on, but today we get to receive a gift of life as a Mighty God is born as a new baby. And that is the greatest Christmas gift of all.

*Christmas time in Tanzania is always marked, not by giving so many things, but by spending time in worship (often all day on Christmas day or multiple days around Christmas). I miss that sometimes.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Wonderful Councilor: How Jesus calls us to reimagine the Christmas Season

I am using Walter Brueggemann's Names for the Messiah: An Advent Study this advent season as a different way to move through the Advent Season. This is especially helpful since we won't be at one consistent church this Advent Season which makes it hard to keep a consistent theme or teaching throughout this time of year.

The book is focused on Isaiah 9:2-7 and the four names that were used in that passage. These names, while originally meant for a different king have come to focus on what type of Messiah or King that Jesus will be. The first one is Wonderful Councilor. 

What Walter Brueggemann focuses on in his introduction of this first name is that many of us, when we hear the title of Christ being announced, that Jesus is being called a “wonderful counselor” but in reality the name is “wonderful councilor.” Jesus is not being called to listen to people and give advice, instead he is being announced as the new government administrator who is responsible for bringing about a new government.

As Christians we acknowledge that Advent, or the Christmas season, is a time of preparation for the birth of Christ. What the first of Jesus’ titles in Isaiah 9 is reminding us of is that the Christmas season is not about the beginning and ending of feelings of good cheer, but rather the beginning of something more. This idea of the Christmas spirit being all year round is common and a commonly echoed wish in many of our lives during Christmas time. So many good things happen around Christmas like food and clothing drives, donations for various causes, volunteering at various non-profits, and a focus on gift-giving to others. It is a time of the year known for transforming scrooges into generous benefactors and for reminding us what is truly important, such as families and relationships.

Jesus however, came to implement a new kingdom, not simply a slightly more generous season of giving. His title as councilor ushers in a new government with new policies, programs, and values. The transfer of administrations often means new government employees, campaign promises to fulfill, and voters to satisfy. The difference this time is that the agenda is not being set by a human hand, but God’s own hand.

The point however, is that this is a season of preparation for permanent change, not simply as a nice sentimental suggestion, but as a requirement. Therefore, we need to seriously think about how to move from the charity of the moment, towards a new way of living. Moving from soup kitchens to removing food deserts and reducing homelessness. Moving from dropping coins in a budget to dropping consumerism as a way of life with is actually leading to the death of our planet, economy, and family relationships. Move from volunteering in a great cause to building relationships with vulnerable or oppressed populations, relationships which will inform our lives and living year around.

We need to make this change as Christians, not just if we want to, as if Jesus’ title was “Wonderful Counselor” and he had made these suggestions to us while in a little office with a leather couch, but remembering that Jesus’ title is Wonderful Councilor and he is coming to institute a new way of life for all people.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Advent Anticipations

There is a saying that you should “prepare for the unexpected.” This is similar to the Boy Scout motto that I heard over and over again growing up in Boy Scouts, ‘be prepared.’ Which to be honest sounds great when you are younger but at some point begs some pretty important questions.
·      What are you preparing for?
·      How do you know what to prepare for?
·      How do you stay constantly prepared for the unknown?

Obviously we can prepare for many eventual outcomes in our lives and should, but consciously or unconsciously we still have to make decisions about what we are preparing for, what is it that we are anticipating coming?

Advent is all about anticipating and preparing for the birth of Christ, but if it is only preparing for the birth of a child, born into poverty in a manger who we can now oooo and aww over then our preparations are going to fall well short of what they should be. We will not actually be prepared for the significant shift that Jesus’ birth and life heralded in the earthly and cosmic realms.

Therefore let us anticipate and prepare for the WONDERFUL COUNSELOR, MIGHTY GOD, EVERLASTING FATHER, and PRINCE OF PEACE that Isaiah proclaims. Let us prepare for the anointed one, the messiah, who came to lead us into a new life. Let us anticipate the personal, communal, political, spiritual, and socio-economic changes that Christ’s birth signify during this Christmas Season.

There will be more coming about each of these names and what they signify about our preparations during advent that I will post over the next four weeks.

Update: This material is inspired by reading through Walter Brueggemann's Names for the Messiah: An Advent Study which I am doing for myself this advent season. 


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Rock City Half-Marathon

Sunday, October 22nd, 2019 was an overcast and dark day, but Wesley College staff still participated in their first ever race. Seven staff members from Wesley College ran the 5 kilometer race as part of the Rock City Marathon while I ran the half-marathon, 21 kilometers. Not only was it a lot of fun to promote something new to the staff, but it was also inspiring to watch them come together around this city wide event. It was also exciting to see them work together for the sake of their students.
Wesley College is dedicated to building up the community through education. Many of the students at Wesley College come from impoverished backgrounds and are the first ones in their family to attend college. On average 40% of Wesley College students receive some kind of financial assistance so that they can finish their certificates or diplomas programs. So the staff decided to see how they could contribute by finding people to sponsor them in the race with the funds going towards the scholarship fund from which Wesley College supports its students. The staff were able to raise 900,000/= towards scholarships which covers one year of school fees for a diploma student.

This benefits students like Neema* who was orphaned at a young age and grew up with a neighbor, who provided for the basic needs, but could not afford to send someone from outside of the family to school. Neema received a scholarship for her first year at Wesley College and finished her certificate in community development. Due to her effort and energy in class the staff took an immediate liking to her and even helped her with money to get back and forth from her field practicum, a requirement for all students. The chance for her to be able to return and finish her diploma in community development is a huge step towards lifting her out of poverty and ensuring that she has a foundation for her life which would have otherwise left her without a family and without a future. 

I am very thankful to all the Wesley College staff who participated, raised funds, and made sure that students like Neema can finish their education. And I am thankful that I didn't wake up too sore on Monday morning.

*Name changed

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Scholarship Selection and the Importance of Proximity

I will continue to maintain that proximity is the most important part of development. If anyone, and I mean anyone, truly wants to make a difference in the world you have to be close to the people that you want to work with, empower, and ultimately help. The only thing that comes in a close second is supporting those who are in close proximity. That is why you find me where I am, in Tanzania, doing work that I love, but which I know would be almost impossible to do from anywhere else. Today I had another example, among many, as to why proximity is so important.

This afternoon the scholarship committee of Wesley College sat to figure out which of the students who applied for scholarships was going to receive them. We had 10 new scholarships to assign and almost 30 students who had made requests. What I can say is that all of the students had the grades, some better than others, but all of them will do well at Wesley College. All of the students have financial need, they were orphans, single mothers, students who are young adults who have been left on their own with no family support, small holder farmers whose entire family makes less than $75 a month. And I saw the members of the committee dig into what is a beautiful and sometimes depressing struggle. 

I would say that there are many people in the world who could help contribute to these students so that they could study and finish their college education. Some of you reading this may have already done so. But many, many of the people who have this ability do not know these students. They don’t know the students without parents who are raising themselves and trying to find some piece of calm in their lives to study. They don’t see how their grades slowly improve the longer they are in the Wesley College environment of caring teachers, daily prayers, and encouraging classmates. They don't know the single mother with 12 children, 2 of whom are currently studying at Wesley College. They don’t get a chance to share in the dreams of students who see their chance at education as a way to change their communities, but lack a simple $500 to be able to cover their tuition fees. I say that because I believe if they did know them and did see them, that we would have been able to choose many more students for scholarships today.

At the same time the scholarship committee was able to experience something new today. They have the proximity and have had the proximity for much of their lives, and for the first time they were given the ability to get to decide who to help. They were faced with the dilemma of having the resources to help change someone’s life, even though it wasn’t enough to change everyone’s. And the conversation, the comments made, the way that they were pulling for the students and seeing the possibilities for change within their lives through this small gift is to be honest one of the more inspiring things I have seen in a long time. They know these students since many of them are returning students, having finished their certificate level and are now applying for diploma. They started asking questions about how we get the scholarships, how we could raise more, and what they could do in order to help. It was because of their proximity that it became something so real, raw, and powerful within this small group of staff.

So I say again, proximity. Get to know the people around you. Get to know the vulnerable populations, and get to know their names, faces, and stories. And if you feel so moved, consider supporting scholarships at Wesley College. We have a group of very committed, very thoughtful staff who are hoping and praying for a few more scholarships so that one more orphan, or one more young adult hauling and selling water or making handmade soap for a living can get their education and transform their life.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Leading Outside of Ourselves

There are more than enough books on leadership out there and just as many on management. The challenge is that so many of these resources talk about the how and the what exhaustively, but when it comes to the WHY we often only get half the picture. The Why often talked about in leadership is why good leadership is needed and what happens when good leadership is lacking. As Christians though we need to take things a step further. Our Why of being leaders should start with Why we should be a leader in a specific time or space?

Nehemiah was a great leader and accomplished major changes for Jerusalem. The book of Nehemiah is a great study on good leadership and good management, but there are two important statements about leadership made in chapter 1 of the book of Nehemiah which should never be far from our hearts and minds. 

Leadership starts as a response to a need or pain found in the world. Nehemiah was not looking for an opportunity to escape, there is actually no indication that he was dissatisfied at all with his lot in life. Unlike Daniel he had not rebelled against being in the house of a foreign king, and later on we see that the king can discern that something is bothering Nehemiah indicating that up until that point he was fairly satisfied. What shook Nehemiah and grew in him a hunger to work for change in Jerusalem was the pain that the people were going through. The fact that they were defenceless, lacking dignity, and being taken advantage of. Leadership should never start as a need for affirmation or praise, but because of a missing piece seen in someone’s life or in a community or an organisation which we can fill and in filling bring holy transformation. 

The second lesson we learn in Nehemiah 1 is that God given leadership starts with putting God at the center. Nehemiah, before creating his plan, before appealing to the king for help, before doing anything else wanted to make sure that he was right with God. He repented, spoke with humility, and placed himself and his family in God’s care. The temptations of leadership are many, as are the stresses. It is easy to start with good intentions and to still be caught up in the title, the respect we get, the people who listen to us, and even the rush of the job so that we stop setting time aside for what is important. Things get tight and in positions of leadership it is easy to start responding based on the needs of the job or our own needs in fulfilling the job instead of remembering to respond to the needs of people and the cry of the world for redemption. It is at those times that we have to remember who is at the center of what we do…it isn’t us. This humility and God centeredness is at the heart of being a leader because it keeps us grounding to our original task, which is to respond to the needs of others and not our own. 

This not only sets the foundation for Nehemiah’s leadership style and principles, but should also be reflected in our own. 


Sunday, August 11, 2019

Finding Yourself, Finding Home

Traveling always teaches us something about ourselves. Over the years we have seen many volunteers come. Some find adventure, some find relaxation, some find purpose, many find friends but only a few find themselves and home.

Kimberly Watson came as a businesswoman ready to take a break and find out what God had store for her next in life. When I picked her from the airport she was full of energy, even after a full 30 hours of traveling. She looked surprisingly refreshed! We quickly became friends as I introduced her to Mwanza. What we did not expect was the friendship we would form. Kimberly helped us personally through a big house move while Eric was in America. She played with the boys, went out to eat with us, texted constantly and was a rock to many within the Mwanza community, in and outside of Wesley College. She worked tirelessly to be “mama Kim” to a group of younger men that were living in Mwanza without their families. She made sure they ate, had fun, and I think grew better for having known her. All of this is not even to explain her impact on Wesley College!

Kim worked alongside Reiko, Noel, and Eric to get Tukuwe: Wesley College’s Entrepreneurship Center launched using her business skills, knowledge, and heart for ministry to begin something new in Mwanza and at Wesley College. In the time that she was here Tukuwe was able to start piloting three businesses through the incubator and have their first stakeholder’s meeting to introduce the idea to the wider Mwanza community. This may sound like a simple step, but nothing here is simple and the quick development of the business incubator idea into a reality shows a passion for work that Kim and Noel, Head of Business and Entrepreneurship at Wesley College both have. This including meeting with local businesses, working on a financing model for the incubator and the businesses, and most of all looking into the most common challenges for Small to Medium Size Businesses in Mwanza (SMEs).

After two months and quite a bit of work Tukuwe is shaping up and getting ready to officially launch, Kim headed back to the US, and some of us in Mwanza are forever changed. We are already excited for her next time around.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Women’s Health, Men’s Health, Construction, and Most Importantly: Relationships

“Good works is giving to the poor and the helpless, but divine works is showing them their worth to the One who matters.” 
Criss Jami, Killosophy

Geita UMC started in 2016 with help from Vestavia Hills UMC. This year a combined team from Trinity UMC and Vestavia Hills UMC in Birmingham, AL came back to help the church take an important step, building a permanent church building. Geita UMC has been worshipping on rented land, under a tarp since it began three years ago, and now the walls are up on a new building.

However, the most important part of the trip was continuing to see relationships built and encouragement for the mission in the Geita District of Tanzania Annual Conference. Members from Trinity UMC can in 2016 and helped build a pastor’s house in Katoro. We have been discussing for over 2 years their return to continue in the partnership, and this year they were able to come back and bring some friends.

After raising funds for the purchase of land and beginning construction on a new church a group of 8 individuals came to work alongside Pastor Joseph Tanganyika and his congregation to complete the building walls. Pastor Amy from Trinity UMC held a pastor’s seminar on spiritual gifts for all the pastors, evangelists, and district leaders. The team also talked about community health in the Geita community around the church. Days for Girls kits (reusable sanitary pads) were well received as a way to ensure that a monthly menstrual cycle does not keep girls out of school or women away from work. Discussions were also had about hygiene, sanitation, and the power of choice in the relationships among men and women. The men in the area also received similar training about relationships, safe sex choices, good health practices, and had a discussion on healthy roles of men in the community. Being the partnership that it is the teaching was done jointly between the visiting team and church members led by Pastor Joseph.

They all worked extremely hard in their areas of health and construction but most importantly, they built relationships. Individuals who had come before were well remembered and new team members were able to experience the beauty of Tanzania, which is always held and most vibrantly displayed in its people. We look forward to seeing how this partnership between churches in Birmingham and Geita continues.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Welcome again, Michael Parishner!

Emmanuel Center for Women and Children hosted it’s first Individual Volunteer in Mission for 2019! Michael Parishner joined us for 4 weeks during his semester of service this year. He was an extremely quick learner and everyone truly loved having him around.

Michael came in and quickly got to work without hesitation.  He was not fluent in Swahili, but he learned how to respectfully build relationships with those whom he worked with.

Michael came in to help our income generating projects to move forward. There were several projects started in Tarime with the goal of helping the ministries there become more sustainable, while also economically empowering the communities around them. Unfortunately it is not as simple as bringing in some equipment and starting a business. When the goal is a social enterprise with a double bottom line it is important that those involved, who are usually not business people, receive a lot of training and are truly prepared for the work that they are being asked to do.

Michael was a huge asset to the chicken, sewing, and brick projects as he developed financial templates and outlined manuals to assist in making things more viable for the future development of those projects.  Michael succeeded in helping the leaders involved in these projects to move their thinking from simply making things move from day to day to really looking into the future and how these projects can be successful in transforming their communities and providing a sustainable income to the projects themselves.

It was a great experience for everyone involved including Michael who blogged throughout his time here and said,

“I have learned how to do with so much less than what I am used to in the United States or even other mission sites and I know I am better for it. I have learned about and respect the missionaries and their family and see how their impact is really helping the people here. And I know when I leave I will miss it. And the random smell or sight or feeling will bring me right back here and I will long to come back.”