Wednesday, October 26, 2016

“Doing what's right is seldom easy.” ― Janice Hardy

The other day, Karen and I were sitting on the back porch watching our little dog, Sissie, and thinking about things.  We realized that fifteen years ago we hadn’t even been to Africa and would have laughed at anyone who suggested we might one day be living here.  But fifteen years ago we had some big problems.  I had decided to go all in and borrow money on everything and from family and friends to try to make enough on the boom to become debt free.  Sadly, I got in on not the boom but the bust and lost everything.  I was half a million dollars in debt with only about two hundred thousand dollars in assets.  We were forced to declare bankruptcy and lost our house, our cars, my father’s inheritance, and my job as an associate pastor at a large church.  We lost a lot, but we found a lot, too.  We found who our real friends were, the ones who stood by us and helped with finances and emotional support (many were members of the church I had been serving and still support us here).  We found that “things” are not the key to happiness, and we found that relationships are the most important blessings of all.  We also found our selves and our new direction.  We found new meaning to life and new meaning in little things.  Over the next couple of years, we found where we would be living the rest of our lives, right here in Tanzania.  We found that even the things we still had, had to be sold or given away so we could follow God’s call.  It hurt at first, but the more we gave away the better we felt.  We found so many good things through all that pain that now we can’t even remember feeling any loss at all.  I’m not recommending this as a way to find yourself, it was painful, embarrassing, and somewhat humiliating.  What I think it was, was pruning.  You know from that chapter in the Gospel of John where Christ says that He is the vine and we are the branches?  Christ goes on to say that if we bear fruit, we will be pruned so that we can bear more fruit.  I must have read those words a thousand times but never thought about the pain of pruning.  Christ was right though, especially in our case.  We got pruned down to the nub but that was what it took.  When we look back at how much more fruit we have borne since then, it is staggering.  We are where we are supposed to be.  We are doing what we are supposed to be doing—and we are bearing fruit for Christ.  We didn’t know it at the time, but our indebtedness was choking the life out of our vine and keeping it from doing what it should have.  It seems strange to thank God for bringing you pain and humiliation but that is exactly what we do, every day.  I have known convicts serving life terms and quadriplegics confined to wheel chairs that have both said that the bad things that happened to them were the best things that could have happened.  Both told me that without their respective imprisonments that they would never have found Christ and never discovered the hope and joy that He brought them.  Both of them have been bringing others to Christ ever since.  God bless all who have endured God’s pruning to bear more fruit.  
There’s another part of that passage that needs to be mentioned.  Christ said that the vines that were not bearing fruit would be cut down and destroyed as worthless.  It would seem that pain and embarrassment are not the worst options from that passage.  Give me more pruning if need be, as I have seen the good that comes of it and truly fear the consequences of not bearing fruit for Christ.  The trouble with reading the Bible and believing its words is that you had better check out your life and make sure you are bearing fruit and not being worthless.  Just sayin’.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

“In the days of the frost, seek a minor sun.” ― Loren Eiseley

We are called by Christ to change the world but not the whole thing all at once.  Rather, we are called to change the world of one person, one at time.  Yes there is an election coming in the United States but there is no ballot anywhere with just the names of those running for president.  There are representatives, senators, state offices, city and municipal leaders, resolutions and initiatives and many of these may be decided by just one vote—maybe yours.  My sister had to Google a bunch of names and issues to find out what was going on and I suspect that’s not a bad idea for a lot of you.  You also need to remember that you are important and that your vote is important.  In a democracy, things can be decided by just one vote.  It is very important that you do your part.  Perhaps you need to remember this story, originally written by Loren Eiseley and rewritten by countless others taking credit for it, but the message always remains the same—and it’s a good one.

“Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.  One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.  As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.
He came closer still and called out "Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?"  The young man paused, looked up, and replied "Throwing starfish into the ocean."
"I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?" asked the somewhat startled wise man.  To this, the young man replied, "The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don't throw them in, they'll die."
Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, "But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can't possibly make a difference!"
At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, "It made a difference for that one.” 

Make a difference—it’s what you were called to do.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

“There is nothing more beautiful than someone who goes out of their way to make life beautiful for others.” ― Mandy Hale

One day a man saw an old lady, stranded on the side of the road, but even in the dim light of day, he could see she needed help. So he pulled up in front of her Mercedes and got out. His Pontiac was still sputtering when he approached her.
Even with the smile on his face, she was worried. No one had stopped to help for the last hour or so. Was he going to hurt her? He didn’t look safe; he looked poor and hungry.  He could see that she was frightened, standing out there in the cold. He knew how she felt. It was those chills which only fear can put in you.
He said, “I’m here to help you, ma’am. Why don’t you wait in the car where it’s warm? By the way, my name is Bryan Anderson.”
Well, all she had was a flat tire, but for an old lady, that was bad enough. Bryan crawled under the car looking for a place to put the jack, skinning his knuckles a time or two. Soon he was able to change the tire. But he had to get dirty and his hands hurt.  As he was tightening up the lug nuts, she rolled down the window and began to talk to him. She told him that she was from St. Louis and was only just passing through. She couldn’t thank him enough for coming to her aid.
Bryan just smiled as he closed her trunk. The lady asked how much she owed him. Any amount would have been all right with her. She already imagined all the awful things that could have happened had he not stopped. Bryan never thought twice about being paid. This was not a job to him. This was helping someone in need, and God knows there were plenty, who had given him a hand in the past. He had lived his whole life that way, and it never occurred to him to act any other way.
He told her that if she really wanted to pay him back, the next time she saw someone who needed help, she could give that person the assistance they needed, and Bryan added, “And think of me.”
He waited until she started her car and drove off. It had been a cold and depressing day, but he felt good as he headed for home, disappearing into the twilight.
A few miles down the road the lady saw a small cafe. She went in to grab a bite to eat, and take the chill off before she made the last leg of her trip home. It was a dingy looking restaurant. Outside were two old gas pumps. The whole scene was unfamiliar to her. The waitress came over and brought a clean towel to wipe her wet hair. She had a sweet smile, one that even being on her feet for the whole day couldn’t erase. The lady noticed the waitress was nearly eight months pregnant, but she never let the strain and aches change her attitude. The old lady wondered how someone who had so little could be so giving to a stranger. Then she remembered Bryan.
After the lady finished her meal, she paid with a hundred dollar bill. The waitress quickly went to get change for her hundred dollar bill, but the old lady had slipped right out the door. She was gone by the time the waitress came back. The waitress wondered where the lady could be. Then she noticed something written on the napkin.
There were tears in her eyes when she read what the lady wrote: “You don’t owe me anything. I have been there too. Somebody once helped me out, the way I’m helping you. If you really want to pay me back, here is what you do: Do not let this chain of love end with you.”  Under the napkin were four more $100 bills.
Well, there were tables to clear, sugar bowls to fill, and people to serve, but the waitress made it through another day. That night when she got home from work and climbed into bed, she was thinking about the money and what the lady had written. How could the lady have known how much she and her husband needed it? With the baby due next month, it was going to be hard….
She knew how worried her husband was, and as he lay sleeping next to her, she gave him a soft kiss and whispered soft and low, “Everything’s going to be all right. I love you, Bryan Anderson.”

Saturday, October 22, 2016

“The bread you store up belongs to the hungry; the cloak that lies in your chest belongs to the naked; the gold you have hidden in the ground belongs to the poor.” — Saint Basil

Fridays are “alms” days in Tanzania, so we always try to have coins in our pockets when we go out in public on Fridays.  It is considered very bad form not to put a coin in the outstretched hand of the poor on this day, at least.  The rest of the week, begging is discouraged but goes on, but on Fridays, everyone is fair game.  When I was much more active and out and about more, I not only carried lots and lots of coins but I would also pray with everyone who asked for help.  I became so well known for my prayers that some people sought me out and others shied away when they saw me coming.  Even years and years ago, when the street boys would surround me in Peru, I would gather them together and pray for them.  In Iquitos, Peru, just outside my hotel, boys would wait for me, and after a few days stopped asking for money and just wanted my arms around them and my prayers.  I loved those moments.  I also loved giving coins and praying here as well.  
Yesterday, on alms day, John and Shaban went to Mwanza.  Now John has been suffering greatly from gout and has taken a lot of teasing from me about having the “rich man’s” disease.  He would always counter with, “I am rich, in God’s eyes.”  I had no answer for that.  Well, back to my story, yesterday, he made sure he had coins in his pocket.  There was no place to park near the store he needed, so Shaban had to let him out a couple of blocks away and John had to hoof it to the store.  However, because of the gout pain, John was limping badly and everyone could see the pain on his face.  As he was nearing the store he sought, an elderly Tanzanian woman came up to him, pressed a coin in his hand and said in Swahili, “God go with you.”  To his eternal credit, John just thanked her and offered her a blessing of his own—then limped on toward the store.  When John told me about this, I almost wept.  When the poor give what little they have to someone they can see is in pain, it is the way things are supposed to be and Christ smiles.  That woman didn’t see John’s white skin, or nationality—all she saw was someone in pain and she wanted to help.  Oh, if only we could all be like that woman and only see the need.  Maybe we wouldn’t be so quick to turn away those seeking our help and would be more like the kinds of people Christ calls us to be.  Mother Teresa helped thousands of sick and needy people but only a handful were Christians—the vast majority were Hindus and Muslims, but all Mother Teresa ever saw was the need.   May God grant us each the grace to see as she did, to see as the Tanzanian woman saw John, and may God also grant us the courage to act as Christ has called us to act in helping others.  You can change the world, one coin in one hand at a time—if you will.

Friday, October 21, 2016

“Don't despise those little things you can do well; they contain tiny miracles that can amaze you and you will change the world. Be a world changer in your own way! We look up to you!” ― Israelmore Ayivor

The problem with pity parties is that sometimes you get uninvited guests that destroy the whole mood of the thing.  I was deeply immersed in a pity party of my own this morning, believing that I was doing nothing to help others and just focusing solely on myself when I was interrupted by the laughter of several small children—orphans that attend our preschool here.  They were having a grand time, feeling loved, fed, and important on this very day.  It reminded me that our preschool is in its sixth year and that we have fed and educated well over 200 orphans right here on our grounds—and we continue to do so.  We also have English classes in the afternoon and feed those kids, too.  The English classes are into their tenth year with almost 200 graduates who have all passed their English tests to get into secondary school.  Just because I am sitting around feeling sorry for myself because of all my health problems, it doesn’t mean that the work we have done and are continuing to do counts for nothing.  Over 10,000 people have clean, safe drinking water thanks to the over 500 biosand filters we have made and placed.  Okay, so that only works out to about one a week—still, lots of people have nothing to fear from cholera or dysentery because of what’s been done here at Maisha Na Maji.  Yes, growth in the church has slowed down, but we have still grown from about 400 members to over 4,000 in ten years and are still adding about two churches a year.  The 500 people I have personally baptized are still active Christians even if I never see them any more.  The three scholarship students in the Teacher’s College will graduate next May and bring the total to almost 70 Christian teachers that were too poor to pay for their education who are themselves teaching and touching hundreds, perhaps thousands of other students.  That’s a good thing that is continuing without needing my daily, weekly, or even monthly involvement, but it is a good thing.  There are at least four villages that have access to well water that used to have to walk almost ten kilometers every day to get water, and now, it is less than one kilometer from three villages and in the center of another one.  We never see those wells or those people pumping water but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.  There are now seven preschools with Montessori method trained teachers that Karen has trained right here at Maisha Na Maji.  I don’t do any of the training, but if I wasn’t here, Karen wouldn’t be here either—so, in a way, that’s another good thing that’s happened because we were here.  Even now, Karen is designing and making uniforms for the Santa Caryn Academy here with zebra print shirts for the boys and skirts for the girls.  Shaban is in Mwanza with John today and while John is working on solar projects, Shaban is finding hat material for Karen’s uniforms.  Our workers, too, wouldn’t be part of the middle class with children going to school and families eating well without our support.  
I don’t know about you, but I tend to discount or dismiss any good things I have done if I am not having to sweat and work to do them on a daily basis.  Happily, God doesn’t keep track of how we follow Him with a stopwatch.  God is much more concerned with where your heart is in relation to helping others rather than with your business plan to accomplish His goals.  I shudder to think of how what I am doing would look in the hands of someone preparing pie charts and tables, but since the only one I really have to please is God, and since He is the only judge that counts, I guess I’ll be all right with my lack of daily effort.  When you add up all we’ve done over the years and what we are still doing, I think it’s more than enough.  I envy civil engineers who can step back and look at the bridge or giant dam they built and think, “I built that.”  All I can do is offer myself and my heart to God and hope that He uses my offering in the best way possible.  So, I have made my peace and ended my pity party.  Maybe you should too—if you’re inclined to be really critical of how little you think you’re doing.  God’s hands are the ones to be in, eh?

Thursday, October 20, 2016

“Do your little bit of good where you are; it's those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” ― Desmond Tutu

When we lived in Boston while I was going to seminary, I was a very busy boy.  I was the pastor of a small church in Stoneham, Massachusetts, about fifteen miles north of Boston, a full-time graduate student, a part-time teacher (two classes a week of English for international doctoral students), a full-time husband and father, and I worked on a half-hour television show called “Perspectives: Faith in Our Time” shot and produced at the Boston University School of Theology.  I also had to walk a mile to the commuter railway station every morning to catch the train to Boston and then transfer to the subway (the “T”) to ride out to the School of Theology (took about an hour and a half every day—one way).  On an average week, I would put in 100 to 120 hours with little left over to attend my youngest son’s Little League games or to be there for my middle son with his problems at school or to help my wife who was having serious problems with the lack of sunlight in the winter.  Pushed to the edge by my schedule and commitments, I was sometimes depressed and unsettled—bad for someone with a triple major in theology, philosophy, and ethics.
One day, early in the afternoon, I was sitting on the steps of Marsh Chapel with my head in my hands wondering how I could go on.  My friend, Ken Child (who recently passed away) saw me, came over, sat down next to me, put his arm around me, and asked what was wrong.  He didn’t wait for an answer but said he was pretty sure he knew of something that would help.  He made me get up and follow him to the Dean’s Office.  When we got there, we went in to see the Dean, and Ken asked if anyone was using the tickets that day.  It turns out that the School of Theology had season tickets to the Red Sox games at Fenway Park for the big givers and VIP’s who came around.  If no one was using them, they just sat in the desk.  The dean said no one had them that day and there was a game.  The dean, Dr. Robert Neville, handed me a ticket (just behind third base next to the Green Monster) and told me to check every time there was an afternoon game.  I thanked Ken profusely and walked the six blocks down to Fenway Park and spent the afternoon watching my favorite baseball team in action.  It turned my life around.  Over the next four years, I watched many afternoon games, by myself, but receiving the best therapy going for what was ailing me.  I will never forget those games, the kindness of Dean Neville, or the friendship of Ken Child who did indeed know just exactly what I needed.  I hope all people have a Ken Child in their life to smile at them and encourage them and give them a reason to smile back at the world.  God bless him and all like him.