Monday, January 16, 2017

Family Budgeting Challenges and Opportunities

My training in budgeting started as a child.  My father always handled our budget very diligently and taught all five of his children about how to be very careful with money.  As an immigrant from the Netherlands to Canada, having survived the Second World War, he knew how to scrimp and save.  He purchased his first car with a loan and was so horrified at the interest he would have to pay, that he made one payment to the bank, and one payment to himself.  Unfortunately, he could only afford to eat peanut butter sandwiches while he did this, but by the time a second car was needed, he could purchase it with cash.  He continued to make payments to himself and never borrowed money again for a car.  He also never ate peanut butter again, but that was a sacrifice he was willing to make

When I became a social worker, I began working with people struggling in poverty and began to see the need for financial freedom classes to help people get out of debt and stay out of debt.  This grew into a ministry that was no longer just for those in poverty, and as I began to coach people who made much more money than me, I saw that usually the more money we make, the more trouble we are in, because there are so many more options and temptations, and much of the world teaches us to be consumers.

When I moved to Africa as a missionary in 2005, I began to see that the poor do quite a good job at saving, and there was a real advantage to living in a cash system without all the challenges of credit.  However, as I lived and worked in both West and East Africa, I saw more and more options being made available, such as mobile money, table banking, and the like.  And consequently, I saw more and more debt being created by individuals and families for consumption loans that would only cause more challenges than blessings.

God has given us the blessing of resources but they do need to be managed in a way that will allow for freedom.  This is a need for all God’s people, regardless of their age.  All parents spend money and need to save.  All children can and will learn about financial matters.  Therefore, parents need to learn how to manage money well to help their family be successful, as well as to be able to teach their children in the way they should go.  This is true regardless of income level.  Children are watching and will emulate behaviors.  Unfortunately, the cost of an unlearned lesson always increases with time:  a child who has a tantrum may get a five-minute time out; a teenager who acts out in school may get a fifty-minute detention; an adult who gets angry and starts a fight may get a criminal record and 500 hours of community service.  We need to teach these lessons early to minimize the cost and hardship to our children.

Unfortunately, this does not happen in many families.  In many parts of Africa, this is especially difficult.  I have often joked in West and East Africa that when people get married, the two become one in all ways except financial.  Too often, the wife has no idea what the husband's income is, and there are no joint discussions as a family as to how to achieve financial goals.  For this reason, while I am Stateside, I am writing some resources that can be disseminated to churches and pastors where we are doing Discipling Marketplace Leaders and teaching Integrity and Finance.

Recently, in Ghana, while flying from Accra to Tamale, I read an inspiring story in the flight magazine about a young woman who had a VERY different experience in her family relating to budgeting:
A young lady called Charity went through a socialization process which was one of the most important parts of her upbringing.  Her earliest recollection of this process as a little girl still brings a smile to her face and tears in her eyes. 

“The entire family (mom, dad, brothers and sisters) would sit down the first Sunday afternoon of each month at the table after church and after Sunday dinner.  We didn’t have much money…we would always take a look at daddy’s monthly paycheck and then start doing our homework (i.e. financial planning and income allocation).”  Both parent’s pay cheques were earmarked for all current bills.
After that, the upcoming expenses for the month were estimated.  Her father’s income was also allocated for certain key categories such as groceries and she says they ate lots of beans at certain months when they had to make it for less.  Despite having to eat a lot of beans, they never failed to give generously to noble causes.  Living for less enabled her parents to fund their education, because of the hard work and financial prudence on the part of her parents.
Charity is very successful today because of the nurturing environment that her parents provided.  Her parents demonstrated respect for each other and for their children.  They were frugal, and they planned and accounted for every penny of their income.  The children were treated as adults rather than infants, and were always involved in the Sunday family planning meetings.  Each child would make his or her request and proposals to the planning board.

She says that if she needed a new textbook or shoes, she would have to explain to the family the reason and the rationale behind the request.  Each child had to plan for the meeting and conceptualize a logical theme for the funding.  And if one could not, then no money would be earmarked for that item.  Charity wondered, “Imagine if all children grew up in such an environment.  They would have leadership skills in knowing how to run business meetings, disbursements, how to budget, and empathy for the needy before the age of ten.”

The regular meetings were not for finance issues only, but for discussion about household chores and also time to inquire about everyone’s vision and goals concerning school work.  Her parents made chores fun because they took part.  

Charity is much more successful and financially better off than her parents but she trains her children in the same principles and manner, and her kids also appreciate them a lot.  She began planning for her kids before they were born.

The fact that Charity and her siblings knew about family obligations made them better planners and investors.  The question is what if Charity’s parents had different standards?  For example, what if they had a six-figure income, did little to no budgeting and planning, and were hyper-consumers?  They would have communicated a very different message to their children.  The kids would be spoiled.  They would expect things to be done for them no matter the cost.  All income would be spent on consumer goods and the kids won’t be appreciative of their parents because they didn’t teach their kids, let alone to think about a noble cause.  Parents must take time to share these values.  It is not difficult to do.  They can be creative about explaining what money is and it’s alternative uses.  After all, there is magic in compounding of interest and dividends over a lifetime of investment. (Fly Afrika Magazine, October-December 2016 issue, page 50-51)
What a great testimony!  Oh for parents today to role model careful budget planning and financial stewardship!

Our goal is financially free people of God who can enjoy the resources with which God has blessed them, while also living the life that God has called them to live.  Proverbs 30:8-9 is a great text that the majority of us should strive for - having enough to live in peace but not so much to forget our God.
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
    give me neither poverty nor riches,
    but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
    and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
    and so dishonor the name of my God.

Monday, January 9, 2017


[We reached our match!  Thanks to all of you who contributed!  And our thanks again to Larry and Paula Alsum for their generous match challenge!  The work in Ghana can now go forward for the next year.  Praise God!]

I have to admit that I got angry over Christmas.  Not at anyone around me - just at myself.  There was so much food around and I showed little self control.  The more food that came, the more angry I got.  So I did what I normally do when I begin to feel like a victim - I figured out a way to gain control.  I started a green smoothie cleansing program to detoxify my body and establish discipline for myself again.  That means only veggies and fruit for ten days in the form of a smoothie and nothing else.  I have found that if I don't draw drastic lines for myself, I have a difficult time maintaining discipline.  So I started this the day after New Years.

Of course, what one finds when one starts to quiet down in one area of life, is that very quickly one can see that it was not just that area of life that was noisy.  As I quieted down my food and drink intake, it became quickly apparent that I was not just noisy in terms of food but also spiritually and emotionally.  As I quieted down cravings and frenetic eating, I could feel the quietness spread not just through my body but through my heart and soul.  I realized how little I need to survive and how God has provided everything we need as it relates to food in the Garden of Eden.  I realized how complex we have made things through the plethora of options that we have in front of us, and how those quickly turn into "needs, wants, and desires."

Detoxification of body, soul, spirit and mind.  Quieting down in all areas.  The toxicity of a living in a country with so much - so much food, so much consumption, so much entertainment, so much access to everything.  But no matter where we are, the dangers of toxicity are there: toxic food, toxic words, toxic relationships, toxic thoughts.

I'm reminded of the wedding verse that Bob and I choose (and regretted often!), from Psalm 46:10, "Be still, and know that I am God."  It is such a difficult verse to live out.  We fail so many times.  But I have read it differently during this past week.  I always read it as two separate commands, "Be still" and "know."  But I realized this week as I quieted down, that the only way to know that God is God is to be still.  So it is like this:  "Be still AND THEN you will know that I am God."  It is so difficult to know that when we are so busy in our spirit.

As is often the case, when I begin to quiet down, I find myself back in Ted Loder's prayer book "Guerrillas of Grace," and this particular prayer speaks to me at this time:
O Holy One
I hear and say so many words,
yet yours is the word I need.
Speak now, 
and help me listen;

and if what I hear is silence,
let it quiet me,
let it disturb me,
let it touch my need,
let it break my pride,
let it shrink my certainties,
let it enlarge my wonder.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Surreality of Christmas

[Matching grant update - So far we are at $5100 out of the $7500 that can be matched!  Praise God!  If you still want to give, we still have time.  Go here for details.]

I don't know about you but Christmas often feels a bit surreal to me.  Chestnuts roasting by an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your toes, Yuletide carols being sung by a all sounds so cozy and warm.  And at our house, we attempt to create this warm environment.  Christmas lights, Christmas baking, buying loved one gifts that will make them smile, devotions around the Advent wreath...all contribute to capturing this aura.

And yet...

We continue to hear stories of what is happening in Syria.  We continue to hear of terrorist attacks.  We continue to hear of people suffering from illness, disease, and our loved ones die.

So surreal.

A story just came out on BBC Africa (my go-to news site) that brought this juxtaposed reality to the forefront again.  The title:  Kenyan girls hide in schools to escape FGM (female genital mutilation). December is often a time of initiation rites for girls and boys in different parts of Africa.  This news report said that one out of five women in Kenya, between the ages of 15 and 49, has been circumcised despite the fact that Kenya made the practice illegal in 2011.  That number is astounding to me.  But in other countries (Egypt, Somalia, Guinea, and others), the number is as high as 90% of all women.

To bring the reality home a bit more, the article listed what types of FGM there is and what is done:
The tools often used.
•Clitoridectomy - partial or total removal of the clitoris
•Excision - removal of the clitoris and inner labia (lips), with or without the outer labia
•Infibulation - cutting, removing and sewing up the genitalia
•Any other type of intentional damage to the female genitalia (burning, scraping etc)
Too much information, you might be thinking?  I agree.  It is horrifying to read.  I can't imagine what it is like to undergo it, not to mention that it is usually done without any sort of anesthetic or hygienic facilities.

So while I bake and sing Christmas carols, girls are hiding in Kenya so that this won't be done to them.

What do I do with this juxtaposed reality?  Should I feel guilty about the peace and safety that I enjoy in the US?  Should I deny myself the pleasantries of Christmas in order to better relate to my suffering brothers and sisters around the world?

I don't think that is the solution.  The reality is that these are surreal times and we have to exist in one, while being aware of the other.  It means we pray with fervor, we act when appropriate, we temper our complaints for what is appropriate given our givens, and we live below our means to be able to bless those who are less fortunate than us.  Romans 12:15 tells us to "Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep."  It's not an either/or.  It's a both/and.  We live with a foot in both worlds.  We choose to do that and not ignore one because it is uncomfortable.  We smile and celebrate, and our mind flashes to those in pain.  Does it make us feel a bit crazy at times?  Absolutely.  And it makes sense that it does. 

Titus 3:3-7 reminds us of the gift that we received because of the birth of Christ:
At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
The country I was born in might not practice FGM, but we have been disobedient, deceived and enslaved by other things.  We all need the mercy that we have been given through the desire of God the Father to have fellowship with us, in the gift of His Son, Jesus.

And so we sing.  We rejoice.  We weep.  We love.

To the glory of God.  Amen and Amen.

From our house to yours, we wish you a blessed Christmas season and the peace of Christ in your hearts in 2017.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Two New Witnesses

Hebrews 12:1 says, "Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses..."  The previous chapter, Hebrews 11, takes us through a litany of people who acted by faith and were commended for it.  People like Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and so on.  People who acted courageously, who "went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground." (Hebrews 11: 37b, 38)

Two witnesses joined that great cloud in this past week.  Two women who played a significant part in my life, both of whom lived lives of integrity and great faith.
Michael and his parents

The first was my husband Michael's mother, Hylda Thomson, who died on Saturday evening, December 17, at the age of 83, after a painful struggle with cancer.  She was only my mother-in-law for 2.5 years and I didn't have a chance to get to know her very well, but what I do know well is the testimony of who she helped form in her son. You can tell a lot about a mother from her children - not everything, of course and sometimes children go off course - but the older I get, the more I realize how important our formation and upbringing is, and how we don't move away from it very easily.  
Michael, his boys, and his Mom

Michael is not only a very loving and caring husband, but a very loving and caring parent to his two sons.  I can only believe that his parents played a significant role in the formation of his capacity to love, serve, and give of himself.  How could I not love her for that?  Michael's parents served the Church for many years: learning French and pastoring in churches in Quebec, serving a church of mostly Haitian immigrants and learning that culture, starting a seminary in Montreal so that French speaking pastors would stay in Quebec, and serving God in whatever other way He called.   

We spent about 36 hours by her bedside, and her five children, their spouses, and a good number of her sixteen grandchildren were present.  It was a time of praying and singing, scripture reading and sharing stories, crying and mourning, distress and joy.  It was a holy time and I was privileged to observe and learn more about the family that formed my husband. 

I believe that she has joined this great cloud of witnesses and will now be cheering on those of us who continue to run the race set before us.

Jane and John Lambers
The other witness who has joined this great cloud is Jane Lambers.  Unfortunately, I didn't hear of her death until after her funeral service.  She was such an important part of my life that I feel compelled to speak of the impact she had on me since I was not privileged to join with those sharing the testimony at her funeral.  I became a deacon at Madison Square Church at the same time as Jane Lambers in 1997, at a time when the deacons were looking at how to move from relief to development, to being a church that works "with" the community rather than "to" the community.  When the non-profit Restorers was born, in combination with five churches in the Madison-Hall community, I volunteered as Jane joined me in sitting in an empty building, trying to figure out how to move from point A to point B.  She worked pretty much full-time with me for seven years, debating and discussing issues relating to poverty and racism on a daily basis during that time.  She was my coffee buddy.  She was the one who would send me to my office to write grants and make sure that I was not distracted.  She knew me so very well and those were such precious years for both her and myself.  I had lunch with her not too long ago and while her memory was slipping, she was able to speak with such pleasure about our time together at Restorers.  

Jane and John Lambers were two people who not only spoke freely about their faith but were determined to live it out in a real and powerful way.  Jane struggled and wrestled for all the years I knew her with how to be even more real, and wondering how the church could do better at addressing issues that were so real to her heart:  justice, poverty, and racism.  She and John lived in community for many years, sharing all resources, and continued to live with the values of community for all of their years.  

I feel so privileged to have had the joy of working alongside Jane for so many years.  I was just thinking last week, as I was writing a document that was a tough write, that I needed Jane to "send me to my office" and make me write without distraction.  

I pray that both of these witnesses are celebrating among so many other witnesses who have graduated from this life to the next.  They continue to spur on so many through their testimony.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Breaking News!

Dear Friends, 

I wanted to inform you about two important pieces of news because I am requesting your participation in both!  

Alsum - Farms and ProduceThe first relates directly to the year-end letter that I sent out last week, seeking specifically for funds for the work of Discipling Marketplace Leaders (DML) in Ghana.  I’m thrilled to report that Larry and Paula Alsum, from Alsum Farms & Produce in Wisconsin (look for them in the produce section of your grocery store!) have graciously offered a matching grant up to $7500 between now and January 10 for anyone gives specifically for Ghana.  Larry has traveled to both Ghana and Liberia when I lived there and has actively sought to help build capacity in West African farmers.  I love the motto of Alsum Farms, “Integrity from field to fork.”  If you would like to give a year-end gift that will immediately be doubled, please go to, click on Donate, and then scroll down to Discipling Marketplace Leaders – 609045 and write “Ghana” in the comment section .  [Note:  this is not for my personal support which is a different account at ICM.  This is specifically for the ministry of DML in Ghana.]   If you prefer to use mail, please mail to ICM, PO Box 129, Monument CO 80132.

We praise God for this opportunity as it will help the DML ministry in Ghana be set for the next year, reaching the Northern Region of Ghana. 

The second piece of exciting news comes out of Kenya.  As you know, a few weeks ago, DML did a two day training in Nairobi for about fifty pastors and church leaders (which is now our fifth city center, in addition to Kisumu, Kakamega, Eldoret, and Kitale).  One of the church leaders was the mission director for a church called Christi is the Answer Ministries (CITAM), which is an offshoot of the Assemblies of God Church.  This denomination has about 45,000 members throughout Kenya, and they have decided to go through the Discipling Marketplace Leaders ministry with all of their churches!  This still needs the formal approval of the bishop this week, but as it looks like it will go through, we need your prayers!  This would start with training about 100 pastors and church leaders, followed by the training of 1500 small group leaders, and identification of 100 trainers for the business people.  Then the entire month of April would be set aside for what we call “Thirty Days in the Marketplace” in which all the churches would be preaching on Church-based Business as Mission, doing devotions together related to this, and other church wide activities.  Training of businesses would then start in May.   

This is very exciting and we thank God for new and open doors that He is providing for 2017.  We thank you for praying along with us for this ministry and joining us financially as you are able.

To God be the Glory!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Fighting Poverty Without Hurting the Poor

Recently a graduate from the Africa Theological Seminary in Kenya who runs an orphanage contacted me for help with a situation with a non-profit from the UK.  The UK organization came and visited the orphanage, signed an agreement to send funds every month to help with food and the running of the orphanage, and took countless pictures of the children.  All of the pictures ended up on the website, with the statement that all the money donated would go to this orphanage, and yet ten months into the contract, not a single dollar has been sent to the orphanage and information just came that no money is going to come.  Money from this organization has come to Kenya though (proving that money has been raised) but it is to buy land for this organization to build and run their own orphanage.  The orphanage administrator is outraged, wondering what could be done about getting the pictures of the children off their website.  This is just one story of the billions of embezzled dollars that happen through both non-profits or churches on an annual basis.

This situation made me think about the numerous "asks" that are coming to my mailbox, and likely to yours, at this time of year.  Many requests by well-intentioned, sincere Christian ministries, as well as numerous requests from those with whom we are not quite as familiar.  How can we make good decisions that honor both our desire to give, which comes from a compassionate and sincere desire to share in the blessings we have received, and our desire to make sure that the giving actually makes a difference for the intended recipient?

Sometimes our helping can look like this...
There is a quote from a video series called the Poverty Cure that says, "Compassion is much more than a vehement expression of emotion..."  For those people who gave to this "ministry" in the UK, their hearts were probably moved to many "Awwwwww...." expressions in looking at pictures of the children in the orphanage.  And from those feelings of "Awwwww....", checks were written and money sent.  True compassion has to mature from the feeling of "Awwwwww..." to something that actually does good.  Unfortunately, despite a growing awareness of how charity can hurt the intended recipient by stripping them of dignity and purpose, we continue to see many ministries operating by doing ministry "to" people rather than doing ministry "with" people.  Sometimes compassion needs to peel back layers and dig deeper for a better understanding.

For example, there are people who could look at the ministry I am involved in, Discipling Marketplace Leaders, and not understand where compassion enters the picture.  Helping businesses grow could be perceived as capitalistic - a desire to "create wealth" rather than helping the poorest of the poor.  But let's unpack this a bit.  Why are many children in orphanages in Africa?  The majority are actually not orphans - they have at least one parent, if not two, but they are social orphans - their parents can't afford to raise them and school them, so they are given to an orphanage.  What is the most compassionate thing that we can do?  Rather than giving money to a child sponsorship program, which potentially strips the parents of the dignity of providing for their own children, let's help parents run a business or find a job in a business, where they can use their gifts and talents AND provide for their own children.  Why do so many people give to ministries that pay for medical expenses or educational scholarships for children in Africa?  Again, it's because the parents are not able to afford it.  Why not invest in something that increases the ability for the parents to be able to make their own decisions and invest in their own children by helping them have jobs to do just that. 

My encouragement at this time of year as we consider year-end giving is for us to whether the ministries we support are creating dependency or opportunities for real, long-term change.  Is the organization working with nationals on solutions, or only doing things "to" those in poverty?  Are there impacts and goals that will move people away from the handout and toward empowerment and a "hand-up?"  Relief is necessary when there are emergency situations, such as natural disasters or war.  But soon after the emergency is over, we must move toward development, building more rungs in the ladder for people to climb out of poverty, rather than inadvertently establishing a system that creates dependency and thereby keeps people in poverty.

Discipling Marketplace Leaders is one way to give with certainty that your funds are going to build the church and businesses with long term impacts, directly affecting parents with children, who desire to work and provide for their families, as well as fulfill the purpose for which God has created them by using their gifts and talents in work.  We have done extensive research to prove that this ministry will help churches grow, will help the spiritual life of business owners grow, will help businesses grow, and will help family income grow.  If you would like more information on how to give to DML, you can find our year end letter here with instructions on how to get involved.

There are many good ministries operating around the world.  Take your time, do your homework, and be sure that your gift is achieving actual long-term sustainable change, affirming the dignity of all.