Monday, October 31, 2011

Soul Survivor

Weather:  Last week brought unusual rains to Accra for this time of year, resulting in serious flooding in various places.  At least thirty persons died as a result of these floods.  Sunday night brought heavy rains again.

This week, the Building Bridges team from Madison Square Church in Grand Rapids, MI is visiting with us in Accra, and then will travel to Liberia. To see more about their visit, click here.

This summer, I happened across a book on my mother's bookshelf.  It was by an author whom I enjoy so I asked if I could borrow it.  The name of the book is Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey.  The subtitle of the book is, "How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church."  In this book, Yancey says, "I have spent most of my life in recovery from the church."  This is not something that you would expect to read from such an acclaimed Christian author, and although I don't necessarily identify with that statement, it does resonate with me on a deep level.  Since God took hold of me in 1997, I have been in a non-stop wrestling match to understand Him, the church, His people, myself, injustice, the way nations behave, and so on.  Bob and I had countless discussions together as we questioned, challenged, found answers that made sense one day and not so much the next.  Living in two different worlds (North America and West Africa), between poverty and affluence, Christianity and other religions,  peace and conflict, and so close to death and life, feeds the questions and the search for answers.

I found the book to be inspiring, as he provided new insights into the lives and faith journeys of thirteen remarkable persons who have asked and struggled with these same issues:  Martin Luther King Jr, G.K. Chesterton, Dr. Paul Brand, Dr. Robert Coles, Leo Tolstoy and Feodor Dostoevsky, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. C. Everett Koop, John Donne, Annie Dillard, Frederick Buechner, Shusaku Endo, and Henri Nouwen.  Not only does he share insights into the lives and writings of these individuals, but at the close of each chapter, he gives recommended readings from each person.   I have decided to read through as many of these recommended readings as possible.

I have started with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.  Yancey starts the chapter about these two authors with this, "My deepest doubts about the faith can be summed up in a single question:  Why doesn't it work?"  This is a question that I struggle with as well while I see the Muslim faith gaining such momentum in West Africa, and the decadence and family breakdowns among Christians in the west; not to mention the Church's history in the Crusades, the slave trade, colonization, and the way we treat each other, both within and outside our own denominations.  Tolstoy and Dostoevsky address the tension that exists between Christian ideals and reality, not only in their writing but in their life as well.  Yancy expands his question by stating, "Christian ideals attract admiration even from unbelievers, yet what good are those ideals if I cannot put them into practice?"

Between these two Russian thinkers, we find an answer of sorts to the tension between the high ideals of the gospel and the grim reality of ourselves - absolute ideals and absolute grace - to accept that we will never measure up, but that we do not have to.  Jesus never lowered God's ideals, yet He offered a grace that is perhaps the greatest distinctive of the Christian faith.

The following quote by Tolstoy is taken from a personal letter, responding to critics at the end of his life.  It is one that I appreciate, as I wrestle with my own falling short of the ideals by which I try to live:

"What about you, Lev Nikolayevich, you preach very well, but do you carry out what you preach?"  This is the most natural of questions and one that is always asked of me; it is usually asked victoriously, as though it were a way of stopping my mouth.  "You preach, but how do you live?"  And I answer that I do not preach, that I am not able to preach, although I passionately wish to.  I can preach only through my actions, and my actions are vile...And I answer that I am guilty, and vile, and worthy of contempt for my failure to carry them out.

At the same time, not in order to justify, but simply in order to explain my lack of consistency, I say: "Look at my present life and then at my former life, and you will see that I do attempt to carry them out.  It is true that I have not fulfilled one thousandth part of them [Christian precepts], and I am ashamed of this, but I have failed to fulfill them not because I did not wish to, but because I was unable to.  Teach me how to escape from the net of temptations that surrounds me, help me and I will fulfill them; even without help I wish and hope to fulfill them.

"Attack me, I do this myself, but attack me rather than the path I follow and which I point out to anyone who asks me where I think it lies.  If I know the way home and am walking along it drunkenly, is it any less the right way because I am staggering from side to side!  If it is not the right way, then show me another way; but if I stagger and lose the way, you must help me, you must keep me on the true path, just as I am ready to support you.  Do not mislead me, do not be glad that I have got lost, do not shout out joyfully: 'Look at him!  He said he was going home, but there he is crawling into a bog!' No, do not gloat, but give me your help and support."
In Tolstoy's book Anna Karenina, the major character Levin has a spiritual awakening as can be seen in the following quote:

I shall still get angry with my coachman Ivan, I shall still argue and express my thoughts inopportunely; there will still be a wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife, and I shall still blame her for my own fears and shall regret it; I shall still be unable to understand with my reason why I am praying, and I shall continue to pray - but my life, my whole life, independently of anything that may happen to me, every moment of it, is no longer meaningless but has an incontestable meaning of goodness, with which I have the power to invest it.
Yancy was able to resolve some of his restlessness found in this tension and it has been a comfort to me as well.  As I wrestle with the daily incongruity between my own behaviors and those for which I strive, as well as struggling with the behaviors of others around me, I am reminded that these are not new struggles, but go back for centuries.  And like Yancy, I can say, "Having fallen from the absolute idea, as Tolstoy did, we have nowhere to land but with Dostoevsky, in the safety net of absolute grace."

Monday, October 24, 2011

Reed Update - October 2011 edition

Weather - I left Grand Rapids on Tuesday with the temperature in the mid40s and arrived in Accra on Wednesday to a balmy 95F - it felt like going from the fridge to the oven.  As I write in Accra, it is 87F, with a humidity of 83% and dew-point at 72%.  And I see in Grand Rapids it is 34F.  I think I prefer warm to cold, after being so cold in Grand Rapids that my body hurt.  Noah prefers cold to warm because it is easier to layer up and warm up, but cooling down is difficult without AC.  And you? 

Some of you were surprised to see me in Michigan this past week.  I was there for just a quick visit for the Partners Worldwide conference. I had actually tried to get out of coming back for it, since I had just been in the US for the summer and had only been back in Ghana for about a month, but it was important to connect with the rest of the Partners Worldwide team and meet new members.  Even more importantly, I had to do some fundraising as I continue to be behind in my support, so the trip was necessary.  Noah went back to the home of his friend Armand, while I made the journey.  It was a very busy week, but there were good connections made, and good conversations had.

The big advantage was being able to see Hannah again, after saying goodbye to her at Calvin College a month earlier.  She picked me up at the airport and it was good to have a little time to hang out together and talk.  Overall she seems to be doing well - she just has to figure out the homework versus sleep versus social life issue that seems to plague many freshmen (and upperclassmen as well).  It's time for mid-term exams already, which is hard to believe.

Noah also finished the first quarter of his senior year and his teachers (and report card) indicate that he continues to do well.  He has taken some leadership roles this year and is currently serving as president of the Student Council, is on the debate team, working as a Teacher Assistant for two teachers, and has taken a leadership role with the planning and organizing for the senior trip.  In his spare time he is working out at a local gym, playing the electric guitar, doing homework, and continues to enjoy video games.  He recently took the SATs again and is happy to be finally done with that, as he now needs to begin applying for colleges next year.  He is pretty set on going to Calvin College as well, although some other colleges are beginning to catch his eye and attention.

The election in Liberia was peaceful, with high turnout, so we are thankful for that.  Unfortunately, no candidate carried 51% of the vote, so a run-off election has been scheduled for November 8 between the top two candidates, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Winston Tubman.   There were the usual declarations of election fraud by the losers, but other than a few minor incidents, the country seems to be preparing for the run-off.  I am planning to travel to Liberia on November 11 with two guests, so we pray that the run-off will not interfere with that trip.

The happy family.
This morning at 5 am in Adenta, Ghana, I attended a naming ceremony for the baby of Juliet and Nana Yaw Atuah-Mendoh.  Juliet is the Office Manager at Hopeline Institute and is a woman I have grown to love in over the past two years.  Her pregnancy was not an easy one and we are so thankful for this beautiful baby boy.  The naming ceremony (or outing) for the baby is traditional in this culture, following the Biblical example of Zechariah and Elizabeth with John, with the name being announced by the father.  The baby's tongue given butter and honey (and in some cases alcohol) so that he will know the difference between right and wrong (Isaiah 7:15).  This baby's name is:  Nhyiraba (meaning "Blessed child") Kojo (male born on Monday) Aboagye (Satisfaction of the Lord) Atuah (flying...on the wings of the Holy Spirit).  Most people have as one of their names the day of the week on which they were born.  For example, Hannah was born on Sunday, so her Ghanaian name would be Esi; Noah was born on Monday, so he too would be Kojo; I was born on Tuesday, so I would be Abena.  It was a beautiful ceremony, with everyone wearing white.  Afterwards, gifts were given to the baby, with people declaring what the gift should be for - his education, his first offering, his first Bible, etc.  You might be wondering why the ceremony was at 5 am?  It is typically in the early morning, but not usually this early.  Their pastor had a workshop all day so the time was moved up to accommodate his schedule.  So everyone arose around 4 am to get ready to come for this event.  I'm often amazed at the hours that people keep in West Africa - rising so early and working so late.

At the Partners Worldwide staff meetings this past week, the following YouTube clip was shown from National Geographic, which I thought was enjoyable and something you might enjoy as well.  It has to do with "how typical are you?" and gives some food for thought in this changing world.

Blessings to all of you this week!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Liberian Election

On Tuesday, October 11, Liberians will go to the polls again to vote for their next president.  It's hard to believe that six years have been passed since we were present in Liberia for the 2005 elections.  We had moved to Liberia about ten weeks before that election and it was a pretty crazy time.  Hannah and Noah were twelve and ten, and they had to file a report for their homeschooling homework (to read it, click here).  At the time, Hannah was not very happy being in Liberia and I remember that we had an opportunity to go out with an American working with the US army involved in doing some interviewing at the polls.  I made Hannah go and despite resenting it then, I think she now appreciates being part of that election process. 

This year there are 16 candidates - 13 men and 3 women, however there appear to be three front-runners.

Ma Ellen
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is one of the frontrunners, despite her promise to only run once, as well as her current age of 72 (should she win, she will be 78 at the end of the next six year term).  She has also survivied the recommendation of the TRC for her to stand down due to her early support of Charles Taylor (when ousting Samuel Doe), and most recently a constitutional provision that states that presidential candidates must have lived in the country for ten years - this was waived for the 2005 election.  Her award of the Nobel Peace Prize on October 7 gives her added publicity on an international level, but has brought a wave of fire at a local level.

Winston Tubman
The next frontrunner is Winston Tubman, the nephew of former President William Tubman, currently 70 years old.  Tubman ran in the 2005 presidential race, but emerged with just 9% of the vote in the first round.  This time he has merged his party with former front-runner and soccer star, George Weah, who is running as his Vice-Presidential Nominee.  He received his law degree from Yale and his graduate degree in Economics from Cambridge University.  Both Tubman and Weah have been very harsh in their criticism of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, stating to the BBC after the announcement of her winning the Nobel Peace Prize that she is a "war-monger."  Didn't win any points from me on that one - sounds like sour grapes.

Charles Brumskine
The third front-runner is Charles Brumskine, the youngest at age 60.  He also ran in the last election, and was the third most popular (after Weah and Sirleaf-Johnson), receiving 14% of the vote.  Brumskine is also a lawyer.

Results of this election will take two weeks to compile, so the announcement of the winner is not expected before October 25.  If none of the sixteen candidates receive 50% + 1% of the vote, there will be a runoff election on November 8. Please keep this election in your thoughts and prayers.  We hope and pray that this election will be peaceful and orderly, that the citizens of Liberia will exercise their democratic right to vote, and that the results will be accepted. 

By the way, the other winner of the Nobel Peace Prize from Liberia, Leymah Gbowee, is the woman from the video, Pray the Devil Back to Hell.  We have been promoting that documentary because of the great role of advocacy that these women played.  When we moved to Liberia in 2005, these women were still there praying every day, at the Fish Market, outside of Monrovia.  It's a great documentary to watch, if you get the chance.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Where Ivoirians and Liberians meet

Not too long ago, I was sent this news link from VOA (Voice of America) by one of our North American partners working with Cote d'Ivoire.  It was such a joy to receive it because so often the news we hear out of Africa is negative - famine, corruption, wars.  This story is about giving, loving our neighbors, and living in community.

As you know, Côte d'Ivoire suffered a civil crisis this past year, which hopefully has brought an end the ongoing split in the country since 2002.  From January - April of this year, approximately 150,000 refugees left Côte d'Ivoire and fled into neighboring Liberia.  The common border that is shared between these two countries is a political one - people on each side view themselves as from the same tribe, with a common tribal language.  It is also an area of Liberia that is not well developed or easily accessible by road, making it difficult for aid agencies to come in.  However, this video, which you can see below, shows how the villages there stepped in to welcome the refugees into their small homes, sharing their food, their farm lands, everything.  And why did they do this?  Because it wasn't too long ago that Liberians were fleeing from their civil crisis into Côte d'Ivoire, where they received similar treatment from the villagers there.  And we are not talking about being good hosts for a day, a week, a month...but in some cases fourteen years!

I know that cultural differences enter into this.  Here is an example of this cultural difference: if you are a man and you go to someone's house to visit by yourself, it may be that the host would say, "I have made arrangements for my two sons to sleep in your bed with you, so that you will not feel lonely."  Most Americans would say, "Thanks but no thanks."  But it does definitely make me examine how "turfy" I am with my own living space and stuff.  To have a one-room home with four children, and then to open it up to an additional four persons?  I don't think I will be able to make that change in this lifetime...but it does make me think.

Here is the video from VOA - about four minutes long.