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.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Am I picking up a theme (or two) here?

Most of my work these days involves teaching and facilitating dialogue with adult learners, whether they are pastors, church leaders, or business men and women.  The stories I hear continue to both inspire and challenge me.  And after eleven years of listening to these stories, from people in more than ten different countries, there are definitely themes that emerge.

One theme is that business people around the world believe that they are viewed by the Church as an "ATM."  Of course, for most of us, an ATM refers to an "Automatic Teller Machine" and that is often how business people feel that the church sees them - only able to offer financial support for ministry.  But Rev. Dennis Tongoi of Kenya describes ATM as it relates to business people in the Church in a different way: "Appendix To Mission."  Where do you find an appendix to a book?  At the end.  It is supplemental, not integral to the story.  Most people don't read it, don't see it as necessary or pertinent.  And that is the sadder part of this theme:  that business people do not see that what they do IS part of the main story of God and of His people.  We are made to be fruitful and to multiply, and this creation calling was made prior to the calling of the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.  Business people are NOT an appendix to mission - they are the core mission.

A second theme is that business people are seen as a corrupt people group, especially if they are successful.  (That doesn't mean that the church won't accept their money though, even if they are seen as corrupt!)  Yet we know that Zephaniah 3:3-4 tells us that corruption is a HUMAN condition, not a business condition:  Her officials within her are roaring lions; her rulers are evening wolves; who leave nothing for the morning. Her prophets are unprincipled; they are treacherous people.  Her priests profane the sanctuary and do violence to the law.  Corruption appears in the church and non-profits as well.  In fact, we are told that an estimated $16 billion was embezzled by the world's Christian churches in the year 2000 alone (David B. Barrett, Global Missions Researcher).

This intersection of corruption was told to me by a church leader in Tamale, Ghana, just last week.  He shared a story that just recently his church leaders were sent to purchase a new vehicle for the church.  They were able to find a negotiate for a vehicle from one of their church members, in the amount of 80,000 Ghana cedis (about $20,000 USD).  But the church leaders asked this member to write the receipt for 120,000 Ghana cedis ($30,000 USD) and they would pocket the additional $10,000.  The member knew that this was unethical, but didn't want to lose the sale.  So he gave them a blank receipt and left it up to the church leaders to fill in the amount.  Unfortunately, the church leaders filled in 120,000 Ghana cedis.  Here is a case where both parties (business and church) were complicit in corruption.  It is a sad story but unfortunately much more common than we care to know, and is throughout all countries (some countries are better at being more subtle than others).
A third theme is business people are seriously hard working people, who have a strong desire to have their calling and their work affirmed by God, by their church, and by their pastor.  People who have a passion for clothing, hair, cars, technology, sales, etc,  want and need to know that their work fits into who God made them to be.  I wish all of you could feel what changes in a room when we go through the following chart to see how different jobs and careers fit into God's work and God's plan (from Amy Sherman, Kingdom Callings):

Redemptive Work
God’s saving and reconciling actions
Pastor, counselors, peacemakers, writers, artists, poets, actors
Creative Work
God’s fashioning of the physical and human world
Interior designers, metalworkers, carpenters, builders, fashion designers, architect, novelists, urban planners
Providential Work
God’s provision for and sustaining humans and creation
Utility workers, shopkeepers, farmers, firemen, repairmen, printers, transport workers, IT workers, entrepreneurs, bankers, civil servants, mechanics, engineers, janitors, plumbers, and all who keep economic and political order working smoothly
Justice Work
God’s maintenance of justice
Judges, paralegals, lawyers, legal secretaries, government regulators, city managers, prison wardens and guards, police officers, administrators of law enforcement
Compassionate Work
God’s involvement in comforting, healing, guiding, and shepherding
Doctors, nurses, paramedics, therapists, social workers, pharmacists, community workers, nonprofit workers
Revelatory Work
God’s work to enlighten with truth
Teachers, preachers, scientists, journalists, writers.

These lists are not exhaustive but you get the idea.  It is amazing to see people identify their own work in this list and own that they are involved in God's providential work, or God's creative work, and so on.  People begin to sit up straighter in their chair, and the idea that they are ambassador's for Christ in their workplace begins to sink a bit deeper.

There are actually several more themes, but I'll stop with these three. We are part of an exciting work.  It is exciting to see people move from "going to church" to "being the church!"