Monday, February 26, 2018

Perspectives: Part 2 of 3

April 15 - tax day - is rapidly approaching.  A day that fills many with dread.

I recently helped my son, Noah, do his taxes.  He graduated from college in 2016 and was blessed to have a fulltime job right out of college.  His taxes for 2016 (filed in 2017) were for six months of fulltime work and so his 2017 taxes (to be filed soon) were his first year of taxes with a fulltime job that was for twelve months.

He was shocked and a little outraged to find that his tax rate as a single person was 28% of his gross income.

I agree that it does seem like a lot.

But then perspective kicks in, which Noah was able to quickly hear given his many years of living in Africa.

He landed a fulltime job right out of university at the age of 22.  That is amazing.  That is a blessing.  He is doing something he enjoys, in his field of study, contributing to the safety of our country.  Not many 22 year olds can say that in the world today!  [Not to mention the fact that he makes more than I do, at the age of 49; granted, DC is expensive but still!!!]

In Ghana and Nigeria, so many young people are now graduating from university with no jobs available.  They are told that doing a small business is "beneath them" as they have a university degree.  So they sit at home and wait and hope for a job to come.  Because of this, there is an increase in armed robbery and kidnapping, as these youth begin to despair of finding purpose and work.  We (at Discipling Marketplace Leaders) are developing an entrepreneurship program to address this challenge.  We believe firmly that the Church need to be about training job makers, not just job seekers, so that people can use their creative abilities, made in the image of God, to help people flourish!

While Noah (and many of us) may not be happy about how much of his income is going to taxes, he does know that infrastructure is consistently provided for in his city/state, and will continue to be kept up - roads (okay, some potholes but overall incredibly good roads!), water, free public education, and electricity.  The government, while full of it's own issues, is not overtly corrupt with nepotism (you may think I'm naïve, but again, remember that this is about perspective IN COMPARISON to other places).  He can sleep safe and secure each night, with a country that does protect it's people (granted, not all people equally, but the majority are able to sleep at night without fear).

Is it perfect?  Absolutely not.  Is the US the greatest country in the world?  Not even close, in my opinion.

But again, can our conversations be seasoned with more grace and perspective, given the reality of many places in the majority world?

I think so. 

The challenge of paying taxes is not new.  David killed Goliath in part because his family wouldn't have to pay taxes (1 Samuel 17:25).  But Jesus is very clear in Matthew 22, that we are to pay to Caesar the things that are Caesars. 

Taxes are in place to help level the playing field for all citizens in a country.  That is the goal of government.  I have seen with my own eyes what happens when countries who pay even higher taxes than the US have no infrastructure, no jobs, and no security, when embezzlement is the order of the day; and when killing of certain people groups by those in government is not only ignored but condoned.

Perspective.  It's a wonderful thing.  I know that we can always find people who have it "worse than us," and there is a time and place for being legitimately grumpy about circumstances.  But despite that, perspective is still helpful.

We live between the "now" and the "not yet."

There is much to be grateful for in North America in the now.  But have we arrived?  Absolutely not.  We are "not yet" where we need to be, and it's good that we continue to voice concerns for injustice and take action as we can.  But as we live in this in-between time, let us lend our voice and our prayers also to those who have it much worse.  Let us speak with appreciation for what we have here.  Let us pay our taxes, grateful for what it provides, and continue to pray and be active in working towards the betterment of our country and our world.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Perspectives: Part 1 of 3

My daughter Hannah has a sleep disorder called Hypersomnia.  There is a part of our brain that is supposed to keep us awake that doesn't work right for her, so she is tired all the time.  It took years to come up with that diagnosis, with lots of tests.  She has access to medicine that addresses that and allows her to work, study, and fully function.  That medicine costs $800 per month but because of health insurance, she only pays a copay of $15.

I have a niece that has Crohn's disease.  I have watched her suffer (from a distance) for more than eight years with excruciating pain, medicines, job challenges, etc.  Several years ago, we were able to be present for her wedding and recently she gave birth to a healthy daughter, despite being told that it would be a challenge due to all the medication she had been on.

A fellow church member also has Crohn's disease and has gone through a number of surgeries, sharing on Facebook the difficulties that this disease presents.  She is now doing much better thanks to the medical help she has received.

I have a friend in Kenya, a pastor and graduate of Africa Theological Seminary.  He and his wife have two children.  When I saw him a year ago, I noted that he looked even thinner than his usual thin self.  Upon asking him if he is okay, I was able to coax out of him that he had lost weight because his son is sick.  You see, this pastor makes $200/month for a family of four.  He is a pastor in a relatively large church (500 members) in a relatively large city in Kenya.  But his fourteen year old son has Crohn's disease and the monthly medication for him is $300/month.

Which is why he is losing weight.  When your child is sick, crying each night in pain, and not able to go to school despite being a bright student, you do what you have to do as a parent.  They were buying the medicine as often as they could, which was not often and not in a consistent way that would allow for healing.

So Michael and I stepped in to help.  This young man has now been in school for the last six months, is sleeping during the night, and his medication has now been reduced to half the amount as healing is taking place.

I'm not writing this to toot our own horn.  I'm writing this because of the amount of complaining that I hear about the health system in the United States.  I'm writing this because there comes a time when we need to get a bigger perspective.  I have the luxury of having that perspective thrust in my face every time I'm in Africa.  Not many people have that luxury and when you are surrounded by negativity, it's difficult to find perspective. 

It's true that the system here is not perfect and needs to be worked on.  It's true that health insurance is very expensive and not equitable for all people.  I agree.

But it's also true that we have it better than most people in the majority world.  And because of that, our conversations can be seasoned with more grace and appreciation than what I often hear.

We have hospitals with working machines (something Bob did not have in Ghana).  We have options of health care.  We have "GoFundMe" options when we can't pay the bills.  We have options of paying things off over time (as opposed to many places in Africa where you have to prepay for a procedure as they have little hope of collecting it after - therefore many people die without treatment because they can't afford to pay up front). We can even declare bankruptcy when the bills overwhelm us.

I continue to be so grateful for the perspective that my work affords me.  I pray that God grants me the grace to be thankful, as the quote says, for the "roses in the thorn bushes" and not just lament the thorns.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Did It Rain Before the Flood?

Two weeks ago I was giving my rendition of Genesis 1 and 2, asking the crowd to use their "spiritual imagination" in thinking of how Adam and Eve might spend their time in the garden where they were told to "work" and "take care of" the Garden, prior to the fall (Genesis 2:15).  I reminded them that there were no weeds yet and God was watering the garden on His own with rain.

The next day, Dr. Walker and I did our two mile walk for exercise, which we try to do as often as we can when on the road, and as we walked, we started our routine debriefing of how the workshop went.  We usually critique each other on style and content.  He said to me, "I noted you said that God watered the garden with rain, but you know there was no rain until Noah."

That stopped me in my tracks and I responded with an astounded "what on earth are you talking about."

The idea that there was no rain comes from Genesis 2: 5-6 which says, "When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up - for the Lord God had not cause it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground."

The idea was that a vapor canopy covered the earth, producing a massive greenhouse effect.  Additionally, since there was no mention of rain until Noah, the assumption was there must not have been rain.  To me, the fact that very shortly after this text there were many plants of the field and humans to work the ground, negates this idea.  This text seems to me to be simply a recapping of the creation and the fact that no rain had come by day three.

Apparently many people have held this belief, but this was the first I had heard about it.  [I find it amazing what I continue to learn about the Bible, even after reading and studying it for so many years!]  Many have now abandoned this idea as it has been difficult to show how this would have worked and is not actually backed up with scripture.

On the face of it, with my limited knowledge, it makes no sense that God would create the world to have such a vastly different climate and weather system up until the flood.  The entire system would have had to be different.  But He declared His creation to be very good, so why change it so drastically?  Was rain a result of sin?  Seems odd to me.

I'm not sure I like the idea of living in a greenhouse, which sounds very humid.  And normally, I don't like to get into these type of debates which involve a lot of speculation of the past, which doesn't necessarily change anything for us today.  But it's interesting to learn about some of the speculation that theologians and scientists have regarding the way God created the world.

I had a very busy week in Ghana, teaching Church-based Business as Mission to 98 theology students at the Assemblies of God Bible College in Kumbungu, Northern Ghana.  In addition to that, we had a number of meetings exploring partnerships with other Bible colleges and seminaries.  The meetings were exciting in that we met people in key positions who have such a heart for the Marketplace and are looking for discipleship tools for their members.  One of the Christian universities was so excited (they already teach Theology of Work) about Discipling Marketplace Leaders that they immediately offered me a job and a place to live on campus! 

I'm looking forward to seeing what God will do in West Africa in the next year!  Things are certainly starting to get busy!

I'm now home for a few weeks and then will head out to East Africa, where we will have DML work to do in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia.  

The students at the Assemblies of God Bible College.  A great class!

Monday, February 5, 2018

When Four Hours Becomes Eight

On Thursday, we started the four hour journey from Jos to Abuja at 7 am.  The goal was for our colleague to be able to make the trip back in time for an important church meeting that evening.  This particular road has been known for armed robbers, so there are many police and para-military check points along the way.

Some of the police and soldiers are very courteous and friendly, wishing us safe travels.

Others....not so much.

Two boldly demanded that we give them money.  We offered a blessing instead.  One accepted the blessing...the other one kept demanding money.  We didn't give any and eventually we were released.

At one stop, however, we were waved over by the police to park.  I've learned that there are strict rules about how to behave when this happens, or the consequences can be severe.  Our colleague was asked to provide his license and papers which were thoroughly examined.  Then the car was examined.  We began to hear arguing and we knew this wasn't good.  The violation?  A brake light was out and the spare tire needed more air (according to the police officer).

Both of these are relatively easy fixes and minor violations.  A brake light can burn out at any time without the car giving any sort of warning or notice.

It was the consequence that caught us off guard.  A 5000 Naira fine (about $15 - not too bad), license seized (that can get tricky to get back and is only supposed to be seized if there is a traffic accident), and three weeks of driving school for our colleague.  That's right.  You read it right.  Three weeks of daily driving school...for a brake light out and lower tire pressure on a spare tire.

[Nigeria must have the best educated drivers and safest cars in the world with this level of commitment to safety and repeat education!]

As we knew time was of the essence for our colleague, we wanted him to take care of it in the most efficient way possible, as we continued the journey.  As police don't take cash (which is a good thing!), the first step was to find an internet café which actually knows how to deal with these violations and can print the paper needed to take to the bank.  After three internet cafes that didn't know how or didn't have the capacity, we finally got the paper we needed at the fourth internet café.  Now to the bank to make the payment.  After waiting, and waiting, and waiting, we learned the computer was down.  Power is on and off so much in Abuja.  Finally, that payment was made.

Then it was on to get the brake light fixed and air in the spare tire.  One place for fixing the light.  One place for putting air in the tire.

Then we were on our way.

It was up to our colleague to find his way back to that check stop and the police station associated with it to get his license back.  And he would also need to plead with the people there not to require the three weeks of driving school.

His heart was heavy with the prospect.  Our hearts were heavy with the reality before him.

I get to say, "This is what happens in Nigeria."  I get to leave.  My colleague has to struggle with the fact that this is his country.  These are his people.  It's embarrassing for him.  It's beyond annoying.  It's a waste of time.  It's over the top.  The drain is emotional, financial, and time-consuming.

The good news is that he was able to get his license back and they waived the education requirement.  He missed his meeting at the church but was thankful to have the whole thing behind him.

This time.  What of next time?  What is a citizen to do when faced with this again and again?

One thing that I learned on this trip is the "gentleman's agreement" that the country of Nigeria has between the north and the south.  The agreement is that every eight years, there is to be a trade-off on whether the president comes the north or south.  The north tends to be more Muslim; the south tends to be more Christian.  The current president is from the north.  What I learned is that when the president from the North comes in, his people are all put into all ministerial and cabinet positions.  All the favor swings toward the North and the Muslims.  When the president from the South comes in, similar things happen, although Christians argue that their people work to be more egalitarian for all people.

Whatever was done by the previous president is usually undone and everyone who is from the other camp simply holds their breath until the eight years have passed.  This can't be good for the country overall.

In the US, we can say the same thing happens, as it relates to one president undoing what another has done.  But there is freedom of choice at each election.  The other issue is that things go much further here, with lives lost, police looking the other way, etc, based on where you are from.

Lots of thinking and processing to do on my part as I watch, observe, and try to identify with my Nigerian brother and sister.

I have now left Nigeria and am in Tamale, Ghana.  Today I start teaching at the Assemblies of God Bible College, where I'm told I will have 90 pastors as students of Church-based business as mission.  I was supposed to teach one class but they decided to open it up for all the students at the college for this section!

God is good...all the time! All the time...God is good...and that is His nature!