Friday, May 29, 2009

14-Hour Roller Coaster Ride. . . .

"Rwanda" should be synonymous with "genocide." I say "should be" because the reality is that it took reading history books for this person who didn't know to know. The world looked the other way when over a million Tutsi men, women, children were macheted to death in 1994. If I hadn't had the chance to go to Rwanda myself my head would most likely still be turned in the other direction. After all, it happened halfway around the world and not in my comfortable and neatly manicured back yard.

While our few days in Rwanda were filled with face-to-face interactions with amazing people, it was only appropriate for us to spend our last few hours in the country walking in silence through the Genocide Memorial in Kigali. When you walk the halls and look at the walls filled with photos and words that tell the harrowing story of those 100 days, you can't help but realize that even the hearts of amazing people are - as the Scriptures say - "deceitful above all things, and desperately sick" (Jeremiah 17:9). Rwandans share that heart with all humanity. A case of traveler's diarrhea already had me feeling like I had been punched in the stomach. Viewing the Genocide Memorial images added to the feeling. There were times where you feel the need to look away, but you can't.

There are three memories from our visit to the Genocide Memorial that I hope will never fade. First, there's the dark, circular room bordered with glass cases holding clothing and bones. The clothing tells stories of poverty and violence. What was already beaten and old bears marks of additional violence through holes, slashes, and dried blood. The cases hold neatly stacked skulls, leg bones, and arm bones. Growing up in a country that celebrates Halloween with the all-too-familiar skeleton precipitated my need to keep reminding myself that each bone represents a human being. In the center of the room sits a circular bench. It's a place where people can sit and look and reflect on what happened in 1994. I walked into the room alone. Once my eyes adjusted to the dark, I noticed one other person in the room who was sitting on the bench. It was our Rwandan Compassion host, Eugene. During the days prior, Eugene had told us the story of the genocide. Parts of his story were very, very personal. There he sat, staring into space while surrounded by the remains of victims. Out of a speaker in the ceiling spoke a droning female voice. The voice recited names of victims in endless succession. I looked at Eugene and wondered what must be going through his mind.

Second, there's the mass graves that sit outside the building. They are long concrete slabs. One has a glass section through which you can see stacked, flag-draped coffins. Over 300,000 men, women, and children are buried at this site under the slabs. It is difficult to comprehend. After doing a little research I discovered that there are more people buried at the Genocide Memorial than are buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Finally, there was the attendance at the Genocide Memorial. . . or lack thereof. When we pulled in, our vehicle was the only one on the lot. By the time we left two hours later, only three more vehicles sat on the empty lot. I wondered. . . is this indicative of the fact that we still don't want to know?

After plummeting fast on the emotional roller coaster, a quick flight to Nairobi was followed with a fast climb as our group met four of Compassion's Leadership Development Program students for dinner at Java Junction. Again, I found my already-heightened respect and admiration for Compassion's work go even higher.

Our team divided into three groups for dinner. Lisa, Rich Van Pelt, Beatrice (a Compassion staffer), myself, and Daniel sat at one table. Daniel is an LDP student. The amazing thing about LDP is that it is one more indicator of Compassion's commitment to facilitate spiritual growth and independence, rather than dependence. Compassion is not a welfare program. Their stated philosophy and actual outcomes prove that point over and over again.

Compassion Kenya describes the Leadership Development Program this way: Compassion's Leadership Development Program identifies and provides university-level educational opportunities to outstanding Christian youth that have previously been assisted by Compassion under the child-sponsorship program. The strategy of the Leadership Development Program is to educate, train and disciple gifted young adults through sponsorship. Our vision and goal is that as these young people are mentored, they will play a strategic role in providing new leadership paradigms in their families, churches, careers and country. (Sounds like something we need to do with our kids here in the U.S.!).

LDP's desired outcomes for the young person are these:
1. Demonstrates commitment to the lordship of Christ.
2. Chooses good health practices and is physically healthy.
3. Exhibits the personal and professional skills to be economically self-supporting.
4. Displays positive self-worth and healthy relationships.
5. Demonstrates servant leadership.

Judging from what we saw and heard from Daniel, LDP is an amazing success. Daniel has moved from a childhood of poverty (thanks to his Compassion sponsors), to a life that includes plans for pursuing a theological education in the U.S. so that he can return to Kenya to pastor a church. For those of you who have the economic wherewithal and who would like to extend your Compassion support beyond child sponsorship, LDP is an investment that reaps great dividends. If you're interested, just let me know.

Again, I went to bed even more amazed at what Compassion is doing in the lives of kids.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Thank You Clarice . . . .

I could have flown out of Africa after one day and been changed by what I had already seen. I was convinced of the need. I was amazed at God's work. And I was sold on what Compassion is doing to transform the lives of needy kids. Thanks be to God, there was a day two.

The rain changed our plans as it often does in Rwanda. Dirt roads become impassable. The Compassion project we had planned on visiting in Gihogwe was accessible only by roads that were too muddy to drive. Plan B took us to Maranyundo. Early morning was spent visiting one of Compassion's very innovative Cottage programs. Compassion secures or builds a house. A "mama" - usually a young widow who senses God's calling to pour her life into raising children who are not her own - oversees life in the cottage. Seven or eight orphans - some of them siblings - inhabit the cottage. Mama tends to their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. In effect, she raises the children. The teenagers living in the Maranyundo cottage are - at the risk of sounding redundant - respectful, kind, mature, intelligent, and lovers of Jesus. They have nothing. Unlike teenagers in America, the walls of the rooms they share are bare, and there is no furniture to fill with earthly possessions other than a bed. Yet, they have everything. Each one lost their parents in the genocide. Each one lives with the pain. But their relationship with Jesus and their love for their cottage "family" is obviously redemptive. Again, I am blown away.

Then we go on a home visit. This time, seven of us walk down a long dirt path past the ever present poverty to the home of 12-year-old Clarice, a Compassion-sponsored child. Clarice and her bald-headed little sister are dressed in their blue school uniforms. . . the best clothes they have. Like all Rwandan children we've met, Clarice shows respect to us by finding it difficult to look in our eyes. However, we can't take our eyes off of hers. They are beautiful eyes that are full of love and hope. Those of us who fit, sit in the cramped main room of her cramped home.
A couple of others stand in the doorway. Her father is at work. Her mom is gone on an errand. These two beautiful young girls host us. We ask about her Compassion sponsors and how Compassion has impacted her life. We hear the story we will hear over and over again - Compassion has changed her life and the life of her family. You want to grab these little girls, pull them close, and never let them go. As with all of our home visits, we give the family what is to us a small bag of food (rice, flour, juice concentrate, and cooking oil). To them, the bag is gigantic and represents sustained life. I watch as the little girls embrace what I take for granted. One member of our team crumples up a $50 American bill and puts it in Clarice's hand, telling her to give it to her "mama." Yep, we break Compassion's rules. . . which is so easy to do in a situation where what is pennies to us represents two months salary for a needy family.

Before we go we stand together to hold hands and pray. This time, Clarice prays for us. That's right. . . this twelve-year-old prays for us. I'm still trying to figure out what it means for the poorest of the poor to pray for the richest of the rich. I'm realizing that what happened was that the richest of the spiritually rich, had in fact just ministered to the poorest of the spiritually poor. Thank you Clarice.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

As The Head Turns. . . .

That first full day in Africa is one that makes the head spin. The sun comes up in Kigali, Rwanda and I stand on the balcony to take in a view that the darkness had hidden the night before. There are hills, buildings, and the movement of people everywhere. I watch as folks pile into and on the constant parade of taxis. Half of them are vans. The other half are motorcycles!

Our morning begins by meeting Rev. Samuel Rubambage, Compassion Rwanda Country Director, and several members of his staff. As it is everywhere with Compassion,they are all nationals. After just a few minutes we realize that we are in the presence of people who are very bright, very capable, and very committed. From that point on, every Compassion staffer we meet is that type of person. "Excellence" might be the best word to describe the Compassion staff on the ground.

After a bumpy ride out of the city and into the village of Rusororo, we see our first Compassion project and the kids they serve. Simply unbelievable. The morning unfolds like the rest of our mornings in Africa will unfold. We arrive in our van to be greeted at the entrance by a host of happy, smiling, young African faces. The irony is evident. This is a place of great poverty. This is also a place of great joy. The kids are thrilled to see the "wazungu" (white people). They begin to laugh as I approach them and happily announce our arrival as I mockingly point to myself and say "mzungu!" (white person). Then, the touching begins. The excited children crowd around us and stroke our arms. They pull the arm hair. They pinch my skin. I'm not exactly sure what the fascination is other than they've never or rarely seen people like us before. They especially love Lisa's white skin and blond hair. They keep touching both. Within seconds we fall in love with these kids who have little or nothing, but yet love life so much.

We spend some time visiting the three classrooms that meet in the crude and barren school building. Simple desks, no electricity, blackboards at each end of the room, one composition book per student, and kids in uniforms. . . that's what it looks like. The classrooms are age segregated. The youngest in the first classroom are early elementary age. By the time we get to the last classroom we are sitting with 12 to 15 year-olds. Several things strike me as we visit each classroom. The discipline is evident. The lessons on the board. . . well. . . they were in English and the depth of the material made me a little nervous. I wouldn't have been able to answer many questions or pass many tests. The students are eager to learn and value their education. The kids sing for us and recite Scripture from memory. As we leave the classroom I turn to some folks in our group and say, "This makes American kids and the American educational system look bad." Great things are happening in the Rusororo school with the absence of physical resources and the presence of great commitment, energy, time, and love. There's a lesson there for us.

Following an extended period of time playing (my binoculars are a hit! I'm glad I brought them) and interacting with kids (including the participation of me, Marv, Duffy, Doug, and Chap in a traditional Tutsi dance - film of which we hope is never seen by human eyes!), we embark on our first home visit. Our home visits are to Compassion sponsored children. We want to see how they live and how Compassion has changed their lives.

We walk through the village to John's house. John is 13-years-old and has been sponsored by Compassion for a few years. Duffy, Maggie, Lisa, Mike, and myself walk into the crude but immaculate house to be greeted by John, his older brother, and two older sisters. This is the entire family. There are no parents. We hear John's story. His mom and dad were both killed during the genocide. His 25-year-old sister Christina (in the red shirt) is the oldest sibling and the head of the household. Christina has HIV/AIDS. She contracted the disease when she was ten. How did that happen? It was during the genocide. Like many girls her age, she was raped by HIV/AIDS infected Hutus who used the disease and rape as a weapon. When doing the math in my head, John's age seems to indicate he was born after the genocide. That leaves me scratching my head and pondering who his mom really is. Stories like these are common all over Rwanda.

John and his family have a small business that they run out of their living room. . . more specifically, off a small bench in their living room. On the bench sits a simple produce scale, some tomatoes, some onions, and some charcoal. As we visit, neighbors come by to make their purchases. As with everyone we meet in these villages, life is spent sustaining life day-to-day.

John and his family explain how his Compassion sponsorship has helped. He says, "It has changed my entire family's life." Compassion rebuilt the family's three-room home. The sponsorship provides food, medical treatment, an education, and Christian nurture for John. As with all sponsored children, John's family has benefited as well. After praying with the family, we leave a small gift of a bag of rice, two bags of flour, some cooking oil, and two bottles of concentrated juice. The smiles of appreciation are bigger than anything you'd see on the face of an American kid on Christmas morning. As we leave their home and say our "goodbyes," I am flabbergasted at the story I've just seen and heard. I am equally amazed at what a $32 a month sponsorship from a Canadian man named Dennis and his family has done for John and his family. I know about Dennis and his family because John proudly showed us their picture.

As we walk away our little group talks about what we've just seen. The walls of the gathering room in John's house are sparsely dotted with handmade pictures depicting scenes from Bible stories and Scripture verses. Faith is central to this home. But there is one other thing on the wall that is very, very interesting. I should have asked about it. It's a poster of an American mansion with a fancy car sitting off to the side. I hope and pray that this is not how we in America have chosen to define ourselves. . . but I know better. I hope and pray that this is not how John and his family define who his white American visitors are. I hope and pray that those lost in poverty don't fall into the trap of believing that redemption could ever come through the accumulation of stuff. That road's been traveled far too many times before. . . . and it's a dead-end.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

What??? No Air???. . . .

Tuesday, May 12. It's winter time in Rwanda. . . and it's still hot. So hot that after a day and a half on airplanes we stepped into the nighttime heat at Kigali Airport and I couldn't wait to get to our air-conditioned hotel room. That is. . . until I opened the door to the hotel room and couldn't find an AC thermostat anywhere.

While my initial response to this "inconvenience" is embarrassing, it's also quite telling. You see, I looked at Lisa as we struggled to pull our bags into the hotel room and lamented, "There's NO air conditioning!" I wasn't even an hour on African soil on a trip with Compassion International to meet the poorest of the world's poor, and I was already complaining. It only took a split second for me to shift my lament from the absence of air, to the absence of compassion and other-centeredness on my part. My conscience was blasted with shame and guilt as I realized that I am a man who has steadily and slowly allowed his life to be lulled to sleep in the arms of comfort, material abundance, and lack of want. I looked at Lisa and said something like, "Listen to me complaining. What's wrong with me? These people don't have food, and I'm complaining about no air." I soon realized that the screen in the window and the fan on the floor were excessive luxuries.

Part of my problem is that I'm not Bill Gates or Donald Trump. That fact has allowed me to somehow believe that I identify more with the poor than with the rich. Line me up with all Americans from richest to poorest and I'm not anywhere near the front of the line. There are millions and millions of people between me and the aforementioned big boys. But line me up with the world's population and I'm in the top two or three percent. . . . far, far ahead of the poorest of the poor whose mud, dung, and corrugated metal shacks I was soon to visit for the first time in my life. I pay more over the course of a year for the cup of coffee I drink every morning than they make during the same 365 days.

Prior to our trip I had asked the Lord to do what he wills in my life. It was beginning as we set foot in Rwanda.

My first impressions of Rwanda? First, there was the smell. It's not bad. It's just different. The smell of smoke permeates the air. That smell originates in the simmering wood and charcoal fires that the overwhelming majority of Rwandans use to cook their food in their outdoor "kitchens."

Then, there was the gnawing sense that I was walking on ground where over a million people were macheted to death just 15 years earlier. Everywhere I looked I wondered what the landscape I was seeing now looked like back then. Was it littered with bodies like all the photos I had seen? How much blood does this soil hold? I also wondered what kind of pain and memories were entrenched behind each set of Rwandan eyes I saw. I found myself silently asking, "Is that person a victim or perpetrator?"

In preparation for this trip I had read more about Rwanda and the horrors of the 1994 genocide than I had anything else. Those who know me know that I tend to to think and talk quite a bit about human depravity. It's not a morbid fascination that I have. It is, quite simply, a desire to remember things about myself and the rest of humanity that we so easily forget. We tend to think more highly of ourselves - individually and collectively - than we ought. And once we forget about depravity, well. . . that's when we start getting in trouble. There's no need to be diligent with ourselves, and there's a diminishing need for divine grace and the Savior. Idolatry quickly creeps in and we find ourselves locked into a type of American Christianity that Tom Sine so accurately describes as the American Dream with a little Jesus overlay.

I believed that with my focus on the genocide I would arrive in Rwanda with eyes more keenly able to be aware of this place somehow being darker than others. That wasn't the case at all. Rwanda is beautiful. It's known as "the land of a thousand hills." One of our newly-made Rwandan friends informed us upon our arrival that it's also "the land of a thousand smiles." Both descriptors are accurate. The people are equally beautiful. In only a few short hours I had to remind myself that while there was little or no visible evidence of the genocide and the evil at its root, what happened 15 short years ago in and among the people in whose midst we were walking is evidence that depravity is universal, it can rear its ugly head at any time in the most extreme ways, and that the genocide that happened there could happen anywhere and be perpetrated by anyone.

After a late dinner with our team, I went to bed pondering what the days ahead would hold. I was in Africa. . . . hard to believe. Already I had learned that the people of Africa are people. As I laid down and put my head on my pillow, I was acutely aware of my need to give thanks for things that the people I would meet in the morning didn't have. . . a soft bed, a lock on my door, a full belly, a pillow, clean sheets, running water, a screen in the window, and the luxury of a three-speed fan. Sure it was sticky and hot. But shame on me.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Scales On My Eyes. . . .

Most of my world travels have been second-hand. I've traveled to places through the stories, pictures, and films of those who have been there. Sadly, I don't think I ever listened too well. . . . consequently, I never really understood. Then again, I don't think there's any substitute for actually seeing and experiencing things for yourself. And now that I've returned from one of those "see it for yourself" experiences, I bear great responsibility to talk about it. Maybe my attempts at explanation will make more of an impact on others than the explanations of others made on me. I hope so.

So, we're back from Africa. What began as a dream among friends a few years ago is now in the past. But even though some jet lag is the last vestige of our physical travels to linger, we are all hoping that what happened in Africa doesn't stay in Africa. We want the trip to live on in and through our lives. The picture of the little girl that I snapped in a small Rwandan village is seared into my brain. Hers is the face of poverty. She is not a Compassion-sponsored child. Someday, maybe that will happen.

Over the next few days I want to share with you some of our experiences through stories and pictures. There are far too many stories and pictures to share, but I'm going to pass on the cream because it's not only significant for those in our little group who experienced Kenya and Rwanda first-hand, but significant for all of us who follow Christ.

Two weeks ago we left for Africa at the invitation of Compassion International. Lisa and I drove to Philly to meet up with Duffy and Maggie Robbins. After a short flight to New York, we hooked up with Marv and Lois Penner. The six of us flew together to Brussels. There we met the rest of our group - Chap and Dee Clark, Doug and Cathy Fields, Rich Van Pelt, Jim Hancock, and Compassion's Mike Johnson. Before loading up for a lengthy flight to Kigali, we shared our gratitude and disbelief that our trip was finally happening.

And happen it did! Our mission was to learn more about God's mission through the work of Compassion International. Our days were scheduled morning, noon, and night. We were on such sensory overload that we still don't know when we'll be able to finish processing everything that happened during our ten days together. Thus, my attempt to make some sense of it for myself by sharing it with you in "real time" over the next few days. I'll be blogging each day with some highlights, sights, and thoughts regarding what we saw, heard, smelled, touched, and yes. . . . even tasted.

Since Monday the 11th was a travel day, let me get ahead of myself and pass on something about Compassion. . . and nothing I have to share has been scripted or expected by the folks at Compassion. I have a relatively long history with groups like Compassion. I started sponsoring a child when I graduated from college back in 1978. We've continued to do so through a variety of Christian sponsorship and relief organizations. To be honest, it's been easy and not something that I've put much thought into. That has changed (more on that in a few days). Sure, writing that monthly check takes a little bit of work. And, it feels good to do something for a needy kid. But oh how I was missing it. Here's a few things I learned about Compassion on our trip. . . .

Most importantly, Compassion is Christ-centered. The Great Commission is at the root of Compassion's calling. The Word of God is the guide for all Compassion does. New life through the incarnate Word - Jesus Christ - is the message taught to each Compassion child in a culturally relevant way. Compassion is about the whole person, not just the physical person.

Compassion is also child-focused. Children are everywhere - EVERYWHERE - in Africa. Compassion is all about those kids. Each child's needs - physical, economic, social, and spiritual - are addressed through Compassion's projects throughout the world.

Compassion is church-based. Every project we visited was administered through an organized and responsible group of local believers. This is so, so significant.

Compassion is all about integrity. Yesterday in church several of my friends asked about our trip. Many of them sponsor Compassion children. The question everyone asked was this: "What do you think of Compassion as an organization?" My answer: "Unbelievable!" Compassion is a ministry committed to excellence and integrity. Those commitments are evident in their people and their programs. If there's a chink in the Compassion armor, I have yet to find it.

Over the course of the last couple of weeks I've seen things that I never imagined possible. Several in our group - including myself - wondered out loud: "Why was I born where I was born? Why have my children been born where they have been born? Why have I been given so much?" The answer came immediately: "I have been given what I've been given as a steward. It's that simple." The Scriptures have come to life and they are bouncing around in my head. The reason for the blessings I've received is simple - "to him who has been given much, much is required." I now know that being among the poorest of the poor has a way of making the scales fall from your eyes.

Now, what am I going to do with that?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Let my heart be broken. . . .

A couple more hours and we're on our way. Yesterday in church dozens of people assured us of their prayers. We need them. Yours would be appreciated as well. Quite frankly, there are only three things that I'm sure are going to happen while we're in Rwanda and Kenya with Compassion. And to be honest, I'm not even sure what shape those three things will take.

First, I know we'll laugh. I'm looking forward to laughing harder than I've laughed in years. It happens every time we're with these guys. Even though it's now several times a year, it's never enough. If you're in youth ministry, you know Duffy, Doug, Chap, Marv, Rich, and Jim. We have loads of fun together. I'm sure this will be no different.

Second, I know we'll cry. "Lord, let my heart be broken by the things that break your heart" is the now-famous prayer that Bob Pierce prayed so many years ago. God will answer that prayer as we see first-hand suffering like we've never seen before. I'm glad I'm going to get to experience it with my wife and this group of friends. The processing will go deep, I'm sure.

And third, we'll be changed. I have no clue what shape or form that change will take. I simply know it will be. And when it happens, I know it will be much-needed and God-ordained.

Over the weekend I started reading the last of the books on Rwanda that I've been working through. This one is Shake Hands With The Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Romeo Dallaire. Lt. Gen. Dallaire was the Canadian who commanded the U.N. Force in Rwanda during the Genocide. His name has popped up in every book I've read to this point. Now, I want to hear what he has to say. Ever since returning he's struggled with PTSD and was even considering suicide.

In the Preface to the book, Dallaire writes these words: The following is my story of what happened in Rwanda in 1994. It's a story of betrayal, failure, naivete, indifference, hatred, genocide, war, inhumanity, and evil. Although strong relationships were built and moral, ethical and courageous behavior were often displayed, they were overshadowed by one of the fastest, most efficient, most evident genocides in recent history. In just one hundred days over 800,000 innocent Rwandan men, women and children were brutally murdered while the developed world, impassive and apparently unperturbed, sat back and watched the unfolding apocalypse or simply changed channels. Almost fifty years to the day that my father and father-in-law helped to liberate Europe - when the extermination camps were uncovered and when, in one voice, humanity said, "Never again" - we once again sat back and permitted this unspeakable horror to occur. We could not find the political will nor the resources to stop it. Since then, much has been written, discussed, debated, argued and filmed on the subject of Rwanda, yet it is my feeling that this recent catastrophe is being forgotten and its lessons submerged in ignorance and apathy. The genocide in Rwanda was a failure of humanity that could easily happen again. After one of my many presentations following my return from Rwanda, a Canadian Forces padre asked me how, after all I had seen and experienced, I could still believe in God. I answered that I know there is a God because in Rwanda I shook hands with the devil. I have seen him, I have smelled him and I have touched him. I know the devil exists, and therefore I know there is a God.

After reading those words I realized that Dallaire was writing about me. My ignorance was fueled by a seat on the couch and a remote in hand that was most likely flipping away from the news and onto something comedic and mindless. The proof lies in the fact that I just can't remember.

The word of God through the prophet Amos has much to say to us today: "I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring me choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But. . . let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!"

Off we go. . .

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

What's going to happen? . . .

I'm anticipating that in two weeks I'm going to be a different person. . . and I'm not sure what it's all going to look like. In a few days I'm heading to Africa with some close friends in the world of youth ministry. We're going with Compassion International to Kenya and Rwanda. Our mission is to learn as much as we can about Compassion's work with children in these horribly impoverished countries so that we might come back and serve more effectively and passionately as ambassadors for Compassion's valuable life-saving work.

My preparation has been physical and spiritual. The physical side of things has included several rounds of needles filled with all kinds of immunizations for all kinds of deadly and debilitating diseases. Each and every time I think about the shots there are two things that cross my mind: 1) I'm being protected from things that these people face, live with, and die with each and every day, and 2)The hundreds of dollars Lisa and I have spent on our shots in preparation for our short visit totals more money that most of the people we will meet on our trip live on over the course of several years.

The spiritual side of the preparation can be summarized in the prayer that I find myself praying over and over again: "Lord, do something in my life. . . and let it be whatever you will." Quite honestly, knowing I have yet to hear the answer leaves me both excited and nervous.

I've also been reading quite a bit in preparation for the trip. . . background stuff on the two countries we're going to visit. Kenya is filled with poverty. I will be seeing things I've never seen before. Rwanda was filled with violence. In 1994, 800,000 to 1 million people were killed - most of them macheted to death - over the course of the 100 day genocide. What I've read has made my head spin.

I've also read Gary Haugen's great book, Just Courage. In the book, Haugen tells the story of his friend Sean Litton, a lawyer who decided to put Christ’s call - to find one’s life by losing it – to the test. Litton walked away from his safe, high-paying and secure job to go to work for Haugen’s International Justice Mission, addressing sexual trafficking and child sexual assault in the Philippines. Sean took his wife and two kids along. His life was changed.

But Sean almost didn’t go. He says there were four things holding him back. There was his comfort that came with his nice house and all the stuff he had accumulated. There was his security and freedom from danger. There was the control he had over the circumstances of his life. And finally, there was the success he was experiencing in his career. But he let go of comfort, security, control, and success. . . and he took the unsafe option by giving up his life and going to the Phillippines.

What happened? Sean Litton found his life. In exchange for what he gave up he got back adventure, faith, miracles, and a deep knowledge of Jesus. His faith grew and solidified in ways he could have never imagined.

I am challenged. And, I'll let you know how it's going. We covet your prayers.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Off they go. . . .

The invitations are coming. If you're in youth ministry the invitations you get will most likely result in a lower food bill and a bigger belly. It's a blessing and a curse! You get to go to all the picnics for your high school grads, but you might be eating too much.

Every year when graduation season rolls around I ponder the job we've done with our kids. I wonder how well we've prepared them for life after high school. This morning, I asked Derek Melleby (Director of CPYU's College Transition Initiative) to share with me some of his greatest concerns regarding youth ministry and the transition from high school to college. I asked for five. . . . which made it a difficult task for Derek as there is so much more he'd like to pass on. Here's the five he gave me. . . and I encourage you to think about each as you visualize each of your graduates:

1. There is a cultural assumption that college helps students mature, or is a rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood. The reality is that college, for many, is not a healthy, maturing experience.

2. The years between 18-25 are considered the “critical years.” Decisions are made during this time that are formative for the rest of life. Who they decide to be in college is most likely who they will be for the rest of their lives.

3. Too many students are being shaped by the “world’s story” rather than God's story, understanding college as nothing more than the next step to a “successful” life: you go to college to get a degree, to get a better job, to make more money.

4. Students need to be shaped by the Biblical story: college is a “calling,” a time to develop minds, discover gifts and discern further calling. College should be about increasing our serviceability for God! What are we doing to prepare them for this type of college experience?

5. It should be noted that only 58% of students who enter college graduate within 6 years, and 25% of students do not return to the same school for the sophomore year.

Derek's thoughts continue to pound home for me the necessity of a joint effort (home, youth ministry, church) at being intentional in understanding how students are approaching the college years, and equipping them for how they should approach their college years.

One of the things I appreciate most about Derek is his ability to address these issues from a deep Biblical perspective and his commitment to help you do the same. It's during this time of year that I revisit the wonderful book he co-authored with our friend Don Opitz - The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness. This book is wonderful combination of depth and accessibility. It's practical and hopeful.

Recently, I told Derek how much I'd like to see this book get in the hands of every high school graduate known and served by our CPYU constituency. I'm happy to announce that we've taken some big steps to help make this a possibility in a manner that won't break the bank. We've decided to bundle The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness and the ConGRADulations CD/DVD from our friends at interlinc in an affordable CPYU Graduation Bundle that you can hand on to all the graduating seniors you know and love. The ConGRADulations CD/DVD includes a Music CD, a Media DVD, a Resource Website and a 48 Page Graphic Gift Book. Your seniors will be encouraged as the songs and videos prepare them for the biggest transition of their young lives, including video and written advice from people like Francis Chan and Dave Ramsey.

All of us will be buying graduation gifts this year. I hope you'll take the time to consider supporting your kids and our ministry here at CPYU by giving them this CPYU Graduation Bundle. Special discounts are available for bulk orders.

Finally, let us know what you're doing to prepare kids for the transition to college. We want to be able to hear and share your ideas.