Monday, June 29, 2009

Almost 20! . . .

For this blog entry, I'd like to step out of the normal routine of talking about culture, faith, and life, to talking about CPYU. Tuesday of this week will be a day to look back and say "thank you." Wednesday is a day to look ahead with great expectation. June 30 is the end of our CPYU fiscal year. We close the books on the previous twelve months. For me, it's always been a time to ponder what great things our faithful God has done for us and through us during the previous year. This year is no exception. We're a bit behind budget, but that has not stopped us from doing what we've been called, charged, and equipped to do. CPYU continues to provide up-to-date information and analysis on contemporary youth culture from a distinctively Christian perspective. The year has flown by, but it's been a great ride.

On Wednesday, we open the curtain on another year. July 1 of this year is especially significant as it marks the beginning of our 20th year in ministry. I can hardly believe that CPYU has been around for two decades! I continue to marvel at what God has done in spite of us. As in past years, I'm not at all sure what lies ahead during the next twelve months. It's always a surprise. I do know that in just a couple of months we will be announcing another new resource from CPYU.

So today, as I think about CPYU, who we are, where we've come from, and where we are going, I want offer gratitude to God. In addition, I also want to say thanks to all of you who have used our resources, supported us financially, and kept us in your prayers.

It's my hope that we would continue to keep our single-minded focus here at CPYU. That said, could I ask you to pause and pray for us today? Thanks.

Soli Deo Gloria

Friday, June 26, 2009

When Celebrity Dies. . . .

Another clump of celebrity deaths. . . and they all played some type of role in my childhood and young adult years. I hadn't thought about any of them at all until their names hit the news this week.

First, there was Ed McMahon. I thought Johnny Carson was a funny guy. He was especially funny when he picked on his sidekick Ed. It was even funnier when Ed would lay a zinger on Johnny. Whenever I could, I'd stay up late watching these guys in search of a good laugh. They'd deliver. More recently I'd travel down memory lane through the Carson DVD's my kids got me as a gift a few years ago.

Then, there was Farah Fawcett. I don't remember ever watching Charlie's Angels, but I have to admit that as a young twenty-something guy I certainly knew who she was. I remember that best-selling poster hanging on a few dorm room walls back at Geneva College. My college yearbook bears testimony to Fawcett's influence on pop culture. Just take a look at the hairstyles on lots of the coeds.

Finally, there's Michael Jackson. I loved the early version of the guy. I can still remember with great clarity the first time I heard his music. I was in 8th grade at Huntingdon Junior High School outside of Philly. It was a rainy day and after school I had walked around the corner to my buddy Bruce Lutz's house where we were to be working on a joint Social Studies presentation. Before, during, and after working on that project we kept lifting the needle on the family's record player and starting over on a little 45 featuring The Jackson Five. The song was "I Want You Back." The music was fast, catchy, fun, and infectious. I was amazed that the voice I was hearing came from a kid a couple of years younger than me. It was even better to see Jackson and his brothers perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. Those infectious, high-energy hits kept coming, and today, that music transports me back to Bruce's living room and that time in my life. After those early years, Michael Jackson lost me. But don't use me as the benchmark for his following. We all know how big it grew.

As expected, the deaths of the two former stars have been eclipsed in the media by the death of the latter. It's all over the television and the Internet. Shrines and memorials are popping up all over the world. This guy was big. He'll most likely be the Elvis of the generation that follows all those Elvis followers. But as I watch the response to his death, I can't help but wonder about what this very talented and equally odd entertainer meant to so many people. What left such massive holes in their lives that they looked to Michael Jackson to fill? Celebrity is a very, very strange phenomenon.

But other thoughts have been provoked by these deaths for me. I am reminded that while our lives on this earth take a variety of paths, they all end the same way. It doesn't matter how much or how little one has in terms of money, fame, and attention. The heart eventually stops. Solomon pondered these realities in Ecclesiastes. If we watch the lives of the people who we look to as the bars we hope to reach, the last breath always comes. . . . and it's always the same. That would certainly become more real to us if we were somehow able to witness the last sixty seconds of each of these lives. Life on this earth ends and it's never pretty.

I'm reminded of how we need to view our lives not in terms of the number of days starting with our birthday and ending with our last breath, but from eternity to eternity. All of us are part of a bigger story. It is God's story. Chapter One is titled "Creation." It begins with the eternal God who made all things out of nothing. Those "all things" were made perfect and for His glory. Chapter Two is called "Fall." It begins in Genesis 3:6 as all things come undone due to human rebellion and the desire to do things our way. Sadly, Chapter Two is also about the results of the fall, including spiritual death, the sufferings of life, and physical death. But thank God that His story includes Chapter Three - "Redemption." Immediately God in His mercy and grace puts into place His plan to undo what's been done by our rebellion. For those who have embraced the God who has embraced them and entered into Chapter Three, there is the hope of Chapter Four. "Glorification" awaits all those who are in Christ as once and for all those "all things" that came undone are restored to what they once were. . . . and whether we know it or not, all creation longs and groans for that day. If you're unfamiliar with this story, it's laid out in wondrous and engaging ways in the book we all call The Bible. I know that it's an amazing story to live in. . . and the older I get, the more deeply I can't wait to get to the end. . . which is really a new beginning that will have not end. In addition, I grieve for those who never get beyond Chapter Two before their heart stops beating.

Late last night I was sitting and watching the news about Michael Jackson's death. My 16-year-old came into the house and immediately asked, "Hey Dad. Did you hear about Michael Jackson?" "Yep," I answered. Then he asked, "Where do you think he is?" I couldn't answer the question with any certainty. God is, after all, a whole lot bigger than me. What I could remind him of are the words of the Apostle Paul regarding those who have embraced the God who has embraced them and entered into the Chapter Three life of following Jesus. In Philippians 1:21, Paul says, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain." This reality gave Paul confidence to say that for those who are in Christ, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (II Cor. 5:6-8).

Today, we are reminded of these realities. Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

So This Is Who We Are? . . .

I suppose these are things I already knew. I just didn't know it was so bad. I'm still trying to process it all. It's come to light as I've been forced to deconstruct and understand traffic to this blog and the comments people are leaving. It's made my head spin and I'm trying to figure it out.

From May 6th until June 3rd I was blogging about our trip with Compassion International to Rwanda and Kenya, the poverty we saw, the deep needs we encountered, and the plight of hurting people. . . particularly children. I pondered our God-given responsibility to "the least of these." In response, I received some great notes of encouragement from people who were being challenged as we shared how we were challenged. Some - a handful - left thoughtful comments on the blog. Others even stepped up and sponsored children through Compassion International. Then, on June 4th I shifted gears and expressed some long held thoughts about the "reality" TV show Jon & Kate Plus 8. In response, 200 comments of all shapes, sizes, and flavors have already been posted. Some are nasty. Some are nice.

Ok. . . think about this for a minute. . . .several blogs on tremendous need in the world. One blog on a reality show about a family falling to pieces. The Africa blogs more or less fell through the cracks in terms of response. The other one. . . well, it's off the charts.

If you don't believe me, I've been checking the traffic for each of the blogs. The blogs on our Compassion trip generated an average of a couple hundred visitors a day. The blog (singular) on the Gosselin family has generated tens of thousands of visits. Yesterday alone 7,300 people logged on to read that blog.

So now my head is spinning as I'm trying to gather my thoughts, understand this all in light of our culture-at-large, and try to figure out what this says about who we are. As I've processed the terribly imbalanced traffic flow and wide variety of comments here's what I've been thinking - and asking - so far. . .

1. We're more interested in obsessing over celebrity than we are over the great needs of people in the world.

2. I remember hearing Tony Campolo talk about the dangers of money, sex, and power back when I was just out of college. We can add celebrity to that list. Tony was simply communicating Scriptural truths about the idols that destroy us. Like others in all times and all places, we're still not listening. We continue to bow down. We're killing ourselves. . . and we don't even know it. History repeats itself.

3. Biblical illiteracy is at epidemic proportions here in America. It's at epidemic proportions both inside and outside the walls of the church. We've created a "god" and a theology in our own image. Personal opinion oftentimes trumps God's Word.

4. Are people hearing solid Biblical theology and teaching in their churches?

5. Are people serious about integrating their faith into all of life? Have they even been challenged and equipped to do so?

6. Are people interested in thinking Christianly and critically about all of life? Have they even been challenged and equipped to do so?

7. When will we begin to understand that no, life is not about me?

8. When will get our eyes off of ourselves, realize how damaging divorce is to everyone involved (especially the kids), and do everything in our power to live out our marital vows?

9. When will we start to pay to attention to our Maker, His will, and His way? When will we realize that life is about living to the honor and glory of God?

10. What can a serious look at our history teach us about where we've failed in youth ministry? In other words, what have we done to contribute to where we're at as a culture?

I've found it all very troubling. I hope that each of us will take a long hard look at our world and our selves through the eyes of the postings, the comments, and the traffic. What does it tell you?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Too Much Shakin Goin On. . . .

The Friday death of John Houghtaling conjured up a pop culture memory that's appropriate to recall during Father's Day weekend. You see, Houghtaling was the inventor of a delightful little device - at least I thought so - that I was deprived of ever experiencing during my childhood. . . thanks to my Dad.

First, a little trip down memory lane. Like many kids who grew up during the 1960s and 70s, we took summer vacations by car. The family sedan (and there were many of them. . . . most without air conditioning), would be loaded to the gills and we would head down the highway for what some years was a three day drive south to Florida. The antidote to the discomfort of three days with three boys stuffed in the backseat took many forms for me. There was license plate bingo. See how many of the states you can get on the drive down. That game might last into Maryland. . . not too far on a drive from Philly to the Sunshine State. There was the letter game, a little trick my mom would pull out of her bag to quell boredom. In this game, passengers get a point for each visual they spot outside the car that coincides with a letter of the alphabet. . . all done in alphabetical order. Finally, there was the fun of spotting the signs for South of the Border. Pedro always said we were getting close. Padre always said that we weren't stopping.

But there was nothing that eased the pain of the trip like the stops. Lunch was always at a fast food joint. Sometimes we'd sit and eat. If we were already "making good time," we might even eat while driving so that we could get further down the road than our planned overnight stop. They were the best stops. The motel. Here's how it worked in our family: The first motel criteria was the coveted AAA rating. Second was a good price with "kids stay free" attached on the end. It couldn't be - in his words - "highway robbery," which by the way, I don't ever remember actually experiencing. A Color TV, air conditioning, and a pool always made it that much better. This is how it went down in our family: We'd stop. Dad would pull in and go to the office while the rest of us waited in the car. He'd get a key and check out the room. If it passed his inspection, we were in. If it was questionable, mom would get out and give it a look. There were times when we'd pass on a place and head down the road to find something else.

Finally, we'd find a place to sleep for the night. Bedtime came fast as my dad needed his sleep since he had done almost all the driving - which to this day still amazes me. But I can remember that almost every motel room we ever stayed in had that little gray box by the bed that would catch my eye as soon as I'd cross the threshold. It was the little gray box invented by John Houghtaling. Remember the Magic Fingers? That's Houghtaling's invention that promised "15 minutes of tingling relaxation and ease". . . something I thought I desperately needed but never had the joy of receiving. First, the doggone thing cost too much. . . at least that's what my parents told me. It was twenty-five cents. Second, it was dangerous. . . at least that's what my parents told me. I'm not sure what the perceived danger was, but I remember it having something to do with the electrical cord running to the outlet and the possibility of electrocution. . . the chances of which might have been increased by our family's earlier visit to the motel pool. By the way, the "electrocution" and "dangerous" reasons were also regularly used whenever I wanted to ride the electric pony or fire engine outside of the grocery store.

Redemption did eventually come. I believe it was while I was in seminary. Lisa and I took a little trip with another couple. Too poor and cheap to secure individual motel rooms, we wound up sharing a double-double. Imagine my surprise and delight when we crossed the threshold and there was the grey-colored box attached to one of the beds. Immediately, I claimed that bed as ours. I couldn't wait. Finally under the covers with my quarter in hand, I dropped it in the Magic Fingers machine. What happened next was anything but magic. It was 15 of the most uncomfortable minutes of my life. My seminary buddy just laughed. Lisa climbed out of the bed to find 15 minutes of relaxation and ease next to the bed. I tried hard, but I couldn't make it stop. My childhood dreams, which should have been coming true, were shattered. It was like jack-hammering concrete while laying down.

So, if nothing else, John Houghtaling gave me some great memories. If only my dad had let me try the thing when I was little. . . I wouldn't have wasted so much time! You know what. He was right about it. You know what else he was right about? The grocery story pony. I finally rode one of those when I was in college. And it wasn't all it was cranked up to be. Thanks Dad!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Parenting Secrets. . . .

There's a funny little story that gets told around our house every Father's Day. It's about something that happened in our family on a Father's Day about nineteen or twenty years ago. It was a beautiful Father's Day afternoon and our little family (only three kids at the time) was sitting at the kitchen table having lunch. Caitlin, Josh, and Bethany had just given me their homemade Father's Day gifts. . . the best kind!

After making a big deal over these simple little gifts that were loaded with love, I asked the kids a question. "Do you know what the best thing about being your Dad is?" I can't remember what the answer I wanted to them to come up with was. I think it was something like "I get to love and spend time with you guys!!" I simply wanted them to know how much I loved them. But before I had a chance to fill in the blank with the real answer, little Josh got an excited look and big smile on his face, indicating that he had the correct answer to my little quiz. He looked at me with a big smile and excitedly said, "Spanking?!?"

Now before you start thinking that I excessively spanked my kids and/or actually enjoyed it, think again. Oh, there were those times when discipline in our house took that form. In hindsight (no pun intended), I don't think my spankings were effective in the least bit. That's what my kids tell me. I know that to be a fact because anytime this story is brought up, what ensues is a discussion of how Dad's spankings were a joke because they didn't hurt. In fact, my kids laugh at me about those spankings today.

Josh's answer was an indication that even at a young age, Josh was simply being Josh. He's still funny like that.

This coming Sunday (Father's Day), we'll reminisce again. That story will no doubt come up. And, I'll most likely recite my litany of things that I most enjoy about being a dad. Greatest among all those things is the sacred trust of four children that I've been given by God. What an amazing gift. I hope and pray that I have been, am, and will continue to be a Dad who has exercised wisdom and good stewardship in my handling of this human trust. I'm also painfully aware of my shortcomings and failures over the years. . . of which there have been many.

Over the years I've relied on loads of outside help and advice as I've endeavored to fulfill my fatherly role. My dad's words and example, input from fathers I've know, and some very helpful books have all contributed to the well of paternal wisdom from which I hope I've drawn. One of the voices that's spoken most clearly into my life is that of Paul Tripp. If you're around me long, his name always seems to come up. In a world full of "experts" who are ready and willing to dispense parenting advice, Paul Tripp is the cream that has risen to the top. He would humbly argue that all he's done is passed on wisdom that's been passed on to him. Still, he's been a big help. Many of you have taken my recommendation and read his wonderful book Age of Opportunity: A Biblical Guide to Parenting Teens, which is in my opinion, the best parenting book ever written.

Whether or not you've ever heard of Paul Tripp or partaken of his parenting wisdom, I want to direct you to something that I think is pure gold. It's an interview with Paul that was conducted back in 2000 by some folks over in Austrailia. I recently ran across this little treasure and was, as always, personally challenged as a dad, and very impressed. So impressed, in fact, that I decided to reprint the entire interview in our Summer 2009 edition of Engage. This is a freebie from CPYU that's can be viewed and downloaded here.

In celebration of Father's Day and as a gift to all the kids you know and love (even if they aren't your own), download this edition of Engage and give the article - "What is Success in Parenting Teens?" - a careful read. Then, pass it on to other parents. If you're a youth worker, this could actually serve as your Father's Day gift to the dad's of the kids in your group.

It's my hope and prayer that in a world that's ready to totally twist us around in our understanding of what it means to be a successful parent, this interview with Paul Tripp will help us understand the real truth about the best thing about being a dad. . . or a mom!

Monday, June 15, 2009

I've Been Surrounded. . .

One thing I've always loved about the Old Testament are the passages of remembrance. These are the times when the leaders of Israel would call all the people around to remind them of what God had done in their midst. Then, they'd look to the future, issuing calls to obedience in response to God's great faithfulness.

I had one of those moments this past weekend. We returned to the Philly area where I grew up. The occasion was a 50th anniversary celebration for a very special church. Supplee Presbyterian Church in Maple Glen, PA holds a very special place in my heart and in my life. During the summer of 1970, my family moved to Maple Glen. I was getting ready to start high school. My pastor father had been called as the pastor of this church. Little did I know how my experience in this congregation would shape my life.

From 1970 until 1974 I was nurtured by the combination of a Christian home, a wonderful church family, and an incredible youth group experience. During those four years a trio of young seminary students named Phil Douglass, Mike Barbera, and Chuck Wiggins served one after the other as our youth pastors. They taught me and my youth group peers about what it means to know, love, and serve Jesus. The made such an impression on my life that I knew upon high school graduation that I wanted to "grow up" and do something with kids. . . . just like them.

During last weekend's time of remembrance, I realized more powerfully than ever before that it wasn't just my parents and youth workers who had influenced my life in a Kingdom-direction. As I looked around at the faces over the course of the last weekend, I saw many old faces and remembered others long-gone who poured their life into mine in one way or another during those four very formative years. It hit me especially hard yesterday when I was priviliged to stand in front of the 50th anniversary gathering to make some remarks. At one point, the emotion was overwhelming, and I knew that if I had continued by naming names and talking specifics I would a) meltdown, and b) keep people there for a long, long time. I realized more deeply than ever before that God had given me the gift of being surrounded and influenced by diverse members of His body.

Supplee Presbyterian Church continued to shape me long after I went off to college. I had intended to say this yesterday, but forget: what gave me the most excitment about coming home from college was a chance to be at that church and with the people in that congregation. In hindsight, it served this purpose for me because it was a place of truth, encouragement, nurture, and support.

When I graduated from college and went off to do youth ministry and then on to seminary, Supplee was right there with me, offering loads and loads of financial and prayer support. I trust that I represented them well.

On Saturday of this weekend's anniversary festivities, I attended a youth group reunion. It wasn't a reunion of kids from my high school days. Instead, it was a gathering of kids (and now their kids!) who had been a part of the youth group when I returned to serve as Supplee's youth pastor from 1985 to 1990. They were, by the way, the greatest group of kids a youth pastor could ever had hoped for. What a privilege it was to have those few years at the church of my childhood. I can only hope that my time there was used by God to build His Kingdom. I can certainly say that my time there with my own growing family was used by God to build His Kingdom in our lives. On Saturday, almost 20 years later, that reality hit home in some big ways as I looked around at the young faces gathered under that picnic pavilion. I was blessed to be able to be surrounded by such a great staff, a great group of youth ministry volunteers, phenomenal parents, and some very incredible kids. My wife and kids were blessed to be able to come along for the ride.

So, now I remember. What a blessing. And, I trust that my memories of God's great faithfulness will serve to fuel my desire and ability to trust in him more deeply now and for the rest of my life.

To those of you who are parents and youth workers. . . be sure to give your kids the same opportunities to be surrounded that I had. Too many of our churches are separating the generations from each other in worship, education, and service. When that happens, nobody wins. I was surrounded. . . and it was a great thing. I trust that this weekend of remembrance will be used by God to shape the rest of my life.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Father Memories. . .

Sunday June 21 is Father's Day. On that Sunday night, one in three children in America will go to bed in a home where their father does not live. To be more specific, that group includes over 25 million children. The fallout of father absence runs deep and wide. It never really disappears. Kids suffer and hurt. . . not just now, but for the rest of their lives.

As I was thinking about Father's Day this morning I remembered something that I was a part of 18 years ago. I was privileged to be part of a small group of fathering advocates who gathered at a beautiful camp on the shores of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin at the invitation of Dr. Ken Canfield, who at the time was the President of the National Center for Fathering.

A few of the 30 men in the group knew each other already. Others, like me, knew nobody. I remember gathering in a circle during our first night together. Ken wanted us to get to know one another. He asked us to not only tell each other who we were, but to share the most significant moment with our own fathers that we could remember from our childhood. Then, we went around the room and told our stories. It was one of the most intense and gratifying discussions I could ever have been a part of. As a father of young children, I felt like I had popped the door off a safe filled with priceless nuggets of fathering wisdom and advice that had the potential to make me rich for the rest of my life. It was awesome.

When it was my turn to share, I had the great benefit of having to dig through a grab bag and choose one. My dad had been active and involved in my life in ways that left me with more than enough good stuff to talk about. The story I chose to tell was one that I had heard my father tell many times himself. I remember the setting, but I don't remember the specific moment that was a part of my dad's story.

When I was little, my dad pastored a church in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. I remember how at the end of each service he would pronounce the benediction then walk down the aisle to the back of the sanctuary, where he would stand and greet people. I remember how I would go to stand with him. Only five at the time and not very tall, I would position myself in front, where I would grab the baggy folds of his big, black robe and pull them around me so that only my face would show. I'm guessing I looked a little bit like a baby kangaroo looking out of it's mother's pouch. I can still remember looking up at my dad's big arms and hands as he was greeting people and shaking hands.

One day, an elderly woman bent down to me after greeting my dad. She extended her hand and shook mine while saying, "Good morning Walter. Do you love Jesus today?" My dad says that almost without hesitation I answered back, "No, I hate Jesus!" Rather than leave and go join another church, the woman wisely asked a follow-up question: "Why do you hate Jesus?" "Because," I said, "he stole my daddy."

My dad says that my comment led to an afternoon discussion with my mom about what might have precipitated my disturbing comment. Together, they concluded that perhaps my dad was spending too much time in ministry, and not enough time with his family. From that point on, my dad changed his priorities. . . no questions asked. I wound up being the kid in my neighborhood who had the dad who was most active and involved in his son's life. For that, I am very, very grateful.

After telling that story of significance to my friends in that room, I realized anew how important a dad is to his children. My dad's example was powerful, and I had a renewed resolve to do the same in my own kids' life.

We continued around the circle until we got to one man who simply said, "Pass." When Ken pressed him on why he didn't want to tell a story he answered, "I don't have one. I grew up without a dad." With great insight, Ken then suggested, "How about you tell us about your most significant moment with a man when you were a boy?" After thinking for a few minutes, the man began to tell a story that took place in the foyer of his boyhood church, just like mine.

"My mom used to take me to church," he said. "I think I was four or five years old at the time because I remember that after the service I would feel lost and tiny in the sea of big people milling around. I would go and stand up against the wall while I waited for my mom to finish her socializing and come find me. One Sunday morning, a man whose name I do not know but whose face I will never forget, spotted me standing alone against the wall. He walked over to me, knelt down, and looked me in the eye. He reached out his hand and put it on my head. While tossling my hair and rubbing my head he asked, 'How are you doing today, sport?!?'" End of story. Silence in our room.

Then, he looked at us and simply said, "That was the most significant moment of my childhood with a man." That was it. . . the best. . . the moment of greatest impact that man had on his life. A few seconds and it was over. Tragic.

That story has hung with me since that night. I think about the story I told. I think about the story he told. I am convinced of the powerful and necessary role dad's play in the lives of their kids.

What about you and your dad? What was the most significant moment in your life when you were a child?

Friday, June 5, 2009

In My Blood. . .

Before leaving for our trip to Kenya and Rwanda with Compassion International four weeks ago, I had several people tell me how the trip would change my life. A handful of people actually used these words: "Africa will get in your blood." I had no idea what that meant. . . although I was hoping that the expensive and time-consuming regimen of shots and oral medications would keep certain parts of our African travel out of my blood!

We returned from Africa two weeks ago last night. While laying in bed last night reading yet another book on Rwanda and the genocide, it suddenly dawned on me that what those folks had predicted was accurate. Most of my media time over the course of the last fourteen days has been spent watching and reading anything and everything I can get my hands on regarding Rwanda and the genocide. I've watched three amazing films. HBO's Sometimes In April, Frontline's Ghosts of Rwanda (horrifying), and Hotel Rwanda. Along with the books and our visit, these films have helped me get to the place where I'm finally able to begin getting my hands around what is a very complex story with a long, long history. Of course, we learn from history. . . or at least we should. That's why I'm always telling my kids to pay attention in History class. Well, that and the fact that I didn't listen when I was their age.

But here's the best thing about history: it continues. And we have the opportunity to respond to what has happened, by shaping what is yet to happen. We may not have control over the course of history, but our convictions and resulting decisions allow us to shape those moments in history God - in His great grace - allows us to be a part of. And that's what so amazing about what's now happening Rwanda. . . and what I hope has gotten and will be getting in my blood.

The book I finished reading in bed last night is probably not very well known or very widely read. To be honest, I would most likely never have picked it up if I hadn't gone to Rwanda myself. . . and if someone from Compassion hadn't recommended it to me as post-trip reading. The book is titled Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith after Genocide in Rwanda, and it's written by Emmanuel Katongole, a Catholic priest from Uganda who is an associate research professor of theology and world Christianity at Duke University. It's one of those short books that packs a powerful punch. Katongole offers a clear and insightful history of what happened in Rwanda before the genocide, including the fast advance of Christianity. He then offers compelling analysis of what happened during the genocide, particularly amongs Christians, who were using machetes to violently kill one another. But Katongole doesn't stop there. He challenges us to learn lessons from this ugly history. He challenges us to never think that "I'd never do that!" or "That will never happen here!"

Last night I read these words in Mirror to the Church: "Maybe the deepest tragedy of the Rwandan genocide is that Christianity didn't seem to make any difference. Rwandans performed a script that had shaped them more deeply than the biblical story had. Behind the silences of the genocide, Hutus and Tutsis alike were shaped by a story that held their imagination captive." Then, Katongole goes on to offer this challenge: "Paying attention to history helps us to see that this was not just Rwanda's problem. The story that made Rwanda is the story of the West. When we look at Rwanda as a mirror to the church, it helps us realize what little consequence the biblical story has on the way Christians live their lives in the West. As Christians, we cannot remember the Rwandan genocide without admitting that the gospel did not seem to have a real impact on most Rwandan's lives. Seeing this, we have to ask: does Christianity make any real difference in the West?" Wow.

A few pages later, Katongole rocks our safe and secure little understanding (or more accurately, misunderstanding) of the Christian faith again, when he quotes one of my heroes of the faith, John Perkins: "We have over-evangelized the world too lightly." Wow again. "Much of what has gone out in the name of Christianity is evanglism-lite. Or to say it differently, the church has only half-fulfilled the Great Commission. We've gone out preaching Jesus, but we haven't been able to 'teach them to obey everything' he commanded."

But another look at how Rwandan's are redeeming the genocide and writing a "present" that will hopefully be remembered in history as truly Christian, offers proof that we can and must make change, and we can and must start with ourselves.

Yesterday the latest issue of Christianity Today magazine arrived at my house (and it's another good issue by the way). One article directly references and explains some of what we saw happening when we were in Rwanda. . . and it was so amazing that it was stunning. Mark Moring's piece, "Reconcilable Differences: Fifteen Years After Genocide, Rwanda is Showing Signs of Healing," is all about correcting the flow of history by deciding to go deeper by being obedient. A picture that accompanies the article tells a powerful story. Sitting on a bicycle seat is Marc Sahabo, a Hutu who got all wrapped up in Hutu Power during the genocide. Using a machete, this man killed 15 people during the genocide. Sitting side-saddle on the rear of the same bike is Felicita Mukabakunda, a Tutsi woman who was a neighbor and friend of Sahabo's before the genocide. When the genocide began, Felicita hid in the marshes. While hiding, she heard Sahabo and others formulating their plans to find her and kill her. However, before killing her, they were going to take turns raping her. She also heard Sabaho say that he had killed six of her family members, including her father and uncle. After the genocide, Felicita returned home to discover that 29 of her family members, including 16 of her brothers and sisters had been killed.

And now, they are photographed sitting on a bike together. . . a bike they ride together from town to town to tell their story. That story is a story of repentance and forgiveness. It's a story about what it means to dig deep into the faith and to be obedient to one's calling as a follower of Christ. It's about integrating faith into all of life and doing what is right, rather than what feels right. Mark Moring's article makes it clear that this is a long and involved process that is in no way easy. But it is right. This is Christianity-heavy, not Christianity-lite.

Something amazing is happening in Rwanda. It's got to get into our blood.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Jon & Kate. . . Too Late?

A train rolled into my tiny little neighborhood three years ago. About a year later, that train was making some noise as the wheels were starting to come off the tracks. Now, that train - as everyone with eyes and ears knows - has full-scale derailed.

For some reason, the world is enjoying watching this train wreck. To be honest, those of us who knew enough to see it coming can easily fall into the proud and self-righteous "I told you so" mode. To be honest, I have. And, it's even easy to wish ill-will on people who seemingly did everything they could to steer their train off the tracks through an endless series of unwise decisions and caving in to the ways of the world, thereby bringing all of this on themselves. Yep, let them get what they deserve. The Gosselin family has gotten themselves into a ridiculous mess. We watch them tearfully ask "Why?" and "What can we do?" and they look even more ridiculous. The curiosity factor is off the charts. Jon and Kate Gosselin and their kids are in trouble. We all know it.

I've remained publicly silent on this clan (that's become more than a blip on the pop culture radar) for a long time. Numerous people have suggested to me that I offer some analysis publicly, because I'm a neighbor and the President of an organization that promotes the well-being of kids The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding. It wasn't easy being quiet when you could clearly see what was happening. However, I think it was the right thing to do. As those who are around me know, there were times that I brought them up over the course of the last two years when I'd be out speaking. But it was all in passing. Youth workers at some conferences who could answer the fun little trivia question - "What current TV reality show features the CPYU office building?" -could win a book. Yep, our office was sometimes caught during filming. As the popularity of Jon & Kate Plus 8 grew among Christians who were thrilled to be watching one of their own, just about everywhere I went to speak I would tell people where I was from in Pennsylvania. . . which would be followed excitedly with the same question from unknowing and faithful fans who had blindly partaken of the J & K kool-aid: "Central Pennsylvania! Do you live near Jon and Kate?!? Oh, I love them!" I would quickly answer, "Yes. And you need to stop watching." My response was usually seen as heartless and would elicit protests. Sometimes a few words to back up my opinion were enough to convince people that reality TV is not reality. Usually, people looked at me like I was a heartless liar. . . more evidence of the fact that good-natured people sometimes naively prefer to believe their own fantasies, rather than the truth. There were good reasons why I'd answer that way. More on that in a bit. . . but first, some history.

I live in a little neighborhood in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, whose name has recently gotten increased publicity. It's called Westbrooke. We moved here in 1991 and were part of a small, very friendly, and intimate group of 37 young families who built our homes on the two streets that made up our development. We literally all knew each other. There was one way in and one way out of neighborhood. We walked, talked, played, cooked-out, shared meals, and waved at each other all the time. After a few years, a couple streets were added and our neighborhood more than doubled in size. Still, we remained fairly close. In fact, this Saturday we're having our annual neighborhood yard sale. There's still only one way in and one way out of our neighborhood. All this to say, while it has been decreasing in recent years because of mobility and change, friendliness and community has always been a mark of our neighborhood.

One of those original houses was built by the parents of the female half of my next door neighbors. I can look out my CPYU office window (which sits just across the street from that one entrance to our neighborhood), and still see that house. Tragically, my neighbor's father succumbed to cancer several years ago. Then three years ago, his widow was killed in a car accident. The brick house they had built on Andrew Avenue went up for sale. I can still remember my next door neighbor coming over in 2006 and saying, "We sold the house. Guess who's moving in?" I had no clue. He replied, "The sextuplet family." I had read about the local family in the newspaper because of the multiple births. But I knew little more. At that point, I don't think there was even a show. We were getting new neighbors. Not celebrities.

To be honest, I thought how fortunate it was that the Gosselin family was moving into a good neighborhood, especially under their circumstances. This was a family who would most likely need lots of help and support, and our neighbors had a history of generously giving it. In fact, back in 1991, the neighborhood pulled together to care for a young bed-ridden mother-to-be who lived in the house just across the street and to the left of the Gosselin house. She was locked-in a high-risk pregnancy with quadruplets. My wife, along with most of the other wives in the neighborhood, cooked their meals, tended to their needs, and sat for hours each day with the expectant mom over the course of several months. If help was needed, Westbrooke was a great place to find it.

But from the time they moved into the neighborhood until the time they left, generous offers of help, meals, etc. were turned away. . . and usually not with even a polite "thank-you." The stories are multitude. And, they are consistent. These offers were not given to celebrities, but to neighbors in need. Nobody in our neighborhood was starstruck. . . simply because these were neighbors and not stars. In addition, there was a growing awareness that something was just not right. One member of the marriage would walk the kids in their six-seat stroller and was willing to engage neighbors in friendly conversation. The other immediately developed a reputation for being rude, self-centered, and demanding. Those in our neighborhood who had known that person for years were not surprised. Sadly, the one who ruled the roost set the tone, and it wasn't good. Eventually, we never saw the friendlier half of the couple.

And now we know. The family's choice to live their lives in front of the world has yielded undeniable evidence that the train has not only derailed, but wrecked.

Why am I passing this on? It is not to gossip. It is simply to pass on some limited yet accurate context about a situation that has gone public because the primary characters in this sad, sad drama have chosen to throw themselves - and their children - in the limelight. My blog is occasioned by the Gosselin story as told publicly to the world by the Gosselins themselves.

For a minute, remove all the rumors and stories (many of which are true), and think only about how the family has chosen to present themselves. Think too about the fact that when the cameras are on, we usually put on our best smiles and best behavior. . . and then think - long and hard - about what that best behavior has been on this particular show. Then, imagine what life is like and how people act when the cameras aren't rolling. After taking that all into consideration, we shouldn't be surprised by the train wreck that's taken the world by storm.

The Gosselins moved out of our neighborhood just before last Thanksgiving to a new million and half dollar home. Ironically, we're consistently told by one member of the family that money is scarce. To be honest, our little neighborhood is relieved that the publicity blitz went into high gear after they moved. Yes, the media still shows up to film their empty house and interview neighbors. I saw them here yesterday. But for me personally, knowing that the story is continuing to unfold, knowing that all kinds of people are responding and throwing around opinions, knowing that this has become the cultural event of the year, and knowing that 8 precious little lives are being forever shaped for life by both their parents' decisions and the decisions of a world enamored by the story, I decided to break my silence and answer the question many who know I was a neighbor have recently asked. . . "What do you think?" So, let me weigh in. . .

First, none of us should be surprised by any of this. As I said before, all it took was a set of eyes, a couple of ears, and some basic common-sense and elementary-level discernment to know that the train that's wrecked was coming off the tracks for a long, long time. In my travels I am continually stunned and even saddened by the parade of starstruck people who adore this family as Godly heroes and Christian role models. Where is the discernment? It's not that the Gosselins are high-profile Christians who are going through the everyday struggles with sin. Rather, they've chosen to live a high profile life that is increasingly about eagerly embracing another way. Without a doubt, the kids are cute. Without a doubt, raising 8 young kids has to be difficult. But is that reason enough to overlook and even justify the horrible things that are being done and happening. . . and embrace a family that is obviously self-destructing before the world because of their habits and choices?

Second, we have to wonder why the train was allowed to continue to wreck even though it was heading off the tracks for a long, long time. Sadly, I think one or both of two things have happened. On the one hand, the people closest to Jon and Kate who could have been advising them wisely may have become so starstruck and enamored themselves that they didn't want to compromise their ability to rub elbows on a regular basis with celebrity. They didn't want to tell the emperor that he - or she - is not wearing any clothes. They didn't say anything. On the other hand, the stars themselves are so self-absorbed that they don't want to listen to anyone who might offer some good counsel, and yes - even Biblical advice. My guess is that it's a combination of both. Those who have been known to have spoken up have been systematically removed by the powers-that-be from the system. The result is the emperor can remain naked without being bothered. . . all the while enjoying the fact that the whole world's watching. Sadly, we're now at the point of becoming embarrassed by the emperor's ignorance.

Third, this train wreck called Jon & Kate Plus 8 offers a clear window into the human condition. . . and ourselves. This is a couple whose deep, deep narcissism has made them oblivious to each other, their kids, their extended family, old friends, wise living, and perhaps even the God they so blatantly claim to serve. It appears they've forgotten the everyday reality of their human depravity and the constant dangers that it poses. They've let down their guard. The evidence seems to point to the fact that they are eagerly engaged in the pursuit and worship of created things, rather than their Creator. Life has become about the things they can get. Kate is embracing the life of a diva. But they are not alone. Each of us has the seeds of the same thing sitting in our own hearts. While you and I can sit where we sit and pronounce it as wrong - and we should - I wonder what I would do if I had the opportunity to receive what they've received. I know what I should do. I can say what I think I would do. But I know what I'd be tempted to do. So if we are going to fulfill our responsibility to speak up and criticize, it had better be done in a humble spirit that recognizes beyond a shadow of a doubt that each of us is only one bad decision away from the same thing. . . or perhaps we're already dealing with this stuff but not for the whole world to see.

Still, that's not reason to remain silent when things are going horribly wrong. The chaos surrounding any kind of wreck requires analysis and intervention from people who still have their wits about them and who have some sense of not only what's going on, but what to do. People who have been in wrecks usually aren't in any condition to tend to themselves. They need outside help, and they need it fast.

Which leads me to this. . . we need to respond. Silence is not an option. One of the great lessons of history is that those who remain silent and uninvolved when a group of people are being oppressed (in this case, 8 small children) are not helping, but hurting the situation. Those people who choose to remain silent and not intervene by speaking up, have chosen to actively participate in the oppression. It's guilt by silence. In this case, two parents and 8 little kids are laying wounded on the side of the road.

So let me humbly suggest some responses. . . because I don't think it's too late for this couple and their family. God is in the business of redeeming all kinds of situations. To Jon and Kate, it's not too late for you to save your marriage and your family. To those who care about Jon and Kate (and we all should), it's not too late to do your part to see this thing redeemed.

To Jon and Kate. . . I don't regularly watch your show. I've seen bits and pieces as I channel surf, and sometimes I stop to watch just to see, well, who in the neighborhood you've caught on camera. I even thought I might make it on a few times. . . like the time I interrupted the kid's bike-riding lessons by driving my car into the camera's line of sight on a trip out of the neighborhood. I did, however, see the recent clip where you, Kate, lamented what's happening through your tears. According to my newspaper, so did ten million other people. You expressed confusion and said you didn't know what to do. I know you're smarter than that. . . you have to be. Here's what you need to do. . . and I believe you know it. . . pull the plug. Pull the plug and pull it now. The key to a redemptive and healthy resolution to this entire fiasco lies in your hands. From what I know, I think Jon will be right with you. Realize that the temptation will be to carry on so that you can accumulate fame and fortune. But as someone you and I both claim to know once said, "What does it profit a person to gain the whole world. . . and then lose his soul?". . . or, her husband and children? Please understand that I pass this on with a full knowledge of my own weakness and depravity. I trust you understand that I say this humbly. Keep it all plugged in and you will be one very rich and famous lady. You will also be facilitating a life under public scrutiny for your kids. They will not have a childhood. Keeping it plugged in will steal their childhood, steal your family, and promote a culture of celebrity-obsession gone wild. Pull the plug and pull it now. Kate, if you don't see what's happening all around you then you are a very confused woman who is so out of touch with reality that you need an intervention. If you do see it and you choose to keep it all plugged in, then you've exposed what's most important to you. Don't be like the rich young ruler who knew what he had to do, but walked away very, very sad. Jon and Kate, if you don't pull the plug, shame on you for what you're doing to your kids. Kate, don't let your definition of "multiple blessings" move from your 8 children. . . to the fame, fortune, and freebies that are now filling your life. If that's what you choose to do, you are exploiting your kids. If you don't pull the plug and pull it now, shame on you.

To TLC. . . you used to be called The Learning Channel. I wonder, what are you teaching Jon and Kate's kids? What are you teaching your viewers? I wonder, do you ever think about the welfare of those 8 children over and above advertising revenues and skyrocketing ratings? The right thing for you to do is the same. Pull the plug, and pull it now. If not, you need to be held accountable. You are exploiting the Gosselin kids and their family. . . and we know you're getting rich. And Jon and Kate, if TLC doesn't let you go. . . then you know for sure that they don't care one bit about you and your kids. TLC, if you don't pull the plug and pull it now, shame on you.

To the Paparazzi. . . . are you kidding me? Put your cameras away. Leave these parents and their kids alone so that they can do the right thing and get their family back on track. I know you don't care, but you are contributing to the ruin of 10 lives. Not only that, you are throwing chum that's feeding a sick frenzy of celebrity-obsession that sells lots of magazines and makes lots of money. . . and which is also ruining an entire generation. Shame, shame, shame on you!

To Zondervan. . . Kate's publisher. . . . and one of my publishers. . . you need to take a long hard look at what you are doing to promote a worldview, parenting style, and message about faith that I know doesn't line-up with what has historically been your solid commitments as a publishing company. What Kate Gosselin is now promoting is a faith that is nothing more or less than the world with a thin veneer of Jesus-talk. I know you care about children, youth, and families. You've published numerous books to build the Kingdom of God and to equip strong families. For several reasons, you need to step up and pull the plug. Sure, Kate can go somewhere else and find a publisher if she so desires. But if the books you are selling don't line up with reality, or if the books you are selling are contributing to a media fascination and frenzy that's causing the loss of both childhood and the lifelong emotional health for 8 precious children. . . then please, pull the plug. If you don't, shame on you.

To my brothers and sisters in Christ who have become so enamored with this family. . . exercise some discernment and do the right thing. Wake up and see what's really happening with the Gosselin family. Women, if Kate is your role model. . . then shame on you. Pull the plug on your TV and your star-struck fascination and give this family back their privacy. Don't watch. Realize that the two best things you can do for this family is to 1) pray for them, and 2) leave them alone. This may sound strong, but I truly believe it. . . If Jon, Kate, TLC, and others are exploiting this family, well, you know that makes us accomplices if we're buying into it all. If you can't funnel your fascination into this family away from voyeurism and exploitation and into prayer and privacy. . . then shame on you!

To the churches that are booking Jon and Kate to come speak. . . pull the plug. If you are truly about building the Kingdom and doing ministry. . . pull the plug. Do the Gosselins and your congregation a favor and don't try to draw people in to your building by capitalizing on their celebrity-status. If you don't break the engagements, shame on you.

And finally, to me. I know that I'm a part of the culture, the media world, the church, and the human race. While choosing to be silent would promote the downfall of this family, any words I speak about this situation have to come from an introspective heart that seeks humility, love, the Kingdom of God, and the greater good. What I say to myself is what I will say to everyone who is thinking about the Gosselins: You are no better. The seeds of what you don't like in them live in you. Your life and family are far from perfect. Keep looking in the mirror to see where you might be doing the same things. . . although not in a highly-publicized and public way that the world can see. And if you/I don't. . . then shame on you/me.

Jon and Kate, it's not too late. You know that. This mess you've gotten yourselves into can be cleaned up and fixed. My prayer is not only that you will do the right thing, but that the rest of us who have contributed to derailing your family will do the right thing as well.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

It Doesn't Get Much Worse - Or Better - Than This. . . ."

I've got a hunch that I'll remember May 18 as the sixth best day of my life. The day I was married stands immovable at #1. There's a four-way tie for second place that's occupied by the arrivals of four kids named Caitlin, Joshua, Bethany, and Nathaniel. Then, there was the day in Nairobi that we met Ibrahim.

Our last day visiting Compassion projects in Africa took us to the Mathare slum, a small trash-heap/cesspool in which over a million of the world's poorest people are crammed. Pictures can't tell the story because they don't have sound, smell, touch, or taste. People live in Mathare hoping to survive one more day. The "streets" are very narrow and horribly rutted composites of mud, sewage, and trash that require full attention to navigate each and every step. One misstep and you're wallowing in disease-ridden garbage. The plastic bags that cover most everything have been used by residents as urinals. With no bathrooms, they urinate in the bag, then simply throw the bag out the front door and onto the street. Ragged channels filled with raw sewage and waste water run through each street to a narrow river that flows through the center of the slum in what's known as the Mathare Valley. More on that later.

The most exciting part of our visit to Mathare is our opportunity to meet Ibrahim, the 12-year-old Compassion child that we sponsor. Ibrahim grew up in Mathare, is being raised by his mother, and is living with several of his siblings. We were excited and full of anticipation.

As we turn off the main road our two vans begin to navigate a steep downhill run through masses of people and garbage on the narrow streets of Mathare. It is a sight that I don't think I'll ever be able to adequately describe to those who haven't seen it. After a quick left turn, our van slows as we pull up to the metal gate of Compassion's Mathare Child Development Center. I'm sitting in the van holding Ibrahim's Compassion picture in my hand. As soon as we pull up in front, a young boy dressed in his best clothes jumps up from where he's been sitting and excitedly waiting on the far end of the small courtyard in the center of the compound. His face is covered in a smile that shows white teeth and huge dimples. He runs to the gate and opens it with excitement. The folks in our van wonder out loud if this is Ibrahim. We look at the boy and look at the picture and are fairly certain this is him.

Our vans back into the small courtyard and we hop out. The young man shyly looks around the back of the van at us. I'm holding the picture and showing it to him from a distance of several feet. Pointing at the picture and pointing at him, he knows I'm wondering if he's the boy in the picture. I didn't even have to say his name. When he realizes it is, Ibrahim runs to us and embraces us like there's no tomorrow. His smile is permanent. Amazing. It is then that I realize that Compassion sponsorship really means something to these kids. It changes their lives and they are so grateful.

Ibrahim grabs my hand and holds onto it for most of the rest of the morning. We meet his mother and his sister. We discover that as in so many of these stories of poverty, Ibrahim's sister is actually his cousin. His mom is raising her because her sister died in childbirth, leaving this niece orphaned. That's just the way these people are. Again, amazing. We sit together as we sing, worship, and hear about the work of this Child Development Center. Ibrahim worships the Lord with great enthusiasm. At one point, I'm sitting with my arm around Ibrahim. He leans over to me and in English - which he's been taught and speaks very well - he says, "I was so excited to meet you that I couldn't sleep last night." Again, I'm reminded that our sponsorship is simple, easy, and costs us about nothing. Still, it's paying great dividends in the life of this boy and his family. He has hope.

We spend some time walking through the Mathare slum and we visit another Compassion family. This time, it's a mother raising seven children in a home that's about half the size of my living room. We ask them about how Compassion has impacted their lives. To summarize, God has used Compassion to give them life, both physically and spiritually. I ask the Mom's twin sons about their sponsors. I am amazed at what happens next. There's almost nothing in this house. Mom reaches back behind a drape made of newspapers and fabric scraps and pulls a tattered paper folder out from between a stack of thin mattresses. Inside are photos of their sponsors. . . along with various letters and papers they've received. The boys proudly hold the photos. Both of these boys are sponsored by high school girls from the U.S. I wonder if these two students know the impact their sponsorship is having on this family.

After praying with the family we walk back to the Child Development Center. Just like on our walk to the home, scores and scores of little children appear from everywhere repeating the only English phrase they know - "How are you?!?" They eagerly receive our attention and touch.

On our walk back, we cross back over a crude and dilapidated steel bridge over the aforementioned river. I had stopped in awe and disgust on our way to the home just minutes before. The river might be 20 feet wide. It's moving fast. The steep banks are covered - COVERED - in garbage. The water runs thick and brown. All kinds of who knows what floats quickly by. On my first trip over the bridge, I was taken back by the sights and smells. Downstream from the bridge I had seen two pigs running up and down the banks and in and out of the water. On the other side a dog stood on the bank lapping at the water. The sight had made me stop in my tracks and stare. Now, on the way back, the pigs were still there. But on the other side where the dog had a been, a small boy was kneeling in the water and playing with a small plastic boat.

Before leaving Ibrahim and his family at the Child Development Center, we give them several gifts that we've brought with us from home. Lisa gives Nancy (Ibrahim's mom) several towels and other household items. Ibrahim gets a soccer ball, numerous school supplies, candy, a Mueller family picture, some toys, a Frisbee, baseball cards, a couple of Phillies hats, and a Ryan Howard T-Shirt (yes, I was brainwashing him). But nothing prepares me for what comes next. With huge smiles on their faces, Ibrahim and his mom give us gifts - a wrap and a necklace for Lisa, a shirt and bracelet for me. The bracelet barely slides over my hand and wrist, but I work with Ibrahim to make it work. It's one of the best gifts I've ever gotten. The look in the eyes of these people who live on maybe a buck a day is priceless. We have given out of our abundance. They have given out of their poverty. I think of the story Jesus told about the widow and her offering. I see in the face of Ibrahim that God gives great joy to those who have nothing, and that for them, it is better to give than to receive.

As we pull away from Ibrahim and Mathare, I hope that I will be able to come back again. . . soon. But I also know that it's time to leave. Lisa and I have been given much during our trip to Africa. And with leaving comes the responsibility to return home to do something with it. I am convinced that Compassion is the most impressive ministry I have ever seen or been a part of. I am convinced that I must be a good steward of the experience I've been given.

If I may, I want to end my Africa blogging experience with some challenges that flow out of the responsibility that our knowledge and experience brings.

First, I know that many of you are Compassion sponsors already. Believe it or not, as our group was sharing dinner just hours before climbing on board our flight back to the U.S., Rich informed us that just that day, Compassion International had secured sponsorship for their 1 millionth child! Just to clarify, Compassion has sponsored many more than that over the years. But on that day - for the first time ever - 1 million children were in the sponsorship fold at the same time! Now that I've seen Compassion in action, I have resolved to tell all sponsors that their sponsorship changes the lives of the children, their families, and communities. Your $38 a month is very, very significant. God is multiplying those loaves and fishes into a great feast. If you are already a Compassion sponsor, I want to encourage you to write to your child. They absolutely treasure all correspondence, pictures, and even the simplest of gifts. Please take the time to do that.

Second, to those of you who are not already Compassion sponsors. . . can I invite you into the experience? You, your family, your youth group, your Sunday School class. . . you can and must do this. Jesus calls us to have a heart for the poor. This is a tangible way to make that happen. Before logging off of this blog, would you take a few minutes to click on this link to Compassion International to look at the kids who are in need of sponsors, and to perhaps make the decision today to sponsor a child. We have the money to make this happen. I know we do. It's in our pockets.

A few days into our trip, an amazing thing happened. Lois Penner came to breakfast and told me that she had opened her Bible the night before to read a Psalm. She randomly turned to Psalm 113. She told me, "Listen to this!", and then she read verses 7 through 9: "He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes, with the princes of their people. He settles the barren woman in her home as a happy mother of children. Praise the Lord." I laughed. Why? The night before Lisa had said to me, "I need to share with you what I read this morning. I stepped out of my normal Bible reading plan and decided to randomly read a Psalm." You guessed it. Lisa then read the exact same words from Psalm 113. Coincidence. I think not.

Our trip to Africa was planned before all eternity. The fact that you've followed our trip on this blog was planned before all eternity as well. I trust that you understand that your growing heart for the poor and respect for the ministry of Compassion International was planned that long in advance as well.

If I have any regrets, it is only that I wish I had known all of this sooner.

By the way, if you sponsor a Compassion child or seen Compassion's work in action, what do you think? Post a comment.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Eat The Goat. . . .

Sunday in Africa. . . . and by the end of the day, Sunday's will never be the same! We get up early for a ride out of Nairobi and into Kenya's Rift Valley. This time, however, our group doesn't load up in vans as we've done all week. We're climbing into four-wheel-drive Toyota Four-Runners. By the end of our three-plus hour ride to church we know why. The first two hours were spent on roads. The last hour-and-a-half was spent more-or-less driving through fields. How we found our way, I'll never know. But it was an awesome experience getting there.

"There" was a Masai village and church in Nagile. I don't know if Nagile is on the map, but we found it. The time spent driving through the fields was incredible. There was wildlife everywhere. As we would pass the occasional tiny Masai village or single hut happy children would come running out to the "road" waving happily as we passed by. All along the way we saw Masai men, women, and children dressed up and walking. The men were in western clothes. The women wore colorful traditional Masai dress. They were walking to church. . . some, we found out, walked for hours and miles. A four-hour walk is not unheard of. Wow.

As we arrived in Nagile, we saw evidence of Compassion's great work. Two boarding schools - one for girls and one for boys - stood out on the flat ground of the valley. In addition, there was the church where we were going to worship. As we pulled in, small groups of happy children who had been patiently awaiting the arrival of our pale-colored group ran to meet us. It was like a homecoming. But in the midst of all the greetings, most of us were somewhat drawn to the skinned carcasses hanging in a tree. A small group of Masai teen boys had just killed and skinned the goats. We knew we were looking at lunch. Lois Penner told Lisa that she hoped the service would be long. That way our lunch would be sure to be well-done.

After lots of greetings and conversations with kids. We headed towards worship. On the way, a group of four young girls walked hand-in-hand with Lisa. . . they couldn't stop looking at her white skin and blond hair. In an amazing gesture, one of the girls slipped a Masai bracelet off her own arm and onto Lisa's wrist. A gift. These people are incredibly giving.

And so we go to church. Worship is a four-hour experience with numerous choirs, a congregation that grew by the minute and eventually ended up with about 600 people in the warm building, and some spirited preaching. Because we were coming, numerous other guests from the area showed up to welcome us. I was blown away by what we saw and experienced in worship. These people love Jesus deeply. They are very family oriented. There's no children's church or separate youth worship. It's everyone together. . . . as it should be. We sing, we dance, we get called forward to help dedicate a new sound system. Oh, and by the way, we get asked to perform a little number for the congregation. Due to our collective lack of musical ability, we quickly decide to sing the old youth group response song, "King Jesus Is All." Chap and Duffy are elected to lead. We get into it. . . . doing our best Southern Black Gospel imitations. The looks on the faces in the congregation are priceless. It is as if they are in shock. I'm not sure what they were thinking, but I'm guessing that if we ever have the chance to go back and worship with these folks again, they'll be happy if we keep our seats! With worship over, I know that next time my own pastor prays for those brothers and sisters worshipping around the globe, it's this Masai congregation that will come to mind.

After greeting literally every member of the congregation, we head to lunch. . . . nervously. And we eat, graciously.

Lunch is followed by the Masai warrior dance team from the boys' school. They are national champions, and they are good. It is fascinating. We mix and mingle with members of the congregation and hear about how Compassion is changing lives in this small congregation. We visit the newly built and dedicated girls' school. The girls are so excited to show us around. They are thrilled with the opportunity to get an education. . . something that would not be an option without the presence of Compassion and the gifts of Compassion sponsors.

We head home, hoping that we make it back to the real road before dark. We do. My neck is totally stiff from the ride. My heart is warmed by what I've experienced during the day. It was rich. . . very rich. The Kingdom of God is truly much, much bigger than any of us can imagine. The brand of Christianity that we value here in America is nowhere near as deep as we imagine.

Again, we have a great day. Our knowledge of Compassion grows and our understanding of the impact of their work is deepened. I won't forget the faces on the folks at the Masai church in Nagile. Most memorable is the elegant face of the elderly Masai women who sits near me in the front row.

And tomorrow we get to see the face we're most excited to see. We're heading to the Mathare slum to meet our sponsored Compassion child, Ibrahim.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Is This Thing Working? . . . .

Outcomes. That's a word we hear quite a bit in our current culture. People who invest their time and money want to know if those investments will pay dividends in results. . . . or outcomes. I often liken miraculous ministry outcomes marked by dividends that far exceed investors' expectations to "loaves and fishes" stories. You know. . . . the five loaves and two fish that Jesus used to feed 5,000 people. These are evidence of God's blessing and provision.

Saturday with Compassion International in Kenya was a day where I was excited to see what - if any outcomes - would be evident in their work with mothers and infants. I wasn't disappointed. In fact, what I saw was a modern-day miracle.

Believing that early childhood is a critical time for overall child development, brain growth, learning, and providing a foundation for later success in school and life, Compassion has instituted a rather innovative project called the Child Survival Program (CSP). The program combines education, nutritional supplements and health care to provide the greatest positive impact for needy children and their caregivers. Sounds great. But does it work?

After a trip down some typically bumpy dirt roads and into one of Nairobi's many slums, we arrived at the Ndumberi Child Development Center. A courtyard, playground, medical clinic, classrooms, and playrooms make up the facility. As facilities in this part of the world go, it's first-class. We were met by a group of colorfully dressed young mothers who were singing and dancing for us. . . with their babies strapped on their backs. After getting an overview of the program, hearing testimonies, and seeing the program in action, we divided on two groups to embark on a home visit.

Our group traveled to meet with 21-year-old Mary and her infant daughter at their tiny shack. If that's where I lived, I can't imagine not complaining. The joy in Mary's heart, however, overflowed onto the permanent smile on her face. Mary's husband was out working. She was at home caring for her daughter and running her "store." The store is a small window at one end of her house. She began her little business with $5 her husband gave her. She buys and then resells things like vegetables, candy, and tea. Over the course of month Mary makes anywhere from $5 to $7, which is enough to pay the monthly rent on their house.
Compassion teaches Mary how to be a mom. We even saw the CSP's health care director show Mary how to treat the kinds of burns that are common among children whose families cook over open fires. Mary showed us how she cares for her little garden that Compassion has taught her how to grow in burlap bags. We then went outside while Mary stayed inside to show us her store. Doug suggested to me that we purchase some things from Mary. We bought some small candy to hand out to the audience of kids who had gathered to see what the white people were doing in the village. . . .and to touch Lisa's white skin and blond hair! Altogether, our little purchases and the "tip" we left with Mary wound up equalling about two months of the store's income. Her smile got even bigger!

Through the work of Compassion, Mary and a host of other young mothers like her are being nurtured physically, relationally, and spiritually. They love Jesus, they love their children, and their lives have been transformed in amazing ways.

Again, I am amazed to see the outcomes of Compassion's work. God is using the very little and limited donations of the rich, to transform the lives of the poor. Nothing on Wall Street could even come close. There's no downturn with these investments. Is this thing working? You bet.