Wednesday, January 26, 2011

America cannot fix Africa, but Americans can.

A year ago this month I was serving in Ethiopia as a visitor, learner, and teacher at a Christian mission and school in a small rural community. I served along with about 15 other students from my university, and our time there was no less than precious. The children we served and played with were beautiful, hilarious, mischievous, busy, and successful; I know that our time there empowered some children to take a glimpse at their potential future as leaders for their country and community.

One of our Ethiopian friends from that very community, who is now one of three students from that community attending our university, posted this video on facebook:

After I watched the video, my wheels began spinning, as they often do. I am thinking about how the United States in general interacts with African nations, about how Christians interact with African nations, about the things Obama said regarding interactions between the United States and African nations, and about the concerns of the African youth in the conference.

Many of the African youth are wary of trusting the United States and a potential partnership. This is understandable to me because the United States seems like it has a lot of potential for helping Africa but has not tapped into that potential. I have always thought the same thing living here. We have the potential to help so many problems in the world, protecting humanity and promoting economies. We have the potential to help the problems of our own nation, as well.

I generally refuse to engage in politics because I think they are too complicated (I could explain myself here, but it's probably best that you talk to me if you want to know more about this statement). I think that problems are best solved outside of government rule and support, outside of the complexities of political infrastructure and tradition. That being said, I think that Christian missions and humanitarian organizations (when executed well and effectively, of course--that's another discussion for another day) serve as a wonderful way for Americans to make a non-political positive impact on the issues in Africa. Being able to go over to African nations and cultures to work where they see the need and serve in ways they see beneficial is an amazing gift of peace and partnership that we can offer. The United States, as the president mentions, will always be looking out for its own interests as a nation, politically speaking, but if we get involved outside of political infrastructure it is possible to serve the interests of another nation without seeking to serve our own interests.

The president made another important point, though--the success of African nations is beneficial to the United States' interests because a blooming economy in Africa can bring a blooming economy in the United States (and the rest of the world, really). By making peaceful efforts to help African peoples, we are offering our peace as Americans and promoting the good image and intentions of our own country. African nations may be looking for the United States to declare an official, governmental partnership with their own countries, but as the president says at the end of the video, we can seek to empower the future leaders of African nations to step forward and see the impact they can make in their countries. The United States cannot fix Africa's problems, Africa must fix their own problems. The United States can stand beside African nations and see that they can be successful, but African people must rise up and meet the challenges of their own countries.

I feel honored that I was able to stand beside Ethiopians for one short month to enable and encourage some children to find strength and empowerment to lead their country in the future. I want to encourage more American Christians to invest (financially or temporally) in long-term African missions who are taking a grassroots approach in African nations to help them pursue their own interests for the sake of their own country. The American people are represented well in those efforts because it takes place outside of government infrastructure and funding; the true heart of the American people, specifically American Christians, and by association the Gospel, is being represented while Africa is being empowered. America cannot fix the problems in Africa, but Americans can. Europeans can, too. Any educated, moderately wealthy person can. In the same way, too, I believe the American government cannot fix America, but Americans as people personally giving of themselves to other people can fix America. It doesn't have to be about any nation's governmental reputation or interests. It can simply be about the interest of serving others for the sake of serving.

I believe that humility is something that God demonstrated in coming down in human form. He wanted to relate to us and show us in the most concrete way possible that he loves us. We see death as the ultimate end, so God died in order that we would be free from our worst end and stand everlasting in His love. He calls us to show the same humility to one another, bringing love in a concrete way, interceding for other humans in situations of worldly misfortune, in order that those people would experience that love and hopefully do the same for other people.

Future leader of Ethiopia.
Although this seems like it could be put into a humanistic context (ie-societies need selflessness to run smoothly, therefore we are only looking out for our own selfish interests anyway), I think that there doesn't have to be returned humility in order for godly humility to take place. After all, Jesus was mocked and killed by those He came to love. It is not a selfish or glamorous thing to love, but it is death to oneself for the purpose of promoting others. It really is a pretty backwards kind of love. People would think I was awfully crazy if I died just to show someone that I loved him or her. Why would I die simply to convince someone that I love that person? It seems like I could give up on loving that person in order to stay alive. True love is a message worth conveying, and dying to convey that message is exactly what God did for all humanity. The least we can do is relinquish our time living on earth for the good of others in hopes that our message of love is conveyed.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

With My Own Two Hands

I had a little revelation the other night when I was making "Bugs on a Log," one of my favorite childhood snacks, for dinner. For those of you who don't know, Bugs on a Log consists of celery sticks with peanut butter on them and raisins stuck in the peanut butter, looking like little bugs sitting on a log. It is so good. Anyway, making "Bugs on a Log" is a pretty time consuming task because you have to spread the peanut butter in the little trenches of the celery, and the peanut butter I have is the natural kind and it's chunky, so it's really hard to spread. After spreading the peanut butter and filling the little trenches, you have to dig out some raisins and place each one in the peanut butter. I made about 6 "logs," and it took me close to 20 minutes probably. I could have cooked a real dinner in that amount of time! It seems like a bit of a waste, right? I could have delved into something much more convenient and much more filling during that time. That is missing part of the point of eating "Bugs on a Log" in the first place...making it is half the fun! I realized in this process that I love making things with my hands. This is something I have been aware of for a while now, but this process of making a whimsical children's snack reminded me of how much joy I get out of making things with my own two hands.

I got to thinking, since we have been studying Genesis in church lately, about the curse that God proclaims to Adam and Eve. Eve is given the great duty of bearing children in pain (yay) and Adam is to toil and tend to the land. God wants man to work. It's not that Adam has to work to earn anything back from God, God just needs him to keep himself busy so that maybe he has the potential for giving in to fewer distractions in life. God gave man and woman consequences to help them remember the time that they strayed from God. He wants them to remember their dependence on Him.

Now, I don't know about you, but generally I hate the fact that people have to work. I don't even really understand how our society developed into the one it is today, where someone can be working as an iPhone app developer, making a living off of a random job supporting something totally unnecessary. (That's a topic for another day, I think). I am at that point in my life where I am realizing that even though I want to spend my life doing things I want to do, I have to work in order to survive in this society, whether it's a pointless job that aligns with my worldview and life philosophy or not. That may or may not be what God had intended when he cursed Adam with work, but nonetheless, it's the truth of the matter. It's the reality in my society. In American culture I feel like it is often hard to see the purpose of work, but if I think about people living in other places, like Ethiopia, they are working truly to make a living. They grow their own food in order to eat and hopefully to sell the abundance of what they have for a variety of other things that other people might be selling. From childhood, they learn to work with their families and they spend their lives working, too, even though it may not be in order to buy a new car or flat screen TV.

Being unemployed has given me even more insight into the idea of work. I do not like sitting in my apartment doing nothing. It is not as glamorous as it seems! I am usually so bored and unmotivated. When I have work to do or a schedule to follow, I get enjoyment out of that. I feel purposeful, and honestly I just like doing things with my hands. One of my remedies to the lack of work is making work for myself. I cook usually for both lunch and dinner. I don't have a microwave, so when I mean cook, I really mean it. This has been a tremendously enjoyable activity. Not only am I using my hands and working, but I am also using my creativity, thinking about what flavors go well together, what colors would make the dish look more appetizing, and what kinds of tweaking I could do to the recipes to make them my own. It's amazingly therapeutic and a great creative outlet. As some of you know, I have been struggling with expressing myself in the ways that I normally express myself (mostly through making visual art of some kind), but I am glad to see that other outlets have been presenting themselves. Cooking, playing and writing music, writing on my blog and journaling, plus a little art-making on the side makes for a very aesthetically pleasing "work"-filled life.

Sometimes I think that creating for a living would be so satisfying, but then I remember all the times when I was really frustrated because I couldn't create anything for long amounts of time and I don't think that I would like the pressure of my livelihood standing solely on my ability to create. Being a music teacher is the outflow of my creative desires because I get to teach other people how to engage in expression and creativity without having to exhaust myself by creating and expressing my own ideas and feelings on demand.

When I do get a job, the balance between all of those creative processes will have to look a bit different, although I know I will never stop doing those things completely. I'm really okay with that, as expressing myself all the time can sometimes make me feel crazy. Focused self-awareness and expression, although needed, can become daunting and exhausting tasks. Having some other mindless tasks or even tasks that take the focus away from myself will bring the needed balance to my life, not to mention that every Christian in the world who feels they are living the most purposeful life feels that from serving others and not just themselves. The most interesting thing to me, though, is that no matter the circumstances or motives, I always feel the need to be doing something active, measurable, and purposeful with myself, whether I am earning a living from that work or not. We were cursed to toil, and toil we must.

Monday, January 17, 2011

True Friend?

I have been struggling in a relationship with a "friend" of mine...I don't know whether to call her my friend or not because I haven't really decided if I like her or not...hence, the struggle.

Her name is Grief. What? You know her? I thought you might...

Grief is not the life of the party...not that fun to have around or keep around...

But, sometimes she is so good for me. Grief knows how to push me into places that I am too fearful to venture into. She doesn't just leave me there, either. She helps me move forward. I have always realized these things about Grief's character, and usually I am pretty good at being friends with most people. In the past I have chosen to embrace Grief, despite her overall nature of making people cry, scream, fall, question, doubt, run, etc. I know that she brings truth, that reality that is many times too hard for me to realize on my own, but lately I have been avoiding Grief. I know. I am a terrible person for trying to avoid her. I have just not been wanting to be in the places that she often takes me. Normally, I would be totally willing, but this time, I just don't want to.

I know. I feel kind of bad. She means well. She wants to help me. Maybe I should let her into my life more. A little bit of Grief can't hurt, right?

Wrong. Grief hurts. A lot. And that hurt doesn't usually go away so quickly. Maybe I have been avoiding the grieving process because I know how much energy and time and life it takes out of me. Maybe it's because I know how much I hurt and how much crying I would need to do before the grieving was over. I am fearful of entering a state of depression or of facing my hurt at all.

The reality of the situation, though, is that Grief needs to come over to my apartment and hang out with me for a little while. She always knows the right time to leave, and she usually brings her delightful friend Hope with her when she visits me. The reality of the situation is that I am hurting. I am not the only one hurting.

I have spent a bit of time during the past few months telling myself, "This is not how it was supposed to be. This is not what I intended to make of this situation at all. It's chaos. It's fallen apart. It was beautiful, and now when I try to fix anything, it falls apart in my hands." I only let those thoughts linger for a moment before seeking out an escape from them. Those are the reality, though. I am not in control, and when I try to be in control, I royally screw things up. I am not in charge of my future. I cannot control other people and make them into what I think they should and could be. Wake up call-- I am not God. I should not try to BE God.

As I said before, I am not the only one hurting in this whole thing. God and Grief are actually (unfortunately? fortunately?) pretty good friends ever since Adam and Eve took that big step toward their demise. And Cain and Abel. And Lot. And Judah. And David. And Solomon. And all those other people that tried to please God, but still inevitably screwed up their lives. God grieves over the world and the trouble that inhabits it. God grieved when he saw that no one on the earth was pursuing Him except for Noah. God grieved when he saw that he had to flood the entire earth. God grieves with every small and large scandal, violence, war, hatred, prejudice, immorality, unjustness that happens on this side of heaven.

God grieves and says, "This is not how it was supposed to be. This is not what I intended to make of this situation at all. It's chaos. It's fallen apart. It was beautiful, and now when I try to fix anything, people rip it apart in my hands." God places us and sets us up for the greatest good we could ever know, and we run away in fear, wanting to control it because it feels safer to us. Then we end up in the ditch wondering how we got there and why God has left us. God did not leave. I left and refused to admit my fear. God grieves for me, even if I can't muster up the courage to accept the fact that I should be grieving, too.

So now it begins. Decidedly. I am going to send Grief an invitation into my life so that I can move forward, relinquish whatever control I am deceiving myself to have, and let God direct my path. Grief will help me scramble out of the thorny bushes, out of my embarrassment, and back into the warmth of the light peeking through the storm clouds and shining on the path.

Grief, want to be my friend again, if only for a time?