What in the world are we doing here?

We don’t live in the US, but we could. Instead, we live in Africa, thereby exposing ourselves to certain risks not prevalent in most places in the US. For many, that doesn’t make sense. It seems weird. To some, it’s downright ‘idiotic‘. Many who care about us have expressed concern recently for the safety and health of our family as we live and minister here in Africa.

We’ve put a lot of prayer and analysis into our ‘theology of risk’ over the past year. We started seriously reconsidering whether we should stay in Kenya right after Westgate. Since then, crime and insecurity in Nairobi have only continued to escalate. South Sudan has remained in conflict. Now, Ebola has emphatically emerged onto the continent. The statements of concern from our friends and family have become more frequent and stern with each news report. So, we set out to flesh out our little family’s theology of risk and define criteria which will help us make the decisions about our future. The salient points of this exercise are what follow. My hope is that these ideas: 1) give comfort to those of our friends and family who wonder if we are taking things seriously enough and 2) challenge all of us who follow Christ to define our mission and think seriously about what we will risk for the sake of the Gospel.

a theology of risk.

A ‘theology of risk’ is simply taking what we know to be true about God and marrying those truths with the realities of living in this broken world. It is helpful to first list some facts that inform how we analyze risk and answer the question, ‘ should I stay or should I go?’

“Trust God – but tie your camel tightly.” – Persian proverb

1) God is sovereign, powerful and ‘mighty to save’. (Zeph. 3:17)

2) We are to be ‘shrewd’, and our decisions have real consequences. (Matt. 10:16)

When you consider a theology of risk, you quickly find yourself in the teeth of the age-old sovereignty vs. human responsibility conundrum. God is sovereign and we make decisions which affect outcomes and can cause joy and pain. These two truths are the foundation for a proper theology of risk. We need to trust God, and act wisely. Forgetting the sovereignty of God leads to fear. Forgetting human responsibility leads to fatalism and can result in testing God. Proverbs 21:31 says, “The horse is prepared for the day of battle, but victory belongs to the Lord”.  We are called to be wise, to prepare…and trust God.

3) Christians should expect to suffer and be persecuted.  (Rom 5:3-5, Phil. 1:29; 2 Tim. 1:8, 3:12) 

The Bible does not teach risk aversion. We are called to trust God in the face of uncertainty. We are called to rejoice in suffering. In fact, suffering and persecution are often a key part of God’s redemptive process in His people. The suffering of the people of God is also what can “fill up…what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ” as people watch us endure it (Col. 1:24). Unfortunately, these truths have been shelved by many American churches after finding them incompatible with a new-found idea that God is primarily interested in our comfort and happiness.

 “The North American church has drifted from its moorings on this subject of suffering. We are profoundly influenced by a consumer culture that is relentlessly committed to self-comfort. This reality has eaten out the very heart of our practical understanding of the cross in our daily lives.”   – Scott Shaum, Born for Adversity

So where does this leave us? We know we are to be wise. We know we can trust God to allow only that which will accomplish His purposes…and that suffering and persecution often serve these divine purposes. But, how do we make specific decisions about where to live and where to work? As you look at the ministries of Jesus, the disciples and Paul in the New Testament, you see that sometimes they fled from dangerous situations and other times they engaged them head-on. There has to be another component in making these decisions. Simply choosing what is most comfortable and least likely to cause suffering is selfish and leads to a life void of meaning. Yet, simply choosing what is least comfortable and most likely to cause suffering is not only foolish, it is also selfish (as it is only sadistic self-aggrandizement) and leads to a life void of meaning.

“Choosing to suffer means that there must be something wrong with you, but choosing God’s will— even if it means you will suffer— is something very different. No normal, healthy saint ever chooses suffering; he simply chooses God’s will, just as Jesus did, whether it means suffering or not. And no saint should ever dare to interfere with the lesson of suffering being taught in another saint’s life.” -Oswald Chambers, The Holy Suffering of the Saint

defining the goal.

This is where it is helpful to look at the fundamentals of risk analysis. ‘Risk’, in the most general sense, is any uncertainty that an objective will be achieved. In order to define your risks, you first must define your objectives. Once you define your objectives, you prioritize them, which makes decisions easier when two objectives are competing for the same resources. It is only at this point that you can make an informed decision on whether the risks, if they cannot be mitigated, are acceptable based on the goals. One of our family’s primary objectives is to support the Church, particularly in communities where Christians are persecuted. Our ability to do this effectively is somewhat measurable. If these needs remain and our ability to help meet them remain, a formidable level of risk is worth accepting in order to achieve this objective. I’m sure this all sounds surprisingly nonspiritual. However, for me at least, it is important to have some objective parameters for measuring success and gauging what we will endure as a family. I think the ability to qualify ‘effective ministry’ is what determined when Jesus, the disciples and Paul decided to move on to the next town or to continue ministering in the face of danger.

I want to emphasize that I don’t think God asks our family to endure any more than He asks of everyone who chooses to follow Him. I don’t think He gave our family anything that He doesn’t offer to anyone who follows Him. He simply gave us certain gifts, skills, passions and interests (as He does for everyone) and made us aware of certain needs. He put a certain ministry on our hearts, which led us to live here. It’s not much more complex than that. As long as we are able to effectively minister, a certain amount of risk is acceptable. If the effect of our ministry is decreasing and insecurity is increasing, then a change may need to be made. However, the decision should never be made by looking solely at the probability of persecution or suffering.

I don’t want to suffer. I prefer comfort and security. I don’t want to be mugged. I hate Nairobi traffic. We miss family and friends. For now, though, it seems that God has given us an effective ministry here in East Africa. I hope we could add value in the US. Hospitals in America, particularly those in under-served populations, need physicians. There are refugee populations in the US, which we worked with before we came here. We decided, however, that our abilities to meet certain needs here provide unique opportunities to support the body of Christ in ways that are strategic and specific to our gifts and passions. So, here we sit.

Having said all that, it does seem like God might be using different circumstances to change some of the components of our ministry. Please be praying for us as we seek God’s continued direction. If our ministry is changing, we need to understand that and be able to qualify what exactly we are meant to be and do. Then we can seek out if this is still the place God wants us, and if the ability to minister effectively still outweighs the dangers and challenges of living here.

field day

There is an open field across the street from our house (pictured). Our boys and all the neighborhood kids love playing in it. There is a wooden swing set, a tire swing, a sand pit, a bench and a small soccer pitch with net-less goals. Before it was renovated about three years ago, this field used to be a graveyard for cars and kiosks as well as  yard and house waste. (Some residents still want to use it as a place to dump trash.)

About a week ago, we received a letter on Friday afternoon that there was going to be a cleanup of the field on the following day. I was excited to hear about this because it had not been organized by us, as we had been the main ones caring for the field. That was the end of my excitement. The same letter asked us to pay a small fee for the pick-up, while also asking for us to do the actual picking and to bring trash bags, brooms, rakes, etc. I was confused by the need for a fee until I saw the painters painting the play set bright red and yellow – not colors I would have chosen.

There was also a urgent request for a microphone, juice dispenser and PA system. To be honest, this irked me. “Why can’t we just pick up the field without the fanfare? How about not throwing trash on the ground in the first place? There is a large trashcan right in the field for this. This is going to turn into a loud, all day affair.” These questions and thoughts rumbled around my brain. I diligently paid the fee and waited for the dreaded festivities to begin.

The afternoon came and the clean up was a great success. There was a PA and microphone, but it was used to give instructions to the kids and to play games. It also cranked out Christian worship songs the whole time. (Try that in America!) There were no lengthy speeches and no juice dispenser. Most of the work was done by the kids, and the adults that were there were able to catch up with their neighbors. Our boys had a great time.

As I watched this from our window, it hit me how wrong I had been. By doing it this way, the neighborhood was taking ownership of the field. Red and yellow are common colors seen on playgrounds here in Nairobi; an event isn’t considered important if there isn’t a microphone; if people don’t contribute anything to a cause, it is not their own. I realized that people in our neighborhood who are wiser than me had found a way to gently remind the neighborhood that the field was important for the children and it needed to be cared for.

Even after almost six years I still love that God is refining me to see His world through the eyes of other cultures.

grace and truth

In my recent trip to the US, I preached at Calvary Bible Church in Neenah, WI. The text was John 1:1-16.

As I seek to love God and love people, I find myself dealing with a tension between exuding grace and proclaiming truth. They are not mutually exclusive, but we often are better at one or the other.

The Gospel of John written to encourage belief in truth SO THAT we can have life. Jesus’ life is the perfect example of how to balance grace and truth as we live our lives for others.

Listen now.