March 2010


Relationships are hard.

Cross-cultural, cross-gender, cross-generation, cross-anything relationships are even harder.

Recently, I’ve been struggling with these cross-anything, cross-everything relationships.  I don’t feel productive, useful, or like my time is spent efficiently.  I don’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Those frustrations have gotten the better of me one or twice.  Or three times.

It usually goes something like this:

We speaking the same language, but we’re not.  They don’t understand me.

We’re having lunch together, but the expectations about who will pay are not the same.  You’ve misunderstood my invitation.

We’re saying the same thing, but we can’t seem to agree.  There is a wall between us.

And on and on…

I’ll be honest – It can be infuriating.  And it’s easy, all too easy – frighteningly too easy – to let that frustration swell into an arrogance that is divisive and destructive.

It’s also all too easy to defend it.

Our culture in the States – especially in power hungry, Type A towns like the one I come from – tells me that appearance is important.  Efficiency is important.  Winning is important.  Success is key.  But more than that, there is a constant individualism that directs all of our behavior.  I call it… the culture of King Resume.

Think about it!  Think about the way you select a job.  You ask yourself questions like, “what skills will I gain, who will mentor me, how much money will I make, how will this job propel me to my next, better paying, well respected, more powerful position?”

It sounds harmless and it IS good to strive for achievement.  But to what end?  For what end?

When my value of success is compromised because I am living in a country where I can’t communicate and there are cultural barriers and gender barriers and all kinds of other barriers that make it hard to live up to our Western standards of success, I fight back – because how am I supposed to now justify my time?  What will define my existence here?

That’s just it – we’re always justifying our existence by what we do, what we contribute.

We’re living like our lives depend on it, and after a long, sobering look in the mirror, this is what I think:  Deep, deep, deep down, success and praise and acceptance are how I justify my whole life – and I don’t think I am alone in this.

I was listening to a podcast from my home church last week and I had one of those brick in the face moments.  (Yes, it hurt.)

He was talking about the two kinds of justification we live by:  my rule of justification, the thing I use to give meaning to my existence, and God’s rule of justification – Christ.

The Christ who died to to reconcile our relationship with the father and each other.  Who made Jews and Gentiles one.

In Philippians Paul says, “To live is Christ, but to die is gain.”  This is where the truth of the gospel gets tricky: the heart of Christianity runs so counter-cultural to everything we believe about life and relationships.

Culturally, the gospel makes no sense.  It is counter-intuitive.  We strive so hard to make the most of ourselves, our lives.  We run each other over to get ahead.  So the thought of dying to our own desires is downright terrifying.  Because then we’re not in control.

But that’s the point.  That’s the hope.  That’s where grace lies.

T.S. Eliot said it another way, “Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself.”

Here’s where it comes full circle for me.  There a lot of things that are humbling about working in Africa, but the most humbling thing is knowledge that I am not here to fix anything.  I’m here to support and serve. But those are not things that the Resume King values, so still… I strive when I should learn and I do when I should just listen.

There is another verse that has been extremely real to me in Africa:

But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you my power is made perfect in your weakness.”

This is where I usually stop, and there is a lot of truth in those words, but if you keep going Paul says,

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

This takes counter-cultural to a whole new level.  I don’t know anyone who likes to talk about their weakness, so boasting is definitely out of the question.

Intellectually, I can know the Truth – that my strength is nothing compared to Christ in my weakness – but still… our sin runs deep.

Self-justification runs deep.

And this is the reason relationships fall apart, why we become so frustrated by one another, why it’s so hard to tear down that wall, physical or otherwise.  We insist on justifying ourselves and boasting in ourselves rather than in Christ.

In the same sermon my pastor said, “In conflict, our rule of justification has been violated, compared, or contrasted, so we have to defend it…. when we are defending our self-justification it can become vicious because it strikes to the very core of our being.”

It’s personal.  It’s our culture.  It’s engrained in our souls.  It strikes to the very core of our being.

That doesn’t go away easily, but reconciliation never comes without cost.  If Christ died to reconcile my relationship with God, my desires – desires to be right, to have the last word, to do it my way, to win – must also die to reconcile my relationships with others, even if this runs counter to everything my culture of power and prestige tells me about myself and the world.

There is a song by the band Caedmon’s Call that speaks these words well, and it is my prayer for myself in this struggle:

Now for the loss I bear his name

What was my gain I count my loss

My former pride I call my shame

And nail my glory to his cross

In our culture we often consider humility a weakness, a flaw. When in reality, humility is just the proper estimation of ourselves – recognizing who I am in light of who God is, and choosing to act accordingly in relationship to one another.

To nail our glory to the cross.

And all of the sudden, pride breaks down and the walls that divide our cross-everything relationships start to crumble.

Because if you want to know what you’re worth, both in terms of your sinfulness and God’s love for you, all you have to do is look to the cross.


Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “2010 IJM Global Prayer Gathering“, posted with vodpod

April 9-11, 2010.  This is one of the post powerful weekends of prayer for IJM each year!  If you live in DC, please consider joining IJM staff from around the world to celebrate and praise God for the work he is doing and petition for continued rescue of those who are still living under oppression, slavery and injustice.  Only 25 spots left!  You can register at ijm.org/gpg.

Last weekend was the long awaited (and much needed!) first trip outside of Nairobi, its smog and “chilly weather” to the hot coast of Kenya.  What a difference 270 miles can make!

We started off with a 14 hour overnight train ride from Nairobi to Mombasa.  (Our flight home was one hour – tops.  This was one slow moving train!)  The scenery was beautiful, but the train was a far cry from an Acela – more like faded glory, a remnant of colonialism and days gone by.

The train is definitely not a good option for light sleepers (or benadryl required) and be prepared to be rocked to sleep… all night long.  But the sunrise over the plains, the children running to wave and smile and the hilarity of being surrounded by other backpackers made the experience worth it.

From Mombasa we caught a matatu for the two-hour drive up the coast to Malindi.  I was way too caught up in the fresh ocean air to care that I was awkwardly squashed between a Norwegian backpacker and the window, but did feel a little bit like I had just  run a marathon by the time we got to town.  (Think Texas heat plus Florida humidity.)

Malindi is known as the “Italian town” on the Kenyan coast.  If you want to be a beach bum, this is your spot.  There quite literally isn’t much to do besides soak up the sun, enjoy the water and carb out on pasta and pizza (that is probably better than you will find anywhere else in Kenya).  But the architecture and bits of history make the town worth exploring.

The Vasco de Gama pillar marks de Gama’s last stop on the African continent before setting sail for India and also the site of the first Catholic church in Africa.

I was a little bit disappointed in the beaches –  the water is not very clear or blue (I think Fiji ruined me) – but really, no matter what, when there is sun and sand and gelato every day life is bound to be “hukuna mata”!

Walt Disney was right… it is (truly) a small world after all!

No, not that kind of small world.

The kind where friends from college call you up for dinner because they have an unexpected layover in Nairobi.

The kind where you turn around in a conference hall of 300+ government and business leaders in Kenya and find another Fellow sitting right behind you.

That’s right, a Fellow!

Sammy and I were both in Fellows Initiative programs last year, at Falls Church and McLean respectively.  Now he’s back home in Nairobi and we both ended up at the Kenya Youth Employment and Empowerment Initiative Summit (that’s a mouthful) today and were able to reconnect!  More on the summit later this week…

(Please note the attempt at the African background for our friends back in DC.  Props to whoever can guess what animal that is supposed to be!)

Five weeks in Kenya as of last Friday.

Is that possible?!

The last two weeks have been an overload, like a paper jam.  And too many thoughts and experiences all at once make reflecting, and blogging, just a little difficult.

I am realizing that when you travel for a short period of time everything is exciting and new.  You don’t stop to let the inconveniences phase you because you know they are only temporary.  Somehow, when you know you are going to be in a new place for a year everything takes its toll.

I took for grated how long it would take to adjust; to feel like I could call this place “home.”  But I’m making my way in that direction, coming out of the black hole and into the Kenya sunshine, albeit pole pole.

And it is beautiful.

Oh, by the way… home looks like this!

BABIES AND BIRTHDAYS

This past Saturday was spent with friends celebrating my roommate’s birthday.  I am slowly (pole pole) learning that when you are invited to visit a Kenyan friend’s home you ought to block out your whole afternoon (or evening or overnight), because that’s how long they expect you to stay with them.  Just another bit of Kenyan culture that rubs my American sensibilities the wrong way, but when I get over myself long enough to think about it, it’s really a beautiful way to look at hospitality!


(Yes, there were party hats.  Yes, this was a 25th birthday party!)

Even though we were celebrating Jenn’s birthday with a “surprise” (she claimed to be 80% surprised… I think 20% was probably more like it.  Our stealth could use some work), all attention was (naturally) on the baby.  Esther’s son Kwame has quite possibly one of the cutest smiles I have seen on a child – ever.  He was hilarious and entertained us for hours with his funny dance moves and limitless energy.

Everyone knows I am a sucker for a cute kid.  I couldn’t help but share!

And last but not least… “Boy, I am (really really really) looking forward to…”

MALINDI this weekend!  And the beaches and real pizza and clear water and clean air that comes with it.

SPF 75, here I come.