Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A Story will Follow

I have been putting off writing about humanitarian aid for a long time. In truth I think about it everyday. As the director of a humanitarian aid organization in a very poor country (9th from the bottom on a recent UN list) I live and breath aid. But what kind of aid is 'humanitarian'? Does it distract from our goal of spreading the Gospel? We have all heard the guilt sermons that end promptly at 12:00 that caused us to weep and mourn our selfish ways but somewhere between the front doors of the church and the 'all you can eat' buffet line our resolve was lost. Many of us give money generously. Many of us are concerned for the plight of our fellow 'man'. Most of us don't know what we are supposed to be doing about it or even if it has anything to do with the assignment that Jesus has given us.
Brent Myers in his very excellent book 'Walking with the Poor' says that the nature of poverty is relational and the cause of poverty is spiritual. This means that we are poor because we don't relate to each other well so as to work together, and our relationships are broken because our relationship with God is broken. For example, down in a village that a friend of mine was working in they complained that they walked five kilometers to get water. They wanted him to do a water project and get some wells dug. Seemed simple. But my friend is smarter than that. He did some investigating. It seems that they used to have a water system in place. A couple of years ago they had a fight with the village upstream and they cut off their water. The village did not have a water problem, it had a relationship problem. To take it home to the West you see in the midst of an affluent society men and women on the street. They are homeless with nowhere to go and live miserable lives. The governments and societies of the West are wealthy. Why not just give these unfortunate individuals lots of money? You already know the answer. It won't help. Money does not solve the real problem. They are poor because all their relationships are broken. Sure that guy lives under a bridge, but he has a brother with a condo in Florida that he hasn't spoken to in years.
So, how do you help him? Firstly, I do believe in humanitarian aid. If the guy is hungry we have got to feed him. But we need to realize that that is not real help. The guy is messed up. His relationships are really broken and he has no idea how to fix them. Usually he doesn't want to fix them. There is a village south of Minas Tirith near Belfalas that was heavily hit by the civil war here ten years ago. Another friend of mine went to a wedding there. As he sat at the table with the whole village in attendance one of his local friends explained the situation. "That guy over there killed my father in cold blood one night. The family over there stole all the furniture out of that other family's house when they fled the fighting. We are all sitting here at this wedding together but we will never trust each other. We will never work together."
What would you say to that?
Well, I hope you do know the answer to that question. Jesus. We hold in our hearts the only one who can give forgiveness. And friend, if you don't have forgiveness you can not give forgiveness. His love is the only thing that can break the lies that hold us down. The enemy has been about decieving for thousands of years. He is pretty good at it. That is why we believe that we can not trust. We can not forgive. We can not love. We will get taken advantage of. Who will look out for me if I don't look out for myself. We have to stand up to those who are against us. We can't let people take advantage of us. We believe all this. And then Jesus comes along. He doesn't insist on his own way. He doesn't condemn. He is not afraid of what others think. He loves unconditionally and when he is threatened he dies rather than raise a single fist.
Everything in me tells me it shouldn't work. But love alone is what will conquer death and hell; Even your own death and the hell we have created right here in our own communities. This is why humanitarian aid is beyond formula. If we give selfishly we accomplish nothing even though our project is flawless on paper. If we choose wrongly at every turn and mess up the whole project yet we love people deeply the project becomes a success. He has protected us from ourselves many times- when our hearts and motives are right.
I will try and tell some stories that illlustrate what I am not saying very well. The bottom line is we must love others. How we get to the bottom line is a long and terrible ordeal some call sanctification.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

On Being Grateful

It is the eve of Christmas Eve and I am very grateful. I am very thankful for each of my friends who pray for us. I am thankful to Southern Baptists and others who support our work with finances and prayer. I have talked to many of you who think that we are suffering for the Lord here in Middle Earth. I have talked to many of you who are terrified at the idea that the King might would ask you to come to a place like this. Well, Minas Tirith is not my favorite city. There are unique problems here that no one faces anywhere else. My boss says, "Exotic places always are until you get there." He is a pretty wise guy.
A few years ago there was a big famine. Many in the south of the country were facing critical food shortages. We partnered with the World Bank to distribute more than 1000 tons of wheat seed and fertilizer to farmers who had ground up next years seed and ate it in desperation. It was a challenging project for us but I was very proud of the work we did. We went to village after village for two weeks and distributed the grain. One day Gimli and I took sixteen metric tons of grain into a very remote valley. We gathered the whole village together, prayed for them, and distributed the grain. It had snowed that week and the whole world was white as we climbed out of the valley in our jeep at the end of the day. We crested the ridge and looked back over the white valley with the beautiful river snaking through the middle of it. In the distant East huge snowcapped mountains caught the setting sun and shone forth in a glorious display. Gimli looking back over the scene exclaimed, "Who GETS to have a job like this?"
Most days this is how I feel. Not everyday. But most days.
I love travel songs and poems. In keeping with the theme of the blog here is an offering from JRR Tolkien

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

Thanks to all who give through the Lottie Moon Christmas offering and the Cooperative Program which enables me to live out this very full and joyful journey.

Merry Christmas to all of you.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Two Stories from Prison

Hey both of you who still check on this blog! Sorry for not writing more but I have been a bit overwhelmed with work and life. I have my two girls back from Boarding School this last week and they will be with us until the end of January. Yeah!
So, for today I have two prison stories for you. I have not discussed our prison work yet which is a shame. We started a local NGO (NGO stands for Non-Governmental Organization) for prison ministry about six years ago now. We had the idea for sometime but needed a director. Eventually the King brought Balin to us. Balin is a madman. He was saved up in the northern reaches of the country and was so excited he went straight home to his village and told everyone. His parents and the other villagers threw him out of town. He came down to Minas Tirith and that is where I met him. He got real excited about prison ministry and called the NGO Love to Prisoners. He meets everyone Jesus first. He shares Jesus as a part of every conversation. He is a rabid evangelist and more than a little charismatic. But here is the weird thing. The prison director and the guards of all the prisons we work in LOVE him. They think he is great. I don't know why. Except that he is annointed by the King to do this work.

Three winters ago it was very cold. Most of our humanitarian work in the prisons happens in the sick ward of Prison number one. There are as many as 120 prisoners in the sick ward at any one time. They usually go there to die. Many die of TB others of pnumonia or various other illnesses. Balin prays for them all. He prays for their healing and their salvation. He sees results regularly. Anyway, back to three winters ago. He led many people to faith that winter. I think around thirty. Almost all of them died. He was very discouraged. One day as he was pouring his heart out to the King and weeping over the fact that nearly everyone who came to faith would die soon after of the illnesses they had the King spoke to him. He said, "Balin! What are complaining about?" Balin replied that all his disciples were dying. The King said, "I am using you to snatch these men from the jaws of Hell. Stop complaining!" When he told me this his face was shining. God was using him. It was enough.

Later Balin went back into the sick ward and prayed for two men. One listened to his testimony about Jesus and the other rebuked him and said that it was wrong for him to listen and it was wrong for Balin to be doing what he was doing. Balin prayed for them both. The next day he went back into the prison. The prisoner who had listened to him had died. The other prisoner was completely healed. When Balin heard this he was sure that he would get an earful about how this proved that Jesus was not the way. Balin was surprised. The healed prisoner apologized for not believing him. He gave testimony to how the other man died in peace and that he wanted the same peace he had had. Balin led that man to faith and he became a great witness in that prison.

Balin worked with a small team for a time but has always had trouble keeping anyone for long. He says that the spiritual atmosphere in the prison is harsh and most people can't handle it for long. One day one of his helpers went into the prison to disciple four men who had made professions of faith. He reported that they were in serious discussion when he came into the room. They were discussing the fact that all four of them were seriously ill and would likely die soon. What were they going to do to help their fellow prisoners find the truth before they died? How could they disciple some one who would get well and get out of prison some day and become a witness to their people in their country? They prayed a long time about this that day. I know that they are all dead now. I do not know what seeds they were able to sow in the hearts of any of their fellow inmates. I do know that they sowed seed in my heart that day.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

How to Love

I have written several posts on the humanitarian aspect of what we do. The most notable is 'A Gift of Hope'. Our team does disaster. We have responded to more than sixteen significant disasters since 1998. We have learned lessons in all of these, some from our sucesses but usually through our mistakes. The following story belongs to Gimli who lives in Ithilian in the high mountains of eastern Gondor.
Global warming is a reality. I know many want to dispute it. If it is not happening we don't have to do anything about it. But for us this reality has already impacted our lives. Our glaciers are melting. High in the mountains above Ithilien glaciers have sat for thousands of years- ok, if you are a 'young earth' adherent just a few of thousand years. Now they are melting and that is impacting the lives of those below. Almost four years ago now a glacier high up above the little village of Andros formed a lake on its lip. No one knew about it as it formed, grew, then began to edge toward the lip of the glacier. One night the edge gave way. Suddenly. The water spilled over the edge of the glacier down the valley. Because of the unusual warmth the permafrost in the valley had begun to melt. As the water rushed down the valley it picked up speed and tons of mud. It came toward a narrow gap in the mountains which is where Andros sits. The village is built on the steep slopes on either side of the gap. When the water and mud hit the gap at three o'clock in the morning the villagers heard a mighty roar and the ground shook. They hurried up the sides of the mountain as fast as they could. The water and mud squirted out of the gap like water out of a garden hose with your thumb partially covering the end. Twenty four people were buried instantly.
The Emergency Services notified Gimli and his wife that morning. The jumped into their truck and headed up the valley to the village just a couple of hours away. There was a young lady who needed a ride up the valley so they picked her up. As they wound around the bend of the valley and came within sight of the village the lady cried out. It was her village- but it was gone. The entire landscape had been changed. Where there had been a village next to a river there was a huge mud flat. A few houses up the sides of the mountain were all that were left. The Emergency Services moved into action. Rescue was tried but everyone was either safe or buried beneath fifty feet of mud. They are still there today. The displaced were sheltered in the few remaining homes. Gimli called me to see what resources we had. We had two avenues of aid that should be interesting to you. First, the IMB provides very well for disaster response. In an emergency we on the field can spend up to $5000 before we even asked for it (this number has recently been moved to $10,000). The money comes from the Hunger and Relief Fund that the SBC has had for years. Quick Plug- Give generously! We use this money in our ministry constantly. Secondly, we had just loaded up our truck with relief supplies for Mordor. We called our folks in Mordor and they confirmed that they did not need the supplies urgently, we could divert them to Ithilien. So, we sent the truck the next day to Andros. Gimli, who works well with the Emergency Services people, went back up to the village the next day with the truck. Many trucks of aid had been sent by Government agencies and some other NGO's. They were lined up on the opposite side of the river from the village. The Government was not allowing them to cross. It had been decided by the central government that the people would be relocated and thus all aid should go to the new location. The trouble was that the people did not want to be taken away. A forced relocation is one of the most difficult situations for an NGO to work. We are here at the invitation of the Government and if we interfere with the Government we could jepardize our presence. If we do nothing people suffer.
Gimli didn't need my advice to decide what to do. He did asked me first though. I told him to go and distribute. But he should make it a distribution not to the displaced but to those who were keeping them in their homes. Those folks have precious little in the mountains and extra mouths to feed in their homes was a real burden. As soon as our truck crossed the river many of the other trucks crossed as well.
The next week the Government made a plan to ship out about 500 people. They were to be moved to the southwest corner of the country to a terrible spot which I will call Harad. Harad has very little water, the ground is salty, and it is 120 degrees in the summertime. Not my favorite vacation spot.
So, After a couple of paragraphs and a few hundred words here is the scenerio: 500 people relocated to an area that can not possibly support them and forty or so families left in the washout of what was their village. Due to the fact that the relocation of the families was forced most international aid agencies would have nothing to do with helping the people (because aiding these people would be tantamount to aiding the Government to be unjust).
Enter Gimli and his wife Galadrial. They are deeply moved by the plight of these people and the King had given Gimli and I the mandate and authority to intervene in the lives of disaster victims years ago. They were ready and they went to work. First, Gimli did the distribution of food to the families who were still in Andros. He met with the village leaders. He met with Government officials. He knew the score. Then he went out to Harad. He visited the people and the local governmnent officials there. The local mayor did not want these people as they were an extra headache for him. Gimli distributed food to those who were starving at night. Then he went back up to Andros. What was next? The village made the call.

In talking to Gimli about writing this post I asked him about the projects he did. He said, 'The people were the project.' The individual humanitarian works that he did were not the important thing. He assisted and they themselves built a canal, a flour mill, a bridge but the real work of aid was the people themselves. They were grieving, hopeless, in despair about the disaster, their way of life changing, the injustice done to them. Several families moved back- without documents or permission. What was to be done? Some of these issues are yet to be resolved.

The bridge was the biggest and most ambitious project. The Government and one of the largest aid agencies in the country both looked at the bridge and said, 'no way.' There had been a bridge that was fit for cars and trucks that spanned the river between the main road and the village. The steel span was 30 meters long and four meters wide. It had been swept down the river and was more than three quarters buried in the mud in the middle of the river. But, this bridge was a key source of identity for the community. It was of huge psychological and emotional value to them. With it they were important and connected. Without it they were isolated, alone, and backwards. Gimli told them that if it was that important to them that he would help. The men of Andros worked tirelessly in what is a very long and dramatic story. The river ran shallow during the winter. The men dug in the frozen mud for weeks in a project that stretched into months and finally more than a year. There was no crane or heavy machinery available. They moved it out by hand. Gimli made frequent visits. He stood up in front of the whole village as they worked and told stories from the Word. He prayed frequently for the project. Today the bridge is complete and I had the privilige of walking across it this last summer.

The men of Andros credit the King and Gimli's intervention for them for the completion of the bridge. Gimli did not merely build a canal, a mill, a bridge. He was used by the King to build a community. And in all of this the King has been glorified. Has a church been started. Not yet. That ground is hard and this post would be interminably long to tell you all the issues we face living in a muslim country. There is reason to hope. Because all that I have told you about is not the result of University training or correspondance courses. It is not the result of some expert somewhere doing what he has been trained to do. Gimli and I firmly believe that we are doing precisely what the King has asked us to do. People were suffering. We shared compassion in the name of Jesus. It is obedience to the King and not training or clever strategy that will bring down the walls and take the city.

This is a long post to try and illustrate how we care for people in the name of Jesus. We continually assess how we can serve Him and the people better. My hope is that you will do the same. No small visions.

Saturday, December 02, 2006


We learned early on that when choosing a house to rent having a landlord you can live with is more important than having a nice house to live in. Gimli came to Minas Tirith a couple of months after I did. We found a great house for him just down the street from us. It was a really nice home with an indoor toilet and bath. Most homes did not have this wonderful feature back then, though many do now. The landlady was an elderly woman with a bitter disposition. That house was in reserve for when her grandson got married. That house was what she had to give him. It was very important. It was all she thought about day and night. Now she was renting it out to strangers and who knew what they might do to it.
She came around to the house every day. Every single day. Daily. She would come into the yard and look in all the windows to see if everything was as it should be. One day she came to my house in a panic. The silver plate was gone! It was gone, gone, gone. I tried to calm her down. Perhaps Gimli or his wife just took it down and put it some where safe? No, no, no, it's gone. They have lost it. I talked to Gimli later. He said that that silver plate was the ugliest thing he had ever seen and they had put it up in the closet. It was fine. She insisted they put it back on the wall. She came by once or even twice a day with complaints like this.
I was annoyed at first but then I became quite concerned for her. Her whole life was this house. It was quite clearly her god. But here's the thing: She received no pleasure whatsoever from this house. It was purely a burden to her. A burden she could not, or would not put down. But the situation got worse. A lot worse. A water main that ran next to the house had leak. One day Gimli found his basement flooded. This is always a bad thing but when your house is made of mud bricks it is a serious bad thing.
This began a saga that Gimli has written up and it is several pages long. I will not tell it all. I am too lazy to type it all up. Gimli dug a small canal to drain the water away from the house and considered that good enough. You can imagine that the landlady was not satisfied. She got the water department of the city to come out. They are underfunded and notoriously incompetent. They dug to fix the problem and the long and the short of it is that there was fifteen foot deep swimiming pool that eventually swallowed the entire road next to the house for the best part of four months.
During this time her health began to deteriorate. She became more and more ill and her disposition became more and more bitter. The house. It was all she thought about and it gave her nothing. She would bad mouth all the neighbors on the street and eventually Gimli had to move. He decided that he could put up with her but that everyone he came to minister to could not, and should not have to. He found another home. A home whose owner lived in another country.
All during this time I would talk to the old woman. I think she liked me in as much as she was capable of liking anyone. I listened to her and I counseled her. She never listened to me but she knew I cared. One day I challenged her attitude about the house. I told her it was just a thing. A material object that would pass away. She should not let it bind her the way it did. She agreed. It was a thing, and a temporal thing at that. But she could not let go of it. It was everything to her. About a year after Gimli moved she died of stomach cancer. She never did go and see a doctor. It would have cost money that was needed for the house. Her son eventually sold it.
I have thought a lot about her. How much she is a caricature of all of us. We are bound.
Bound to sin and selfishness. Bound to the lies that hold us down and keep us in spiritual and relational poverty. She lived her whole life in a misery of worry and disatisfaction because of that house and now she is spending eternity in hell for it. It is such an unthinkable evil that surely someone should do something about it. Fortunately someone has. Jesus died to set us free from this bondage. He calls us now to be free. Are you free?