Thursday, January 31, 2008

To Mount Doom

The title sounds dramatic huh? Well, it is one of my better stories and after a year and a half of blogging my stories I still have not gotten around to it. This next month it will be ten years since the events I am about to record first began, events that changed me and are largely responsible for making me what I am today. The self-help nuts have it completely wrong you know. We are not in control of our destiny, our words do not shape our future, and our lives are not in our hands. God is not a project that I work on, getting myself more pure and holy and spiritual. I am His project. Ten years ago He spoke into the world and changed it forever and I was glad to be along for the ride. Quite right, way too much intro, I will just tell the story.

In February of 1998 I had been in Gondor for less than a year. I was struggling to start a micro-business enterprise program, we were coming together as a new team with three families, and Gondor was a mess (please note severe understatement here). The utilities didn't work, the society didn't work, and we didn't know what we were supposed to do about it. Gonder had just finished a five year civil war the year before and now various factions, and tribes, and out and out criminal gangs were vying for control of whatever they thought was worth having- which wasn't much in my eyes at the time. People suffered hugely. Violence was out of control and we checked in daily on our radios which we carried at all times. After describing all this it should not surprise you that we took little notice when a massive earthquake struck the mountains on Mordor to the south of us. Gimli was down at the airport when 23 European reporters showed up and asked him how they could get to Mordor to cover the event. Mordor was still in a twenty year civil war itself and most all Western personnel including folks from our company had had to leave the year before. Half the Gondor army sat on the river bank making sure no one crossed that border- there were not even any bridges across the river- and there were no flights to Mordor from Gondor. Gimli told them you couldn't get there from here. Later we heard that they were some of the first people to respond to the disaster. In the week following the 8.0 earthquake that struck a group of 30 villages in Northern Mordor only two aid workers and 23 reporters responded. Eventually, we sent a truck of clothes down with a Red Cross convoy but the event was eye-opening for me. What does one do to respond to a disaster? I had never thought about it before. It was always someone else's job. What if there was no one else to do the job? We lived in land where earthquakes, landslides, and floods were yearly events. Should we do something about that? I began to look into it.

We prayed, explored, read, interviewed experts in the field and finally made a plan. Our team met one Wednesday night later that Spring and we wrote out a six point plan of action for the next time a disaster happened in our area. I e-mailed it to my boss and informed him of our intentions. My wife Arwen then said, 'Now all we have to do is pray for another earthquake in Mordor.' We wont ever let her forget those words. At 11:00 o'clock the next morning a second 8.0 earthquake hit Northern Mordor completely destroying over sixty villages. We began to plan to go. I met up with a Dutch friend of mine who worked with another agency. He was an engineer so I thought he would be a pretty handy guy to have along. He told me that a disaster consultant was coming from the West to help us out. A couple weeks later we flew down to Mordor on a huge relief helicopter arranged by the Red Cross. I set foot in Mordor for the first time. It was intimidating. Mordor was nothing like I had ever experienced before. It was wild and lawless. They had been caught up in a civil war for over twenty years and everyone had guns, and everyone knew well how to use them.

Our first day in Mordor was amazing. We landed and were greeted by men with guns who escorted us to the office of another aid agency. It was an Irish group and they were very hospitable. They arranged a jeep for us and a driver and we headed out to a nearby village that still needed to be assessed. The drive was incredible as we went up riverbeds and into places that I never dreamed a jeep could go. In the end we arrived a village of 750 homes. I stood in the middle of the village and could look out to the fields in every direction. Every wall was reduced to chest high, every house destroyed. There were a few people milling around but not many. We spoke to the village elders. I say 'we' but really my Engineer friend and our new Irish friend did the talking through a translator. I dropped back and started talking with a 19 year old young man who was very informative. It was here that I learned something very important. I had no training to do this job but I could do it better than anyone because I could speak the language. My friends asked the elders where all the people were and they claimed they were working in the fields but that all the people were still here in the village. I ask my young friend in his language where everyone was and he said they all moved into a refugee camp outside the district capital. The village elders were looking out for their own interest and hoping as much aid as possible would come their way. I don't blame them but for us it is much more important to know the truth if we are to mount an effective relief plan. In a flash I realized that because I knew the language and culture I could make a far better assessment than teams of trained Red Cross and UN guys. You may or may not know that most Red Cross and UN guys are either Swiss or French and the Swiss and the French are the only people on Earth more arrogant and culturally insensitive than we Americans. This revelation would set the agenda for our aid work as basic assessment for the next seven years.

I say that the village was completely destroyed but there were a couple of notable exceptions. There were two very old buildings- very small- that survived. We began looking at how the homes made of mud brick collapsed and I got a crash course in engineering and building design. We realized that the old buildings had earthquake mitigation techniques built into them. These people's grandfather's knew how to build- they had just forgotten. My engineer friend designed a house then the basic principles of which we still use to this day in all our building projects. I would describe the nine points of it but most of you would find that boring so I will skip it for now.

We headed back to the office and on the way we rolled the jeep. Not a fun experience but we got out and righted our vehicle and drove back to the district capitol. I then went down to the bazaar to try out my language some more and to see what kind of goods and services we could expect when we set up an office here. The Engineer and the Consultant had a meeting with the local Governor. I met a nice young man who invited me out to his village that night. I spent the night out there with around 15 guys and we had some interesting conversation. I shared my faith with them and they even had me sing a spiritual in English which I translated for them. It was great fun.

Now at this point I have to digress. A month before all this there was a huge battle on the edge of Minas Tirith where I live that nearly drove the country back into civil war. After it was over no one wanted to help the people in the more than sixty destroyed homes so Gimli and our other team member whom I have not told you much about, Gandalf, went out to help. It was their idea that we could not rebuild full homes for those who lost their homes in the battle but we could rebuild a couple of rooms of the bombed out houses to give them emergency shelter. I shared this idea with the Engineer and we incorporated it into our plan. The second night we were in Mordor we presented our plan to the Governor and the four Non-Governmental Organizations who were committed to providing shelter. The UN and the Red Cross were pulling out because the Mordor civil war was getting too close. We could expect no building materials at all to be imported because we had the war in the south and the inpenatrable Gondor border in the north- even if we could get goods across the bordor Gondor had nothing to offer anyway. The latest surveys showed that we needed over 6000 shelters in sixty villages before winter came. So, we presented our plan. The four NGO's would divide up the villages and we would then go to each village which we were responsible for and divide the villagers up into teams. Each team would have a brick mason whom we would train to build houses according to our design. Our Engineer then presented his design. He called it 'Temporay Housing in Permanant Structures'. The idea was that we would build a square five by five meter room using recycled materials from the broken houses. This would be enough to get families out of the snow that winter and then they could build larger structures next year when they had more time and resources. The Mordorites thanked us for the plan but said it had one fatal flaw. The plan depended on men from different families working in teams and they told us no Mordor man would work on someone else's home before his was finished. I being the diplomat that I am leaned across the table and told them that they would all die in the snow. The UN actually saved the day at this point. The World Food Program decided that even though they were leaving because of the war they would leave their wheat flour for us to distribute. When we offered to pay each family with food for work they all agreed to work on the teams.

This is getting too long but we are almost there. So, after a week we went back to Gondor and made our plans. The Engineer came up with a budget for our part of the project. We needed 300,000 dollars to pull it off. I said, 'Man, can't it be cheaper?!' He said that as near as he could tell that is what it would cost to set up the office, hire staff, and run the project for the next five months. Southern Baptists contributed $25,000 out of our Human Needs fund. I was skeptical about the rest. Within two weeks we had all $300,000 given from seven different sources. We didn't even ask for it. People found out we were working in Mordor and they offered us the money. God truly owns the cattle on a thousand hills and when He asks you to do something He cuts a few loose for you. I will never doubt that again. Never make a decision about what God wants you to do based on money- He's got plenty.

So, that is my first week in Mordor in the summer of 1998. In my next post I will talk about some of the results and where God took us next.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Something to Brag About

Personal Note: We just got back from the Grey Havens today. It was a great trip with great weather, good family time, and a great conference with Neil Cole- esteemed church planting guru. We arrived early this morning to sub-zero temperatures and snow on the ground. I am wearing my winter hat even now as I type. It is really cold outside and fairly cold inside. Oh well, back to work.

But the subject of today's post is the Kingdom of God; or more accurately how we perceive the Kingdom. I am sure that everyone thinks they have their priorities right- if they didn't they would change them. But are they right? Are our priorities- yours and mine- correct? There are things that I would love to hide from you. There are sins that I hope you will never find out about. I am sure you feel the same. But I have learned that we should not judge ourselves by the things we try to hide as much as by the things we brag about. What do you brag about? What is it you feel is really wonderful about you and your life? I think that when it comes to the Kingdom of God this is a critical question. It came up recently here when some friends did something that surprised us. I will tell the story.

Legolas and I work together here in Gondor. He and his wife have started a small church in their home made up of the extended members of a very dysfunctional family. Several have become believers and their redeemed and transformed lives have been a rock of stumbling for others in their family who are clinging to sin and selfishness. One young lady has been a real beacon of light in the darkness here. She also worked for a family who are with a different organization. They are from another denomination and look at the work of church planting differently than we do. I have always liked them and enjoyed their fellowship in spite of doctrinal and methodological differences. Last year they went back to the West. Last week they paid big bucks to sponsor this young lady to move to the West to live and study. Legolas and his wife are furious. I am very disappointed. At this point some of you may be wondering why we are upset. The answer is very important. It has to do with the very heart of the Gospel itself. Let me contrast the two views here so that we can clearly understand what is at stake.

View One: Legolas and his wife believe that God has called all Christians to join Him in His great work of establishing the Kingdom of God among every people, tribe, and nation. They shared the Gospel with this young lady believing that God wanted her in His Kingdom and had paid a huge price at Calvary in order to make that happen. Eternity is a long time and Legolas and his wife have given up a good paying job in the West and taken their five children to a hard place to live because they believe that the Kingdom of God is far more valuable than any earthly rewards. They further believe that God desires to reach the people of Gondor with the people of Gondor- or as we like to say, the resources needed for a harvest are in the harvest. So, they believe that what this young lady needs more than anything is a deep discipleship relationship with God that teaches her to obey everything He commands her.

View Two: What our other friends have demonstrated is another view altogether. They believe that the Kingdom of God means material benefits that translate into a higher standard of living. It is simple really: If you love God He will love you by giving you a more comfortable life. Since this young lady has come to faith in a poor and struggling country what needs to happen is that we must get her out of there right away so that she can reap the rewards of her good decision to follow Jesus. In this view our job of discipleship has less to do with obeying Jesus and more to do with providing every material benefit we can to those in need.

Now, let me be clear here, I am a humanitarian aid worker. I help people everyday. I believe in our responsibility to care for others with all the resources He supplies. But I also believe that the greatest joy of any believer should come as they lay down their lives for the one who calls us all. This happens in small ways and large every day. I am sure that my friends think they have done a good deed in taking this girl to the West and 'rescuing' her from a difficult life in a broken country- it goes without saying that she is way warmer in the West than here right now! But I will not boast of lives rescued from suffering. I will boast in my Lord who calls all of those whom He loves to come and die. His ways are not our ways but they are the best ways. They are the only ways that spell hope for the people of Gondor, for the peoples of Middle Earth, for the peoples of the whole world. Oh, and for you and me too.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

New Year's Resolutions

I would not normally make a big deal about New Year's resolutions but here in this short blog post I will make a brief exception. This morning Arwen and I got up- after sleeping in- and prayed together. We are committing to each other to pray with each other everyday. This may sound like an obvious thing to do but the truth is that most Christian couples do not do this. I will let you know how we get on and if we learn anything inspiring I will share it.

On Jan 3erd we head out to the Gray Havens to have a series of meetings with the rest of our region. I am really looking forward to it. We need the break after the busy holiday season- which was unbelievably busy but very rewarding. I will return to Gondor on the 14th and will resume blogging some time after that. When I come back I intend to continue storytelling as usual but I will also be adding more posts on strategy and theology as it meets life here on our team.

So, until the 15th of January I will say have a very happy end to your holiday season and as 2008 kicks off may you deepen your walk with our Lord Jesus Christ each and every day.