I Want to Hug This Man!

27 02 2010

Doesn’t this make you HAPPY?  We promote these community learning options in World Vision – mobile libraries for rural kids.  I’ve seen them on camels…though for some reason “Biblioburro” REALLY makes me smile!

Check it out:



A Lent God Will Notice

20 02 2010

A couple years ago my spirituality professor shared the idea of taking retreats of engagement and not just withdrawal.  This was a new concept to me – the idea of resisting the urge to not only withdraw to quiet and comfortable, but to retreat into something new, to choose an action or environment that would invite God’s presence into my life in a new way.

The idea was new to me then, but it was not new to God.  In fact it fits closely with the biblical understanding of repentance, which not only means to stop doing something but, more fully, to change your heart and change your way.  As we enter the season of Lent, the annual period in the liturgical church calendar where believers prepare themselves for the impending cross and resurrection of Christ through repentance and fasting, I think it also offers us a pathway to the heart of God.

Do you delight to know God’s ways?  Do you delight in his nearness?  Even if we have the best of intentions this Lenten season, we still might miss the point.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve given up significant habits during Lent over the years.  And even as I do it again this year, I remember the call to not just withdraw or withhold, but to engage.  Repentance is both ceasing and striving at the same time (it can sometimes take a lot of courage and a lot of strength to move in a new direction!).

Wishing you hadn’t chosen to give up sugar, caffeine, or Facebook this go around?  Consider some of these other options, taken from Isaiah 58, the quintessential biblical instruction on fasting.  Some involve abstaining, others radical engagement.  In the 43 days we have left, whichever you choose, move in a new direction:

– free those who are wrongly imprisoned

– lighten the burden of those who work for you

– let the oppressed go free

– remove the chains that bind people

– share your food with the hungry

– give shelter to the homeless

– give clothes to those who need them

– do not hide from relatives who need your help

– remove the heavy yoke of oppression

– stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors

– feed the hungry

– help those in trouble

– keep the sabbath day holy; don’t pursue your own interests on that day, but enjoy the sabbath and speak of it with delight as the Lord’s holy day; honor the sabbath in everything you do on that day; desist from your own ways, from seeking your own pleasure, and speaking your own word.

Wonder what’s in store for those who fast this way?  Isaiah puts it this way:

“Then your light will break out like the dawn, and your recovery will speedily spring forth; and your righteousness will go before you; The glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.  Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am’…Then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom will become like midday.  And the LORD will continually guide you, and satisfy your desire in scorched places, and give strength to your bones; And you will be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.  Those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins; You will raise up the age-old foundations; And you will be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets in which to dwell…Then you will take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; And I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isa 58: 8-14)

I invite you to read the entire passage here.

Close to the Earth

12 02 2010

So, we’ve had a week without internet as we left the city of Bamako and headed to “the bush.”  For those who’ve yet to experience Africa, “the bush” is the term for the “boondocks” – the rural villages far from modernity or contemporary comforts.  It’s pure Africa.  The bush is slow, and quiet, and close to the earth.  Donkeys and carts can be found in place of cars, mud huts in place of brick houses, roaming sheep, chickens and cows in place of restaurants.  There is a baby swaddled to the back of almost every woman and often also children, and the rhythmic pounding of millet in the mortar by the young girls paces the day.  The customary greetings are sincere and melodic – they ring like chants in the Bambara tribal tongue and bounce from greeter to guest like a seemless game of ping pong.

My first day in the bush was a challenge; The lack of connectivity and activity made me antsy.  I felt stripped bare, and sometimes bored.  We’d get back to the WV office after a long, hot, dusty day in the villages and there was nothing to do but take a cold shower, eat dinner, and swat mosquitoes.  Much of our day was spent sitting:  sitting in low, wooden, reclining chairs under straw-thatched covers held up by old twisted tree-limbs, sipping tea and watching donkeys pulling wooden carts slowly amble by, guided by children.  Our feet get dusty from trouncing through the villages and the smells of living with livestock fill our lungs.  It’s like someone pushed the slow-motion button or sent us back in time a couple thousand years. 

In many ways it’s been a needed retreat for me.  In Mali I have felt low to the earth and close to creation.  And as I squatted onto tiny wooden stools listening to children giggle and received the gracious welcome of village elders, I’ve asked God to meet me in the dust.  I want to feel God’s presence in the slow things, in the silent things.  Usually, I really connect with God when I can turn on music and journal – when I get lost in my head and try to take everything in.  Here, it was an excercise to connect with God on the ground – not up in the clouds, not taking everything in, but rather just taking in the moment.

Even with all the stillness, we’ve had quite a productive week.  We’ve taken thousands of pictures illustrating wonderful education initiatives; multiple schools have ceased their daily activities for hours to help us with photo shoots.  Despite an incomprehensible lack of resources, they’ve got wonderful parent-teacher committees, literacy centers, entrepreneurship programs for out-of-school youth, well-disciplined children and communities that really care about their children.

The cross-cultural communication is exhausting, but fun.  Each idea goes through multiple translations with the help of our World Vision hosts, before anyone knows what the heck is going on.  Everyone is so patient and good-natured so we mostly just have a lot of laughs.

Here are a couple of language lessons for you:

1.  Bicycle chicken = chicken that’s run around a lot and makes really strong meat.

2. “We are going to visit a youth entrepreneurship program” = “We are going to drive 45 minutes on a bumpy dirt road.  We are going to the Village Mayor’s office to greet him and his staff.  We are going to the program teacher’s house in the village to greet him and his family and drink tea.  We are walking through the village to greet the village chief and his family.  We are walking through the village to meet the program teacher’s 105-year-old father and listen to him tell stories.  Then we are walking to the entrepreneurship program.”

3. (My personal favorite):  Our wonderful host and translator Pierre is still refining his English.  As of now, every time he says the word “poor” it sounds like “pure.”  “The village is very pure….that family is very pure.”  I like his version better than ours.

I’ll be home on Saturday.  In the meantime, stay close to the earth.

Where the Blacktop Ends

8 02 2010

There is a country song that Keith Urban wrote that I like to sing along to, called “Where the Blacktop Ends.”  I thought of it today while driving through the bumpy, dusty dirt roads of Bamako after a long Sunday afternoon of lounging in the home of my World Vision colleague Pierre and his family.  The chorus says this:

“Gonna kick off my shoes and run in bare feet, where the grass and the dirt and the gravel all meet.  Goin’ back to the well, gonna visit old friends, and feed my soul where the blacktop ends.”

What Urban describes as an ideal weekend, is everyday life for Malians.  There is very little pavement to be seen, and this slows life down.  People are busy working, cleaning, constructing, but all of this is done with a simple, peace-filled kindness unlike anywhere I have experienced on earth; As one of the five poorest countries in the world, they may not have much to eat, but their way of life feeds the soul.

Yet pavement has its benefits.  It makes a rough road smooth and lays a foundation for progress.

Since arriving Tuesday night, I have spent my days here in the care and company of my World Vision colleagues Pierre and Peter, meeting World Vision staff, planning our schedule, and meeting with researchers and Ministry of Education staff to discuss the state of education development in Mali.  In case you ever doubted the importance of education for poor nations, Mali points clearly to the need.  With an official literacy rate of only 50% (and, in actuality it is much lower – closer to 30 or 40%), most Malians lack basic skills to read, write or do math in either their native or national language.  This means that they cannot ever make a living or provide for their families.  Mali’s history as an independent nation is very brief.  They are celebrating 50 years of independence in September.  What this means is that only 45 years ago, after France withdrew its colonial grip from the region, did Mali begin to write their tribal languages.  Prior to this they did not have an alphabet.  For many years, schools only taught in French – the national language – leaving the majority of children unable to access a basic education.  Now the ministry has created teaching materials in Bambara and 12 other tribal languages, and schools are bilingual, but many Malians lack schools in their villages, cannot afford the fees, do not have qualified teachers, or have over-crowded facilities (maybe three classrooms for 400 children).

In the Bamako Urban Area Development Program, I visited two functional literacy programs for village women this week.  These women, between the ages of 20 and 60 spend three to six months learning the alphabet and basic literacy, then put their new skills to use to start businesses making soap or textiles.  It’s a simple yet foundational element of development that we too easily take for granted in the West, where education is automatic.  When asked how the program has helped them, the women told us matter-of-factly, “Before the program I could not add or subtract numbers, and now I can do that so I can calculate costs, make a living and dial a phone.”  Imagine not being able to read numbers or add them together…or call a friend!

It’s a layer of pavement.

Saturday we attended a rally hosted by the Ministry for the Promotion of Women, Families and Children to raise awareness of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and to stop its practice.  The minister, doctors, and Imams spoke out against it, children performed skits illustrating its horror, and a movie was shown portraying a village woman who courageously stood against cultural tradition.  As I mentioned in my last post, FGM scars upwards of 92% of Malian girls and women, an unhealthy cultural practice rooted in folkloric animism and oppressive in consequence.  The fight to stop it has been going for nearly a decade now, and no doubt it will take more time still, but it was so encouraging to see women, children, and even some men, taking a stand against this unnecessary cultural practice.

It’s a layer of pavement.

Today, after a lively African church service, Pierre invited us to his home, where his wife and children had been preparing a delicious traditional Malian meal of stewed cabbage, carrots, chicken and spices with cous cous.  Upon arriving, he immediately took off his bright green tunic and layed horizontal on his couch.  “You are family,” he said as he extended his arms across the room and invited us to relax.  And relax we did.  For five hours we ate “lunch” and talked about philosophy, politics, theology and development.  His wife slept in the chair next to us, and the cups were continually refilled with jus d’ananas (pineapple juice), water, and arabic sweet tea.

At one point in the afternoon, we talked about the long process of building his home – which he said he began doing back in 1994.  He saved enough money to buy the land, then bought the land.  Then he saved more money to lay the foundation, and laid the foundation.  Then little by little, he built the house.  “This is the way we do it here in Mali.”  And as you drive around the city of more than 2 million people, that is exactly what you see – half-built houses and buildings waiting to grow.

I suspect this will be how Mali develops in all ways.  Slowly, quietly, patiently, they are laying foundations of pavement that will become roads to progress.  They are adding infrastructure and capital one brick at a time and over time they will grow.

It’s still dusty land now, but they are laying the pavement little by little and soon we will look and find a house built strong and tall.

Safe in Mali!

4 02 2010

Hello friends!  This is a short and overdue note to let you know that I arrived safely in Mali!  The weather is warm and so are the people – we have spent the last two days at the World Vision office meeting staff and making plans for the next week.  Today we met with the mother-tongue literacy director at the Ministry of Education and discussed the challenges and progress Mali is making to increase the literacy rate (officially at 46%, but actually much lower) – one of the main impedements to development in the country.  This afternoon we’ll travel to the Bamako Urban ADP (Area Development Program) to start photographing some of their education programs, which we’ll continue to do tomorrow.  Sunday we’ll head to the Bla ADP, a region east of Bamako, to photograph there;  we’ll be in those villages all next week until I return home next weekend.

I’ll try to post some more updates as we go along, to share Mali with you, but for now I’ll just say Bamako feels relatively calm compared to other developing cities I’ve seen.  We are staying in a very nice hotel and I am grateful to currently have a small trickle of warm water to shower with, a working toilet, and an air conditioner.  I suspect accomodations will change slightly next week in the villages.  Today we ate lunch at the Ministry of Education (MoE) “cafeteria” – three metal tables and benches outside in an uneven mix of dirt and concrete under a shredded tarp curved around a large Malian woman scooping cow-tongue, fried fish and rice into bowls.  I opted for an orange and rice only.  🙂

Saturday we’ll participate in a city-wide campaign event that World Vision Mali has helped coordinate to raise awareness of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).  Currently upwards of about 92% of all females in Mali between the ages of 15 and 49 have been subjected to FGM – a cultural rite of passage with disturbing consequences.  I’ll try to write more about it later for those of you who haven’t heard much about it.

For now we are happy and healthy and can’t wait to get out to the communities and see the kids!

A Tithing Celebration

1 02 2010

I’ve been thinking about tithing lately, for some unknown reason, and wanting my giving to bear the kind of fruit in my life and in God’s kingdom that he intended it to when he gave the command in the first place:

Deuteronomy 14:22-29:

22 “You must set aside a tithe of your crops—one-tenth of all the crops you harvest each year. 23 Bring this tithe to the designated place of worship—the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored—and eat it there in his presence. This applies to your tithes of grain, new wine, olive oil, and the firstborn males of your flocks and herds. Doing this will teach you always to fear the Lord your God.

24 “Now when the Lord your God blesses you with a good harvest, the place of worship he chooses for his name to be honored might be too far for you to bring the tithe. 25 If so, you may sell the tithe portion of your crops and herds, put the money in a pouch, and go to the place the Lord your God has chosen. 26 When you arrive, you may use the money to buy any kind of food you want—cattle, sheep, goats, wine, or other alcoholic drink. Then feast there in the presence of the Lord your God and celebrate with your household. 27 And do not neglect the Levites in your town, for they will receive no allotment of land among you.

28 “At the end of every third year, bring the entire tithe of that year’s harvest and store it in the nearest town. 29 Give it to the Levites, who will receive no allotment of land among you, as well as to the foreigners living among you, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, so they can eat and be satisfied. Then the Lord your God will bless you in all your work.”

Tithing, according to Scripture, is to be a CELEBRATION – a feast in the presence of the Lord, where the clergy are taken care of and the orphans, immigrants and widows are invited to the table.  It is such a far cry from the way tithing so often happens in our churches today – where most of us grudgingly write a check out of duty and seldom see or experience where our money goes.  I was encouraged by the way the pastor at a new church I’ve started attending reminded the congregation today to be excited about giving and to give with joy.  It was a step in the right direction but we still have a long way to go.

What surprised me about these instructions was their very personal and celebratory nature – a tenth of the family’s harvest was to be enjoyed by the family itself, in the presence of God and the other Hebrews.  Seasonally, they were to actually eat their offering before the Lord.  If they lived too far from the meeting place they could buy an offering upon arrival, and notice what they were allowed to buy: Beer and wine!  While this might make some of my new Pacific Northwest pub-going friends excited, this (albeit Biblical) concept of tithing wouldn’t exactly fly in most of our churches today.  Squander your tithe on alcohol?  I’d be the most hesitant of all to indulge in this way.  But God makes a point – setting aside a tenth of what God gives us each season is meant to be a celebration, we’re meant to enjoy what he has given, and the feast is meant to keep us mindful to always fear the Lord.

In our current, much less agrarian society today, our tithing will demand a new manifestation; please don’t expect me to go buy chickens and bring them into the sanctuary – I don’t think it would do me or my pastors any good.  But I wonder, how can we make our tithes, in their appropriate modern form, still represent the essence of their intent?  Does the way you tithe remind you to always fear the Lord?  Is your tithe a celebration?  Does it feed the stomachs and souls of those who minister to us as well as orphans, immigrants and widows?

I’m wondering if you’ll brainstorm with me how we can make our tithing a God-fearing celebration that invites everyone to the table, where we can enjoy the fruit of what God has given us and yet also freely share it with those who are still looking and waiting for their harvest.  We have a rich inheritance.  How can we share it with others in a regular tithing celebration today?

…Any ideas?

Fast Facts About Mali

1 02 2010

In case you want to journey with me, here’s a link to a brief introduction to the nation of Mali:


Happy learning!