Thursday, May 31, 2012

Making Fire in the Darkness

My son, Landon, with Masai tribe members learning to make fire with two sticks, elephant dung and brush (who knew?).

For the past week my son and I have been traveling in Kenya.  The first couple of days we were able to go to the Tsavo East Game Reserve for a photo safari.  We were able to be up close and personal with elephants, giraffes, antelope of all kinds, 3 prides of lions (with cubs), cheetah and all kinds of other animals.  It was a great experience for him to be that close to real nature and a thrill for me, as his dad, to be there alongside him as we explored this part of Kenya.  On our way back to the major city of Mombasa, we passed into a Masai village.  The Masai tribe wears very colorful clothes, is very protective of its land and animals and was very willing to share some insights into their way of life with the two of us (although it is a rather challenging conversation to talk with your 14 year old about the men marrying up to 9 women at a time!).  

On the lookout for wild life on the Tsavo Savannah.

We have seen more stars in the sky of the southern hemisphere than we could believe existed.  There was no artificial light on the Savannah.  Just moonless nights.  The calls of elephants in the distance throughout the night.  The stars that look so different from those at home in Oklahoma.  Bright, clear stars that sent a powerful impression into each of us.  Very seldom are we able to experience night without lights, without the intrusion of humans, in the way our ancestors did.  Being at Tsavo East took us back, literally, hundreds of years.  To a time when man had to rely on their own ability to bring heat and fire and light.

At the Masai village, the tribal members showed Landon how to make his own fire.  They said that the wood they used to start the fire came from more than an hour walk away.  That only three men in the family were given to making fire and they went from hut to hut bringing the fire so that each small family unit had fire during the day.

That got me to thinking.

In our world today, we think very much that we are very independent.  In many of our minds, we are the "Marlboro Man" riding the range, strong, no need for anyone else.  But if it came down to it, could we even do something as simple as make a fire without all the convenient tools we have at our disposal?
These Masai tribe members would be looked down upon in our society because they don't have anything.  Literally, they have the clothes on their back, cattle that they raise and keep in their mud huts with them to protect them from lions, and the mud huts themselves.  That's it.

Yet, every morning, they have the ability to start their day from scratch and make a way for their families because they can do basic things - start a fire, collect water, gather food - for themselves.

If it came down to it, in many ways, the Masai are more secure than you or I.  If the power goes out - we sit by and wait for someone at the power company to reconnect us and turn the lights on.  We assume we will always have fresh water piped to our homes - but what happens if the pumping station goes off line?

We are not a bit independent anymore - we are more interconnected than ever before and rely on outsiders, faceless and nameless, to assure that we can live a comfortable, peaceful life.  The Masai know they can rely on each other and see themselves as an interconnected family.  Because they are.  The chief is the father, literally.  He marries up to 9 or 10 wives.  Each new wife and subsequent children occupy a new hut in the circle of the village.  Three men are responsible to all the others to bring the fire.  The women are responsible for finding the water and preparing the food for all.  Everyone knows their role - some care for the grazing cattle, some tend the goats, others prepare to defend the village against aggressive animals for the coming night.  Everyone has something to do to make the tribe function.

It seems to me that because we have managed to make our lives in the United States so comfortable, there is often no need for many people to do anything.  Nothing at all.  No one notices if they do nothing.  No one cares if they do nothing.  What a terrible shame.  In a sense, these people have far, far less than the Masai.

They have no purpose.

I believe we have an obligation to do more.  As I have had the privilege to work with churches, church leaders and non-governmental agencies in Mombasa, Kenya, I am convinced that we are doing some things very wrong in the United States.  We have made life so simple and easy that we encourage people to do nothing and they end up with meaningless lives.  These churches fight every day to help their members survive spiritually and physically.  They are in actual battles with terrorist cells as churches and church gatherings are hit with hand grenades to kill and frighten off church members (I'll write more about that later).  It is the church, and the hope that it brings, that brightens the lives of these men, women and children.  Educating, teaching vocations, offering job assistance, teaching new agriculture techniques.  Giving them a spiritual grounding that let's them know that they have not been forgotten by God.  They do so much with so little.  In America, we see far too many people who do so little with so much.
Landon after the Masai warrior dance.

Today, will you think about the fire that you bring?

Can you make a fire that brings light to the darkness of someone around you?  To aid someone who may be at the end of their rope?  To accept the reality of the abundance of our life in the United States and do more with it!

Tonight, think about making a fire in the darkness and whether you use what you have to make a difference in this world.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Listening for the Elephant in the Trees

Cheetah in the Masai Mara Region of Kenya/Tanzania

I am in the preparation stages of a trip to Kenya on behalf of the church I attend.  We will have the privilege of working with nearly two dozen churches in the Mombasa area, on the Indian Ocean. 

Several years ago, my wife Teresa, and I, on a similar trip, were able to go on a safari in the Masai Mara region of Kenya.

She is an amazing photographer who, led by a great safari guide, was able to get close-up, unforgettable pictures of life in the wild.  It is rather intimidating to get this close to lions fighting over a recent kill (sorry, life in that area is pretty graphic) - the sounds of the flesh tearing, the smells of a day old kill in the heat (this was definitely NOT a Disney experience) and the realization that we were only feet from "real" wildlife.  The only protection we had was the experience and wisdom of our guide.  He took some risks to get us very close and as real an experience as possible.

Four female lions working on a wildebeast.
Our guide's name was Cyrus.  He owned (and still does today) his own safari company, with vehicles, that take tourists into as realistic an encounter with Kenyan wildlife as possible.  There seemed to be such incredible joy for him as he led us on a discovery of the life of Kenya.  In fact, the photo below, of the family of elephants, pleased him immensely. 

He slowed the safari vehicle to a crawl and pointed into the trees about 25 yards away.  His whispered question was:  do you hear them?  We thought he was joking.  We didn't hear anything except the incredible presence of silence. 

"No," he said.  "Really listen and watch." 

Within a minute or so, nearly 20 elephants came from out of the trees.  Neither my wife nor I saw trees moving, felt shaking, heard sounds - until they appeared en mass.  We saw adult, teen and baby elephants walking along, doing elephant things.  When they saw us, the teens moved to protect the babies and the adults surrounded them all and they kept moving.  It was an awe inspiring experience to balance the silence of their movements and the size of their bodies.

And yet, they were not silent.

An elephant family emerged from a cover of trees only feet from our vehicle.

Cyrus knew they were there.  Cyrus heard the noise they made.  Noticed the motion of the trees caused by 20 or more massive bodies moving toward our position.  He put us in the exact right place to get photos that would capture that moment in time - bringing us years of joy as we recollect that day and, hopefully, giving you a peek into the wildlife of Kenya by seeing the handiwork of Teresa and Cyrus.

Giraffe seemed to race the safari vehicle to cross the road first.
That day got me thinking.

How much do we miss in our lives just because we are too busy, too loud, too harried to notice the elephants walking near us?

There is so much that goes on around us.  Too much in fact.  Much of our day is focused on shutting out unwanted sights, sounds, smells.  And people.  That is a shame because in our fight to preserve "our space" we miss getting to experience some of the blessings that can come our way from other things that inhabit the same place.

Had Teresa and I been alone on the safari, we would have sped past the stand of trees holding the elephants.  We would have been in a hurry to "see" the next big thing we needed to see.  To race to finish that part of the safari like the giraffes in the picture above.

And we would have missed the biggest family of animals we had ever been around.  Missed it entirely.

In the old days (otherwise known as the 1980s), there actually was time for silence.  Cell phones didn't exist.  Radio stations only carried so far.  It was not unusual to travel for miles and miles in silence.  Thinking, listening to the quiet.  Or, in that quiet you could hear the small, still voice of God.  Prodding, encouraging, prompting us to action. 

With all of the noise that surrounds our every waking hour, we shut out the opportunity to hear God's voice in any part of our life.  We often pray that God will guide us, direct us.  What if He is whispering His word in our ears?  But they are plugged by earbuds for our music.  Clogged by the cell phone extending from our head.  Overloaded by satellite radio and tv.

But on the plains of the Masai Mara - we heard - silence.  Big silence.  So quiet that it almost hurt your ears.  I found that, after a couple of days, I could hear the sound of hippos thumping the water from miles away.  I could hear the hyenas circling the wildebeast kill to scavenge after the lions finished.  I could hear the wings of the vultures beating above us, looking for "leftovers."

The time of silence caused my ears to become sensitive to all sounds around me.  I was amazed at how quickly Scripture or spiritual songs came to my mind as an explanation for what I was seeing and hearing.  The words, stories and songs came so naturally to me in that setting of wildlife that I felt like it had been bottled up for a long, long time.  Just waiting for a chance to come out - when the silence could be filled by the words of God.  The words were always there but it was too loud to be heard.  Until the silence filled my ears.

The contrast between the big silence and the big wildlife was astounding.  Inspiring.  Necessary. 

Now, I try to take that kind of time.  Shut out some of the noise.  Listen for the elephant in the trees.
Do you?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Picking Up Strangers After Dark

What do you do?  Seriously.  What do you do? 

I had just finished a marathon meeting at our church - talking about mission work.  Talking, literally, for hours, about how to help reach those in need around the world.  Hours.  Of talk. 

It's very dark.  It's 11:30 at night (our meeting talking about helping people started at 6:00 p.m.).  As I approach a very poorly lit intersection in a heavily wooded area, I see a young man waving his arms - clearly needing help.  Car hood is lifted.  Car windows are broken out and covered with plastic sheeting.  Car has been used hard and beaten up. 

What would you do?  Let me tell you, the conversations running through my head were really going crazy!
"If you stop, he might have a gun"
"If you don't stop, aren't you forgetting the lesson of the Good Samaritan?"
"I have a family at home, what about the gun he (must have) tucked into his pants?  He'll make me drive to the house and will hold us hostage."
"Didn't you just spend hours talking about the theory of helping people?  What if this is God's way of reminding you there are people to be helped just around the corner?"
"Man up!  Stop and see if you can help - just don't roll the window down very far (as if a partially opened window will stop a bullet (from the gun that must be hidden in his waistband!)."
Then, the clearest conversation of all came into my mind:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. ”  Matthew 25:31-46

So I stopped.  I rolled down the window - all the way.  Got out of my car. 

What happened?

He needed help.  Car broken down.  Dark part of the road.  He said he was scared because you never know what kind of a person might stop at that time of night.  He is African-American, from Detroit, with felony convictions.  One person had stopped and promised to return but had not.  Most people sped away from him. 

As we talked, it was clear he had a troubled past.  Said that Oklahoma actually was offering him hope for a future.  He is a cook at an area golf course and so he moved into a drab motel along the interstate, close to work because he could walk if he needed to (this wasn't the first time his car had broken down). 

A couple of things he said really hit home hard.

Really got me thinking.

He said it is really hard to be in his situation.  His housing cost $205 per week.  He makes about $500 per week if he works every day.  He is falling farther behind every day.  How many of the people around us are "working poor?"  Here is a guy that is not lacking in desire to work - even moving closer to his workplace to walk if he had to be able keep his job.  He is not lazy, he is not slacking.  Yet, it seems he keeps taking some "hits to the head."  He, in the few minutes I was with him, seemed to epitomize the "hand-up not hand-out" idealism.  He wants to work, change his life, become a self-sustaining person and yet the differential between his earning ability (right now) and the basic cost of living is a very fine margin.  For him, there is no room for any more mistakes. 

What a terrifying way to live.  And he told me of many of the others who live in the same place with similar stories.

Then, he asked what made me stop to help.

What made me stop?  The voice that came through most clearly was that of Jesus asking what I did for someone in need.  So I told him.

I told him that he looked like a young man who needed some care.  That I had just finished a meeting at my church - and he asked another question:  "can you tell me about your church? I'm new here and I know I need a church to help keep me walking the right path."

So I did.

We talked about how he got into trouble (drugs/women - not necessarily in that order), what he was doing to trying to stay out of trouble and how, with his history and current circumstances - trouble seems easy to get into.  It's a very tough life for a young may trying to come back from bad decisions.

In the meeting at church that I was coming from, we talked about how to help introduce people around the world to the loving word of God, to the saving grace of Jesus Christ and to a life of hope.  How much would we spend in this part of the world or that?  How many people would go here or there.

God opened the door for me to all of those things by picking up a stranger after dark.  It cost nothing and could provide him with everything. 

Sometimes, to make an impact, we have to roll our windows all the way down and make the offer to help. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Changing of the Guard

It seems like much of our lives we spend time trying to keep things calm.  Change makes many us of very nervous - we really don't like the uncertainty which comes from stepping into a new job, visiting a new place, even meeting new people can often bring about great stress.
Tonight, though, the phrase "Changing of the Guard" was greeted with great excitement and joy in our town, Oklahoma City.  Tonight, our Oklahoma City Thunder took on the reining NBA Champs the Dallas Mavericks and put them away early in the 2nd half.  The Mavs, long admired now look very tired.  The Thunder, on the other hand, have the enthusiasm and vigor of youth.  The enduring legs to fight through tough stretches.  An ability to take a punch and go on.  Oklahoma City now looks like a team that will win championships many times over - it is a new age in the NBA, it is a passing of the torch.  It is a change that could not have been more evident and clear.  
I'm just thinking.  We can look at the need for change in some areas of our life and live in fear that it will happen.  In others (like our embrace of the Thunder's victory), we see change and we revel in it, spread it to all who will listen and give others a piece of the thrill that happens when we realize we are living change.

"All your life, no one will be able to hold out against you.  In the same way I was with Moses, I'll be with you.  I won't give up on you; I won't leave you.  Strength!  Courage! You are going to lead this people to inherit the land that I promised to give their ancestors.  Give it everything you have, hear and soul.  . . . Don't get off track, either left or right, so as to make sure you get where you're going.  And don't for a minute let this Book of the Revelation be out of mind.  Ponder and meditate on it day and night . . ..  Haven't I commanded you?  Strength!  Courage!  Don't be timid; don't get discouraged.  God, your God is with you every step you take."  -  Joshua 1:5-9 (Message)

What part of life isn't really about change?  That means we have to take the message above seriously - be courageous in the face of change.  Have courage to embrace the change and adapt our ways, realizing that our God is walking alongside us.  As we move into new lands, new phases of life, we can rely on God's faithfulness that he will deliver us into the land that he has promised us.

Today, recognize the change around you.  Take it on as a step of faith.  Know that no stress is too great for God to help us through.  

The OKC Thunder stand on a brink of sports greatness.  Imagine how foolish they would look if they stepped back, afraid to move into that next level.  What would we think of ourselves if we flinched at the time of our greatest opportunity to transform our own life?