In Transit

Let’s all come unglued… at least a bit.

For those of you who didn’t read my last post, I spent the last two weeks in the Dominican Republic.  I was chaperoning a school trip that went to Jarabacoa to work with a Missions Organization called Students International.  It’s the same group that I worked with in Costa Rica and I essentially think it’s the haps, the bee’s knees, all around awesome sauce.  SI runs several sustained missions sites in the DR covering different areas of community development/service/etc.: Medical, Dental, Physical Therapy, Microfinance, Social Work, Education, Sports, Special Needs Education, and Construction.  The nuts and bolts of the operation is to have sustained investment in different areas of ministry that short term student groups can visit, assist, and support.  While we were there, I had the opportunity to float from site to site and participate/observe what was going on in each one.  I basically did the same thing last year, but this year I was able to spend more time at each site and see students from my school dive in as opposed to kids I didn’t really know.  It was pretty awesome.  What was unexpected about the whole thing was how much God rocked me during the whole process.  That kind of left-fielded me and I’m still processing all of the things that I saw, learned from, and was hit by.  I’ll probably be writing a lot, albeit somewhat sporadically, about the trip.

One of the coolest experiences I had there was the day I visited Genesis, the special needs school that SI operates in the area.  While we were there a group from Georgia was running a camp for the kids from the school and we had a chance to sit back and watch the program while hanging out with the students.  It was easily one of my favorite days on the trip and I learned a ton.  That morning, as part of the program, one of the students led worship for the group.  It was rad.  He sang a simple worship song, was backed up by guitar, and just sang his guts out.  While he did, he started leading the group in worship, calling on people to clap (which they did), raise their hands (which they did), and kneel in worship (which some did and some kinda went “come on now” about).  The whole thing struck me for a number of reasons.  First, it was one of the best moments of worship leading I’ve ever experienced.  It was genuine and humble and raw and unpolished and real and you could just see the overflow of joy for God in the kid’s worship.  Second, when he hit his knees and encouraged people to follow some did, some didn’t, and some kind of half did it.  But that didn’t matter.  He continued to physically throw himself into worship in a way that was unaffected by whether or not those around him matched his intensity.  Third, I totally balked for a second when he encouraged everyone to kneel.  I was kind of thinking “should I?  like really? I dunno”  

All of these things came together to point out the fact that when I lead worship I’m way to focused on production, technique, polish, format, equipment and far too little concerned with worshiping God genuinely, with letting God do his thing, and with letting myself be impacted when that happens.  I’m a naturally intense person and when I get into worship I really do.  My arms are raised, I sing loud and don’t worry about how clean my voice sounds, I jump or dance.  I almost never lead worship that way.  This is a problem.  It’s too sterile, too poised, too comfortable.  My relationship with God has never been any of these things so why should I act that way when I’m trying to lead people into a posture of worship?  Why should I sell that relationship short?  Why should I be so fake.  I’m really compelled to be more unhinged when I lead in the coming year.  I think it’s going to take a lot of intentionality and accountability.  I think it’s going to be kick you in the teeth awesome if I can allow God to work that change in my life.  

Nothing to Prove

When I get competitive, I get good and competitive.  I mean wild eyed, trash talking, leave it all on the field, or court, or ping pong table, or whatever surface you like competitive.  I’m going to do everything I can to beat you and I’m going to be severely upset if I don’t.  This all comes back to a single, solitary root… I’m still trying to prove myself.  In my mind I’m still that senior in high school who got trash canned because he wasn’t big enough to do anything about it and I’m not about to let you have the pleasure of an easy win.

The problem with this logic is it betrays a simple fact: I really have nothing to prove.  That phrase might be one of the most significant things said to me on this last trip.  I was sitting in the cabin one night talking to my friend Steve and he did what he does: spat wisdom in a nonchalant manner that lends itself to the legend that is Steve Kim (it’s a fact, hang out with the man… he’s a boss).   And he very simply pointed out that I have nothing to prove.

There’s a very broken part of me that would like to say that the reason behind all that is the fact that I’m a little taller, a little heavier (believe it or not), a little more confident, have accomplished a little more.  But that’s really not true.  The reason I have nothing to prove is that the only true power, true confidence I have in my life is the sustaining peace that Christ’s power is made perfect in my weakness.  I am sustained not through my power but through the power that rests on me when I surrender, when I submit to his authority and will, when I am no longer focused on what I bring to the table but on the things that I am called out to do through the ministry of the Spirit and the message of the Word.

I’m getting really preachy I suppose, but I can’t really help it.  This trip was so formative in so many ways.  I can’t even begin to speak to how relentless God is in my life.  I can’t shake Him.  I don’t want to.  All that to say, I’m praying that I can live in a manner that is true to that.  

I used to ask people this question all the time “Do you hate to lose or love to win?”  My immediate thought was that I hate to lose.  I loathe it, despise it, don’t like to deal with it.  But there’s a phrase that was used consistently over these two weeks that I’m holding on to… “Si Dios Quiere” which essentially means “if God wills.”  I still want to compete harder than anyone I face, but for a completely different reason.  I’m blessed to be able to compete.  I’m thankful to have the ability and the opportunity to run and jump and play ping pong and peg random folks from Nebraska with dodgeballs and play ping pong and Don Ramon (I know I’m starting to come off the rails a bit with examples but that’s fine.  If you get it you get it) and I’m going to give the best of what I have in all circumstances.  I’m going to play worship with fervor and intensity and give the best of what I have and if I mess up I mess up.  I’m going to teach with the best preparation I can bring.  I’m going to coach with a focus on being better prepared than anyone I face.  That being said, I’m not going to give my best to prove anything but because I want to say that I didn’t waste an opportunity to play in a way overflows with gratefulness and joy for a blessing a simple as a game.   If I win I win.  If I don’t I don’t.

Your poverty isn’t good enough

There was an interesting response that a lot of our team members received before heading down to Costa Rica.  The words varied a bit, but several responded somewhere along the lines of “Oh wow, Costa Rica… some missions trip” (sarcastic tone).  The subtext in the statement was this idea that since Costa Rica is a resort destination surely there isn’t really any need.  It’s an idea that if you don’t go to a place that is known as a truly desolated location, you’re not really doing missions work.  This is a ridiculous idea.

The more I’ve thought about that on this trip the more I’ve realized that this is representative of a way of thinking that permeates life in the states.  I know that it’s very possible to isolate yourself, but realistically there is always poverty within reach of your location.  This is true regardless of where you are.  This is especially true as the digital age has made the world increasingly smaller.  What this means for me is that no matter where I’m at there are always going to be communities that I could lend time, effort, or resources to.  But we ignore that and often times assume that because we’re in the states there can’t really be that much need out there.

The pastor in church today spoke on Amos 4 and the idea that we get fat off of the exploitation of those who are powerless to stop that exploitation.  We ignore the needs of the poor, the orphans and widows who live near us.  The challenge in Amos is to end that exploitation and to protect those who are victims of injustices and inequalities in our communities.  Jesus extends that concept outward and says that it’s not enough simply to avoid exploiting others.  We’re supposed to help them as well.

As much as I’d like to say that going on this trip gives me some kind of leg to stand on to tell other people that there’s no such thing as a good missions trip or bad missions trip just because of the varying extremities of poverty, I would be ignoring a key point.  I use that same kind of relativistic thinking to justify ignoring the poor ten months out of the year.  Sure, I go on trips over the summer and I’ve tried to be a part of trips with organizations that are partnering with local leaders to see real and sustained change.  But that really doesn’t mean anything if the majority of my life I live ignoring the needs of my community.  I’m way to selfish and self centered.  I really need to find ways to shake that.

More on Costa Rica

The trip has been amazing so far.  I can’t believe how quickly our team is connecting with the guys team here in Desamparados.  Desamparados means “the forgotten” and it’s amazing how much that’s turned into a sort of self fulfilling prophecy.  There are a lot of people groups in this area who are largely ignored by the rest of Costa Rica.  It’s been cool to see the local leaders interact with the youth and how much that really energizes the community.

We’re working in a small village called Capri each day.  Diego, the local missionary working with Students International, has been coming to the community for 3 years to play soccer with the kids, coach a local team, and run clinics.  When he first started local families wouldn’t even let their kids play because of safety concerns.  Now there are easily 60 kids each day and at the biggest event they’ve hosted they’ve had as many as 600.  He put it really simply that when they first arrived there were a lot of drugs and no one was playing soccer, now more kids are playing soccer and less are taking drugs.  It’s really cool to see change like that happening.

Costa Rica

I’m leaving for Costa Rica in a couple days.  Well, I’m leaving on Monday to be exact.  There’s a certain amount of exhaustion that accompanies leaving 10 days after your last trip.  Short termers aren’t like regular travel.  There’s admin to accomplish, meetings to run, students to look after.  It’s all amazing and I love leading the trips but they still drain just a bit.  I’m feeling the itch less than I used to though.  On trips like these I used to get this overwhelming urge to bail on life and just fall off the map for a while.   I wanted to travel, explore, get lost, meet new people, find myself… all of those deep existensially things that people do when traveling.   The kind of stuff that people write about.   But then I used to get that itch from a lot of different sources: friends, music, movies (Into the Wild is the worst).  Lately I haven’t felt it as much.  I feel more settled?  More content with where I’m at?  I’m not sure how to put it.  Traveling for me was never so much about seeing a place as it was going a place.  It was about experiencing that kinetic freedom that comes from being completely unattached.  I really enjoyed that.  That wandering, rambling, lost sense of wonder.

I don’t really want that any more.

That’s something of an odd realization because I’ve loved it for so long.  I mean, I still want to travel, but I want to travel to see things now, to share experiences with friends and family.  I’m not so obsessed with always moving.  I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.  It doesn’t feel like resignation.  It just feels different.  I’m interested to see what Costa Rica is like where I’m not constantly wondering what it would be like to take off right after the trip and just start going, at any pace, in any direction.  Should be interesting.

Rwanda3

I think one of my favorite things about this trip was the fact that it really seems to have laid the foundation for a very fruitful ongoing relationship.  At least, the potential seems to be there.  The big problem, I think, is that very often it’s easy to think that on a short term trip the ones traveling have everything to bring and nothing to gain.  Having the money for a plane ticket doesn’t corner the market on awesomeness.  That just means you have money for a plane ticket… plain and simple.

The more I think about Kigali, the more I’m appreciative I am for how much we learned from the staff, faculty, and students there.  Talk to any person on the team and each of them could share when they felt challenged, taught, encouraged, or enriched.  That’s an incredible blessing from a school and church community that was gracious enough to invite and host a group of foreigners for two weeks into their homes and schools.  I don’t think I could ever express thanks sufficiently for the time that we had.  I’m fairly certain I’ll always fall short of that mark.

But separation and time do funny things to perspective.  It’s very easy, when you give yourself enough of a buffer, to think that you’re going on short term trip just to offer time, possessions, experience, and knowledge.  And that attitude always requires some breaking down in the beginning of the next trip because you are quickly reminded of how much you have to learn.  It would be so much more beneficial if we could go into these trips with a spirit of interdependance, of sharing, of cooperation, and of learning.  I hope and pray we can do that in the future.

Rwanda2

People make a lot of assumptions when traveling.  This is a problem that is even worse with short term missions.  At least, I think it is.  There’s this American way of feeling like everything is a problem that needs fixing, assessing it through an American lense, and assuming that an American solution will make it better.  Bada bing bada boom… progress!  The problem with this is no great change, great progress, great advancement comes without meaningful understanding of what has come before and a complete view of where we are now.  It’s the Jurassic Park phenomenon

" I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power you’re using here: it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done, and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you, you’ve patented it, and packaged it, you’ve slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you’re selling it." — Dr. Ian Malcolm

In the movie, when people display a lack of understanding of what they’re working with everything goes nutty and a bunch of people get eaten by a T-Rex.  In life, we destroy relationships, burn bridges of community, hinder growth.  In other words: bad things.

I thought that I had a pretty good grip on this idea and did my best to ensure that I was one of those “enlightened” ones who tried to be a listener and learner whenever he traveled.  I was reminded on this trip that it’s really easy to lose that and whenever you think you’ve got humility worked out you’re usually humbled pretty fast.

As we were visiting as 6th grade classroom, the administration of the school in Rwanda found out that I was a science teacher and shortly after asked me if I would be willing to teach a lesson to their freshman Chemistry class.  I remember thinking that I would like to, but wasn’t sure what I would teach.  I remember thinking something along the lines of… “well, I’ll probably just teach what we cover in my 8th grade class, because that’s probably about right.”  Later when visiting one of the science classrooms, I spent some time reading the notes on the chalkboard and posters around the room.  The topics covered in that Freshman class were more closely tied to what we learn in University level intro to Chemistry in the states than 8th grade Chemistry.  I remember being floored and kind of feeling like a massive jerk when I read that.  I had assumed less and should have been open to more.  It was a solid reminder that no matter what I think I know, it’s always easy to move to assumptions and cultural bias when addressing a new situation.  It takes intentionality not to respond that way.  That’s not just true for missions.  That’s true for relationships at school, church, work, sports… everyday life in general.  I just hope I can remember to be more of a listener and observer in the future and to assume less in general. 

Rwanda1 

This is my first attempt to start writing about the last two weeks spent in Rwanda. The titles are just going to be sequential updates on the one above. I’m going to intentionally try to keep that part as simple as possible. I’m treating this as more of an opportunity to process, so it’s going to be a little stream of consciousness. Feel free to mosey along if that sort of thing bothers you. 

Background:  I just spent the last two weeks in Rwanda as part of a short term missions team from the school I teach at.  Rwanda is an incredibly complex nation and one very worth learning about.  For those who want more information I recommend the incredible and difficult "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families" by Philip Gourevitch.

Finally got back from Rwanda last night sometime around 8.  To be honest I think I would have done well to stay for a bit on my own but sometimes these things are outside of our control.  This has easily been one of the most fulfilling, frustrating, amazing, challenging, difficult, and worthwhile experiences of my life.  I don’t know that I’ll be able to process the sum of it for quite awhile.  Who knows if I ever will.

There was a student on the team who has a pronounced scar on his leg from a surgery earlier in the year.  The injury has healed and he’s back to full mobility but the scar sill has that bleached quality that makes it stand out from the rest of the skin even at a distance.  Rwanda is a scar.  That’s the only image I can think of to describe what the place is like.  On one level there has been amazing healing.  Tribal identification has been outlawed and seems to be largely, if not wholesale, avoided by people.  The country bustles and grows.  There’s development everywhere.  Growing prosperity seems obvious.  One of the students said it was like watching the most amazing rebound ever. But in the midst of all this there are echoes that scream of the past.  People constantly refer to events as either “Before Genocide” or “After Genocide”.    There are billboards everywhere that entreat the passerby to remember the events of ‘94.   Nearly half the country was born in the last 20 years.  There is a noticeable difference in the level of openness between those under the age of 18 and those above.  Maybe that’s just reading too much into what I saw.  It certainly seemed that way.  So much seems to have been set right, but the location of the wound is still as glaring as ever.  I don’t know if that could, or for that matter should, ever change.

We spent one of the first days on the trip at the National Genocide Memorial.  I don’t know if I’ll ever properly understand or process or deal with that place.  A mass grave for over 250,000, a litany of images of the mutilated, raped, and murdered.  A room that housed the bones and skulls of those who were killed.  It is so necessary.  It is so easy to ignore.

I’m still bothered by the fact that Rwanda represents one of the largest tragedies of the 20th Century and I never knew about it before Hotel Rwanda and I didn’t really care about it ‘til now.  I blame myself for not being aware.  I blame my country for glossing it over.  I blame my church and community for not seeking to be more active in these types of things.  I don’t know if I should blame anyone.  I don’t know what blaming really does.

I love Rwanda.  There was a welcoming and genuine quality to the people I met that I’ve rarely seen when I traveled.  People didn’t pretend to welcome you.  When they did it felt authentic.  It was sustained, meaningful, and consistent.  It’s hard to describe, but connections never felt superficial.  I’m very excited to return.  I’m excited because the people I met seemed genuinely excited to build friendships over the coming years and I felt the same way.  I’m also excited because everyone was so honest about pain, frustration, joy, tragedy. The people I met just shared.  They didn’t always share and they didn’t share everything they had been through, but when they did it was candid and genuine and so appreciated.

I’ve never seen worship like I saw there.  I take that back, it really reminded me of the time I spent with the Karen in the camps outside Mae Sot, Thailand.  When the Rwandas we worked with worshiped it was this physical, emotional, and spiritual outpouring.  People sang loudly, danced in an unhindered way, and worshiped in a way that always emphasized community over individual experience.  I’m really going to miss that.

On Honesty

For someone who’s pretty wordy, I’m realizing that I have a real tendency to couch, or outright withhold, my opinions on a lot of stuff.  I place far to much weight on other peoples opinions and as a result don’t often find myself in situations where I’m completely honest. 

The problem with this is I’m really opinionated, so by withholding I have a tendency to express myself “honestly” in one of two ways: the outburst or the sarcastic comment.

The outburst is the more obvious one.  Allow pressure to build up long enough and that pressure will eventually burst the container it’s held in.  I allow my thoughts, opinions, frustrations to build up at times to an unhealthy level to the point where I express them through an outburst… usually in the direction of whoever I trust.  That really makes it crappy to be someone I trust.  The selfishness of this is just starting to dawn on me (sorry I’m a little slow) and I’m realizing that healthier short term communication would really naturally lead itself into healthier long term communication.

The sarcasm piece is a little less obvious.  I’m starting to become more aware to the fact that sarcasm is, at its core, a defense mechanism for me.  It’s an opportunity to express opinions without having to be actually vulnerable or honest.  To follow up a comment with deeper meaning with a “don’t worry I’m just being sarcastic” is cowardly and doesn’t give the friends I have the credit they deserve in allowing them to respond to what I actually think.

So, I feel like this is going to be a season of being more intentionally honest in small things in hopes that it will lead to greater vulnerability.  I’ve had friends telling me to do this for a couple years and I’m just now starting to feel like I’m ready  (again, sorry, I’m a little slow)