An Ethiopian Endeavor: Part One

The tallest mountain in Ethiopia--right around 11,000 feet!

The tallest mountain in Ethiopia–right around 11,000 feet!

I recently returned from my first trip to Ethiopia, and I have been wrestling with the experience. Just about every aspect of the trip conflicted with previously held standards, opinions, and methods of ministry. It was uncomfortable, and for me to claim discomfort…well, then it’s real.

I don’t mean uncomfortable in the way you might think. Yes, I slept outside, dangling from the branches of an acacia tree in my little green hammock (which was really much better than it sounds, after the first sleepless night. more on that later). Yes, I learned how to poop on the backside of the building (while making eye contact with nationals, I might add). Yes, I ate more goat than any one human should ever eat in a lifetime (to answer your question, it’s like eating cheap, slightly overcooked beef). Yes, I dealt with the stigma of being a ferengi, a foreigner, an outsider, and the ensuing scrutiny by tribal leaders. So maybe those things weren’t the most comfortable aspects of the trip, but they were nothing in comparison to what made me the most uncomfortable:

I couldn’t identify with my Creator.

For most of the trip, I couldn’t speak the name of Christ; I could not read my bible openly; I could not sing any of the many children’s songs I know because of their spiritual content. I could not lead worship. I had to make sure my tattoos, all of which relate back to Christ, stayed covered. I couldn’t live out loud the way I am used to, or be myself “in the One who makes me who I am” (Philippians 4:13, MSG). I had been warned that we would have to censor some of our ministry…I guess I didn’t understand that we would have to censor our entire ministry not only for our safety, but for the safety of the children with whom we would be spending our time. I don’t think I have to mention the fact that, if it were only my safety in jeopardy, I wouldn’t have censored a dang thing. The Gospel would have been proclaimed far and wide at the top of my lungs…but, since the lives of innocent children were at stake, I gritted my teeth. clenched my fists. and loved with open arms. I taught English–the parts of the body, various animals (taught by playing charades! so fun), articles of clothing, the literal way in which light pierces the darkness of this world. We taught songs, we played soccer and dodgeball, we painted a giant picture on a canvas drop cloth.

The language barrier was far greater with the tribal kids than I’ve previously experienced with the kids at Njojane, so fortunately for me, I didn’t have to answer questions like, “Why are you here?”…however, it was still incredibly painful to see beautiful smiling faces and squeeze tiny hands and hug malnourished bodies without being able to whisper in waiting ears that Master of the universe, the Creator of the world loves you so very much. Unfortunately, upon my return, I cannot give specifics about the tribal area in which we worked; I cannot post pictures of the children’s faces due to the unique bone structure of the tribe…doing so would give away the location of our ministry and put the safety of the children in jeopardy.

Never in my life have I had to keep quiet about my faith. Sure, as a child and early pre-teen, I was not so boisterous and boastful about the grace and mercy I’ve received at the hands of my Father; in fact, if you told little Joey that I would one day be traveling all over the world to preach the Gospel, I would have laughed in your face. Since my initial collision with Christ, I have found the strength to boast in my weakness and I can’t stop. While I was in Ethiopia, I discovered that not only can I not stop, but I don’t want to stop…but more on that next time.

9 Days // Like No Tomorrow

I leave for Swaziland in 9 days, 6 hours, 59 minutes.

Quiet time with Jesus is always an interesting thing for me because this is what tends to happen:

  1. I start reading a passage of scripture.
  2. Jesus verbally punches me in the face.
  3. I sit there in shock for a few minutes.
  4. I keep reading.
  5. Jesus shows back up and empowers me.

I wrote the other day about how James 4:3 hit me hard and called me out in sin. Today, as I flipped to the bookmarked page in my bible, I returned to continue reading James 4 when I stumbled upon verses 13-17:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and so this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.

In my crazy semester at school, I was working in a sushi restaurant. There was one Saturday I worked a painfully long shift—10:30 am to about 12:30 the next morning. Fourteen hours on my feet on the busiest day of the restaurant week, and I was ready to go home. My last table of the night was a group of four gentlemen dressed like serious hoodlums—baggy jeans, South Pole and Baby Phat sweatshirts, flatbills, grills in their teeth—and my programs of study came up in conversation. I was able to explain how much I love Swaziland and my upcoming trips and the overwhelming need that exists. The following conversation went a lot like this:

Guy: Aren’t you scared you’re going to get killed or raped?

Me: No. I could just as easily get killed or raped here in the US, and I wouldn’t be impacting people in the same way on Christ’s behalf.

Guy: What happens if somebody walks in and holds a gun to your head and asks if you’re a Christian?

Me: I’d say yes.

Guy: What if it were right there in front of your thirty kids?

Me: You better believe I’d say yes.

The guys erupt into laughter of shock. “You’re crazy,” says one of them. “You can’t protect your kids or save babies if you’re dead. Why would you do that?”

Me: The best way I can protect anyone, especially my kids, is to shield them with Christ. Philippians 1:20-21 says, ‘I eagerly hope and expect that I will in no way be ashamed, but that Christ would be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death (NIV). Alive, I am Christ’s messenger. Dead, I am his bounty. Life versus more life? I can’t lose (MSG)!’

Guy: But why would you put your kids through watching their mom get shot?

Me: Because there is no greater example to set for my children. My job is to model the best example of Christ that I can for my kids, and really, for anyone I come in contact with. “There is no greater love than he who lays down his life for his friend.” I hope and pray that I was a good enough mother and leader to those kids that they understood that Christ-like love, and that those kids would follow suit and claim their faith in the face of danger.

I heard this somewhere, not sure where, awhile back and it changed my outlook on things:

The Jesus I know wants us to go dangerous places and love dangerous people and live our lives so dangerously for the Kingdom that we become a hazard to everyone around us who is trying to play it safe.

God has called people to dangerous places to do dangerous things almost exclusively throughout history. You have Abraham, who left behind everything and everyone he knew, simply because God asked him to. He was even willing to kill his own son to follow God’s command. There’s Jochebed, a Hebrew woman living in Egypt, who hid her newborn son from guards with orders to kill baby boys before floating him down the Nile in a basket—without her, we wouldn’t have had Moses, who liberated the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. There’s Noah, who built a gigantic ark while being mocked and threatened by his community. There’s Mary, who bore the shame of pregnancy before marriage so that she might bear the Messiah. Paul, who spoke out on behalf of his encounter with God, knowing that he might lose his life. The disciples, who followed Jesus despite his reputation and seemingly heretical teachings. Rahab, who risked her life to harbor Israelite spies. Jonah, who [eventually] went to Ninevah to preach a warning over the people. Lot, who left behind everything he knew, and never looked back. Peter, who built the church despite persecution. There is Jesus, who came to earth knowing he would be mocked, ridiculed, abused, and killed, simply for proclaiming his title of King of king, Lord of lords, the Son of God.

Millions of people all over the world who hide their faith on a daily basis from family, friends, coworkers, neighbors…but would claim Christ, even in the face of danger. Especially in the face of danger.

Some of those millions of people are my brothers and sisters in Ethiopia. About a month ago, 30 of those brothers and sisters were taken from this world at the hands of ISIS, because they refused to deny Christ. They understood that tomorrow is never promised, and so they lived dangerously, by harboring a forbidden faith, a salvation relationship with Jesus so they might live their lives for their Creator in the way they are called.

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

I have not been given long on this earth. None of us has. None of us has even been granted a tomorrow…so why do we waste our today trying to play it safe?

Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and so this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.

People ask me why I would go to a closed nation like Ethiopia, where my faith could sign my death sentence. The reason I am going is that I am not promised a tomorrow. I refuse to waste any more time by not doing exactly what God has called me to do. The reason I am going is that Matthew 28:19 calls us to make disciples of ALL nations…not just the easy ones. The reason I am going is the very fact that my faith in the Creator of the universe could sign my death sentence, and that is not okay.

It is the Lord’s will that I go; if I know that I should go to Ethiopia and then I don’t go, it is like telling God my safety is more important than His plan. His divine and perfect plan to save all of mankind—if I have any saving faith at all, how could I refuse to be part of that plan? If it is God’s plan for my life that I die for my faith, I will die for my faith at the appointed time, whether I am in Ethiopia or Swaziland or the US. If I know this to be true, how could I possibly turn God down?