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I think I’ve earned my stripes as a cynical Christian. I’m the first to criticize hypocrisy, apathy, and pretense in the church. I cringe at churchy language and religious manipulation. Yet I remain a firm believer that God loves all people equally and that Jesus is the best redeemer of cultures and religions—Christianity included. When Jesus is present in the church, something beautiful happens.

I spent my first week in southern Ghana where every business, every preacher, every crooked cop seems to tout some exaggerated form of Christianity. The culture is so anemically religious you could call it, “Ghana’s bible belt.” I hated it.

But in northern Ghana, where we’ve been spending the last week, the church is leaner and stronger. In a Muslim and Traditionalist context, Christians believe that the gospel is always pushing outward. They believe that the most natural environment for Christian faith isn’t in the Christian capitals of the world, but in the animistic villages and nomadic tribes. They spend less time building church empires and more time sharing the “good news”. And in a real sense that “good news” isn’t JUST a hope in heaven. It’s clean water. It’s education. It’s love-based development.

I know that sometimes, development can be used as a switcheroo for proselytizing, and these Ghanaians DO preach Christianity. But I sense that most of them actually believe that God loves all people—Christians, Muslims, and traditionalists—the same. So they work tirelessly in the villages, though it’s often a thankless job. And just being around them preaches to me.

After meeting with our Fulani friends the other day, we went to a village where a small hole in the ground serves as their water supply.
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Some years it sees them through the springtime droughts. Usually, they spend a couple months struggling to find water. A small brick reservoir built to catch the rain falling off the tin roof would see them through the dry season with clean, accessible water. It wouldn’t be expensive… a couple grand maybe. In 3 other villages, we noticed that the arrival of water projects ALSO brought small village schools—sometimes just a chalkboard under a mango tree… Suddenly I’m thinking… I could buy a new macbook. Or I could kick start a future for 40 kids.

I’m looking into the faces of these beautiful children and I’m seeing my own children—Annabel and Levi—and it ruins me. I’m thinking, “We had no right to be born in America. It was just dumb luck. These people aren’t CNN headlines, poverty statistics, or global problems. These are people. They are part of me and I’m part of them. How can I not care for them?”

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The exciting thing is, the church is loving them. For all of its issues, the church… Christians are responding in love. All over Northern Ghana, we saw the church (not government) at the forefront of development. Sometimes, projects are funded by NGO’s, but it’s Ghanaian Christians providing the manpower. It’s not benefitting them or their churches. They’re doing it just because.

In church-saturated cultures, I often feel embarrassed and alarmed by the church. But in northern Ghana, I feel proud to be a Christian, because the church is presently the most effective change agent in that region. And where the gospel is pushing out to the margins, good things are happening. We were told that the general perception among traditional villages is that Christianity brings development and that’s true for a number of reasons. One is a greater connectedness to the outside world, the Christian community, and to NGO’s. Another is that Christians spend less on alcohol and witch doctors. A sense of generosity, community, and universal human brotherhood is developed. (For instance the new Christians in one village report that their faith challenges them to live at peace with their Muslim neighbors and share resources with them.) Christianity shows up as a liberating force for women. And Christians are choosing healthier lifestyles overall.

So even the flagrant proselytizing doesn’t bother me (I say this not as an evangelist, but as a Christian cynic). In fact, it excites me, because I know that 1.) It comes from a loving heart and is not manipulative, underhanded, or neo-colonial. And 2.) Conversion has brought more hope and authentic transformation than I’ve ever seen in a community. It hasn’t culturally disenfranchised them. It’s culturally invigorated, redeemed, and united them. In one village, a group of children broke out in spontaneous song and dance with big grins on their faces. Our Ghanaian friend leaned over and said, “This song is popular in the villages. It means, ‘when I die, don’t ask the soothsayer what killed me because Jesus took me away.'”

In another village, an elder told us, “everybody in the world longs for progress. We see this as progress.” THAT’S something I can get behind.

Bob Linda and Princy

Murder your daughter…

What would you do if you were in another country when you received an email that your first born child, your precious13 year old daughter, would be kidnapped, raped and murdered?  E. A. Abraham was in the US seeking to raise funds for his ministry of church planting, Bible training, schooling and orphan care in India when the email came.  As he frantically sought the Lord, an idea hit him…he should send his daughter away immediately to a boarding school in anther part of India.

Bob Linda and Princy
Abraham’s daughter interpreting for WDA President, Bob Dukes

Unable to give their young child an adequate explanation, her mother quickly packed their daughter up and put her on a two-day train ride with two of her uncles as escorts.  Understandably, her daughter was miserable, sad and confused.  The language and customs in this new place were very different from her own, and how she missed her mother, father and brother!

When Abraham came to visit as soon as he got home, there were many tears shed, and his daughter followed him to the gates of the hostel weeping loudly.  As Abraham rode the rail home, his own heart was aching and breaking.  “There is such suffering for my whole family because I preach the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he thought.  Abraham too wept bitterly, yet found comfort in the Lord after he yielded the matter to God’s care.

His daughter stayed and graduated from higher secondary school, then went back to enroll in seminary in the same city.  She graduated with two bachelor degrees, and God “turned the curse into a blessing,” because of His love for Abraham and his family. (Deut. 23:5)  Today, she’s added a counseling degree to her list of accomplishments and is working with her parents’ ministry in India.

Abraham meanwhile has been seeking the Lord regarding how to disciple the many young men and women who look to him for leadership.  Two couples just returned from India after teaching the first installment of WDA’s 28/20 discipleship process.  Please pray that God will lead and guide us as we seek to develop a strategic partnership in this land of mystery and miracle.

Two Men

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“Before all this,” the elder said, waving his weathered hands to indicate the tin-roofed shelter, the makeshift school, the large brick reservoir, “We did not even consider ourselves human beings. Now, we consider ourselves to be human beings.” The people beneath the shelter seemed bright-eyed, healthy, even joyful. Dozens of kids for whom education was previously impossible are now learning their ABC’s. A little church meets under the shelter. And the whole village has ready access to clean drinking water. The community carries a sense of dignity and communal identity that I perceive did not exist a few years ago. “Not only are you human beings,” replied Ash quietly through the translator. “You are children of God.”

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So I was thinking… how does Young Leaders International, a tiny discipleship ministry focusing on a just 5 Ghanaian “coaches” bring clean water, spiritual transformation, and a communal sense of personhood to 3 villages in northern Ghana?

Here’s how I see it from an outsider’s perspective.

A few years ago, an American with a deep sense of God’s love came to Ghana to love young leaders. Not a lot of leaders. Just a few. He came without a lot of strategies and agendas, but a firm belief that love was the strongest stuff in the universe. It was a risky bet and not every leader received love. But a few did. They started visiting villages, praying for strangers in hospitals, showing practical love in their communities, and loving other young leaders.

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When one coach visited a village and saw the cesspool that served as their water supply, his love made him cry. So YLI raised $12,000 and bought materials for a new water system designed by Ghanaians and built by the villagers. Then they did the same for 2 more villages. Their activity attracted other aid groups who built schools, clinics, even a playground!

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The village elders believe they received God’s love in a very tangible way and they want to share that love with others. So independently, they’ve planted churches and share their water with the Fulani tribesmen in their area: nomadic Muslim cattle-herders known for banditry, murder, and trampling crops with their herds. The village of Kpenchila says the love of Christ has helped them live at peace with their Muslim neighbors. One local Imam has even asked them to plant a church in his area, seeing the good the Christians are doing.

I told one village how I learned about the Fulani in college and began to cry. God spoke to me then about His love for the Fulani and I began praying for them each day. Later I lived in a Fulani town in Guinea for a month. I knew I might see a few Fulani on this trip, but didn’t expect to see so many. Fulani settlements are interspersed between these 3 villages and I got to encourage them to keep loving the Fulani. I believe they will do just that. And if the nomadic Fulani receive God’s love, then… well I have my own ideas on that.

So that’s how love goes viral. Ash says, “I sometimes have my doubts, but one thing I’m always sure about is love.” Right.

When I’m in Africa, kids are usually either ignored or sternly warned to behave. Fathers love their children, but I don’t often see affectionate fathers. Children run with a posse of older siblings and friends from dawn to dusk. Babies ride on their mothers’ backs all day. Often kids are considered non-entities until they demonstrate that they will survive pandemic infant mortality and grow into an initiated adult. In fact, in some cultures, a child isn’t given a proper name for several years! Until then they are, “Hey you with the boogers hanging down!” (My experience in Ethiopia was the exception. There, I was surprised and encouraged to see parents who were both firm and affectionate.)

One of several photo-op pitstops we took with  our preacher friend, Zekarias to say hello  to the children passing by. He loved those snot-nosed kids.
One of several photo-op pitstops we took with
our preacher friend, Zekarias to say hello
to the children passing by. He loved those snot-nosed kids.

I believe the culture Jesus lived and taught in was more akin to your traditional African context where small children were assigned value only in relationship to their parents (which is why all the OT babies are given names relating to the stories of their parents.) So, when Jesus scooped up one of these free-ranging little ones and shouted, “Here’s the kingdom!” I think it was quite a statement indeed!

And the shock value is still there today in many traditional cultures. I don’t think the message is that we should think more highly of our children, but that we should think less highly of ourselves. Our culture idolizes our kids and in my opinion, we put a lot of pressure on our kids to continue to be “so cute, so talented, so wonderful.” But many societies are so rigidly structured around a top-down hierarchy–even in churches–that Jesus’ upside-down kingdom is intentionally lost so that we can focus on whether an apostle is more important than a pastor… or a female preacher is more valuable than a male deacon!

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Pastor Elias was one of those precious attentive
fathers who glowed when he talked about his kids.

Not to pick on the African church too much. After all, American churches rarely have trouble filling volunteer roles that get the spotlight. And for full disclosure, this is usually where I end up: leading the music, garnering applause.

But I’m trying something new these days. I’m volunteering for the nursery. I think it’s healthy for me to be around 5-year-olds who won’t say, “wow, that was such a profound lesson today!” And I think I can learn a thing or two from them as well.

 

perspective

perspectiveGrieving is a natural process that we each must go through in our lives.  There are many reasons to grieve, not just the death of a loved one.  The key is to not get stuck in the grieving process, to allow yourself to grieve and feel all the emotions that go along with it.

We all have hopes and dreams for our children.  When one of them is diagnosed with a disability, it is important to grieve for those hopes and dreams that may not be possible.  We need to come to a place of acceptance.

My oldest son Trey was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of 7.  Trey was a wonderful blessing from God from the moment I found out I was pregnant with him.  That has never changed.  I have never asked God why he gave me a son with Asperger’s.  I have never seen him as defective or broken.  He doesn’t need to be fixed or cured of anything.  He needs acceptance and guidance to be the best person he can be, just like the rest of us.

When I explained to Trey that he has Asperger’s, I told him that it didn’t mean there was anything wrong with him, he just see’s things differently than the rest of us.  He needed to be taught some things that come naturally to most people.   I could see the relief in his eyes and on his face.  He knew he was different and now he understand why.

Trey has this amazing perspective on things.  He is very smart and at times funny.  He loves children and is very gentle and loving with them.  At times he doesn’t want to be touched or hugged and he just wants to be alone.  I usually wait for him to come hug me when he needs it.

Trey is now 12 and I wouldn’t change a thing about him, raging pre-teen hormones and all.  I am truly blessed to have him in my life.

My hope and prayer for all parents with children touched by Autism is that they can see them for the gift they are.  Learn from them as you teach them.  Don’t be embarrassed by your child.  Don’t think of them as defective, broken or damaged.  There is no cure and there doesn’t need to be one!  Allow your child to be who he is.

God doesn’t make mistakes.  

Deuteronomy 32:4

The Rock—His work is perfect; all His ways are entirely just.

A faithful God, without prejudice, He is righteous and true.”

Ps 139:13-16

13 For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

15 My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,

16 your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

 

Embrace your child as God’s wonderful creation, a gift from your heavenly father to teach and learn from, to love and be loved.