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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Star Power

Back in May of this year (wow, we haven’t blogged in awhile!), as the third term of our school year was just getting under way, Kijabe Hospital was gearing up for its centennial celebration, 100 years of God’s faithfulness in East Africa through medical missions.  In honor of the event, Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta scheduled a visit to shake hands and tip his hat to the quality care Kijabe Hospital has provided all these years. 

In anticipation of his visit, the community of Kijabe was ready to roll out the red carpet (almost literally).  If you’ve ever traveled the road down the escarpment from the main highway to our compound, you know it is certainly not fit for a presidential motorcade, so it received one of the best facelifts we’ve seen in three years.  But there was a good chance he would arrive by helicopter, so RVA administration prepared for a possible landing on our school’s rugby pitch.

It wouldn’t be right for him to land on our field without a proper Kenyan greeting, so this particular Friday, the entire student body and staff were donned in their Sunday best, just in case we would be called upon to line the field and welcome him.  Emails and student announcements prepped students and staff to keep any photos off of social media.  There was talk of the “presidential toilet” (not even joking) and how it would be properly transported down the hill.  It turns out that the tunnel underneath the railroad wasn’t quite wide enough for the trailer it usually travels on! 

As it turned out, we never did catch a glimpse of him.  The helicopter landed on the airstrip below the hospital instead.  But oh, were we prepared!  Here’s a picture of my third period Algebra class, all decked out and ready for the visit that never was. 

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A few years ago, I was teaching at Beaver Falls High School in Western Pennsylvania.  Two weeks into the school year, in the height of high school football season, we were graced with a visit from Joe Namath, the school’s most famous alum.  “Broadway Joe” was celebrating his 50th high school reunion, visiting his alma mater for the first time since he went off and got famous as a star quarterback in the NFL. 

In anticipation of the big day, the first two weeks of school were a little crazy.  It was kind of a big deal, really. The entire town (school, county, city of Pittsburgh, ESPN, HBO, NFL films, the Golf channel?) was watching as Joe was ushered back to the place where it all began; as he and several of his 1960 and 1961 high school teammates were honored; people lining up for autographed jerseys, t-shirts, football helmets, etc. That Friday our football team played their biggest rivals at home.  Classes were canceled so a pep assembly could be held, a visiting college band played before the big game, and Joe was honored in front of a pregame crowd that blew every previous headcount at the local football stadium out of the water.  Everybody who was anybody turned out for the game to see if they could snap a picture or shake his hand.  Just like everybody else, I was caught up in the “how many degrees of separation are there between you and Joe” frenzy.  All because the guy used to be able to throw a football (it’s possible he still can).

This past weekend the celebrity theme has pervaded most conversations yet again, this time on a slightly more global scale.  U.S. President Barack Obama made his long-awaited visit to Kenya, flying into Nairobi on Friday night and staying through the weekend.  The statistics associated with the size of his entourage, the vehicles, the cost of the trip, and the groundwork laid in preparation are staggering.  Nobody knew quite what to expect in the city as far as traffic patterns and security measures, but be assured that the world was watching and Kenya was ready.  Televisions were tuned to his live news conference, newspaper headlines for the past two weeks were dedicated to this epic event, and Obama was on everybody’s mind and lips.  Even in our local church service Sunday morning, his name must have been mentioned 7 times; a few during the announcement and prayer request time, as an object lesson during the sermon, and again in the closing comments before the benediction!   

Star power. 

In each case, I was impressed by the shear anticipation and reception of these honored guests.  There was a just-hold-everything-and-wait-until-______’s-visit-is-over-so-we-can-get-on-with-life-as-usual mentality that gripped each respective community.  Celebrities and politicians are big news.  They become THE topic of conversation.  I, like everyone else, was caught up in the hype, chatting about the itineraries, plotting the best spot to snap a photo, wondering how close I could get to the action while still looking casual.  It’s not every day you get to rub shoulders with a guy like one of these:  the myth, the man, the legend.

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And oh, by the way, I set aside a few minutes this afternoon for some quiet time in the Word of God.  This weekend I told more stories about a guy I’ll never meet than about how Jesus has reached down and redeemed me from the pit of hell, dying so I don’t have to, giving His life so that I might live eternally.  I focused more on “Broadway Joe” than the Alpha and the Omega, more on the Commander in Chief than the Creator of the Universe. 

Sure, it’s neat to meet someone famous, to be around when someone who’s really done something is visiting, to tell people that so-and-so was in the area.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any of that.  But to watch my excitement over a fellow human being, a fellow sinner, a talented athlete rise to a level that beats out the zeal that I have for my Lord is shameful.  

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As I’ve observed these reactions to human stars, it struck me how sinful and idolatrous I really am.  Thank the Lord that He forgives me, that He’s taken care of the depths of my sin, that He’s infinitely more faithful to me than I am to Him.

King David had the right idea of what true star power looks like.  Although an imperfect man himself, he got it right when he reflected on the accomplishments of his hero, his God, his Savior.

“Many, O LORD my God,
   are the wonders you have done.
The things you planned for us
   no one can recount to you;
were I to speak and tell of them,
   they would be too many to declare.” Psalm 40:5

A Super Bowl MVP trophy?  Not bad. 

Elected to a position of national or global influence?  Impressive. 

Eternal victory over sin and the grave, God becoming man and dying so we can live? 

Priceless.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

on contemplating missionary service

The decision to come and serve on the foreign mission field is a tough one, both for those considering a short-term opportunity or a long-term commitment. We often forget this, as God has grown in us a fondness and love for what we do.

On one hand, it's never going to make any sense.  You will never sit down and say "this could really help add to my savings, advance my portfolio, and put me in a better position financially."   The truth is, you will likely end up paying to work there.  You will never say "that sounds like a good opportunity to live with relative ease. I'll have my nights and weekends free, and all that I want will be at my fingertips."  The truth is, the schedule here at RVA is quite full for 13 straight weeks each term, weekends included, and much of life in Africa is inconvenient. In a typical American worldview, RVA (and all missions work) will never make an ounce of sense.  

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What it boils down to is that living and working at RVA is not an occupation like one in the states.  It's a service.  You likely won't gain a single thing monetarily from it - in fact, it will cost you.  You likely will have to eat food that is slightly different than you're used to, live with things in your home that don’t work quite right or aren’t built quite right, and be inconvenienced regularly when a culture much different than yours collides with your own. Not to mention, the internet is slow and Nairobi traffic is a nightmare.

But our service is to the Lord alone and our purpose is the advancement of His Kingdom, til He returns.   We have the AMAZING opportunity here to teach and disciple and welcome into our homes children of missionaries serving in the HARD places. 

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We had a staff appreciation chapel on Thursday morning, where our school board read letters out loud written by parents of these missionary kids.  Parents serving in closed countries writing to us about the necessity of RVA to their ministry, for their children to have a safe place to attend school.  Parents writing notes of appreciation for men and women of the faith on our staff who sacrifice comforts and salaries to invest in their children so that they can remain in the hard places, building relationships and loving the lost into the Kingdom. 

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It's not always easy, but it is rewarding.  We have a fine staff of about 120 people who pray together daily and share meals and fellowship with one another.  We have men’s and women’s bible studies and accountability groups, and we worship together each week.  It's a community.  Not only that but we're sent and encouraged by a community that we love and miss dearly in the states.  We have the love of the body in two places.  People faithfully committed to giving so we can be here and people faithfully serving alongside us here.

The rewards ARE great, but most of them are not going to be in this life.  This is Kingdom building, and Kingdom investing. 

It's teaching, yes, but its so much more.  It's service.  It's sacrifice.  It's flexibility.  It's teaching something or leading something you're not completely comfortable with because it's a need, and we live to serve.

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If God lays on your heart to come out to Kijabe and serve at this fine school or if He lays on your heart to serve in one of those HARD locations or with one of those HARD people groups, I guarantee it will not be because of any earthly gains. This decision will never make sense and it will never be at a convenient time for you.

It will be because you want nothing more than to offer yourself as a living sacrifice to be used in whatever way is needed at the time, with the talents and abilities God has given you, for His Glory and His purposes.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Good Friday?

Good? 

Death, good?  Crucifixion, good?  The Savior of the world tortured and hung on a cross to die, good?  Followers deserting Him, God the Father forsaking Him, criminals dying on either side of Him, the Jewish leaders finally rid of Him, Satan smiling because of what he’s done to Him, a stone rolled in front of Him.  Good?

Yes, good.

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“Before we can grasp the full meaning of the resurrection, we first have to witness the crucifixion.  If we spend our lives so afraid of suffering, so averse to sacrifice, that we avoid even the risk of persecution, then we might never discover the true wonder, joy and power of a resurrection faith. Ironically, avoiding suffering could be the very thing that prevents us from partnering deeply with the risen Jesus.” The Insanity of God, Nik Ripken

We are slowly walking through the reality of the deadliest terror attack on Kenyan soil since the U.S. Embassy bombings in 1998 – it has not been easy.  Praying, thinking, questioning, fearing…

Emotions are flashing back to the Westgate Mall attacks in the fall of 2013.  Then again on December 2, 2014, while we were on home assignment in the States, we read these two headlines on the same day:

“Al-Shabab massacres non-Muslims at Kenya quarry”
“U.S. Teacher Killed 'With a Sharp Tool' in Abu Dhabi Shopping Mall”

In a matter of weeks, dear friends of ours were preparing to move to Abu Dhabi within days of us heading back to Kenya.  I was in the middle of preparing for a Sunday School lesson on how our faith should speak into our fear, based on Hebrews 11:29-38.  Suddenly, I was no longer presenting a theological concept for discussion; this was real life – too real. 

What does it mean to trust God amidst headlines like that?  How does my faith in God and His Sovereignty shape my response?  What if I can’t depend on the (true or false) sense of security that living comfortably in the States provides or rely on responsible decision making to avoid risk?  What if I feel completely naked, completely exposed, completely vulnerable, living in an area of the world where bad things happen and where some of those things are because of what I do or don’t believe. 

So here we go again.  147 dead.  Non-Muslims targeted.  Al-Shabab at large, increasing the frequency of attacks.  Wouldn’t it be easier to move back?  Certainly it would be safer, right?  Wouldn’t we feel more secure in the States?  Surely God’s protection there is more legitimate, more guaranteed, more humane than the craziness that grabs headlines around here.  Questions, tears, doubts, fear.

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I want so desperately to respond with authenticity like friends of ours did after a recent cancer diagnosis, “There is no reason to fear, only another opportunity to trust.”  Wow.

Psalm 27:1-3
 
The Lord is my light and my salvation - whom shall I fear?
  The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?

  When the wicked advance against me to devour me,
  it is my enemies and my foes who will stumble and fall.

  Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear;
  though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.

Funny thing about being under siege – you’re stuck.  The whole military strategy hinges on cutting off supply lines and eliminating the possibility of escape.  Victims are completely isolated and it is only a matter of time before they die or surrender.  Completely helpless and hopeless, they slowly waste away, limited only to the diminishing resources that remain in their stronghold.

UNLESS…

God is your stronghold.  Think about being stuck within the shadow of the Almighty!  Diminishing resources?  Try ABUNDANT!  David had an intimate knowledge of persecution, being on the run, of people seeking to take his life.  Psalm 27 wasn’t written in the hypothetical.  He wrote, “though an army besiege me,” not, “If an army would ever besiege me.”  It is when we are cut off from everything else, when we are the most vulnerable, when we are at our weakest point and all we can turn to is our Savior; only then are we truly strong!

Ironically, it’s the peripheral defenses, the false blockades and pathetic attempts at security that we mistakenly place our faith in;  these, put up and maintained in our own strength, are what keep us from retreating sooner.  They prevent us from finding refuge in our True Stronghold.

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“The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?” 

It is because of the events we celebrate this Easter weekend that we can stay, choosing to obey in spite of our fears.  It is because of the sacrifice of Jesus, the terrible silence and the questioning and the doubts that followed, and then the indescribable joy when He arose, victorious over sin, death, and the grave.  And it is because He is still in the business of raising men and women from the dead that we can walk by faith and lay our fears at His feet.

“But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.”  Ephesians 2:4-5

Praise God, Jesus Christ is risen!

He is risen, indeed.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Day in the Life: Flat Stanley Visits RVA

World-renowned international traveler, Flat Stanley, has one more stop to check off his list.  Earlier this year, he visited Rift Valley Academy in Kijabe, Kenya.  His gracious hosts, the Schmidt family, gave him the grand tour of the school for missionary children that was founded in 1906.  In his own words, here are a few of the highlights of his trip.

“Hi everybody!  First of all, I’d like to give a shout-out to the one who made this all possible, Sam Mateer.  Without him, I never would’ve had the chance to visit Kenya.  Even though the journey was long, USPS flat-rate postage (no pun intended) did the trick and I arrived safely in the Schmidt’s mailbox in about two weeks’ time. 

The school day here isn’t too different than some of the schools I’ve been to in the States, but there are a few key differences.  I arrived in the middle of what they call ‘Term 2’.  The academic calendar is split into three terms, each about three months long. 

Here I’m sitting in on AP Calculus.  The students seem engaged and, for the most part, interested.  Weird.

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This group of sixth graders was intent on their reading assignment during English class.  Back in Pennsylvania where the Mateer family lives, there are very few opportunities for outdoor reading in the beginning of March!

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I like Edward – he’s the Swahili tutor on the right.  I didn’t learn too much of the language, but he did give me a piece of candy!  At least I knew enough to say, “Asante sana!”

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Chai break is a pretty big deal here.  After 3rd period, the whole school stops for 15 minutes to have a hot cup of chai – basically black tea with milk and sugar.  A few of the guys that work in the cafeteria let me join them. 

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Here I am in the “chai tree” – a lot of the students leave their mugs hanging here in the outdoor courtyard.  Not very sanitary, in my opinion, but then again I’m just a piece of cardstock. 

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The library is a pretty cool place.  Lots of good books – a few in particular caught my eye…

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I even got a little homesick!

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But mostly, I just tried to figure out why there were so many stuffed animals.  No, not the cuddly, sleep-in-your-bed kind – stuffed, as in they used to be alive! 

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I thought I read something about hunting being illegal in Kenya.  I guess when you’ve been around for over 100 years as a school, your exploits pre-date some of the current laws!

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The best part of my day was definitely hanging out with students.  There are lots of amazing kids here.  Above, I’m chilling with the first graders.  Then, after lunch, I found a random Algebra 1 class being held under a tree!

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Gotta love Freshmen!

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I am, in fact, in the picture below.  I’m just taking after my buddy Waldo – where’s Flat Stanley?

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Everybody wants a picture taken with Flat Stanley!  The most common reaction from the high school students was, “Flat Stanley?!  I remember him!”

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I was able to get a quick shot with these lovely ladies just before their semi-final football (some of you readers might call it ‘soccer’) match.  Turns out they won and went on to win the championship a few days later!  Go Buffaloes!

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This is part of the ‘psyche squad’ that cheered the Lady Buffaloes on to victory.  There are no official cheerleaders at this school, but I assure you, everybody in the stands gets involved!DSC_0037

And who can pass up a picture with a metallic giraffe?

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This after-school tradition was another highlight.  Tennis-baseball!  As you might have guessed, it’s basically baseball with a tennis racquet.  This match-up featured Kindergarten through 2nd graders competing for the most runs and the biggest hits.  DSC_0044

Rift Valley Academy certainly was a unique place to visit.  I originally hoped to see a bit of the Kenyan landscape and culture, but it turned out there was plenty to see here, right on campus!  Students and families from all over the world live and learn here together everyday.  Taking a page out of one of Dr. Seuss’s most well-known works, these kids grow up seeing and experiencing lots of different things.  My recommendation is coming from a guy who travels around the world quite a bit – RVA is definitely one of the coolest places you can go!

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Sincerely,
Flat Stanley

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