I was thinking today about grief, and I’m reminded that there are many points of grief in our lives which we fail to recognize. We see the big ones – death of a loved one, severing of a friendship – but the smaller ones go unnoticed. They sting and cut and slowly cause grave injury. They color our worldview and our perspective of others. The big griefs, we face head-on, determined not to let them stop us. The small ones, we ignore, and all too often, they are our undoing.
As I sit here in Houston, Texas on a beautiful Sunday morning watching the sun rise, my thoughts are far away in Nairobi, where the sun is setting on the day – a day of prayer, mourning and reflection. The attacks on the Westgate Mall have cast a shadow once again over the nation of Kenya and over a people all too familiar with pain.
When I first read the reports yesterday, I, like many others around the world, prayed for the victims, for the police force, for the survivors and even for the attackers. I prayed that God would intervene in this situation, end the standoff and spare the lives of the remaining hostages. But there was something much more personal about this attack.
You see, Westgate is not just some mall in a far away land, it is a place I have been to on multiple occasions. It is a place my friends visit on a regular basis. Even as I write this, I’m not sure if all of my friends in Nairobi are safe. I don’t know if any of them were in the mall on Friday. What I am sure of is that even if none of them were there, they have been touched by this tragic event.
I don’t really know how to explain it, but the community of people who frequent Westgate is a very connected group. It is very difficult to visit the mall without running into someone you know. And so, the people I know who live in that area almost certainly knew one or more people who either died or lived through the terror on Friday.
As the reports continue to come in regarding the attack, the hostage situation, the death toll and the possible motives behind the act, I am left with a startling realization: For many people, this is just another attack in a land far away and far removed from our “safe” life. The New York Times is running pictures of dead victims on their website (something they certainly wouldn’t do if this attack was in New York City), Twitter is ablaze with talk of “those people” and how this stuff always seems to happen “over there”, and while the Boston Marathon bombings caused our hearts to pound in our chest and made us rise up in action and prayer, the Westgate attack has barely been a blip on the radar for most Americans.
And I get it. The closer an attack is to home, the more it affects us. If not for my ties to Nairobi, I probably wouldn’t be nearly as affected as I am by this event either. But that doesn’t make it right. The fact that our value of people is largely based on how closely we identify with them – how much we have in common – is a troubling reality. Does it really matter if the attack happens 800 miles away or 8000? People are dead, families are affected and lives are forever changed through this act of violence.
As I sit and watch the sun rise in Houston, I know it’s the same sun that is setting over Nairobi. It is the same sun that has passed over all of the joy and pain of every person in every corner of the world in just 24 hours. And, to me, that sun serves as a reminder of the one God who is with us through it all.
The God that will be worshiped in churches across the U.S. this morning is the same God who was worshiped in thousands of Kenyan churches just hours ago. We pray to the same God. We seek direction from the same God. We place our collective hope in him. And, today, as the people of Kenya continue to process their loss, we need to join them in remembering that this is our loss too. Let us pray that God will intervene and bring this standoff to a peaceful end with no more loss of life. And let us remember that in this world, we are one.
In my previous post, I mentioned how we have already made some great friends here in Kenya and that they are doing some incredible work here. It seems everywhere you turn here, you run into somebody who is doing world-changing, life-altering work. I guess it’s a symptom of being in a place where there is obviously so much work to be done. One thing is for sure, there are huge numbers of people working hard to improve the lives of the people here.
One group that we have come to know over the past couple of visits is the team at Start With One. Bill, Chat, Len, Susan, Gina and their teams spend their days working to bring clean water, housing, churches, education and medical care to the very poorest here in Kenya. In addition to their own projects, they are very intentional about connecting with other people and organizations to maximize everyone’s efforts here.
They also have some amazing cooks in that house! I’m pretty sure Bill and Len view their meals as daily Iron Chef challenges. I’ve never eaten anything bad at their place and nearly everything I’ve had was indescribably good. The other night, it was bacon wrapped chicken, salad (thanks Gina!) and something called “spoon bread” which is some kind of cross between bread pudding and what the locals call ugali (kind of like grits). Whatever it was made from must have fallen from heaven because, holy smokes!
Keep in mind that all of this was cooked on a coal-fired grill/oven on the back patio. Cooking in Kenya requires a new level of ingenuity and these guys have it. I keep encouraging them to start a “How to Cook in Kenya” class, but Bill reasons that if they teach everybody how to cook, they won’t ever be able to open a restaurant and charge people to eat their food. I’m fine with that as long as they keep cooking and keep inviting me over!
There are so many other people that we know and are meeting here that it would be impossible to mention all of them. Suffice it to say that there is a large and growing community of people here who are in need of a church to call home and we are excited and humbled to be tasked with starting that kind of church.
I take comfort from the original apostles in the book of Acts. None of them knew how to start a church, let alone a worldwide movement. But through a lot of prayer and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, they would eventually do both. Fortunately, changing the world has very little to do with what you know and whole lot to do with who you know. The Creator of the world also has an incredible ability to change it, if only we are willing to listen and follow.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about opposition. The genesis of this thought process came last week. I had given a passionate talk on Sunday about stepping up our game and really being all-in on loving our city. I was fired up. I know some other people were fired up. The idea of setting aside our personal agendas and pursuing God’s desires for our neighbors was one that we were ready to walk out.
But a funny thing happens sometimes when you decide to go all-in for God. You somehow find yourself in someone else’s cross-hairs. You see, God does protect us, but there is a very real enemy who wants to see us fail. The closer we get to God’s heart and plans, the more that enemy wants us to fail. Remember, this is the same guy who tried to get Jesus to base jump without a parachute just as he was beginning his public ministry.
In the days following my passionate plea to go all-in for God, I was hit left and right by unexpected problems. They weren’t life-altering problems. They were, in many ways, just everyday junk that all happened to hit me at the same time. They were mostly financial in nature – that is, they would cost me money I didn’t have.
One day, as all that junk mounted, I just kind of shut down. I completely ceased to be productive. I don’t even know if I was consciously thinking of anything. What happened next, though, got me thinking differently about my situation. You see, in the midst of my blank, mindless stare, I realized that I was coming up against opposition. This wasn’t just about bad stuff happening to me. I was being assaulted – an aggressive attempt to shut down what God had fired up in me. And when confronted with that reality, something in me rose up.
Suddenly, I no longer had a desire to shut down or to run from these issues. On the contrary, I was defiant! I wasn’t going to let the garbage of life drag me down. I wasn’t going to let it get in the way of what God had called me to. I was going to fight! And I was going to win! Come what may, I was going to push through this opposition and keep moving in the direction God had pointed me. I wasn’t going to back down. I was going to lean in!
Opposition has a way of causing us to do that, doesn’t it? The fastest way to get me to do something is to tell me I can’t. That’s why reverse psychology works – the more I try to keep you from doing something (or fraudulently appear to keep you from doing it) the more you want to do it. You lean in to opposition.
And that’s just what I did last week when faced with opposition and, in many ways, that opposition shrank when I leaned into it. Sure, it got a piece of me. My wallet is little lighter (and my disdain for certain companies and professions a little stronger) but there was no way it was going to keep me down. The opposition was fierce. It is fierce. But in the end, I’m going to lean into it and I’m going to break through.
You see, in my eyes, that’s what opposition is for. It is not there to stop us. It is there to strengthen us. When we lean in instead of running away, we will get through it. When we push and reach and scratch and claw our way through, we will get to where we’re headed. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. Items of worth always come at a price. But when it comes to God’s kingdom, whatever price I pay is and always will be a bargain.
So, if you’re faced with opposition – especially opposition to the thing you know God desires of you – lean in. You might be surprised at how much stronger you are when you break through to the other side.
Last week, my friend Weldon was speaking at church and he said something that I have been thinking about ever since. Weldon was recalling a conversation that he and his wife Angelina had with a 90 year old woman named Elizabeth. The conversation was wide-ranging, but the bit that caught my attention was something that Elizabeth said to them.
She said that she found it so interesting that people don’t talk about the Holy Spirit more today. After all, she said, the people who spent 24/7 with Jesus for three years, sitting under his teaching and watching his example, still didn’t get it. They failed to grasp any true understanding of the Kingdom of God and, ultimately, deserted Jesus in his time of need. They didn’t really get it until after he had died, risen, ascended to heaven and then sent the Holy Spirit to empower them.
You see, spending time with Jesus was life-changing, but it took the power and presence of the Holy Spirit to pull the puzzle together, cause it to make sense and propel these world-changers forward with the good news of the Kingdom of God. I wonder, like Elizabeth, how it is that we have failed to understand this Biblical message. How is it that we try to understand our God while missing the crucial “Holy Spirit piece.”
So often we tell ourselves that if someone just knows enough, that they will “get it.” We’re determined that if others see a good life example – a mentor or a coach – that the switch will go on and they will change the way they live their life. We’re convinced that getting to know Jesus is enough. And then, we are disappointed when, in our own life and the lives of others, we don’t see that play out.
The truth is, knowing Jesus is enough, but only if we know all of him. The God that we worship exists, sometimes confusingly, in three “persons” – Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Most of us recognize the Father part. Our earliest thoughts of God are probably mentally tied to our image either of our human father or of an idealized version of what a father should be. The Son, Jesus, is easy to grasp, too, in that there is much written about his life to which we can relate. But what about the third person of God, the Holy Spirit?
Perhaps the fact that we don’t even have a great analogy to describe the Holy Spirit – something like “Father” or “Son” that helps us understand this facet of God – is indication enough that we don’t really “get it.” But however you may think of the Holy Spirit, the words of that 90 year old woman ring true – they are true, straight from the Bible! Jesus’ closest followers were completely lost, disillusioned and confused until they were visited by the Holy Spirit. And yet, so often, we leave the Holy Spirit (33% of God) out of our life, out of our discussions and out of our understanding of God.
This year, let me encourage you to think about the Holy Spirit. If need be, set aside any notions you have of who the Holy Spirit is or does, especially if you have negative associations with the words “Holy Spirit.” Rather, pray that God will bring clarity to your idea of just who the Holy Spirit is and what the presence and power of the Holy Spirit is all about. Then, if you have the guts, pray directly to the Holy Spirit and ask to receive that power and presence.
If Jesus’ closest friends, allies and confidants required a visitation from the Holy Spirit before they could get it, why would we expect anything else for ourselves and our friends? In 2013, I pray that you and I will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to “get” things that we never “got” before, to see things we never saw before and to do things we’ve never done before. If we are empowered by the Holy Spirit, then, without a doubt, the best is yet to come!