It only took 31 ½ years to make my first journey out of the country and my first missions trip outside of the boarders of these United States. I know many here have made trips before, and some even presently live in other countries as they serve the Lord. But the personal newness of the experience still compels me to write!
I took a two-week trip to Zambia in southern Africa to work as a teacher at the International Bible College operated by Gospelink. We were able to go into some of the local villages and attempt to share the Gospel, but this was mostly missions in the vein of Acts 14:22—strengthening disciples (students, most of whom want to be pastors, chaplains, or missionaries) in order to one day send them out into their own culture and surrounding countries to make the Kingdom and glory of God known. (Gospelink does focus more on evangelistic efforts in our summer time when larger teams go and do a lot of work in the villages and cities).
Two weeks—no cell phone, no internet, no TV, no hot water, intermittent electricity, no air conditioning, hot and humid days, sleeping under a mosquito net, sharing a cabin with a bat and a night in a motel with lizards, watching students consume the entirety of fish including bones and head, and enjoying the wonder of n’shima and chibwabwa—it was wonderful!…
The ride over was rough—I flew from Kansas City to Atlanta to meet with my group, from there we flew to London and enjoyed the British Museum and Library before heading out to Lusaka. I had never been on a plane for more than 2 ½ hours. Suddenly I was met with 20 hours (not counting layovers), mostly at night when my body wanted to sleep. Planes are not built for 6’5 guys, especially in the economy section (even the economy section of a 777), and this guy is not built for sleeping anywhere but a bed—not in a car, a chair, the floor, a hammock, and certainly not a plane. I tried. I even took a pill that usually knocks me out. I just can’t do it. In the first 36 hours of the trip, I had a whopping 1 hour of sleep.
But it was worth it.
The college was about an hour and a half away from the capitol city of Lusaka. The first half of that was on the Great East Road: nice, paved, and decently quick. The second half was on a seven-mile stretch hardly a vehicle travels. Our driver navigated the bus at a snail’s pace across a mix of mud, water, and occasional almost-dry dirt. My arm bruised from the constant pounding against the safety rail next to my seat. When the twisting and winding came to an end we were greeted by a line of 60 singing students and 3 Americans staying long term. Each one shook our hands, smiled, and welcomed us to their home.
The cabins we stayed in were like one-room camping shacks barely large enough to hold three beds and a deck chair or two. We stayed in them for ten days, the students live in them for up to 10-months each year during their four year course of study. I’ve sat on church pews with thicker padding than the mattresses offered, yet I never heard a student complain—the facilities were nicer than a lot of their homes, and that includes the camp-like bathhouses and outdoor cafeteria.
Each of the 60 students was genuinely grateful to be at the college. In Zambia, the “public” school system only goes up to the 9th grade, and even then it is generally not a good education. To do high school, your family must pay tuition and many families barely have enough on which to eat. For most, college isn’t even a thought in their minds. Yet most of these students don’t have to pay a dime of tuition and fees. They do four hours a day of “work scholarship” with various jobs around the campus, and are also supported by various donors in the states.
These students consider it a great privilege to be there to learn, and that made it a humbling honor to teach them. Originally, four teachers were supposed to go with our group—one to teach each grade level, but one man dropped out and they gave me his class. So I taught the sophomores and juniors together on the wisdom literature of the Old Testament.
They asked many good questions. They showed a better knowledge of the Bible than I’ve seen from most anyone else in any situation. The thing they shared the most in common with college students in America, especially the guys: there were plenty of giggles and snickers and 8th-gradeish comments when we came to the Song of Solomon.
“Come on guys, let’s focus and take this seriously.”
Most impressive, though at least to me, were the students from Malawi. Composing half the freshman class, they had traveled a good distance to be there. They were young in age and did not have many resources when they came to the border crossing. There the officials with guns harassed them, robbed them of half their money through excess and illegal fees, and even stole some of their luggage. They could do nothing to prevent it and had no recourse to recover what they lost.
Yet again, not a word of complaint, and they smiled…a lot…
Fast-forward. I arrive back at my home at about two on Saturday morning. I get a small bit of rest, eat breakfast with my parents, and send them on their merry way. And then I start to deal with my church after my two-week African hiatus…
…turns out while I was gone we had a situation arise—one of those “generational divide” things over something a younger group wanted to do and some of the older generation didn’t agree with. I talked to people from both sides—they were griping and had attitudes towards the other. Some were downright ticked off. The situation involved the trustees, and at one point all five were ready to resign yet fortunately were talked out of it. Not long after I started to try to sort out that mess, I first get a text and then talk face to face with two people involved in another situation—interpersonal conflict that resulted in anger and tears.
I had yet to have a hot shower or shave.
Sunday came. I had planned a presentation on my trip mixed in with a brief sermon on the Great Commission.
When I put the PowerPoint together, I included stats and stories about the country—their poverty rate, their child-mortality rate, their HIV/AIDS problem, their malaria problems and their inability for most to buy what we would consider extremely cheap medicine—as well as stories about the Bible college. I put the presentation together with no problem, but when I delivered it I could barely stop crying (it is a rare, rare thing for me to cry). I quoted Habakkuk 2:14, that the end game is “for the earth [to be] filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” I told them that our purpose is to be a part of that, to work to make that happen and we do so through the Great Commission.
We read the text together, and I started talking about going and baptizing and teaching.
I had no intention on addressing the problems of the last day in that sermon, but when I got to that part about teaching I had to take a pause. I took a moment of silence, thought about it, and shook my head. I warned them what I was about to say had the potential of offending or making some of them mad, but it needed to be said. Without expressing the full details of the situation, I told them that in less than a day of being back I had already heard complaining from some of the older generation about the younger, and from the younger about the older.
And then in a louder voice than I have ever mustered in ten years of preaching I said, “Enough!”
The only way we will ever overcome this so-called generational divide is if we realize we are one church, one body, one family. You who are older and more mature in your faith, you are supposed to be teaching, mentoring, and discipling those who are younger. And you who are younger are supposed to show those who are older respect and consideration. After all that is what 1 Timothy 5:1-2 tells us, “Do not rebuke an older man but appeal to him as a father, to younger men like brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters in all purity.” My voice finally came down. That is the type of people we are supposed to be…
I took a breath. Several people were wide-eyed. I had no idea what was going to happen next, and then I heard more “Amen’s” than I have ever heard with anything I have said in ten years of preaching.
I was told it would happen—going to do missions in another context, especially one that is much poorer than these United States, it changes you. When students are being robbed by border guards with guns, yet still smile and retain attitudes of gratefulness, the petty squabbles and bickering we are known for become much less tolerable and much more silly.
There is a greater purpose out there and either our focus will be to see the earth filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, or it will be something that is self-centered and lacking eternal significance.
I now write this from my church office, a room bigger than the cabin I slept in. I sit at a desk in a padded chair, typing on the keyboard of my laptop. In a few moments I will walk out of this building, climb into my car, and drive to my house. There I have heat and air conditioning, hot water, comfortable chairs, and a nice bed. I have the ability to throw my dirty clothes into a machine that will do most of the work for me. I have a refrigerator and cabinets filled with more food than I probably need and much more nutritional value than many in Zambia will ever have.
My plan is to return next January, and as many Januaries after that as the Lord will allow. I hope to take some church members with me.
I wish I had enough money to send every person in my church, so we can look at our own pettiness and genuinely say, “Enough.”