Archive for January, 2012

Jan 31 2012

When My Life Met Poverty: Part 2 – Emotions

Published by under India,Life,Poverty

On February 8, 2011, I left America for the first time in my life and traveled to Calcutta. I went back in September and will be returning again on February 8. In the lead up to the trip, I wanted to reflect on what I’ve learned since the day my life met poverty.

Feelings are in a constant flux when you’re in India. One minute you’re furious because people are living in trash. The next you’re happy because you’re playing cricket with the kids. The next you’re crying, listening to stories of heartache and suffering. At the close of each day, I take inventory of what occurred in the previous 16 hours. On the fourth or fifth day of our September trip, I realized in my journal that I was consistently sugarcoating what I saw. No matter the event, I would try to put a positive spin on it – mainly for literary effect – so it left a solid feeling when I dotted the final period of that entry.

In practice, it looks like this: so and so child lives in this crap hole that animals shouldn’t even be allowed to inhabit. Here’s a picture of the crap. But, in spite of this, they have so much joy. Here’s a picture of them smiling. Lesson: I should be content with what I have because they have nothing.

What good does that lesson do for my life or for those who read it? There is some good, to be sure. It may really change me. But, as I realized this last September, I felt a sting in my heart. If I lived in abject poverty, how would I feel about being used as an object lesson? There’s a sense in which I may be honored, but I think I’d be a little sad, too. Maybe a lot sad or even angry. I’d want to yell at the top of my lungs, “DON’T YOU SEE I HAVE ALMOST NOTHING TO EAT AND TWO AND A HALF TARPS OVER MY HEAD FOR SHELTER!?!?!?!? THERE ARE MORE IMPORTANT THINGS TO TALK ABOUT THAN YOU BEING CONTENT WITH WHAT YOU HAVE!!!!! LET YOUR HEART BE CHANGED, BUT HELP ME REALLY CHANGE MY LIFE!!!”

We see videos and listen to songs these days and talk of being “inspired.” We like the “high” of enlightenment. But this isn’t the only understanding of the word “inspire” and we too often embrace only the lesser version.

When we say we’re “inspired,” we mean to say our emotions were stirred – that we felt like a glassy lake until we watched that video or listened to that song which ran through our hearts like a boat and made waves. But the waves dissipate over the course of a couple minutes or a couple hours or a couple days or weeks, depending on how profound the experience, and we return to our previous state.

Stirred By Poverty
When we arrive at the terrible places we visit, our hearts are jolted. The experience is an enormous boat displacing a huge amount of water and we’re shaken. It literally impacts us. We feel it. But when we leave these crappy places, the waters calm over time. We return to our previous state of being. We forget. On some level, the same may well be true of those we visit. Their happiness may leave them in some way or another after we leave. I can’t say for sure either way.

Same State
The curious thing about waves is that they move water up and down, but the water molecules remain largely in the place they were before the wave arrived, having only moved in a circular motion as the wave passed its point. For the most part they don’t move forward or backward. When we’re emotional, there’s agitation, but there isn’t often progress.

Courtesy Grand Valley State University (

I’ve learned this past year that remaining in the open waters of sympathy and emotion usually leaves us in the same place we were before. We’ve had a nice trip going up and down the wave – to India and back. We met some people, saw sad things, and learned a couple lessons. But we often remain as we were. And the condition of the poor remains also – something which is, frankly, inexcusable. That I know people living in grinding poverty and had days this year where it never crossed my mind shows me how mean and coldhearted I can be.

On the other hand, I’ve learned excellent lessons from poverty. I’m not diminishing their worth or the worth of emotions. They’re both a good and probably inevitable thing.

I learned this year that I must KNOW emotions alone won’t help anyone very much. If our emotions die like waves without stirring our will, everyone loses. Poverty must inspire us in the higher, verb-form of the word – where we decide we must DO something. We decide to ACT – to attempt materially changing the crappy situation we see and feel bad about.

Our Profession
At this point in human history, the pressing concern of the world is not more eyewitnesses. We don’t need more people blogging about poverty or taking pictures and video of it. Those things need to happen but emotions alone cannot fix poverty. Actions do. We need to understand why poverty occurs and we need millions of more people to spend themselves helping to FIX poverty through well-thought out, well-executed, tangible relief work and programs. We need the best of our society (and theirs) across all disciplines – agriculture, engineering, technology, education, finance, and health care – to work on these problems because helping someone with food and a house isn’t enough. It’s just the beginning.

Jesus didn’t ask us to pray that reporters would be sent out into the field. He asked for workers. Reporters are certainly workers. Reporters open eyes. But workers, as I’m using the word, change lives. Both are needed but the world especially lacks the latter. This past year, I learned I must be a worker. It’s changed my life and it’s slowly changing lives in India.

How do we begin having ACTIONS stirred and not just our emotions? More tomorrow when I talk about the third thing I’ve learned since meeting poverty.

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Jan 30 2012

When My Life Met Poverty: Part 1 – Good Things

Published by under India,Life,Poverty

On February 8, 2011, I left America for the first time in my life and traveled to Calcutta. I went back in September and will be returning again on February 8. In the lead up to the trip, I wanted to reflect on what I’ve learned since the day my life met poverty.

I watched a documentary this weekend called Triage. It’s about a US doctor, James Orbinski, that was working for Doctors Without Borders during both the 1992 famine in Somalia (not the present one) and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

In the film, Orbinski returns to those places, touring the facilities where he labored for years, recalling stories and events with those he worked with and even treated. It’s an impacting film.

At one point, he visits a site where Rwandan Hutus massacred an estimated 50,000 Tutsis over a three-day period. His tour guide of the grounds is one of two known survivors of that massacre – a man who was shot point-blank in the head. To this day the man has a hole in his forehead where the bullet entered his skull.

As they walk, the Rwandan takes him into a hut that has a number of wooden beds. On the beds are the bodies – now bones – of 20+ massacre victims. He preserved the bones with lyme. Orbinski, after all he did in his years as a war-zone doctor, is visibly uncomfortable. The translator even more so. They both ask to leave the hut. After five minutes, the tour guide asks Orbinski if he’ll return to the hut and look again. This man doesn’t want the world to forget. He wants someone – anyone – to know “something happened here. It’s important for you to see this horrific thing.”

No Words
About eight years ago, one of my friends got married in Hawaii. I was his best man and got to spend a week in a rental house on the north shore. I’d heard people talk about Hawaii. I’d seen pictures. It looked great. By the time we reached the house that first day, the sun was beginning to set. I still remember standing on the beach outside the back door with no words to describe the beauty around me.

The Good
Humans like good things. In the US, we go to cool concerts, great restaurants, and exciting sports events. We listen to good music and watch good shows and movies. We like to be around good people. When someone else talks about something that’s good – a book, a song, a YouTube video, a person, a restaurant – we’re very rarely satisfied just believing them. We want to check things out ourselves. Their testimony isn’t enough. We want the experience of that good thing.

Why We Avoid Poverty
When someone tells us of an experience and we’re unsure of whether we think it’s good, we typically respond, “I’ll take your word for it.” Most of us tend to avoid things that might not place high on the “good scale.”

When we wonder why poverty is so bad – why one in seven people in our world – fully one BILLION people are hungry right this moment – we rarely imagine ourselves doing anything about it partly because we’re conditioned to only be around good things. And what’s worse than grinding poverty? No matter how positive your attitude, the fact is that poverty is terrible. It blows. It’s unfair, unjust, disgusting, sad, and frustrating. It’s a topic that seems to warrant the use of curse words. And even that only captures some of the emotion. Just as we’re speechless watching the sun set in Hawaii, there aren’t words to describe how awful poverty is. But both of these moments are only snapshots in time.

The Poverty Paradox
When the vacation ends, we go back to the “real world” where things are gray and bleak and boring. But there’s a paradox about poverty and our seemingly innate desire for good. What keeps us away from poverty can also drive us to fix it. Those who work for poverty alleviation see the lives of the poor lived TODAY in the gray and bleak and boring. But TOMORROW (or 3-, 5-, 10 years from now) is going to be better – dare I say, a paradise – certainly compared to today.

Lesson 1
This year has taught me that it will never work to only consume good things. Like a new car driven off the dealer’s lot, it’s not long before they’re used, lame, and discarded. Good things aren’t bad. We should be thankful for them, but we shouldn’t be consumed with consuming them. It seems good things need to be made – things whose value increase over time as, and after, they’re built. Good things like education systems, agricultural practices, health care, clean water, economic development, and working for gender equity. This is certainly part of what it means to “do justice” in a 21st-century context. You DO something to bring justice where its long been lost. In 1992 and 1994 that meant going to Somalia and Rwanda for James Orbinski. What does it mean for me in 2012? What does it mean for you?

By the time we reach the end of our lives, we’ll have used up many good things. Will we have made any? On that day, will we live in our gray, bleak, boring world or will we have helped raise others out of theirs? The bad places in our world await us.

Spend your life making good things that bring light to the poor. More on this tomorrow.

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Jan 20 2012

Now Is The Time For Thinking

Published by under Life

I like to think I don’t get scared easily – that I’m more a man than a boy. Sometimes I’ll put myself in situations I’m terrified of just to prove I’m not scared. But I usually am. I only end up proving I’m good at not actually showing I’m scared.

Tonight I was at work by myself and I walked out of my office into the darkness of the rest of our floor. I looked to my right and a bright light suddenly flashed in my eyes. My heart fell into my stomach and I could feel adrenaline flood my body. I wasn’t alone. Someone was 20 feet away from me. My face got hot and my body was ready to run at whoever was there. Then my mind gained its function back. I remembered. We’re on the ground floor and there’s a garage door that looks out into a parking lot. Someone was just leaving the lot.

Ready To Kill
Why, when the unexpected happens, do we so often assume the worst? The boss calls us into his office and we figure we’re in trouble. We hear a noise in the house and we think there’s a burglar. An unexpected light flashes in our eyes and we think someone wants to hurt us. What a strange response. Mandela said courage isn’t the absence of fear but the triumph over it. How does that happen though? It seems to me it happens by having the ability to think rationally during the moment of crisis – or as close to the moment’s passing as possible. We must have the moment when we’re scared or ready to kill. That’s our body’s natural reaction. But we should aim to get control back as soon as possible.

When You Can’t
What happens when you CAN’T get control back? Teenage girls see Justin Bieber and other teen idols in person and sometimes faint. They actually lose control over their ability to stay conscious. And, guys, before you’re quick to laugh at how weak girls are, many of us can barely speak anything qualifying as a single complete sentence when we talk to girls who are even moderately good looking. We lose control over our words and our perspiration. Sweat spouts from every pore of our body – our hands, arm pits, and face. What’s that about? It’s about beauty. Things that are beautiful leave us speechless. And, sometimes, even unconscious, inarticulate (when words do come), or wet.

If we’re scared of the unknown and timid near the beautiful, what do you think your reaction would be like if you met God face to face? How scared would you be? How uncontrollable your emotions and words? In the bible, God says, “every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God” (Isaiah 45:23; Romans 14:11). Any human, regardless of how well they know God, knows very little about him because he is infinite. So he is largely unknown. And he must be beautiful. Not because he creates incredible beauty (though he does). Not only because the bible says so (“perfect in beauty, God shines forth” – Psalm 50:2). He must be beautiful because even though we do really crappy things every day that are offensive to him, he still wants to walk with us through life. What’s more beautiful than a friend who gives you a high-five and $50 after you punch him in the face?

When we finally meet God, he will be largely unknown to us and very beautiful. And we won’t be able to control anything about our reaction. Even us Christians who follow Jesus and believe in him for salvation…We’ll bow before him and blurt out all kinds of things. I want to make sure the words that come tumbling from my mouth on that day are also beautiful – filled with stories about saying no to bad things and yes to good things. Even when it was hard. Now is the time for thinking.



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Jan 05 2012

Near Light

Published by under Poems

I wrote and recorded this over Christmas break as I listened to Olafur Arnalds’ Near Light on repeat.

Lots has been happening in my life over the past few months. I continue now, as always, to desire hearing God tell me I’ve done well at the end of my life. But I think I’ve been seeing that much of modern life gets in the way of that – living a good life pleasing to God – oftentimes without us even knowing it. I feel like I’ve been slumbering for quite some time, unaware of all the suffering in the world. Most of us really do live in bubbles insulated from the poor and suffering. I don’t think many churches fully and consistently teach God’s desire for justice and care for the poor. If they did, I don’t think we would see much suffering in the world at all.

I don’t fault anyone – even teachers in the church. I don’t think there are many of us intentionally suppressing these truths. But I think the truth about God and His desire for the poor, oppressed, hungry, thirsty, lonely, homeless, diseased, orphaned, and widowed is suppressed nonetheless. That it’s unintentional isn’t too important – the poor in our world suffer all the same.

We’re all trying our best to make it in life, and right now, this is what I think I know. I’m changing my life in significant ways to fix my past ignorance. More on that in due time. For now, some other words… Click the Play button to start it.

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