Category Archives: Topics–Special Interest

Staying on the Path (3 of 6)

This posting is in a series of reflections from my time in Chartres, France.

Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth

“You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, whose thoughts are fixed on you!” (Isaiah 26:3, NLT)

A labyrinth located in the nave of the Chartres Cathedral serves as a pathway of prayer for believers. It winds back and forth, symbolically representing the many twists and turns throughout our life’s journey. Christians have walked the labyrinth in the Chartres Cathedral to meditate, pray, and seek a closer connection to God for over eight centuries. While walking, believers often experience something that mirrors some aspect of their life, giving them new insight and prompting prayer.

While traversing the winding path over the past two weeks, I have been praying that God would help me to know better what it means to deny myself and to pick up my cross to follow Jesus, as he instructed all of his disciples to do (Mark 8:34). I have been asking Christ to set me free from the fears that have been holding me back from surrendering my will to God’s at a deeper level, and from the distractions and impulses that take me away from the Holy Spirit’s leading.

On one walk, as I approached one of the dozens of hairpin turns on the labyrinth pathway, I suddenly saw a picture of how easily I get off track with my thinking or behavior. For example, I may be thinking about my writing, or my family, or something to do with my work, and suddenly, I’m off rehearsing how someone hurt me or of how I would like to get revenge. Or, I can be doing well with living by my priorities, and then I’ll make some stupid decision that dissipates my energy or health. Or, I’ll feel love and kindness toward someone, only to bite someone else’s head off in the next instant. Or, I’ll be all set to go forward with God’s leading in some important aspect of my life, and then I get cold feet and start to question myself. I let myself get distracted from the calling and opportunity at hand, or my faith wavers, my confidence diminishes, or I start hedging my bets.

The 180 degree turns in the pathway in front of me were suddenly illustrating a troubling aspect of my life that I wished were different. Indeed, my life is full of contradictions and competing values and impulses, and I frustrate myself often (not to mention how I must negatively affect others at times).

Now, I know my path is going to keep winding back and forth in my life, shifting direction from time to time, but that’s not what I’m concerned about. What I what to know is how can stop letting my “flesh” (sinful impulses and fear) so easily cause me to veer away from the Spirit’s leading onto a path that is contrary to God’s will for me?

As I prayed about these things this past Friday, I realized again that on my own I do not have the power to change my most deep-seated instincts and habits. God has to do the deep inner work within me to set me free and to keep me on the Spirit-led path. Yet, my experience also teaches me that my response to the Spirit and the ways that I order my thinking and living can help.

• The path of the Spirit is pretty well marked out for me—not necessarily all the details, but the character, the spirit, the intention of God’s ways are well known to me. I can consciously remind myself of what I already know to be true.

• I can set out to walk this path every day, and in every circumstance, setting my intention to listen, learn and follow the Spirit.

• I can make a point of not letting other things or people so easily distract (disturb, entice, annoy, consume, intimidate, threaten) me. I will react often, but I can catch myself and ask, “Is this how I want to react?”

• I can choose not to distract myself when I become afraid, anxious, or overwhelmed.  I can simply remind myself, “Yes, this task is scary or hard, but the Spirit will show me what most needs to be done, and help me to do it.”

• When I discover that I have taken a sharp turn away from the Spirit’s leading, I can stop, reconnect with God, look around for how to get back on the Spirit-led path again, and start fresh.

• I can focus on walking the path that leads to God, rather than focus on trying to change myself or others. That is, instead of trying to make things happen so much, I can put my energy into connecting with God and letting the needed changes in me and in others flow from the Spirit’s activity.

• I can choose to trust God.

If I close my eyes I can see distinctly the spot on the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth where the Spirit spoke to me about how I am living my life. While, at first, the 180 degree turn painfully illustrated to me how easily I switch directions, change focus, and move out of the Spirit into the flesh in a moment. Yet now this mental picture also depicts how I would like to navigate the twists and turns in life by staying in the Spirit.

I leave today for Africa. I’m a little nervous, but now, after spending time seeking God in prayer, I feel ready. I do not know all of how God intends to use us there, but I’m sure the Holy Spirit is leading us, and will work in us and through us to serve Christ’s purposes. The most important thing is that I stay on the path.

Final Thought

Isaiah said that God would keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfastly fixed on God. Focusing on the Spirit-led path before us is what a steadfast mind is all about.

When you feel yourself starting to veer off the path in your mind, heart or behavior, try simply saying to yourself, “Stay on the path.” As your mind and spirit obey your instructions, feel the temptations diminish in power, and the peace within you deepen and strengthen.

What helps you to stay on the path?


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Christ in Judgment (It’s a good thing!) (2 of 6)

This is the first in a series of reflections based on my time in Chartres, France (September 2008)

West Wall of Chartres Cathedral

Placed in the most significant position, high on the west wall of the Chartres Cathedral (France), in the center of the multi-colored rose shaped window, Christ is seated on his heavenly throne. He is known here as “Christ in Judgment,” reigning over all of creation at the end of time, surrounded by apostles and the souls of the saved and condemned. This powerful symbol of faith says that, contrary to appearances at times, some day Christ will set wrongs right, the martyrs and faithful will be vindicated, and all the “dead will be judged according to what they have done” (Revelation 20:12).

Over the years, the notion of Christ as Judge has alternately frightened me, repulsed me, or simply left me cold. There is so much judgment and rejection in the world that crushes people that I often recoil from critical, damning attitudes and images of condemnation. I much prefer the Jesus who says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Believing that God accepts and loves me as I am with all of my faults, experiencing God’s forgiveness, and living out of a place of grace (rather than judgment) has been incredibly healing and motivating for me over the years.

Yet, I am changing. I still am very drawn to the compassionate and forgiving Jesus, and I depend upon Christ for rest for my soul. Yet, at the same time, I’m starting to see that grace only has meaning when there has been judgment. Forgiveness is transforming, but only when we’ve acknowledged (judged) that we or others have done wrong. Truth sets us free only when we admit (judged) that we have been held in bondage by lies, distortions, and manipulative behavior. In biblical teaching, mercy triumphs over judgment, but judgment still has its place when it holds up truth for all to see and demands that we alter our lives to fit with the laws of love.

On Friday, I had been walking the labyrinth, which is uncovered only once a week on Fridays for pilgrims. When I reached the center of the labyrinth, I turned to look up at the magnificent rose window to the west. When I fixed my eyes on Jesus on his throne, I suddenly saw Christ as not only the judge, but my judge—and I was surprised by my reaction. I felt strength and encouragement. I felt at peace.

When I am honest with myself, I know that Christ’s judgment is always right. I know that his opinion is the only one that truly matters. If I submit myself to him, and actively seek out his perspective on my life, rather than experiencing domination, I find freedom. Rather than feeling disempowered, I find more strength and confidence to live the life I am meant to live.

If, on the other hand, I look to others (or even myself) to judge my life, the truth is going to be colored and distorted by their (or my) interests and limitations. Whether I submit to or rebel against the judgments of others, they will exert too much control over me. Only one person can rightly serve as Judge of my life. Only Christ offers me the full truth I need to see and the grace I need to accept it and live by it.

Over the past couple of years, I have been struggling with rejection and judgment from someone who used to respect me and was close to me. I know intellectually that I am being treated this way because I won’t go along with his way of thinking or do what he wants. However, emotionally, I keep churning inside. I keep wondering if I did something wrong to bring about his rejection of me, and what truth there is in his accusations and judgments. I can see that I’m too attached to his opinion of me. Yet, for some reason, I have been having a very hard time accepting what’s happened and my powerlessness in the relationship.

No wonder, then, seeing Jesus as my one and only true Judge was so comforting!  Jesus is not like this former friend. Jesus knows the truth. He knows I am not perfect and make many mistakes. I sin and let him down, hurt others, and work against myself all the time. Yet, in Jesus, I find truth. Where I have failed, he offers forgiveness. Where I am confused, he offers wisdom. Where I am wrongly trying to justify myself, he cuts through the pretense.

Christ my Judge does not jerk me around with self-serving demands. He is reasonable and fair, and speaks the truth when I need to hear it, not to hurt me, confuse me or try to manipulate me. Though his rebuke may cut me deeply, I never doubt that he speaks the truth out of love. He is for me, more than I can ever be for him.

So, I trust him. In his judgment I find peace and strength. I feel relief. Looking to him, it’s easier to let go the false judgments of others, and the unreasonable demands I place on myself. Then, ironically, the more I look to Christ as my Judge, the more I find my way back to Jesus, my Savior and Lord, whose yoke is easy and burden is light.

What does Christ in Judgment mean to you?

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China Today

This is the first of several weekly postings on my recent 18 day visit to China.


Awe, Emptiness and Strange, Uneasy Feelings

I’ve struggled to find adequate words to describe my impressions and feelings that grow out of my 18 days in China, this great nation of 1.3 billion people whose philosophical and religious foundations are markedly different from my own. I was awed by the beauty of the mountains and intrigued by the history of the people, whose fierce national pride was evident everywhere. Yet, I often felt empty touring the country, led by guides that took great pride in China’s historic landmarks, but had so little to say about the meaning or vision of China today.

I became aware of many cultural differences from the West, though not as many as I had assumed. In fact, what surprised me the most—and even troubled me—was how at home I often felt.  I came away sad for the Chinese people, challenged to look more closely at the emptiness in my own life and culture, and resolved to let my light shine more brightly.

If all the Chinese people see when they see America is our materialism and economic prosperity (we were told repeatedly that everyone in China thinks of Americans as rich), then we have failed them. If all they see in me is a nice person with lots of money, then I have failed them. I came home asking myself, “How can I let Christ transform me more thoroughly, and shine through me more brightly?”


In Beijing, home of the 2008 Olympics, I toured Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. A huge portrait of Mao hung from one building, repainted every year to keep it looking new. When asked about the June 4, 1989, our tour guide simply replied that she was too young to know anything about what happened there—leaving us with a curious and disturbing ellipsis in our introduction to China.

The “9999”  buildings/rooms of the Forbidden City, once the exclusive abode of emperors and their entourage, are now ghostly reminders of a bygone era, sparsely decorated, without vibrancy or much symbolic meaning for a modern China. I felt empty touring this great historical site, wondering what connection remained between the ancient dynasties and symbols and the modern communist culture. I was to feel empty often as we toured China, seeing and hearing about the great symbols from a bygone era alongside new skyscrapers and an improved standard of living for many, yet with no sense of purpose or meaning other than getting ahead for themselves and their nation.

The Temple for the God of Heaven excited me. I thought that perhaps here was evidence that the ancient Chinese had worshipped the Creator God of the Judeo-Christian tradition under a different name. Apparently not. The Chinese God of Heaven was a fertility god, someone to whom the Emperor offered sacrifices in order to procure good crops. The worship of this god also provided a basis for a type of emperor cult, whereby the ruler was honored as the son of the God of Heaven.

When walking six miles on the Great Wall of China, a 4000 mile Wonder of the world, built to help protect China from northern invaders, I again felt a mixture of awe and emptiness. I was inspired by the beauty of the mountains, exhausted by the near vertical climbs and descents, and impressed by the massive accomplishment. I was also horrified thinking that an estimated 2-3 million people died building the wall. The wall played an important role in its day, but had little purpose for modern China. Why were we shown the wall, but given no reflection on what such choices meant for the Chinese people, especially all those who died?

In Xi’an (pronounced Shi-an), we got a chance to see the famous Terra Cotta Warriors, thousands of skillfully crafted, clay military figures buried under ground by the first emperor of China. Xin (pronounced Chin) unified the nation in 221 B.C., became ruler at age 13, and began creating these warriors then. The craftsmanship is amazing. Infantry, cavalry, archers, chariots, and horses were built and placed underground, because he thought that he would need an army in the afterlife. I could not get an answer as to how he thought this great terra cotta army would help, but he apparently he believed they would. He used 720,000 criminals and prisoners of war to build them and place them in position.

Meanwhile, he required local farmers to work half a year to provide food for himself and others in his court. One year after his premature death, and after one of his sons killed 17 of his brothers and other relatives to secure his succession, the peasants rose up in a violent revolt. The guide offered no commentary, but the peasants from the past did. They broke into his underground system and smashed almost all of the thousands of terra cotta figures, as evidence of their rage.

Shanghai was very impressive. The Bund—a riverside street lined with reconstructed buildings in the British style, first built after Great Britain forced its way into the city to set up commerce in the mid 19th century—was striking and beautiful. Across the river were huge, modern buildings, most of which have been built in the past decade or two. The largest is the Pearl TV tower, over 1500 feet high!

As China has become more prosperous over the past 10-15 years, many good things have been happening for the people. Many are still poor indeed, but I was told that the standard of living is improving markedly for many, fewer are going hungry, and more goods and services are becoming available for more people, even though the average person still doesn’t have a lot of money to spend.

Yet, buildings are going up at a breakneck pace and an increasing number of five star hotels are appearing in Shanghai and Beijing especially, and not just for foreigners. Market places are swarming with Chinese tourists, with only a smattering of Westerners to pay the marked up prices. Stores in tourist areas sell name brand clothing (or knockoffs) at American prices or higher. KFC, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks are all there, too.

On the surface, Shanghai is becoming New York, with far more people. Modern China, especially in the urban areas we visited, looked very western in many ways. I was told that if I were to get out more into the country, especially into Tibet and other western regions I would see much more of the ancient Chinese culture, but where I was visiting, I saw the effects of globalization. In spite of great philosophical and religious differences between East and West, modern commercial China and America are starting to look more and more alike.

Is this a good thing?

Next week: Chinese Religion and Culture–Growing Spiritual Interest in a Religious Vacuum 

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Conversing in “Post-Modern”

Holding spiritual conversations in a post-modern culture can be quite difficult at times, especially for evangelical Christians and those who still approach religion from a “modern” point of view. Yet, there is a great need for pastors, leaders and other individual Christians to learn how to think, listen and talk in post-modern categories, and to upgrade their understanding of God—not to something other than it is, but to use language and ways of thinking that incorporate post-modern insights and values.

For some of us, this means learning to not freak out or dismiss someone who doesn’t believe in absolute truth, or who doesn’t believe the Bible is inerrant, or who thinks there may be multiple ways to God. Instead of reacting, we need to listen for ways God appears to be at work in someone’s life, and not be overly concerned about philosophical or theological “accuracy.”

I don’t pretend to be an expert on post-modern thinking, but I do know that many people today simply assume, as self-evident, that everything is relative—truth is not something that is universal, but varies from person to person: “I have my truth, you have yours.” This is markedly different from the “modernistic” thinking that grew out of the Enlightenment, which consistently looked for laws of the universe, correct theology, and absolute truths in every area possible.

Now, before I get too thick with all this, my main point is this: If you want post-modern oriented people to listen to you, you need to learn how to listen to with an open mind and post-modern ears. Meaningful spiritual conversation with post-modern thinking people will require more humility and flexibility. I’m not talking about relinquishing your own beliefs or renouncing what you believe God has taught you through the Bible and experience. I’m talking about being more willing to admit your limitations as a subjective human being. I mean acknowledging that when you make a statement about God, Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit, you are making “faith statements,” not verifiable statements of fact.

Now, you may be 100% right about this or that, but the post-modern thinker will not be convinced no matter how much the Bible seems to agree with you, or how “certain” you feel. So, if this is what a post-modern environment means for many, traditional evangelicals need to find a way to talk about spirituality, to share their own faith and beliefs about God, to discuss spiritual experiences, and to read the Bible with others that is less dogmatic (that is, less insistent that you know the truth and anyone who disagrees with you must be wrong), and more open to God’s mysterious, loving ways of being at work in individual lives that may transcend our ability to fit into neat theological formulae.

In other words, Christians who want to have a meaningful conversation with someone who thinks “post-modern,” will listen first, and talk second. And when we talk, we will share our own story of real life experience—why we believe in God personally, why we have put our faith in Jesus, why we ask the Holy Spirit to fill us and lead us, and so forth. We may certainly share verses from Scripture, but not to tell others what they must think or believe, but to share wisdom from spiritual heroes and giants, and to explain how these verses have been helpful to us personally.

When talking to post-modern folks about the inspiration of the Bible, remember that they are not simply going to take your word for it, no matter what authority-figure you may appeal to. Instead, they want to know what is your story, how has your faith and your experience with God made a difference in your life, and why do you still believe in the midst of so many troubling questions. They not only want to not hear your word and ideas, they also want to “feel” from you that God is real in your life and in how you treat them. They want to experience “the real thing” in you as they are trying to figure out what the real thing is for themselves.


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Horror and Hope in Africa

(Warning: Some of the material in this posting is very graphic and disturbing.)

Our car tires kept crashing into huge pot holes every ten feet on the only “paved” road through Goma, Congo. We bounced along, veering to the right and left to avoid the worst of craters, and a steady stream of cars and motorcycles weaving in and out of our “lane.” The slow, torturous commute gave me a lot of time to see the row of lean-tos and shacks in each side of the road, and the many people hanging out, hawking items, walking here and there…

More disturbingly, I watched dirty children in tattered clothes playing in rusted out abandoned cars on top of hardened lava. For some of these kids, the cars were their homes. However, I was told, the situation out in the country was worse. Far worse.

I heard story after story of violent robbery, rape, killing, and corruption. Feelings of shock soon gave way to anger, dismay and despair. Mr. Kurtz’s final words, in Joseph Conrad’s disturbing novel, Heart of Darkness, kept coming to mind: “The horror. The horror.”

In the story, Kurtz had gone to what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, as an idealist. He left it a sick, degenerated, savage man, who had become captive to his evil impulses. The story explores the evil (the darkness) that lies within even the most noble human heart, and what can happen when it is left unchecked. The horror refers to what humans can degenerate to, and what they are capable of doing to one another and to themselves, given the right conditions and lack of safeguards. As he lay dying, heading home from Africa, the depth of the horror he had experienced and participated in was expressed in his now famous words.

In our recent trip to Rwanda and Congo, my wife, Jill, and I were exposed to some of the horrors still taking place in our world. We have just returned from visiting the Genocide War Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, where we saw and heard the story of how approximately 1,000,000 people were slaughtered in just over 100 days. We also spent a week leading a Pastors Leadership Conference in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where 4,000,000 died in a five year civil war, which involved surrounding countries as well and the overthrow of a brutal dictator. The war officially ended in 2003, but senseless killing, maiming, and raping are still going on in the Kivu regions in eastern DRC. I hardly have the words to describe the revulsion and fury I feel, but I must try to express what I experienced. I also saw a few reasons for hope, and I want to share those with you, too.

The Horror
The horrors of the human capacity for evil exist in every culture, in every people group, in every nation, and in every person. Often, many of us are ignorant of the abuses taking place in our own community, let alone the rest of the world. Periodically, the scale of the atrocities becomes so great that they cannot be hidden—genocides against the Armenians in Turkey during the First World War; against the Jews during the Holocaust; the killing of millions by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia after the Vietnam War; ethnic cleansings on every continent, the brutal killings of Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda over decades, culminating in the great 100 day genocide in 1994; Darfur today. The list goes on and on.

I offer my experience and learning partly to inform others about what has happened and is happening in two African countries. Even more, I want to sound an alarm and call to action. There is human suffering all over the globe, including in our own country, cities, and some of our own families. We need to see what is happening, we need to see what part each of us plays in the suffering of others, and we need to do what we can to respond compassionately and thoughtfully. No easy answers here, but a recognition that we must pay better attention to the consequences of our actions, and inaction.

During the civil war, when four million people were killed in Congo, and since, unimaginable violence and atrocities have been committed. For example, I saw an independent film while I was there that included footage of two armed men abusing the bodies of two dead combatants, who looked to be just teenagers. One put his finger in a bullet hole in the dead boy’s head, and pulled back some of the skin as one would remove a mask, effectively peeling away part of his face. Another fighter stomped on head of a dead person. Another began to mutilate the dead body, before the camera turned elsewhere.

Today, in Congo, much of the country is gripped by great poverty, and the violence continues. In Goma, where I spent all of my time last week, most people are afraid to go out after dark lest they get attacked or shaken down by dishonest soldiers. Almost everyone is afraid to go into the countryside in many places, lest they might be robbed and killed, or worse, raped and mutilated by militias or rebels. On top of the political and social mayhem, a volcanic eruption in 2002 wiped out at least a third of Goma, ruined most of the roads, and further destroyed the infrastructure of the city. Most people are now living in simple wood shacks built on top of lava rock, waiting for the next eruption of the active volcano.

What’s perhaps most disturbing is the ongoing violence and the extent of brutality. The day before we left, for example, an alarmed foreign journalist ran up to me to tell me about an interview she had just completed with one of the women waiting for surgery at HEAL Africa’s hospital. The woman had been raped by six men out in the countryside. When they were done gratifying their lust, they took broken glass and cut off her labia. No wonder thousands of internally displaced people (IDP’s) have fled to various camps in the countryside to escape the violence and the threat of such terrifying violations and brutality.

I don’t have words to describe how sick some of these stories make me feel. What produces such cruelty, such viciousness, such brutality, such evil? No one seems to know. Hate perhaps, but why? If there are political purposes, no one can satisfactorily identify them. Terror, perhaps, but often the violation and violence seems purposeless, carried out by out-of-control teenagers with guns, who are filled with unimaginable hate and viciousness.

The better known genocide in Rwanda is another example of mind numbing violence in Africa. I had read a number of articles about what happened in 1994, but I didn’t realize how much more there was to the story. The Memorial states that over one million people were butchered, hacked with machetes, shot, burned, bludgeoned, and buried alive in a little over 100 days. Did you also know that the genocide against the Tutsi minority was pre-meditated, with lists of names prepared in advance of the onslaught? Within an hour of the assassination of the President in April 1994, roadblocks were set up all over Kigali, and gangs of armed people went out to systematically kill every Tutsi in the city. Over the coming months, as the United Nations and the rest of the world stood by doing nothing, these killers set out to exterminate the entire Tutsi population in the country. Did you also know that 350,000 orphans were left behind? Did you know that thousands of others still live with mutilations, trauma, and other physical and emotional scars? Did you know that killing is still going among Hutus and Tutsis, with Tutsis killing Hutus and Hutus killing Tutsis–only now the proxy war is being fought across the border, in the DRC, with thousands of Congolese getting caught in the middle?

I didn’t. To my embarrassment, I never thought about what it must be like for the survivors and for the country as a whole as the people try to heal and to promote peace and unity among all citizens. I tended to think of the genocide as a very unfortunate moment in history, now past. After visiting Rwanda and Congo, I now realize that the trauma goes on, even though Kigali has been sanitized and so much “guilt money” (as one aid worker described it) from foreign powers has poured in to help the country rebuild itself.

As we walked down the streets where thousands of dead and dying bodies had once been strewn, I tried to let in the magnitude of what had happened in a sudden surge of hate and savagery. As I drove by those convicted of genocidal crimes, now dressed in pink doing work for the community under armed guard, I tried to catch a glimpse of the faces of killers. Disturbingly, they looked like everyone else in society—normal human beings.

I met a number of survivors, such as Theoneste Kiki, who has been raising his three younger sisters since he was seven years old and his parents were murdered in front of his eyes. I realized that it is now almost 14 years that many orphans have been struggling to raise themselves and their siblings with very little help from others, many of whom are in similar situations. Healing and health are still a long way away for many.

Thank God, there is also some light and hope in these countries. Here and there, I see good signs. Rwanda is far ahead of Congo in most ways. Both countries are struggling, but Rwanda has many more visible signs of recovery, while Congo is still be torn apart in every imaginable way.

Mostly, I see hope in individual Africans who are rising up to try to address the suffering and to help their fellow Africans heal and create a better life. Non-Government Organizations (NGO’s) provide critical relief for many who are on the verge of death or disease. However, so much more is needed, and only the African people themselves can create a better society for themselves in the long run. Fortunately, some are trying to do just that. Let me give you just a few examples from what I saw in one week’s time.

HEAL Africa ( was created by a Congolese man, Joe Luci, and his wife, Lyn. Their vision is for Healing, Education, Action, and Leadership training. So far, most of their efforts have been focused on creating a hospital and clinic to serve the poor. HEAL Africa has also been creating Nehemiah groups to promote dialogue and cooperation in the villages to address pressing needs. These rural community-based programs work with local health centers, health and HIV education, economic recovery, legal initiatives and school scholarships.

At HEAL Africa, featured in a recent PBS special, “Lumo,” I also met a number of dedicated Congolese doctors, nurses, and other staff members who are seeking to bring healing, provide health education, and provide antiretroviral drugs for AIDS patients and children who are HIV positive. I was inspired by these people, as I was by Dr. Christina and other foreign doctors like her, who volunteer their time and resources on a short term basis. Visiting surgeons come to do fistular repair work on women who were brutally rapes or who sustained injuries incurred while giving birth at home at a very young age. Currently there are over 100 women waiting for operations.

Through the Pastors Leadership Conference, I met many pastors and others who are very committed to alleviating suffering, caring for traumatized rape victims and displaced persons, and to sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I was particularly moved by hearing an Anglican bishop and HEAL Africa staff talk of their work with impoverished widows and shunned rape victims. In various ways they are supporting and helping these desperate women to learn skills and get material to start their own small businesses so that they can feed themselves and their children.

I was only in Rwanda for one day, but I had the chance to meet one particular woman whose tireless dedication helped understand better the plight of the orphans and what is needed to truly help. Beatrice Mukansinga, who founded a small outreach, “Speak. I’m Listening!” (See: Beatrice, and her staff, has devoted much of the last fourteen years of her life to helping Rwandan orphans to grow up and survive the post-genocide years. They offer food, job skills, and post-trauma counseling.

A Response of Resolve
When I was at the Genocide War Memorial and read about the brutal slayings of over one million defenseless people, and when I hear about the atrocities being committed against women, children and men in the Congo countryside, and when I hear about abuse and neglect by individuals and governments all over the world, sometimes hate and rage wells up within me. But I realize that it is just such feeling that leads to violence and perpetuating suffering. Such rage is not going help anyone.

Instead, I am choosing a different, more constructive, response: resolve. I am resolved to pay better attention to the suffering I cause in others, and to find better ways to promote peaceful conflict resolution. I am resolved to not turn away from suffering, injustice, exploitation, and cruel acts of abuse and neglect when I see or hear of them. I am resolved to focus my attention, energies, and resources on standing up for those who need advocacy and on doing what I can to help. By God’s grace and the working of the Holy Spirit, I hope that my intentioned response will result in real changes in me and fruitful action for others.

I hope I can return to Africa to help in some way again this year. I also plan to travel again to various troubled spots in Asia to teach and encourage pastors and seminarians there as well. In the few small ways open to me, I am resolved to do what I can. I’m only one little light in a world of great darkness, but I am resolved to let my light shine as best I can.

The world needs your light, too. In the midst of all the horror, what hope can you offer to others somewhere, anywhere, within your reach?

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:1-2, 13-16)

**Check out my wife’s website for pictures of the labyrinth she built for the Pastors Leadership Conference, and to read about the experiences of the participants who walked it:

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A Grounded Life

Triacastela, Spain. 145 km (87 miles) to go to reach Santiago. Both of Jill ´s ankles are wrapped to get her through the remaining week, my sons are more than ready to go home now, and I ´m fantasizing about The Original Pancake House, American movies, and sleeping in my own bed.

Yet  the pilgrimage is having the effect I hoped for and pray for every day. The heavy packs and 25,000 or so steps we take each day are  making  us very  conscious of the ground under  our feet. The experience is intensely physical, but the meaning of it is profoundly  spiritual.

The concrete, physical realities of my own bodily limitations and needs mean  I have  to choose my path carefully, and soberly weigh options before deciding to take a detour to pursue an interest. The choices I make matter greatly for myself as well as for those who travel with me on the journey. I cannot ignore the pain in my feet indefinitely or my needs for water, food, shade, rest, encouragement, conversation, friendship, or hope.

How far can I truly go in a day? What will be the cost of waiting for the sun to come up before starting out? How do I need to adjust  my plans to adequately care for my wife ´s needs as well as my own and my sons ´? When do we need to slow down and rest so that ultimately we can go further and get more out of the experience? How will we negotiate our competing values and interests?

All of the questions and issues stemming from our pilgrimage experience are helping me to become more grounded in my life–which simply means recognizing better the real world in which I live, and the implications for my decisions as I live out my life. As opposed to dwelling in the realms of ideas, hopes, dreams and imagination (where I love to live), being grounded focuses my attention on what is real–on myself, others, situations, and the world around me as they truly are in the present moment.

Being more grounded allows me to see my wife ´s agony and need for rest and support better. I am able to accept  one son ´s fear and distress, and the other ´s boredom and longing, and respond to  each one  more constructively. I can notice what they truly enjoy and appreciate, as opposed to what I want them to care about and value. I can better see what their faces are expressing, and hear what they are not saying with words. Being well grounded requires slowing down, paying attention to details, shutting my mouth, listening, asking thoughtful questions, feeling my feelings, trying to articulate what is going on inside my heart and mind, and continually asking God to help me to see what I need to see, to have courage to face the truth, and for strength to act on what is revealed.

Being more grounded in the present is a stepping stone to becoming a better person and spiritual leader, as frustrating as having to admit my own limitations may be, and as painful as aching physically is, and as disappointing as experiencing my own weakness and self-centeredness can be. ¨Who am I? ¨ and ¨Who might I become? ¨do not yield the same answers. Yet by honestly facing the realities that come from exploring the first question, I have a better chance of creating a more satisfying answer to the second question. The more I can face what is, the more I can pursue what might be–and expect fruitful results.  Being well grounded in  reality also helps me to lead and serve better, teach and inspire more effectively, and encourage more powerfully.

I am learning much about myself–some of which is painful, some of which brings me peace and joy, but all of which is giving me greater clarity and hope for my life. As I anticipate continuing to pursue my calling to know God better, to teach, and to offer spiritual leadership and guidance to others, I see how much depends on being well grounded.

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Pilgrimage–El Camino 2006

Leon, Spain. Over half way to Santiago de Compostela. We ´ve walked over 250 miles, starting in St. Jean Pied de Port, France. We crossed the Pyrenees, through dense fog and at times heavy rain, reaching Roncesvalles, Spain, wet, sore, and exhausted. What had we gotten ourselves into?

Over the centuries, the greatest spiritual leaders in the Christian tradition  have often  described spiritual growth in painful terms. Suffering leads to new insights and depth in our relationship with God. Therese of Avila, among others, describe the three fold mystical path as one of purgation, illumination, and communion. One type of experience leads to the next. Yet, the process is often cyclical throughout our lives.

I was drawn to El Camino (the pilgrimage pathway), because I wanted greater understanding about my life, my future, and God. I understood that first I might need to undergo some “purgation” as part of the process. I don’t like suffering any more than anyone else, but I was willing to do whatever it may take to move forward with my life. And if purgation could mean being freed a little more from the things that are holding me back, from anxiety, fear, self-centeredness, anger or any other self-defeating or wrong attitude or behavior, I was all for it.

Most days so far have been long trudges over rocky paths, up and down hills, or through arid wastelands–though we have seen some beautiful valleys and mountains along the way. The temperature the last few days has hit 100. Our feet blister, ache or swell. Getting up at 5:15 a.m. has gotten old. Today, we are taking a rest day. We ´re that exhausted.

Still, the walking has been an incredible, grounding and illuminating  experience. Most of the time, I ´m not aware of what is happening internally while I ´m walking. Then, all of a sudden, emotion will surge out of me–anger, longing, sadness, frustration, disappointment, regret, relief, hope. (More than a few gangly weeds along the Camino are no longer standing, because of a sudden thrashing from my walking stick!) Then, clarity and conviction. We ´ve had a number of difficult, but very fruitful relational conflicts and  conversations as well. Other times, we ´ve laughed, poked each other, teased, and felt really close.

Early on, as I was praying for clarity about my calling, I heard a response that made sense: “This pilgrimage is about preparing you to hear your call–not to tell you what your call is.” Though I like easy answers when they ´re available, I realized that I needed to be changed internally first in order to be able to understand and, more importantly, to accept  God ´s next call. Otherwise, I may keep trying to pour new experiences and insights into old wineskins.  

The most surprising revelation so far came during one of my times of solitude–when I walk for long stretches by myself. Out of the blue, I heard myself tell God that I was fairly satisfied with my spiritual life as it is, based on what I know about God and spirituality. Maybe a 9 out of 10. I know there ´s an infinite universe worth of knowledge about God out there, but I suspect that most of it is well out of my grasp. Futhermore, don’t the huge needs of the world call for Christians to roll up their sleeves and devote themselves   to concrete, this-world concerns, as the hands and feet of Christ?

Well, yes, generally speaking, it ´s true: Christians are needed everywhere to meet human needs and to be actively engaged in developing solutions to local and world issues. Nevertheless, almost as soon as I announced my intention to become more practically minded, I knew I was being led down this line of thinking for a different outcome than I had imagined.

Paul ´s words to the Philippians came to mind. He said that nothing mattered more to him than knowing Jesus Christ and the power of his suffering and resurrection. Paul was very involved in the “real world” as a church planter, evangelist, fundraiser, author, public speaker and teacher. Yet, his heart and passion was first and foremost for his relationship with God through Christ. His words struck home.

Does God want me to risk “wasting” my life, my time, my energy, pursuing a deeper spiritual life? It seems the answer for me is “Yes.”

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Spiritual Retreat in Chartres, France (1 of 6)

The Chartres Cathedral

If you haven’t ever been there, you have to go some time. But expect to be changed by your visit.

Chartres is a town, one hour by train, southwest of Paris. In it is a huge, beautiful cathedral, built at the beginning of the thirteenth century. My wife, Jill, and I journey to Chartres once a year for a ten day spiritual retreat.

  • I go to connect with God on a deeper level
  • I go to rest–from all my striving and drivenness
  • I go to listen to God
  • I always hear something I don’t want to hear, but need to hear
  • It’s always a hard time
  • It’s always the best time of the whole year

When you walk inside of the cathedral, you are immediately struck by the immensity of the sanctuary. The pillars stretch up into grand arches that lift your eyes and heart toward heaven. The stained glass windows are breathtaking. The labyrinth on the floor is intriguing.

My favorite thing to do in the Chartres cathedral is to quietly walk around, hum the Lord’s prayer, and pray. I like to spend hours sitting in front of a statue of Jesus. This year I gravitated to a life-sized crucifix–a cross, with a figure representing Jesus nailed to it. Each day I took time to simply look at him and think about his love and self-sacrificial death. At times, I did my Bible study there, looking up from my Bible periodically, remembering to silently ask Jesus how the verses apply to my life.

Often, I just sat there in Jesus’ presence, letting my mind wander and thinking about what’s going on in my life. I know God is present everywhere, but it’s different there. Somehow sitting in such a grand house of worship, with a figure of Jesus on the cross in front of me, surrounded by stained glass windows and sculptures telling biblical stories, makes me more aware of God’s presence. I find that I want to pray. I want to connect. I want God to speak to me.

This year, I have been reading and thinking a lot about differences among Christians and differences between Christianity and other religions–especially, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and New Age beliefs. I’ve been deliberately seeking out people whose faith is different from mine. I want to understand them better.

I’ll admit, I originally mostly wanted to make myself feel better about being a Christian. I wanted to find the faults in others’ beliefs to strengthen my own confidence in mine. But I’ve been discovering a surprising thing. The people I’m meeting are a lot like me, and share many of the same values I hold. They’re often people who love their families, want to honor God with their life and practice, and want to do good and make the world a better place.

So my search has changed. Instead of just looking for the differences, now I’m also looking for how God is working everywhere in the world, in different traditions, through and in spite of official dogmas and traditions. I’m amazed at what I’m finding, and eager to stay on the journey. I’m more glad than ever to be a Christian, and my love for Jesus keeps deepening, but I’m also amazed at the people I’m meeting and what I’m learning from them.

I discovered that the crucifix had been positioned inside of the ecumencial chapel in the cathedral. As I wrestle with deep spiritual questions, I was being drawn to sit with Jesus, in a place devoted to celebrating points of common faith among divergent traditions. I wonder what God is going to show me next….

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