1 Peter 2:20. But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
Marit and Morten are good friends from Norway. Marit and I were teammates in my Executive MBA program. We’ve visited each other a couple of times since then. We talk about our shared passion for traveling to exotic places. I love the Norwegian penchant for understatement. Marit told us her mother would say, upon returning from the most wonderful trip, “I didn’t suffer.”
A few years ago, Genie and I spent two and a half weeks in Africa, visiting Kenya and Tanzania. Genie is an environmental educator and volunteer docent at Zoo Atlanta. She had been working on a trip to Africa for 20 years. We didn’t suffer.
We had a most wonderful trip, exceeding my expectations. We took in five game parks: Amboseli, Lake Manyara, the Ngorongoro Crater, the Serengeti and the Masai Mara. We took nearly 1,000 photographs, seeing and experiencing God’s creation in a powerful way. I also learned something about myself.
Before heading off on safari, we went to the Indian Ocean coast of Kenya, staying at Watamu near Malindi. Our friend, Olaf Forster, was visiting us in Colorado as we planned the trip, and he invited us to visit his medical mission in Malindi.
So, I researched accommodations and made arrangements for three nights at the coast. This is not an area that is popular with Americans. No one could recommend a place to stay, and the internet did not provide much information. I was quickly moving out of my comfort zone.
We booked a place, and my unease settled in. My anticipation of the safari was tinged with anxiety about going into the bush alone. Olaf could not join us there, so he arranged for his Muslim partners to meet us. He also told us that he would arrange malaria medication when we arrived.
2 Timothy 1:7. For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.
We landed in Nairobi, surviving two overnight flights. We caught a small prop-driven plane to the coast. As we looked over our travel guide, we found that Malindi is 50 miles north of Mombasa. The coast near Malindi is largely Muslim, from the days when traders came down the coast from the Middle East. The travel guide entry on Mombasa highlighted the terrorist attack on a tourist hotel a few years ago, and the attempt to shoot down an airliner.
Ahmed met us at the airport with his assistant Mohammed, both in flowing robes. He gave us two small packs of eight pills, our malaria medication. “I don’t know about this stuff,” he said. “They tell me this is the cure, not the preventative.” Now I was worried. We were there 17 days and had eight pills each.
Ahmed was late for Friday prayers at the mosque, so Mohammed drove us to Watamu. He was screaming down a two-lane road at 60 MPH with hundreds of school children walking along the shoulder. Driving on both sides of the road, we dodged potholes and lorries (large trucks) and miraculously missed the children. I could hardly look. We were deep into the developing world.
Arriving at the hotel, our discomfort continued. We’d read, “Don’t drink the water; use bottled water for everything, even brushing your teeth.” The hotel had no bottled water, just big jugs of water from their desalinization plant. Now I’m worried about dysentery, malaria and terrorists. Side effects of malaria medication include very vivid, weird dreams. The night before our trip into the bush with the mobile medical clinic, I tossed and turned all night, dreaming of disasters that might befall us. I realized just how far out of the comfort zone I was.
The next day, we traveled with Ahmed in a two-wheel-drive Toyota through pouring rain, up the muddiest, ruttiest road we traveled our whole time in Africa. We traveled 20 kilometers off the paved road to reach a small village where the mobile medical clinic would be held. I was sure we would get stuck, and we almost did.
The day went fine. Genie and I handed out trinkets brought from home to the children. Despite the rain, 250 to 300 people walked in out of the bush seeking care. Mostly, they were treating malaria and testing for HIV. The ambulance from the Muslim Hospital in Malindi came along, bringing the medications and equipment. There was a newly constructed clinic, built by community development funds, but there was no funding for staff, doctors, nurses or medications. Olaf and his NGO, Medical Assistance for Africa (MDH), are making plans to raise money to drill a well, staff and equip the clinic, and build a mission church on the site. Today, the women walk six miles a day to get water from a muddy pond beside the road.
I realized that our imagined fears had run away with us. We survived the day and returned to our hotel worn out, but with a deep appreciation for Olaf’s mission to these people. I began to think about how much I am really willing to suffer for Jesus.
I remember a daily meditation I received by email from PurposeDrivenLife.com. It was titled, “God, Please Don’t Send Me to Africa,” by John Fischer. Here is an excerpt:
I grew up with a kind of warped Christianity that taught that if I was passionate about something, it was probably wrong. God was the great killjoy in the sky. Virtue was painful. The good usually felt bad. The bad (we were told) felt good. Denying yourself meant never doing anything you really wanted to do. Conversely, if you hated doing something, that was most likely what God was calling you to do. ‘God, please don’t send me to Africa’ was a prayer you’d better not pray, because that was the first place He would probably send you if you prayed that prayer.
This kind of thinking was one of the greatest barriers to my true commitment as a Christian. I was not ready to sell everything and go live in a hut in Africa. I was not prepared to suffer. I have now learned that God calls forth our mission and ministry out of our passions and gifts. Our friend Olaf has a great passion for his healing ministry in the bush in Kenya. His idea of a vacation is staying for a month in a mud and grass hut with no facilities or running water, caring for the needs of the least and the last. My passions and gifts are far removed from this area. I think of myself as a faithful person, committed to discipleship. Reflecting on the anxiety of this mission trip made me recognize that my faith seems pretty shallow.
At a conference, I got to hear Leonard Sweet talk about how to preach to post-moderns. He says you always look for an image, and build your message around that image. The image he gave us for an example was Paul’s back. Here was the text he used:
2 Corinthians 11:24-25: Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned.
From this simple text, he drew a powerful image of suffering to the edge of death for Jesus. Think about Paul’s back, scarred from lashes, ribs broken by the rods, crushed by stoning. The image is horrifying. Yet Paul endured with joy the suffering he encountered in Jesus’ name. I am humbled and awed by his example.
Today, in many of our churches, people hesitate to share the story of Jesus with their friends and relatives. We don’t want to make people uncomfortable. We are satisfied to be “members,” coming to church, spending an hour a week with God, and never really living in the fullness of life in Christ. Maybe that’s why the vast majority of mainline churches in America are on plateau or in decline. Following the lead of Christ is too risky; it takes us too far from our comfort zone.
I guess the bottom line is that we fear more than we trust. If we really trust God, we will follow His path wherever it leads. When our own comfort is more important than our call to discipleship, we will be satisfied with much less. I pray that God give us the strength to be true disciples. I know in my own strength, I can never truly follow Jesus as Lord. I thank God for the helper, His Holy Spirit, who strengthens and holds us close in times of trouble. May He transform us into courageous disciples, willing to walk into the valley of the shadow of death, fearing no evil. Amen.