Saturday, March 29, 2008
Blue Like Jazz Book Reveiw
The subtitle may give away the tone of this book. "Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality". I read this book quite by accident. It was in my office when I returned to Niger, and while I was intrigued by the title, I still did not tackle it until the Director asked if I were reading it. I said no, and he explained that is was quite a popular book in many circles in the US. Never one to worry much about hipness and trends, I still wondered what the buzz was about, so I figured I'd read it and see.
Don, the author, from what I read in the book is a freelance Christian writer and speaker from Portland, Oregon.
There are many great things in the book, and I have used parts of it in our family devotions. Much of it focuses on how Christianity can become a series of rules and regulations, devoid of much love or compassion. I agree that can happen. One gets the impression from Don that those issues are the rule rather than the exception in the majority of churches in the US. I would tend to disagree with that conclusion. Nevertheless, I found parts of the book where I was agreeing with the author more than disagreeing.
From the book on belief (pp 106-107): "The thing I have to work on in myself is this issue of belief. ... Here is the trick, here is my point. Satan, who I believe exists as much as I believe Jesus exists, wants us to believe meaningless things for meaningless reasons. Can you imagine if Christians actually believed that God was trying to rescue us from the pit of our own self addiction? Can you imagine? Can you imagine what Americans would do if they understood over half the world was living in poverty? Do you think they would change the way they live, the products they purchase, and the politicians they elect? If we believed the right things, the true things, there wouldn't be very many problems on earth.
But the trouble with deep belief is that it costs something. And there is something inside me, some selfish beast of a subtle thing that doesn't like the truth at all because it carries responsibility, ...
The problem with Christian belief - I mean real Christian belief, the belief that there is a God and a devil and a heaven and a hell - is that it is not a fashionable thing to believe." So one has the tension between real belief and "cool" belief.
From the book concerning how we view ourselves. Here Don talks about what he found out about himself after sharing a house with a group of guys which he calls "living in community". "Living in community made me realize one of my faults: I was addicted to myself. All I thought about was myself. The only thing I really cared about was myself. I had very little concept of love, altruism, or sacrifice. I discovered that my mind is like a radio that picks up only one station, the one that plays me: K-DON, all Don, all the time.
... Having had my way for so long, I became defensive about what I perceived as encroachments on my rights. My personal bubble was huge. I could not have conversations that lasted more than ten minutes. I wanted efficiency in personal interaction ...
The most difficult lie I have ever contended with is this: Life is a story about me.
... God brought me to Graceland to rid me of this deception ... It was a frustrating and painful experience.
I hear addicts talk about the shakes and the panic attacks and the highs and lows of resisting their habit ... but no drug is as powerful as the drug of self. No rut in the mind is so deep as the one that says I and the world, the world belongs to me, all people are characters in my play. there is no addiction so powerful as self-addiction."
This is great stuff! We as Christians can so easily be overcome by “me” “we” “us” and our little “Christian” world around us that we become so “spiritual” that we are no earthly good. On the other hand, to be reminded that belief, real belief, costs something (or should), and cost our Savior everything, is a truth that is glossed over in many “You'll like it here” churches.
Don also laments the fact that “conservative” politics have invaded the Christian church. And in someways he maybe right, however, I would argue that there is plenty of “liberal” politics to go around as well, as evidenced by the Obama and his pastor fracas.
In many ways I liked the book an awful lot, but there were three things in particular that just made it hard for me to get through, and ultimately I struggled to finish it.
1 – Christianity is not, and does not have to be cool. I agree, but the book is strewn with names and places from Don's experience that to this reader at least, are meant to show how cool he is and how is brand of Christianity must be cooler than someone else's. He mentions Al Green, hippies, Ray Swarez, pipes, protesting, C.S Lewis, Wilco, Katie Couric, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Reed College, Loren Pope, cusswords, racism, Dr. King, France, Mt Hood, the high desert, Romeo and Juliet, Taming of the Shrew, Susan Faludi ... I could go on. Obviously I am not as hip as Don. But is that how we are to measure our worth? By who we know? Where we have been? How trendy we are?
2 – While Don goes out of his way to deplore the church being in lock step with conservative politics, his perceived notion that liberal politics have some sort of high road in this regard is evident throughout the book. If you want to say that there is conservative political climate in American churches, just saying that if they were liberal it would be better because they care more, doesn't cut it. Unfortunately, he comes off as someone who is discriminatory against parts of the church in America because it is not hip enough, and somehow stands in the way of his political view, or his views on “better” Christianity.
Our home church is probably largely Republican, but we have never taken a poll, and the issue rarely comes up. Until fairly recently, during the course of conversation while teaching a Sunday school class, I found out that a former elder, and someone I have great respect for in the church, votes Democrat. Did that color my picture of him as a spiritual leader in the church? No, I still find him to be a very level headed person, worthy of respect. I find that attitude more compelling of Christian brotherhood than merely trying to redivide people.
3 – The biggest problem with the book is that while there are these great nuggets of truth about how we view people, and how our world can be infinitely greater than the immediate, most of the book has to to with “K-DON, all Don, all the time.” It is about Don and his friends and Don and his pastor and Don and his potential girl friends and Don's outlook on life the church and everything. I get the point. Don is saying that people's perception of the church and Christianity is more relational based than biblical based. I love the ideas in the book and they have challenged me to be more relational in my ministry, we do have to grow, and being stuck in how we feel about God, Jesus and the church, will lead to a church that is only a social club to affect social change. Affecting social change can be part of it, but the Christian life is so much more.
Don wants no one to judge him, and his Christian spirituality, but seems to stand ready to judge others if he feels they are opposed to his take on life issues. And I guess there is the rub of the whole thing. Don feels. And he feels strongly. But is that all to the Christian life? There are points throughout the book that allude to the fact the it is beyond only feeling, and also about surrender and learning and discipline and sacrifice and worship. These are things you don't necessarily feel, but are a significant part of the Christian walk.
Read the book. Read it with an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out ;-) . There are challenging things here to consider as we relate to people from different walks of life. But I would filter these things with a good study asking what the bible (and by extension Jesus) says about the subjects presented.
Monday, March 24, 2008
Potratz Easter Update 2008 - Wanda and the boysHello,
I hope you had some fun looking up some of the links in the first email. We tried to do some more of that for the second installment of what in the world are we doing in Niger!
Wanda has always considered her first calling as being a Mom, and considers the boys her first ministry.
At Sahel Academy, Wanda is teaching second grade language, second grade reading and third grade math. Her students this year are from the US, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Canada. Their parents are church planters, evangelists, Christian relief workers, teachers, accountants, embassy personnel, and doctors. Through her ministry, Wanda is helping those people concentrate on the work the Lord has given them. A couple of years ago, Sahel raised the percentage of non-mission students they would accept. While the school continues to have a Christian perspective in learning, including mandatory bible classes and chapel, the quality of education at Sahel attracts some families who are not Christian. Sahel has become more of a mission field in its own right, and Wanda has tried to plant seeds in the classes she teaches.
With Sahel Academy in the midst of the accreditation process, Wanda has also been given the responsibility of writing up the curriculum for kindergarten. Curriculum writing has proved to be very time consuming and quite a learning experience. She is striving to do it well.
Chris has been on the music team at school, either playing guitar or running the sound system. The music team helps to lead school chapels, and occasionally helps to lead the church services for the English language evening church that meets at Sahel.
He has also been part of the outreach team that went to Tera and helped to build "hangars" for the public girls school there. Tera is a town of about 22000 people 190 km to the west of Niamey, not far from the Burkina Faso border. Part of that trip was to also support the long time missionaries who have been serving in Tera for the last 16 years. They are in the midst of moving to Niamey to begin new ministry opportunities there. Chris will also be part of a group of missionaries that will be returning to Tera to help them move the rest of the household items from Tera to Niamey.
Chris was also excited to be able to go to the SIMAIR hanger to perform some general maintenance on the one of the airplanes and help put finishing touches on a new paint job for that plane.
Christopher's classmates this year are from the US, Canada, Ghana, and Korea. Their parents include church planters, evangelists, a pilot, teachers, administrators, and counselors. When his class graduates in 2009 it will be the largest graduating class that Sahel has had.
Justin feels he has been growing mentally and spiritually. Through Justin's service time at an orphanage in town, he has been learning to serve others and has been learning to use his French more effectively. Also during the orphanage time, he is learning to be a good role model to the kids by playing and interacting with them. Justin was able to go to Tera this year as well, marking the third time he has made the trip. For the first time on a Tera service opportunity Justin was surprised and happy to see the Nigerien students also working along side to improve their school.
He feels Sahel Academy is preparing him for life situations as a believer and as a person. He particularly finds bible and history classes helpful in his growth. In a small group bible study on Wednesday's, he is learning how to be a youth that honors god in his everyday life. Justin is amazed to see how God works in different people's lives and his own, sometimes in ways you would not expect.
He is very happy to have good relationships with his classmates who come from all parts of the world. Justin's class is composed of kids from the US, Canada, Italy, and Nigeria. Their parents are aviators, administrators, evangelists, church planters and embassy personnel.
Noah has not had many service opportunities. However, he has been able to help moving somethings for the missionaries moving to Niamey from Tera.
Noah has had a couple of opportunities to have fun in Niger though! In softball his team came in second in the social league of the Ougadougu softball tournament. This was the first trophy in many years to come back with at team from Sahel Academy. In basketball, Noah and his team won the 8-12 year old division of the three on three basketball tournament in Niamey. He did find that there is some surprisingly good competition here!
Noah's classmates are from the US, Canada, Korea, Belgium, Niger, and Australia. Their parents are administrators, a pilot, teachers, translator, church planter, doctor and a Christian radio station director.
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Potratz Mission Update Easter 2008Happy Easter!
What a great time of year as we remember the resurrection of Christ. As we remember that the tomb did not stay occupied, and that because of that we have a advocate in heaven. A spotless high priest who intercedes on our behalf before an all powerful God!
I was toying with the idea of outlining what we do in Niger, to help you understand better the part we play in the larger ministry of SIM here in Niger, and to help you to pray more effectively for us. I was not sure if that was to be my subject until we received an email from one of our supporting churches asking for exactly such a review in anticipation of an event they hold each year to raise funds for the missionaries they support as a church body. If this is not a sign, it certainly kills two birds with one stone. ;-)
When we are home visiting churches, giving updates and I tell you I am doing "computer tech support" people's eyes sometime glaze over and they nod (off :-) ). But what does that entail? How am I helping anyone come to know the Lord Jesus Christ in Niger by playing with computers?
First it is not play! It is a lot of work. Nonetheless, it is work I enjoy, and the Lord has given us the opportunity to do something I enjoy, and at the same time serve Him in a place I have grown to really like. My main responsibility is for close to 20 computers at the office that form the SIM Niger office network. These computers are used every week, by missionary and national staff, many of whom are not computer savvy, in an environment that is not air conditioned, hot, dusty, has sporadic internet access, and suffers daily power surges and outages. These are all conditions that are perfect for computer system failure! However, through the grace of God we have been able to build a system that is pretty robust, redundant at the server level, and is to some extent self restarting if there are long power outages. All this from off-the-shelf, inexpensive hardware. As other stations and ministries have needs, I offer assistance and support, sometimes by phone or email, other times by going to the site directly. I also directly support individual missionaries as they have computer issues.
So what have I been doing for the last two and a half months since our return? The following are beyond the everyday monitoring and tweaking of the system at the office. There are also Easter Eggs throughout the rest of the email with links to more information about people, people groups and places. Have fun! Ready? Here we go!
- For translators working with the Fulani, I set up a couple of older machines as school work machines for their kids, did troubleshooting work on one of their national language helper's computers, and am currently trying to find parts to install a new monitor screen in one of their personal machines.
- For church planters also working with the Fulani, backed up and restored data from both of their identical machines when the machines both decided to die within one week of each other! (Compaq laptops)
- For a missionary from Switzerland working to educate Christian teachers all over Niger (public and private), ran full antivirus and hardware diagnostic to speed up her sluggish computer.
- For a missionary from Romania working with Christian media in Niger, helped unblock Romanian websites that were being blocked by our filter. Also introduced him to portable applications that will run from a USB key to help him work more effectively
- We have had continuing classes at the office for office staff dealing with efficient use of the system, excel, and we will go on to other subjects.
- At the office we have also moved data back to the server that had been moved to treasury during my absence due to a server glitch.
- For one of the missionaries helping to fill the treasurer position,
find a way to get internet from her home here through a wireless phone
that ended up taking five
trips to various phone offices in Niamey!
- For an evangelist working with the Tamajeq, diagnose, research and finally repair a windows misconfiguration that was causing the computer access the hard disk very slowly, making the whole computer sluggish and almost unusable.
- For church planters working with the Gourmantche, backup as much data as possible and replace the hard drive in their laptop and optimize the system.
- For a Canadian family doing evangelism and church planting from another mission agency, recover their computer from an internet based attack and make sure it was working correctly.
- For a British missionary church planting and doing evangelism among the Hausa, sorting out email problems he has been having, and changing his mail address from an AOL address to a sim.org address.
- For the agricultural mission in Maradi, purchase a new computer, configure it and send it east to replace their ailing email computer.
- For the FEU, an evangelical ministry to students at the university here in Niamey, purchase and setup of 6 machines for their computer room which attracts many students to the center.
- Troubleshoot and get internet service restored for Galmi Hospital when they suddenly found they had no connection.
- For a SIMAIR pilot, troubleshooting cooling fan issues and determining whether or not they need a replacement sent from the US.
- For a missionary church planter from another organization, total disassembly of his laptop and a thorough internal cleaning to stop a chronic overheating problem.
- For Maza Tsaye the SIM agricultural mission center farm near Maradi, research and sharing information about possible internet connection options.
This email has grown quite large, but i wanted you to get a better idea of what we do here. The next installment in a few dayswill focus on what is going on with Wanda and the boys.
Randy for all
Monday, March 17, 2008
So what is it about Africa?
One of the the really hard things that one has to get used to in Africa is how long it takes to do anything. I mean literally anything. This is a problem in our personal experience at least Niger, but I have been told it is the same to varying degrees throughout Africa.
Here are some examples for you. We are in the second month of waiting for licence for our car. Granted it is an NGO exempt license which has some extra paper work involved, but 2 months! I have the need as a technical support person to have alternate access to the internet for many reasons. Upon our return we looked into a "Dogonay" phone which we can interface with a computer and get access to the internet. We had one of these last term, but sold ours to a fellow missionary when we went back to the US. To get a "new" (used but different) required 5 trips to the phone office, in which I waited approximately 7 hours. For a phone! I told Issiakou that in the US we would think it a waste of time to wait 30 minutes. He smiled. We are still waiting on installation of an A/C unit that we bought when we left for the US, hoping it would be installed sometime in the 6 months while we were gone. It is truly everything.
Beyond that, there is the problem of things that one needs for everyday life just not being available at all. We had weeks where it was almost impossible to find cooking gas in town. Other times in other years was lack of drinking water, or vehicle gas. And we have it better than many outside of the city in smaller towns.
I have never been sure of why this is. Is it lack of natural resources to begin with? Perhaps. The culture that is not nearly as time conscious as westerners are? Maybe, but there are Nigeriens who balk at the waiting too. I don't know that I have an answer, but I do have advice for those thinking about going to Africa, and perhaps other parts of the world for service or mission work. Bring a book, you'll need it while you are waiting!
Sunday, March 16, 2008
Potratz Mission Update March 14, 2008Hello to all,
The Tera service trip went very well. There were 19 kids and 7 adults that took part in different kinds of outreaches over the weekend of Feb 29 - March 2 (I know, I'm a little late on this one!)
The first excitement on the trip had to do with getting to Tera along an "under construction" road. An oncoming land rover spit some rocks up at the van I was driving and broke the side window directly behind me, and the window just shattered into the laps of the 2 girls in that seat. Praise the Lord that the rock was diverted away from them, and there were no more serious injury than fright and a couple of minor scratches
The time at Tera was most interesting. I was mainly with the team that were building "hangars" for the public girls school in Tera. Hangars are carefully selected tree branch vertical beams and then straight branches horizontally over them, and then the sides and roof covered with grass or stalk matting. The total size was about 20 feet by 12 feet for each one and we built 2.
We were met at the site by the director of the school and maybe 40 of his students. They brought tools to use, and the director made a bit of a ceremony of it. It was great to see the girls working along side our kids to improve their school. The hangars will be used to house half of 2 different classes that have 50-60 students in each of them. So each hangar may end up with 25+ students!
Because I was the one with white hair, soon after the opening ceremonies, the director gave me a tour of the school which housed the class rooms for the girls in one building, the boys in another and another small kindergarten building. I was impressed with his passion for the education of his students, and his desire for the children of Niger to be educated.
During this time another team was having a kids program across town. Later in the day there was a soccer game with the two teams having both Teraeans and Sahel academy students. Again, like the last time we were in Tera, the cattle cantered slowly through the sand field early on in the game!
Sunday was church at a nearby village, in a mud brick building about the same dimensions as the hangars. We sang songs of worship in English, French and Gormanchi, shared testimonies and worshiped through the hearing of the word of God. Pictures from the trip are here.
The trip back was pretty anticlimactic after all that, but we thank you for holding us up in prayer for safety and the good example of Christian love we hope that we showed to the people of Tera. We did not go there to just do something for the few Christians in Tera, but also to show the love of God to the larger community through our service. In his closing remarks after the hangars were built, the director was clear in telling his students that.
The last few weeks have been very busy ones at the office. I will fill you in next time, but suffice it to say that as the weather gets hotter, the computers get crankier, and I get busier.
The next trip on the horizon will be to Galmi hospital to do systems work there sometime in the next month.
Please pray with us:
1 - Thanks for the safe travel, and the witness the team was to Tera, and the witness that God was to us as we worked there.
2 - For Wanda. As Sahel Academy has been striving for accreditation, she has been working on creating the curriculum structure for kindergarten there. Ask that God would give her patience and grace as she does that and teaches some elementary classes.
3 - For the boys that they would finish this quarter strong. They have been working hard.
4 - For Randy that he would be able to prioritize tasks well, and that he is able to continue to share his knowledge with Jean (John).
5 - For the planning of the Galmi trip, that all things come together.
6 - For our perseverance as the weather is now in the triple digits again. :-\
7 - Thanks for your prayer for our colleague with the suspected cancer. The biopsy came back benign!
From Ouaga to Niamey to Tera - Potratz Mission Update Feb 29, 2008Good Morning Everyone!
None of the cities above are household names, especially in North America, but since our last update a couple of weeks ago, we have been to one, are in the second and will be going to the last one today.
The boy's Sahel team came back with a second place trophy from the Ouaga softball tournament. It was the the first Social team trophy brought back to Sahel Academy from there since something like 1998! The boys did very well, respectably holding down the infield. Noah was 3rd base, Justin shortstop and Chris at 1st. For a younger Sahel team they did well, only losing the deciding game to a mid-twenties something Japanese volunteers team. Everyone had a great time.
One of the moments of "excitement" during the tournament is that one of the men on the Sahel competitive team pretty severely pulled something, and I volunteered to take him to the hospital (clinic) for evaluation. There was some concern that he may have torn a previous surgery. The clinic was a contrast in African medicine. It was one of the only places in the city where a sonagram could be taken, but while it was quite modern looking, there were almost no patients! In Africa, sometimes there is just not enough people with enough money to sustain such an institution.
Today, Chris, Justin and I leave for a service trip to Tera which is about an hour and a half to the west of Niamey. About 20 kids from Sahel Academy will be building some "hangers" (small outbuildings) for a church there, conducting a kids program over the weekend, and other things. I will be doing shuttle duty moving people and material between ministry locations and taking as many pics as possible. Wanda and Noah will be home, so please keep them in your prayer in our absence.
1 - Thanks for the safety and the great time at the Ouaga tournament.
2 - Pray for the Sahel service team as they minister to the people of Tera. Pray that the outreach builds bridges between Christians and the overwhelmingly Muslim population.
3 - Please pray for health for a couple of people suffering from cancer or suspected cancer. One a colleague here that will be seeking evaluation and one for a supporter back home who is praying by faith for a miracle of God demonstrating His power in her body.
4 - Please pray for the SIMAIR guys as the new airplane sustained prop damage while in Mali. Pray that repairs and parts can be done quickly.
5 - Pray for the building of relationships with nationals as we have opportunity.
6 - Please pray for continued prayer, communication and financial partnerships with you!