July 24, 2008

My Call, My Answer

(More self-plagiarism. I'm seeing a pattern here. Maybe you should just read the other blog.)

I’m going to write about myself. And I really want to sit here and tell you that I’d rather not write about myself, and that I don’t usually indulge in myself all that much in my writing, but that would be a lie. I love to write about myself. You should read my diary - it’s all about me. Actually, you shouldn’t read my diary. Please don’t, it would be terribly embarrassing for me. But I can’t exactly sit here and tell you about what has been happening in your life for the last few months, can I? I have to tell you about my own, and why I’m going back to Tanzania and how this all came about in my life.

My church has held a missionary conference for as long as I can remember. They still do. Once a year, a few missionaries from across the world would come back home and put up a booth in the foyer behind the sanctuary, and stick it with all kinds of pictures and souvenirs for the church members to browse through and gawk at. They’d put out post cards with their pictures and the name of their country and a verse on them. I would hoard them, stick them in the pages of my Bible.

Speaking from the perspective of a sleepy kid who struggled not to nap in church and drew pictures of spaceships during the hymns, I always found the missionary conference to be the most interesting two weeks of the year. You got to hear people talk about interesting stuff. They talked about faraway places and showed videos of African choirs and pictures of dudes in canoes and people making porridge over open fires and stuff. Whatever anecdote they might have told at the beginning was probably enough to satisfy me for the rest of the service. It was interesting.

Even as a child, it energized me. The African missionaries especially. Nothing in the world was as exotically different and shocking as Africa. The people were darker, their houses were smaller, their food was stranger, their animals were bigger, their jungles were darker, their skies were bluer, their mountains were taller, their roads were bumpier, their choirs were louder. Africa was fantastic and unreal, and I had to see it someday.

But then I grew up.

Ever kid has a similar top-five for vocational pursuits. Somewhere in there you’ll see astronaut, professional athlete, fireman, race car driver, and/or ninja. And inevitably they fade away and get replaced by far more realistic, lucrative, and boring jobs like lawyer, doctor, teacher, engineer, architect. Though, honestly, if we could all be ninjas, we’d all be ninjas. And the world would be a lot safer. But that’s beside the point. In my top five may at one point have been Missionary, that’s how much I was into it. But it faded away, too.

And I went through high school and college, and knew that I’d never be an astronaut or a quarterback or a ninja (not in any full-time capacity with benefits, anyway), but I never could figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. Through all of the confusion and career conundrums, though, there was a constant of involvement in ministry. I stayed involved on campus or in youth group, I served on staff at Grace Adventures for three years, and in 2005 I got to go to Africa. This wasn’t the fulfillment of my lifelong dreams. In fact, in retrospect it seems like it all came about in such an unplanned, sudden spiral of events that one day I found myself sitting on an airplane with my (then) future brother-in-law and another kid from Muskegon, asking where it was that I was going and if I had remembered to pack enough soap. The soap, as it turned out, was irrelevant, because they lost our luggage and I had to buy some there anyway. When I got my stuff ten days later, I was already thoroughly attached to the African soap, as well as the boxers I’d bought at Woolworth’s and the secondhand clothes I’d haggled for in the markets.

Anyway. When things arise in such an abrupt, unexpected manner as the trip to Tanzania did, without my planning or consent or selfish ambition to get in the way, it seems as though there are other forces at work in your life and in the world. One night as we sat around a campfire, celebrating the Fourth of July in true African style with rice pudding and “barbecue” (its true identity escapes me now), all of the things about Africa I’d thought as a kid came rushing back to me, unhindered and unflavored by my grown-up impressions and exposure to academia and the media. And suddenly Africa again became the mysterious place that I loved and had only then started to experience. And I decided it might not be so bad to come back again someday.

One day, Grand Valley State University decided they’d had enough of me and my money and that my credits were satisfactory enough for them to spit me out with a degree and tons of debt. I didn’t have a career path in plan, but I had enough ideas to survive on for a while. I did an internship with Relevant Magazine in their editorial department. When I got home, I searched for and found a job with a small business magazine in Grand Rapids. And always, I thought, before I really get going, I’m going back to Africa, at least for a while. Almost always, I targeted this fall, 2008, as a time to go. And when Barb Sherman called me last fall and asked if I wanted to go back, I knew that I would be on my way soon enough.

I got laid off at my job just before Christmas. Those circumstances are strange and they warrant a whole different conversation, but it suffices to say that it freed me up to pursue other opportunities, none of which panned out because there was something else more significant in my future, and I still had an open offer from Steve and Barb Sherman.

I don’t remember ever making a decision to go. I remember realizing one day that I was already planning to do this and simply had yet to tell the Shermans and my parents, and I guess myself, about it.

I am not qualified to be a missionary. And I don’t know for sure that that’s what God has blocked off for my entire future. But I know that this was something I had to do now. And I know that though God does not always call the qualified, he does qualify the called.

July 16, 2008

A startlingly brief, inaccurate, uninformed summary of Tanzania that should be taken with a grain of salt

(Note: I decided to plagiarize myself and post this to this blog too. For the most part, I'll try to add posts from my Tanzania trip blog to this one.)

I feel a little bit like a seventh-grader about to give a class presentation. You see, I want to tell you lots of interesting things about Tanzania because you probably haven’t been there, and you probably don’t know much about it. The majority of people can't point Tanzania out on a map. So if you can't, either, you're normal. So, let me begin:

Here’s some boring but essential stuff that you and I will both soon forget: Tanzania is in Africa, on the east coast. If you were to hold Africa like an ice cream cone, it would be at that webby part of your hand between your thumb and index finger. It’s the 34th largest country in the world, about twice the size of California. For your convenience, I’ve included a map with a gigantic yellow arrow:

Tanzania is like Michigan, where I live, in that it’s surrounded by some Great LakesLake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Victoria. That’s probably where the kinship ends, though. Michigan does not have Tanzania’s mountains, nor its rainforests, nor its terrifyingly poisonous snakes, nor its man-eating lions, nor its tribal diversity. We do however have black bears and multiple peninsulas. Tanzania has no peninsulas and no black bears. Edge: Michigan.

The highest point in Africa is found atop Mount Kilimanjaro (If all goes well, I’ll stand there in October) and the lowest point on the continent is found at the bottom of Lake Tanganyika (If all goes well, I won’t stand there, ever), both of which are in Tanzania. Also found in Tanzania: The Serengeti plain, Zanzibar and the spice islands, Gombe National Park (where Jane Goodall spent lots of time writing down fascinating things about Chimpanzees) and Olduvai Gorge, where scientists say mankind was born, though I can’t confirm that because I wasn’t there when it happened. You’ve probably heard a little bit about all those things, just maybe not that they’re in Tanzania.

Also fascinating: Tanzania grows lots and lots of bananas. They’re a staple there, because they provide great nutrition and require relatively little work. A well-maintained banana grove will produce for 30+ years. Bananas need good rain and high temperatures, and Tanzania has both. Africa grows 35% of the world’s bananas, and the average African eats 550 pounds a year. So says a National Geographic book about Tanzania.

There's a lot more to be said, but I believe I promised a startlingly brief, inaccurate, and uninformed summary, and I'd hate to disappoint you.

I leave twenty-seven days from today. Then I'll have much much more to write.

Keep reading.


Pictures from 2005: