Tanzania 2022 – July 11 – The red hat tale

In our excursions in Tanzania, we were all impressed with the kindness and friendliness of the Tanzanian people. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the tale of the red hat.

On Sunday the 10th, after attending a church service in Majengo, we arrived at a venue for lunch and a report from some members of ODS, “Open Door for Development Strategies.” This was a group begun by Lameck Sylvester, who was our guide and host while we were in Mtwara district.

The purpose of this group is to train Tanzanians, who are generally very poor and living on about $2 a day, in the mentality and skills necessary to develop sustaining businesses. They have seen many successes. As one of our guides said, “local problems need local solutions.” This is a great example of that. All in the name of Christ.

So, back to the red hat.

After we left the venue, it became apparent to me that I had left my hat behind. Now, I’ve had this hat for over 20 years and carried it with me on numerous trips, wadded up in my suitcase or pack. It’s been on many a hike, keeping the rain and sun off my head. So, I was a little disappointed but resigned to the idea that I would never see my faithful hat again.

A bajaj (ba-ZHAZH)

The next day, our group loaded into bajajes (a three-wheeled motorcycle with a body) to be carried to our next stop. We generally hired these drivers for the day, and they would hang around while we toured whatever we were seeing that day.

This particular morning, I was riding with Lameck. I noticed we were heading in the general direction of the venue where I had left my hat.

“Lameck,” I said, “Are we going to be near The Old Boma (the venue)?” He said we were not. I explained that I’d left my hat there, but no big deal if I couldn’t get it back.

By the time we arrived at our destination, a thought occurred to me. I went to David, one of our group leaders who knows the most among us about Tanzania.

I asked David if he thought it would be alright if I hired one of the bajaj drivers to go to The Old Boma to retrieve my hat. He said he didn’t see why not.

And then something wonderful happened.

Lameck overheard me asking that of David and said, “It’s already been taken care of.”

On his own, he’d asked one of our drivers to go to La Boma and rescue the lost, red hat. Shortly thereafter, I had my headgear back.

Lameck Sylvester

Time and again, we remarked at the friendliness and kindness of the Tanzanian people. There is a selflessness among the believers that is pleasant and “adorns the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:10). Often ready with a smile, they never seem put out by inconvenience or the kinds of things that would make me lose my patience. This was just another example of that.

I continue to carry those memories.

My trip to Tanzania took place in July 2022.

Tanzania 2022 – July 10 – No longer a face on the refrigerator

Yesterday brought us to a school in Majengo. After a brief welcoming ceremony, which included singing children and tribal dancers, I got to meet the child my wife and I have sponsored for several years.

During all this time, various photos of Talik Dalusi have adorned the side our our refrigerator, chronicling his growth over the years. Often not thought of or prayed for as often as he should be. Perfunctory monthly support and monetary gifts at Christmastime.

All of that ordinariness melted away in one quick moment as I came face to face with Talik’s mother, Paulina, and moments later when I was introduced to a shy little boy. Suddenly, he was no longer a picture on the refrigerator.

I gave them some pictures of my wife and me, our dog Roscoe, and our son and his family. Talik smiled and laughed as I gave him two harmonicas and played an impromptu duet with him. A ball and a Frisbee were a big hit as we played catch.

Later, Paulina asked (through an interpreter) if I wanted to see their house. Of course! So we made a short walk to their home where they invited me inside. I felt like an honored guest.

Then came the greatest surprise of all. She escorted me to a place where they had laid a foundation for a new, larger house. “We are building this with the money you send at Christmas.”

Speechless.

Other of my friends said that similar things were reported to them. “This chicken coop…” “These goats…”

It’s beyond comprehension that what to us is a small gift could make such a large difference. That the Lord could continue his five-loaves-two-fish work and that I could have a part in it literally brought me to tears.

Later on, as they were serving us lunch, Talik joined a couple of friends in a contingent helping us wash our hands. As I stood in line, one of his buddies nudged him and nodded over toward me, as if to say, “Look, there’s your man.” Normally pretty shy and reticent, Talik offered me a huge grin with white teeth.

Talik – #30

This boy on the fridge has now found a place in my heart.

Finally, the day had to end. We reluctantly pulled ourselves from throngs of happy, appreciative children.

It was encouraging to see the center that is supported by so many in my church having a real impact on the real lives of people. Where once children were taught under two large trees, they now have a well and several buildings. A foundation for a larger church building has been laid.

One of my party noted that it’s easy in America to think that the church is in decline. But all across the world, the gospel is advancing. It was thrilling to see evidence of that first-hand.

Vacation

Vacation is not the absence of work. It is the pursuit of rejuvenation.

M. Graham Knox
One of the spots we hope to revisit

I’m going on vacation next week. Here are a few random thoughts.

We’re going to Wyoming again. This makes the 4th consecutive year. A different spot this time, so there will be a sense of familiarity mixed with unfamiliarity. I’m excited about that.

In the picture above, I’m wearing a Blue Ridge Parkway hat…in Wyoming. I have a Yellowstone hat, but I’d look like a tourist. Don’t be that guy. This way I look like a well-traveled adventurer.

At my work at Chick-fil-A, I often engage with guests who are traveling on vacation. This always energizes me, because it turns my thoughts toward my own adventures. Since we live and work where we used to vacation, I really love giving advice on things to do. One of the many services we provide.

My operator at Chick-fil-A is an epic explorer. He recently said, “The thing about adventures is that they make you want to have more.” This is why we’ve been planning this trip for over 6 months, and why I’m already scoping out new spots to travel to.

Carolyn has completely recovered from back surgery last December. She’s been a trouper on our adventures, even with her chronic back pain. I’m eager to see how the lack of pain will increase her enjoyment. I hope I can keep up.

We will be right outside of Yellowstone National Park. However, since we’ve been through the park several times in the last 3 years, and with all the record crowds, I’m not sure we’ll get into YNP very much. There’s plenty to see in the outlying areas. We’ve done that before in Yosemite in California. Some of the best sights are outside the borders of the parks.

Speaking of sights, I got a new lens for my camera. Last year, my lens broke during the trip, so most of my pictures were taken with my phone. Now, a Galaxy S20 takes really nice pictures, but I was missing my Canon.

Every article I’ve read about travel in the national parks this year is that they are bursting at the seams with record crowds. One article talked about the lack of rental cars and prices of upwards of $500 a day (!!!) in Jackson, where we fly in. A couple of months ago I encouraged Carolyn to reserve a car early. Prices were staggering. She finally found something that was only twice the cost of what we paid last year. She later found a better price, but it’s still not cheap. And don’t even mention Turo (the AirBnB for cars); prices aren’t much better and the owners can be sketchy, pulling out of a rental agreement last minute.

I’m not planning on doing a lot of writing during my trip, but I will try to post on this blog some of the best pictures each day. Stay tuned.

Our cabin is pretty isolated, well outside of town. I plan to contemplate the stars and the God who marks them off with the span of his hand.

I’ve got Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Up Around the Bend” running through my head: “Hitch a ride to the end of the highway
Where the neons turn to wood.”
Yep, we’re leaving the sinking ship behind and goin’ up around the bend.

“I think I’m Reformed”

I would not describe the Bible college I attended for 3 years as overtly Calvinistic in its theology. That is to say, if any of my teachers were, they didn’t really wear it on their sleeve. And I don’t recall a class where we specifically tackled the doctrines of grace. Maybe that was a senior-level course. Most of our profs were from the Dallas Theological Seminary camp, and thus were pretty solidly dispensational. I think if I’d stayed for a fourth year, I’d have taken the “Daniel/Revelation” course and have seen that in full bloom. It was a good school, but looking back, it seems odd that while there, I began to have Calvinistic leanings.

It was my 3rd year, and it was while meditating on Ephesians 1:4 – For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. (NIV) – that I began to ponder the idea of election and predestination. That single, simple statement from the hand of Paul set me on a path toward understanding that the reason I was justified before God was ultimately because in eternity past, God chose me.

I was also attending a Presbyterian Church in America church because I liked the pastor and the solemnity of the worship. My Sunday School class was held in the pastor’s study. Now, when I get in anyone’s study, I’m always interested in their choice of books. I took notice of a set of commentaries that were colorful and small. Just the design was attractive.

They were a small series of commentaries published by Banner of Truth Trust from the epistles of Paul and Hebrews. Written by Geoffrey Wilson, each was identified on the inside cover as “A Digest of Reformed Comment.” At my next visit to a local Christian bookstore, I purchased one, the one on 1&2 Thessalonians. I probably paid $1.50. I shortly bought a few more and eventually completed the set.

I believe that was the first time in my young life that I’d encountered the word “Reformed.” Not knowing what it meant, I’d have to depend on context clues from the commentary to discern its meaning.

I began to peruse the commentary and found that it was indeed a “digest” in that these little books were full of collected observations from various older writers, whom I gathered to be Reformed.

I also discovered that many of those comments were reinforcing the thinking that I had begun with my meditations on Eph. 1:4. The idea that God is sovereign over all and chose and predestined us in love before the foundation of the world was being confirmed in the comments from these ancient writers.

So, sitting there in my study carrel, I leaned back to see my roommate at his seat and announced matter-of-factly, “I think I’m Reformed.” Because he and I were more likely to talk about Jesus Music and Monty Python back then and not particularly prone to theological discussion, that was the extent of the conversation.

“I think I’m Reformed.”

I didn’t yet know all the implications of that declaration, but for the most part it was an accurate assessment of my faith journey in those early years. Shortly thereafter, I became acquainted with R.C. Sproul and his teaching tapes. He and others helped me on my safari.

While I’m not particularly a fan of labels, I’ve openly become an adherent to the doctrines of grace and have written about them and defended them in my teaching and writing. I’ve also learned that apparently according to some people I’m Not Reformed Enough.™ But I’ll write more on that later.

Why my questions didn’t cause me to deconvert, part 1

I had the strange occurrance of listening to messages this week that were recorded in 2004, and several speakers quoted, cited, or applauded the teaching of Joshua Harris (I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Boy Meets Girl). It was somewhat surreal, knowing now that not only has Harris disavowed the marital/dating advise of those works, pulling them from being republished, he also divorced his wife and eventually left the faith.

Other well-known professors of Christianity have done the same and have been quite vocal in blog and social media platforms in explaining their now unbelief. Are they looking for validation? Acceptance from a new audience? Is it simply an explanation to those who were their fans?

Deconversion – biblically known as apostacy – is a complex situation, and each occasion has its own nuance. But there are common threads. Sometimes its intellectual or theological questions that overcome faith. Other times it’s the hypocrisy and lifestyle of other professing believers that cause someone to doubt the veracity of Christianity. Still others express a kind of lingering unbelief that overthrows faith, as if a Christian is only to experience unadulterated certainty at all times.

I’ve been a Christian for over 50 years, and I can confidently say that I’ve faced all these types of questions personally from time to time. So, why didn’t I deconstruct my faith? Why have I continued to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (Heb. 10:23)?

Intellectual questions

As a thinker, both theological and philosophical, I’d be naive to assume that there aren’t difficult concepts and Scriptures in the Christian faith. There’s scarcely a day that I don’t read some writer offering up objections to the truth claims of the Bible. And I always wonder, “What if he’s right?” But many of those who deconstruct their confession allow their questions to derail faith.

I understand this. There was a time during my college years, after 3 years of Bible college, that I began to feel that I’d been caught for too long in what I now understand was an echo chamber – people and books who simply reinforced what I already believed. And though I never came to a point of deconstructing my faith, I did want to put my faith to the test. So I enrolled in a school where there were more opportunities to “bump heads” with non-Christian thinking. I didn’t so much want to drift in my own thinking as certify that my worldview would hold up when challenged by secular and neo-orthodox thought.

And I was provided with plenty of opportunity to dialog with atheistic hedonists and religious deniers of Scripture. None of that was able to rattle my trust in the truth claims of historic, orthodox Christianity; in fact, my hold on the propositions of the faith was thereby strengthened. Iron sharpens iron.

There will always be intellectual, experiential, and relational questions with Christianity. But instead of pointing us toward deconversion, the questions ought to drive us deeper into the Word, deeper into the writings of those who have gone before. The idea that “no one is asking these questions” is patently ridiculous. The very act of questioning should be encouraged, and honest answers should be given to honest questions.

Francis Schaeffer, the leading intellectual Christian light of the late 20th Century, describes in his writings a personal “spiritual crisis” in his own life. After becoming a Christian from agnosticism, serving for many years as a church pastor, and teaching in Europe, he tells us, “I had to go all the way back to my agnosticism and think through the whole matter….I walked, prayed, and thought through what the Scriptures taught, reviewing my own reasons for being a Christian. As I rethought my reasons…, I saw again that there were totally sufficient reasons to know that infinite-personal God does exist and that Christianity is true” (True Spirituality, xxix).

Bottom line, if you have questions, and truly want to resolve them biblically, there are sufficient answers to be found. There is no necessity to deconvert. Ask your questions, read the thinkers who, like you, had questions. Reconfirm in your heart and mind that Christianity is true.

I will write about questions related to the hypocrisy/behavior of Christians and that lingering sense of doubt in future posts.

The elusive Arisaema triphyllum

Photography by Mark Knox

Arisaema triphyllum, also known as a Jack-in-the-Pulpit, is a flowering plant found in the wooded areas of eastern North America, including the forest behind my back yard. They show up quickly in early May and stick around into June. This year, with a cold, rainy spell this past week, I saw a second wave of blooms.

Every year it’s a challenge for me, as my dogs playfully tread the mountain paths, to spot these plants when they first arrive. In the midst of May Apples, thorny sprouts, ferns, and other greenery, the Jacks hide tucked away in shady spots. Each evening as I return home, I announce how many new plants I spotted that day.

This search goes all the way back to my high school days, when in my sophomore or junior year, my science teacher whose name escapes me, assigned us to search the woods and dales of the north-central Ohio landscape for wild spring flowers. We were to collect, press, display, and describe as many as we could find. We would be graded on a sliding scale based on how many specimens we completed.

As one who woefully underachieved in high school and seldom did homework, ironically I really enjoyed this assignment. I even bought a little pocket guide to wildflowers to help me with the identification.

Unfortunately, my excitement for the assignment failed to overcome my inherent laziness and procrastination (something I struggle with to this day), so I ended up not turning in many examples. I probably got a “D” as I recall.

But near the due date, I summoned up some initiative and headed into the wood across the street from my house on Ohio Route 58, hoping to find enough to get me over the threshold of failure. For some reason, and I had no real scientific knowledge of this, I thought maybe I might find a Jack-in-the-Pulpit.

I spent the better part of an hour wandering through this small woodland. I don’t remember if I found any other specimens, but I continued to look for Jack. I didn’t know that most Jacks plants have an additional stem with 3 leaves; I was just looking for the familiar striped spathe – the pulpit – that housed the spadix – “Jack” – that I had seen somewhere before in some distant memory.

Suddenly, there he was! It was almost startling, kind of like the feeling you get when someone jumps out at you from behind a door. And then, where before I couldn’t find a one, now I was seeing dozens everywhere. Some were light green, and others had more of a purple-ish striped hue. I carefully broke one off at the base, took it home, and pressed it into my collection. I never went back to that woods.

Here in the temperate climes of western North Carolina, I began to walk the woods with Shadow the Dog, later adding the Amazing Roscoe Dog, I began to think about hunting for Jack anew.

Again, that nervous pursuit. Where might I find him? Looking, looking, looking. Peering, staring, studying. This time, he didn’t startle me; he was just there. I looked around; surely there are more of his mates. But no, he was a solo preacher. Maybe that first year I found three.

The next year there were more, and in additional places. Each year the numbers increase. Either they are spreading, or my powers of observation and discovery are hightened.

I’ve even found some variations beyond the coloring, green or purple. There are the early ones that are shorter and smaller with thinner stems. 3 leaves. There are some stalks with only leaves that grow. I look closely; they’re the same leaves, but no pulpit. I’ve found some with five leaves. Is this a new species? After all, they’re called tri-phyllum. Probably not, just a variation. Later in the season, I start to see a different kind. The base is a brown wrap giving way to thick stems, 3 in fact! One with the Jack and two stems of 3 leaves. Big leaves!

Today’s the first day of summer, and the Jack blooms are starting to wilt. With the cooler weather, we’ve had an extended season this year. so it’s been a gratifying adventure to take my nightly walk.

I like to think that this is something like what Adam must have felt in the Garden as he worked it and gave names to his discoveries. I believe my Father is pleased when I delight in what he has placed in this world. Through no fault of its own, the whole creation was subjected to corruption and eagerly awaits the revealing of the sons of God (Romans 8:19-23). But, though groaning, creation still tells a story.

Each spring, these Jacks step into their pulpits and preach the glory of God.

The Beatles, Christianity, and Culture

https://www.facebook.com/Yesterday/

I recently went to the movies with my daughter-in-law to see “Yesterday,” a tale of a struggling musician who, through some twist of fate, finds himself in some kind of alternate reality where he’s the only person who knows who the Beatles were. He proceeds to introduce the world to the music of the Fab Four as if it’s his own. Comedy and conflict ensue. We enjoyed the film; it’s a fresh premise in a summer of adaptations, sequels, TV-to-movie offerings, and no less than three live-action Disney remakes. Plus, I have spent the last couple of days getting reacquainted with the Beatles catalogue.

Which, for me, is to say, I found some albums on Spotify. You see, in one of those unusual quirks of my personal history, I own NO music by the Beatles. For someone whose life has been marked by the music on my various radio stations, turntables, tape decks, and CD players, it seems unthinkable that I would not have any Beatles in my possession.

Except, it’s not that unthinkable, when I delve into my early history. This whole re-immersion has caused me to ponder my upbringing and engagement with rock-n-roll. The “what if the Beatles didn’t exist” premise of the movie is closer to reality for my childhood. The Beatles may as well not have existed in my household. No Beatlemania there. My dad would scoff at those “long-hairs” as beneath him. No chance to catch the Ed Sullivan appearance that was so defining for many of my peers; no sir, we went to church on Sunday nights. When I purchased a couple of packs of Beatles trading cards, my mom let me know they were not welcome. And when John Lennon famously proclaimed that they were more popular than Jesus, well, if he’d announced that he was the Anti-Christ, it wouldn’t have been any more reprehensible.

This is not to say that my childhood was overly-repressive or joyless. I was, after all, saved by the aforementioned Jesus during one of those Sunday night services that caused me to miss the end of the 4:00 football games and the Ed Sullivan show. I suppose Beatlemania arrived in my life well before the more independent and rebellious times of my junior high and high school years. So, I was more or less obedient to my folks and never learned to like the Beatles.

Plus, my parents, though flawed as all are, were simply trying to live out their beliefs in a world that didn’t always embrace our Christian faith. I can’t fault them for that.

H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture identifies several ways that Christians have attempted to engage the authority of Christ when facing the culture around them. My folks were clearly in the “Christ against culture” camp. Things like drinking, smoking, and certainly rock-n-roll were vestiges of the secular city and were entities to be opposed as a Christian.

I’ve come to see Christ as the Transformer of Culture. There are certainly evil things in the world, but I’ve lost the “anything that is not Sacred is to be disregarded” mindset. In the common grace of God, John, George, Paul, and Ringo can produce something truly human that might just touch my soul in a way that can only be described as divine. So, I’m listening…and thinking.

Excuse me, Sgt. Pepper just ended. I need to “Get Back” to where I once belonged.

For a more complete discussion of Niebuhr’s book and the Christ and Culture debate, go here.

A set of good books

After many years of wanting this set, I was finally able to pull together used hardcovers from Amazon. I can’t tell you how much of an influence Francis A. Schaeffer was/is to me. Perusing these texts affirms their relevance even today. So much of his vocabulary has entered my own. “the God who is there,” “infinite-personal God,” “the mannishness of man,” “upper-story,” “space-time Fall,” “abnormal world.” So many others. The first piece I read of his long ago was the little booklet, “Two Contents, Two Realities.” This awakened in me a love for philosophical thinking that hasn’t quit. A giant in the 2nd half of the 20th Century, most evangelical believers have little idea of the debt we owe to this saint.

Have you read Schaeffer? What are your favorite books? Which concepts influenced you?

How a personality assessment saved my career

thought-catalog-217861-unsplashMany years ago, early in my professional career, I started a job as an assistant manager with a Wendy’s franchisee. It was just the right job for me as a young man and leader. Two other young men started with me at or near the same time. One of those young men was Zane Gross.

Shortly after we started, there came a vacancy in the general manager position. Suddenly, Zane and I, along with the other fellow, were in competition for the GM position. Pretty heady stuff for a mid-20s new father like me. We all wanted it. Bad.

Zane was/is one of those guys with a “Let’s do it!” personality. Assertive, confident, outgoing. Me, not so much then. And I tried my best to be more like Zane as we vied for that position. Eventually, our supervisors made the decision to promote Zane, and he did a great job and had much success.*

Several years passed, and I’d moved on to a couple of different jobs. All during this time, I kept believing that if I were to be really successful as a leader, I needed to be more assertive, show greater initiative, move much quicker in decision-making. The traditional view of the up-and-coming, go-getter businessman. In short, I needed to be more like Zane.

It was in one of those jobs that I was sent to a workshop with some of the other leaders. During that workshop, we all took some sort of personality assessment. I don’t even remember which one it was – possibly a GREGORC or a DiSC. The only thing I remember is that there were 4 quadrants.

As the first quadrant was described (the Zane Quadrant), I remember thinking that that’s what I wanted to be, what I needed to be to succeed as a leader. But, no. My quadrant was in the opposite corner, pitiful and weak, with its deliberative planning and organization skills. Big whoop.

When the facilitator got to my corner, he said something that changed my life and saved my career: “Every organization needs this person.”

Every. Organization. Needs. This. Person. Every organization needs…ME!

That was the game-changer. Suddenly I knew that I didn’t need to be Zane; I needed to be Mark. If there were deficiencies in my leadership, it was because I wasn’t being the most effective version of myself, not because I wasn’t like someone else.

In the years that have followed, I have learned that my greatest leadership comes when I play from my strengths. As I continue to coach young leaders, I help them understand and value their unique strengths and talents. I tell them,

“Every organization needs a leader like you.”

Question to consider: What are your strengths, and how do you bring them to bear on your unique leadership style?

I teach a course which utilizes the DiSC personality assessment. It’s called “Solving the People Puzzle” and is available in faith-based and non-faith-based formats. Please contact me if you are interested in this for your group or organization.

*Zane Gross now owns and operates a fleet of Wendy’s Restaurants in the Midwest. He is also a certified coach with the John Maxwell Team. He’s a successful family man and still, like me, a Browns fan.