What I Learned In Madagascar

I was in Madagascar for nine months.

And there I learned that God is good.  God is very good.

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Wheat And Weeds And Why I Came To Madagascar

Would you like to know why I came to Madagascar?

  • I wanted to serve and share the gospel amongst some of the poorest of the poor.

Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field.”

  • I enjoy working with languages and teaching English.

“But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.”

  • I wanted to get interesting pictures of unique plants and wildlife—mainly lemurs.
  • I’d heard good things about Bishop Todd and Patsy McGregor and their ministry in Madagascar.

“When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.”

  • Going to Africa is a pretty cool thing to do.
  • I felt like it was unfair that there is so much wealth and gospel witness in the west, and I felt compelled to go where there was less.
  • Kennon Vaughn made Madagascar sound like a challenge when he told me about it, and I wanted to prove that I was strong enough to make it here.

“The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

“‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.”

  • I didn’t have anything better to do and was too lazy to look at other options.
  • Because, “How can they call on Him unless they believe in Him? And how can they believe in Him if they have never heard about Him? And how can they hear about Him unless someone tells them?
  • People will respect me for this.  It gives me good Christian “street cred.”

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’”

  • I hoped my problems wouldn’t be able to follow me to the other side of the planet.
  • I knew these nine months in Madagascar would open my eyes to many important things and give me a better understanding of the world.
  • I figured I would have time to read lots of books.
  • I prayed and it seemed right.

“‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them.”

  • I knew I would grow closer in my walk with Christ in Madagascar.

“‘Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’” -Matthew 13:24-30

Why did I come to Madagascar?  Why do I ever try something good?  Searching the soil of my heart, I find that mixed in with the good seed of what I want to do, there is all sorts of false and prideful motivations.  Christ is in me, yet I am constantly astounded by how full of weeds my life can be, even in the midst of trying to produce real fruit.

I am fully convinced that Christ calls us to wage war against the sin in our lives, but it is a war that requires incredible wisdom, because if I get too fearfully presumptuous trying to destroy weeds, I’ll destroy the good as well.

If I want to never be prideful again, I will have to never try to help anyone.  If I want to never be impatient again, I will have to never try to solve a difficult problem.  If I want to never get sinfully angry again, I will have to never try to stand up for what I believe.  If I never want to be short and unloving toward someone, I will have to never get married.  If I want to never say anything wrong, I will have to never say anything at all.

What can one do?  1)  Don’t spend your life in fields full of weeds. I know there are fields that aren’t good at all, just as there are pursuits that are not righteous but obviously sinful. Don’t waste time there—get away from them.  2) Spend life taking care of the wheat fields. Walk by the Spirit and pursue the fruits of the Spirit and the kingdom of God, and be so thankful that there is grace to cover the weeds that spring up alongside the wheat.  3) Rejoice that one day, the harvest will come. Then all the weeds in my life will be bundled up and destroyed for good.

If Only I Had Died At The Hotel!

Yesterday, I was in was hiking with Mom and Dad through a natural wonder—one of Madagascar’s many national parks named Isalo.  Moment after moment, the scenery was simply unbelievable (I promise there will be pictures once I get back to my computer).  All you want to do in the midst of such magnificance is wonder and thank God for letting little humans like us take part in such an incredible creation.

Unless, of course, you are me, in which case the park was just stupid. Because obviously, the cloud formations weren’t pretty enough to get the pictures I wanted, the guide talked too long, the grass was too long and rubbed against my arms, and there were too many French people in speedos at the natural swimming pool.  I was also hungry.

So no thanks. Grumble grumble grumble. I should have just stayed at the hotel.

“All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, ‘If only we had died in Egypt!'” -Numbers 14:2

…Oops.  Maybe I haven’t really learned anything in Madagascar. At least the Israelites were complaining about a wilderness and not the shape of cloud formations.

Talking Is Good

Over the course of my life, I have decided that maybe, perhaps, there is a chance, that I am slightly more introverted than extroverted.  That leads me to be a bit withdrawn at times.

But one lesson that being here in Madagascar has pounded into my head is that people are a gift from God, and being able to talk with people (especially in English) is one of the greatest blessings He could have thought to give us.  I pray that I never forget that communicating is a gift, instead reverting to assuming that it is a given.  Thank you God for talking.

On a related note, my parents arrived here in Madagascar safely about 36 hours ago!  Mom had a lemur on her head this morning.  However, pictures will have to wait for a future post.

Conversations With Milson: “Ryan, Is My Family Go To Hell?”

Milson is twenty, and I meet with him every Sunday afternoon to talk about the Bible.  I really enjoy the fact that Milson is always thinking and always asking questions…until he asks a question like the one he asked out of the blue last Sunday:

“Ryan, I have a question.  My question is, is my family go to hell?”

I hesitantly started giving him an answer, wondering why he couldn’t just be content talking the other subjects that I had planned on talking about.

When I was giving my answer (in far FAR more round-about and stuttering way than his yes/no question required) I think my main goal was to help him not be sad about anything.  I did not want thoughts about hell to wreck his day.  I did not want him to have to wrestle with the issue or wrestle with God about it.  I wanted him to have a true answer that would also let him sleep well at night, because…that’s what I do.  Reflecting on it afterward, I realized that, no matter how good of an answer I gave him, Milson already had a better understanding of hell than me.

A proper understanding of hell is not mainly about whether one likes or dislikes the book Love Wins*.  It has more to do with whether or not one can say what Paul did when contemplating the unbelief of his fellow Israelites:

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. -Romans 9:1-3

Can I even come close to saying this with Paul?  If my hell theology doesn’t cause me great sorrow, then I just don’t understand it.  My conviction, though worded correctly, is simply wrong and cold-hearted if I can rationalize my emotions to the degree that I am just apathetic.

It seems that I took too many psychology classes in college and fell for the trap that turns Christianity into a mere healthy mentality, which helps rid the mind of tension, conflict, and anxiety.  I think if the apostle Paul were around, people would tell him to go talk to someone who could help him with his feelings.  “You don’t need to have ‘great sorrow and unceasing anguish’ inside you.  That’s not healthy Paul.”

I talked to Milson and answered his question about hell.  But even before I answered it, I think his understanding of hell was better than mine.  It was clear that his understanding of hell actually made him care.

*(for the record, I haven’t actually read Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, but if I have heard correctly, his thought in the book is that hell is not something permanent.  If there is a hell, love eventually “wins” and rescues everyone from it.  I would fall into the camp that disagrees with Rob Bell)

Bigness and Trying to Avoid Cynicism

The other day, I randomly met a young lady from England.  Like me, she was twenty-four and had recently graduated from college.  We chatted for a little while (thankful to meet anyone who spoke fluent English) and during the conversation, she mentioned that she had studied abroad for a summer in America.

“Oh Really!”  I said, “What did you think of America?”

She did not even need time to think.  In her delightful British accent she replied, “I would describe America as big.  Everything in America just seems big.  It is like the whole goal was for everything to be enormous.”

I had never heard it put so plainly, but I immediately knew how true it was.  William, my roommate the history teacher, informed me that this is one of the most common things foreigners say on surveys when they visit the USA for the first time.

America.  The houses are big, and the yards are big.  The national parks and the malls are big.  The cars are big and the chairs are big.  The chemically enhanced fruit is big.  The problems are big and the disagreements are big.  The beds are big.  The stores are big, and the debt is big.  The churches are big, and the Christian conferences are really big.  The people are big because the food is big.  The public restrooms are big.  The stalls in the public restrooms are big.  The toilets in the stalls in the public restrooms are big, probably to accommodate…well…the big people.

If you haven’t had a chance to travel much outside of America, you can take my word for it.

If bigger is better, America is the best. But sometimes from the perspective of being in Madagascar it is just feels…BIG and that’s about all there is to say about it.  Of course, I know that isn’t true and that in the midst of all the bigness, there are people and things and culture with substance and value.  America has its glaring faults, which I think anyone can acknowledge, but I don’t want to be someone who comes back to the USA and can only be a cynical fault-finder.  I think that kind of cynicism would simply be a masked form of pride, that assumes I am somehow outside the bigness simply because I can identify it and complain about it.  I am typing this on a pretty big laptop after all (with a pretty big crack in it).

Becoming overly cynical would also be a form of unbelief—unbelief that sees a big America with big problems that forgets that we serve a bigger God who is currently at work in his people in America, even when it is hard to see.   He is big enough to use and change any situation for his glory.

I’m resolving to offer no cynical criticism of our big, admittedly problematic, America that is not joined with equally big, believing, and grateful prayer.  Here’s praying and trusting that, in the future, my homeland is less known for its bigness, and more for the depth, character, and godliness of the people and culture it contains.