Life Lessons from Cows

Last night I attended the annual Economics department Grossman lecture, this year given by Dean Karlan, the founder of the nonprofit Innovations for Poverty Action, whose talk was titled “Continued Existence of Cows in India Disproves Central Tenets of Capitalism.” The title reflects the idea that the economics principle that humans make rational decisions can’t always be true because so many people in India continue to have cows and buffalo when year after year these animals yield a negative return on investment in inputs and outputs across the board (not rational). Of course there are many plausible explanations as to why this is the case – for example, cows are an illiquid investment that people may prefer because they can save their money in an animal instead of an account or somewhere where they may be tempted to spend it. Another consideration is the social and religious significance of the cow, in regards to which Karlan raised a question from a social Darwinist view that if year after year the cow continues to cost money, why wouldn’t people move toward a more practical, if not lucrative investment as their object of reverence? I know, very curious …

I want to note that although this is not the focus of my post, this lecture opened my eyes to a level of innovation and creativity in microfinance techniques and strategies to address poverty and a focus on “bridging the gap between cutting-edge academic research and action by nonprofits, governments and firms” that I have never seen before. It is pretty amazing stuff. I encourage you to check out IPA’s website!

So, the comment about the irrationality of the continued reverence of the cow in India has prompted me to think about some deeper things that I’ve been contemplating for awhile now. I realize that on one hand, yes, the cow in India seems incredibly irrational even in the face of the valid explanations offered for its prominence, but on the other hand, I see that it is a display, a reflection, an allegory for something much bigger. The scope of what the world views as “normal” and rational is so narrow and restrictive. It is worldly, a social, cultural, and human construction. As a follower of Christ, I know that what God did in sacrificing his son for sinners, Jesus’ death on a cross to save and recenter the world, the lives that we are called to lead, and the decisions that we are commanded to make every day as Christians, are never going to be seen as rational or explainable in the eyes of the world.

I know that the Indian families with cows are likely not Christians and the irrationality of their behavior is due to a number of unrelated factors, but that is why this is an allegory for a much bigger issue. Moments where people (like those academics, economists and researchers at IPA) notice incongruities in what the world has deemed as rational, normal or acceptable, should prompt Christians to evaluate their lives. Everything we do as followers of Jesus should cause puzzlement in the eyes of the world. Our actions should reflect a radical departure from the axis of power, greed, wealth, violence, and hate that the world centers around today. This doesn’t mean our actions have to be huge and noteworthy in the eyes of the world, though those can be impactful too. But nothing about stopping and having a genuine conversation with someone, smiling at a stranger, or doing random, unscripted acts of kindness, is rational or normal. It is rational for humans to do anything in our power to preserve ourselves, better our own lives, live as comfortably and happily as we can, solely for ourselves. But as Christ followers, we are called to much, much more. As Brian Zahnd eloquently states in Beauty Will Save the World,

Jesus’ death and resurrection “saves the world from the pernicious lie that power and violence have to be the foundation of human social order. At the cross Jesus cast out Satan as the ruler of the world and gave the world not only a new ruler but also a new center, a new axis. In Christ the world no longer revolves around the pragmatic truth (lie!) of power enforced by violence. In Christ the world now is re-centered around the beautiful truth of love expressed in forgiveness” (77). 

The basis of Innovations for Poverty Action is the realization that immense amounts of evaluation, research and behavioral assessment are needed to develop the best approaches to fighting poverty. If a nation’s respect for a cow, or impoverished Kenyans’ decisions to take out a loan, start a business, look for alternatives to change their lives, etc., are causing people at Innovations for Poverty Action (and other places) to reevaluate traditional economic principles and frames of looking at poverty, this draws attention to a couple issues.

First of all, lives lived out, people’s emotions, thoughts, complex life situations, cultural norms and values, etc., simply cannot be boxed in by principles or rationales. We can notice general trends, themes, and guidelines of action, but they should never become so rigid or taken for granted that they shape all policies and ways of doing things. A reevaluation of poverty action, and a deeper assessment of people’s behavior and decisions in shaping results, is a breath of fresh air and a real necessity, considering the complexity of the world and the variety of cultural, social, political and economic situations.

Secondly, as a follower of Jesus who has committed every day to living in love and making choices that strive to differ from the world’s expectations, norms and values, and instead reflect Jesus’ redeeming love, forgiveness, and reorientation of the world, I have a renewed sense of hope in the realization that people notice incongruities and differences. Whether they are good or bad (hopefully good!), acting outside of traditional economic, cultural or social norms catch people’s attention. I am challenged and encouraged to think of really practical, organic, daily things I can do to reflect love instead of hate.

So a few final thoughts. As new creations in Christ, we must remember that we are in the world but not of the world. We live in the midst of a broken world but in the presence of an incomprehensibly powerful, forgiving, merciful, redeeming God. Political struggles, racial and ethnic violence that we cannot understand, brutality and unimaginable horrors of this world, should impassion us, unsettle us, anger us, grieve us, because we live in this world and these are the people that God loves and Jesus died for. But we cannot lose focus and forget that we can live everyday making conscious decisions and actions that reflect Christ’s kingdom on earth, which directly collide with the worldly ideals of power, violence, pride and selfishness. Starting today, don’t let the world tell you what is rational and normal, but let your new life and purpose in Christ motivate your actions, and in turn, spark intrigue and curiosity in those around you.

Mex Reflects

I am eternally thankful for the incredible eight week opportunity I had in Mexico to observe missions, learn about and experience Mexican culture, serve and love alongside the church, and meet so many amazing new people. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I learned and how to put it into words, and this is a rough attempt to do that, so bear with me …

One of the biggest revelations for me was the beauty of the Holy Spirit and the way it is moving everywhere that Christians are, among different cultures, nations, people groups, languages, etc. Simply because I’ve grown up in the American church, I have an idea engrained in my mind of what a sermon, worship, and a church service should be like. Different people and cultures have different ways of communicating, worshipping, and loving, but God is using them to reach their communities and families with the gospel as well.

I saw a boldness in the Mexican church that I don’t see as much here to serve and love and share the good news. I met Christians with unbelievable testimonies of God’s grace and goodness who were not shy or afraid to share their stories as examples of God’s power and love. It was a display for me of the burden that we as Christians need to have to share our faith and see our friends and family saved. It definitely renewed my sense of purpose as I return to Colby in the fall and begin my sophomore year. I pray that God will give me opportunities to share what I’ve learned in Mexico with my friends and classmates and that I will constantly looking for moments to share my faith with boldness and love.

The Mexican church and the missionaries I met were a living example of the reality of Matthew 16:24-26 where as Christians we are commanded to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Jesus. It’s not enough to say we believe and continue on with school, work, etc. as silent or secretive believers. It seems to me like the religious taboo in the United States is one of the instruments of Satan to scare our faith into silence and make us believe no one wants or needs to hear what we have to share. As a Christian, even without having ever experienced serious persecution, I live in somewhat constant fear of being shunned or rejected if I speak up and share my faith. This is somewhat of the reality in American culture today, but it was cool in Mexico that certain people were receptive and open to hearing the gospel and would sit and talk with us for hours about their lives, questions, doubts, etc. This doesn’t mean there isn’t fear, resistance or persecution of Christians there, because there certainly is, and I heard stories of those responses as well.

Side note: Much of the persecution comes from Catholics, who are largely worshipping the Virgin of Guadalupe and practicing a syncretized version of Catholicism, a combination between Roman Catholicism and Aztec pagan idolatry.

A clock in the center square of the Basilica in Mexico City
A clock in the center square of the Basilica in Mexico City, an example of the syncretism within Mexican Catholicism

Anyway, seeing the way God opened doors and the receptiveness among some people was encouraging and confirming of the strength and hope of the gospel in reaching lives. I realized I have been living a lot of my life in doubt and fear of the truth and power of the gospel because of what American culture says about what people care about and what is popular and acceptable. This trip confirmed for me God’s goodness and perfection and the fact that humans are broken and depraved but God is perfect in everything, and so much bigger than what we can see or imagine. Seeing the way Mexican Christians and missionaries love and share the gospel and the growing church there gave me a glimpse of God’s plan, that is so much bigger than American cultural values or my fears of being rejected.

I know this is a pretty general recap of some of my reflections, but I hope it is encouraging and confirming of the power of the Holy Spirit and the importance of not being silent Christians but instead loving, serving, talking and praying that the Holy Spirit will move in people’s hearts. I pray that God will open doors and that we will all experience the boldness He has given us to share the gospel, because it is what we have been called to do.

Joshua 1:9

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Guadalajara and Quinceo!

Just got back from two incredible weeks in Guadalajara, serving and learning alongside youth at a youth retreat, visiting an indigenous mountain village, and spending time in the city with Pastor Fernando, his family, and his church, Grace Bible. It is always amazing and humbling to be around other believers, especially in a different culture than your own, because you realize how much they love the Lord and how the Holy Spirit is alive and moving all over the world.

Quinceo was a small, mountainous indigenous village about three hours from Guadalajara, with a population of about 7,000. Along with four other interns, Bryan, from the local church in Ixtapaluca, and Pastor Fernando, I had the incredible opportunity to spend four days living with and learning from these people. The women wore traditional outfits, gorgeous, colorful, embroidered blouses and full, sparkling, long skirts. The people opened their homes to us and welcomed us with kisses and greetings. We ate five meals on the second day because everyone from the church was so generous and showed their love and kindness by feeding us.

Quinceo Women

I met two girls, Rosie and Esperanza, who really touched my heart. They were only fifteen and ten years old, and they followed me around and kept inviting me to dinner and to stay overnight at their homes. I could communicate with them in Spanish, although the primary language in Quinceo is Purehpecha, the indigenous language, which was impossible to pick up. I loved that I could have a conversation with them and learn a little about their lives. They both hugged me with tears in their eyes when it was time for us to leave.

Back in the city of Guadalajara, we stayed with families from the church and worked with the pastor and his family for the next few days. We had the opportunity to go to a missions update, where a man who had been serving with his family in Pakistan for 12 years talked about his experiences living among Muslims and sharing the Gospel. The next day at church, we got to be part of a Skype call to missionaries in Turkey, who have been there during the revolts and for numerous years earlier. It was incredible to see how the church, of probably only about 200 people, is moving and serving the Lord around the world. The missionary from Pakistan shared a couple videos with statistics on numbers of unreached people around the world, which shocked and challenged me. One of the videos said that 2.5 billion people around the world had never heard the gospel, primarily people in Muslim and Buddhist countries. It was shocking to hear that number and to hear that the man and his family were the only Mexicans at the time living in Pakistan, among a sparse sprinkling of Christians. It makes me think about the passage in Matthew 16:24-26 where Jesus says that anyone who wants to follow Him must pick up their cross and lose their life. Both the missionary family and the Muslims who received the Gospel surely encountered this command face to face constantly. The missionary family as they struggled to adapt to Pakistani culture, had to sacrifice food and comforts and Christian community that they were used to, and Pakistanis as they would have to deny their culture, lifestyles, families, friends, and personal safety and well-being to follow Christ. It definitely makes me think about a future in missions and the ways that I can love and serve those I know who don’t know the Gospel. Again, it was so beautiful and humbling to see the passion and love for service of this church in Guadalajara.

Interns with the Pastor Fernando and his family
Interns with Pastor Fernando and his family
Missionary Wall
In front of Grace Church’s Missions Wall

Back in Mexico City with the other interns and missionaries in this area, I am praying for God to continue softening my heart and opening my eyes to whatever he wants to teach me. I have been feeling homesick lately, just for the comforts and summer fun that I’m used to, but God continues to make my time here fruitful.

The girls
Interns in Quinceo!

*Photo credits to Marcy Metzger

Just a quick shout-out to my younger sister, Beth, who got baptized in Lake Michigan at a youth retreat last week. I am so thankful for her friendship and amazing heart for people and God. I know that God will take this step to continue to move in her heart and use her for His incredible and perfect plan.

Love and blessings! Thanks for reading!

Graduations, Birthdays, Cake and more Cake …

It’s been a busy past week here in San Juan! I just got back tonight from the community center’s “graduation,” marking the culmination of the year’s classes and the start of a summer break. Everyone who teaches classes at the community center, whether it’s sewing, English, computer skills, art, or basketball, does it voluntarily. Most of them have full time jobs outside of their teaching responsibilities, so a small ceremony like this to honor not only the students who give of their time to learn, but also the teachers who make sacrifices weekly, is really important. I have been really touched from what I can see of the teachers’ humble hearts. Also, watching the kids in the computer class present their powerpoint projects with photos, animations, and special effects, really made me reevaluate skills that I have that I’ve taken for granted. Where I’m from, simply attending public school everyday, even with minimal effort, basically guarantees competence in Microsoft Office. If you didn’t take the computer classes offered, you likely figured things out in your own time on your home computer since essays, power-points, and projects assigned regularly required knowing these skills. Also, seeing how difficult it is to learn English, but also seeing the students’ eagerness and determination, makes me realize how lucky I am to have been raised in an English-speaking environment. Knowing English is something that I’ve always taken for granted, until I see others struggling to pronounce vowels or read the alphabet.

I also had an interesting experience today with a young boy named Jonathan, probably about seven or eight years old. He walked up to me and muttered under his breath, “Japonesa” … or “Japanese.” I’m used to the karate jokes, the questions about whether or not I speak Mandarin, and the squinting of the eyes. However, it is unsettling and continues to bother me slightly even though I hide it with a smile and polite giggles. I told Jonathan that I was Chinese, not Japanese, but that I was also American because I have lived my whole life in the states. He shrugged and continued to mutter, “Japonesa.” Every time he saw me throughout the night, he would squint his eyes and giggle, repeating “Japonesa” in the same childish tone. I didn’t quite know what to do, because I knew he was just playing and didn’t know any better, but his persistence still bothered me. No matter what I told him, he refused to listen or even try to understand. These kinds of experiences reinforce two ideas in my mind. One, it is crazy to me what young children notice and care about. They have no fear or shame in staring or pointing out differences in appearance. I guess I was once that way too; in fact, I know I was … but that’s a story for a different time. Anyway, it shocked me that Jonathan didn’t even care who I was, where I was really from, or that I was trying to communicate with him in his own language; all he could see was that I was different, and he wasn’t going to forget it. I love interacting with kids, which is why it saddens me a little when I want to talk with them and love on them but we can’t even move past differences in facial features. Going along with this, I realize not only how lucky I am to have grown up in a diverse area where people of all different backgrounds, religions, races, and ethnicities live and work together, but I also realize how important it is for other people to get this experience. We hear that the world is increasingly globalized and interconnected, but some people in San Juan have probably never seen a Chinese person before. I guess all I can do is smile and politely explain who I am and what I’m doing here, in hopes that my interactions with people may have a slight impact on their engrained world-views and maybe change the experience of the next Chinese person who visits … 🙂

But really, it has been an eye-opening first couple weeks here. I have learned a lot about missionary life and I’ve had the opportunity to meet lots of people and hear lots of different stories. I realize that the sense of adventure and excitement that drove me to short-term mission trips in the past is not synonymous with everyday missionary life or the reality of spreading the gospel. Missions is really just living life with the purpose of evangelism, making friends and disciples. But it is a long, challenging process and not constantly full of the thrill of short-term missions. However, at the same time, I am continually seeing ways that it is very rewarding and fulfilling.

The O’Brien’s and my host family threw me a wonderful mini surprise birthday celebration tonight! Here are a few photos from that!

My beautiful cake!
My beautiful cake!
So many candles!
So many candles!
The flames kept coming back!
The flames kept coming back!
Jazmin, Sarai, and me
Jazmin, Sarai, and me
All the girls :)
All the girls!

God’s Goodness.

It’s been a wonderful and eye-opening first week here in San Juan!

Yesterday, I spent the day with Ivonne, learning about her work for Obrero Fiel, a ministry that aims to equip church leaders, missionaries, and pastors in Spanish speaking countries with biblical resources. I sent some emails for her and helped do inventory in the bookstore.

I have been spending a lot of time with the O’Brien’s, a missionary family in San Juan, and especially their kids, who are cute, playful, and full of energy. They remind me how much fun it is to be a kid and I feel comfortable, youthful, and free to be my natural silly self whenever I am around them.

I also helped teach an English class on Tuesday and Wednesday evening at the local community center, Nueva Imagen. I was a bit nervous because I’ve never taught English before and I don’t have any experience. But, the class was learning about money and common household items, so I helped organize an activity based on buying and selling these common items with fake money so that the students could review vocabulary and practice using money. It was a lot of fun, but definitely an example of the flexibility that is necessary for ministry in Mexico, and teaching in general. It helped that I have been learning Chinese this year, and can relate to the struggles that the students are going through with memorizing new vocabulary and getting pronunciations right. I can more easily sympathize with how difficult it must be to say even seemingly basic things like numbers or directions, because I still struggle with those things in Chinese. It’s not just the words themselves that are different, but the ordering and structuring of sentences that makes it really tough.

On Monday, I got a tour of Queretaro, the capital of the state of Queretaro, and also the local city, San Juan. I spent the day with Yadhira, a young woman who also works for Obrero Fiel. I thought she was going to show me her work, but instead we ended up walking miles and miles around the city, trying to find cultural sites that she thought would be interesting. I was really up for anything, but she insisted that I get a taste for the history of the area. It was a tiring but exciting day. Definitely a stretch for my Spanish speaking abilities, but also a great opportunity for practice.

I have been doing two new devotions in the mornings using YouVersion on my computer, since my phone hasn’t been working. One is called “30 Ways in 30 Days” about evangelism and the other is called “God’s Goodness.” I will end with one of the passages from “God’s Goodness” this morning, also one of my favorites.

Romans 8:37-39
“No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

image: drawing of Mexico City, DF by artist Robert Birkenes

In Pursuit of Him.

This is my first attempt ever at writing a blog! Exciting stuff!

So, I’m heading out tomorrow morning for two months in Mexico with Camino Global! I am thrilled and overwhelmed by the opportunity to stay with a local family, teach English, observe missionary life, participate in church activities, and see a bit of the country, among other things. I know that I will meet so many new people and God will open my eyes to so many new, exciting and stretching experiences. I can’t wait! I will do my best through this blog to recount and reflect on events, places, people, thoughts and anything that strikes me during the next two months. Check in and keep me in your thoughts and prayers! All the glory to Him.