Tuesday, August 01, 2017

For the Love of Widows and Orphans

The family of JT Olsen (second from left, top row), including his adopted daughter Gracie (center, bottom row). Photo: Both Hands.
What would you spend your entire life savings on? Would you buy a house? That car you always wanted? The flow of our money generally reveals where our hearts, our passions, our desires lie. It’s an easy thing to hold onto, like a security blanket, or to toss around with gravitas like a lotto winner. For JT Olson, founder of Both Hands, a faith-based nonprofit that serves orphans and widows, a life savings was something that could be used to save a life.
One of five children, Olson grew up on a small farm in Harper’s Ferry, Iowa. Together with his parents and paternal uncle, the family farmed 380 acres of what he describes as some of the most beautiful land in the entire state. Eight people in a 1,500 square foot home might have been tight, the hours baling hay long, and a half-mile trek to the bus stop (uphill and in the snow) grueling, but Olson also remembers having a lot of fun. Not many children can claim to be allowed to drive before having a driver’s license after all, even if it was just an Oliver tractor.
Then, at the age of twelve, everything changed. On the way back home from celebrating their 16th wedding anniversary, Olson’s parents were killed in a car accident. When his brother told him the news, he simply remembers hitting the floor and crying. “You just don’t realize how much a mom and dad stabilize you,” said Olson. “It’s just one of those things you kind of count on. I know what it’s like to be an orphan, to hear those words ‘mom and dad are dead.’ To wonder what’s going to happen to us, who’s going to take care of us, or where we’re all going to go.”
Fortunately for Olson, three months before the accident his parents had made plans for their children in case anything happened. Therefore, when tragedy hit, the five siblings found a new home with their aunt and uncle, but not before the community gathered around them to help with the farm. “I remember [getting] off the bus … and there were all our neighbors in our fields with their tractors and their plows and their planters and they were planting our crops,” Olson says. “It was like all my dad’s friends were taking care of us. And I realized, this is what you do.”
Jonathan and Amy Whitt and their adopted daughter, Emery.
That sense of community established a desire in Olson to do the same for others caught up in the midst of tragedy. While working with college students for The Southwestern Company, he witnessed how an organization called Bethany Christian Services served young women in difficult situations. When one of his students became pregnant out of wedlock, the Olsons invited her into their home and Bethany came alongside her.
“What I saw, while she was pregnant, was the way Bethany Christian Services came in and ministered to her, helped her figure it out, helped her figure out what to do, and just loved on her,” says Olson. “It’s just a great organization and they didn’t charge her a thing. So when I left Southwestern, I said if I’m going to give my life away in a volunteer position it’s going to be with Bethany.”
During his work with Bethany, Olson participated in a number of fundraisers – such as golf tournaments – to drum up support for the ministry. It wasn’t until a friend refused to donate because he was “simply golfing,” however, that he realized there might be a better way. “He took a magic marker and scribbled on my letter: ‘JT if you told me you were working on a widow’s house I might have sponsored you, but you’re just golfing’,” Olson says. “’Nice cause, but not my money.’”
This got Olson thinking, but it took hearing a friend’s adoption story to convince him to act. About three years later, a man from church named Don told him he planned to adopt four kids from Moldova, an Eastern European country and former Soviet republic, and that it would probably cost around $65,000. It was this that spurred Olson on to organize what would later become the Both Hands ministry.
In order to raise money for the adoption, Olson and more than a dozen other men mailed letters to everyone they knew asking for people to sponsor them while they worked on the home of Ms. Lucile, a widow. The donations to fix the house rolled in. “Local merchants and individuals who loved what we were doing asked how they could help,” recalled Olson. “The only thing we spent money on was stamps. We ended up raising $72,000.”
Ms. Debbie served by a Both Hands project in 2016.
This success led to more opportunities to help widows and orphans. “We started our organization in August of ‘08 and since that time we’ve done 652 projects in 42 states,” Olson says. “723 widows have been served. 793 kids are no longer orphans. And we’ve raised $7.5 million for families for adoption. And of that $7.5 million we haven’t taken anything out for our expenses. I set it up that way. We don’t take anything out. Whenever there’s a project we take out a grant.”
One of these orphans includes the Olson’s daughter, Grace. In spite of his passion for adoption, Olson was initially hesitant to do so himself. Though financially comfortable, they did have four kids of their own and had only their life savings to live on. Then, one Christmas eve, Olson had a revelation in their attic.
“All I see is car seats, strollers, cribs, and I just thought to myself, ‘We’ve got everything we need, what’s wrong with using a life savings to save a life?’,” Olson says. “And that was my watershed moment in my life that made me realizes what’s important. What burns and what doesn’t burn.”
By the next July, they received a referral for a girl from China who they planned to name Gracie. Later on they found out that Grace was, in fact, the name an orphan worker had decided to call the little girl who’d been left on their doorstep. Now, whenever people ask why they went to China for their daughter, Olson says that this was where Grace was.

A Peek Behind the Curtain

Civil rights leader John M. Perkins, founder and President Emeritus of the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation-Jackson, MS. Photo courtesy of Voice of Calvary.
“I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” (Revelation 7:9-10 NASB)
In John’s vision of the kingdom of God we are presented with a very diverse picture of its citizens. The worshippers come from every race, every language, every nation. Far from monochromatic, the kingdom of Heaven is an undoing of Babel, a breaking of barriers, the unification of Christ’s body. But when we look at our churches today, at our congregations, what do we see? Though in many ways the church has taken great strides against racism, the after effects of old structures and mindsets remain like fingerprints on a mirror. As Christians, we are called to take a sober look at these things. Racial reconciliation is hard, but thankfully, many have undertaken to aid the church in this difficult journey. The following books are helpful perspectives for this conversation. Each voice is different and offers its own unique angle.
Holding Up Your Corner
For situations fraught with sensitivity, practical guidance is essential. In Holding up Your Corner, the Rev. F. Willis Johnson, a United Methodist pastor, provides wisdom and insight. Offering helpful definitions and sober advice that is practical rather than preachy, this book equips leaders and readers to approach racial reconciliation with grace. Through his accounts of the racial strife in Ferguson, Missouri, and similar events, Johnson gives his audience the unique experience of seeing the world through his eyes.
“Once we have acknowledged someone’s humanity, we can move on to affirmation – respecting their humanity,” Johnson writes. “Hear this: affirmation is neither an act of complicity nor condemnation. Affirming someone’s experience – their humanity in their own experience – does not mean you approve their ideology or behavior. We can love people without agreeing with them. That bears repeating: we can love people without agreeing with them. In the words of Howard Thurman, ‘Hatred does not empower, it decays. Only through self-love and love for one another can God’s justice prevail.’ In short, affirmation is a willingness to emphasize our interdependence and commonality over our difference.”
Holding up Your Corner is carefully rooted in the scriptural idea of balancing both justice and mercy, truth and grace, the practical and prophetic. It reaches out with gentleness and humility that challenges the reader in such a way as to promote conversation rather than dampen it. Johnson’s humble way of engaging his audience invites engagement rather than shutting it down. This book is a desperately needed guide through the difficult terrain that the church now faces in regard to loving the “other.”
Unashamed, the autobiography of mega-star Christian rapper, Lecrae, holds as its central concept the need for acceptance. From the first page, the writing conveys the painful sting of rejection. The reader can’t help but wince through the author’s childhood abandonment issues and heartache, then rejoice at the acceptance found in Christ. Yet Lecrae offers a starkly honest picture of his conversion and doesn’t shy from sharing his struggles with sanctification.
As a poetic artist, Lecrae makes a distinction between a “Pastor Rapper” and that of a “lamenter” – a passionate expression of grief or sorrow that is an outgrowth of his youth and the abandonment he felt. When he was free from trying to preach like a “Pastor Rapper,” Lecrae felt the words and rhythms flow when he allowed himself to be vulnerable and honest about his own battles.
Lecrae describes his unique position within the industry and how it provides him with the opportunity to reach people others might not be able to. He writes: “Operating as a ‘Pastor Rapper’ was hard work for me because it wasn’t playing to my strengths. Rather than letting the music pour out of me when the inspiration came, I would spend hours studying beforehand … Being theologically educated is a great thing. And using music to explicitly express theology is needed. But I mistakenly believed it was the only way to make music. On the rare occasion, however, I would let go and let the ‘lamenter’ in me come out. When I did – when I let Lecrae just be Lecrae – it would spark magic… Rather than make myself the winner, I allowed myself to be the loser… People wrote to say how much that song impacted them because it was real and vulnerable. And this was one of the first moments I began to wonder if maybe God was calling me to make a shift in my music and begin producing new songs that were truer to how I was naturally made.”
Who Lynched Willie Earle?
Centered around a specific event, Who Lynched Willie Earle approaches the issue of race from a historical standpoint. Bishop Will Willimon creatively reimagines Pastor Hawley Lynn’s thought process leading up to his sermon condemning the lynching of a black man accused, but not convicted, of murder. Pastor Lynn confronted his own congregation with the mindset he believed led to the lynching, the deeply ingrained attitudes that allowed the mob to pervert “democratic justice” and execute Willie Earle.
Willimon, prolific author and retired United Methodist bishop, proceeds to analyze the sermon. Not only does he take into consideration the history of America, but also connects this with Israel, the Gentiles, and the kingdom of God. Willimon also points out Pastor Hawley’s own blind spots, in which he failed to address systemic, institutional racism. In this, Willimon says, the church was able to “disassociate themselves from the sin and to bolster their confidence in Jim Crow.” In spite of his failings, Willimon calls Pastor Hawley’s sermon “heroic homiletics”.
“Though these sociological and historical facts about racism are significant, race is a specifically Christian problem because of the God we are attempting to worship and to obey,” Willimon writes. “In the gospel, we are given the means to be color-courageous, to talk about matters our culture would rather keep silent. That you have persevered this far in this book suggests you are exercising a bravery that is not self-derived. Paul says that, in God’s realm, Jews and Greeks, slave and free, ‘You all are one in Jesus Christ’ (Galatians 3:28). It is a baptismal call, not for color-blindness or arguing that gender or race are inconsequential, but rather a theological affirmation that Jesus Christ enables a new eschatological community where conventional, worldly signifiers don’t mean what they meant in the kingdoms of this world.”
Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win
Like Unashamed, Dr. John Perkins’ approach is extremely personal and humble. In spite of this, he does not shy away from calling out injustice and racism. Quoting Frederick Douglas and sighting the stark reality of his own experience with segregation, Perkins focuses on the “walls that have kept black people and white people apart, even in places where we had so much in common.”
“Anyone who knows my story would expect this book to ooze with justice issues. After all, the pain caused by injustice has motivated me to spend a lifetime working for social change on behalf of widows, prisoners, the poor, and anyone who struggles,” writes Perkins, the civil rights veteran who has led the Voice of Calvary Ministries in Jackson, Mississippi, since 1975. “So how did someone who has experienced the anguish of poverty, racism, and oppression end up wanting to write a book about love as his climactic message? Good question… I’ve come to understand that true justice is wrapped up in love. God loves justice and wants His people to seek justice (Psalms 11 and Micah 6:8). But I’ve come to understand that true justice is wrapped up in love. The old-time preacher and prophet A.W. Tozer had a way of making the most profound truths simple and palatable. He once said, ‘God is love, and just as God is love, God is justice.’ That’s it! God’s love and justice come together in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, and we can’t be about one and not the other. They’re inextricably connected.”
Perkins takes a strong look at motivation. By keeping in mind questions about his own choices, he tempers his assessment with a great deal of grace and mercy. Perkins challenges parents to be mindful of the way that education choices may have a positive or negative effect on black children in public schools. Additionally, he asserts that integrating our churches is at the very heart of the gospel, the very heart of 2 Corinthians 5:19.
If we want to work toward racial reconciliation in a country that desperately needs it, if we desire to share the love of Christ with all nations, we must take steps to build empathy for our brothers and sisters. The books on this list are testimonies, a mere peek behind the curtain, but they may also serve as first steps. Ultimately, God alone through Jesus Christ can accomplish this. Racism, comparison, pride, arrogance, greed all root deep down in the hearts of man. But thanks be to God that he does not leave us in this sad state!

Gorgeous Chaos

Photo provided by danielstrickland.com.
Photo provided by danielstrickland.com.
Chaos gets a bad rap. We cling to order and calm, presenting nice, tidy images of ourselves worthy of Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest. Behind them we hide, loathe to let others see what’s on the other side of the curtain. Yet, it’s often when things are upturned, broken, and exposed that we experience true growth and change. In her book, A Beautiful Mess, author Danielle Strickland suggests that God actually uses chaos to transform our lives and draw us closer to him.
A major in The Salvation Army in Los Angeles and an Ambassador for the global anti-trafficking campaign Stop the Traffik, Strickland knows how messy life can get better than most. Through her own encounter with the Lord and her ministry to brothels, she is intensely familiar with the ugly, dirty chaos of this world. Rather than run from it, Strickland chooses to embrace it.
“My experience of life with God is messy,” she says in her introduction. “It’s a mix of failure and success, courage and fear, faith and doubt. It’s-well, a beautiful mess…It’s beautiful because it’s a witness to the creative design of God’s love in the here and now of our lives. My life doesn’t look anything like it once did…I’ve been re-created by a designer who loves to recycle.”
This serves as a thesis statement for the rest of the book. What follows are stories of God working through the chaos of people’s lives to accomplish his good purposes. Interwoven between these is Strickland’s ongoing exhortation to embrace the messes we encounter rather than try to hide or cover them up.
One of the strongest points of A Beautiful Mess is the probing questions Strickland asks, and she starts right out of the gate in the first chapter. “What if the pursuit of order has created a love of the status quo and has removed the passion for justice? What if we have made a friend of comfort instead of change and as a result removed ourselves from the responsibility that demands that we fight for change to happen?”
Throughout the book, Strickland continues to prod the reader with these types of questions. They cause the audience to stop, to think, to reconsider. In harmony with her premise, this upends the nice little boxes we might have stacked neatly in our minds, creating the kind of discomfort that challenges long held beliefs. Somewhat ironically, she also adds orderly numbered questions at the end of each chapter as well, making it easy to use in a discussion group.
Chaos, Strickland says, is necessary to create something; and, in fact, an over devotion to order actually leads to breakdown. She writes, “If instead of clinging desperately to order we allow God to set the priorities, then the divine can and does speak a different kind of order into existence that promises permanent and lasting meaning for us personally and in the work that we are a part of.”
It can feel like chaos to give up control, to wait on the Lord’s voice and His timing, and it requires a healthy dose of courage. According to Strickland, however, it is only when we wrench our grip from the wheel and hand it over to the Lord that we can enter real life. Of the many stories the author tells in A Beautiful Mess, one of the most profound is a story that starts with an affair. After catching her husband being unfaithful, a friend of Strickland’s found her entire life turned upside down. Yet amidst the chaos and mess, she sought out the Lord. It was then that he led her to Africa. From what seemed to be a dead end, God used this woman to serve widows and orphans in desperate need of her gifts. Stories like this remind the audience that there is a bigger picture; that on the other side of messy suffering is a new path, renewed life.
“What is emerging from her chaos is something so beautiful and rich and different than her life would have been,” writes Strickland. “She now has the ability to look back and see that even the chaos was an opportunity to see God’s order emerge in her life. Even the darkness helped her [move] toward God’s Divine Order for her life.”
Chaos also often uncovers the truth we hide from, Strickland says. An experience in Russia just after the collapse of the Soviet Union taught her about the failures of scientific and orderly modernity to answer the deep internal questions. Strickland learned from her Russian translator, Olga, that the government had fed the people many lies to make them believe that things were good. Everything appeared neat and tidy on the outside, but the eventual collapse made it evident that this was not true. The citizens of the Soviet Union chose to believe the lies they were fed until the chaos forced them to see the truth.
Strickland writes, “It is sometimes simply easier to believe that things are ordered, reasonable, predictable, and completely under our control. But the reality of our world is that it is unpredictable, often random and unreasonable, chaotic and completely out of our control. And that’s when modernity’s promises run empty and its progress reports run dry.”
This is not limited to secular governments, Strickland says. The church also often trips into the same pitfalls, settling for “whitewashed tombs” rather than accepting the kind of chaos that asks hard questions and risks failure. “The truth would rather embrace honest chaos than continue to whitewash the tombs of our culture so we die looking good,” Strickland writes. “It’s really about allowing chaos to show a bit, and even enjoy it.”
Finally, Strickland says that chaos can actually bring light to darkness and allow us to join with God to create things. Injustice casts a pall over our world and when we seek to bring an end to it, a mess often ensues. As uncomfortable as this might be, it is necessary if we wish to make any kind of progress, if we want to join God in bringing his kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. Strickland describes it beautifully. “We need a ‘curtains being pulled back in the morning’ moment where light or revelation floods in.” If we’re standing still in fear of the chaos, she says, we will never experience this kind of moment.
Strickland concludes A Beautiful Mess by encouraging the reader to create a timeline in which to track times of chaos within one’s life. This, she says, will help identify the process of God’s “Divine Order”, of how he uses the mess to bring us into his light. “We get to be a part of this incredible work of beauty – this art called life,” she writes. “And then we rest. We step back and breathe in the beauty of a love-filled, creative God. A God who uses every shade and vibrancy of colour to re-create our lives in ways we could never have imagined or dreamed. We get to stop working, and celebrate the incredible truth that we are, all of us, a beautiful mess.”

Finding Jesus in Iran

With nowhere to stay, Assyrian children try to keep warm during Iraq's long winder. Jeff Gardner, Picture Christians Project, www.picturechristians.org.
With nowhere to stay, Assyrian children try to keep warm during Iraq’s long winder. Jeff Gardner, Picture Christians Project, www.picturechristians.org.
At the age of sixteen, the Lord met Nastaran Farahani in a vision. While in the shower, she heard a voice telling her to repent and that she would be washed of her sins. Though at first she did not understand, God would soon make clear the message he had sent. Around the same time, Nastaran’s sister, who was then living in Holland, also received a message. A woman she knew came to her after having a vision in which she saw three women sitting on a bed, putting their trust in Christ. This friend gave her a Bible and told her she must go visit her family in Iran.
“When she got home to our family, she opened her bag and brought out a Bible and said, ‘I believe in Jesus.’ And all my family started to cry,” says Nastaran. “And I told her, ‘I believe in Jesus, I know Jesus, I do not know how, but I know him. I do not have any questions.’”
In spite of their initial reaction, the Lord was at work in the Farahani family. Within two months both of her Muslim parents came to know Christ as well and they all began to attend church. At the time, church buildings were still open in Iran, but when persecution came, they were no longer safe. The family then decided to gather at home, thus starting a house church. This marked the beginning of a long and difficult road for Nastaran. After returning to Iran from Dubai, she and her husband, Yuna Sabet, were arrested.
“When we arrived, the officer checked our passport and then called my name,” Nastaran says. “He took my bag and started searching. Then someone else told him to take my husband’s passport too. They took us to the separate room with no window and started to interrogate us. Lots of my close friends had been arrested in the past. One was held in jail for nine months. They were constantly telling her that she would be executed. So it was really scary for me.”
Believing that Christians planned to work against the Iranian government, the officers questioned Nastaran about her cell group. They wanted the names of
An Assyrian Christian refugee, living in Zarqa, Jordan, struggles to keep her faith and hope burning. Thousands like her are waiting to return to their homes on the Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq. Jeff Gardner, Picture Christians Project, www.picturechristians.org.
An Assyrian Christian refugee, living in Zarqa, Jordan, struggles to keep her faith and hope burning. Thousands like her are waiting to return to their homes on the Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq. Jeff Gardner, Picture Christians Project, www.picturechristians.org.
members who might have been connected to people outside of Iran and asked her what her plan was. Eventually, they let Nastaran go but kept her passport so she could not leave. Two or three times they called her in for further interrogation and did not release her husband for three months. During this difficult time, however, the Lord sustained her with his word.
“When I was interrogated, the word of Jesus in Matthew 10:19 came to me,” says Nastaran. “I was so scared and when I’m afraid I cannot talk. But I was given what to say just as Jesus promised. I told them things that would not have come up to me on my own. They kept telling me that I am a liar. He tested me to see if my hands were shaking. He offered me tea but I didn’t drink because I heard many stories about how they would give women something to drink that would make them fall asleep. I also heard stories of them raping women in the jail. And I was so scared of that.”
When they finally returned her passport, she was told to leave and never come back. In 2011, after years of serving the Lord in many closed countries including Iran, Turkey, Dubai, Syria, and Lebanon, Nastaran and her husband came to the United States. They now live with their two daughters in California, working with Farsi speakers from Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan through church planting. When asked how persecuted Christians feel about their Western brothers and sisters, Nastaran says that they do not feel abandoned, but do believe that they don’t appreciate the religious freedom they have.
“We know it’s not easy for those in other parts of the world to understand what life is like in Iran or countries like Iran because they live in freedom and they can worship God without the fear of being arrested,” Nastaran says. “However, these days because of the influence of…social media, it’s easier to know and to be aware of the condition of the people who live under persecution. For the same reason people in the West are becoming more aware and are getting more involved in helping their brothers and sisters, which I know is very encouraging to the people in Iran. I do not think the Iranians feel abandoned or uncared by other Christians in the West. Because, as you might know, there was some Christian prisoner who had been released as a result of Christian support in the West. However, they might think that people who do live in free countries do not really appreciate their freedom and take it for granted.”
Nastaran went on to say that there are many more ways the Western church can show up for their persecuted brothers and sisters, beyond using a hashtag to bring awareness. “You can keep praying for them. I know that there were people praying for me while I was going through that difficult time and it’s really encouraging, when you’re undergoing persecution, to know that your brothers and sisters are standing with you by their support, prayers, and also keeping your situation in the news. The governments like Iran are afraid of losing their face because of the [negative publicity] against them. So spreading the news of persecution can be a huge help and hopefully help release them. There are many ways we can help our brothers and sisters such as writing a letter to them, talking to the government officially, or helping their family outside of prison.”
For more information, check out Barnabasfund.org, Persecution.com, Christianresponse.org, worldmag.com/iraqaid, Opendoorsusa.org, Servantgroup.org, or E-n.org.uk.