I’m not entirely sure what I thought our mission work among the Ik people would do for them. Probably I assumed that if we did X, Y, and Z, God would take care of the details. Providing them a translation of the New Testament in their mother tongue would, I believed, enable them to know God better, which would certainly improve their overall lot in life (as would, presumably, any intimate knowledge of the Creator). Giving healthcare, as Amber did, would not only alleviate their bodily hardships but also furnish evidence of the spiritual message we wanted to communicate: that God is love, and that God loves them.
Our mission philosophy was what we called ‘incarnational’: in the flesh. Based on the theological term ‘Incarnation’ describing how God came to Earth in human flesh, our incarnational ministry was meant to re-incarnate God in our flesh. The idea was that people could look at us and see Jesus and therefore God. They could hear our words and hear Jesus and therefore God. They could witness our actions, witness Jesus and therefore God. No pressure on us, right? This idea of incarnational ministry is not only breathtakingly presumptuous, but it also put an impossible moral burden on us.
Fortunately, the time we spent trying to live out this missional philosophy steadily disabused us of such condescending notions. But it could only do so in a series of major steps. The first was to let sink in the fact that neither the Ik nor God needed us or a translation of the Bible for them to grow in their relationship. That process was proceeding apace with or without our involvement (and much of the time it seemed better off without our interference). Motivated by a deep need to be indispensable, I switched from Bible translation to language development, reasoning that even if the Ik didn’t need a Bible translation, they still needed mother-tongue literacy. A second step came when I realized that the success of Ik people and their society wasn’t dependent on literacy either!
A third fatal wound to my fantasy of self-importance came through adopting two Ik children. Bringing them into our home and becoming their parents furnished us with the opportunity to actively shape the lives of at least some Ik people. This, because the power dynamic shifted dramatically. Before then, I hadn’t been able to get the Ik people to see how awesome I was and how crucial what I could offer them was to their well-being. But now, with children, it would be easier. I could enforce my awesomeness and forcibly inculcate in them the values I wished to see in their tribe of origin. Our home became the laboratory to develop the medicine I believed the whole society desperately needed. In the long run, this strategy did not work. Despite the power imbalance, those two Ik girls resisted being conformed into my image. Instead, the last five years has become more about us conforming to each other in an effort to coexist and coevolve together as equals.
In any event, we are still four years ago. The compulsion to make some kind of indelible impact in Ik society, to leave a legacy, to ‘change the world’ was still fighting for survival. The last step was to invert our home environment – where I was shaping the lives of Ik children – and expand it into…wait for it…a school for Ik children. It suddenly became clear: I have no power to influence Ik who were already adults and ‘set in their ways’! Yes, but I do have the power to influence children because they are trusting and more malleable. The best way to alter the belief systems and behavior patterns of this people group was to start a primary school for their offspring. Why hadn’t I thought of this earlier?!
Enter the Timu Forest Academy.
June 6, 2014:
For some reason, yesterday, Amber and I got to dreaming BIG TIME about founding a Christian school here in Ikland.
August 16, 2014:
God is preparing me to give Ik children an opportunity for a holistic, Christian, ecological education. I will design a school campus that will be like a highly ergonomic eco-lodge: made of natural materials in a beautiful way. I want a generation of Ik children to praise and thank God for the natural paradise He’s bestowed on them and instill in them the value of caring for it, knowing they are part of a community of creatures and creations.
August 20, 2014:
I’m reading a book about classical liberal arts education. The Trivium consists of Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric. The Grammar aspect will involve memorization, language, story, drama, and music. So these need to be represented in the curriculum in at least these ways: storytelling in English and Ik (stories of all kinds, biblical stories, folk tales, animal fables, etc.); language learning in English, Ik, Latin, Swahili, etc.; memorization in English and Ik songs, sayings, verses; emphasis on music: Ik songs and music.
August 21, 2014:
My dream is to usher in a new Golden Age of Ik cultural, economic, and spiritual flourishing. To have ever become a cohesive ethnic group, the Ik must have had a stable period many hundreds or thousands of years ago. By starting afresh with a younger generation, we can do something great.
November 19, 2014:
My dream is to see a new era of human flourishing among this small Ik people group. If their language is any clue, the past few thousand years has put them through massive cultural change. The level of influence from neighboring languages like Toposa on Ik grammar and vocabulary suggest cultural vulnerability. But since the Ik are still a cohesive group, it seems that at some point in the distant past, they must’ve enjoyed a period of cultural stability and richness…
So my dream is to help usher in a new ‘golden age’ of Ik culture and society. I will pursue making this dream reality through the combined efforts of my own scholarly work on the Ik language culture, history, etc. and of reproducing myself through an Ik elementary school.
I see great potential for both moral and intellectual truth among the Ik. And at present, I see no better way – no other way – to prepare the Ik for seeing this truth (to be the ‘datives of manifestation’ to use Sokolowski’s phrase) than by cultivating the bodies, minds, and souls of Ik children.
With this two-pronged approach – 1) living it out myself and 2) investing my life in the young – I will work hard to achieve this dream.
November 21, 2014:
During my quiet times I’ve been reading a book on the Christian classical education renewal movement. It’s got me pumped up for what we can try to do with our Ik school. At the moment I’m envisioning how to basically take Sonlight curriculum [a Christian classical curriculum] and Africanize it.
February 16, 2015:
My idols are toppling one by one. Yesterday, I was able to let go of the dream of the Ik school. In the clarity of fasting, I realized two things: 1) the school was to be a means of alleviating my guilt for indulging myself in a work (the Ik grammar) that benefited me and my career and yet did nothing immediate for the Ik people, and 2) it was to be a last-ditch effort on my part to bring about the tectonic changes I see as needing to happen in this society. What I feel God is saying to me now is this:
“You can’t, and were never going to, change Ik society. That is my work, and only I can do it, and I may take a very, very long time to do so. Let me worry about how your work thus far contributes to my master plan.”
In retrospect, a lot of this sounds kind of creepy, like the pipe-dream of a psychopath. To make a people a ‘project’ and its children a ‘product’ – wow. The fact that I was unaware of my own narcissism and felt unimpeachably well-intentioned doesn’t excuse me. Fortunately, I didn’t have the resources to bring Timu Forest Academy to fruition. I got as far as getting local government approval, a piece of land to build on, and an expatriate partner to incorporate the school and help with its administration. What I couldn’t get as easily were teachers and finances. And then, around the turn of the year (into 2015), the center of gravity of our family shifted from how to stay in Ikland to how to get out….