Humble Defiance, Radical Hope: Gratitude in 2020


Dear friends,

As we begin a new year, I’m practicing gratitude as an act of humble defiance and radical hope in the face of the many evils and sorrows that 2020 brought. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called gratitude “a profoundly transforming power,” “the Yes from which all [life] springs.”

Here’s a list of 20 reasons why I’m giving thanks for 2020 amid the grief we carry. I invite you to start 2021 with your own act of humble defiance and radical hope.

Yours with love,




  1. Mom’s Health: My mom had a stroke scare hours before we returned to Addis on January 14. It was an ominous start to 2020, but mom fully recovered and has been healthy since.

  1. The IFF Board: The board of the Institute for Faith and Flourishing (formerly ICCG) provides invaluable leadership, friendship, accountability, and generosity as we serve Ethiopia. Thank you, James, Liz, Joe, Steve, and Lily!

  1. West African Pastors: Lily and I taught a Christian Ethics course for 50 West African pastors in Abidjan, Ivory Coast in January. We were so inspired by our hosts and given fresh vision for opening a training center like theirs in Addis. Ivorian pastors told us the Neighbor-Love Covenant could help prevent civil war in their country.

  1. Growth of NLM: The Neighbor-Love Movement grew far beyond our expectations in 2020. The picture below is from our conference with 800 students at the University of Gondar.

Here’s a few NLM highlights:

  • We produced groundbreaking videos on loving your neighbor that will be shared by all 45 of Ethiopia’s public universities with their students.
  • Dozens of senior leaders and thousands of youth signed our Covenant.
  • 10 million people encountered our message on Facebook.
  • Our co-director Dr. Tekalign published the first book in an Ethiopian language on neighbor-love.
  • We partnered with the European Institute of Peace, the American Embassy, Give Hope Ethiopia, Ethiopian universities, the Reconciliation Commission, Ministry of Peace, and several other platforms to host events focused on peacemaking and neighbor-love.

We’re hoping to produce our first TV show on neighbor-love in 2021 as Ethiopia finds itself in stage 9 of 10 stages of genocide. Please pray for us and Ethiopia!

5. NLM Family: We cherish our NLM family: Dr Tekalign and Tehitena (right of me) and Fitsum Admasu (left of Lily). Special thanks to Eric Hoskins (center) for serving as NLM’s first intern in 2020! I love you all dearly.

6. Our Partners: Dozens of you pray, give, and make our work possible in Ethiopia. We’re especially grateful for our founding partners and new givers in 2020. You can become a partner here. Thank you for your love and generosity!

  1. Caleb Meakins: My friend Caleb Meakins was killed in a car accident in Addis in late February 2020. Caleb was a bright light and incredible source of inspiration. As I continue grieving, I’m giving thanks for his life and God’s promise of resurrection. Read can my tribute for Caleb here. I carry other loved ones in my heart who died or were murdered in 2020.

  1. Safety, Peace, and Enemy-Love: On Good Friday, I started receiving dozens of death threats for my work building bridges between polarized communities. Through this disturbing season, we grew in trusting and practicing Jesus’s command to love our enemies and actively bless those who curse us (Matthew 5:43-48). Here’s the open letter “Dear Ethiopia” I wrote in reply to the hate.  I pray God’s peace and hope on each person who threatened to kill me in 2020.  Special thanks to Lily’s family and other friends who supported us through these unsettling months.

9. Home Away from Home: Lily and I spent nearly 8 months in the US in 2020. We celebrate the safety, endless weeding and house maintenance and tree planting with my dad, taking mom for wheelchair rides, sleepovers and bike rides with our nieces and nephews, seeing Autumn for the first time in four years, celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas with my parents, family meals and game nights, and much else. This picture is of dad and me fixing his shed’s roof.

  1. Lily: Lily has been my lover, partner, and friend through every joy and sorrow of 2020. This summer we celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary, went on an adventure to Maine, and renewed our marriage vows on the beach (thank you Pastors Dave and Kate Schmidgall!). I’ll always give thanks for 2020 because Lily and I were able to spend the most time together since we were married — walks, picnics, dates, birthdays, baking, book reading, emailing, praying, and much else.

  1. The Prairie Path: The green life and fresh air of the Prairie Path have been incredibly healing, especially after months of death threats. I’m giving thanks for the dozens of walks Lily, I, and others have taken together in 2020. This living place has taught us to listen, pay attention, and cherish the brilliance of God’s creation.

  1. New Birth: Ransom Reuel Andrew Arnold: My sister Abby and her husband Justyn welcomed their new son Ransom in September. They named him after three of their favorite authors: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and yours truly (!). We celebrate Ransom’s life and the gift of new birth in such difficult times.

13. Mentors: My life is sustained and strengthened by Dr. Rich Hansen (coach), Dr. Duane Grobman (spiritual director), and Dr. John McPherrin (therapist; pictured). I’m immensely grateful for their patient listening, wise counsel, and friendship in 2020.

  1. Mentees: One of the sacred gifts I cherish most in life is mentoring friends and former students. It’s been the highest blessing to walk with you through incredible suffering, healing, and growth in 2020. You know who you are; know how grateful I am for you.

  1. Marriage: Jenna and Tyler Heath: Lily and I had the amazing privilege of doing premarital counseling and then marrying Jenna and Tyler Heath on September 6, 2020 (wedding sermon here). We cherish these dear friends and celebrate their new beginning. Congratulations  to other dear friends (Maria and Sayf, Hayley and Micah!) who were engaged and/or married in 2020! Covenant love carries us through our deepest struggles and sorrows.

  1. Writing: In 2020, I wrote the first draft of my next book tentatively titled Practice Flourishing: Praying through Humanity’s Greatest Questions with History’s Most Beautiful Mind. I was also able to publish two book chapters (“On Human Flourishing” and “Public Theology in Ethiopia”), several articles, and dozens of Stop & Thinks. I’m grateful for the time, silence, and stillness that enables me to write.

  1. Democracy:  Democratic culture and institutions have been tested around the world in 2020. We give thanks for democracy and the freedom for political humor that it allows. Picture taken from snarky Kennebunkport, Maine 🙂 
  2. Good Health: We give thanks that our wider family has been healthy through this global pandemic. We continue to grieve and pray with dear friends who entrusted loved ones to God in 2020. We’ve learned to give thanks for every breath, every minute, every person, and take nothing for granted. This statement from Jesus spoke to me profoundly in 2020: “For God all are alive” (Luke 20:38).

19. New and Enduring Friendship: C.S. Lewis called friendship “the greatest of worldly goods.” I fully agree and thank God for new and enduring friendships in 2020. Sharing this earth with you has been the greatest gift and blessing of my life.

20. Hope: We’ve shed many tears in 2020. But we enter 2021 with a sense of defiant gratitude and radical hope.

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