Friday, August 22, 2014

MacGuffins and discipleship



Last week, I spent some time with a young man that our team is discipling.  Amissi has consistently shown maturity and promise.  Unfortunately, though, over the past few months, another church leader has caused him (and us) a lot of pain.  As we bumped along the dirt road together, Amissi and I talked about the different ways he could respond.  This was his conclusion: "Some people are telling me that I should come to terms with the fact that this man is just always going to treat me that way.  They say I should just keep working with him, ignoring the problem.  Others are saying, though, that it may be time for me to distance myself from him and treat him like an unbeliever...But, I can't do either of those things.  He is my brother in Christ - I must be reconciled to him."

I appreciate so much that Amissi is committed to doing the hard work of reconciliation.  And I carefully expressed to him that while his goal is a worthy one, at some point he may need to let go of the possibility of real reconciliation if this other leader is unwilling to do the 'dance of reconciliation" with him.  But, I tried hard to emphasize that his spirit reminded me of Jesus' promise that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled.  His desire for true fellowship is a good and a worthy goal.  While it would be easier to follow his friends advice and either abandon the relationship or accept a counterfeit reconciliation, Amissi is rejecting those poor substitutes for peace and holding out for genuine trust and cooperation.

The truth is that Amissi, Gamito and others are in a complicated, life-draining situation that has dragged on and is distracting the whole church from being a light in the community.  These two men feel that strain and deeply long for resolution.  So, as I've been praying and thinking about this scenario, I've asked God why this leadership problem continues to persist.

Why doesn't God just help us resolve it so we can more on?

What I've begun to realize is that by not taking shortcuts, Amissi and Gamito are being more fully formed into disciples of Jesus.  All this time of struggling and wrestling to figure out how to live in community is maturing them.  I don't know how well I expressed it or how it made them feel, but I tried to share my hunch with Amissi that it seems that God is using their difficult situation to prepare and refine them into better agents of the Kingdom for further service here in this life as well as preparing them for the age to come.     

In his book, The Idolatry of God, Peter Rollins introduces the concept of the MacGuffin and describes its use in the film industry this way:


"Hollywood has made billions of dollars playing into this human experience of the gap, providing myths in which the lost object we believe will make us whole is finally gained.  Film theorists call this lost object the MacGuffin, a term popularized by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s.  The MacGuffin is a name that is given to whatever object helps drive the narrative forward, providing the necessary tension to keep an audience interested.  The MacGuffin is that X for which some or all of the main characters are willing to sacrifice everything.  In this way the object they seek is more than something they want in order to make their lives a little better; it is something that evokes in them an obsessive form of desire.  The object might take the form of money, fame, victory, power, a man, or a woman.  The point is not what actually fills the role of the MacGuffin, but that there is something that has that role, something that people want in an excessive way.  It is the object for which everything will be sacrificed, the object that seems to promise fulfillment, satisfaction, and lasting pleasure." (p. 17)

"In life we find ourselves pursuing various MacGuffins - impotent things we falsely believe will make us whole.  What we see in the structure of Hollywood movies is but a clear reflection of this structure.  And just as Hollywood movies generally hide the importance of what we seek, so our dreams and fantasies do the same - ultimately covering over the fact that what we think will satisfy our souls is really powerless to do the same." (p. 19)

"What we see played out again and again is a situation in which the protagonist actually gets what he or she wants above all else - the kiss, the money, the bad guy, etc.  However, we rarely see what happens after the hero grasps what is sought, for if we did, the impotence of the MacGuffin would be revealed and we would not get the feel-good fantasy of fulfillment that so much of popular cinema offers." (p. 34)


One obvious application of this concept to discipleship is the need to identify MacGuffins (i.e. idols) that are keeping followers of Jesus from their true quest and fulfillment in God.  The painful truth is that humanity's longing for meaning and purpose is so powerful that we will accept a counterfeit substitute when a real one seems unavailable.  While in different cultures the specifics of those MacGuffins and the way they entrap people may be different, their essence and power is still the same - these false gods/ideals can cause us great harm.  (They can misshape our professional lives as well as our personal lives.  Let's be honest, mission work isn't immune.  It also has its share of potential MacGuffins:  holism, sustainability, publication, efficiency, working alongside a "successful church-planting-movement"... these are all good goals and potentially healthy pursuits, but they are not the ultimate reality that will sustain us.)

Another potential MacGuffin in the life of a church, though, maybe one we seldom consider, is that of "Artificial Peace."  The process of real reconciliation is painful and difficult.  But, we must deal with the termites chewing through the wood, otherwise slapping on a fresh coat of paint only puts on a false front and serves to push our problems down the road.  Peeling back the thin layer of plastered-over-reconciliation often reveals the emptiness beneath.

I am thankful that Amissi and others are willing to reject the MacGuffin of insincere reconciliation and hold out for God's best.  That's the quest that, no matter what the results, should lead to a better end.  And along the way, rejecting that MacGuffin will help form him into a person that fits the image of Jesus.

The good news of grace is that we are all offered mulligans on our MacGuffins.   
We have a chance to choose anew the worthy quest we will devote ourselves to.

May we be a people who reject false substitutes both in our personal lives and in our communities.  May we chose to give ourselves to the One who is real and life-giving.

Grace and Peace,
Alan   

Friday, August 8, 2014

August 2014 Newsletter



Greetings from Montepuez!

 The past few months for us have been VERY full, so we sat down today to share a newsletter to catch you up on what's been going on in our part of the world.

It was SHEER JOY to have my parents, Larry and Evelyn Wilson, come visit us back in March.  My Mom blessed our team immensely by staying for two months and teaching kindergarten in our Montepuez team school, and my dad came for the last two weeks of that time.  It was so special to have them here with us, but the time flew by so fast.

 
Also in March I started studying again with women in different villages as the rains usually slow down in March and the harvest begins.  This year's abundant rains were record-setting, though, and continued strong through April, so I spent more time driving in water and mud than I'd expected!  This year I've been studying with women in three different clusters outside of Montepuez, and each group is at a different level of maturity and understanding.  I've been trying to encourage leadership by asking others to do the reading and the teaching, and that has been interesting and exciting. 

Another major event on the calendar in April was the annual women's conference for our province, which was held in Balama this year, and the teaching and worship and testimonies all went well.  There were a couple difficult conversations during the three-day seminar, one about one particular woman's treatment of the other women in her church, and another about the difficulties of the organization of the women province-wide (town church women vs. village church women).  And while it can be discouraging to see our friends struggle through disagreements with each other, it also struck me as growing pains that are to be expected at this stage of development as Jesus' Kingdom Gospel continues to sink in and challenge the hard areas in our hearts.

Over the past few months, Alan has continued with his regular schedule of visits with different church clusters.  In this stage of our work, he is not involved directly in planting churches but is focusing his attention on discipling and equipping emerging leaders.  He has continued teaching a series of lessons on leadership that are specifically geared for this context in different clusters, and the series of lessons he developed on how to respond to poverty have been very well received.  Besides teaching on poverty to our regular groups of churches, Alan has also presented the material on poverty at a Christian Women's Business Seminar and to the debate club at the local High School here in Montepuez.

What will undoubtedly be the highlight for the whole year, though, was a visit from Evertt and Ileene Huffard and Monte and Beth Cox (former missionaries who currently serve as professors of missions (and more!) with Harding University). They spent the last week of May here in Montepuez meeting with our team and Mozambican church leaders in order to evaluate the state of the work.  Currently the Smith, Westerholm and Howell families have all committed to stay in Montepuez into 2018, and as a team we are committed to doing our best to prepare the churches for our eventual departure, whenever that may be.  So, the major goals of the "consultant visit" were to discern the strengths and weaknesses of these churches and our work with them, and also to help us figure out how long we should stay here as well as forming a healthy exit strategy.  We've begun chewing on their suggestions and will spend some time over the next few months reflecting on how best to put their suggestions into practice. 


Immediately following the Huffards' and Coxes' departure, our team again hosted college student interns this year.  The four of them spent six weeks job-shadowing us and experiencing what life in Mozambique can be like.  They went with us on village visits, learned to speak some basic Makua-Metto, harvested rice and carried water on their heads as well as learning to cook xima.  Each of them also tried spending a weekend with a Mozambican family without any other English speakers.  And of course they were celebrities with our kids, who thoroughly enjoyed having a new audience to entertain!  The internship is an opportunity to give students interested in missions an experience of what serving as a missionary actually looks like on the ground.

On the same day that the interns left to return to the U.S., our family flew south to Maputo.  We crossed over into South Africa and spent the first few days visiting the doctor, the dentist, and the orthodontist before heading into the mountains for a few days of vacation.  We spend our vacation days hiking, sleeping late, eating broccoli and ice cream (not together!), and being followed by our new friend Gerry the extremely social, half-blind Giraffe.  When we crossed back into Mozambique, we spent Abby's eleventh birthday renewing Ellie's and Katie's passports at the US embassy.  She appreciated Alan's joke about spending her special day on U.S. soil, but said it wasn't nearly as good as being with our friends and family in States.  We've been back home in Montepuez for almost a week now and are settling in to regular life again.     

The other development and side projects that Alan has been involved in are moving forward as well.  We have had a good response from the sustainable agriculture project this year - it looks like a good portion of association members are beginning to implement what they've been learning in their personal farming plots.  Also, all the funding that we need for the bridge project has come in, so, Lord willing, construction should begin within the next few weeks.  This bridge will bless thousands of people in the region who are cut off from Montepuez during the rainy season each year.  To read more check out this blog post.


Our team works with about fifty churches of Christ here in Cabo Delgado with a total of around one-thousand members.  One of the challenges  we are facing for long-term sustainability is in the area of organization.  So, every other month we've been meeting with a group of men who are respected as leaders in the churches in order to build a better sense of unity and figure out how to work effectively together.  This same group met with Evertt Huffard and Monte Cox while they were here, and in a few weeks on August 29th our team will present the consultants' recommendations to these church leaders.  Hopefully by implementing a plan together we will be able to move forward in a process of naming deacons and elders and setting up healthy structures to serve God's Kingdom.  Please be in prayer about this meeting that God's spirit would give us wisdom to know how to best serve His purposes.
   
Mission work and ministry in general can often feel like the waves of the ocean - flowing in an out.  One place where this dynamic has been felt recently has been in the cluster of churches in Chipembe.  Last year, they experienced some growth and we felt like the churches in those villages were gaining some real traction.  Unfortunately, over the past few months two men in the church died of illness, another man divorced his wife and then another fell back into drunkenness, and it feels like some of the momentum has been lost.  Those kinds of experiences are discouraging, but we're praying that that cluster and others can experience more sustained growth.

Our team has had multiple transitions lately; we were sad to say goodbye to Kara Tobey in early June; she taught in the Montepuez team school for two years and became an important part of our lives and ministries - she is certainly missed!  Also in June the Westerholms moved out of their rental house and onto the land, and then two weeks ago after about eight months without a vehicle, the Smiths have received their new truck and have begun their drive back to northern Mozambique.  In a little over a week I am starting graduate school working towards an MA at Harding School of Theology.  AND, thankfully God has provided us with two new teachers, Rosemary Perry and Amber Roe.  We are grateful for the blessing of receiving teachers to come help educate our children; it is a vital part of our team ministry - it greatly increases the hours we can spend teaching, training, and mentoring.  They will be moving to Montepuez in just a few weeks, but both of them still lack funds to complete their total financial needs for their time in Mozambique.  If you or anyone you know could assist them please contact us.

Our other big news is that our upcoming furlough in summer 2015 will be extended so that we can serve as Visiting Missionaries-in-Residence at Harding University in Searcy, AR for the 2015-16 school year.  We're excited about this new opportunity to influence and recruit students to missions, and hopefully even to Mozambique.  We know, though, that by the time that year is wrapping up we will be very anxious to get back to our home, friends and teammates here in Montepuez. 

Thanks so much for keeping up with us and keeping us in your prayers.  Please be sure to pray along with us about the following things:
  • upcoming leader meeting Aug. 29 where we'll be presenting some of the consultant's recommendations.
  • peace in upcoming Mozambican elections in November
  • teachers transition to Mozambique and blessings for this school year
Grace and Peace,
Rachel, Alan and the girls

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Story Warren and Why the Ocean is Salty

I wrote a post for Story Warren sharing three short stories I made up for Katie.  Please check it out and poke around their website - they have some great resources for encouraging creativity in children.

Grace and Peace,
Alan

Friday, July 11, 2014

Worship and Missions



Yesterday, I returned home with my teammate Jeremy Smith and four Harding University interns from our survey trip.  Each year we take the students with us to look at a nearby people group and consider with them a potential site where a mission team could serve.  This year's trip was to visit the Mwani people who live along the coast.  We took a boat to the island of Ibo and saw what is happening among that predominantly Muslim people group.

On Sunday, we spent time in worship and prayer asking God to bless the Mwani people.  And as we sang together, I thought about the following quote, considering again the link between missions and worship.

"Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church.  Worship is.  Missions exists because worship doesn't.  Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man.  When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more.  It is a temporary necessity.  But worship abides forever.  Worship, therefore is the fuel and goal in missions." (John Piper, Let the Nations be Glad, p. 11)

A few years ago, the kids on our team and I studied the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin and lost son from Luke 15.  Together we wrote another verse for the Doxology and our group here in Montepuez has sung it often to remind us of what we're really here for.

And as we worshiped together on the island of Ibo last Sunday we sang the Doxology.  Later on an additional verse for it came to my mind.  It connected for me more clearly how the praise due the Lord of creation and his longing to rescue humanity leads us to praise God and join Him in his work of re-creation.  May we always hold tightly to the strong link that exists between missions and worship.

Grace and Peace,
Alan

Doxology
(with additional verses by Alan Howell and Montepuez team kids)

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heav'nly host;
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost!

God loves to find lost people;
He looks for them everywhere;
And when He finds his children;
He throws a big party!

We'll go with God to every land;
And follow Him to farthest seas;
Till every tribe and tongue will sing;
Praise to our Lord - the Risen King!