Monday, March 30, 2015

Palm Sunday Mash-Up



MASH-UP -  something created by combining elements from two or more sources: as
a :  a piece of music created by digitally overlaying an instrumental track with a vocal track from a different recording
b :  a movie or video having characters or situations from other sources
(from Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

There is something captivating about a good musical mash-up.  While both an "old favorite" and something "new and different" certainly have their appeals, a well done mash-up has the ability to tap into both currents - it makes us appreciate again the familiar songs while incorporating the rush of seeing them expressed in a fresh way.

The thing about a mash-up, though, is that you can't really appreciate it unless you're already familiar with both songs.

At the beginning of our work here in northern Mozambique we spent all our time with very young churches and people relatively new to the walk with Christ.  That fact combined with our limited language abilities, meant that everyone was best served by sticking to simple Bible stories.  Most of my sermons would be based out of only one passage and I couldn't assume that the group knew much (if any) of the background necessary to understand the story.  But in recent years, as the churches have grown in maturity and have had increased exposure to the biblical text, further pedagogical possibilities have opened up to us.   
Now Makua-Metto followers of Jesus are better able to appreciate a good mash-up. 

And mash-ups are fun.  It's been enjoyable to  reach the stage where we don't have to stick to a single, simple text but can help our friends connect scriptures in surprising ways.

Yesterday, in the village of Ncunama, I tried out a Palm Sunday mash-up.
We started in Luke 19 and read about Jesus' Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (v. 35-40).  I told the story of how Jesus rode on the back of a young donkey and how his followers and many others in the capital gave him a welcome fit for a king.  People placed their cloaks and branches on the road and joyfully praised God for Jesus' miraculous works.  Not everyone, though, was pleased at this scene.  Some religious leaders were concerned that this celebration was getting out of hand and urged Jesus to put a stop to "all this nonsense."  But, Jesus refused, informing them that if the people were kept quiet, the rocks themselves would have to cry out.

After considering how this humble entry speaks volumes about Jesus' true identity as the promised Messiah and King, we turned to the second part of our mash-up.

We jumped to Revelation 19 and encountered a different vision of Jesus (v. 11-16).  In that text, he's the one called "Faithful and True" and rides in on a white horse.  His eyes are aflame and he's got a head full of crowns.  The armies of heaven follow him and he wields a powerful sword.  But, it's not some metal blade.  Instead, his sword is his tongue and with it he commands the nations.  And written on his clothing (and tattooed on his person) he wears this title - "King of Kings and Lord of Lords."

Good mash-ups luxuriate in the consistencies and inconsistencies between their different source materials.  They take common elements, words or themes and connect them together in surprising ways.

In both of these texts we see Jesus making a triumphal entry.  In Luke 19, he trots in on young donkey, whereas in Revelation 19 he thunders in on a mighty steed.  In both texts, Jesus encounters opposition from earthly rulers, and in both of them his words silence those who would oppose him.  We remember how in the beginning God created the universe with words, and in these stories we see how Christ's words display the same power to recreate.   He's able to redirect those who've gone wrong.

We talked about how the church in Ncunama has experienced persecution and pressure from religious leaders and I encouraged them to know that even though Christ body's entrance into that village seemed weak and humble, the reality is that the Rider on the White Horse stands in power with them.

Well, I hope you enjoyed listening in on our Palm Sunday mash-up of Luke 19/Revelation 19.        

It is fun to be in a stage of ministry where the church can appreciate it and make even more connections on their own.

May God's people grow in their ability to experience mash-ups of Scripture and may it serve to encourage them to follow the One who is Faithful and True!

Grace and Peace,
Alan

Thursday, March 12, 2015

and then they sang proudly, "Jesus is our crutch"



We just buried a good friend.  Caunia had been sick off and on for the last couple years, but his death still came as a shock.  Rachel and I were on our way to Pemba when we heard the news that he had passed, so we turned around and headed back home.  Then the following day, a bunch of us crammed in the truck and bumped down the wet road to the village of Nkunama. 

Death is personal.

Death is messy.

Participating in funerals in this part of the world is not antiseptic and clean.  There are no funeral homes or morticians to prep the body.  So, about twelve men (church members, family, and friends and I) crammed into a small room of the grass-thatched mud hut and washed and wrapped the body for burial.  Let me tell you, nothing can confront illusions of strength and self-sufficiency than helping dress the deceased.  At one point, I had to grab hold of Caunia's hand, once so warm with life and friendship and now limp and lifeless, to pull his arm through the shirt sleeve.

I'm not sharing this to be gross or creepy, I just think it is important to remember that at some point all of us will lose our power to do even simple things we take for granted - like dress ourselves.

At some point you and I will lose our lives.  

Anyways, before we prepped the body, a larger group of us filled the house to sing and pray.  It was emotional.  We had lost a friend, a father, a husband.  One of the songs we sang is a newer one to me.  I've only heard it a few times and had actually videoed of a number of these same church members singing it the previous week.   I'll put that clip here:

video

It is a simple song.  It repeats this phrase:

"Yesu phi nttontto; onirwa wa Wirimu."

"Jesus is the crutch, going with us to Heaven."

I don't know how to explain it, but it felt both shockingly vulnerable and incredibly hopeful to sing this song at that moment.  Confronted with death (with death literally in the room) the gathering of believers in Caunia's house proudly sang, "Jesus is our crutch."

Jesus is our crutch.

Jesse Ventura, former professional wrestler and governor of Minnesota, once said, "Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers."

I don't consider Jesse Ventura much of a prophet or a philosopher.  My guess is that his gift is simply naming what many in the West believe but are too polite to actually say: 'Religion is nothing but a crutch.'

In American culture, calling something a crutch demeans it.  So, to my ears, it is a surprising reversal to hear this oft-despised title being claimed proudly by a collection of Jesus-followers.  It was beautiful to hear the church unashamedly say, "Yep, Jesus is my crutch." 

"Yesu phi nttontto; onirwa wa Wirimu."

In Makua-Metto, the most common usage of 'nttontto' refers to a crutch/walking stick.  A popular blessing is 'may you grow old enough to walk with an nttontto.'  But, this word has a second meaning.  Nttontto is also the word for a scepter that a king would carry.

As Rachel and I talked about this song and the joy that our friends had in singing proudly that Jesus is our nttontto, we realized that this crutch/staff/scepter is both a sign of old age/weakness/need of support as well as a sign of authority/power.

Nttontto is actually a symbol of both weakness and strength.

The link between these two meanings of nttontto is found in the Scriptures.  Paul certainly understood the connection between personal weakness and real strength.  In 2 Cor. 12:10, he says, "For when I'm weak, that's when I'm strong."

But, it takes a level of humility to embrace this truth.

There's a scene from the second 'Lord of the Rings' movie, when they go to meet the King of Rohan who has been possessed by an evil spirit.  They are told that to enter his presence they must be unarmed.  So, the band of warriors remove their swords, daggers, bows and arrows.  Then one of the guards turns to Gandalf and points to his staff.  In humility, Gandalf replies, 'Oh, you wouldn't deprive an old man of his walking sticking, would you?'  The soldier agrees and Gandalf leans on his staff as he crosses the threshold.  As the wizard approaches the king, though, it becomes clear that this is no mere crutch, it is a 'scepter' that serves to concentrate his power.  Gandalf uses that 'crutch' to heal and save the one who was possessed.

I was reading something (a book or a blog post, I can't remember) and the writer was commenting on how when she meets someone who says they have no need of God, her reply is basically, "Wow, good for you, you know, not needing religion and all.  That's amazing that you've got it all together on your own.  I hope that works out for you...  I, on the other hand, do not have it all together... I need all the help I can get."

Confessing our weakness and owning up to the fact that "actually, yes, we will be needing that walking stick after all, thank you very much" to make the journey to God, avails us of a strength far greater than ourselves.

One day all of us will die.

Even people like Mr. Ventura, people who've had power in the physical or the political arena, all of us will one day come to the point of powerlessness. 
Death is a good reminder that at some point we will all be weak, at some point all of us will need a crutch.  So, yeah, Jesus is our crutch...but he's also something much more.  There is power in knowing and claiming our dependence on that staff. 

May we be a people who face our own weakness and proudly claim our need to lean on Jesus to help us make it home.  May Jesus be our nttontto - our staff and scepter.

Grace and Peace,
Alan

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Why Paul is not my role model



Growing up, I never, ever imagined becoming a missionary.  I always thought I would be in ministry, but serving somewhere outside the U.S.A. was the farthest thing from my mind.  I specifically remember telling God that I'd go wherever he sent me, but added, "Just please don't make me a missionary."

When it seemed clear, though, that serving in Africa was the path that Rachel and I were to walk, all those great Bible stories I grew up with made it crystal clear who my role model would be - Paul the missionary. 

But lately I've come to realize something...  Paul isn't actually the best role model for cross-cultural mission work.

A few weeks ago, I came across a quote that has been wriggling around in my brain.  I'll paste the full quote below, but the gist of it is this:  The Apostle Paul was not really a cross-cultural missionary and therefore... ahem... he may not be the best role model for those serving as cross-cultural missionaries.

Paul was a Jew, certainly, but his background was much more cosmopolitan. He was intimately familiar with the Greco-Roman culture of the Ancient World. But his travel companion, Barnabas, was someone who seemed more at home in the more Jewish context.  It is likely that their famous missionary journeys were a more cross-cultural experience for him.  Barnabas played a key role in their ministry, but at a certain point he willingly took a backseat to the eventual author of most of the New Testament.  That decision probably had a lot to do with Paul's gifting, but it may also have been because our famous apostle (Paul) was more familiar with the people they were seeking to reach than the guy history considers his sidekick (Barnabas).

So, I sat down separately with Cruz and Armindo, two of the younger Mozambicans I've been discipling.  I talked about the two famous missionaries in the book of Acts.  And I told them that from now on I'm going to think of them as the 'Pauls' and see myself in the 'Barnabas' role. I told them how proud I was of the way they love God.  I told them I was encouraged and impressed by their efforts to plant new churches over the last few months. I reminded them that they understand this culture more deeply than I ever will.  So, they're the 'Pauls' and I'll focus on being a 'Barnabas.'

The beautiful truth is that they and the other men and women we are discipling are much more equipped to take the good news of God's kingdom to their family and friends (the Makua-Metto people) and it is exciting to see them become more passionate and confident as they grow into that role.

May God raise up modern-day "Pauls" from among the Makua-Metto to reach the Makua-Metto.  And may I serve as a "Barnabas" to encourage them along the way.

Grace and Peace,
Alan

P.S. Here's that quote I mentioned earlier - Enjoy!

"Historically, missionary movements have tended to look to Paul as the model missionary.  Paul has been the inspiration for thousands to go boldly where no gospel was preached before.  There is something natural about this. The New Testament is largely a Pauline set of texts.  He is the central figure in the theology and ministry of the early church.  His character is captivating and real.  He is a towering personality, full of courage and yet somehow possessing sensitive emotions.  His adventures spark the wanderlust of many readers.  But is he really a model for missionaries in the sense of cultural outsiders who seek to get the gospel inside a culture to which they themselves are strangers?  Was Paul really a cross-cultural missionary?  We need to recall that he was born a Jew and so could with integrity truly be a Jew to the Jew.  But he was also born into the Greek language and culture and worldview of the god-fearing Greek, the slice of Greek culture which seems to have formed the target for much of his direct ministry.  He could thus with integrity also truly be a Greek to the Greek.  There is another New Testament figure, closely related to Paul's ministry, who would seem to be a model for cross-cultural mission.  This man was in the right place at the right time and recognized in Paul the gifts and calling needed to minister to Greeks.  He served to link Paul with the suspicious leadership of the Jerusalem church and defended Paul to them.  He stood alongside Paul in ministry at Antioch and accompanied Paul on itinerant ministry, though always taking an apparent back seat to Paul's leadership.  And in the end, this man simply fades into oblivion so that the story of the people movement among the Greeks is largely a story of Paul's ministry, not his own (though without him it is doubtful that Paul would ever have been what we know).  This man Barnabas seems to me to be the model, or at least a model, after which we need to pattern our ministries.  If we do, we will find ways to come alongside others.  We will have eyes  to see whom God may be raising up as a new Paul, no matter how difficult the new Paul may be for other Christian leaders to accept.  We will have the humility to stand in the background.  And in the end we will have the grace to face the fact that our role is really to disappear.  If Barnabas is our model, we can trust God to raise up messengers to voice his message in the contexts of the remaining cultures among which we long to see his kingdom come." - p. 115-6 - "Encountering Muslim Resistance" by Kevin Higgins in Reaching the Resistant: Barriers and Bridges for Mission - J. Dudley Woodberry, editor


Thursday, February 12, 2015

Why we've started holding hands in public



Holding hands means something different here.

In this part of the world, Men hold hands with men; women hold hands with women.  Personally, I'm still caught by surprise when another man reaches out to hold my hand.  But holding hands in this context is a tender act of friendship - it's a small practice that expresses big sentiments like closeness and unity.

What is much rarer to see, though, is men and women holding hands.  Our older Mozambican friends would be scandalized to see a man and woman holding hands because, according to this traditional culture, only couples having an illicit relationship would do that. 

When our family moved to Mozambique over a decade ago, we began the long (and still ongoing process!) of learning the Makua-Metto culture.  And in order to act appropriately in this context, Rachel and I stopped holding hands in public. 

But over the past few years, we've noticed an increase in the number of young men and women who hold hands as they walk down the street.  It seems that as more and more people have been exposed to Western movies, many of the Makua-Metto, especially those in the more urban areas are overcoming the shock of cross-gender hand holding.

In reflecting on the fact that we're seeing more young people holding hands, it hit us that this practice should not be the "property" of young people in illicit relationships - what if it was "owned" by committed couples instead?

So, Rachel and I have started holding hands in public.  It isn't often that the two of us get to walk anywhere alone, but when we do, we're hoping that maybe this small act can communicate something different about the friendship and unity found in a committed marriage relationship.

So, while there is a time to be culturally relevant/sensitive, there is also a time to be counter-cultural - a time to try to reshape prevailing perceptions of a given practice.  Maybe holding hands can be a missional/counter-cultural/protest-statement-of-love kind of act.  And that's why we're holding hands in public again.... well... and because it's fun.  :)  

Grace and Peace,
Alan