Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Story Warren - Sir Raleigh, Storytelling, and the Sea

"A wonderful painting hangs on the wall of my office. This gift from my lovely wife is a reproduction of Millais’ The Boyhood of Raleigh, and I hope it continues working its way into my heart and imagination.

James K. A. Smith summarizes well the story behind this painting (2016, 92):
'Sir Walter Raleigh, you might recall, was one of Queen Elizabeth I’s intrepid explorers. He established some of the first British colonies in what is now North Carolina. But he also twice set sail in search of the elusive El Dorado. In the painting, Millais imagines just what creates such an adventurer and explorer. His hypothesis? A good storyteller. Raleigh and a young friend sit entranced by a wizened old sailor who is pointing to an immense sea, captivating them with tales of what lies on the other side. The story, on Millais’ interpretation, gives birth to a longing that will govern and direct all of Raleigh’s life.'

As I’ve considered this inspiring work of art, two observations have jumped off the canvas and doggedly refused to leave me alone!"

To read more, please check out the Story Warren post Sir Raleigh, Storytelling, and the Sea.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

There is a Season: Discerning the Rhythms of Mission Work

Before we moved to Mozambique, I served as an intern in a campus ministry at the University of Memphis.  I was in grad school and it was a blessing to get to serve in ministry at the same time under Tim Stafford.  One thing he said that has stuck with me and shaped the way I approach our work even today had to do with appreciating the seasons in campus ministry.  Tim believed that by going with the grain of the school calendar, the campus ministry could encounter students where they were instead of merely where we wanted them to be.  So, we organized our efforts this way: the Fall semester was for evangelism, the Spring semester was for discipleship, and the Summer was for mission.  Makes sense, right?

That way of thinking gave me more appreciation for the way seasons shape the life and ministry of the church.  In Mozambique we have one rainy season where everyone is busy in their farms. If we plan a lot of activities for that time period, we are setting ourselves up for failure – people have to be out in their fields a lot because monkeys and elephants in the bush that will eat their crops!  So, our team tries to fit our ministry with the ebb and flow of life.  Right now it’s the rainy season and we don’t travel as much.  Besides an increased danger of getting our vehicles stuck in the mud (!), we realize that people just aren’t as available.  While we still keep worshiping with the churches and having some scheduled meetings, our team is mostly using this year’s rainy season for construction (building a wall on our property) and for curriculum development and translation.  After the busyness of the farming season (Jan-Apr) is over, we enter a time of evangelism and equipping (May-Dec).

This dynamic is often hard to appreciate for short term workers who have come to Mozambique.  They arrive in Africa and expect big things to happen conveniently during their own short stay.  But what they may not grasp is that they may have come at an inconvenient time.  Western culture is no longer an agrarian society, so we may not naturally think in seasons much anymore.  But this forgetfulness is not only a western phenomenon - we know Mozambican church leaders who forget this dynamic and have caused frustration and discouragement.  Just as there is a proper time to plant and sow in the agrarian calendar, we need to be keen observers of the field God has placed us in to work with the church to discern the activities in their proper season.

Getting in Rhythm with the Rhythm

Bruce Miller’s helpful book Your Church in Rhythm: The Forgotten Dimension of Seasons and Cycles has been a blessing to me as I’ve wrestled with this dynamic in Mozambique.  Honestly, I sometimes feel frustrated at the changes in activity level that happen during different times of the year.  Miller’s counsel has been helpful:
“The Bible calls us to both Sabbath rest and sacrificial service.  God’s people are to stop working at times, and we are to work sacrificially at other times.  We are to set aside time to rest and we are to take risks for God.  We are called to be, at times, both Mary and Martha (see Luke 10:38-42).  We sit at Jesus’ feet to learn and we exercise hospitality by “washing feet” to serve (John 13).  The point is not that rest and work are to be kept in balance, but that they are to be in rhythm over time.  Churches are to fast and to feast, but not at the same time!” (p. 142)
“Consider creating an ‘oscillation graph’ for your yearly cycle.  For each month, circle the number that indicates the level of intensity or renewal from a zero point of average energy expenditure and renewal to a high point of five in either direction with intensity at the top and renewal at the bottom.  When do you most intensely expend energy and when are you most fully renewing?” (p. 148)
“There are times to lead your church full blast and times to drink deeply from the water of life to renew strength for the next battle. Oscillate intensity and renewal in each cycle so you yield a large harvest year after year without wearing out before your time is done.” (p. 160)
While some argue for finding balance in ministry.  Miller argues that balance is not the goal. He says,
“The concept of balance is flawed because balance happens in a frozen moment. Yet you cannot pause life to weigh its balance. Your ministry never stops; it is always moving and changing.  There is no DVR remote that will pause church.” (loc. 347) Instead we should try to discern the proper rhythms. “If you ignore rhythm, you can hurt your church by wasting resources on concerns that don’t fit this time in your church’s life. For instance, if you’re a church planter in the early days it’s not the time to develop policy manuals or refined processes.  Much stress and guilt often come from attempting ministry that does not belong in this stage or season. In contrast, if we employ rhythm strategies, we can materially improve the quality of our ministry by releasing pressure and increasing focus.  Churches that seize unique opportunities in a particular ministry rhythm find they increase their impact by focusing on what is timely.” (loc. 301)
Discerning the Rhythms

Once we have accepted the fact that we need to be in rhythm with the seasonal rhythm, we need to begin to appreciate the bigger picture.  Not only are there seasonal rhythms, there are also other stages or cycles at work in the life of God’s people that effect ministry. “Whereas stages are longer periods in the life span of an organization, seasons are shorter periods lasting a few months to a few years.  Churches live through both organizational life stages and ministry seasons.  For example, a stage might be the early years of planting a church; a season could be a capital campaign.  You will learn to recognize what time it is in your church, and then identify your own stages and seasons.” (loc. 422)

Miller uses two Greek words for time to help us understand what is happening.
“One way to understand the difference between kairos and chronos is to contrast the rhythms of the sea with the rhythms of the sky.  The ocean has patterned but unpredictable, noncyclical rhythms to it.  Sometimes the sea is calm; at other times waves crash onto the beach.  Even with all our modern technology, we still cannot fully predict the sea’s rhythm.  We can be surprised by a tsunami that destroys a coastline or by a wave that knocks us off our feet while we’re wading in the surf.  The sky is different; it has a rhythm to it.  The planets and stars move in cyclical, predictable patterns.  We can look to the sun to know what time of day it is.  The moon tells us what time of the month it is. The lengths of days and nights, tied to the tilt of the earth in relation to the sun, tell us what season it is.  The stars tell us the time of year. We live rhythmically by both following the sky’s patterns, which form our chronos rhythm (cycles), and by riding the sea waves of our Kairos rhythms (seasons).” (p. 20)
I would add that beyond the rhythms of sky (seasons) and sea (church stages), there is also a third dynamic at play.  We need to appreciate what time it is in the life of the sailor/missionary.  The stage that the minister is in will also effect the seafaring as he or she discerns the appropriate place on the boat and how to be appropriately active in raising the sail or allowing other sailors (maybe some that are still learning their craft) to take the lead.  Appreciating all three dimensions, or times, can help us move forward effectively. 

We could switch metaphors here and think about the three hands on a watch. The “hour hand” stands for the time or stage in the life of the church, the “minute hand” is the season of life of the missionary, and the “second hand” is the season of the year currently.

Here are a few questions for missionaries to think through with local ministry partners in order to help accurately “tell time”:
  • Sea / “Hour Hand” - What stage is the church in?
    • What events in the past are currently shaping this community?
    • What potential events are on the horizon for this community?
  • Sailor / “Minute Hand” - What season is the missionary in?
    • What tasks are the minister physically and spiritually prepared for?
    • Are their potential personal transitions that should effect the way ministry tasks should be engaged at this time?
  • Sky / “Second Hand - Are their seasonal factors that inhibit or enhance ministry possibilities?
    • When would people here be most receptive to hearing the gospel? or participate in ministry training?
    • How are people available?  Are there certain times of the day or night that they would be more receptive?
    • Are there parts of the liturgical year that make people more receptive? For example, because of some of the historic Catholic influences in one of the areas we work, people may be more interested in joining the church around Easter…

As an aside, I want to note that Miller makes some great observations about the importance of liturgical rhythms:
“Liturgical Christians have long benefited from an annual rhythm built into the church year.  Whether they use these terms or celebrate on the same day with the same ritual, all Christian traditions recognize Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Ordinary Time, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.  In her wonderful book The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year (2008), Kimberlee Conway Ireton contrasts the value of following the church year with our American cultural calendar: ‘Observing the seasons of the church year also helps us embrace the church’s telling of time instead of our culture’s. Our culture’s calendar is grounded in capitalism, which requires consumption.  Back-to-school sales, day-after-Thanksgiving sales, the Christmas shopping season, after-Christmas sales, Valentine’s Day… The church year, on the other hand, is grounded in the story of Christ, which is the foundational story of our lives as Christians.  It tells the story of our faith-the grand and sweeping story of the God who came to live among us as one of us. (pp. 13-14)” (p. 130).
Serving in ministry cross-culturally means that we need to be even more sensitive to the ways that seasons and stages affect the life of the church.  That will happen best in conversation with local partners to understand how best to bless and serve the people of God.

May the God who has our times in his hands (Psalm 31:15) help us to “tell time” well as we minister and work for the benefit of Christ’s kingdom!

Grace and Peace,

Alan

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Gallows Humor in Missions

A few years ago, I was at a gathering of missionaries serving in Africa.  Sitting around the table after supper, the person next to me started telling his own stories of tough experiences since moving to the continent.  Going around the table and sharing, most of them had served less than five years as a cross-cultural missionary.  So when at last it came my turn, I remember the expressions on their faces as I shared some of what has happened to us.

Our mission team has served in northern Mozambique since 2003 and that has given us plenty of experiences to laugh and cry about.  Beyond the “normal” or “expected” difficulties of struggling to learn language and culture, leaving behind family and friends as well as enduring sickness and sunburn, malaria and dysentery, right at the beginning or our time in Africa, we were falsely accused and ended up living in exile for over a year.  Our mission team experienced a painful split.  We felt abandoned by some colleagues and others fell into sin.  And, at the time of this retreat, I was still in the midst of processing a recent difficult event: a home invasion.  Needless to say, that was a lot to drop on a group of people that I barely knew. 

It was interesting and encouraging, though, to see the way the group handled all of our negative experiences.  We could have cried, but instead, amazingly, we spent the meal laughing… a lot.  While still recognizing the seriousness of what each of us had gone through, the group was not allowing the pain to have the final word or authority.  Instead of giving in to despair or desolation, the tone was that of laughter – there was an appropriate amount of levity. 

In reflecting on that memorable dinner conversation, I’ve realized that being able to laugh at tough experiences has propped me up at multiple points along the journey.  Joking with my teammates (as well as praying with them!) about mystery illnesses helped with the fact that we are so far from quality medical care. And humor has been especially important in processing our interactions with a toxic church leader who has caused so many problems over the years.  At one point when it looked like this man’s efforts to get us kicked out of the country just might have turned out to be effective, I remember laughing with Chad and Jeremy about different silly employment opportunities that might be in our future. In the life of our mission team, humor has been a very effective release valve for dealing with stress and struggles.

One label for this kind of response is: “Gallows Humor.”  Examples can be found all over the world of this natural, normal instinct. Wikipedia summarizes it this way: “Any humor that treats serious matters, such as death, war, disease, and crime, in a light, silly or satirical fashion is considered gallows humor. Gallows humor has been described as a witticism in response to a hopeless situation.”


Gallows Humor in Medicine

As I have tried to think critically about my own experience of gallows humor, an article by Katie Watson has been very helpful.  She looks at the ethics of the way medical doctors use gallows humor to cope with their own encounters with pain and death.  The following are quotes from: “Gallows Humor in Medicine” by Katie Watson The Hastings Center Report. 2011; 41(5):37-45. --> link

“Gallows humor is humor that treats serious, frightening, or painful subject matter in a light or satirical way. Joking about death fits the term most literally, but making fun of life-threatening, disastrous, or terrifying situations fits the category as well.”

“Gallows humor is not a feel-good, Patch Adams kind of humor, but it is not synonymous with all cruel humor, either. As one physician put it, the difference between gallows humor and derogatory humor is like ‘the difference between whistling as you go through the graveyard and kicking over the gravestones.’” (D. Wear et al., "Derogatory and Cynical Humor Directed Towards Patients: Views of Residents and Attending Doctors," Medical Education 43 (2009): 34–41, at 39.)

“Viktor Frankl describes concentration camp prisoners who "cracked jokes" about their horrible circumstances: ‘Humor was another of the soul's weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.’" (V. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), 56, 54.)

Philosopher Ted Cohen argues that sometimes we joke not for distance but for connection. If you laugh at my joking, it means that we are alike in some way, that we see the world similarly. (T. Cohen, Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 29. Cohen's book addresses scripted jokes, but many of his insights apply to spontaneous joking as well. In Cohen's terms, humor serves the vital psychological and social function of confirming or cultivating intimacy, and establishing or reinforcing community. (Ibid., 28–31)).  Another function of joking Cohen considers is acknowledging and integrating painful absurdities: "When we laugh at a true absurdity, we simultaneously confess that we cannot make sense of it and that we accept it. Thus laughter is an expression of our humanity, our finite capacity, our ability to live with what we cannot understand or subdue. We can dwell within the incomprehensible without dying from fear or going mad." (Ibid. 41.)

Kuhlman argues that gallows humor "offers a way of being sane in an insane place." (T.L. Kuhlman, "Gallows Humor for a Scaffold Setting: Managing Aggressive Patients on a Maximum-Security Forensic Unit," Hospital and Community Psychiatry 39, no. 10 (1988): 1085.

Joan Sayre came to a compatible conclusion in her study of psychiatric unit meetings: gallows humor was one part of "the basic social process of facing a series of ultimately unresolvable problems." (J. Sayre, "The Use of Aberrant Medical Humor by Psychiatric Unit Staff," Issues in Mental Health Nursing 22 (2001): 669–89, at 674)

This article discusses the way doctors use gallows humor in positive, helpful ways as well as describing the dangers of using gallows humor with patients who are not ready for that kind of levity.  Watson believes that gallows humor serves an important function within the medical community as a way to cope with working in the midst of death.  At best, it is a kind of “insider” talk that allows doctors to process tragedy in a healthy way, allowing them to continue to serve.

Gallows Humor, Humility and Missions

I’ve seen many missionaries naturally lean on gallows humor as a coping mechanism, but I think it is helpful to consider and recognize the benefits of using it appropriately (laughing at tough situations as well as, or instead of, crying).  

In order to do that, one of the main adjustments we may need to make is to not take ourselves too seriously. Without an appropriate levity about himself or herself, the missionary will not be able to discern levity or irony in the world.  There is an important link between humor and humility.  In the introduction to Erwin McManus’ book An Unstoppable Force, Rick Warren talks about the importance of self-deprecating humor.  He says, “It’s an enduring trait that I’ve found in all pastors who are greatly used by God.  Too many Christian leaders take themselves way too seriously and don’t take God seriously enough.  Humor and humility come from the same root word” (7).

In important counsel for preachers, Long recommends:
“'Never lose a sense of humor about yourself.’ Perhaps that line ought to be engraved on a plaque and placed on the back of the pulpit alongside the traditional quotation from the Gospel of John, ‘We would see Jesus.’ The verse from John would remind us to take the task of preaching the gospel of Christ seriously; the phrase about a sense of humor would encourage us not to take ourselves too seriously while we are doing that task.  Moreover, a sense of humor in worship is not only a sign of humility but also of the gospel’s liberating power. ‘With Easter,’ states Moltmann, ‘the laughter of the redeemed… begins.’  Because God in Christ has broken the power of sin and death, Christian congregations and their preachers are free to laugh at themselves and they can also laugh at the empty gods of pride and greed.  They can mock hell and dance on the grave of death and sin.” (Long, The Witness of Preaching, 8-9)
If anyone can have the courage to laugh at death it should be followers of Jesus.  As Willard notes, “Jesus’ attitude toward death is frankly quite cavalier” (The Great Omission, 222).  And Paul, our model missionary, while facing disease, difficulties and his own demise was not afraid to use humor to taunt and mock the enemy of death (1 Cor. 15:55).   

Having an appropriate level of humility about our own humanity allows us to appreciate correctly our role in the mission of God. “We do the very best we know, we work hard, and even self-sacrificially.  But we do not carry the load, and our ego is not involved in any way with the mission and the ministry.  In our love of Jesus and his Father, we truly have abandoned our life to him.  Our life is not an object of deep concern” (The Great Omission, 101).

Conclusion:

Humor can be a useful mechanism for finding a deeper understanding for what is happening around us and our place in the drama.  Peterson says that “some insights are only accessible while laughing. Others only arrive by indirection” (The Contemplative Pastor, 115).  And gallows humor can clear the clutter of tension and stress on the path and make a way for perseverance. “We cannot alter the tragic character of human life, but that we can endure and so prevail.” (Rowan Greer, Broken Lights and Mended Lives, 206)

Watson comments that the power in gallows humor is that while we admit our own frailty in the situation, that levity allows us to look forward: “In a situation that (is) horrific and absurd, a joke is the rock you throw after the bad guy's already gone—an admission of loss, and a promise to fight again another day.” Like medical doctors, cross-cultural missionaries end up experiencing and witnessing a lot of tragedy and gallows humor can be a way to both hold onto an appropriate amount of personal humility as well as use irony and humor to highlight the way that God’s kingdom could possibly poke through in the future.

Gallows humor treats serious (or grave!) matters with the medicine of laughter.  And at its best, that laughter can help bring us back from despair and call to mind the ways that the powers of death and decay will eventually die themselves.  Gallows humor can help us bring the irony before God, asking our true Lord to redeem what by all accounts should be weak and dead.

What do you think?  Any thoughts on how gallows humor has been a blessing in your life or ministry?

Grace and Peace,
Alan

Monday, February 20, 2017

Like the Air We Intake and Inhabit: What it means to be “In Christ”

In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus primarily uses the language of the “Kingdom of God,” while in John the idea of “Eternal Life” takes center stage in Jesus’ conversations.  Paul, on the other hand, leaves those expressions aside and orients his communication around the idea of being “in Christ.” 

Paul uses that phrase, or a slight variation of that phrase, 90 times in his letters!  The following are just a few examples (NIV – bolding and underlining are mine):
  • Romans 6:8-11 – “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him… (so) count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
  • Romans 8:1 – “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus
  • Romans 8:10 “But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness.”
  • 1 Cor. 9:1 – “…Are you not the result of my work in the Lord?”
  • 2 Cor. 13:5 – “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?”
  • Galatians 2:20 – “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
  • Galatians 3:28 – “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
  • Galatians 5:6 – “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

Being “in Christ” is the centerpiece in Paul’s letters. It’s the major theme that all other concepts and counsel build off of.  We could think of being “In Christ” as the puzzle box top that helps us piece together what his correspondence means.  Gorman says, “this language is not so much mystical as it is spatial, to live within a ‘sphere’ of influence.  The precise meaning of the phrase varies from context to context, but to be in “in Christ” principally means to be under the influence of Christ’s power, especially the power to be conformed to him and his cross, by participating in the life of a community that acknowledges his lordship” (Gorman, Cruciformity, 36).

My favorite example of how Paul uses this idea is found in Col. 1:27-29.  In this section we see clearly this interesting dynamic of connected ideas: “Christ in you” and you “in Christ.”

Col. 1:27-29 – “God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. 29 To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.”

But how does this work?  How can a person be “in Christ” as well as having “Christ in them”?

In trying to explain this dynamic in Mozambique, I’ve found the following example to be helpful: Being “in Christ” is like the air we intake with our breath and inhabit with our bodies.

Deissmann puts it this way: “Just as the air we breathe is “in” us and fills us and yet we at the same time live in this air and breathe it, so it is also with the Christ-intimacy of the Apostle Paul: Christ in him, he in Christ” (Paul: A Study in Social and Religious History, 140).

Here’s an Illustration that my Mozambican friends have found helpful:

Imagine that you are trying to hitchhike to a nearby town.  You end up getting a ride in the back of a super old pick-up truck.  It is ancient and rickety and you are a little worried that it won’t even make it, plus the driver looks a little sketchy, but you are tired of waiting, so you pay the fare and hop in the back.  As the truck starts moving though, you realize that this truck is spewing all kinds of fumes out the exhaust and these fumes are rolling up into the car – you can’t see, your eyes are burning and you are breathing this toxic air into your lungs.  You and the other passengers are coughing as this cloud of fumes bumps along the road.  You are so busy worrying about the noxious exhaust that you don’t even notice that the truck has stopped moving – it has gotten stuck in a rut but continues belching its toxicity as the motor runs even though the truck isn’t going anywhere. 
Then another driver comes along and stops.  You are so busy coughing, though, you don’t even notice.  What you do notice is a hand suddenly reaching through the fumes to grab you and pull you out.  It’s your friend.  He smiles and offers you a ride, you were trying to go where he is going.  In his car you now are sitting next to him in the cool air conditioning and thankfully breathing in clean air again.  You’ve stopped coughing and can enjoy his company along the road. Leaving the other toxic truck behind
For our Makua-Metto friends, this has been a helpful way to see how Paul holds being “in Christ” is held in contrast to being “in Sin/Evil” (Romans 7:14-17).  They all resonate with how a life in Sin is bad and bad for you and connect with the way riding with Christ is infinitely better.  Gorman notes that, as Paul puts it, for Christians, “the presence and power of Christ have replaced sin as the power that lives within him and the power within which he lives.” (Gorman, 38-39).

May we be a people who put on display what life in Christ and Christ in us truly looks like!

Grace and Peace,
Alan


Monday, January 30, 2017

Missions and the Middlegame of Chess

During the holidays our friends, the De Kruijffs, came to Montepuez for a visit.  At one point, I sat on the couch while Arie was teaching one of my daughters how to play chess. He described how there were three parts to the game.  There’s the opening - where you get your chess pieces in position.  The middlegame - where you work to add pressure and attack weaknesses.  And the endgame – where, as multiple pieces have been removed from the board, the players are able to focus on the main objective.

The middlegame is often considered to be the most difficult because… well… there are more opportunities to mess up.  Musgrove observes that in the middlegame there is “always the possibility and probability of overlooking a sharp tactical line or a subtle strategic move.” A common piece of wisdom about the real challenge of this stage is that one “must play the middlegame like a magician and the endgame like a machine.”

As I listened to Arie’s descriptions, I was first hit by the significance of “middlegame” awareness at the personal or micro-level - one’s own life and ministry. As Handley 
notes: “Those of us in this middle season of life,” need to be sure to “get our game face on and do well during the Middle Game. That way, as we lean on Christ, we will finish well.”

But it also struck me that understanding the middlegame is also extremely important for appreciating what's happening at the macro-level as well.  Much of missions training focuses on the opening game (the incarnational aspects of learning language and culture when moving to a new context) and the endgame (the goal of missions to cultivate healthy communities of faith that will continue to grow and flourish), but in many important ways - where the contest is actually won or lost is in the middlegame - that messy part where the “ideals” of strategy often give way to the “reals” of confusion amidst the whirl of regular activity.

Reuben Fine’s book, The Middle Game in Chess describes the three key elements of the middlegame: force (or material), mobility (or freedom of movement for the pieces), and King safety (p. 3). These aspects are not necessarily of equal importance and a major advantage in any one of them can benefit or strengthen the position of the others.

Here, in the 13th year of my ministry in Mozambique, it seems that we are somewhere between the middlegame and the endgame.  And as I reflect on our team’s own “middlegame” season of ministry in Fine’s terms, here are some of the ways I believe we’ve addressed his three middlegame essentials:

1. Force (or material – pieces that are equipped to engage the enemy) – I’ve written about the “Giants” here and here.  The Giants of Drunkenness, Magic, Unfaithfulness, Poverty and Ungodly Leadership are the forces that work to oppress the Makua-Metto people.  Naming them, talking openly about their destructiveness, and teaching on how to deal with them has been a way to bring them out of the shadows and equip the church (God’s local mission force) to engage them effectively. 

2. Mobility (freedom of movement for the pieces) – A few years back we had a consultant visit that helped us see the need to intentionally address how the churches were organized (what they called “Structures of Continuity”).  The leadership structure of the churches at that time was not arranged in a way that allowed the local leaders to serve and lead effectively.  They didn’t have the space or mobility to use their gifts well.  That recognition and the removal of a toxic leader, liberated us move to a different and very rewarding model of leadership.  For more about how the leadership structure among the churches is working, changing, and where it is hopefully heading, see this post.  

3. King safety – Making disciples of Jesus is the great co-mission that we have been called to (Matt. 28).  For more on discipling in our context see here, here and hereBy making real disciples of the King, the work is fortified and strengthened in a way that is unassailable to the forces of Darkness.  The safest way to protect the King in the middlegame of missions is to make as many copies of the King in as many places as possible.

As I was doing some research into the idea of the middlegame and missions, though, I came across a quote that led me to a different line of thinking. Hosen poses a question about how to notice the difference between an endgame and the middlegame?  In response he says, “Let's call it, ‘When the King becomes active.’” Ultimately the point of the middlegame is as a setup for the endgame…  And that’s where my analogy for missions and the middlegame breaks down.  Our King is always active and working towards his endgame throughout every single stage in our own personal time as a piece on the chessboard.  That’s the real, meaningful connection point… where our middlegames blend into God’s endgame.

May God use our middlegame to bring about His endgame – the Kingdom of God here on earth as it is in Heaven.

Grace and Peace,
Alan
 

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Times They are A-Changin': Leadership and the Church among the Makua-Metto


I spent this past weekend in Balama with my fellow American and Mozambican missionaries along with another dozen or so deacons and church leaders.  Every other month we meet together to pray, plan and process what is happening in this network of churches.  The missionaries and deacons (that were chosen to serve in the area of communication and collaboration for their respective church clusters) have been meeting like this since the middle of 2015.


This past meeting, we arrived at about 1pm on Friday and met until 8pm that night and then started up the next morning at 7am and finished at about 11am for everyone to go home.  We end up covering a big range of topics and issues facing the churches.  This weekend, for example we…

  • heard a confession of sin by one of the deacons who was then given encouragement and counsel by other deacons
  • looked at maps of each district with the locations of all the churches (the network has grown from around 50 churches to over 70!) and decided together how to divide up the current clusters and form new areas (once this all takes place we will go from 11 clusters to 18 or 19!)
  • discussed the current state of church registration
  • learned how two different areas make their own communion bread
  • committed to and discussed how each church cluster (typically 3-5 village churches) would meet and worship together every month
  • discussed how to handle a donation of mosquito nets
  • processed through a problem with a new couple’s marriage and how it should be handled
  • heard the story of ongoing problems with a rogue church leader and how one village church is handling it.

My part in the program was a presentation I’ve called: “When Having a Bad Leader is Good.” I shared what I had learned from interviews with church leaders about the rogue church leader and what we as a group have learned from watching his negative example for so long. We processed how paying attention to his negative example can make us better leaders.  The group explored the difference between “worldly leaders” (who are focused on staying on top) and “servant leaders” (who welcome the help of others to lead and serve the church). Ellie’s drawings were a big help and a huge hit!


And we finished by looking at a timeline of different leadership stages or seasons in the life of the church in Cabo Delgado.

 

Right now we are in the second season: shared leadership between the deacons and the missionaries. Our current structure is working pretty well, but it is not how we want to be long-term.  We keep pointing to the day when the churches will have their own elders.  That will change the role of the missionaries and move us into a different kind of engagement.  It is exciting, encouraging and sometimes a little scary to experience changes in church leadership, but it has been a blessing to have a front row seat to what God is doing all over this Province.

May God bless the church with godly leaders and keep changing and transforming how we work together for the good of His Kingdom!

Grace and Peace,

Alan

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Happy New Year from the Tropics



Happy New Year from the Tropics!

November and December have been HOT, and the rains started almost a month late, so if you’re too cold where you are, please come visit us over here!  It’s a busy ministry time since it is the end of the dry season; sometimes there is a feel of a rush to the finish line to squeeze in certain visits or studies before some roads become unpassable because of mud. 

Alan has continued his normal ministry activities with visits out to churches and meeting with the deacons that are collaborating the work on the Provincial level.  Our teammate, Jeremy Smith, organized a census of the churches, and while these numbers are still being finalized, the network of churches we work with has added about 20 new faith communities over the last year or so. This is of course both exciting and challenging as we work with church leaders to both encourage and disciple them well and to empower them to encourage and disciple others. 

The Sustainable Agriculture program went well this last year; Alan, Gonรงalves Ignacio, and Jessica Markwood recently visited the strongest 10 farming associations in this ministry.  They were able to see their collaborative sites and encourage the members to implement the practices in their own personal farms. The most exciting report was from the church in Mutota (Chiure) whose farming association produced enough last year to buy tin sheets and lumber to put a metal roof on their church building (instead of the temporary grass roof). While visiting the three farming associations in the district of Balama, they also dropped off copies of the recently printed “Seven of Paul's letters” (Ephesians, 1&2 Thessalonians, 1&2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon), in the Makua-Metto Bible translation that is in process. The groups were excited to receive both kinds of “seed;” it's great to have more of the scriptures translated and printed, and we look forward to even more in the coming year.

In our last newsletter, we described the inaugural “semester” of our Bible School; the final numbers from 2016 added up to 84 total course completions, consisting of about 45 different students from six different denominations.  We are thankful for such a great start, and our team is currently planning for 2017.  The goal is for the school to aide deeper church growth, and over the next few weeks we will schedule out the classes for this year’s semesters and decide on what construction projects to undertake to help with the school logistics. 

As many of you know, in 2014 Alan worked together with our friend and Peace Corps volunteer Will Zweig to build a pedestrian bridge over the Montepuez River. Over the past two years the bridge has blessed many, many people; at least once a week someone stops Alan to comment about it.  Will came back for a visit in October, and he and Alan discussed some minor maintenance the bridge needed (varnishing the boards and putting a permanent slab on the larger of the two ramps).  In December, then, Alan worked with a crew to get the maintenance finished before the rains made it too difficult to get down to the bridge site with a car.  The crew was able to mix all the cement and pour the whole slab and then a few days later open the bridge back up for pedestrian traffic (a lot of people were anxiously waiting).

Since our last newsletter I had several women’s ministry events as we wrapped up the dry season.  My teammate Martha and I went with a handful of women from Montepuez for three days to two locations in the Namuno district to worship and teach and learn with the women in churches down there.  It is so healthy and fruitful for women from different villages and towns to get together; the fellowship and dialogue they share is deeply encouraging as they tell their own stories of beginning to follow Jesus, learning to leave their old lives behind, breaking off practices of witchcraft, and even some experiences of persecution from their families.

We invited the women from the churches in the Mirate Post (who I study with regularly through the dry season) to come down to Montepuez for an overnight “retreat” time together. 37 women from north of Montepuez came down, along with 10 women from town, to worship and fellowship together.  We had to improvise our plans a bit since that afternoon was our first rain of the season; I had to stop my teaching session since no one could hear over the thunder, and later after the meal when I finished the lesson I ended up preaching in the rain, which was a first for me.  So we were all already a little wet, and then as it was getting dark the power went out, and after that of course the generator broke.  But electricity isn’t required for worship - everyone had fun singing together in the dark and partly by flashlight, even though we were damp, and we were all dry by the next morning.

Martha and I also went with women from town to meet with women from churches in the Balama district for two days for worship and fellowship and teaching time.  The Namuno and Balama districts have experienced a lot of growth in the past year – a handful of new churches and several hundred baptisms – and it’s mutually encouraging for groups to get together, meet each other, worship together, and share stories – especially women since usually they don’t get to travel as much as men.

Thanks to so many who have been praying for our team’s residency documents; all the confusion that the toxic ex-church leader caused was making our process more complicated.  Thankfully, even though we have not received a formal declaration that we are in the clear, our team’s documents are being stamped again.  Paraphrasing what our teammate Martha Smith noted, “God may not have given us a bakery (an announcement that we have been officially cleared), but God continues to give us our daily bread (renewed work permits).”

It seems that the network of churches is moving into a different phase.  While we have dealt with a couple of painful cases of unfaithfulness or setbacks among close disciples, overall the majority of the movement and its leaders are trending towards maturity and stability.  There have been several situations recently where church leaders met on their own to resolve complicated issues without input from our team, and these are good signs about the faithfulness of God in their lives and the progress of the work.

Celebrating holidays in Mozambique is a little different for our family than when we were in the US.  For starters, it’s crazy hot, and Christmas isn’t really celebrated much in this culture, so there aren’t a lot of reminders like elevator music in stores or advertising with holiday themes.  So we try to make it special – we went to the beach for a weekend, decorated Christmas cookies, worked on ridiculously hard puzzles, ate Christmas cookies, and went hiking with spunky friends in Balama.  This year our family started a weekly Advent worship during December to focus on the season of the world’s waiting for the Incarnation of Christ, and we exchanged gifts with our teammates during our annual Christmas Eve party.  We were sad to be so far from family when Alan’s grandmother passed away the Tuesday after Christmas; in the same week I came down with my first case of malaria, and also our dog died suddenly.  While we ended 2016 with some sadness, we look forward to seeing what God will do in us and in you this year.

Please pray with us:

  • for depth for the church members – that believers who have said yes to God and chosen baptism to not stop there but to daily commit to following Jesus as a disciple
  • for leaders to disciple those in their care
  • for healthy rains to grow healthy crops

May God’s love transform us all deeply,
Rachel and Alan