Friday, April 18, 2014

Quirky Easter: Growing up Church of Christ and Re-discovering the Resurrection

Let me say first that I am thankful for my heritage in Churches of Christ.  Having gone through a critical stage earlier in life, I aim for holding respectful critique in tension with deep gratitude for the innumerable gifts I've been given by my immediate family of faith.  My personal experience of childhood and adolescence in Churches of Christ was overwhelmingly good, and I stand on the shoulders of so many faithful women and men.

I also acknowledge that my story is not universal; I know that others have their own stories to tell - some beautiful, some not.  My goal here is just to share my own story of coming to discover Jesus' resurrection.

In my experience growing up in (weekly-Eucharist) Churches of Christ in the 80's, it seemed like Easter was mostly about Friday.  The vast majority of my Easter Sunday memories are about baskets of chocolate and new summery Sunday dresses.  Though my home congregation was not ultra-conservative in our family spectrum, I had heard (more than once) “we don’t celebrate Easter Sunday because we celebrate Easter Every Sunday.” But looking back, the focus during the weekly Lord’s Supper was overwhelmingly on Friday’s cross and on our sins – indeed, I was told that during Communion I was supposed to (quietly) “think and pray about how Jesus died for my sins.”  Even the songs in the Easter-themed section in our songbook, if you looked closely, were almost entirely focused on Friday and on Jesus paying for our sins.  It felt like the Resurrection on Sunday was almost an afterthought - we were supposed to be happy about it, but it didn't really affect our theology or our lives because Jesus' death on the cross on Friday was The Whole Point.

So I almost feel like I missed out on the Resurrection for a few decades.  But now I can’t stop talking about it.

Maybe I’m just making up for lost time.  But I’ve also been reading several different authors (Willard, Wright) over the past ten years, and getting glimpses of a slightly different “big picture” than the one I learned growing up.  For me it’s been as if I’ve been gazing at a beautiful painting, and then a few helpful people pointed out that the prescription of my glasses was outdated, and when I try on the new lenses, I'm amazed as more things come into focus, colors are sharper and more brilliant, and I can start to catch glimpses of depth and beauty that I didn’t know was there before. 

I’m still processing and learning, so what follows is unfinished, but I feel a need to share.

Many define the Gospel (Good News) as:  Jesus came and died for your sins so that you can have eternal life (which is defined as going to Heaven when you die.)  There is a familiar image used often to portray this: a gaping chasm with me on one side and God on the other, because my sin has separated me from God, and only Christ on the Cross can span that chasm by making a bridge from me to God by “paying for my sins” (taking my punishment). 

But then one author pointed out that Jesus’ actual definition of Gospel (Good News) was “Turn your heart around – the Kingdom of God is at hand!”  (As in, the Kingdom of God is something available to you starting now, not just when you die).  And then Jesus defined eternal life as Knowing God.  (As in, undying life starts now when we know God.)  And he kept painting picture after picture of what it looks like for someone to pledge allegiance to God’s new Kingdom – Jesus taught so much about the Kingdom of God, as if that was the point of everything.  Jesus  prayed, “Your Kingdom come: may Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”  God’s Kingdom has come where God’s will is already being done on earth, as it is in Heaven.

I’m seeing a different picture of Jesus now.  Before, the big picture had been that Jesus came to die and pay for my sins so I could go to Heaven when I die.  But now, the big picture I see is that Jesus came to show us what our loving Creator God is really like, and to inaugurate God’s Kingdom on earth. 

That big picture somehow seems… bigger. 

Jesus’ invitation into a New Kingdom was an extremely offensive message to the ruling kingdoms of his day, and they killed him for it.  And we see God's unfailing love for us in Jesus' willingness to die.  But on the third day, God raised Jesus from the dead, remaking his body, conquering the enemy Death (and sin and Satan) and inaugurated God’s Kingdom on earth.  The Resurrection was the shocking sign that God has won and that death cannot stop Life.

We live “between the times;” God’s Kingdom has already broken in, though it isn’t fully here yet.  Those who have thrown themselves under the reign of a New King are practicing now for the full arrival of God’s Kingdom (loving God and neighbor and working towards the reconciliation of all things) – when he will bring Heaven down to earth and remake them both as one.  Jesus was the first to get a Resurrection body; we fully expect that, after some “sleep,” we also will be raised from the dead and given new bodies that will not decay or die. 

We are wrestling with how we teach our daughters about Jesus' death and Resurrection and enjoying exploring new metaphors and different vocabulary than we grew up with - it's not about chocolate and new dresses.  And so we're trying to learn to live as Resurrection people, working for the New Kingdom now, because the party has already started!

Peace to you,

Sunday, April 13, 2014


This year's harvest has started coming in and our Mozambican friends have been generous again in sharing so much with us. This is only part of what we've received, the rest has either been eaten... or re-gifted.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Problem of Potential

We humans are easily caught up in the promise of possibilities.

We give great respect to Potential.

That's why shows like American Idol spend so little time actually listening to people sing and so much time telling stories of the people who just might be able to fully use their talent and reach their dreams.  That's why sports fans read more articles about prospective college players and which professional team may or may not draft them than pouring over posts about actual games.  And that's why media, on both the left and the right, are so skilled at turning on the propaganda machines and generating interest for future presidential candidates.

Potential is highly revered.

Now certainly, recognizing one's own potential can have the positive power to encourage one make good use of the gifts he or she has been given. 

But there is a dark side of Potential.

Sometimes toxic relationships drag on too long because of a false hope in a boyfriend's or girlfriend's potential - "Sure, he or she treats me bad now, but we could be so great together."  Sometimes people hold onto investments or the dream of starting a new business or ministry too long because they've spent so much time and effort and... who knows, success might be just around the corner.

There is a quote that has been rattling around my brain for the last couple years.  Larry Osborne, in his book "Spirituality for the Rest of Us," says this:

"Potential is not a sacred responsibility. Potential is a harsh mistress - seductive, never satisfied, prone to exaggeration, nearly impossible to figure out.  Those who pursue her inevitably end up in the poisoned land of self-centered priorities and me-first decisions." (p.187)

Wow!  So, there are two main problems with Potential.

The first is that Potential can make us a slave to what would-be or could-be.  The unfortunate truth, though, is that we can never actually 'reach' our potential because being ruled by what seem to be our latent possibilities means we're chasing after a ghost that is always just beyond our grasp.  Having 'unlimited potential' means that we'll never be able to achieve it.  Potential is both unreachable and unmeasurable.

And as Osborne notes, a second problem with Potential is that it is often seen primarily in individual terms.  It can cause us to focus primarily on our own fulfillment and flourishing.

Our team is in the process of trying to figure out just how long to stay in Montepuez.  We've invested over ten years here on the ground (and another few years before that in preparation).  Churches in the United States have given a lot to help us learn language and culture and put us in a position to make a difference for the kingdom of God.  So now we're trying to weigh the different factors involved in staying or leaving at some point in the future.

But, as Rachel and I consider what to do with the next stage of our lives, I would hope that we would listen less to Potential and be more attuned to the biblical value of Stewardship. 

A steward is one who manages a resource for the benefit of another.  I think that looking at this decision through the lens of Stewardship would be a healthier way - one that is more measurable and more Kingdom or community oriented.

Maybe what our culture values as "Potential" is merely the warped, worldly version of the biblical value known as Stewardship...

...Anyways, these are just some initial thoughts - escaping the siren call of that goddess of Potential is surely more easier said than done.  But I think that framing our team's conversation (and other decisions like it) within the concept of Stewardship instead of Potential is a good place to start.

May our lives be informed by potential but guided by a desire to be good stewards for the good of God's Kingdom.

Grace and Peace,

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Questions that simplify

One of the challenges of ministry - maybe especially in serving in a place surrounded by great needs - is to figure out how to spend our time.  Out of the thousand good things that we could be doing, what are the things that we should be involved in?  The answer to that question has evolved over time as we've struggled to discern how to have the biggest impact both personally and organizationally.

I recently listened to a podcast by Andy Stanley where he talked about the need to 'simply lead.'  He shared how the study of leadership can get overly complex and there are times when we need to get things down to the basic level.  He offered three simple questions a leader can use to examine his or her work in an organization.  It was a good exercise for me to sit down and try to come up with a short answer to each of those questions. 

1. What are you doing? (What does your organization do?)

This question addresses the area of objective or goal.  I would say this: "Our team works towards cultivating communities of faith among the Makua-Metto of Cabo Delgado that will exist long after we are gone and who see their mission as developing disciples of Jesus around them." 

Our team's mission statement puts it this way: "Disciple 30 men and women by emphasizing prayer and Bible study so that Cabo Delgado will have 25 mature churches that are reproducing and making disciples on their own and reaching the next generation."   

2. Why are you doing it? (What would go missing if your organization disappeared?)

Now we look more closely at motivation.  The 'why' is what gives us the fire to stick with it and push through tough challenges.  My answer to this question would be: "Because the Makua-Metto are oppressed by dark forces (both physical and spiritual), we want to partner with God in setting them free and helping them live well in the Kingdom of God."

The second part of this question is difficult, especially for a group who is ideally trying to 'work themselves out of a job.'  But I think one thing that has set us apart in this region has been a desire to work in the local language and plant churches in unreached areas. 

Recently we hosted a meeting of church leaders where we talked openly for the first time in a this kind of gathering about the possibility of our team phasing out and leaving sometime in 2018 or beyond.  The next day one of the participants, a young man named Amissi joined me as I went down to teach a seminar with church leaders in Namuno. As we bumped along the road I asked about his thoughts about the previous day's meeting.  He told me, "Well, last night I went home and picked up my Bible.  I was planning on reading from the Old Testament but my Bible fell open to this strange story of Elijah and Elisha.  Elijah was about to leave and Elisha wanted that same prophetic spirit to fall on him and through some strange circumstances God gave it to him.  So, last night I started praying that your team's missionary spirit would fall on me."  Wow!  I about stopped the truck when I heard him say that.  Lord, please do that!  Our team realizes that the way we do things is not reproducible, but what we are doing must be reproduced.  And that depends on investing in people who are passionate about rescuing and blessing people who are struggling to escape the darkness.    

3. Where do you fit in? (And do the people who report to you know where they fit in?)

The final question's challenge is to examine one's specific role.  This one has taken me the longest to get a handle on, but over the past few years I've been specifically asking God to help me be good at three things - discipling, teaching and leading. So I would answer the question this way: "The biggest contribution I can make comes through intentional discipleship of those who will disciple others, equipping the church through transformational teaching, and consistently modeling apostolic/servant leadership."  As far as whether the people we work with know where they fit in, I would say that dealing with an all-volunteer organization means that definition of roles is challenging but still necessary.  I would say that those we work closest with have a greater sense of this and we often try to name the things we see them doing well and the contributions they make to the church.

May God help us answer these questions well and lead in ways that bless His people!

Grace and Peace,

Saturday, March 15, 2014

March 2014 Newsletter

We send you our greetings from lovely, green Mozambique.

The end of the rainy season is approaching, and it's beautiful here - this part of the world has been painted a lush new color.  We're thankful for the reminder of the changing seasons - every season will have a limit, an ending that makes way for a new and different season into which we can step. 

For those of you who may not have heard, on December 1st we experienced a home invasion.  Armed thieves broke through our front door in the middle of the night, fired a gun both outside and inside our home, and stole our laptops, an ipad, Rachel's phone and some cash.  Besides a few cuts and bruises, everyone, including our guards, was physically fine, for which we were and are deeply grateful, though emotionally we were very shaken.  It was awful and terrible and should never happen to anyone.  But in a strange way even in the midst of the violence and confusion we did not feel abandoned - God's strength was with us the whole time.  And the outpouring of love we received from our friends and neighbors both here and in the States was staggering; the beauty has outweighed the evil.  We've written more about it here.  We're now more than three months out from that event, and we're experiencing healing and peace, but we would still appreciate your prayers. 

In addition to healing from the emotional chaos of the break-in, we've had to reorganize and piece back together some other parts of our lives.  Thanks to several of you (THANK YOU SO MUCH!), we have been able to  replace what was lost, though unfortunately we've lost between 6-12 months of documents, pictures, and videos.  We are still in process of tracking down email addresses and old documents and getting our life back online.  Also after the break-in, Ellie's teacher, Rebekah Keese, decided to go back home early. We were sad that she left, but grateful for the year and a half she spent with us in Montepuez.  Amazingly though, God provided again in that loss.  Our teammate Martha taught the younger classes for three weeks until my recently retired Kindergarten teacher Mom, Evelyn Wilson, was able to come over and fill in the gap teaching for two months.  It is such a blessing to have her here with us (and we're excited that my Dad will be joining us for the last two weeks of her stay very soon).  We're thankful to both of them for their sacrifice in meeting this teaching need at our team kids' school.

The months of December through February are the thick of the rainy season, and our work changes considerably because of muddy roads and the vast amount of time our subsistence-farmer friends need to spend in their fields.  Several of our regular study groups suspend meeting until the harvest is over, so  Alan has been using that time to conduct research and interviews about poverty for a series of classes that he'll be teaching to clusters of church leaders all over Cabo Delgado this year.   He's also used these months to offer two different series of classes to a group of students from seven different denominations who live here in the city:  an overview of the Bible (November-December), and a study on the church's response to Magic, Divination, Demon Possession and Witchcraft (January-February).   The materials on godly leadership have been well received in Chiure, Mirate, and Namuno and he plans to use them with the church in Pemba in the upcoming months.

After our last newsletter my times studying with women continued up until the third week of December when we finished out with a retreat here at our home.  Twenty women from five different villages (plus of course a number of toddlers and nursing babies) came in for an overnight stay  to worship, eat, study, and celebrate another year of seeking God together.

During the rainy/farming season I have been visiting women in their homes with my teammate Martha, participated in an overnight girl's initiation ceremony in Omeringue, and driven with women from Montepuez churches to the Chiure district where I preached at two different women's meetings.  As the rains have eased up and the muddy creeks are drying, I began my weekly studies again this week.  This year, we are combining the study groups from Newara and Nkororo - both of those groups are small and young, and I am hoping they will encourage each other.  I will be going to study with the women in the Chipembe cluster less frequently since they are more mature and study regularly on their own now, and this makes space on the calendar for beginning to study with women in the church cluster of Nekwaya/Nakuka/Khambiri.  Because of the distance involved, instead of studying every other week together, I'm planning four 2-day overnight visits that will hopefully get us through Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.  The part I'm really excited about, though, is that each time I'll be having four mature women from the Chipembe cluster come down to Montepuez the night before for prayer together, and then we'll go teach the Newkaya cluster studies together.

At the end of February, we hosted a meeting here in Montepuez for church leaders with an emphasis on unity and prayer.  We also began the conversation with these men about how long our team should be here in Montepuez and what role we should take over the next few years.  The meeting went really well and those conversations will continue as we agreed to meet all together as a group every other month. 

As a team we are committed to doing our best to prepare the churches for our eventual departure.  Currently the Smith, Westerholm and Howell families have all committed to stay in Montepuez into 2018.  In order to help us figure out how long we should stay here as well as forming a healthy exit strategy, we have scheduled a "consultant visit."  Evertt and Ilene Huffard and Monte and Beth Cox (former missionaries who currently serve as professors of missions (and more!) with Harding University) will join us for the last week of May.  We are helping defray their travel costs, so if you are interested in contributing to that please send us a message through our team's website here.

Alan and the Peace Corps workers who are spearheading the bridge project in Bandari experienced a setback recently.  The goal is to provide a safe means of crossing the Montepuez River but this year has seen record rains, people are saying it is the most in 15 years, and the site originally chosen as the location for the foundation of the bridge was under water.  They've found a different site that should work well and hopefully construction will begin later this year (for more information read this post) 

The harvest is coming in for families all over northern Mozambique and Alan met last week with Gonçalves Ignacio to plan for his follow up visits to associations that are implementing sustainable agriculture methods on experimental communal plots.  Five community groups whose members total over 100 people participated in this program and Gonçalves will be meeting with them over the coming weeks to evaluate their results and encourage them to implement what they've practiced in their own farms.

While the rainy season has limited our travel locally, we have been able to use this time to travel outside our region.   In January, Rachel and Abby took a trip down to South Africa for dental work, and then in February, Alan and Jeremy went to men's missionary retreat in Kenya.  That was a great opportunity to connect with other missionaries in this part of the world and share ideas. 

Last year churches from all over Cabo Delgado spent the two weeks before Easter praying and fasting that God would defeat the five giants that oppress people in this part of Mozambique (Drunkenness, Magic, Ungodly Leadership, Unfaithfulness and Poverty).  Many people participated and some fruit was evidenced in the churches.  So, we're inviting people in Mozambique (and anywhere else in the world!) to join us again in a time of fasting and prayer.  The dates are April 6-19 and anyone who wants to join us in some or all of this fast is most welcome!

Thanks for keeping up with us and praying for the work here among the Makua-Metto.  We'd appreciate you praying with us about the following things:
  • Prayers for new teachers for the next 2 school years
  • Fruitful Consultant visit with the Huffards and Coxes
  • An abundant harvest of food for the year
  • For the followers of Jesus to grow in love, wisdom, patience, and joy
Grace and Peace,
Rachel Howell