Friday, September 19, 2014

when anger fuels us



Rachel texted me yesterday.  She spent last night in the village of Nekwaya and should come home this afternoon.  Three of her best Mozambican friends went with her to continue teaching through the Sermon on the Mount with women in that cluster of churches. 

This was her text: "A neighbor here was just beating his wife bc she questioned why he took her cell phone and gave it to his mistress.  Another neighbor supposedly poisoned his mother last week.  Lots of sadness in the dark..."

Rachel and I texted back and forth about how the four of them can serve as lights in the dark and how Jesus himself had something to say about that in the Sermon on the Mount.

I have to be honest, sometimes my motivation for working in Mozambique wanes.  And it has been important for me, especially as we rounded the "10 years in Africa" mark, to identify ideas and emotions that can serve to fuel and sustain me. I've written elsewhere how the longing for home has tapped into a source of love and has become a surprising reason for me to stay.  And trying to wrap my head around the idea of calling has been helpful, too.  But sometimes the darkness is overwhelming.  Especially when those fuel tanks (love and calling) start flashing "E" for empty.

Lately I've been watching the Nooma video series and this morning I watched one called "Store."  In it Rob Bell is talking about anger.  He notes that while anger is often rightly seen as a destructive force, when harnessed it can fuel us for acts of healing and restoration.  He references this story from the life of Jesus:

Another time he went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.
Mark 3:1-5 (TNIV)

Bell says, “There is a response to anger that’s essentially all about us.  Our pride, our ego, all of the ways we work so hard to prop up  and protect and defend our selfish little kingdoms.  But that isn’t what’s going on here with Jesus.  Jesus has identified himself with an injustice larger than himself.  There is something divine about his anger because some things are worth getting angry about...When we’re talking about calling and mission and vocation and purpose,  what we’re going to give our lives to, one of the questions we often ask is,  ‘What do you love?’  But there’s another question that we can ask.  ‘What makes you angry?’”

Poverty can and should make me angry.

Hunger can and should make me angry.

Infidelity can and should make me angry. 

The fact that our friends in Mirate need a bridge should make me angry.

The five giants should make us angry.

Sin, death and Satan should make us angry.

The darkness makes me sad... and it should make me angry.  

There are times when the proper response to darkness is anger.

And sometimes, like Jesus, we need to tap into that fuel source, careful not to let anger become a seething, boiling, rage.  Instead we should use that anger to help us act in ways that are healing and restorative. Instead of being burned out on the inside by carrying around the "low-grade boiling rage" that so many people lug around with them, Jesus channeled his anger for kingdom purposes.   
His anger at injustice led him to act in righteousness.  The injustices we've seen here lead us to act, as well... and hopefully we're following Jesus' lead by acting in holy and productive ways.

May God provide all the fuel we need (be it love, calling and even anger) to ignite us and help us act in ways that bring truth and light to those in the dark.

Grace and Peace,
Alan

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Let the Little Children Show Us



I have three daughters.
As father to these amazing girls, I’ve found that two stories in the Bible consistently bring out the strongest emotions in me.
The first is a story of a dad named Jairus. He’s a religious leader who pleads with Jesus to cure his daughter (Luke 8). Jesus agrees to go with him, but along the road they keep getting interrupted.
I find myself in Jairus’ sandals, screaming inside for everyone to just get out of the way. Before they make it to the house, though, they’re interrupted again. It turns out they’re too late. Jairus is told that his beloved daughter is dead.
Jesus simply looks at this dad and tells him to believe. So they continue on to the house. Jesus interrupts the funeral preparations to promptly raise the girl from the dead and present her back to mom and dad.
Yikes – I have a hard time even typing that without choking up. What do you say to the man who gives you back your daughter?
The other story that gets-me-every-time is about a servant girl (2 Kings 5). I don’t like to think of what she went through. Torn away from all that was familiar, she’s a victim of child-trafficking. She’s enslaved and taken to a foreign land. I imagine her crying at night, struggling to learn a new language, longing for home, desperate for a friend...

to read more, check out a post I wrote for Story Warren called Let the Little Children Show Us.

Grace and Peace,
Alan

Friday, September 12, 2014

back to college



Like any job, I guess, there are parts of living in Africa that are really enjoyable and parts that I could do without.  Those challenges make this a work that is sometimes easier to love than it is to like. 

Trying to live as a resident alien, for example, adds its own set of challenges and difficulties.  Sometimes it feels like we're trying to maintain an outpost on mars!   

The best parts of my job, though, those ones that I love being here for, are the times that I get to help nudge and encourage someone who's hungry to be pointed in the right direction.

This past weekend was one of those golden times.

A young man that we've been discipling started college earlier this year.  His dad has been out of the picture and Armindo had cobbled together some jobs over the last few years to get himself through High School.  Now, a couple of our former interns are collaborating to provide a scholarship for him to get a degree in Agriculture.  And I've wanted to check in on him and make sure that he's doing okay.

So, on Friday morning I left Montepuez and drove about 8 hours (over a lot of bumpy dirt roads) to the town of Cuamba, Niassa.  I met up with Armindo and he gave me the tour of his campus.  He introduced me to a bunch of his classmates, roommates and friends.  Everyone was so kind and generous.  (His suitemates, though, seemed pretty shocked to have an American spending the weekend with them - I might as well have been an alien!)  We stayed up late talking in Armindo's dorm room and I slept there on the floor in a sleeping bag.

It was interesting to notice the things that are similar to a U.S. college experience: students sleep in on the weekends, they enjoy blasting their music and watching movies together.  But other things are different.  Instead of ordering pizza or going out for a burger, we ate rice and beans, xima and fish. For Mozambique, it is a pretty nice dorm, but students still have to go get water from the well for drinking and bathing.  And using the bathroom means having to exit the dorm room and walk across to one of the latrines.  "Use this one," Armindo told me, "it smells the least bad."

Over the course of the weekend, he and I talked about everything from God to girls to grades to goals.

He shared about the pressures of living in the dorm with people of differing faiths and ethics.  He talked about being disappointed in a fellow Christian student who failed to practice what he preached. I was pleased to see how Armindo has made strong connections with a local church, and has been very involved there.  And I tried to encourage him to follow through on his idea of helping that church form a youth group.

He talked more about his dream of moving back to Montepuez after his studies are over and working for the cotton company.  We talked about his vision for returning to Cabo Delgado and blessing the church through his future vocation. 
Developing people like Armindo is an important part of what our team can do to help.  It can serve to  stabilize the church and increase its influence in the community.

So, the trip "back to college" this past weekend was really good.  It reminded me of the past experiences Rachel and I have had in campus ministry...though, with a Mozambican twist!

While my goal in going to Cuamba was to encourage Armindo, it was so encouraging for me to get to do what I love.  Here in Africa, I've accepted the fact that those feelings of being an alien won't ever fully disappear, but they are worth it if they put me in a place to get to hang out with and pour my life into people who are striving to follow Jesus well.  Those times are a gift.

May God bless Armindo and other young people to faithfully grow into men and women who have a strong vision for his Kingdom.

Grace and Peace,
Alan

Thursday, September 4, 2014

starting small



There once was a young man who lived on the edge of the village.  His house sat alongside a forest and one day, he saw something moving in the bushes.  Was it a dog?  Was it a goat?  No, it was a lion cub.  The curious cub wandered up to the house.  Surprised, the young man approached it and touched it gently before the animal ran off.  And every afternoon afterwards, the lion cub would return to play with the young man and share his food.  As the days passed, he failed to notice that this young cub was growing into an adult lion.

One afternoon, the young man’s uncle stopped by to visit.  They sat in the shade of the house and the young man smiled, anticipating his uncle’s surprise.  Sure enough, the lion cub approached the house.  The older man jumped to his feet, reaching for a spear.  He was ready to kill the animal, until the young man stopped him, intervening to explain that the lion had become his pet.  The uncle put down the spear, warning his nephew that if he didn’t kill this lion while it was young, it would someday turn and eat him.  But the young man only laughed, disregarding the counsel. 

When I ask my Mozambican friends how this story ends, they say that the lion will return and kill both the young man and his family.

I’ve been telling that story to help explain a story found at the beginning of the Bible.  

Genesis tells us that after Adam and Eve's expulsion from the garden, they gave birth to two sons (chap. 4).  Cain, the eldest, was a gifted agriculturalist.  He seems to have possessed the world’s first green thumb!  His younger brother, Abel, on the other hand, was good with animals.  Now when I tell this story to our Mozambican friends, we notice that their parents must have thought, “This is great - we've got it made! Our two sons will produce all the food we need.  They’ll provide all our xima (stiff porridge) and matapa (beans, greens or meat to dip it in).  Things are looking up!” 

Now as good parents, Adam and Eve taught their children to give: "You boys need to take some of the bounty that God has blessed you with and give it back to him as an offering."

We picture Cain staring into his grain bin.  It seems like he’s thinking, "God doesn't really need to eat this, does he?  I can just give him the food unfit for human consumption and it won't matter a bit."  So, his offering is made up of all the rotten grain and corn that he doesn’t know what else to do with.

Abel, though, does the opposite - he chooses the best and fattest of his flock to offer to the Creator.

Not surprisingly, God was pleased with Abel's sacrifice, but expressed displeasure with Cain's.

Maybe Cain had always felt like his younger brother enjoyed showing him up.  Or maybe the trouble all started that day.  But whatever the case, God quickly points out the anger and jealousy beginning in Cain's heart, saying, "Be careful, Cain.  Sin is crouching at your door - you need to deal with it or it will devour you."

Unfortunately for everyone in the story, Cain chooses to let the sin fester.  It grows and grows until one day he tricks Abel. "Come on out to the field with me,” he says. “I need your help with something."  There in the field, Cain murders his brother.  Abel’s blood slowly soaks into the ground.

God appears again on the scene.  He asks Cain, "Where's your brother?"
In a huff, Cain replies, "Who am I supposed to be? His bodyguard?”

God tells Cain that the same ground that blessed him with abundant crops is now testifying against him.  He murdered his brother and now Cain will wander the land, unable to produce food as before.

Cain’s sin grew into a monster that ultimately destroyed him.

In teaching this text lately, I've accompanied it with the story of the lion above as well as the following two stories:

There once was a young widow.  Her husband hadn’t left her much.  But, she did receive a small, sturdy, mud-brick house.  One day as her mother is there visiting, it begins to rain.  The mother points out to her daughter that the roof has a serious leak and water is eating away at one of the corners of the house.  She suggests that her daughter ask her brother to come and fix the roof.  Laughing, the young woman disregards the counsel.  “I’ll deal with it later…We’ll get around to it before next rainy season,” she thinks.

When I ask my Mozambican friends about this tale, they say that one night during a big rainstorm the house will come crashing down on top of her.

There once was a man whose garden sat next to a river.  A specialist came to look at his progress and pointed out a small thorn bush growing nearby.  “You should remove that plant today before it begins growing unchecked.”  The man thought to himself, “Oh, that little bush is nothing.  I’ll deal with it later.” 

My Mozambican friends and I imagine how this man will return home one day in the future rubbing the scratches on his arms and legs caused by all the painful thorns. 

Those three fictional stories all have the same, simple message.  Allowing seemingly small sins to grow in our lives can have disastrous consequences.  As we saw in the story of Cain, anger and jealousy can blow up into full-blown murder.

The good news of the gospel is that Jesus is ready and willing to take up the spear to help us kill the lion crouching at the door.  He is willing to climb up on the roof and fix the leak before it takes down the house.  Jesus is willing to get in there with the clippers and help us take out the thorn bush.  Much of his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are about dealing with sin while they are small.  He is committed to helping us in that work.

His healing, repairing work may take time…but it may just save our lives. And as we see in the story of Abel – it may just save the lives of others around us.

Like a good guest, though, Christ is waiting for our invitation.  He will not address that sin without our permission. 

Some presentations of the gospel make it seem like Jesus came to save us from Satan or from the wrath of God.  It seems to me, though, that the most basic truth is that Jesus came to save us from ourselves.  Sin and death started with small choices - eating the forbidden fruit, hating your brother.  When these small choices or small sins grow unchecked, they have serious consequences.

The Cain and Abel story doesn't stop there.  Cain wanders the earth and has children of his own.  A few generations removed from him (his great-great-great grandson) is a man named Lamech.  Lamech boasts to his wives about all his devious deeds – he murders a man for simply insulting him, multiplying the spirit of revenge found in his patriarch Cain (4:23-24).

But, Adam and Eve are said to have another son, Seth.  Seth walked with God, following the path of his deceased brother Abel.  And Seth’s great-great-great grandson was a man named Enoch.  This guy walked with God so closely, that the tradition indicates that our God just decided to take Enoch on home with him, bypassing death (5:24). 

The choice to address sin and temptation when it first begins to bud, or to let it grow unchecked in our own lives, can have great consequences.  Those consequences will not only shape our own destinies, but also the future of generations to come.

May we choose to start small and deal with sin and temptation quickly.  May our choices put our children and our children's children on a path that gives them momentum to walk closer with their Creator.

Grace and Peace,
Alan