Saturday, December 29, 2012

How are cross-cultural missionaries like knuckleball pitchers?

I recently read R.A. Dickey's autobiography, Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity, and the Perfect Knuckleball, and a couple of quotes have really stuck with me.  Dickey was a highly drafted pitching prospect who ended up losing a lucrative contract because he was missing a ligament in his elbow.  He bounced around major league baseball before finally becoming a successful knuckleball pitcher.  This past season he became the first knuckleball pitcher to win the Cy Young Award. What interested me the most was the way Dickey described the community of knuckleball pitchers:

"Tim (Wakefield) is throwing in the bullpen today, and I ask if it's okay to watch.  He checks with John Farrell, the Sox pitching coach, and he says sure.  Here's the knucklehead brotherhood in play again: there's no chance that an opposing pitcher, no matter how nice a guy, is going to invite me to watch how he grips and throws his split-fingered fastball or his slider.  Those are state secrets.
Knuckleballers don't keep secrets. It's as if we have a greater mission beyond our own fortunes.  And that mission is to pass it on, to keep the pitch alive.  Maybe that's because we are so different, and the pitch is so different, but I think it has more to do with the fact that this is a pitch that almost all of us turn to in desperation.  It is what enables us to keep pitching, stay in the big leagues, when everything else has failed. So we feel gratitude toward the pitch. It becomes way more than just a means to get an out. It becomes a way of life."
This quote made me think of interactions with fellow cross-cultural missionaries over the years.  Rachel and I often feel like we've stumbled into missions.  I never imagined growing up that one day I would be living in an African country, working in different languages to help plant churches and nurture leaders.  But one of the biggest surprises in this profession has been the way the vast majority of missionaries we've encountered have been extremely hospitable: sharing time, resources, food, knowledge, etc.  Rachel and I have learned a lot from this community and have done our best to pass on the favor to others.

When we meet others who have served or are currently serving cross-culturally there is often an immediate connection.  Missions certainly attracts some interesting (and strange!) people - people that form a generous community.  We have seen this broader community consistently help one another out, pushing each other to keep going, working ultimately to 'keep the pitch alive.'  As R.A. Dickey puts it,
"Knuckleballers may be a freak show at sixty feet six inches, but the freaks stick together."
Grace and Peace,

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Christmas story for the rainy season - how does God move into the neighborhood?

There are a number of ways to move into the neighborhood.  In the US, we look down the street and see a moving van unloading couches, chairs, beds and boxes - the U-Haul truck signals the arrival of a new person in the neighborhood.

My favorite Christmas scripture is John 1:14 and the Message puts it this way: "The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.  We saw the glory with our own eyes, the-one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish."

I like thinking about the way that Jesus moved into the neighborhood.  Joseph and Mary wandering around an unfamiliar town looking (begging?) for a place to stay.  I picture Bethlehem residents peeking out behind doors, seeing a very pregnant woman and her working-class husband and deciding that they didn't have enough room. So, Jesus arrival wasn't marked by moving vans or housewarming parties - he had to spend his first night in a stable.  

Contrast that with the reception the angels get as they look for somebody to share the good news of Jesus' birth.  They find a willing audience in some lowly shepherds who leave their livelihoods in the care of others to come and check out this newborn-king-in-a-manger.  And Luke's gospel tells us that they leave the stable telling anyone they can find about what they have just seen and heard.

Jesus moves into a neighborhood with little fanfare - and most miss it completely. 

The rainy season has begun in northern Mozambique.  Yesterday as I shared this Christmas story with a church here in Montepuez, I used the example of how rain water collects.  Water doesn't gather in high and mighty places... it gathers in low places.  The blessing of rain will run off the lofty and accumulate in humble settings.

In order to appreciate and benefit from the fact that Jesus has moved into the neighborhood - we must be willing to be interrupted/inconvenienced and humble enough to accept Him... even if he is wrapped in rags.

Peace and goodwill,

Thursday, December 20, 2012

What is a bamboo chair for?

Bamboo basket chairs are all over northern Mozambique.  The skill involved in making them still amazes me.  These woven bamboo chairs are hand-crafted and they cost about... 30 cents apiece!

If you show up at someone's house you will more often than not be offered one of these to sit on.  But, in December and January, you can see people using these basket chairs to carry mangoes either to eat themselves or to share with others.  

When I talk about leadership with our Mozambican friends, I like to use the example of bamboo basket chairs.  Authority is like one of these bamboo basket chairs - what matters most is how we use it. Most people think that being a leader means having respect and being served - sitting down with arms crossed ordering people around. A former President of Mozambique once said, "The goat eats where it is tethered."  This proverb is often used to explain or justify the way so many people take advantage of their authority to benefit themselves.   

At one point in the gospels, Jesus' disciples are frustrated as two of them have been jockeying for prime positions of leadership.  Jesus calls his followers together and tells them not to lead like those leaders who use their authority to only benefit themselves.  He goes on to say - It shouldn't be that way with you.  "Instead, whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave - just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."  (Matthew 20:26-28 NIV)

The Jesus way of modeling authority and leadership is radically different. He shows us through his life and death that leadership should be about service - using the authority we have to serve others.  Instead of using the basket chair/authority to sit and order people around, we are called to take up our basket chair/authority and use it to serve and bless others. 

Anybody else have a helpful metaphor about leadership and authority?


Friday, December 14, 2012

Islam and Friendship

One of my friends stopped by yesterday.  He is the Imam of the largest mosque in our town.  We've known each other for years.  Sometimes we talk about theology, but this visit we just talked about everyday stuff: our families, the recent rains, the difficulties and blessings of working with people, and I promised to bring him a couple of boards I had lying around.  Did any mountains move? No.  But we continued to cultivate some common ground in friendship.

Lately I have been reading Brian McLaren's book, Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World.  So far, I am enjoying what he has to say.  Near the beginning of the book he talks about the different approaches Christians have taken in relation to other religions.

He describes the first group as those who "have a strong religious identity that responds negatively toward other religions.  The stronger our Christian commitment, the stronger our aversion or opposition to other religions."

The second group are those of us who "have a more positive accepting response to other religions.  We never proselytize.  We always show respect for other religions and their adherents. We always minimize differences and maximize commonalities.  But we typically achieve coexistence by weakening our Christian identity."

Then he explores "a third option, a Christian identity that is both strong and kind. By strong I mean vigorous, vital, durable, motivating, faithful, attractive and defining - an authentic Christian identity that matters.  By kind I mean something far more robust than mere tolerance, or political correctness, or coexistence: I mean benevolent, hospitable, accepting, interested and loving, so that the stronger our Christian faith, the more goodwill we will feel and show toward those of other faiths, seeking to understand and appreciate their religion from their point of view."

That description gives me goose bumps!

Jesus sure seemed to relate to people in this way.  That's the way I want to engage people of other faiths.  That kind engagement built on honesty and love can be real friendship.  And friendship may clear some soil, eventually planting seeds (even some as small as a mustard seed!) that sooner or later may move mountains.

I wrote some more thoughts about a "strong and kind" approach to Islam in an editorial recently for the Christian Chronicle.  You can check it out here:

Christ and Islam: A View from Africa

Any thoughts?

Grace and Peace,