Friday, December 20, 2013

a Christmas story for the rich and poor

Lately, I've had the privilege of teaching our mission team kids' weekly Bible class and we've read through The Story, looking at the major events in Scripture to help them get the big picture of the biblical narrative.  These kids are enthusiastic and so smart - they often have their hands raised to answer questions even before they've finished coming out of my mouth!  But, one question I asked had them stumped.

We read the story of the birth of Jesus and then I got them to imagine the places they thought kings should be born.  They decided that royalty should begin their lives in palaces or castles or maybe nice hospitals with all the latest technologies.

So, why then, I asked, was the Son of God born in a barn?

Silence.  Puzzled faces.

Jesus has many titles - Lord, Savior, Christ, Messiah, Prince of Peace to name just a few.  But, that day we talked about what has to be my favorite title for Jesus - Immanuel.  He is 'God with us'.  I love the way that John 1:14 is rendered in the Message: "The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood."


From the very beginning of his life we see that he isn't like other kings.  He willingly took his first nap in a manger because no one could find him a room.  He truly identifies with us - even in poverty and rejection.

He was born in a barn because as Ben Witherington says, God especially loves the last, the least and the lost.

What is fascinating to me is how the birth of our King is portrayed in the different gospels.  In Luke's gospel, where Jesus is consistently on the side of the poor, the first people to hear the announcement of his birth are lowly shepherds (2:8-20).  Instead of taking the good news of the royal birth to rich and powerful, the angels go straight to a group of men whose word wouldn't be accepted in a court of law.  That would be like choosing to make a PR announcement to people sleeping under a bridge instead of getting the word out on CNN.  So, the shepherds are the first ones informed and they are intrusted with spreading the news.  The rich and wise men (the Magi), though, aren't even mentioned in Luke's account.

But, in Matthew's gospel where Jesus is presented as a sage and a prophet, the birth narrative skips over stories of smelly shepherds and tells us only of wise and wealthy men, visitors from the East, who come to pay their respects to the baby King (2:1-12).  Their journey is certainly not easy though, they experience difficulties and danger.  Although they are able to meet with rulers on their way in, they have to head back home in secret.

What strikes me is that the New Testament contains two versions of the Christmas story.  One about the rich and one about the poor.

What holds these tales together, though, are these three things:

1. God is with us and humbly chose to move into our neighborhood.

2. God is on the lookout for people humble enough, whether rich or poor, to hear his invitation.  So the church that truly reflects the nativity, as Don McLaughlin puts it, will include all kinds of people from all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.

3. And God especially loves the last, the least and the lost - which, whether we are rich or poor, ultimately describes us all.

So, Merry Christmas to ALL!

Grace and Peace,
Alan

Monday, December 16, 2013

after the break-in

On December 1st, armed thieves broke into our home, stealing money and our computers.  We are extremely grateful that no one was seriously injured or killed.  Our family and our team is committed to staying and working among the Makua-Metto people of Mozambique, and we have been blessed by an outpouring of love and support from friends and family all over the world.  Rachel and I are trying to be realistic about how we are doing and recognize that we are still in the middle of processing this traumatic event.  Many people have asked how we are doing and it has been hard to give a complete answer. 

We’ve been flooded with visitors. In the first few days after the incident we had at least a hundred Mozambicans come to visit and cry with us. They’ve called this kind of visit ‘okituwela’ which is the word to describe the visits you make when someone is mourning a death. They’ve come to grieve and encourage us. One of the Mozambican preachers was here within a few hours and cried with his hand on my shoulder as he prayed for us. At least 10 men came on Sunday from the Evangelical Assembly of God to pray for us and bring about 10 U.S. dollars to help with our losses. Others brought flour and peanuts and bajias (small balls made of fried bean paste) for the girls. A man that barely knows us sent over bread, jam and a jar of mayonnaise. Women sit and cry with Rachel. One man walked barefoot from a nearby town and started crying as soon as he saw me. Two other men rode their bikes from another town to check on us after hearing about it over the phone – “It wasn’t enough to just hear that you were okay, we had to see you with our eyes because the whole village is crying for you and we needed to be able to tell them that we saw you alive.” I have talked often with one of the Mozambican church members about the need to be ‘strong and courageous’ and I received that reminder in a text message from him as I drove to the police station Sunday morning. People have sat with us and told us their own stories of suffering and tales of God’s faithfulness in the midst of pain. One man who has been a follower of Jesus for just a couple years, rode his bike from another town to deliver a gigantic bag of flour and shared a testimony of Christ’s provision in hardship to me and the others present.


All these visitors have reminded me that we are really doing ministry ‘among’ or ‘with’ the Makua people. It is not just us doing ministry ‘to’ them. They are ministering to us as well and that is how it should be.

Rachel and I are still feeling a bit shaken.  This past week we resumed a more normal schedule but we still are feeling the effects.  We’ve both felt like it has been harder to hear and speak Makua.  It’s like our brains are moving slow, I’ve felt like we’re swimming in molasses and been harder to make normal decisions as quickly.

We are determined that God can be glorified even in this.  Our God has this amazing habit of turning bad things into something good.  He took 400 years of slavery in Egypt and turned it into a miraculous exodus for the Hebrews.  He took the betrayal and death of Jesus and turned it into salvation for the world.  So, we are resolved that this same God can surely redeem our recent experience – He can take it and use it for good.

Right now we are requesting prayers for healing of our hearts and minds.  We need prayers for peace and wisdom for our whole team, especially the teachers, Kara and Bekah, who have been affected by this event as well.

Thanks to so many who have been praying for us and carrying us through this experience.

Grace and Peace,
Alan

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

to build a bridge



I parked the truck under a tall tree and the three of us walked down to the river.  As we neared the edge of the water, we paused as two men pushed a motorcycle across a temporary ‘bridge’ made of branches and logs.  The bridge made from a fallen tree that I’ve used to cross the river in the past had been washed away, so this was the only way to get to the other side.  Amissi, Selso and I greeted the men and then crossed over ourselves.

It’s nearing the end of the dry season, so while the log bridge we used works fine for now, in just a few weeks it will be gone.  The Montepuez River will soon be filled by runoff from northern Mozambique’s seasonal rains; so while these days the river doesn’t seem very imposing, once the rains begin it will become a dangerous, rushing monster.

Amissi (a church leader that lives here in the city), Selso (a young man that Amissi is discipling) and I talked as we walked the dirt path from the river to the village of Ncomekah.  We greeted the men, women and children who passed us on their way to cross the river themselves.  After walking for about half an hour, we arrived at Rajabu’s house. 

Rajabu is a man who my teammate Jeremy Smith has been discipling for the past few years.  He and his wife recently moved to the village of Ncomekah to be near Rajabu’s mother-in-law.  Rajabu and his wife want to start a church in that village.  We sat around after worship eating mangoes and Amissi made plans to come by bicycle and visit them again in a few weeks.  Rajabu was excited to have some promised help in beginning that church.  But he noted that while those plans will work fine for the month of December, by January or February the river will be impassable.

Rajabu accompanied us on our walk back to the truck and as we walked along I thought about the meetings that have taken place over the past few months about the lack of a bridge over the Montepuez River.  I thought back to our first meeting with the community leaders back in June – I was sitting under a thatch roof with Armindo Eusebio (a young man I am discipling) and Will Zweig (a Peace Corps worker teaching Science at the local High School).  The bridge was Will’s idea.  He had approached me a few weeks earlier, asking about places in our district that most needed a pedestrian bridge.  So, there we were sitting on bamboo chairs listening to a group of men from the villages of Bandar, Cambir and Ncomekah.  These villages would benefit the most directly from a bridge and one by one they stood up and told tales of family members being killed or maimed by crocodiles, friends who drowned trying to swim across the rushing waters, and others who lost food or their own bicycles to the river.  As I translated the stories from their Makua-Metto into English, Will’s eyes widened.   
This was the place to build a bridge.    

The Montepuez district is in the middle of the poorest Province (Cabo Delgado) in what the United Nations Development Program considers to be the third poorest country in the world.  And Mozambique’s lack of infrastructure is most costly to subsistence farmers who live in outlying villages.  During the rainy season, these villagers have only three options: risk crossing the river by swimming, pay nearly half a day’s wage to have themselves and their goods paddled across on unstable canoes, or travel miles and miles out of their way to reach the nearest bridge.

At that meeting with the village leaders back in June, we discussed the possibility of a safer, cheaper and faster option for the people: building a 35 meter-long pedestrian footbridge outside of the village of Bandar.  I’ve been glad to play a small part in assisting the US Peace Corps in partnering with the Prometto Association, the Montepuez District government, Bridges to Prosperity and a Bridge Commission made up of leaders from these three villages to build a bridge that would directly benefit at least 10,000 Mozambicans.  The estimated budget for the construction of the bridge is $20,000 and there is a 40% financial commitment that has already been promised.  So, what we need now is the remaining 60% (about $12,000) in order to completely fund the project.
 
We are in the process of writing grants and making this need known to people who may be interested in contributing to this project.  If you are interested in making a donation, send me a message through our team website here and I will give you more details about how to help.

Please keep this project in your prayers – it will be an amazing blessing to our friends here in Montepuez!

Grace and Peace,
Alan

Friday, November 15, 2013

Mangoes and the nature of God



  
One of the best parts about living in our part of Africa is this: MANGOES.

All the fresh mangoes you can eat! 


Growing up in the United States, for me, mangoes were these exotic, luxury fruits that sat on special display in the local grocery store.  They were expensive - having journeyed a great distance to make it from the field to our produce section.


For Westerners, mangoes are special treats.


For our Mozambican friends, though, oftentimes mangoes are the only thing standing between them and severe hunger.  I know that may sound dramatic, but mangoes serve as a ‘stop gap,’ helping people make it to next year’s harvest.  So, while a stomach full of mangoes is not the most nutritious thing in the world, it does provide enough energy to keep going. 


For the past few weeks, the temperature has been steadily climbing and the mango tree in our backyard has sent larger and larger cascades of fruit crashing down on our tin roof.  Each afternoon, friends drop by asking if they can collect mangoes from our yard.  Most people here in Cabo Delgado have spent the last few weeks working in their farms and getting the soil ready for planting.  The harvest won’t begin coming in until a few months from now.  Everyone around here knows that we’ve officially entered the time of hunger. 


Aaron Roland, a former colleague of ours here in Montepuez, used to talk about how God’s character is evident in the mango tree.  He would say that God knows that November and December are tough months and has provided an abundance of food freely available to help get everyone through it.   



 Our God is like a mango tree in the way that he is generously providing for his children in their needs at their hardest times.   


Earlier this week, I was with a group of church leaders who posed this question:  “Is God a man or a woman?”


I responded by saying that sometimes in scripture God is portrayed using masculine metaphors and sometimes feminine metaphors.  God, for example, is called our Father (Matthew 6:9); our King (Psalm 47:7); and pictured as a shepherd who looks for his lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7).  But on the other hand the Bible has beautiful feminine imagery portraying God as a mother who can’t forget the children she nursed (Isaiah 49:14-15); a woman in childbirth (Isaiah 42:14); a midwife (Psalm 71:6); a hen sheltering her baby chicks (Psalm 91:4); a mother eagle protecting her offspring (Deut. 32:11); a female bear protecting her cubs (Hosea 13:8); a woman working leaven into the dough (Luke 13:18-21); and a woman seeking a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10).


So, the Bible is rich with masculine and feminine imagery for God.  But, it's important to remember that God is way beyond what we can imagine. 

God has no gender – God is God.


I then took a deep breath and gave them this example.


My daughters probably couldn’t give an abstract description of who I am.  It would be impossible for them to give one that is complete.  They see me leave the house before they go to school in the morning and then welcome me back home in the afternoon from spending time in a village.  They see me teaching and preaching in languages that they don’t understand.  They know that Rachel and I had a life before they came into existence, though it is hard for them to imagine (actually, it’s hard for me to imagine as well!)


But if you asked them to describe who I am in relation to them… well, that’s a different story.  Katie would have no trouble rattling off a list of books that she likes me to read to her before bedtime.  She would talk about how I pick her up when she’s scared of the dog and there’s a good chance she’ll mention me making her favorite pancakes for breakfast last week.


When the Israelites described God they didn’t use abstract words like omnipotent and omnipresent or impassable.  Instead, they told the stories of the way God worked with them in history.  They told of how God was the One who called and cared for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  They testified to the way I-AM-WHO-I-AM dramatically rescued them from bondage in Egypt. Then in the New Testament, Paul refers to God by way of his powerful action in sending the Son - "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 15:6).


There is no way that we humans can understand the nature of God.  God is far beyond our understanding (we haven't even touched on the idea of the trinity!).  The only thing we can do is to describe the way that God has related to us.  That’s why the Bible is such a gift.  We get these beautiful and painful tales of a great God who goes to great lengths to save us. 


One of my favorite Biblical scholars, Ben Witherington, says this:

“In the New Testament, there are only three nouns used of God.  God is love.  God is life.  And God is light… the three ‘L’s.  Everything else is an adjective.  God is righteous (adjective).  God is holy (adjective).  God is sovereign (adjective)… I mean, we could keep going down that road.   But it’s got to be significant that when we are talking about God and using another noun… it’s love, life and light.”

The Bible uses a variety of titles and metaphors to describe God.  But, until the Lord is fully revealed to us, we humans will continue to fail to wrap our minds around the nature of God.  In the midst of our failings, though, those times that we come the closest to understanding our Creator are when we name the ways that God has been active in our world, loving us so fully and bringing us great and sustaining gifts such as life, light… and mangoes!  


Grace and Peace,

Alan

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

What's in a shrug?



There is a memory from my mission internship in Togo way back in 2001 that has stuck with me.  It had been raining and we stopped to visit with people in a small village.  I can clearly picture Frank Bunner squating down, talking to an old West African woman and her family.  What stood out to me that day, though, was the way that his posture mimicked the people around him.  It hit me that Frank’s mission team had not only learned French and EvĂ© in order to communicate the gospel but that they were also using a different body language to connect as well. 


That snapshot of Frank crouching has stayed with me and served as a reminder that ministering cross-culturally necessitates learning languages both spoken and unspoken.


The Makua-Metto people have some interesting behavioral habits.  They'll raise their eyebrows or raise their chin in order to answer ‘yes’.  They will take in a short breath in order to encourage the other person to keep speaking.  And they will softly clap their hands to show respect.  But the part of their body language that was the most confusing for me to understand was...

the shrug. 


At the beginning of learning the Makua-Metto language, we practiced short simple conversations with many, many people.  I remember often asking: “How many children do you have?”  Every once in a while, though, a woman would respond by shrugging her shoulders.  Now, from my American body language, shrugging one’s shoulders like that means: “I don’t know.”  Confused, I thought to myself, “How could she not know how many children she has?”  Later, though, we learned that shrugging one’s shoulders in this culture is the way to say “No.”  She was telling me that she didn’t have any children.


Body language is one of the hardest things to put into practice.  I can raise my eyebrows to answer yes.  I take a short breath to encourage a friend to keep speaking.  I’ll clap my hands softly to communicate respect.  But, I still don’t shrug my shoulders to say “no” – it doesn’t feel natural, even now.


But, Rachel and I have noticed something different in our children.  Sometimes our three year-old Katie will shrug to say “no” and other times she’ll shrug to say “I don’t know.”


Most days our girls spend the afternoon playing with the Mozambican kids who live nearby.  It's been fun to see what words they pick up or ask us about.  Even though her Makua-Metto is very, very limited, it seems that Katie has picked up some of the body language.  Or... at the very least she has become a bilingual shrugger!


Grace and Peace,

Alan

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Appenticing Animals



“What kind of creatures are we?”


Over the past few months, I’ve read three authors whose books tackle this big question in different but related ways.  David Brooks refers to our species as The Social Animal.  Jonathan Gottschall calls us The Storytelling Animal.  And in James K. A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom, he says we are ‘liturgical animals’ or ‘Desiring, Imaginative Animals.’  (p. 40).  Then there’s a number of additional suggestions we could consider as well such as Alasdair MacIntyre’s description of us as Dependent, Rational Animals, or even Christian Smith’s vision of us as Moral, Believing Animals.


Now while each of these proposals has merit and certainly warrants our attention, I would like to throw out one of my own.


I believe that we should understand our species as ‘Disciple-Making’ or ‘Apprenticing Animals.’ 


We humans spend a monumental amount of energy and resources, more than any other creature, in training up members of our own kind.  With only a few notable exceptions in the animal kingdom, human maturation takes the longest of any other species.  From extensive (5 minutes :)) internet research I only found three: Elephants can take up to 20 years to mature sexually, but that seems to be only in captivity. There are some species of sea turtles that don’t reach sexual maturity until their 30s or 40s but they live on their own from birth.  And finally, something called the Bowhead whale takes 20 years to reach maturity.


Looking closer to home we see that as a whole, our fellow primates spend a huge amount of time apprenticing their own.  Orangutans, for example, stay with their mothers for about five to eight years.  Gorillas take eight years to reach sexual maturity and chimpanzees take seven.  But humans, in comparison don’t reach reproductive status until they’re early teens and then don’t become full adults in most cultures until even a few years later.  So, even in comparison with high-end care giving primates we humans still spend about twice as long as the rest of them apprenticing our own for adulthood.


To summarize: While most mammals spend months or years apprenticing under the guidance and protection of their parents, human beings are unique in that they are dependent on caregivers for a period much longer than most any other animals.   


Why do humans have such a long apprenticeship?



In contrast to other animals whose behavior is for the most part instinctive, human behavior is complex and culturally determined.  Our species is born with very little software pre-loaded, so most of the important things we need to survive are transmitted by those around us.  Both language and culture acquisition are multifaceted processes that necessitate a large investment of time and resources on the part of caregivers.  So, we need a long apprenticeship in order to assimilate all the cultural rules and cues that will help us survive.


Amazingly, humans come out of the womb ready to start learning their way in the world.   The most powerful tool that they have at their disposal is the capacity to mimic.  An interesting New York Times article notes that, “Dr. Andrew Meltzoff at the University of Washington has published studies showing that infants a few minutes old will stick out their tongues at adults doing the same thing.  More than other primates, human children are hard-wired for imitation, he said, their mirror neurons involved in observing what others are do and practicing doing the same thing.”  The article goes on to talk about the ways that these neurons affect not only behavior but also our emotional responses.  We humans readily empathize with others, literally feeling what they feel, even when it is not happening directly to us.  This penchant for mimicking helps humans in their quest for acquiring all that learned behavior.


So, humans need a long apprenticeship before fully entering the world as adults and we are pre-wired to almost immediately begin apprenticing ourselves to our caregivers.


What kind of impact could seeing ourselves as ‘Apprenticing Animals’ have on our faith?



This understanding taps into a thread found throughout the Old and New Testaments.  One of the most glaring examples would probably be Deuteronomy 6 where Moses tells God’s people to talk about the Lord as we sit at home, as we walk along the road, when we lie down, and when we get up.  This apprenticing emphasis is seen clearly in the life and ministry of Jesus and made even more explicit through Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples in Matthew 28 where he told them to go and make disciples of every nation.  Jesus’ vision was that humans would use this inborn drive to disciple and apprentice others into mature citizens of the kingdom of God. 


Every culture around the globe apprentices or enculturates people into a certain way of thinking and believing and followers of Jesus are called to inhabit a certain way of living as well.   I think understanding ourselves as ‘Apprenticing Animals’ can help us see disciple making as something that all of us have the capacity to do.

Our very nature, our DNA, has been encoded with the propensity for apprenticing.  Disciple making is not something that only a certain group of people is called to do.  Christ’s followers are capable of fulfilling our calling to disciple and train others to live a life in line with the coming Kingdom.


Grace and Peace,

Alan