Saturday, February 23, 2013

rehearsing truth

I was Charlie Brown.  I used to have the yellow shirt with the jagged black stripe to prove it.

My other acting experiences in High School were minor characters (putting it generously) - I played the Barrister of Munchkin land (which I felt like was just one step up from playing a banister in munchkin land!), a singing tree, and an unnamed character whose costume reminded us of the Jack of Hearts.   So, when my fellow classmates found out that I would be playing the role of Charlie Brown in a student directed play, the most common comment I heard was - "That part is perfect for you."  (I still am not sure if that was a compliment!)  It was a fun experience but more work than I expected, having to rehearse those lines every day to keep them fresh on my mind.

I'll contrast that experience with the time our choir put on a dinner theater and I sang 'C'est Moi' from the musical Camelot.  I happened to be singing just in front of my parents' table and my Dad, realizing that I was having serious trouble with the lines, put down the video camera, stood up, joined me in the song and we finished it together.  Most of the people in the audience thought it must have been planned, and we got a rousing round of applause.  In that case, I had not rehearsed my lines well, and I quickly lost my way.   Since then, I have really appreciated the irony of needing my Father to come to my rescue in order to finish singing a prideful song of self-sufficiency!

I shared these two stories with my friend Mario a couple weeks ago.  Mario is one of my closest friends.  I have probably spent more time with him than any other Mozambican.  He and I have been all over northern Mozambique together.  He is my parents' age and jokes about being my "Mozambican Dad." He likes pushing the limits of my knowledge of the Makua language, coming up with increasingly obscure terms to expand my vocabulary.  We have literally been stuck in the mud many times together. We have planted churches together.  And I was there the day he buried his mother.

But, Mario is a recovering alcoholic.  He will go through stretches of time where it is not a problem.  But, then he gets pulled back into drinking.  A few months ago, after an incident, we had a delicate conversation about it at his house and I told him I would not be able to take him with me to the villages north of town - we agreed that he would be on a sort of probation.

A few months later, I walked to his house and found him completely wasted.  The next time we met, he laughed it off, but I insisted that we needed to take it seriously.  And that is what finally led us to the open and raw conversation that day about how alcohol keeps capturing him.  We talked through everything that happened recently.  He shared how some days it is easy to walk past the group of his old drinking buddies. He talked about how when he declines, they mock him... calling him 'Amwara Yesu' - 'wife of Jesus.'  He shared how some times the pull from alcohol is too strong and he gets sucked back in again.
And finally, he asked me: "How can I break free?"

My response: "I don't know."

I have never dealt with alcoholism, so I encouraged him to talk with my teammate Jeremy who used to work at a drug and alcohol recovery center.
But, then I borrowed a tactic from Jesus' playbook and told him a couple stories.
In ways that fit his context, I told him about having to rehearse my lines in order to play Charlie Brown well.  I also told him about being seriously under-prepared to sing at that dinner concert and needing my Dad to step in and save the day.

We talked about the importance of 'rehearsing truth'.

It is a powerful phrase (that I have blatantly stolen from Rachel) that has been helpful for me in re-framing the importance of spending time each day in prayer and Bible study.  There are times (many, many times) as I stumble out of bed, get the coffee started, and try to jump start my brain that I wonder if having a quiet time is worth it. But this concept of 'rehearsing truth' has helped me re-imagine what 'quiet times' are really about.

Quiet time is about rehearsing my lines for this day's improv. play.  It is about reminding myself of the truth I need to say that day.  It is about rehearsing lines so that I remember the character I have been called to be in God's story.
So, I encouraged Mario to take a few minutes each morning to 'rehearse truth' - spending some time in the Word and in prayer, making sure he has his lines down pat.  I told him that I had no allusions that this would be the 'magic bullet' to deal with his alcoholism.  But it certainly could provide him with ample ammunition, and be a layer of bricks in the wall between him and the life he wants to leave behind.

My hope is that by 'rehearsing truth,' Mario and I can both be well equipped to play our roles in God's drama here in Mozambique.  

Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Why pairs are more fruitful

Back in 2004, a book called The Wisdom of Crowds attracted a lot of attention.  In it the author explored  how groups of people can often pool their collective wisdom and make better decisions than individuals.  He used case studies and anecdotes from various fields ranging from economics to psychology.

Jesus seemed to think, though, that the wisest or most effective number of people was... two.  His theory might be called - 'the wisdom of pairs.'  When he sent out his disciples to a new village, he liked to send them out in groups of two (Mark 6:7, Luke 10:1).  One might have imagined Jesus, in the name of efficiency, splitting everyone up in order to cover as much ground as possible.  But, instead he covers half as much territory by sending them out two-by-two. 
Jesus thought that pairs were more fruitful.

One example of the way our team has seen the value in working in pairs is the experience that Jeremy Smith and I have had in the Chiure district. It has been a very rewarding experience... and the decision to work as a pair came partially by accident.  It takes over two hours to drive to Chiure, but the churches there were ready for teaching and mentoring - so the decision was made for both of us to go in large part in order to share the burden of fuel costs and wear-and-tear on our cars.  We also knew that these churches were primed for growth and working with them alone would have been more than we were ready for.

Over the past few years Jeremy and I have spent dozens of Saturdays making the trek down to Chiure, co-teaching a class for a group of church leaders, and then evaluating that experience on the long ride back home.  We don't always work this way - but I often wish we did!

So, what benefits have we experienced by working in pairs?

1. Co-teaching is just plain more effective.  Back in college I got to co-teach a class at the Downtown Church with one of my professors, Monte Cox.  We spent time preparing the lessons with a small group and then taught the class together. That experience was extremely formative for me.  When Jeremy and I co-teach now it is on a peer basis and we have given each other the freedom to jump in and add comments, chase meaningful rabbits, or clarify when it seems that members of the group may not be understanding.  It is extremely helpful to have another set of eyes, ears, and hands to help mold the learning experience.

2. Pairs have more authority. My hunch is that Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs because of the common refrain in the Old testament of the need of having two witnesses (ex. Deut. 19:15).  Jesus knew that for his message to be received with open arms, it needed to have two testimonies.  Working in pairs adds more weight or authority.  When one of us is pushing the discussion, challenging the group in a certain way, it is very helpful to have a colleague step in and publicly agree that what the other is saying is true.

3. Two heads are better than one in problem solving.  While this would certainly be the case even in one's own hometown, it is even more true when you are attempting to listen through the static of different languages, cultures and communication styles.  I don't know how many times we have been presented with a problem or scenario and one of us had to respond because the other couldn't discern the heart of the question.

4. Working as a pair models a plurality in leadership.  If the ultimate goal for the churches leaders we work with is to see them become a healthy team of elders shepherding the flock, then there seems to be great value in modeling that kind of teamwork for them even at this stage.

5. Working together is more fun than going it alone. This should be a no brainer.  Our time trapped in the car, or in a dark hut eating xima and beans was made infinitely more bearable by having a companion.

So, for the above reasons (and more) I would heartily recommend working in pairs - they are more fruitful - for everyone involved. 

Grace and Peace,

Saturday, February 16, 2013

a shift in focus

Last year, we bought a nice camera.  We had used the point-and-shoot type of digital cameras for the past ten years or so and they had worked fine, but the price had come down so much lately on the nicer ones that we enlisted my sister-in-law, Erin Elizabeth, in helping us find a new camera.  Wow - what a difference!  Admittedly, I don't do a great job remembering to take pictures - I'm the guy who pulled out our video camera a few years back and one daughter said, "Nice camera, daddy, did you borrow it from Jeremy?"  Oops.   So, I am certainly still a novice, but it has been fun to play around with the lens, experimenting by focusing on different aspects of a particular shot.   

I've been thinking about the importance of focus a lot more lately, especially in regards to the atonement.   Often when we talk about the atonement - what Jesus accomplished on the cross - we can tend to focus on the way he took care of our sins.  This is certainly a key part of Jesus' work, but it is not the complete picture.

Let's use a specific passage as an example.  Often when people try to summarize what Jesus did at the cross they reference 1 John 3:5 NIV "But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins."  If we just focus solely on this verse then it seems like Jesus' reason for coming to earth was to merely deal with our 'sin problem.'  But if we shift our focus just a little bit, moving it down a couple verses we read..."the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work" (3:8 NIV).  Shifting our focus down even further we see that Christ's love and example has facilitated our passing "from death to life" (3:14-16).

So, by shifting our focus just a little, we can see with more clarity different parts of the scene.  We may shift the focus from a flower in the foreground to a flower in the background.  And taking the pictures together, a much broader image comes into view.

In this more expansive scene, or mosaic, we see Jesus dealing not only with sin, but also defeating Satan and death itself.  So, at the cross, Jesus overcomes our three main adversaries: Sin, Death and Satan.

Our team meets weekly to worship in English and one song we've sung more often lately is the song "He Paid a Debt."  It's a good song, but unfortunately it only focuses on one part of the atonement - how Jesus deals with sin.  So, I tried to come up with some additional verses to shift the focus to the other two enemies that Christ defeated: Satan and death.  Sometimes we need to focus on the individual pieces one at a time in order to bring the whole picture into clearer focus.

He Paid a Debt
(American folk hymn and melody; verses 2 and 3 by Alan Howell)

He paid a debt he did not owe, I owed a debt I could not pay.

I needed someone to wash my sins away.

And now I sing a brand new song, amazing grace all day long.

My Jesus paid a debt that I could never pay.

And on that day at Calvary, he defeated Satan and set me free.

I needed someone to beat the enemy.

And now I tell of what he's done, amazing freedom is what he's won.

My Jesus conquered evil and won the victory.

Death did not have the final word, not for this resurrected Lord.

I needed someone to rise up from the grave.

And now I tell a brand new story, amazing life in all its glory.

My Jesus conquered death and lives eternally.

My hope is that we can do a better job as a church of incorporating all of the various pictures of the atonement (how Christ defeats sin, death and Satan) into a mosaic that fully displays the beauty and power of Christ's death and resurrection.

Grace and Peace,


Our experiences in Mozambique have certainly shaped our thinking about the atonement.  If you are interested in reading more about how we're trying to talk about the atonement among the Makua-Metto people, you can read more here. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Family Creed

Back in 2010, I read a book called Almost Christian by Kenda Creasy Dean.  It is a very well written exploration of a survey done on the spirituality of American teenagers.  Two ideas from the book got stuck in my brain and wouldn't let go.

1. The shaping power of parents - A finding from the study: "The single most important influence on the religious and spiritual lives of adolescents is their parents" (p. 203).

2. The shaping power of creeds - The teenagers surveyed that had the most dynamic faith were some of the best at articulating what they actually believed.  As Dean puts it, "Creeds are articulated beliefs" (p. 70). So, if we want our girls to have a faith that lasts we needed to give them some tools to articulate it well.

These two thoughts rattled around in my brain and in conversations with Rachel for weeks and finally we decided to do something about it - we decided to come up with a family creed.

Now our church heritage historically has been antagonistic towards creeds and I understand why - they can have a tendency to sit in place of Scripture instead of pulling believers to Scripture.  But, the misuses of creeds shouldn't make us give up on them entirely.  Instead we should put them in their proper place.  We saw a creed as a powerful tool for articulating what we believe as a family. So, we looked at some famous creeds to get some ideas (Apostle's, Nicene, etc.).  Just as those creeds were formulated to articulate faith in specific contexts, we wanted to try our hand at expressing what we hold to be true in our own time, place and family.

First of all, Rachel and I brainstormed some key stories or ideas we wanted to be sure and include in the creed.  Then, we each took a shot at writing the creed separately. We then read our drafts to each other and mashed them together using the lines or phrases that fit best.  We had a couple of principles going into this - we wanted it to be short - something easy for us and our girls' to memorize -  and we wanted it formed in a way that would be understandable for the kids now, but hold deeper meaning as they get older. 

That creed has been a part of our family for two years now and I wanted to share some observations from our experiences on what it has been like incorporating a family creed into the Howell household.

Writing it was good for Rachel and I.  This was the most unexpected blessing from the process. Having to wrestle some ideas and concepts close to our hearts onto the same page was a good challenge.  And since we wrote the creed out ourselves, we feel more connected to it.

Memorizing it and keeping it memorized was easier than I thought. Children have an AMAZING capacity for memorization.  They had this thing down in a week or two.  For a while we said it every other night or so.  Now, we end up saying it as a family once every couple weeks.  But, the girls still remember it well.

The family creed has been surprisingly useful.  One day we were in a village and a bunch of sick people got a ride into town with us.  Ellie asked, "Dad why is there so much sickness?" We talked about that for a while and, on a whim, I started a couple of relevant lines from the creed and without missing a beat she and Abby finished them.  The creed became a tool that day to help her understand something she already knew how to articulate.  It functioned like a theological shorthand.

I am pasting a copy of our family creed below with hesitancy.  First of all you may not like it.  You may think we left something out or put something in that don't belong - and that's fine.  But don't let the faults of this specific creed make you dismiss their usefulness in general.  Secondly, please don't copy it! It's not that I want royalties for it(!) - it is just that the process of writing your own... makes it your own.  Take a peek at our family creed, do some research on some well-used creeds of the church...and then get a blank piece of paper and come up with one that fits you and your family.

My hope is that as our three girls grow up, this creed will keep wriggling its way into their hearts and imaginations and help nourish a vibrant and sustaining faith that lives on long after Rachel and I are gone.

Grace and Peace,


Our Family Creed:
We believe that one God created a good and beautiful world,
But the first people disobeyed God and broke God’s good gift.
And up until today all of creation suffers brokenness.
God worked through a chosen people, Israel, to show the world how to live well...and finally sent Jesus the King!
Jesus came to share good news:  that everyone is invited to come into God’s Kingdom!
Jesus taught those with ears to hear how to live well:  we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and body, and we love our neighbor as ourselves.
Jesus asks us to be his messengers:  we share that good news with others and we join his quest to fix the world and make things right.
Jesus did amazing things up until his death on a cross.  Three days later he defeated sin, death, and Satan and rose again.
We believe that Jesus is ALIVE and is coming back; he will raise the dead and save the day!
While we wait God’s Holy Spirit lives inside us, helps us make good choices, and gives us power to worship God and serve others.