Tuesday, March 26, 2013

the call of the sea

We recently celebrated an anniversary.  Ten years ago this month, we left the U.S. to begin our journey to live and work among the Makua people of Mozambique.  God has been amazingly faithful through all the ups and downs of this adventure. Passing this mile marker has made me reflective and I've been thinking a lot about what got us started on this road to begin with.

I've been thinking a lot about the idea of 'calling'.

 A.S. Peterson's books, Fiddler's Gun, and its sequel, Fiddler's Green, have been a big help in getting my mind wrapped around this concept.  They tell the story of Fin Button, a young orphan who is forced by tragedy to leave her home and stow away on a ship. On land she floundered to find her place in society, but on board the ship she flourishes, eventually becoming a leader of a very motley crew.  At the beginning of the second book, Fiddler's Green (p. 4-5), Fin contemplates the call of the sea on her life while enjoying some respite on a small island. 

They spent a week in Hank's company and though the crew was cheerful and content in their leisure, Fin was lonely for Tan's company, and for home.  Her nights were fitful and long. She awoke often in the dark, startled by the solidity of the ground.  Without the ocean to rock her, she felt out of place and set apart from the life that the sea was calling her to.  But answering that call meant giving away her claim to any place of earth. Some men could sail the ocean and never really give themselves to it.  But others, real sailors, men of salt and timber - they were different.  Fin could spot it in a man almost instantly.  It wasn't the leathery skin and deep lined face; it wasn't the sun-bleached hair or the smell of rum and salted meat.  It wasn't the calloused hands and curse-ready tongue.  It was something inside, something elemental and rooted deep in the marrow.  Such men belonged to the wind and built no landward home.  Their foundations were of wave and storm, running fluid and deep, deeper than any mine or grave.  Any true man of the sea could tell you when he gave himself over to it.  It's the moment when men are divided one from another, sailors of a season on one hand, and true men of the wind and wave on the other. It's when one man looks toward home and the other comforts himself in knowing his home is his berth.

It is impossible to think about pirates and/or sailors without thinking about the sea.  They are truly defined by their calling to the waves and they have a lot to teach us about the nature of 'calling.'

Few things have involved as much confusion and head-scratching in my life as the idea of 'calling' and ministry.  In different seasons, I have struggled with the intersection of my passion and my vocation. Though I would not have called it a 'calling,' I've had a sense that God was calling me to ministry my whole life (in Kindergarten when told to draw pictures of what I wanted to be as a grown up... I drew myself as a preacher!). 

My church heritage has tended to emphasize the fact that ALL of God's people have been called to ministry.  And while this is a true and beautiful thing, it does seem clear that an individual's sense of calling to ministry can have a powerful impact on one's life and the lives of those around him or her.

A 'calling' is a renewable energy source.

Living and ministering out of a calling is ultimately more empowering and life-sustaining.  Reggie McNeal says that, "A leader with a clear sense of call represents a formidable force.  The sense of destiny emboldens, energizes and empowers the leader as well as those who are part of a leader's coterie of followers.  Leaders convinced of their call do not easily succumb to disappointments and discouragements.  Nor do they calculate odds in the same way as those who are not operating from a call basis.  Leaders secure in their call will charge hell with a water pistol.  A divine unction fuels their determination." (A Work of Heart, 96).  Without a clear sense of calling, we can easily run out of steam.

A 'calling' is different than a career.  

The earlier quote from Peterson's book highlights the difference between a calling and a career.  Fin sees two different types of people in her line of work, the one who keeps looking over his shoulder towards home, and the person who finds comfort in knowing that "his home is his berth." Those who are following a career keep one eye on a landward home, while those who are following a calling have accepted the wildness and unpredictability of a home on the sea.

Accepting the calling of the sea is not easy though - when the waves are especially rough, it is easy to look longingly back at the rock-solid shore.  There is a cost involved in following a calling verses following a career.  I appreciate the way that Fin wrestles honestly with the ways that answering the call of the sea will shape her life. 

Giving oneself like that means being cast away, set adrift on the world and beholden to nothing -  no man, no country, no law but the sea.  But the trade of it, the joy of it, is that home is what a man carries with him; when he pours his blood into a ship and cherishes and knows her like a lover, his home carries him far and safe across all oceans and vasty deeps.  Topper was such a man; his joy was the spray off the bow and the breeze off on his sunburnt pate.  Jack was certainly, as Tan had been, and Armand also, though joy wasn't often in him as a virtue.  Fin suspected that Armand was a man not only given to the sea, but lost to it, adrift in monstrous waters. As she lay awake, aware of the unmovable certainty of the world beneath her, Fin felt her own call to that weathered citizenship.  She'd felt it for a long time.  She'd longed to give herself to the deeps the first day she stood in the tops of the Rattlesnake and saw the ocean poured out before her.  It was this that frightened her when she thought of Peter.  Her heart and soul wanted only two things: Peter and the sea.  The anchor and the unknown.  The knowledge that she might one day have to choose between them chilled her and she longed for the numbness of sleep.
As Fin struggles with her calling and what it means for her own life, she calls to mind the examples of sailors that she knows well.  There are good models, men like Tan, Topper and Jack who came alive by accepting the call of the sea.  But she has also seen those who have not answered the call well.  Like Armand, they have become lost on the sea. The calling is a blessing, but answering it in unhealthy ways leads to a real danger of being swallowed by something sinister.

The example of others can help us successfully answer our 'calling.'  

In the struggle to understand my calling, it has been an enormous help to look to the experiences of others.  There is the warning of the 'Armand's, those shipwrecked sailors who have lost their way in following the call to ministry.  And, positively, I have benefited from the example of mentors and leaders who have given me an example of what living out that 'weathered citizenship' could look like in healthy and life-giving ways. 

The blessing... and the challenge of 'the call' is that it draws us into a reality greater than ourselves.

Fin realizes that giving her heart to the adventure out on the waves means giving up an anchor she dearly loves. The sea calls her to something greater, but she struggles with the cost that comes when accepting the call.  Drawn to the majesty and power of the sea, she senses that in it there exists a larger, more expansive reality. 

I love the way McNeil puts it: "Those called to be spiritual leaders feel connected to the big picture of God's movement, his kingdom agenda.  They feel personally responsible for partnering with God in his mission.  They may work in very obscure places, but changing the world is their aim.  This concern is not fitted in around the edges of life; it is the preoccupation of the called." (p. 98)  So, by answering the call of the sea we risk its depths and dangers because we sense there is something greater than ourselves.  The call challenges us to leave behind our self-centered narratives and step into a grander story.  The call may even ask us to give up good things, anchors that held us fast for a time.  And the call promises treasures: both along the journey and one that awaits us at the end of our voyage.  

I imagine that I will continue to wrestle with this idea of 'calling' - trying to understand my place between the anchor and the sea.  But, at this stage at least, I'm confident that the better adventure, the better story, will come by answering the call.    

May those of us who hear it, answer the call of the sea.  And may we follow the Master of the wind and the waves as he walks before us.

Grace and Peace,

Monday, March 25, 2013

Story Warren and Crafting Stories Together with kids

Story WarrenI recently wrote a post on storytelling with the children on our team for a website called Story Warren.  If you get a chance check it out and spend a few minutes poking around their website - they've written some good stuff about encouraging godly imaginations in children.

Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

some thoughts on fasting and the giants

I've been telling the story of David and Goliath a lot recently in the buildup to our time of prayer and fasting about the giants that oppress people in this part of Mozambique.  There are two characters in the narrative that I had mostly ignored, but who have now attracted my attention.  I had long assumed that this story (1 Samuel 17) was just about a boy and a giant (like some spiritualized version of Jack and the beanstalk!), but now I'm seeing the other important characters at the margins of the story more clearly.

The older brother: When David arrives on the scene and starts talking about the wild idea of killing the giant himself, his older brother, Eliab, is quick to shoot him down.  In the way that only older brothers can, he tells David, "You can't do it, you're too small... don't you have something better to do, what about that handful of sheep you are in charge of, who did you pawn them off on?"  David ignores his older brother's comment and continues on, confident in God's power.  Essentially, the older brother's message was "Who are you to think you can do anything about this giant?"

The king: Hearing of David's confidence that he would be able to slay the giant, King Saul calls him in for a meeting.  Saul decides that David just might be able to pull this off, if he only had access to the right equipment.  The King convinces the shepherd boy to try on his royal armor, but David quickly realizes it is way too heavy for him.  David returns the armor and tells the King that he'll stick with the tools that have brought him this far.  Saul's message was, "Well, sure you can do it... If only you'll use my methods (never mind that they haven't worked for me)."

If David had listened to either of these 'helpful' people in his life, it is safe to say that he would not have defeated the giant. His older brother would have talked him out of trying in the first place, and the king would have sent him into battle with the wrong kind of equipment.

Even today we can hear the older brother mocking us: "Who are you to think you can do anything about these giants?"  And the king's council may even sound like wisdom: "Sure you can do it...if you use the latest technologies and strategies."  It is crazy to think that we could bring down the giants in Cabo Delgado.  And, it is easy to think that the tools we have at hand are surely not sufficient.

Fasting is one of those low-tech weapons available to us.  It is an essential practice of the body of Christ that is unfortunately, in large part, 'out of practice'.

I don't remember hearing much about fasting growing up in church.  My first personal experience with it happened in college as part of a small group.  While my experience with fasting has been limited, I can testify that over the past 15 years or so it has blessed and shaped my life.

We, as humans, really have very little that we can control.  We can't make the sun come up.  We can't make water flow or plants grow.  Really, one of the few things that we can actually control is what we will put in our mouths.

Fasting is a valuable spiritual practice because it takes seriously the fact that we are embodied creatures - yes, we literally have bodies.  In fasting, both body and spirit work together in petitioning the King.

So, here are a few thoughts about the practice of fasting.

1. Fasting is not about amassing credit, it is about harnessing cravings.  There is a common misconception that by fasting one is able to put some black ink on a heavenly ledger.  Instead, though, the point in fasting is that when hunger pains hit us we turn that craving into a cry for help.  These weeks specifically, we are focused on turning those growls in our bellies into stones to sling at giants.

2. The form of fasting is not as important as the function.  The base culture here is Islamic so when people think about fasting they do it shaped by Muslim practices.  The Makua-Metto word for fasting is 'ottuka ramadani'. So, fasting for Muslims or Christians uses the period of Ramadan as a reference.  Islamic fasts are typically from sunup to sundown as adherents refrain from eating foods and drinking any liquids.  My experience is that when westerners fast we tend to refrain from food, but not water.  Jesus said almost nothing about the form of fasting - if, by form, we mean when and what kinds of food and liquids we drink.  Jesus assumed we would fast but emphasized the reasons behind it more than the methods used to do it.

3. Christ, the Bread of Life, sustains us.  I got a call from a church leader a few days ago.  He mentioned that a number of people in his church would be fasting about the giants, but they weren't sure about whether to still take communion those Sundays. I told him that I think taking the body and blood of Christ while fasting is good and important because it reminds us of what really sustains us.  In that way, the weakness that comes from hunger can remind us of our dependence on God.

I have been surprised to see which of our friends are joining in the fast against the giants.  Some leaders I assumed would participate have not, and others who I expected to ignore it have joined in the fast.  One thing I was reminded of, though, is that it only took one David to take down Goliath.  So, even if only a few of us are joining in this fast, it just takes one David... and a single well-placed stone!

May God defeat the giants in Cabo Delgado, and set the Makua-Metto people free.

Grace and peace,

P.S. While there are some good resources out there (Fasting by Scot McKnight and Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline), the most helpful book on fasting for me was one I found in a 'give-away' box. So, if you ever come across Arthur Wallis' God's Chosen Fast, pick it up.  Its a quick read, and loaded full of practical information about practicing fasting well.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

What Pixar taught me about... the Problem of Evil

Having small children has made me see the world through the lens of animated films.  And Pixar, specifically, has made some incredible movies that reveal  much about the tasks of Preaching and Evangelism.

In my opinion, though, Pixar's most under-appreciated film is "A Bug's Life."  Who knew that a movie whose main character is an ant could teach you about the dangers of technology, the need to be wary of workaholic fleas, and help you understand the problem of evil?

The ants in this story live under the oppressive thumb... er wing of Hopper.  This evil Grasshopper and his gang of thugs show up at harvest time each year to collect an offering of food and in return they provide 'protection' from other more dangerous bugs.  The main character, Flick the Ant, an engineer and inventor at heart, ends up having to leave the hill in search of bigger bugs to save the colony.

Near the end of the film, Flick's plan to deceive the Grasshoppers has unraveled and as Hopper gets ready to squish our hero, the colony finally realizes that they outnumber their enemy 100-to-1.  When Hopper sees the ants linking arms, determined to work together to save Flick, there is genuine terror in his eyes.  He has used fear to keep the colony down and divided, but now they will use the  power of community to triumph over evil.

Evil depends on fear.

Fear functions best in isolation.

A united community can overcome evil.

Heady stuff for a children's film, right?

During our furlough last year, Rachel and I heard Randy Harris speak at Lipscomb University.  He said that, "we have whole industries that use fear and insecurity to jerk you around and make you buy what they are selling." He was talking about consumer culture in America among other things, but my mind wandered back to our home in Africa.  I thought about the way the Evil One uses fear and insecurity to keep our friends in Mozambique down. I was snapped back to the present, though, when Randy referenced a quote by James Bryan Smith: "You are a member of the Kingdom of God.  And the Kingdom of God is never in trouble."

'Community' has been a popular buzz-word these days - either it is overused or misused depending on your perspective.  'Community' is often presented as a magical elixir that can solve any of our ills.  Maybe the isolation of American culture had made us thirst for something more transcendent.  But the question that remains is: what kind of community are we talking about?

If we find our identity in a lesser community, one ruled by Hoppers both real and imaginary, then it will not matter how unified we are, we will still be oppressed.  But if our identity is rooted in the Kingdom of God, if our community is united under that banner of peace, then we have nothing to fear.  As its citizens, we can rest in the fact that the Kingdom of God is never in trouble... even in the face of evil.

Last week I posted about the five giants that oppress people in our part of Mozambique.  I mentioned  the plan to fast and pray for God to bring down these giants.  One of the reasons that we are fasting and praying about this as a group is to use the power of community to overcome these giants.  In my mind, I can visualize hundreds and hundreds of Davids launching their stones at these five giants. 

A bunch of us will be praying and fasting from March 17 to March 30. Please join us in prayer that God would defeat these Giants.  And, if you feel called, give up some meals as part of your petition to defeat these enemies.  We'd love to have you link arms with us and partner with God to send evil running.

Grace and Peace,