Friday, April 26, 2013

On improving teams - a proverb, a metaphor and a question

Being a sports fan and living in Africa has been a little complicated.  Unfortunately, I have no affiliation for soccer - the most popular (or only?) sport for the majority of the world, including Mozambique.  So, websites, podcasts and phone calls with my father-in-law have been the life-lines keeping me connected to the American sports scene. 

One of my favorite NFL commentators was Mike Lombardi, who regularly appeared on Bill Simmons' podcast before taking a job in the Cleveland Browns' front office.  Besides having a great football name (!), Lombardi used a number of memorable phrases on the podcast in evaluating the different teams. 

I enjoy the way sports can make helpful connections to life and ministry and have written about connections between missions and baseball and basketball.  Here, I wanted to share some thoughts about how Lombardi's diagnostic tools for football teams could serve to increase the effectiveness of cross-cultural mission teams.

A proverb - "Don't confuse hope for a plan."

This is my favorite Lombardi-ism.  He would often talk about football teams whose whole strategies or long-term vision would be based on the 'hope' that player 'X' would develop into a star.  Lombardi would belittle that approach saying that while hope may be a good thing, there still needed to be plans in case that hope never became a reality.

In missions, it can be easy to fall prey to false hope.  We may invest time and resources in immature and unfaithful people with the hope that eventually they will figure it out and turn their life around.  While hope and a reliance on God's power to transform are foundational, we still need to take seriously the powerful forces that keep people from moving forward.  In working towards long-term goals we need to plan for the fact that many we work with will fail to meet their potential.   

A metaphor - "A great team's playbook looks like a first-class French restaurant menu: a small selection of dishes that are all excellent."

So, while good teams do a few things well, Lombardi would contrast that with an underperforming football team whose playbook looks like a gigantic menu from a mediocre restaurant.  Sure, they serve a bunch of dishes, but are any of them really good?  He emphasized the need to pick a few things and do them consistently with excellence.  In evaluating a team's playbook, one should look for quality over quantity.

In missions we can sometimes get pulled into doing lots and lots of activities, all of them are good and there are needs all around us.  But, I think we should draw from the example of successful teams and businesses that do only a few things really, really well.  Teams should concentrate on the things that they are: the most passionate about, the most qualified for, and would have the most impact.

A question - "Who are the 'blue chippers' in your organization?"

For a number of years, Lombardi made lists of the elite players ('blue chips') and near-elite players ('red chips') at each position across the NFL.  Then he would add up the number of those great players on each team and use that as a way to predict how well that team would perform that year.  Lombardi said that most teams don't do a good job of evaluating their own talent.  They tend to overvalue and overpay them to the detriment of the organization. Great teams, though, are skilled at making objective evaluations about their in-house talent.  His counsel would be to know who your elite players are and how to use them well. 

In missions, especially working with multiple churches on a regional level, it is extremely important to know who the blue chippers are and how to help them be most effective.  It is challenging to objectively discern the intersection of capacity (what is this person capable of?) and craving (what is this person eager to do?) in a church leader.  Like Jim Collins example from Good to Great, we must make sure that the right people are on the bus and that they are in the right seats on the bus.

Well, thanks for indulging my inner sports fan for a few minutes. My hope is that these three football diagnostics - the proverb, the metaphor and the question - may be a helpful addition to our toolboxes, aiding teams in becoming better at fulfilling the mission.


Saturday, April 20, 2013

Irrational Confidence and Missions

Growing up in Houston in the '80s and '90s was a great time to root for their NBA team, the Rockets.   Those teams won a couple of titles and were a fun bunch to cheer for.  As a kid, one of my favorite players to watch was Vernon Maxwell.  Although not a star, he was a fearless competitor.  He was never the best player on the floor for either team, but if the score was close at the end of the game he was never afraid to take a big shot.
Basketball commentator Bill Simmons introduced the concept of "the Irrational Confidence Guy -- the guy who isn't one of the team's best players, but he'll have stretches in which he THINKS he is... Vernon Maxwell was the best Irrational Confidence Guy ever -- he had so much irrational confidence that his Houston teams fed off it."  In another article, Simmons notes that, "Maxwell helped the '94 Rockets win the title and was so irrationally confident that, more than once, he tried to start fights with Michael Jordan because he really, truly believed that they were on the same level." 

Simmons noticed something in this player that I couldn't have articulated as a kid.  Vernon Maxwell was irrationally confident and that characteristic served to help his team succeed on basketball's biggest stage - twice.

Sports can give powerful insights into different areas of life and ministry and over the past year or so I've been thinking about the connections between 'Irrational Confidence' and Missions.  I've become convinced that 'Irrational Confidence' is an underrated and exceedingly necessary characteristic for cross-cultural missionaries.

Most cross-cultural missionaries have job descriptions that fall somewhere on the continuum between audacious and ridiculous.  Our team, for example, moved to Mozambique with the 'irrational' objective of helping a church planting movement start and flourish among an unreached people group to the point that those churches have established and faithful local leaders (elders).  We also hoped to see a good chunk of that accomplished within our team's 10-15 year commitment!

As our family started fundraising and looking for a church to sponsor our work over here, I realized just how crazy my 'pitch' sounded.  Ultimately, I was asking churches to send me to do something that I had never done before... in a culture where it had never happened before... using two language that I didn't even know, yet!  I would say that certainly takes a high level of 'irrational confidence'.  (And praise God for the Donelson Church and their willingness to believe in Rachel and I!)

'Irrational confidence' is a necessary characteristic for cross-cultural missionaries.  Some have an irrational self-confidence, while others have an (ir)rational confidence in the power of a certain Resurrected Lord.  But, my hunch is that cross-cultural missionaries who are able to survive on the field over a sustained period of time will have a healthy dose of both.

So, where does that 'irrational confidence' come from?

Interestingly, three of Simmons' top five all time 'Irrational Confidence Guys' were part of those two Houston Rockets championship teams ('94 and '95).  The other two guys (Sam Cassell and Robert Horry) didn't emerge as irrational confidence guys until later in their careers, though.   It makes me wonder if something about the health or make-up of those specific teams contributed to those three ultimately succeeding in those roles. 

Having done absolutely no research whatsoever(!), I would like to suggest that spiritually healthy cross-cultural missionaries tend to draw their 'irrational confidence' from one or more of three different areas.

1. Rachel and I never imagined living in Africa, but we both had strong, stable families of origin and healthy home churches that provided us with layers and layers of confidence.  It seems like a good portion of missionaries we interact with could tell a similar story - a confidence that comes from supportive parents and churches that consistently modeled a solid faith in the power of God.

2. A second group of long-term cross-cultural missionaries actually grew up on the mission field.   They might say that their 'irrational confidence' comes in part from the fact that they grew up in a similar scenario and have seen the faithfulness of God to bless even tiny mustard seeds to grow into large healthy plants.

3. I would guess that the rest of cross-cultural kingdom workers would fall into a third group that say their 'irrational confidence' came from a dramatic calling or experience that led them to the mission field.  When they experience challenges, they find solid footing in a knowledge that they were meant for that particular service. 

No matter how we attain it, though, I believe a healthy 'irrational confidence' is a necessary characteristic in order to serve long term as cross-cultural missionaries.  We need to be able to stand in the face of extremely long odds and be willing to take the shot.

May God raise up more and more people all over the world who, whether or not they are the most talented or qualified, have an unshakable and irrational confidence in Christ and his coming Kingdom.

Grace and Peace,

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Superman and Sabbath

Superman has a fortress of solitude.

As a kid, I loved watching the Christopher Reeve 'Superman' movies and was mystified at how this scrawny dude could possibly pick up a car (not to mention figure out a way to send the whole world back in time!... but that's a post for another day).  Some of the most interesting scenes were the ones showing the Man of Steel's Fortress of Solitude.  In the film, Superman chunks an alien crystal into the ice and this crystal constructs a sanctuary for him there in the Arctic.
Here we have Superman, the only person from his world left alive in the universe, a man totally alone, and yet what is it that he needs to keep going?  A Fortress of Solitude.

There is a quote from an old book that has rocked my thinking lately.  Abraham Joshua Heschel's 'The Sabbath' talks about the way that humanity has tended to value space over time.  He develops the idea that God was ultimately concerned with creating holy time - not holy spaces.  At creation, the only thing God declared both 'good' and 'holy' was a day - one set aside as Sabbath.  And those holy places we think of - his instructions for tabernacle and temple - were only introduced after the Israelites tried their hand at making an (un)holy object. 

While humanity values holy objects and sites, God emphasizes holiness in time. Heschel writes that,

"Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent streams of a year.  The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals... Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms of time, as architecture of time."   

So, by practicing Sabbath, we build cathedrals of time. 

Humans certainly go to great lengths to create holy spaces.   But, for most of humanity the space we inhabit is not ultimately under our control - it is shaped significantly by other forces, such as family and finances.  Our time, though, is more under our discretion.  We may not have the ways or means to head to a sanctuary, but we have been allotted the same 24 hours as everyone else on the planet, and we can choose to use those minutes well.  Wherever we find ourselves under the sun, our power lies in the way we use our time. 

I've been trying to follow Heschel's counsel and see time, and not necessarily real estate, as God's holy commodity. I'm picturing the hours of my day turning into bricks.  Some of them broken or misshapen, only good for the rubble heap.  Some of them sturdy and ready to build a worthy structure.  By using my time well, I imagine myself constructing cathedrals of time.  And my hope is that as God is sanctifying that time, it is forms something worthwhile. 

For the past 7 or 8 years our family and our team have set aside Mondays as a day of rest.  We try to follow Eugene Peterson's advice and see Sabbath as a day made for 'praying' and 'playing'.  We enjoy a breakfast of pancakes and a slow start to the day as a family.  We play videogames and board games together.  I read books to the three year old.  Rachel sews a little and helps the older girls make crafts.  We take naps.  More reading of books to the three year old.  Rachel and I give each other time to be alone for word and prayer.  We might play ball outside, I may write a little and then there's more reading to the three year old.  And while these days are not perfect (we still have interruptions: visitors show up unannounced, funerals happen, sick people need help, or the car must be repaired), this day is the highlight of our week.  Inside these cathedrals of Sabbath time amazing things can happen: rest, love, and attention.

The practice of Sabbath has made me a better father.  When I relinquish the day to praying and playing, I am able to focus on my kids.  When one of the girls wants to sit on my lap and hear me tell a story, I can leave the to-do list on the shelf and remember that today was set aside for this.  The practice of Sabbath has made me a better husband.  I remember that my wife is my Sabbath queen and we linger around the table and try to make the time to really listen to each other.

Practicing seeing the world this way not only helps us value 'Sabbath time', it also helps us properly value 'Ordinary time'.

In falling in step with the rhythm of six days of work and one day of rest, I am reminded that the world continues to run without me.  The Maker is the one who keeps the earth spinning... thank you very much.  Humanity has often needed this reminder.  The children of Israel lived as slaves in Egypt for 400 years - there was no rest.  So, in God's gift of the Law, He makes it clear that his children should rest and that those who choose to not practice Sabbath are returning to the slave-ways of Egypt (Deut. 5:15).  Sabbath is rooted in creation and if we want to live well as creatures we will follow that rhythm.   Even when life gets busy, there is too much to do, and we are tempted to skip Sabbath in that busy season of harvesting or plowing, God specifically tells his people to keep practicing Sabbath (Exodus 34:21).  The good news of the Sabbath is that God gives rest to the rest of us.

In Frank Herbert's novel, Dune, one of the characters is struck by a thought, "It occurred to her that mercy was the ability to stop, if only for a moment.  There was no mercy where there could be no stopping."  We have a friend who has been in full-time ministry for over twenty years and he told us a few months ago that he hadn't taken a vacation in over fifteen years.  That's not how we were made to function.  Being a workaholic is not holy.  If we as ministers are to be full of mercy, then that mercy must extend to ourselves - we must be able to stop.

In practicing Sabbath, we sanctify time, constructing cathedrals that, in turn, shape us into the people we were created to be.

Superman was able to build his fortress of solitude out of crystals, we get to build cathedrals out of our time.  

And if Superman needs solitude and Sabbath, then it should be okay for us to admit that we do, too. 

Grace and Peace,

(There are some really good resources on Sabbath out there.  Heschel's book The Sabbath develops the theology and philosophy behind Sabbath from the Jewish tradition in a very deep way. Marva Dawn's Keeping the Sabbath Wholly and Dan B. Allender's Sabbath both talk about theory and make practical suggestions.  James K. A. Smith has a very helpful chapter called "Working at Rest" on the challenge of Sabbath for 'type A' personalities in his book The Devil Reads Derrida.  But, my favorite resource on Sabbath and the one that got us started practicing it as a family comes from a chapter on prayer in Eugene Peterson's book Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity.  Unfortunately, I have yet to find a resource that gives many ideas on practicing Sabbath while in the life stage of parenting small children.  Most resources that describe this spiritual practice are in a different life stage.  If they have children, they are grown and their descriptions of Sabbath practices include taking long walks in silence and eating peaceful reflective meals... while that certainly sounds wonderful - it doesn't work so well with three active kids!  So, if you find a good one please pass it on.)

Friday, April 12, 2013

some snapshots of the giants

Over the past month we have been talking a lot about the giants.  At a recent meeting of key church leaders, over forty of them committed to pray, fast and join the fight against the giants that oppress people here in Cabo Delgado.

During the two week period of prayer and fasting about the giants, I decided to keep a log of my interactions with the giants.  It was surprising to realize just how many experiences and conversations I wrote down.  In this post I will share a few examples, a snapshot or two, in order to help put each of the giants in perspective and reveal more about their impact here.

1. The giant of 'Unfaithfulness.'  This giant carries a sword that carves up confidence and keeps people from trusting each other.  Unfortunately, the culture here does not put much of a stigma on lying. 

One man from the church in Menhuene came and asked for help for his wife who he said was sick in the hospital.  I have helped him in the past, but something about his story seemed fishy.  He said that Chad had given them a ride to the hospital the day before and since Chad was working next door I checked and found out that this man's story was not true.  Chad and I confronted him and reminded him that people of the Kingdom of God are called to tell the truth.

Antonio from the village of Siwewe found a wallet at a church meeting and handed it in.  To the surprise of many people there was no money missing and another church leader and I praised this young man for choosing faithfulness.

Gracinta's husband asked for help to go to the hospital, I hesitated to give him money because he has lied to me in the past.

2. The giant of 'Magic.'  This is the system of Witchcraft/Demon possession/Divination that forms a dangerous three-headed giant that keeps people pinned down by fear.

On Easter morning, we climbed a mountain just outside of town to worship together with the kids in English and celebrate the resurrection.  On the way up the mountain we came across a recently constructed center for traditional animistic practices.  In the picture you can see two rattles, a mirror and some other objects used by an 'Onkulukano,' for divination.

I sat outside one afternoon and translated for Kara as Hortencia shared about family members who struggle with the occult.  One of her sisters suddenly lost her voice, did divination to discover the cause and was told that her deceased grandmother had caused the illness because she had been forgotten by her family.  That sister cleaned up the grave, made an offering to the dead family member, and her voice has partially come back.

Hortencia also told us about a neighbor who, because of spirit possession, has some unique food taboos she must follow.  This neighbor's uncle came to Montepuez recently trying to convince her to come with him to his village where he said a traditional healer there could help her get better.  She rejected his offer because she is afraid he wants to curse her, and through her death gain riches for himself. 

3. The giant of 'Alcoholism.'  Many are tempted by drunkenness as a way to temporarily escape their problems.
(pic of gin)

Two of our good friends, Napoleon and Goncalves both spent multiple nights at our house in order to visit the hospital here to treat injuries received in a car accident.  They, and some other pastors here in Montepuez, were on their way to another city to participate in a church conference.  The bus driver had been drinking and their vehicle rolled multiple times.  Amazingly no one died in the accident and the worst of the injuries were some deep cuts and broken or cracked ribs.   

On Saturday night, we were driving home and came across the body of a man laying in the middle of the road just a few feet from our gate.  At first we thought he might dead, but upon further investigation discovered he was just passed out drunk.

On Tuesday, I had been in the village of Ncororo teaching about the giants.  Albisto, one of the church leaders there had participated well in the animated discussion.  The very next day, I met up with him on the road.  He was leaving Montepuez and heading back to his village.  On the back of his bike was a sack of rice, some sugar and a case of gin.  I asked him about the alcohol and he said a friend had given him money to purchase it.  Exacerbated, I encouraged him to tell his friends that he would only help them transport good and useful things and reminded him about the conversation regarding the giant of drunkenness the previous day.  I asked him if he thought he was truly helping people back home by giving that giant a ride to his village.

4. The giant of 'Ungodly Leadership.'  The word 'aproveitar' in Portuguese means to 'take advantage of.' Many people in any level of leadership or power assume that they should 'aproveitar' their position for personal gain.  This kind of corruption severely limits development.

Danuni, our guard, was frustrated because he took his sick child to the hospital and the attending nurse refused to treat the child unless he gave her a 'tip'.

I had some conflict with a church leader who sent a message through a subordinate that he didn't like me talking about this giant because he thought I was referring to him.  I later had a personal conversation with him in order to encourage him to not hurt the church because of his own desire for personal gain.

A young man, Cruz, that we are helping go to High School in a nearby town, shared how this year it seems like even more teachers at his school expect a 'gift' in order for a student to pass their class, regardless of the quality of their schoolwork.

5. The giant of 'Poverty.'  Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world - click here to see a map of how 'hungry' different nations are. The problem of poverty is multiplied by the other giants as they take money that should be used for good.

This picture shows a political slogan for the ruling party in Mozambique asserting that the President will be able to defeat poverty.

Eight men showed up at our house before 5 am on Thursday.  A young woman in their family had come to the hospital in labor the day before and she passed away in the night.  They asked me to take the body back to their village of Chirepwe.  I arrived in the village to the sounds of crying and howling, as the family had already gathered in preparation for the funeral.  To me, if someone asked what poverty sounds like, I would have to say that wailing comes the closest that I've heard.

One of our friends, Londres stopped me on the way to another village.  He is practically blind and hangs out near the road.  He almost always flags me down and prays for me - he knows the sound of our truck's motor (and not many vehicles go that way!).   That day he asked me for soap because he had not been able to wash his clothes recently.

Rachel was touched by a conversation with a lady who made it all the way to our house on crutches.  She can't walk and can't work in a farm and was so grateful to receive even a little bit of food from us.

So, what can Jesus say about the giants?

On the last day of the fast, the day before Easter, Jeremy and I met with the church leaders in the district of Chiure.  All of us had started memorizing Jesus words in John 15 and we were all set to study the first eight verses of that passage together.  Before getting started though, I asked them how the fast was going and if they were seeing any initial impact in their churches and communities.  Here is some of what they told us:

The Church in Mahipa was gathering to pray and break the fast at sundown together each night.  Xavier mentioned that there were a number of new members that chose to participate in the fast that he did not expect.

Pinto shared about the Church in Milamba.  They were praying together each afternoon as part of the fast and going to visit sick people in the community.

Alfonso shared about the letter he received from a nearby village that doesn't have any Protestant churches asking them to come plant a church there.

In Namitil, ten new people who have started coming in the last couple weeks were to be baptized the next Sunday.

Rafael shared how in Chiure Sede, a number of members who had drifted away have come back and one new visitor, possessed by an evil spirit, came and asked the church for prayer for her liberation.

In Terra Branca, where the church building literally fell down when the Smiths were visiting a few ago, the church called leaders from nearby churches and told them about the poor leadership in their congregation and the sin issue in the life of that leader.  They shared their decision to move the church from meeting at that person's house to a different part of the village so it would have the good soil necessary to grow.

It was so encouraging to hear the way that the church was engaging all 5 of the giants in these communities during the period of prayer and fasting.

In John 15, Jesus tells us that he is the vine and we are the branches.

As we talked about that passage, one of the men commented on how meaningful it was to be memorizing those words during the fast.  It was good to remember that while so often we assume that food or the practices of this world will sustain us, Jesus promises to sustain us as we remain in him.  We also talked about how in these verses Jesus tells us that God is the gardener and we can have confidence that he will protect the vine and make sure it is well nourished, even as giants stomp all around it.  

May we always remain in the Vine and may the Gardener help us overcome the giants in Cabo Delgado!

Grace and Peace,

Special thanks to the Smiths and Westerholms for some of the pictures.