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,


Friday, October 18, 2013

Put the book down

I sat on the curb in front of a government office in Pemba, Mozambique.  Years of living in Africa have taught me to carry a book to keep me distracted from the inefficiencies of bureaucracy.  After a few minutes of reading, I stretched and stood up.  A young Mozambican man walked up to me and said, “You Americans sure seem to read a lot.  How many books do you think you’ve read in your lifetime… ten?” 
“Oh,” I said with a smile. “More than that.”  That began an interesting conversation about literacy, habits and why certain cultures value reading more than others.
To read more, check out the rest of my recent post at Story Warren. Then be sure and poke around their website - they're doing some cool stuff!
Grace and Peace,

Thursday, October 10, 2013

October 2013 Newsletter

Happy October everyone!
Very soon after returning from our July trip to South Africa, the old truck sold and fundraising for the new truck swiftly came to a close - THANK YOU!  In a short span of a couple weeks, Alan made multiple chapa trips (minivan taxis) to Pemba to wire the funds to Toyota and buy a plane ticket, to Chiure for a church conference, and again to Pemba in the back of a flatbed truck for his flight to Maputo where he would pick up the new truck.
He spent two weeks away from home, which included truck registration paperwork and insurance in Maputo, and then outfitting the truck in Nelspruit, South Africa for continuous off-road use in our remote location (bull bar, driving lights, canopy, roof rack, jerry cans, sturdy shocks and springs, and off-road tires).  The return drive takes three full days, and on the second day he had to drive in a military convoy through the section of Mozambique that experienced political violence earlier this year.  Thankfully that was uneventful...

Within a three-week window, Abby's teacher Kara came back from a trip to the States, Ellie's teacher Rebekah also came back, Alan returned with the new truck, and our teammates the Smiths returned from their furlough in the States as well.  It has been wonderful to have our whole team back together in one place again, and we are full of gratefulness.  Leading up to September, some of our regular activities and responsibilities had been suspended waiting on the new truck (studies out in villages) or waiting on teammates to return (team school).  So September was very busy as we resumed all our regular routines all at the same time (whew!), and we also ended the month with a Provincial Women's Conference for women from Churches of Christ in the Cabo Delgado province (like a state in the US).

The women's conference is initiated and organized by the women from the two Churches of Christ here in Montepuez, and it doesn't necessarily happen every year - I think this was my fourth conference.  Our team participates in different ways in different years, depending on what's needed or requested at the time.  This year the conference was initiated, scheduled, and organized by Mozambican women here in town, and they asked my teammates Martha, Kara, and I to help plan the theme and lessons, and lead three of the teaching sessions.  In all there were eight different sessions organized around the Armor of God passage from Paul's letter to the church in Ephesus, five lessons taught by Mozambican women, and three taught by American women.  We used props to simulate a suit of armor (Mozambican style, of course) as we repeated Paul's metaphors over and over again to talk about how to remain strong with God.  66 Women were there from 17 different towns and villages, and the worship and learning together was encouraging.  This year our team provided transport for the return trip for all the women who came in from churches outside of Montepuez (either rides home or chapa fare).

With the blessing of reliable transportation (we just can't stop saying THANK YOU!), we've started our studies again in different villages.  I have a bi-weekly rotation of studying with women in three different groups (Nkororo, Newara, and the Chipembe village cluster) in addition to the weekly women's study here in town:  the women in Nkororo are going through the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew, and the Newara and Chipembe groups are going through a booklet of different stories, miracles, and teachings of Jesus.  The groups in Nkororo and Newara don't have any women who can read, and the Chipembe cluster didn't have any women who could read either until about 2 months ago.  So when we study together in villages, we do everything orally, reading and repeating the passage out loud together multiple times before we discuss what we're learning from it.  When I study in Newara, I go with Delfina, a wonderful godly woman from here in town who can read, and she and I take turns reading and facilitating.  In the women's Bible study here in town however, there are five women who can read, so my teammates and I are in the teaching rotation with those women; the women in town just finished the booklet with the stories and teachings of Jesus and are starting a booklet with major Old Testament stories.
Alan has resumed either bi-weekly or monthly studies in the Chiure district (with teammate Jeremy Smith), Nakhuka cluster, and Chipembe cluster.  The group in Chiure and the Nakhuka cluster are studying godly leadership while the men in the Chipembe cluster requested to go back and do an overview of the Biblical narrative since God has been blessing that church with growth and they have a lot of new believers who haven't heard all the stories yet.  Alan is also about to begin a seminar for believers from the different denominations here in town that will cover a survey of the whole Bible.  The seminar will take place on four different Saturdays over the next few months.  

In the last year or two, based on counsel from our mentors, our team has been transitioning more of our hours into intentional mentoring of leaders (like Paul mentoring Timothy).  In town, Alan is intentionally focusing on two men named Domingos and Armindo with regularly scheduled time together.  Outside of Montepuez, Alan has regularly scheduled time with Napoleão in Namunu and Cruz in Mariri, as well as a few men who are also part of his studies in different villages.  Part of the wisdom behind this counsel is while God can use his people mightily anywhere he desires, we are not from here and even though we've been here ten years and learned two languages, we will in some degree always be outsiders and a little bit strange.  And so to some extent our time is better used intentionally mentoring a handful of believers who are regular people in their regular neighborhoods, learning to love God, who can authentically show what that Kingdom life looks like in Makua culture.  We appreciate your prayers as we try to discern the nuts and bolts of what that will look like.
We've written elsewhere about the five giants that oppress the Makua-Metto people.  Earlier this year, Alan completed culture interviews and put together a series of lessons on the Giant of Magic - the system of witchcraft, divination and spirit possession that makes people live in fear.  That series was well received by the churches and the team is committed to developing more lessons on the other giants over the next couple years.  This past Saturday, Jeremy and Alan went down to Chiure to continue meeting with the group there and teaching on the giant of weak and selfish leadership and what it would look like to practice godly leadership.  They're starting by looking at leadership lessons from the lives of the kings of Israel - comparing and contrasting Saul and David specifically.  Our goal is to help develop Christians who exemplify faithful servant leadership in their churches and communities.
We've also been involved with a couple development projects lately that we're excited to tell you about:  

A Peace Corps worker friend living here in Montepuez approached Alan to ask if he knew of a place that needed a bridge.  He has contacts with an organization that helps people build pedestrian bridges in the developing world and wanted to know where that kind of bridge would make a big difference.  We knew of a great spot near the village of Bandari where a bunch of our friends have trouble navigating in the rainy season.  Every year people get swept away or attacked by crocodiles.   Alan has gone to meetings with government officials and local leaders about this project, and we've been glad to use a little bit of our influence and to help.  If all goes well we may end up building the bridge sometime next year.  We came to Mozambique expecting to help build figurative bridges for people, we never expected that we would be involved in building literal ones!  To get a better idea of the kind of bridge we're talking about, please visit Bridges to Prosperity.  

Over the past few years we've been experimenting with ways to help our Mozambican friends farm in more sustainable and productive ways.  We've tried several strategies from producing written materials to hosting seminars here in Montepuez but nothing seemed to have an impact.  Alan was honestly about ready to give up on the project, but this year we've taken a different approach and are taking the seminars to villages who've shown interest.  They are forming community or church farms where groups of 15-30 people will do a plot using these methods together.  One of our friends, Gonçalves Ignacio, a faithful church leader who lives in the town of Balama, has been working his own farm with sustainable methods for a few years now.  Over the past few months we've helped him go to these villages and offer this training.  There are now 5 community groups whose members total over 100 people who've started using these methods this year in communal plots.  Alan met with Goncalves this week and they laid out a vision for doing seminars and forming community farms in 10 different villages spread out across our province with the goal of having 100 families implementing these methods in their own farms by 2015.  We're excited to see what will come of this project, and we'd appreciate your prayers about this.

The past few years, water has been especially scarce in our region during the driest months before the steady rains (September-December).  Which is why we're very thankful  that two years ago we had a bore hole drilled here on the land (thanks again to all who contributed to it).  But when we returned from South Africa at the beginning of August the well wasn't putting out any water.  At first we were concerned that our 67-meter well was dry, but we've discovered that the pump is not only broken but irreparable.  Since the rains are still a few months away we've had to pay a truck to go and get river water to fill our cistern, but thankfully a missionary friend is down in South Africa and will be heading back this direction soon, bringing us a new pump. 
Our girls are doing great at the moment - Abby is in fifth grade (surely I am not old enough for this?), Ellie is in second, and Katie is in preschool twice a week with Micah Smith.  Kara Tobey and Rebekah Keese are doing a fantastic job teaching three classes (5th, 2nd, and kindergarten) to seven of the nine team children.  This is Kara's and Rebekah's second school year with us, and we are recruiting for wonderful candidates to fill their shoes... but more on that in a future post!
Thanks for keeping us and this ministry in your prayers.  We'd love for you to pray along with us about the following things:
·         That God would raise up faithful leaders in the churches
·         For peace with the upcoming Mozambican elections
·         For good rains this year and a great harvest
·         That we would be a blessing to our Mozambican friends and neighbors through our work in the churches and in the community
Grace and Peace,
Rachel Howell

Monday, October 7, 2013

On the disciple-making process

My friend Cruz sent a message asking me to call him - he didn’t have any cell phone credit.  After a few minutes of chatting, he posed his question.  “I’ve been reading through the gospels,” he said, “and I can’t figure out something.  Why is John’s narrative so different than the other gospels?”  Wow.  We talked about that for a few minutes, I asked how things are with the church he’s been preaching at and then we hung up.  Cruz is a motivated young man who is growing in his walk with Christ.  Over the past few years he’s memorized multiple sections of scripture (I can’t keep up with him!) and tackled any ‘homework’ I give him - he just eats it up.

And then there’s Albisto.  He is a little older than Cruz.  He has a beautiful wife and baby girl and serves as the health worker in his village.  He cuts and sells boards for a living and the church in Ncororo meets at his house.  He is certainly a capable individual, but when I’ve tried encouraging him to grow in certain areas of his life or walk with Christ he isn’t always that interested. 

These two young men were baptized on the same day about five years ago, but their stories of growth and what they need to move forward are very different.

One of the hardest parts of disciple-making is discerning the intersection of capacity and craving in the life of a person.  It takes months or even years of working with someone before I’ve got a real grasp on these two aspects.  And even then, I can get it wrong.  I’ve underestimated capacity and been blown away by disciples who’ve done more than I could have imagined.  And, on the flip side, I’ve been deeply frustrated when I’ve overestimated their level of craving and accumulated unmet personal expectations for them.

Making disciples and mentoring emerging leaders is a complicated process (especially cross-culturally!) and it is essential to recognize that all disciples have different levels of maturity and different levels of skill and interest.  Now while we certainly should do our best to understand these parts of their make-up, we must keep it in mind, though, that the disciple-making project ultimately belongs to God.  He’s been known to do surprising things at surprising times in people’s lives.  We are not in control of the process.

So how should we think about our role in the disciple-making process?

The philosopher of science, Karl Popper, divided the world into two categories: clocks and clouds.  While clocks are these precise, tidy systems, clouds are irregular and unpredictable.  Popper’s point was to show that the error of modern science was to see everything as a clock – where we can dissect things into their building blocks and then re-assemble them again.  Instead, he reminded us that we live in a world of clouds where most of what surrounds us is formed by complex systems beyond our ability to predict and certainly beyond our ability to control.

Popper’s theory should remind us that while it’s helpful to assess a disciple’s capacity and craving, we also have to remember that there’s more going on behind the scenes than we can control or account for.

So, should we think that the process of forming disciples more like the making a cloud than making a clock?  Yes…  But, actually, I think if we asked Jesus for an analogy to describe the process, he would say that making disciples is not really like making clocks or clouds… and certainly not making clones.  It isn’t like watching the clouds form and throwing up our hands and saying that we can’t contribute anything to the process.  And it’s not like a watchmaker doubled over at his work bench putting precise time pieces together.  It’s not even like making copies of some pristine original.

Instead, I think Jesus would say that that it’s more like the process of cultivating a plant – like what he says in John 15 about the vine and the branches.

A gardener makes real contributions to the health of the plant while recognizing that there are related forces (soil, sun and water) that can be outside of his control.  It is important to recognize that we’re not in charge of the disciple-making process and that God is leading and loving this person better than we ever could.  We are called to play a limited and yet still important role – like a gardener… or to pick a different contemporary metaphor – a coach.

When I think about disciple-making and coaching there are some scenes from the first episodes of the ‘Friday Night Lights’ television series that come to mind.  In the pilot episode, the talented High School quarterback has been injured in the first game of the season and will never play football again.   A few days later, Coach Taylor comes to visit him in the hospital and expresses some dissatisfaction at how his replacement is doing. The injured quarterback shares his observations on the ways that he and his backup are different.  “I needed a map, but he’s more of a free-thinker… he draws pictures and listens to Bob Dylan… if you free him up a little, he’ll do good things for you.”  The injured player reminds the Coach not to treat his quarterbacks the same way.  Grateful for the generous advice, Coach Taylor tells him, “You’re a good man… You’re what makes guys like me want to coach.”

A little later in the episode, Coach Taylor visits his new quarterback’s house and for the first time realizes that this player has a very challenging home life.  Later that evening, at the empty football field, Coach Taylor starts by building the young man up, complementing him on the way he’s holding his difficult life together.  Coach Taylor knows that this young man is struggling with confidence; he points to the field and the stands and tells him that all of this is his for the taking if he wants it.  Then the stadium speakers are turned on, filling the place with the roar of a game time crowd.  The episode ends with the coach helping the new quarterback learn to find his voice above the noise.

Coach Taylor succeeds when he begins to ‘tailor’ his approach to meet the different needs and motivations of his players.

In many ways, coaching disciples is more difficult than coaching players – there is no box score at the end of the day that will give indisputable evidence of how they did.  Making disciples is complicated and needs multiple metaphors; it incorporates elements from the formation of clocks and clouds and plants as well.  But, when I think about how best to serve both Cruz and Albisto, I like this image of a coach tailoring assistance to them knowing that even though I won’t be able to control their actions on the field, I can still make a significant contribution to helping them win.

May God help us grow in learning to make disciples and mentor those around us in effective ways – encouraging them to find their voice.
Grace and Peace,