Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Questions that simplify

One of the challenges of ministry - maybe especially in serving in a place surrounded by great needs - is to figure out how to spend our time.  Out of the thousand good things that we could be doing, what are the things that we should be involved in?  The answer to that question has evolved over time as we've struggled to discern how to have the biggest impact both personally and organizationally.

I recently listened to a podcast by Andy Stanley where he talked about the need to 'simply lead.'  He shared how the study of leadership can get overly complex and there are times when we need to get things down to the basic level.  He offered three simple questions a leader can use to examine his or her work in an organization.  It was a good exercise for me to sit down and try to come up with a short answer to each of those questions. 

1. What are you doing? (What does your organization do?)

This question addresses the area of objective or goal.  I would say this: "Our team works towards cultivating communities of faith among the Makua-Metto of Cabo Delgado that will exist long after we are gone and who see their mission as developing disciples of Jesus around them." 

Our team's mission statement puts it this way: "Disciple 30 men and women by emphasizing prayer and Bible study so that Cabo Delgado will have 25 mature churches that are reproducing and making disciples on their own and reaching the next generation."   

2. Why are you doing it? (What would go missing if your organization disappeared?)

Now we look more closely at motivation.  The 'why' is what gives us the fire to stick with it and push through tough challenges.  My answer to this question would be: "Because the Makua-Metto are oppressed by dark forces (both physical and spiritual), we want to partner with God in setting them free and helping them live well in the Kingdom of God."

The second part of this question is difficult, especially for a group who is ideally trying to 'work themselves out of a job.'  But I think one thing that has set us apart in this region has been a desire to work in the local language and plant churches in unreached areas. 

Recently we hosted a meeting of church leaders where we talked openly for the first time in a this kind of gathering about the possibility of our team phasing out and leaving sometime in 2018 or beyond.  The next day one of the participants, a young man named Amissi joined me as I went down to teach a seminar with church leaders in Namuno. As we bumped along the road I asked about his thoughts about the previous day's meeting.  He told me, "Well, last night I went home and picked up my Bible.  I was planning on reading from the Old Testament but my Bible fell open to this strange story of Elijah and Elisha.  Elijah was about to leave and Elisha wanted that same prophetic spirit to fall on him and through some strange circumstances God gave it to him.  So, last night I started praying that your team's missionary spirit would fall on me."  Wow!  I about stopped the truck when I heard him say that.  Lord, please do that!  Our team realizes that the way we do things is not reproducible, but what we are doing must be reproduced.  And that depends on investing in people who are passionate about rescuing and blessing people who are struggling to escape the darkness.    

3. Where do you fit in? (And do the people who report to you know where they fit in?)

The final question's challenge is to examine one's specific role.  This one has taken me the longest to get a handle on, but over the past few years I've been specifically asking God to help me be good at three things - discipling, teaching and leading. So I would answer the question this way: "The biggest contribution I can make comes through intentional discipleship of those who will disciple others, equipping the church through transformational teaching, and consistently modeling apostolic/servant leadership."  As far as whether the people we work with know where they fit in, I would say that dealing with an all-volunteer organization means that definition of roles is challenging but still necessary.  I would say that those we work closest with have a greater sense of this and we often try to name the things we see them doing well and the contributions they make to the church.

May God help us answer these questions well and lead in ways that bless His people!

Grace and Peace,

Saturday, March 15, 2014

March 2014 Newsletter

We send you our greetings from lovely, green Mozambique.

The end of the rainy season is approaching, and it's beautiful here - this part of the world has been painted a lush new color.  We're thankful for the reminder of the changing seasons - every season will have a limit, an ending that makes way for a new and different season into which we can step. 

For those of you who may not have heard, on December 1st we experienced a home invasion.  Armed thieves broke through our front door in the middle of the night, fired a gun both outside and inside our home, and stole our laptops, an ipad, Rachel's phone and some cash.  Besides a few cuts and bruises, everyone, including our guards, was physically fine, for which we were and are deeply grateful, though emotionally we were very shaken.  It was awful and terrible and should never happen to anyone.  But in a strange way even in the midst of the violence and confusion we did not feel abandoned - God's strength was with us the whole time.  And the outpouring of love we received from our friends and neighbors both here and in the States was staggering; the beauty has outweighed the evil.  We've written more about it here.  We're now more than three months out from that event, and we're experiencing healing and peace, but we would still appreciate your prayers. 

In addition to healing from the emotional chaos of the break-in, we've had to reorganize and piece back together some other parts of our lives.  Thanks to several of you (THANK YOU SO MUCH!), we have been able to  replace what was lost, though unfortunately we've lost between 6-12 months of documents, pictures, and videos.  We are still in process of tracking down email addresses and old documents and getting our life back online.  Also after the break-in, Ellie's teacher, Rebekah Keese, decided to go back home early. We were sad that she left, but grateful for the year and a half she spent with us in Montepuez.  Amazingly though, God provided again in that loss.  Our teammate Martha taught the younger classes for three weeks until my recently retired Kindergarten teacher Mom, Evelyn Wilson, was able to come over and fill in the gap teaching for two months.  It is such a blessing to have her here with us (and we're excited that my Dad will be joining us for the last two weeks of her stay very soon).  We're thankful to both of them for their sacrifice in meeting this teaching need at our team kids' school.

The months of December through February are the thick of the rainy season, and our work changes considerably because of muddy roads and the vast amount of time our subsistence-farmer friends need to spend in their fields.  Several of our regular study groups suspend meeting until the harvest is over, so  Alan has been using that time to conduct research and interviews about poverty for a series of classes that he'll be teaching to clusters of church leaders all over Cabo Delgado this year.   He's also used these months to offer two different series of classes to a group of students from seven different denominations who live here in the city:  an overview of the Bible (November-December), and a study on the church's response to Magic, Divination, Demon Possession and Witchcraft (January-February).   The materials on godly leadership have been well received in Chiure, Mirate, and Namuno and he plans to use them with the church in Pemba in the upcoming months.

After our last newsletter my times studying with women continued up until the third week of December when we finished out with a retreat here at our home.  Twenty women from five different villages (plus of course a number of toddlers and nursing babies) came in for an overnight stay  to worship, eat, study, and celebrate another year of seeking God together.

During the rainy/farming season I have been visiting women in their homes with my teammate Martha, participated in an overnight girl's initiation ceremony in Omeringue, and driven with women from Montepuez churches to the Chiure district where I preached at two different women's meetings.  As the rains have eased up and the muddy creeks are drying, I began my weekly studies again this week.  This year, we are combining the study groups from Newara and Nkororo - both of those groups are small and young, and I am hoping they will encourage each other.  I will be going to study with the women in the Chipembe cluster less frequently since they are more mature and study regularly on their own now, and this makes space on the calendar for beginning to study with women in the church cluster of Nekwaya/Nakuka/Khambiri.  Because of the distance involved, instead of studying every other week together, I'm planning four 2-day overnight visits that will hopefully get us through Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.  The part I'm really excited about, though, is that each time I'll be having four mature women from the Chipembe cluster come down to Montepuez the night before for prayer together, and then we'll go teach the Newkaya cluster studies together.

At the end of February, we hosted a meeting here in Montepuez for church leaders with an emphasis on unity and prayer.  We also began the conversation with these men about how long our team should be here in Montepuez and what role we should take over the next few years.  The meeting went really well and those conversations will continue as we agreed to meet all together as a group every other month. 

As a team we are committed to doing our best to prepare the churches for our eventual departure.  Currently the Smith, Westerholm and Howell families have all committed to stay in Montepuez into 2018.  In order to help us figure out how long we should stay here as well as forming a healthy exit strategy, we have scheduled a "consultant visit."  Evertt and Ilene Huffard and Monte and Beth Cox (former missionaries who currently serve as professors of missions (and more!) with Harding University) will join us for the last week of May.  We are helping defray their travel costs, so if you are interested in contributing to that please send us a message through our team's website here.

Alan and the Peace Corps workers who are spearheading the bridge project in Bandari experienced a setback recently.  The goal is to provide a safe means of crossing the Montepuez River but this year has seen record rains, people are saying it is the most in 15 years, and the site originally chosen as the location for the foundation of the bridge was under water.  They've found a different site that should work well and hopefully construction will begin later this year (for more information read this post) 

The harvest is coming in for families all over northern Mozambique and Alan met last week with Gonçalves Ignacio to plan for his follow up visits to associations that are implementing sustainable agriculture methods on experimental communal plots.  Five community groups whose members total over 100 people participated in this program and Gonçalves will be meeting with them over the coming weeks to evaluate their results and encourage them to implement what they've practiced in their own farms.

While the rainy season has limited our travel locally, we have been able to use this time to travel outside our region.   In January, Rachel and Abby took a trip down to South Africa for dental work, and then in February, Alan and Jeremy went to men's missionary retreat in Kenya.  That was a great opportunity to connect with other missionaries in this part of the world and share ideas. 

Last year churches from all over Cabo Delgado spent the two weeks before Easter praying and fasting that God would defeat the five giants that oppress people in this part of Mozambique (Drunkenness, Magic, Ungodly Leadership, Unfaithfulness and Poverty).  Many people participated and some fruit was evidenced in the churches.  So, we're inviting people in Mozambique (and anywhere else in the world!) to join us again in a time of fasting and prayer.  The dates are April 6-19 and anyone who wants to join us in some or all of this fast is most welcome!

Thanks for keeping up with us and praying for the work here among the Makua-Metto.  We'd appreciate you praying with us about the following things:
  • Prayers for new teachers for the next 2 school years
  • Fruitful Consultant visit with the Huffards and Coxes
  • An abundant harvest of food for the year
  • For the followers of Jesus to grow in love, wisdom, patience, and joy
Grace and Peace,
Rachel Howell

The Quest

Rachel and I have adopted a certain 'division of labor' for organizing children's birthday parties.  It looks like this:
Alan is in charge of the games and Rachel is in charge of the cake, presents, food... basically everything else.  (Yes, I married out of my league!)

So, since northern Mozambique doesn't have a Chuck E Cheese or a Pizza Palace or any nice parks with playgrounds (sigh), a few days before the event I'll sit down with the birthday girl and figure out which party games we'll play.  One activity that almost always gets chosen is some variation of 'pin the tail on the donkey.'  Depending on that daughter chosen theme, the game may be something like: 'pin the tail on the pony,' 'pin the parrot on the palm tree,' 'pin the duck on the water,'  etc.

When the game gets started, part of my job is to call up the kids, tie on their bandana and spin them around.  This experience reminds me of something that I should probably have learned in physics class, which is this: orientation greatly determines an objects trajectory.

I'll spin the party guests around fast (the rule is: one spin for each year - 3 year olds are spun 3 times; 10 year olds get spun 10 times, etc.).   And when I'm feeling particularly mischievous, I'll point them in the opposite direction - away from their intended target.  Now even though they can't see (ok, maybe some of them are peeking), these kids are all pretty sharp and they know how to use the other kids' voices to orient themselves correctly.   

Yesterday afternoon, we went to a birthday party at the home of missionary friends in a nearby town.  At one point before the cake was served, a video camera was pointed at me and I was asked to share some advice for young Kanon on turning 13 and becoming a man.  I tried to be funny... and ended up saying something lame.

But waking up this morning, I made coffee, sat down at the table and found that the best advice I could have given was staring me right in the face.  So, Kanon, sorry about yesterday's lame answer... here's take two.

(Ahem)  -  that's the sound of me clearing my throat

I have a piece of paper with a list of things to pray about each morning.  The verse at the top of the list is 1 Timothy 6:11 and 'The Voice' version of the Bible translates it like this:

"You are a man of God.  Your quest is for justice, godliness, faithfulness, love, perseverance, and gentleness."
Paul is writing to a young man, Timothy, who is in over his head working with a complex young church.  Timothy's got skills - he's good at what he does - and Paul is encouraging him to serve the church well and not get caught up in any fraudulent quests.  No, Paul wants Timothy to remember who he is (he's a man of God) and what he's questing after (those six things).

Over the past couple years I've been experimenting with the ways that imagination can energize my prayer life (I think imagination is a resource that Christians have often neglected - but that's a post for another day!).  So, when I imagine this text, I see a knight in full armor on the back of a mighty steed.  The horse and rider trot up to a gigantic crossroads and they begin circling as the knight contemplates which path to take.  He lifts his metal visor to get a better view, and the face that's revealed is my own.

It's me at this crossroads and today is a new day - which path will I choose?

I imagine myself examining the different destinations offered at that intersection.  There are the wide, well-traveled paths.  You know, those popular quests for money and sex, fame and power.  And then there are the temptations that may be more appealing to people in our line of work: the quests to be a model missionary or a respected teacher, a best-selling author or a famous preacher.

But, then the knight turns his attention to a different path, a narrower one - the quest for justice, godliness, faithfulness, love, perseverance, and gentleness.  In my mind, the knight lowers his visor, spurs his horse and they race down that path.

Now to some people that vision may sound silly or juvenile or chauvinistic.  But, for any of its perceived shortcomings, that picture has helped sustain me.  Finding a visceral image like that is important because it can harness our emotions and put them to work for us.  That scene helps orient my heart towards a good trajectory.  It helps me listen to the voices of the people of God who've gone before us and remember what it means to live well.  As a man of God, I want that quest to define me.  I want to work to see those six characteristics found in me and in the world around me.

So, Kanon, sorry again about yesterday's lame answer.  I hope today's is better.

May God help both of us remember that we are men of God and our ultimate quest is for justice, godliness, faithfulness, love, perseverance, and gentleness.

Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Art of Ambiguity - African Friends and Money Matters

If I had to recommend just one book to someone interested in working in this part of the world, it would have to be African Friends and Money Matters by David Maranz.  The book is extremely useful in helping Westerners understand the significant cultural differences.  Maranz makes ninety insightful observations about African perspectives on finance and relationships.

Here are just a few:

"25. A network of friends is a network of resources."

"31.  Compliments are frequently given indirectly in the form of requests for gifts or loans and are often formulated as questions."

"32. If a Westerner has a misunderstanding about finances with an African friend, it is virtually impossible to straighten it out directly with the offended individual."

"58. Old debts are forgotten and are not expected to be repaid, neither by the debtor nor by the lender."

"60. There is some sense in which people want to be without money so that they can more easily refuse a request for a loan."


Rereading this book recently I was reminded again how terrific a resource this is.  Each observation easily connected with our own personal experiences.  And these cultural differences really do shape everything - from money to relationships to communication.

One quote in particular has captured my attention.  In a section on friendship and etiquette, Maranz references comments by Yale Richmond and Phyllis Gestrin (p. 90-91):

"Ambiguity is an art in Africa, and imprecision is its first cousin.  Africans speak naturally, with eloquence, and without hesitation or stumbling over words, but their language is often imprecise and their numbers inexact.  Every personal interaction becomes a discussion which establishes a basis for the relationship between the two parties.  Westerners should probe gently for specificity and details until they are reasonably satisfied that they understand what is meant even if not stated."  

The longer we live in Mozambique the more I've come to believe that learning the language is the key for putting someone in the position to make a lasting difference.  Now, I used to think that once I had my Makua-Metto vocabulary down that would be enough and I would be able to communicate well.  But the truth is that communication involves much more than knowing all the right words, it also means being able to discern how nuance and tone shape meaning - and that takes lots of time and lots of trial and error.

As an American, I value direct communication, but in order to work effectively here I've had to learn to play a different kind of communication game.  Our friends love to use riddles and enjoy finding the most indirect way to say something.  It's like our Mozambican friends see conversation as a fine wine that should be savored - not gulped down quickly.  And pushing for minutiae can put people off because often it goes against the rules.  In this conversational game, clarity is overrated and shows a lack of skill.

While that approach can certainly be annoying, the above quote helps me see my African friends as artists who like to paint in broad strokes to get the picture across.  On my better days here I take the time to pick up their big brush and join them in this game of ambiguity.  It can be fun.  And then there are times when the training that my own culture has given me in using the finer, more detailed brush can help fill out the picture we're painting together.

Ambiguity is an art form that speaks loudly here.  And it's an artistic style that I'm still learning.  But, I'm convinced of its importance because this way of thinking and speaking shapes relationships, finances and more and I believe that Westerners who fail to become conversant in this form of communication do so to their own peril.   

May God help us learn to be conversational artists who communicate in meaningful ways no matter how ambiguous they may be.

Grace and Peace,