Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Grace is found in the middle of...

Being part of a mission team over the past 10+ years has been one of the best and hardest things I’ve ever done.  But, most things worth doing are hard and the fact that we’ve had challenges can’t be traced back to our specific personalities (though, my teammates may disagree!). Those difficulties existed simply because doing life in community, any real community, is just plain hard.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how our mission team here in Montepuez has somehow survived a lot of change.  Over the first few years this little community experienced both additions (new baby boys and girls!) and subtractions (half of the families moved on to other places).  Then in more recent years, we’ve experienced different changes: more foreigners settled in the area and certain relationships with Mozambicans blossomed into deep friendships.  It was as if our little community was a tree that survived a season of pruning and vertical growth and was now spreading wide its branches to provide shade for and include more and more people.

Communities are always in a state of change.

The book Wicked offers this provocative assessment of communities:

“Perhaps every accidental cluster of people has a short period of grace, in between the initial shyness and prejudice on the one hand and eventual repugnance and betrayal on the other.” (pg. 146)

While the above quote expresses a pretty cynical view of the world, truth can be mined in its unflinching analysis: There is a sweet spot in the life of community, one marked by grace.  But, it will not last.  All communities, like the people who found them, experience life cycles – they form together, they function for a time, and then they fail or fade out. 

So, trying to do life in community over the long haul means pushing back against the natural forces of entropy.  It means not giving in to the tendencies of decline and death.  And ultimately it comes down to intentionally choosing to inject life and grace into a given group.

But, what does grace like this look like? How can we offer grace to those who live in community with us and cultivate an endurance that will help that group make it over the long haul? 

The other day I stood nearby, eavesdropping on a group of foreigners (new expats living in Mozambique) attempting to converse with a woman with limited English.  They pointed at something the children were doing and struggled to find the Portuguese word for ‘funny.’  The right word popped into my mind, ‘engraçado,’ and for the first time I realized that stuck square in the middle of the word for funny or humorous is the word graça (or grace). So, in Portuguese, grace is literally found in what is funny.

Humor can be defined by grace and can be a means for injecting grace and life into a community.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I must mention Rachel’s assessment that I have a vested interest in proving this hypothesis.  So, I confess that I'm biased and its possible that I’m using word games to lend credibility to my conviction that irony is a sign of God at work. But, seeing humor as an agent of grace jives with my observations that some of the funniest people I know have been the most gracious.

I find hope and courage in the belief that grace is often found in the middle of what makes us laugh.

So, if I had to share one piece of advice about how communities can beat the cycle, go against the flow, and thrive over the long haul, it would be this:  Be intentional about the deadly serious work of not taking yourself too seriously and laugh freely with each other.  

May our communities have long lives - lives full of joy and grace.

Grace and Peace,


(thanks to Ashley Reeves taking the team photos - especially the funny one!)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

They Never Met

I never met Dallas Willard, and I never got to say thank you.

Tomorrow marks one year since Dallas Willard died, and even though I never met him in person, it was through his writings, especially Divine Conspiracy, that God re-introduced me to Jesus and his beautiful, expansive Kingdom message, and I am so deeply grateful for that gift. 

Hajira Atamu never met Dallas Willard either. 

Hajira lives in the village of Chipembe in the poorest, remotest province of the forgotten country of Mozambique.  Her husband was a new follower of Christ when we moved into the area back in 2004, but Hajira was hesitant and not in a hurry to join him right away, though she always insisted on cooking for us whenever we came to study and worship with the small straggling group of believers in their village.  Within a few years, though, she decided to follow Jesus and asked to be baptized.

It was from Dallas Willard that I first truly heard Jesus' definition of the Gospel (Good News):  "Turn your hearts around because the Kingdom of God is right here available to you!"  (Growing up, Gospel was defined as "Believe these correct things about Jesus so you can go to heaven when you die."  Eventually I came to understand that there is a world of difference between those two definitions.)  And it was from Dallas Willard that Jesus' brilliance came alive in the Sermon On The Mount as he painted pictures of what Life in the Kingdom is like.

When I emerged from the life stage of Foggy-From-Frequent-Night-Waking-With-Babies, I started studying regularly with my friends in Hajira's village, and we slowly went through the Sermon on the Mount in the Makua-Metto language over about a year's time.  Only one of these women can read, so we do everything orally, and with a lot of repetition, sometimes reciting the passage up to ten times out loud together!  After the repeated oral readings each woman would share one thing she had heard, followed by a discussion of how followers of Jesus can obey that scripture in our lives.

Twice though, I noticed Hajira got a little drowsy and didn't catch the specific verses for that day (for example, not doing good acts to be seen by others in Matthew 6), and when it came her turn to say what she heard, she would revert back to what we'd learned in the beginning: "I heard that Jesus said 'Turn your hearts around because the Kingdom of God is really close by!' " 

Her response is so beautiful.  Hajira can't read the Bible or Willard's Divine Conspiracy, but she's got the Jesus' announcement of good news written in her heart.

I'm grateful for the ways God used Dallas Willard to teach and inspire countless folks, including many he never met in person.  Most people in the world will never write a book or blog that will be read by thousands, but many of us have had someone in our lives who spoke God's love to us or shined his light on us.  We thank God for those friends, and, if we can, we thank them, too.

Peace to you,

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Lion and Counterfeit Delights

In his terrific book, C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, Alister McGrath notes that the name for ‘Aslan,’ the great hero of the Narnia series, is the Turkish word for lion (p. 288). That got me thinking about an interesting connection.  In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the White Witch uses Turkish Delight, a popular candy in food rationed, post war England to tempt the boy Edmund and lead him astray. In his quest to “secure her good will (and more Turkish Delight)” he betrays his brother and sisters (McGrath, p. 294). 
It makes me wonder if this contrast was intentional on Lewis’ part. On the one hand we have Aslan, the “Turkish” Lion, the one in whom Edmund’s siblings come to find great delight. While on the other, there is Turkish Delight, the dessert, that in this story is a twisted, enchanted version of the real thing that the Witch uses to cause a rift among the Pevensie children.

An important distinction should be made between these two ‘Turkish delights.’ As humans, our hearts were made to desire after what is good and true, but too often we settle for the counterfeit, temporary joys that rot one’s teeth. And this tin of sweets is additionally tempting because of its potential to be stored away and ingested at our own discretion. Aslan, though, we are told, is not a tame lion. He cannot be captured or controlled. The great lion engages people on his own terms and offers delights that are real and radically different.

An old hymn called ‘Just as I Am’ was a staple in the churches I grew up in. The song’s good message is that God is willing to accept us and invites us to come to him as we are. My hunch though, is that the major barrier for most of us is not believing that Jesus accepts us as we are, but really accepting Christ as he is.

There’s a curious little phrase found in Mark 4:36. We’re told that the disciples and their Rabbi get into a boat, leaving the crowds behind. They push off from shore and Mark points out that they took Jesus along with them ‘just as he was.’ Now, I’m not sure what to do with that phrase… What does it mean? Is Jesus already asleep in the boat when they shove off? Is he too exhausted from teaching and miracle working to help them row? Anyways… the story goes on to say that a great tempest came upon them. The disciples, some of them weathered, experienced fishermen, panic and wake Jesus, begging him to do something. Then we’re told that Jesus gets up and rebukes the wind and waves, bringing the dangerous squall to a halt. His role in this drama changes abruptly from ‘Sound Sleeper’ to ‘Storm Stopper,’ and his friends are justifiably frightened.

The disciples took Jesus ‘just as he was’ and were shocked when their master saved the day. When one’s relationship with Christ is defined by coming to Jesus ‘just as I am’ there is a great danger of accepting a counterfeit version, a delight contained in a tin can. The truth though, is that he’s not simply the sweet, baby Jesus. Neither is he just some tame teacher... He is the Resurrected King, our Ascended Lord, and a force to be reckoned with. We should be wary of versions of Christianity that promise to be ‘safe for the whole family,’ because life with the lion of Judah was anything but safe. The way practiced by those early disciples was one where they gave up everything in radical submission to his upside-down kingdom.

We live in a world full of counterfeit delights. In the same way that Edmund’s pursuit of the enchanted sweets led to his imprisonment, there is real danger in chasing after temporary pleasures. It can cause us to betray even those most dear to us. Like Edmund we must abandon quests for the fleeting rush of ‘Turkish Delights’ and choose to follow after the Lion. To do so means willingly rejecting those bittersweet substitutes and seeking after a life that is both healthy and nourishing - a vibrant life where we train our hearts to desire and take delight in Him just as he is. 

Grace and Peace,