Friday, September 26, 2014

Barefoot Christianity

Nipuhe almost never wears shoes.  I've often seen him walking barefoot down the dirt roads near his village or shoeless as he works in his farm.  
Our African friends spend huge portions of their lives barefoot.  While Mozambique's improving economy has made wearing shoes more common, it is still very normal to see people working, playing, walking and running barefoot.

Surprisingly, the benefits of being barefoot has received a lot of attention in the developing world.

Over the past ten years or so there has been an increasing interest in barefoot running.  Scientific studies have investigated how extra cushion found in most athletic shoes can cause problems and highlighted how going barefoot or wearing more minimalist footwear allows runners to move more naturally.  Our bodies were created to run barefoot, so it makes sense that having too much padding, or the wrong kind of padding, on our feet has the potential to change the way we run and cause stress and dysfunction in the rest of the body.  

The other day I was at a funeral and it hit me again how the lack of footwear made people more effective at digging and helping out at the graveside.

One fact that deeply effects our ministry here is that Christianity has only had a real presence in this region for less than 80 years or so.  And in many villages that influence has often been significantly less.  Now that back story creates all sorts of challenges - moral, ethical, and a serious lack of biblical literacy - to name just a few.

But I do sometimes find myself wondering... Are there some potential benefits from this history, as well?

To go back to our footwear metaphor, followers of Jesus in Western contexts grow up with certain Christendom "cushions" in place.  These longstanding cushions affect the way believers walk, think and live.  And just as a runner who spends his whole life wearing padded athletic shoes learns to run in a certain way, for many people Christendom's padding has reworked faith's physiology.  Like a runner we have naturally become dependent on our shoes. 

Symbiotic relationships occur in the natural world all the time.  There's the way that rhinos and birds work together - the bird benefits by eating tics and bugs and sounds the alarm if something dangerous is nearby.  Bees and flowers mutually benefit each other and certain bacteria are fed by and in turn help their host animals digest food. 

We shouldn't forget that symbiotic relationships exist in human structures as well.  Certain forms of Islam (and Christianity) fit comfortably alongside Animism.   And Western Christianity has, in many places, become enmeshed with Consumerism and Modernity.  Those symbiotic relationships are mutually beneficial, but they also come at a cost.  Each system surrenders something to participate in the exchange.  Western Christianity has accommodated itself in some ways in order to become an accepted member of that larger human "ecosystem."

The Christianity that is emerging here among the Makua-Metto is also affected by its environment.  It is struggling to separate itself from Animism.  It is impacted by neighboring people groups that are more predominantly Christian.  It needs to find way to faithfully express itself in this matrilineal context - as well as appropriately address additional factors like magic, hierarchical leadership structures and fear.

The emerging Makua-Metto Christianity is barefoot - it lacks the cushions of Christendom.  And that is both good and bad.  Being barefoot is causing them and will continue to cause them some pain.  Believers here will need to watch out for sharp objects in the path.

But while certainly recognizing the disadvantages that exist by not having the structures of Christendom, my hunch and my hope is that their Christianity has the potential to be a healthier expression of the faith because it is growing without the fusions of a symbiotic relationship caused by a history of Christendom.

Hopefully, Makua-Metto believers are learning to run in ways defined more by their feet and their terrain (context) than the inherited cushions found in "Western designed shoes."

May God raise up Mozambicans whose barefoot faith allow them to run in ways that are more healthy and reproducible expressions, ones well adapted to flourish in this context.

Grace and Peace,

Friday, September 19, 2014

when anger fuels us

Rachel texted me yesterday.  She spent last night in the village of Nekwaya and should come home this afternoon.  Three of her best Mozambican friends went with her to continue teaching through the Sermon on the Mount with women in that cluster of churches. 

This was her text: "A neighbor here was just beating his wife bc she questioned why he took her cell phone and gave it to his mistress.  Another neighbor supposedly poisoned his mother last week.  Lots of sadness in the dark..."

Rachel and I texted back and forth about how the four of them can serve as lights in the dark and how Jesus himself had something to say about that in the Sermon on the Mount.

I have to be honest, sometimes my motivation for working in Mozambique wanes.  And it has been important for me, especially as we rounded the "10 years in Africa" mark, to identify ideas and emotions that can serve to fuel and sustain me. I've written elsewhere how the longing for home has tapped into a source of love and has become a surprising reason for me to stay.  And trying to wrap my head around the idea of calling has been helpful, too.  But sometimes the darkness is overwhelming.  Especially when those fuel tanks (love and calling) start flashing "E" for empty.

Lately I've been watching the Nooma video series and this morning I watched one called "Store."  In it Rob Bell is talking about anger.  He notes that while anger is often rightly seen as a destructive force, when harnessed it can fuel us for acts of healing and restoration.  He references this story from the life of Jesus:

Another time he went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.
Mark 3:1-5 (TNIV)

Bell says, “There is a response to anger that’s essentially all about us.  Our pride, our ego, all of the ways we work so hard to prop up  and protect and defend our selfish little kingdoms.  But that isn’t what’s going on here with Jesus.  Jesus has identified himself with an injustice larger than himself.  There is something divine about his anger because some things are worth getting angry about...When we’re talking about calling and mission and vocation and purpose,  what we’re going to give our lives to, one of the questions we often ask is,  ‘What do you love?’  But there’s another question that we can ask.  ‘What makes you angry?’”

Poverty can and should make me angry.

Hunger can and should make me angry.

Infidelity can and should make me angry. 

The fact that our friends in Mirate need a bridge should make me angry.

The five giants should make us angry.

Sin, death and Satan should make us angry.

The darkness makes me sad... and it should make me angry.  

There are times when the proper response to darkness is anger.

And sometimes, like Jesus, we need to tap into that fuel source, careful not to let anger become a seething, boiling, rage.  Instead we should use that anger to help us act in ways that are healing and restorative. Instead of being burned out on the inside by carrying around the "low-grade boiling rage" that so many people lug around with them, Jesus channeled his anger for kingdom purposes.   
His anger at injustice led him to act in righteousness.  The injustices we've seen here lead us to act, as well... and hopefully we're following Jesus' lead by acting in holy and productive ways.

May God provide all the fuel we need (be it love, calling and even anger) to ignite us and help us act in ways that bring truth and light to those in the dark.

Grace and Peace,

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Let the Little Children Show Us

I have three daughters.
As father to these amazing girls, I’ve found that two stories in the Bible consistently bring out the strongest emotions in me.
The first is a story of a dad named Jairus. He’s a religious leader who pleads with Jesus to cure his daughter (Luke 8). Jesus agrees to go with him, but along the road they keep getting interrupted.
I find myself in Jairus’ sandals, screaming inside for everyone to just get out of the way. Before they make it to the house, though, they’re interrupted again. It turns out they’re too late. Jairus is told that his beloved daughter is dead.
Jesus simply looks at this dad and tells him to believe. So they continue on to the house. Jesus interrupts the funeral preparations to promptly raise the girl from the dead and present her back to mom and dad.
Yikes – I have a hard time even typing that without choking up. What do you say to the man who gives you back your daughter?
The other story that gets-me-every-time is about a servant girl (2 Kings 5). I don’t like to think of what she went through. Torn away from all that was familiar, she’s a victim of child-trafficking. She’s enslaved and taken to a foreign land. I imagine her crying at night, struggling to learn a new language, longing for home, desperate for a friend...

to read more, check out a post I wrote for Story Warren called Let the Little Children Show Us.

Grace and Peace,

Friday, September 12, 2014

back to college

Like any job, I guess, there are parts of living in Africa that are really enjoyable and parts that I could do without.  Those challenges make this a work that is sometimes easier to love than it is to like. 

Trying to live as a resident alien, for example, adds its own set of challenges and difficulties.  Sometimes it feels like we're trying to maintain an outpost on mars!   

The best parts of my job, though, those ones that I love being here for, are the times that I get to help nudge and encourage someone who's hungry to be pointed in the right direction.

This past weekend was one of those golden times.

A young man that we've been discipling started college earlier this year.  His dad has been out of the picture and Armindo had cobbled together some jobs over the last few years to get himself through High School.  Now, a couple of our former interns are collaborating to provide a scholarship for him to get a degree in Agriculture.  And I've wanted to check in on him and make sure that he's doing okay.

So, on Friday morning I left Montepuez and drove about 8 hours (over a lot of bumpy dirt roads) to the town of Cuamba, Niassa.  I met up with Armindo and he gave me the tour of his campus.  He introduced me to a bunch of his classmates, roommates and friends.  Everyone was so kind and generous.  (His suitemates, though, seemed pretty shocked to have an American spending the weekend with them - I might as well have been an alien!)  We stayed up late talking in Armindo's dorm room and I slept there on the floor in a sleeping bag.

It was interesting to notice the things that are similar to a U.S. college experience: students sleep in on the weekends, they enjoy blasting their music and watching movies together.  But other things are different.  Instead of ordering pizza or going out for a burger, we ate rice and beans, xima and fish. For Mozambique, it is a pretty nice dorm, but students still have to go get water from the well for drinking and bathing.  And using the bathroom means having to exit the dorm room and walk across to one of the latrines.  "Use this one," Armindo told me, "it smells the least bad."

Over the course of the weekend, he and I talked about everything from God to girls to grades to goals.

He shared about the pressures of living in the dorm with people of differing faiths and ethics.  He talked about being disappointed in a fellow Christian student who failed to practice what he preached. I was pleased to see how Armindo has made strong connections with a local church, and has been very involved there.  And I tried to encourage him to follow through on his idea of helping that church form a youth group.

He talked more about his dream of moving back to Montepuez after his studies are over and working for the cotton company.  We talked about his vision for returning to Cabo Delgado and blessing the church through his future vocation. 
Developing people like Armindo is an important part of what our team can do to help.  It can serve to  stabilize the church and increase its influence in the community.

So, the trip "back to college" this past weekend was really good.  It reminded me of the past experiences Rachel and I have had in campus ministry...though, with a Mozambican twist!

While my goal in going to Cuamba was to encourage Armindo, it was so encouraging for me to get to do what I love.  Here in Africa, I've accepted the fact that those feelings of being an alien won't ever fully disappear, but they are worth it if they put me in a place to get to hang out with and pour my life into people who are striving to follow Jesus well.  Those times are a gift.

May God bless Armindo and other young people to faithfully grow into men and women who have a strong vision for his Kingdom.

Grace and Peace,