Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Abandonment and the power of faith

This post is my fourth in a series on dealing with feelings of abandonment along the way in our life and ministry here in Mozambique.  To read the previous posts, check them out herehere and here.

There is a quote attributed to Uncle Screwtape that I find fascinating. C.S. Lewis' book, The Screwtape Letters, is a fictionalized series of correspondence between two demons where the more experienced one attempts to pass on his knowledge of the human condition to his young apprentice.

"You must have often wondered why the enemy [God] does not make use of his power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree he chooses and at any moment.  But you now see that the irresistible and the indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of his scheme forbids him to use.  Merely to over-ride a human will (as his felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for him useless.  He cannot ravish.  He can only woo.  For his ignoble idea  is to eat his cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them will not serve... Sooner or later he withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all supports and incentives.  He leaves the creature to stand on its own legs - to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish... He cannot 'tempt' to virtue as we do to vice.  He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away his hand... Our cause is never in more danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of him seems to have vanished and  asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys."

As I have wrestled with feelings of abandonment, this quote has done as much as any other to help weather those emotional storms.  Lewis speaks of abandonment in the way God removes himself and allows us, as his creatures, the freedom to choice.  God risks his hopes and dreams for humanity to allow us to choose to love and trust him.  And from Lewis' perspective abandonment is a key element in spiritual formation.  The end of Uncle Screwtape's description of the state of abandonment, though, has particularly captured my imagination.  It is powerful enough to warrant quoting again:

"Our cause is never in more danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our enemy's will [God's will], looks round upon a universe from which every trace of him [God] seems to have vanished and  asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys."

Whatever I may think about the origin of my feelings of abandonment, this quote reminds me that the most appropriate and powerful response on my part is endurance and faithfulness. 

Let's not be mistaken, though.  What Lewis is referencing is not a "blind faith."  He is not saying that Christians should be unthinking automatons, robots that run on pre-programmed trust.   No, what Lewis is doing here is painting a picture of real faith.  Real faith means counting the cost, knowing that God's hand has been removed for that moment (or moments) and still choosing to step, eyes wide open, into the dark, trusting that at some point down the pitch-black path that there will be a ray of light.

And the part that gives me strength is remembering this: when we make that choice to remain faithful even when we feel we've been abandoned and left on our own, the powers and structures of this world that are opposed to God's kingdom purposes have absolutely NO defense for that.  If we consistently take Jesus' path in those moments, there is nothing that can defeat us.

May we be a people who even in the midst of abandonment, choose faithfulness and endurance.

Grace and Peace,

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Abandonment: the wolves, the ifs and the whys

This month I'm writing a series of posts on my experiences with feelings of abandonment.  Different seasons and events have brought that emotion to the surface throughout our time in Mozambique and it seemed that now was the right time to try putting these thoughts together.  You can check out my first two posts on this topic here and here.

To begin - let's start by talking about wolves. 

There's a fascinating video that I'll embed below entitled: "How Wolves Change Rivers." It tells the story of how the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park has had a number of surprising side effects.  Because of a lack of natural predators in that park, the deer population had grown unchecked and they consumed more than their fair share of vegetation.  But, after wolves returned to the region, the deer were forced to spend more time in the woods which allowed plant life to grow up and fortify the river banks.  In a relatively short amount of time, beavers and birds and bears and other creatures were able to make it their habitat again.  Within a short period of time, certain trees quintupled in size.  They learned that having the correct amount of predators in the environment ultimately made it a healthier and more beautiful ecosystem.

One temptation in the life of faith is to fall into a variant of the "prosperity gospel" which emphasizes health and wealth by teaching that humans have a God-given right to experience only blessings and abundance.  For example, there is a church building in our provincial capital that has a sign over its door offering to help people to parar de sofrer, or "stop suffering."  But is that really the kind of human flourishing that the Creator has in mind?  If Jesus himself suffered, should we expect to be exempt from that?

The above video provides a great illustration of this truth.  While the prosperity gospel expects the deer to roam unchecked (experiencing only blessing and prosperity).  The truth is that the wolves (difficulties, pain and loss) create a better (theological) ecosystem.   And an abundance of deer (blessing) actually hurt the environment, making it more tame.  Having predators (the wolves of suffering) actually makes for a healthier, vibrant system.

As painful as it is to admit it, suffering has an important part to play in the life lived with God.

"It's dangerous to try to psychoanalyze Jesus, I know, but let's go back once again to the night before his crucifixion.   Jesus has a sense of where things are going, and so he goes to pray in an olive grove called Gethsemane.  Matthew and Mark speak of his feeling 'agitated' and 'deeply grieved,' even 'to the point of death,' so much so that he doesn't want to be left alone (26:38; 14:34).  At this moment, if Jesus lived in an explanation-driven, plan-driven universe, we would expect him to pray, "I know this can't be avoided.  I know it is part of your plan.  So give me the strength to go through with it."  But that's far different from what he says: "If it is possible, let this cup pass from me..."  That word 'if' tells us something terrifyingly significant.  At this moment, Jesus doesn't have clarity about a predetermined, set-in-concrete plan.  At this moment, he wonders if there can be some other way.  But if not, he says, "Yet not what I want but what you want."  To go through with a plan is one thing.  But to step into the abyss of if is another thing.  And I sense a powerful resonance between this if in Gethsemane and that why on Golgotha.  Jesus isn't trusting a plan; he is trusting God.  He believes that, whatever happens, God can turn it for good.  I have tried, but I have never succeeded in imagining a trust more naked and pure than this.  In uttering that question why, Jesus validated that pain, abandonment, doubt and despair are indeed part of the human condition and they are even part of a life well lived.  But they are not the last word.  They can be questioned.  Jesus thus comes out in solidarity not only with faithful people, but also with doubters, questioners, and skeptics everywhere.  He sustained both my God and why God, naked faith and naked honesty." (McLaren, Naked Spirituality, p. 182-3)

I love this description of Jesus and how he trusted God through the ifs and the whys.  Abandonment and doubt will be part of our lives because the life we've been given to live is not a "predetermined, set-in-concrete plan."  God invites us to be co-creators with him and join him in redeeming the brokenness in the world around us.  But, to live that way is inherently risky because an environment that lends itself to cultivating spiritual maturity will not be free of germs and predators.  The healthy ecosystem will be the one that is wild - possessing both deer and wolves.

It is comforting to know that Jesus also experienced the pain of abandonment.  When I feel like I'm standing alone and the ifs and whys and wolves are pressing in, I'm trying to learn to remember that the Rabbi has already been down that path and he models the Way through times of abandonment and doubt.

May we follow Jesus' example and trust God even in the midst of the wolves, the ifs and the whys.

Grace and Peace,

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A real development success story and how you can help

When we first moved to Mozambique back in 2003, it was one of the poorest countries in the world.   And although in recent years our host country has slowly climbed up the development scale, the vast majority of our friends live in abject or absolute poverty.  In 2014, Mozambique ranked number 178 out of 187 in the UN's Human Development Index (Haiti and Afghanistan rank 10 and 9 spots higher, respectively).  Over 70% of the population live in "Multidimensional Poverty" and over 80% live on less than $2 a day (for more info click here).   Statistics like these are, at the same time, both mind boggling and misleading because the situation in Cabo Delgado, the province where the Makua-Metto people are most concentrated, is even worse.  It is the furthest from the capital (where much of the economic advancement has been concentrated) and the rare person with a job earning more than two dollars a day is supporting his or her family on that income as well as a large group of extended relatives. 

Our team is committed to ministering in a way that integrates both the spiritual and physical aspects of life, so in this context that means addressing the giant of poverty - the challenge though is to discern which initiatives are worth pursuing.  We've tried our hand at a number of development-like projects that eventually failed like the Lorena stoves and my non-profit chicken business that was a little too non-profit, if you know what I mean...(cut to Alan shaking head, sadly).

Lately, our team has chosen to be involved in three specific projects that we believe are making a real difference.

One of the projects is partnering with a Peace Corp worker in our town to build a pedestrian bridge over the Montepuez River (to learn more about that, click here). 

Also there is an ongoing project that Martha Smiths works with called, Urerihana.  It is an association of women who make jewelry and bags to sell - they make some great stuff if you need some ideas for Christmas presents...just here to see some samples or this video to learn more.

But today I want to share about a third initiative that has had a much longer incubation period before finally experiencing some success.  The Makua-Metto people we work with are mostly subsistence farmers and we learned that by making a few changes to their practices they could greatly increase their crop yields.  There are a number of organizations that teach sustainable agriculture principles and we were able to send two men to go through the training in Nampula. The principles include crop placement and rotation, making of compost, not burning the fields and planting at the right time.  Also we encourage them to put a blanket of mulch over their fields so that the rain and nutrients soak in well and fields don't suffer from run-off.

It took us a while to figure out how to get people to implement these principles.  We tried a number of avenues with little success.  We did seminars here on our team's property.  We tried experimental plots for people to come and observe. We offered a bicycle as a prize for the person who produced the highest yield.  But, nothing seemed to work.  In retrospect, I can't believe that it took me so long to realize that we needed to change trainers and let the person who is actually using the principles in his farm teach others (duh!) and that we needed to take the seminars out to villages where we had strong connections and find a way to get communities of interested people to use the methods together.

I figured that making those changes would help, but the way this project has functioned since the end of 2012 has been better than I imagined!

Yesterday I met with Goncalves Inancio to evaluate the Sustainable Agriculture Program and assess progress on our 10:100 vision.

The goal of the project over the last two years was to form 10 associations of farmers (actually we have formed 12 associations, though only 10 of them are going strong) who are using these principals in local, communal plots.  The ultimate end goal or objective of the project is to see 100 Mozambican families implement these principles and practices in their own personal farms. 

The trainer (who is a gifted teacher and preacher and has lots of credibility as a farmer) and I work together to plan out seminars in different places.  I will list below the village associations that have been formed.  These groups have been visited multiple times each year and they have all used what they've learned in communal plots.

Namuno District - Mukolo, Masha, Talelane, Jaiani.
Balama District - Regadillo, Mwalia, QueQue.
Chiure District - Namitil, Mutota, Milamba, Mahipa, Mitekiani.

This year's round of sustainable agriculture seminars is completed and participants are getting ready to plant once the rains begin in a few more weeks.  We are on our way to meeting the goal of 100 members using the principles and practices in their personal plots.  Praise God!  When that happens there is greater potential to see these ideas catch on with their neighbors and friends.

This project has cost us about $1000 a year for the last two years.  The project  currently does not have funding for this next stage.  If we had a commitment of between $1000-1250 for 2015 and 2016 (total $2000-2500) that would allow us to pay for a follow up visits and seminars in the 10-12 "old" associations as well as begin at least 3 new associations in different villages that have requested the training.

Okay, admittedly I could have streamlined this post and made a neater, nicer (and maybe more effective?) pitch, but I have two reasons for sharing all this background information with you.

First of all, for people trying development projects in places like Mozambique, I want to encourage you that "real" development projects are like this.  It often takes a number of failures (even in good projects like this) where you feel like giving up before things finally begin to click.  So, don't lose heart...unless you realize the benefits won't be worth the investment...then you'll need to make that call.

Secondly, to those of you who might consider giving to support this initiative, I want you to know how this sustainable agriculture program fits in with the rest of our team's ministry.  Most development organizations work on projects with a short time period and then they are gone.  They often are disconnected with the rest of the life in the village (they don't speak the local language or know the local culture).  Since we've been here for over a decade people trust us and I think we have a greater chance to truly make a holistic difference (effecting both the spiritual and the physical spheres of life - for example, one of the association members in Namitil became a part of the local church after working alongside its members in that group).  I hope that makes sense.

If you are interested in helping, email me or put a comment below and we'll figure out how to get in touch.  This could be a great Christmas present, one that would give a lot to help our Mozambican friends...just saying :)

Grace and Peace,

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Abandonment and what it means to be Real

In a previous post, I wrote about my struggle with feelings of abandonment.  There have been a number of occasions where I've felt like God hasn't "shown up."  And while intellectually, I can talk my mind (sometimes!) out of that way of thinking.  It's been infinitely more difficult to know how to handle the surge of these emotions in my heart. 

I've wondered often if the choice to serve cross-culturally makes one more susceptible to feelings of abandonment.  This way of life - working in two different languages and cultural differences that we may never fully understand - often puts us in a vulnerable position.  And that vulnerability is essential.  One of my professors and mentors said that serving cross-culturally can put people on a fast-track to spiritual maturity because it forces the person to be vulnerable.  There have certainly been times when I have stepped out uncertainly, wondering if ultimately I am alone...wondering if anyone (or if even the Almighty One) has really got my back.  Those doubts have made me feel panicky and made me long to turn back and find a safer perch. 

"But if we don't turn back, if we allow ourselves to go naked into the void, we render ourselves vulnerable to a strange discovery: that we exist, that God has given us space to exist - even when God does not seem to exist.  To be abandoned is to find out how real you are.  God has made you so real that you exist even when alone.  Yes, this can be terrifying; something in us is still very infant like, terrified of being alone. But along with terrifying, this realization can be electrifying, an awakening, an enlightenment, a kind of shock therapy that makes a new state of being possible.  It is the terror and wonder of realizing more fully the significance of the gift we have always had - the gift of being, of existing, of standing out of the void, of being alive.  If we dare to persevere, if we dare to keep holding our why of lament through the longest, darkest night of the year, morning will come.  And when it comes, we will carry a new gravitas, a new substance, a new reality worthy of that word "glory."  We will find the new day is a moment longer, and the next night a moment shorter.  And the turning of a season will have begun, even though the cold of winter hasn't yet begun to show its full force." - McLaren, Naked Spirituality, p. 176-7.

 The above quote has been a blessing as I've tried to unpack my feelings of abandonment.  I'm not sure I fully believe it, yet :) but I think it can reframe this emotion.  I have often interpreted feelings of abandonment as ultimately something about God, but the above quote indicates that feelings of abandonment may serve to show us something important about ourselves.

The author notes that when it feels like we are most on our own, that is when we know we are real.  Maybe it's that when we feel abandoned, God is honoring us by helping us acknowledge and come to grips with the fact that we truly exist.  Some days that thought brings hope, while other days, I guess I'm still in that infant-like state, still "terrified to be alone."

God, help us survive times when we feel abandoned.  We cautiously ask you to use those experiences to mature us and help us know that you have created us in your image and we truly exist.

Grace and Peace,