Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Reforming Cowardly Barking

Meet Daisy, the second dog in our household. She is a young dachshund who was added to the family to keep the older dog company. Daisy has acute hearing and barks at the oddest noises. She habitually barks when the house’s heater comes on. Every time I swivel the steps down on the stool in the kitchen she rouses her self from sleep and comes barking. And she even gives a warning yap when I switch the light on in the living room corner.

Now with such sharp hearing you might think she would make a great guard dog, however she is actually a cowardly barker. Some time ago when we had a contractor working in the back yard, Daisy barked continuously to warn us, but she wouldn’t even step one paw out the door to confront the alleged thief. She knew before we did that there was a big shepherd dog next door, but she alerted us with her barking from the safety of her doggie bed in the living room.

Her cowardly barking has been nagging at me for several months. Daisy’s behavior reminds me of how easy it is for Christians to bark and complain about perceived injustices. We can rant and rave over compromised character within leadership or the church’s ignorance of unreached peoples in their community, or any other number of issues within our ministry or teams.

Like our dachshund Daisy, we can feel pretty chuffed with our ability to identify injustices, ungodly behavior, or enemies. We tend to see ourselves as Christian guard dogs. But, like Daisy, we often prefer to bark from safety and comfort. It is way too easy to yap and whine without lifting a finger to bring about change, to lovingly confront others with vital issues, or to pray for God’s practical strategy for tackling a concern.

Jesus actually charged the religious rulers with increasing the rules and laws while not lifting a finger to help bear the burden. The Pharisees and scribes were devout guard dogs of the Law, barking at everyone, but not doing anything to protect or save the people they were barking at. When Jesus came along he saw the same problems, but he was moved by compassion to help lift their burdens. He healed the lame, blind, and lepers. He taught those wandering in spiritual blindness, and he extended forgiveness and love to the disenfranchised of society. His death on the cross made the way for lifting their eternal burden of sin, guilt, and shame.

I’ve started retraining Daisy. When she starts barking at some unknown “enemy” I send her outside to bark. She’s learning not to bark in the house. Thanks to Daisy, I’ve been much more alert to my own tendency to complain! Instead of whinging, complaining, or whining “in the house” I’ve been challenged to go out “there” and take action. Some times it means praying my complaints and doggedly seeking God for justice just as the persistent widow did (Lk 18:1-8). Some times it’s as simple as asking God what he wants me to do about what frustrates me and then go after it.

Daisy’s quirky behavior has had some merit in this house. Thanks to Daisy, I have a constant reminder to quell my tendency to complain. And thanks to God, I can transform my acute sense of wrongs and injustices into points for prayer, love, and action.

Jesus' Take on Titles

Africa has become known for its civil wars, but there’s also been a “title war” taking place within the church over the last decade. Titles became so important, that the church created a hierarchy of titles for pastors to climb. The role of archbishop became the highest place of honor and the miserly title of “pastor” was reserved for the insignificant or the novice. I could conjecture where this title war started, but that would achieve nothing. The fact is that many Christian leaders quickly joined the throng in the race after lofty titles.

So, I was intrigued when I arrived at the topic of titles when studying Jesus’ tirade against the religious leaders of his day. In the middle of enumerating the things they did to receive praise from man, he named title-mongering. As we listen to his teaching, we can clearly recognize that he was teaching his followers what not to do, using the religious leaders as an example. And using lofty titles was one of the taboos he passed on to his followers.

But, what surprised me was the reason he gave for not using titles such as “Rabbi,” “Teacher.” “Father,” or “Master” (Matt 23:7-12) Jesus stated several times, “for one is your Master.” It dawned on me that titles have the potential of deceiving us as leaders into thinking that we are somehow lofty teachers or fathers, or masters! Instead God means for us to be reminded that He is our Master. Christ is our Master. And we are his servants. That simple change in perspective has the potential of changing my moment-by-moment choices.

I understand that Christ would have us as leaders carry titles that remind us of who we serve because we certainly need that reminder on a daily basis! This perception aligns with Jesus’ constant reference to the Father’s authority over him in his every word and action. Jesus consistently reminded himself and his disciples of his servanthood and sonship. And his discussion about titles reflects his practice. As we read the epistles we see that Paul caught this meaning from Jesus’ teaching and constantly called himself a slave of the Lord, a fellow servant with Christ, or a bond servant of the Lord.

In addition if I follow Jesus’ whole discussion of religious leaders, I also recognized that titles are also meant to remind us as leaders that we are serving people. We are meant to help carry the burdens of those we serve. Jesus so clearly showed the leaders’ absorption with their own titles, reputation, and benefits rather than being consumed with caring for those under them. Jesus’ life directly contrasted the leaders’ practices as he constantly ministered to those around him with abandoned disregard for his own needs and reputation.

My discoveries sent me on an exploration trip, not into my titled friends in Africa, but to examine my own “titles” to check if I’ve drifted in my perceptions away from servanthood to my Master. My titles also remind me to evaluate how well I am doing at serving those I am meant to serve? How securely am I anchored to abandoned service, or am I drifting into absorption with titles, reputation, and the benefits of leadership? Since God is the Master, it’s time for a check up with him. What does he expect of me in my service roles and how closely aligned am I or how far have I drifted from his intentions?

God doesn’t want us to get in a fig about what title we are called, but he does want us to be serious about who we are serving and how! I believe that’s what was important to Jesus. That’s Jesus’ take on titles, and that’s what he wanted to pass on to the generations of people who would follow him and would be called by his name.

photo courtesy of photobucket

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Blue Coat Hangers and Change

My thinking started with a “blue hanger.” I was helping my mother-in-law hang up the clothes from the dryer. She instructed me to put her trousers on a blue hanger. I have to admit, my immediate thought was “how ridiculous,” and then I thought to ask her “why?” She told me that the blue hangers were stonger. Simple! I’m glad I asked. While hanging up her trousers I shared with her my delight in hanging clothes on the clothes line in South Africa with color matched clothes pins. Not because they are stronger, but because I love coordinated colors! Simple! We had a good laugh together.

We all have reasons for our decisions and habits, reasons we may have completely forgotten until a disturbing disruption or someone’s strange question reminds us. The factors we consider in making those decisions vary – maybe color, practicality, speed, comfort, beauty, simplicity, historicity, family concerns, taboos and on and on!

I was acutely aware of how easy it was to disregard my mother-in-law’s desire to use a blue hanger. Color choice seemed rather a peculiar point, but strength made more sense! And my color choice for beauty probably seemed ridiculous when my husband was trying to help me hang up the wet clothes. The factors we each considered were different. I lean toward beauty and practicality while he leans completely towards practicality! The factors reflect our personalities and our values.

You know, I easily slid into using the blue hangers to help my mother-in-law, but I haven’t always been so quick to adapt to other’s ways of doing things. Some things just look ridiculous from my perspective because I’m looking through my very limited viewpoint of a few factors!

When we moved to Africa I was bombarded with so many other factors that I had rarely considered previously – community, unfailing politeness, and unbounded hospitality. I found my ways of doing things totally disrupted as I needed to incorporate these other factors into my decision making! I couldn’t just decide for myself, I had to consider my whole team! I couldn’t just speak what was “normal,” I had to carefully weigh every word and inflection! I chafed against many of the required changes at first, but eventually, I too considered many of these newly acquired factors when making decisions.

Seeing, hearing, and understanding another culture definitely exposed me to a broader array of factors to consider in making decisions. So when I consider making changes in my life now, I also need a shift in my decision making factors. Just talking out my reasoning for old ways can help me see why I’ve been stuck. Sometimes reading the Word can jog me out of old ways of thinking and challenge me with other factors I’ve ignored. And sometimes it just takes God’s revelation to clearly see factors I’ve never considered and I’m on my way to new behavior.

I’m really excited about blue hangers now. Not because they are color coordinated with my clothes, but because they remind me that I have so much to learn from others and from God. And blue hangers remind me that a shift in perspective is vital to change.

picture courtesy of photobucket

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Lessons from my 2010 Teaching Adventures

While we’ve made some major transitions and experienced some personal crises this past year, we have had some significant teaching adventures in various regions of Africa. As we approach midnight of the last night of this year, I paused to consider a few lessons I learned from this year’s teaching adventures.

1) Doing interactive teaching in three languages: We were privileged to do several workshops with leaders speaking English, French, and Portuguese. There was an amazing buzz as individuals did simultaneous translation with small groups of listeners while we taught in English. For discussions we broke learners into groups by language so they could process and scribe discoveries in their heart language. It was difficult to have all the charts and task assignments translated and written out in three languages before teaching. Facilitating group feedback through interpretation was also complicated. Interactive teaching in three languages – challenging! The impact? Awesome!

2) Facilitating workshops with my husband: I found how difficult it is to “lead” in the classroom when your assistant is your own husband. No matter how gracious you are in taking the reins back, it can look like you are running over your husband’s authority(a cultural taboo in Africa)! I also discovered how challenging it was to follow my husband’s lead when he was in charge mostly because I misread his intentions. I tried to take an assistant’s position and simply scribe group responses for him, while he was waiting for me to participate in some of the discussions from the front! Alertness to body language, clearly defined roles and agreed upon cues are vital in working together successfully.

3) Teaching member care skills in the African context. We shifted the focus of our member care training to the developing of specific skills that we wanted students to be able use when returning to their fields of service. That focus required that we incorporate lots of practice time into our daily schedule and eliminate some of the up-front teaching!

I found the most successful sessions were those in which we broke skills down into small stages of teaching and practice, teaching and practice. By the end of those sessions, students were quite comfortable in completing all of the steps. And the most important factor for most of our African students was the role plays in which facilitators demonstrated various skills such as confronting, debriefing, re-entry briefing, and grief briefing. The visual presentation enabled them to “see” how to do the skill and recall the mini-drama.

Most of the lessons I learned this year were out of teaching adventures that stretched us way beyond comfort level and into unchartered territory. To keep learning, I’m looking out for more teaching adventures and gearing up for more risk-taking. Meanwhile, I keep learning at the feet of the Master Teacher.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Cookies, Statistics, and Church Planting

During our annual indulgence in Christmas cookies, I’ve been reminded of special cookie events from my past. For a short while I became famous within a very small community for making cookies. I love baking cookies, so I became the cookie champion for our family Christmas gatherings. We ladies would sit around chatting while munching from a big platter of more than eight varieties of cookies that I’d baked. These coffee and cookie chats are one of my favorite Christmas memories.

But I was also reminded of a special week in our early days of living in Zambia when Randy and I ate cookies for supper every night. Oh the sweet memories! As part of a coordinating committee for a city-wide crusade, we offered to sort the response cards and distribute them to pastors the following morning along with follow up packets. Each day after helping close down the crusade venue we would head to our tiny apartment with our stack of response cards. We were pretty tired, so we munched on our special cache of home made cookies while we recorded information from the cards on our little Apple 2c computer. Our supper of cookies made a tedious task rather pleasant.

Our foray into statistics also yielded some surprising findings. After sorting the cards by geographical locations we would put them in groups to distribute to the area pastors we had trained for crusade follow up. By the second day it became apparent that a major part of those responding at the crusade were from one “compound” near town that was known as a haven for thieves. But with this information came a dilemma. We had no pastors to give these cards to. At our daily pastor’s briefing we discovered there was no evangelical church in this compound! We had hundreds of new believers with no church and no shepherd. We added special prayer to our nightly cookies and statistics.

Near the end of the week the leaders of one denomination offered to send all their Bible school students into the compound for two weeks of outreach. The students’ courageous visits to new believers and their families resulted in a church plant in the middle of this poverty ridden location. One student was so moved by the needs he encountered that he was inspired to commit to return after graduation to pastor this fledgling church.” Jack is still there!

I love recalling those late nights of statistics and cookies. And I delight in remembering this special pastor and church that have made Jesus known to their neighbors, ministered to the needs of community, and lowered their compound’s crime rate. Cookies, statistics, and church planting make for wonderful memories.

photo courtesy of photobucket.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Today, Another Gift from God

There’s something awesome about rising up early – a new day ahead. It’s new. Never a rehashed day or a left over day. Always new! Nothing has to be the same as yesterday! We start afresh.

New day, starting with God’s mercy

New day, clean slate

New day, fresh joy

New day, new challenges

New day, set a new pace

New day, new horizons

New day, new perspectives

New day, relive commitments

New day, new blessings

New day, new substance for praise

New day, opportunity for obedience

New day, new strength

New day, fresh glimpses of God

(picture from photobucket)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My World has Shrunk

My living space has shrunk to the spare bedroom in a tiny house with my mother-in-law. My regular jaunts for doctor’s visits, lab appointments, and shopping are within a 5 mile radius of this little house. And when my friend picks me up to accompany her to court 20 minutes away I feel like I’m on holiday! For the time being I’m fairly limited in being able to be away from the house. Randy and I even had to slot in a short coffee date on a grocery run while mom was in bed. For the time being, no more day trips to encourage isolated missionaries, no more five-day road trips across four nations of Africa, and no short hops on a plane two countries north. Right now my assigned portion is this slice of suburbia. My world has shrunk and I’m feeling the pinch and the pain of my loss.

And in the moments I feel overwhelmed with the narrowness of choices, travel, and food I am reminded of Jesus who left Heaven’s infinity to live in a narrow slice of troubled land. His ministry was primarily limited to the Jewish people and particularly the poor and needy. During his ministry he had no permanent home or transportation. (Okay, I have it really good!)

During my season of restriction I am starkly reminded that God is in charge. He’s my boss. Hey, I know it, but I can easily forget that! God can tell me where to live and what to do. He can send me to suburbia to care for my mother-in-law. And that is what my life as a servant is to be about!

I’ve also been reminded that this servant calling is not about what I want or even about what I think I need. In our mushy comfort driven society we’ve been brainwashed to think that we are supposed to be monitoring our lives to ensure that our needs are met and that anything that imposes on those needs has to be out of line or unjust. In other words, we think we are entitled and God has to cough up!

As a result, I can be tempted to subconsciously think that God is crowding me and overlooking my needs. Not true. The clear point Jesus made about not worrying is “Your father knows you need these things” (Mtt 6:32). It is during the reoccurring moments I feel claustrophobic in my little suburban bubble that I have to choose to trust God to care for what he knows I need just as Jesus did.

And God reminds me that when I’m focusing on giving up my freedom to travel, my nice home, our sturdy four x four, and my own kitchen, I can easily be distracted from actually serving those I’m sent to serve! Jesus so clearly left everything behind when he came to earth as a man, but we have no record of any time he whined about his losses or the cost of serving. We do have stories of his unabated focused ministry to those he came to serve.

And one delight of our transition is the times of joy I’ve experienced when I fall into bed after a busy day of drudgery and hear God’s “well done.” At those times I’m reminded of God’s stamp of approval on servanthood.

I’m not quite sure yet of all God’s purposes and plans for this transition, but if I just make progress in implementing these lessons of servanthood in this new context, it would be worth everything I’ve given up. Maybe that is just what God had in mind!

picture from photobucket

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Who is the Star?

My friend invited me to attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah at a local Methodist Church. Sure, I thought, that’s a Christmas tradition I haven’t enjoyed for years! So in the rather gloomy cool weather we set off for the church and joined other clumps of friends and family trickling into the impressive sanctuary. While the congregation stumbled through several verses of Noel, the choir marched in and took their places across the front third of the sanctuary. I have to say, I wasn’t all that expectant about the quality of the program as I saw the wide variety of choir robes representing many local churches.

However, as a professional soloist began his rendering of “Comfort Ye My People” my heart began singing. The words began to soak into my soul, reminding me that the historical precedent of Jesus’ lonely arrival on earth was God’s proactive compassion for his people. The concert continued with movement after movement of musical renditions of God’s written Word. I found myself lost in the beauty of the words that ushered me into a place to gaze upon the majesty of the God of the earth. He is the God of the world, no matter how they ignore him, shut him out of their world, or scream against him. He is God.

By the time we reached the crescendo of the Hallelujah Chorus I was ready to stand and shout “This is our God. This is the God we serve. This is the God we are talking about! Look at Him. Give him praise.” And then the crowd roared with applause while the orchestra members bowed and each professional soloist received a surge of applause and a bouquet of flowers. Concert over, Crowds trickling out the doors and back to their cars.

I was so sorry the concert was over already. And I was grieved that the star of Handel’s Messiah did not receive his due. The star of the concert was not the stupendous composer, or the great director, or the magnificent soloists, the talented choir members, or the committed committee who organized the event. The real star was the God of all the Earth who sent Jesus the Savior of mankind. And in the buzz and hurry of the traditions of thanks, applause, and gifts we left him out of our applause and praise.

My renewed wonder at God’s splendor and Amazing Provision has stayed with me. And my longing has intensified for God’s name to be proclaimed and honored as he deserves. My prayer is that in all the buzz and hurry of Christmas traditions we remember to honor the real Star of Christmas.