Friday, August 15, 2014

Dreams = Words = Reality

Yesterday a small group of women and a few men gathered for a long meeting at Gamasara UMC. It was supposed to start at 9 am, actually started at 11 am, and ended around 3 pm. It involved budgets, suggestions, deciding to return a defective sewing machine next week, and me mispronouncing the Swahili word for “constitution” so many times in one day that it became a running joke.

At the end of the day though, before leaving, we had a special moment: we were able to take a picture of most of the founding members of the Emmanuel Center. Approved constitution in hand we are a few steps away from being officially registered with the Tanzanian government as
a community based organization.

Emmanuel Center for Women and Children is a new organization, operating out of Gamsara UMC that seeks to reduce gender-based violence, promote children’s rights, and bring peace to families in Gamasara.

This has been an almost two year journey that started as an angry discussion at a funeral, proceeded to be a teary eyed response to an untenable situation, and has grown into a living reality. It has proven to me that words have power, and that ideas really can drive our lives. It has also been my own version of a shirt I once saw that said, “Everyone wants a revolution, but no one wants to do the dishes.” These past two years have been hard work, making time for this project that was only an idea and feeling in a few hearts and minds of a small church. As the picture shows we are not a group of professionals working out of an office with a nice starting budget. There is almost no budget, heck the church building isn’t even finished yet. And I have discovered the harsh reality, that while a commonly shared, occasionally well articulated, dream that refused to die has resulted in the Emmanuel Center, that the real work, and true transformation will live or die in the daily details of the work and the daily pressure of making hundreds of small, correct decisions. At times it is even possible to lose site of the bigger picture as we get lost in the daily accounting and questions of time tables and group dynamics.

We have not arrived. We are nowhere near where we want to be, and I cannot even say with any confidence that we have yet transformed or even affected anyone’s life. The amount of learning we as an organization still have to do is staggering. Yet, I wanted to pause and with this article take a short breath and look back at how a need, expressed in one of the most heart wrenching ways possible, has given birth to a community within a community, a community that we hope will give birth to the dreams of many more people in the years to come.

Dreams = Words = Reality

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Your Church Name and What it May Mean

Friday I attended a fundraiser at a local church (something I normally hate doing)…and it was amazing. What made it so amazing was the obvious heart they had for each other and the community. It was so obvious and tangible in the room it brought an old conversation I had with myself to mind.

This is a conversation I had when we were looking at all the different places we needed to focus on planting churches in our area of Tanzania.

Cutting-edge-church-planter me: All we do is name the church after wherever it is located. We need to start thinking of names that reflect our mission and our understanding of the gospel.

The Good Missionary Me: But this is how they do it, why should I change what they call their churches?

Cutting-edge-church-planter me: That is just because they have always done it that way. We need to introduce some creativity into the process…AND they can develop their mission statement and vision during the process (envisions all day meeting that includes a large white board, self-reflection, and fun had by all)

The Good Missionary Me: I need to insert myself further into the local church culture first and see if I can complete some ethnographic studies to better understand what is going on before I just change something like the name of a church.

The resulting reality: Why don’t I just ask them if they have ever thought about naming their churches something else and see what they say…months pass, never get around to asking because there are more important conversations going on about salvation, living out salvation, and of course clean drinking water, street children, and food security issues resulting from climate change.

Now I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade here, including, but not limited to church consultants who actually get paid to come up with church names (not sure if you all actually exist), churches named after the location in which you are located, or churches named after something else like say…Shalom, Church of Heavenly Dreams (the one caveat may be Winner’s Chapel, but that can definitely wait for another blog post). But as I consider these two
options…do we name a church after the village or town where it is located or do we name it after a vision that we are trying to cast for others to follow I realized that the way we name a church may also say something about our focus.

When we name a church after a location, then we may be saying that we are just unoriginal, but I think more often than not we are saying that our focus is on that location and those people. We are saying that we are a church placed by God to help look after the neighborhood, to engage with the people that physically occupy this space with us, because whether or not they are like us, they have become our neighbors…and you remember what Jesus said about neighbors.

On the flip side I worry sometimes, mainly because I know myself, that when we start to name churches after a ministry focus, theme, or vision that we may be too focused on what OUR vision, theme, ministry focus is and not enough on the PEOPLE that we are surrounded by. 

All of this brings me to my main point…the local church should be just that, a local church. I find the practice of commuting Christians a challenge to me, those that drive to another town, city, or community on Sunday mornings for worship. It is hard to do ministry in your community when you don’t also worship with them, and it is hard to do ministry through your local church if you don’t live near by. It is hard to know the challenges that the neighborhood around your church faces if you only see it on Sunday morning as so much happens throughout the week with people going about their daily routines. Yet, this is the focus of the church is it not? To be a presence in the community, to work beside, live beside, and be a witness to the people around you. I struggle with the money spent on church buildings that are often as not an empty witness to our faith during the week.

Now, I love naming new ministries and organizations. I love the creative process that helps focus the work and becomes a beacon for others to follow, but I think maybe we should leave that to specialized ministries who are meant to work in broader contexts and areas. However, when we are talking about the local church, we lose out on so much when it is no longer actually a LOCAL church. With social media, communication technology, and the hyper-individualistic society we now live in (how many buzz words was that?) I think we forget that community has a physical component, without which we fail to connect at deeper levels. This is why I miss my family when I am out of the country for so long and why college students feel more disconnected when moving off campus. What we may not consent to intellectually we experience intuitively.

In the end my hope is that the local church can be a local presence no matter what they name may say.

What do you think? Does you church name reflect a love of community, a focus on your vision, or something else completely?

Monday, August 4, 2014

Activities Fade...Family Stays

Today we filed in court to officially adopt Derrick. I long for the day when this process is complete, and the legal institutions of the world acknowledge what we already know in our hearts…that Derrick is our son, is Kaleb and Micah’s brother. Is a Soard. As I look forward to and anticipate that day, I already know what my reaction is going to be. I will be happy, I will be relieved for the anxiety and stress that this process has brought our whole family, I will feel complete as a father and as a family.

What we will not be doing is patting ourselves on the back and saying that today we completed our Christian duty. On that day that our family is complete it will not be a day of having done something nice for an orphan child, but a day of having our own hearts restored and our family made whole.

I feel like this is how God sees us and our relationship to Him. I do not think that God extends His grace out of sympathy for our broken state or the messes we make of our lives, but out of a desire to restore His family to each other and to make His heart whole.

“All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons and daughters. You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children. With this Spirit, we cry, “Abba, Father.” The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children.” ~ Romans 8:14-16

Adoption, being family, is a matter of spirit and heart, not of duty and obligation; a matter of love, and action flowing out of that love, instead of a desire for acknowledgement and thanks (just ask any mom). So what happens when we extend our family…what happens when we see the church body as our brothers and sisters in Christ and all of humanity as fellow creations of God? How does our role as a church change when we understand the extent to which we are all one as the human race? What does our outreach, our judgment, our mission trips look like when we see these actions not as duties, activities, programs, or experiences, but as family events, relationships to be built, and people to be loved? What happens when we stop looking for acknowledgement? Can you imagine with me a weekly short-term trip where we enter into someone else’s life, community, home and it because not a new profile picture on Facebook, but a catalyst for change in how we live our daily lives.

Think about what kind of childhood Derrick would have if we saw him as part of our Christian duty instead of part of our family? How do people view us as a church universal when we approach missions as a duty and not as a way to be reunited with our family? We all get tired of duty, and expect someone else to take over after we have served our term…but family is forever and love never fails. This is I think what Bishop Ntambo was trying to tell me when he gave me the advice as a missionary to stay in love with the people.

So what do you think? Are our challenges in living as one large, extended family a challenge of hear or action, faith or method? Can we love others as part of our family, and if we can how do we show that to them in a way that means something to them and not just to us?