Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Where Did We Leave Jesus?

This past Sunday Dennis Simon, the pastor at Mwanza FUMC preached about Jesus’ parents forgetting him at the temple during Passover. He did a great job and presented something about this passage that I have never thought of before. He used it as an example of how we need to focus in the new year, not about losing weight, working out, trying to get a promotion at work, but simply walking with God. Even more profound was simple piece of advice that he gave that we can glean from Jesus’ parents experience in losing him in the confusion of traveling home after Passover…in order to find Jesus we have to go back to the last place we saw him, we have to think back to the last time our relationship with God was strong and what it was about that time or place that drew us close to God. As we look back at that time we will have a starting point for reconnecting with Jesus in our lives. As we enter a new year and exit one of the craziest times of year when we all get thrown off of our schedules and out of the normal patterns of our lives I would challenge you to do what Dennis suggested and look back and reflect on when the last time your relationship with God was strong? What was it about that time?

My strongest moments with God have been during moments of change and flux in my life. The times when my normal foundation, the box I use for making decisions and walking through life gets disrupted, whether it was planned or not, have also been some of my biggest opportunities for drawing closer to God. I think this is one reason that so much of our faith is set while we are teenagers, since rarely is there a time in our lives when we change that quickly. Personally for me, fully moving into the adult world, the month where I graduated college, was married, and lost my mother…and the months that followed was a time in my life that still to this day sticks with me as a time when God and I were close and my faith grew faster than any time outside of high school (at least up to this point).  Without that time of growth I never would have been spiritually prepared for the move to Tanzania and the life that Liz and I now live here.

As we move into this new year I have my own small list…in the vast sea of New Year’s advise that has already started and will continue for the next two weeks.
1)   Look back and reflect on your relationship with God…where have you been further away from God? Where have you been closer to God? What were the circumstances around it?
2)   Be open to change in your life. The times when we step out in faith are normally the times we end up closest to God.
3)   As Pastor Dennis said, focus this year on walking with God. You can add the other parts of Micah 6:8 and you will have a full year ahead of you.


Come back and check the blog out in a few days, I am working on writing down the thoughts and reactions from a talk a gave a few times while I was in the US on how to live out our faith in transforming, but also ordinary everyday ways. Hopefully it will be a good way for all of us to work towards that last little thing on the list.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Covenant and Missions: Where Do We Stand?

I recently told someone that my Bible professor in college saved my faith. He took my Sunday School faith and enlarged it, making it wider and deeper. Wide enough and deep enough to accept the harder questions of the adult world that continually challenges our faith and make us doubt and wonder. I still remember Old Testament I, 1st semester, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 8am. It was a right of passage for all religion majors at Lambuth University. I learned many new things there, one of which is what truly constitutes a covenant. A covenant is an agreement made between two or more parties, but Dr. Davenport added that in a true covenant the terms are set solely by God…non-negotiable. I see his point in reading Genesis 17 and seeing phrases like “I will make” and “you must keep my covenant.” For a time after learning this I walked about asking, “Is this a covenant?” I felt kind of like the little duck in the children’s story asking, “Are you my mother?” I was constantly asking because we label many, many things in the church covenants, we love this term, sincerely I think because of the sacredness that it lends to our relationships.

This key point stuck with me though, and as I have been talking to churches about church-to-church partnerships that come with a…you guessed it, covenant, I have again started to think about what Dr. Davenport taught me in my 8 am class, my first semester, freshman year of college. As I look at covenant partnerships between churches, especially between the global south and global north there is something about this revelation that struck me…and hard. When the church from the global north (AKA the western church, AKA the wealthy people) set terms in a covenant what we are really doing is taking the place of God. It is His job, not ours to set the terms of any covenant in the church. So if it is not our place to set the terms, which also conversely means it is not the global south’s job either, who does it, how can we enter into sacred agreements?

First, if God is setting the terms of the covenant then both the Global North and the Global South are on the receiving end. Which puts us not on opposite ends of an agreement, but on the same side, helping each other fulfill our calling to be the body of Christ. This places all of us where we belong, as sinners, straining to fulfill a new covenant with God, and both of us failing to do so outside of the grace and mercy that God has for all of us.

This also means that we need to be looking to God for the terms of any covenant we set in the church. We should start looking at places like 1 Corinthians where God reminds us that we are all part of the body of Christ, that we all receive the same gifts from the same spirit, and that all parts of the body are needed and important. We should start looking at places like Luke 4 where we learn that our purpose here is not to provide money and receive money, not to be the patron or the patronized, but to be forgiven, to be healed, to be set free as Jesus comes among us and to bear witness to others being forgiven, healed, and set free as Jesus comes among them. We should stop throwing the global south a bone by saying that they can “pray for us” and start seeing what they have to teach us. I was fortunate today to be part of several conversations that did talk about that exact thing as I visited with pastors in the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the UMC and professors at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, AL.

As I looked deeper at the meaning of covenant, something I have not done in years, I realized it places all of us, regardless of our status, education, wealth, or any other markers of supposed privilege, exactly where we need to be, together, in the same posture of worshiping God, receiving forgiveness from God, and being blessed to be doing Kingdom work in the world.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Deep Conversations: Why Don't I Do this More Often

Itineration is a whirlwind. I am here for ten weeks total and in that time I will be in six different states, speak at over 35 churches, and have who knows how many meetings. One of the results of this type of schedule is that I don’t stay in one place for very long. I am sometimes changing sleeping locations on a daily basis. While it is not ideal, I have been pleasantly surprised at the deep conversations I am still able to have around dinner tables, over coffee, and into the late hours of the night, or sometimes early hours of the morning. When we see our time with people as precious we tend to not spend much time on the superficial, but get onto topics that are important to us, our relationships, and our lives.

I wish that this was more often the case in my normal life. I do not know how much time I spend talking to people, all the while hiding what is really going on in my heart and mind, while they assumedly do the same. When we feel like we have time or we know that we will see people again tomorrow or next week we push off the difficult conversations and leave things unsaid. I have had a rich time so far and I hope that some of this time of rich relationship can carry over when I head back to Tanzania, that I can take more time to sit around a table, sip on some coffee, or delve into relationships that are significant to me. I have spent more time in conversation and relationship building than I do as I run around fulfilling my regular schedule in Tanzania. Others have also mentioned how the time is worth it because I am only in the country once every 2-3 years. What if we didn’t wait? What if it didn’t take a trip across the ocean to realize how important our relationships are and how we need to remember to set time aside for conversation, sharing, opening our lives up to others and allowing them to share their experiences with us?

I hope that people learn about Tanzania, the amazing people there, the great work that the church is doing, and even how to be the church in THEIR local communities. Most of all however, I hope that I remember the lessons that I am learning and that they go back home with me.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Under Construction

I just wanted to leave a quick note here...I am taking the opportunity of being in the states and having a good internet connection to update our blog, put up information on some new projects, and change the look a little bit.

I hope in the end it will be a better, cleaner space to find out about our ministry. If however, you come across a page with nothing on it or a random collection of pictures, just know more is coming. In less than a week everything should be up and running smoothly.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

What I Found Coming Home

There is always some amount of anticipation that comes with returning home. It is a combination of seeing family, getting to eat some comfort food, and not having to think too hard when talking to people because you all share a childhood culture and language. One of the things I was kind of dreading though was what I was going to find as I spoke at church after church.

The church in America is in decline. Our denomination is dying. We are struggling. We don’t have as much to give as we once did. This is the message that I have been hearing in Africa, coming out of the North American church for the last two years. Yet I didn’t find a dying church.

Now I have only been back in the US for two weeks and only speaking at churches for one of

those weeks, though I did fit in 7 different speaking engagements in that first week. I didn’t find a dying church. If we want to say that just because a church has people coming to it does not mean that it is a fruitful church then we also have to admit that just because a church is losing members does not mean it is lacking in fruit. If public opinion is not good enough in one instance why is it in the other?

The United Methodist Church in the US has been dying for years, not because numbers are going down, but because churches were to inwardly focused. I don’t know when it happened, but when the highlight of the year for youth is a ski trip to the Rockies and not a local missions week than we should be able to easily understand what the problem is. Yet what I am finding now are small, financially strapped churches and large churches with big hearts coming back to their communities and again diving in to relationships with their neighbors. In this short week I have seen church plants in run down neighborhoods where other churches and even the boys and girls club have pulled out. I have seen small churches take on large ministries, driven out of a love for neighbor, even when those neighbors do not look like the current church population. I have seen ministries where a coffee shop turns into a place of community and conversation. I have seen college students gathering and discerning how their future careers fit together with their faith. If we are not basing our judgments on numbers or political influence but on missions, impact on individual lives, and the amount of love shown a community then I have to say, I don’t see a dying church.

Many blessings for the churches that have welcomed me this week and shown me a church that is alive, vibrant, and ministering to the community around it.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Day I Felt Powerless

I wrote this blog last week, but haven't had the heart to post it. I post it tonight, equally heavy-hearted, but maybe slightly more hopeful. 

Disclaimer: I don’t have a hard life. I have challenges, but many of them result from the intentional choice to live a certain kind of life. I can, at any time, quit and go home. I live around people who live hard lives, and I know the difference. That being said, allow me to use my lens and experience to try and shed some light on the challenges I know they face on a regular basis.

I very rarely feel powerless. For starters I am a kind of big guy…and I trained in martial arts for a while, up through my first year of college. I just don’t get nervous about my personal safety very often.  Economically we as a family are doing okay. We don’t make much money, but we make enough that we get to choose, within limits, what we do with it.  I have a college degree, which does not guarantee a job by any means, but it does give me options, options of continuing into graduate studies like I am doing now, and options of a great variety of jobs that I “qualify” for.  I am also a US citizen, which if nothing else gives me the ability to travel to the majority of the countries in the world. As someone that has attempted to obtain visas for Tanzanians before when they had an opportunity to improve their lives and in the end where not able to take advantage of the opportunity, I do not take lightly the ability/the choice of travel. In short, I am blessed with the freedom of choice and the feeling of control that comes with those choices. With freedom and choice comes a feeling of power over my life.

Right now in my life though, I feel powerless. A debilitating level of powerlessness.

Last week we tried to apply for a visa so that Derrick could travel with us to the States this fall when we go to speak at supporting churches. We were denied. We are currently caught between Tanzanian law which says that a letter from the commissioner is enough to travel with a foster child and American law which says that nothing short of a “full and final adoption” is sufficient to travel with a child. We are caught between the extremely long process of Tanzanian adoption (4 years and counting) and the claims that family and work have on us. We are caught between legal definitions and the feeling that the government is trying to tell me that I am not allowed to make decisions for my own family…because, well, they don’t see him as fully part of our family.

I cannot adequately express the feeling of powerlessness that comes with not having any options, especially in regards to your own family. We can travel, but not outside of Tanzania. He is part of our family, but he cannot go to meet the rest of his family. There is a process for the completion of the adoption, but people have a hard time explaining to us what exactly it is. We are a family…only in so far as we are allowed to be by the Tanzanian and American governments (and each one has their own definitions).


Therein lies the rub. It doesn’t matter what I try, the law will not change. My good intentions and our love as a family are not enough to keep us together.  Derrick’s cute smile, which is enough to work on most people, was not enough to get past the rules at the US Embassy. All the paperwork in the world doesn’t help (trust me we had a lot) if it is not the right piece of paper.

All of this tears us up, but I cannot help at the same time appreciate what this teaches me about the people I have been living and working with for so long. Even today, I returned to a familiar conversation with a friend about the lack of choices that comes with poverty, especially generational poverty. A quick example is the child born in the village, without a hospital nurse nearby to explain the birth certificate procedure. A child grows up and prepares to enter into secondary school but he doesn’t have a birth certificate.  A non-choice by his parents at his birth is now working to determine a large part of his future (I think we all understand the importance of education). Now, he has a few options even at this point, but few of them are legal. A lack of choices, means a lack of power over your own life, which often means a lack of development because it is RARE in this life to find someone with the time, resources, and desire to advocate for you.

As Amartya Sen says in his book Development as Freedom:
“Expansion of freedom is viewed, in this approach, both as the primary end and as the principal means of development. Development consists of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency.”

If there is a silver lining to this new experience of having run out of options, it has been a new sympathy and sense of compassion in my life. Next time you wonder why someone has “chosen” to continue to live a life of poverty and hardship…let us first stop, think, and try to understand what kinds of choices they have really had.

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?

Monday, July 28, 2014

An Introvert’s Processing Method or Why I Haven’t Posted in a Long Time

So there has been a lot going on this year. I feel like I have been saying that every year for the last three years to the point where it no longer has any meaning, but this time I am serious. This time it has not only been the schedule, the work load, the juggling kids, though we do now have one more child than parents in the equation, but the change, the shift, the transition of what we are doing and how we are doing it (more on that in later posts). And as an introvert I DO NOT process things out loud (sometimes to the chagrin of my wife) let alone in a public forum like a blog. This has been a year of self-journeying, discernment, and realignment as we continue to grow and mature in our work, our roles, and our lives. It is a journey that I probably would have benefited from sharing with you, had I realized I was on it…but I didn’t, and as such it is going to have to be shared in retrospect.

It may come out in future posts, I am sure some of it will. And there are still many questions that Liz and I wrestle with even as other questions are resolved and God fills in the gaps.

All that being said, I expect that this is my return to blogging and posting. I hope you enjoy what is to come.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

House of Peace

I am sorry that we missed our monthly update in April. We have had more than normal happenings with our family this past month and just never got around to it. Thank you for staying with us though and continuing to be with us on our journey.

The biggest news has to be the double joy of the birth of William Micah Soard and the official fostering of rd, 2014 in Dar es Salaam. He was born weighing 6.6 pounds. Within 24 hours of Micah’s birth we received news from social welfare here in Tanzania that we had finally, after four years, been officially approved as guardians for Derrick. He has been part of our lives for a long time now, but was not in our custody, keeping us from being able to take him for medical treatment, travel with him to the US, etc. He is now legally ours and while the adoption process is not fully complete, we will now be able to be together as a family wherever we go.
Derrick all at the same time. William Micah Soard was born on April 23

As one of our friends pointed out, Dar es Salaam means “House of Peace” which is a great prayer as our family is quickly growing with a total of 3 boys (4 if you count Eric). House of Peace. It is hard sometimes to think of our house as a house of peace. Baby Micah only has one way to communicate, and it is normally loud and fussy. Kaleb is entering the terrible twos just a few months shy of his second birthday. Derrick, restless, daring, and not someone to readily settle down always manages to keep things interesting, usually dragging his much younger brother with him. Despite all of that it is a peaceful feeling, after nine months of waiting, doctor appointments, and planning Micah came and 24 hours later, the four year process with Derrick took a huge step forward. There is a peace that comes when long awaited plans come to fruition, when the things we have been waiting for are finally here. It is an easy time for us as a family to have a sense of peace. The trick I have found is having peace during the journey. We still have many, many steps left to take. Steps in the adoption process, steps in finishing grad school, and steps in our ministry as we continue to work towards bearing fruit in the projects and churches we have started. Despite all that awaits us in the coming years the last week has been a reminder of the faithfulness of God and a reminder to carry this sense of peace with us wherever we go. We have to be a house of peace not just when the journey is complete, but in the midst of it.

Philippians 1:6 – “I am sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus.”