Surviving to Adulthood 

Surviving to adulthood isn’t really something too many of us think about but for so many in our world, this is something that isn’t assumed. In so many urban centers, the potential for derailment, even death, loom overhead. Yesterday I began reading a book titled Nobody Cries when We die: God, Community, and Surviving to Adulthood by Patrick Reyes. It is probably the best book I’ve read this year and I read more than most. It captures well this idea of simply surviving to adulthood as a noble achievement.
 
Reyes survives an abusive home, gangs all around, witnesses a young girl being murdered, is mocked for reading books and valuing education. His mom’s boyfriend pulled him off the ground by his throat and attempted to strangle him when he was a small boy. One day he and his buddy were wearing the wrong colors when gang members shot at them. They missed and killed a school girl on the same playground. Experience after experience occurs when Reyes finds himself at Boston University studying theology.
 
At the start of one of his classes, the professor goes around the room asking grad students how their life trajectory has prepared them for this moment. Echoes of privileged and ministry exploits are told. Most of the white students began to tell how they’d gone into ministry situations working amongst those least fortunate, started this program or that program, proved themselves in research of some sort – all of which are wonderful contributions as Reyes admits. They come to Patrick and the best and most honest answer was given. “I survived to adulthood.” Everyone laughs. The professor tells him to give a real answer.
 
Reyes goes on to explain that everything in his life that had prepared him for that moment was mocked. Relatives who had been shot and killed. Dark walks home at night. A fight for education amid people who put him down for his pursuits the laughs and the shame did not change the truth. He had made it to adulthood and it was time to fight to make a theological contribution to the world.
 
It really got me this morning as I read. I think often about these sorts of things as we are trying to train up leaders and see them released into ministry. Their sets of circumstances are just so very different from most of the folks rolling into suburban local churches, bible colleges, or missions agencies. The precedent has been set based upon the life experience and set of conditions you are dealt.
 
I know people in our neighborhood who have been unable to see their family in 25 years because they were working for the Bhutanese government at the time their relatives were kicked out of the country. I work with friends who had no place to sleep for several years at a time because refugee camp life was so bad at home. I’ve watched families breakdown almost overnight as people move to the US and the pressures are just so great and substance abuse becomes the answer. Just last week in Vermont, a man who grew up in the camp with some of our friends snapped. He had just gotten out of mental health treatment when he lost it on his wife and killed her in the driveway with a butcher knife and nearly killed his mother-in-law. When his daughter came home from school, everything had changed. Will she survive to adulthood?
 
So what then does ministry training and leadership development look like for those who barely, just barely survived to adulthood? I don’t see my friends rolling up to the most prestigious Christian college with their parents helping them unpack all teary eyed. I don’t see them going to churches and mid to upper class churches/individuals and becoming supported missionaries. They have survived to adulthood and the conditions are just so incredibly different.
 
Two weeks ago, we had a big celebration for 15 Nepali church leaders who went through a 12 month leadership and discipleship training that I was honored to facilitate. They asked me to be the main speaker for the gathering. Local Nepali pastors from other congregations were there. Members from other churches came. A local American pastor who is well known in the Nepali community was present. There were probably more than 100 people there and the atmosphere was electric. To those who have access to this sort of thing we say, “so what’s the big deal? It is such a minimal length of study.” For someone who survived, for people who have survived hell, it was something with few words to describe. I will never forget that weekend. It was perhaps the most meaningful thing I’ve ever been part of and I’m humbled by all that transpired.
 
But I know that this is just the start of something bigger. For a couple months now I have been dreaming with others what a yearlong training program could look like with the privileged and those who survived to adulthood. What would it earn to have a strong, robust training program that is both theoretical and practical that includes both crowds? Not just “an immigrant thing” or “white guys thing” but truly a time where 8-10 folks move into the neighborhood and work their tails off to become the kinds of leaders God has called them to be?
 
We are looking at next fall as a launch to start such an internship where the holistic Gospel is embraced and celebrated and where the playing field is leveled. We dream of the day where people do care when you die, where surviving to adulthood is not laughed at, where suburban servants of Jesus come with all their access and say, “yes, we too bring something to the table but it is so very different now because we are learning with our Nepali brothers and sisters.” We dream of an even playing field where Nepali students who have survived to adulthood would say, yes, this is awesome to be part of this together with those from different circumstances. We are not better. You are not better. We all are after this Jesus who has so changed us.
 
As we continue to move things along around here, pray with us that we honor one another with the utmost respect and remember that we are all simply servants in God’s vineyard. He is the King who has conquered but He is also the God who has struggled with us. Pray that this would be expressed in our every word and deed as we announce the Kingdom.
 

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World Refugee Day – Staying attentive

Yesterday was World Refugee Day, an internationally designated remembrance of the story of forcefully displaced people around the globe. In 2001, UNHCR set aside June 20th to help us reframe the conversation and take time out to reflect. Yesterday, cultural dances, songs, and bazaars filled city centers around the US as people took time to remember the journey of those who have been resettled and millions still stuck in limbo.
 
I didn’t go to any of the big celebrations this year but I found my way into an unassuming 6 unit apartment building where my family hung out with a Bhutanese-Nepali family who has been in the country just shy of 3 years. It is only the second time I had been in their home but I found everyone there to be most welcoming. Uncle opened the door and we had never met. He was deaf and unable to speak so the blind guy talking to the deaf guy was miraculous to say the least. Why do these things constantly happen to me? I had Charity get out the phone and show him some pictures and uncle had a grand time playing with Amos throughout our visit.
 
I have been teaching the eldest son in the family English for about a year now and know him well. Because of that foundation, the relatives were pretty cool with entertaining us yesterday. The father of the home eventually got home and we began discussing life, America, and our past journeys. He was speaking broken English with me and I was encouraging him to speak when his wife walked into the room and said in Nepali, “What are you doing? He knows Nepali.” I interjected and said this was a good opportunity for him to practice his English. Laughter followed.
 
As we chatted, father became much more comfortable with me and his thoughts went back to Bhutan. Without any prodding or encouragement, he began to share about Bhutan and his siblings that remained there. They somehow stayed during the ousting and remain there to this day. Father said he was 26 when he left and we discussed the farming lifestyle that is true for most people in the country, contrasting that with the urban life he has come to know in Pittsburgh. At one point father said, “We left and we had nothing. No citizenship. No green card. Nothing.” I said in disgust, “They only gave you a red card.” Now the conversation was fully in Nepali as father was very comfortable with me. “Well once we got to the camp in Nepal, we got a rice card. Maybe the rice card was the good card we had.” We both about fell over laughing as one of the only things you can do when reflecting on the crazy situation is to reflect and chuckle at the pain.
 
By the end of the conversation, I learned that the man sitting across from me was extremely sharp. He spoke broken English as we first started the conversation and to some it would have been assumed that he may not have a good handle on what is going on in our country or the world. Quite the contrary, he knew the political situations of Bhutan, Nepal, and the United States very well. This guy has had to navigate three very different systems in three countries. Three countries. Three systems. Three lives. He knew them all. He knew what was fair and what was not in the US. His last day at his first job in the country will be today and he will start another job on Friday that will hopefully be a step up.
 
I asked father about how safe he felt in his apartment complex and he did not give me real strong affirmation in that direction. He simply said, “We have to stay busy and mind our own business and we will be fine.” Again, cultural knowledge that is completely contradictory of all he has known has been learned an applied.
 
“We have to stay busy and mind our own business and we will be fine.” What a sobering testimony. I was likely the first American that father was able to tell his story to. We find, over and over again, that for anyone who grew up in Bhutan, they simply want to reflect. They simply want someone, anyone really, who could possibly understand. And maybe that person may never understand but the generation of former Bhutanese refugees who clearly remember their exit from Bhutan 27 years ago simply want their story to be heard. Their kids have often grown weary from listening and can’t relate. So on World Refugee Day, I can’t think of a better thing than to sit. To listen. To reflect. And the whole rice card comment was definitely worth the visit.
 
The story of Jesus undoubtedly intersects with this story. Jesus was a refugee. He was unwanted. In His humility though, He laid His life down, served, and gave His life so all would live again. I can’t help but to think that God the Spirit too longs for His story to be heard – a story of grace, acceptance, and redemption. I’m eager in the coming days to tell this story with father and his family.
 
 
 

Phone calls on your day off reframe things

I just got off the phone with a dear friend who has been doing urban work for nearly three decades. For both of us, it was our off day and we were sitting around the house sipping coffee, unwinding from pretty busy weekends of ministry. I called to ask Nancy a bit about developing ministry in the city and the tension that I’ve been feeling between building relationships versus starting ministry programs. Three or four days a week, Charity and I end up visiting families in the neighborhood, deepening trust and friendship. Many of those days visitors pop in at our house at random times keeping us pretty well surrounded by continuous relationship building.
 
During our call I was venting a bit on how to best establish collaborative ministry amongst different groups, how to get people to work well together, how long to wait to pull the trigger on larger ministry projects and Nancy reminded me that sometimes sitting on the porch and chatting with neighbors is the most strategic and necessary thing we could possibly be doing with our time. We have all seen ministries that charge ahead with program after program but in the end are left wondering how deep-rooted relationships slipped from their grasp. The tension of walking between both of those worlds is real.
 
My weekends find me teaching four different groups of students with initiatives ranging from Sunday school, to youth group, to conversational English. We have some very big projects in the planning phase and these are the sorts of things donors and people on the outside get excited about. But man, it is really us showing up at neighbors houses in the evening and staying for 2-3 hours at a time that brings the most joy, encouragement, and energy to our neighbors. Sometimes the best thing we can do in ministry is to block out all the noise, block out the need to be recognized by those from the outside, block out the buzz that comes from the intoxication of power and ministry success evidenced by big donations and fancy programs. Thinking through what those all around us really need or want are questions I never want to pass over.
 
We’ve planted churches, started community centers, run ESL programs – all of those are extremely necessary in urban work. I’m not against those things, especially the establishment of local multiplying churches. But, our neighborhoods will probably survive without those programs. I’m not sure our neighborhood will survive though without friendship rooted in the beauty of the Gospel. Without relationships, there is simply no foundation for anything else we say or do.
 
I’m wondering today if start-up ministries and churches should advise a much more extensive requirement on building relationships before rushing into anything else they do in ministry. The complaints I have often heard are that mission donors and churches are expecting results, more bang for their buck so we need to start initiatives quickly. I can’t say how representative that is or if that pressure is real but if relational focus is short-circuited, what will really come in the long run?
 
So today I rest. I rest in Jesus and His friendship in my life. I will start afresh tomorrow to again continue to deepen trust and relationship with those around me. Sometimes a phone call on your off day reframes things and the pieces come together. Thankful for this Monday of rest.
 
 

17 Years of Marriage and Mission Together 

Today marks the day 17 years ago when Charity walked down an aisle at a small South Dakotan church and agreed to marry me. What on earth was she thinking? We both knew we were kind of signing up for a life of unknowns and we took things in stride. A missionary call. A college education to finish. Failing eyesight that would lead to blindness. Zero experience in marriage, ministry, or education. We bit the bullet and went for it.
 
These last 17 years have taken us to Savannah, GA, the Philippines, Northern Mariana Islands, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Nepal, and Pittsburgh. Some transitions were planned. Most were not. The strand that runs through all of these years is God’s faithfulness to us and our attempts to really hear His voice and follow Him wherever He leads us. As we have gotten older pioneering new ministry and starting over in each context gets a little tougher. There are days we sort of wish we were not pioneers and God would ask us to roll into town with a nice and tidy established ministry where we wouldn’t have to make things up as we go. To date, we have never been given that assignment so we did our heels in the ground and do the best with what we have been given.
 
Charity has taught me what it really means to thrive in situations that are less than ideal. I remember several years ago when we lived in Minneapolis and she went to a library alone. We lived in a rough patch and some guy started yelling at her and chasing her as she approached her car. She jumped in the driver’s seat and sped away. Once she found out she was pregnant in Nepal, it was never a question of whether she would have Amos in Nepal under Nepali doctor supervision. She has watched me go full circle with my eyesight. We met and I was extremely independent, showing few signs that my vision was fading fast. The disease sucked my sight away and Charity got the brunt of my frustration, demands to complete tasks, and a bantering of excuses on why I couldn’t do things. She never suggested I get help, go to blindness training school, or anything of the sort. From independence, to dependence back to independence again – she has never complained once as I’ve made those adaptations to sight loss. She continues to thrive in less than good circumstances.
 
Somehow, this marriage though, has produced something in us that pushes us to do things that we would not be capable of without each other. Christ plus each other allows us to play at a level that seems impossible at times. So I go to blindness training school and obtain the independence I need. We transition in ministry and start over. We learn Nepali or move into dangerous neighborhoods because it is the most Kingdom-centered thing to do. We apologize to each other all the time. We tell each other how much we love one another every day. And man, sometimes it still doesn’t feel like that is enough. You question if you are normal, if you’ve made the right decision. . . . you even question if you drive your spouse absolutely crazy or if he/she could do better. This is the vicious cycle and tension of loving and living together in marriage in an urban ministry context.
 
So here we are today, 17 years in, starting afresh. We have both learned so much and are thankful for the sacrifices that we try to make for one another. This girl’s laugh is contagious. Her smile lights up the room. Her smart and sarcastic comments are way funnier than mine because they are so infrequent. Her insecurities and struggles – all of these things have made the last 17 years the most Godward journey I could have ever imagined. Often not easy, sometimes not fun, occasionally downright painful. But day in and day out Charity shows me what it means to love. She shows me what it means to serve Christ in the city. She teaches me how to raise this boy in the midst of people’s lives changing dramatically all around us.
 
So if you have someone out there who has lived in 4 different countries, walked with their spouse through blindness, learned another language, lived in pretty dangerous places for the sake of Christ, opened up their home night and day, taken the back seat to allow others to have more prominent roles in ministry, constantly been questioned on her devotion to ministry or Nepali language skills because she is not as charismatic as me, always sending text or encouragement to those going through tough times, is stunningly beautiful, can throw everyone off by her sarcastic humor, or surprise you by her unexpected tenacity. . . . if you find someone like that, you better not mess anything up.
 
Cheers to these 17 years of marriage and mission. We be having a party today! Good food, time together, and grandpa to take the boy for a while. Thanks for being part of the journey with us.
 

May the fire on my altar never burn out. make me a house of prayer.

About to head out to see some friends but just wanted to fire this off in anticipation of the fasting and prayer starting next week. So I just came across the song “House of Prayer” that has been on my playlist for a minute. Such simple lyrics, “May the fire on my altar never burn out. May the fire on my altar never burn out. Make me a house of prayer.”
 
As I reflected on the words just now, I got a glimpse of what true, upside down Kingdom transformation looks like. I had the vivid memory of the smells of incense being offered to Hindu gods and goddesses as I enter homes in the neighborhood. When I used to be able to see, I remember the posters and idols on the walls. Flames and the odor wafting from the back room is so permanent in my mind. Sacrifice and worship to unknown gods.
 
As my sight has faded, it is this smell of incense that stands out to me these days. Over and over again I smell it as I walk by homes, my other senses heightened. I smile realizing another Hindu home is to my left or right but my heart sinks as I realize the devastating weight that is involved in pleasing gods made by the hands of men. Things are not alright.
 
May the fire on my altar never burn out, never burn out. Make me a house of prayer. Transformation looks like homes in this community burning with the incense of Jesus. His aroma that is a sweet smell to those who are being saved but a stench of death to those who are perishing. As we move into anticipating next week, may the fire of our altar burn and burn and burn and burn. . . . Never going out. Lord, make us a house of prayer. This is our plea, our song, our cry – transform homes, lives, and harts.
 
 

Transformed by the power of God

Remember that time when I didn’t blog anymore? So sorry for the silence! We spent the last week at International Teams headquarters where we met with our new teammate and good friend Molly. We had lots of laughs, good food, and excellent focus on moving forward in ministry. It was sort of like a mini-retreat and has definitely centered us on what is important in the New Year.
 
The mission of ITeams is “lives and communities transformed by the power of God.” You guys have heard me talk a lot about holistic transformation as we move forward in ministry – physical, spiritual, social, and emotional transformation in our community. Jesus came announcing that the Spirit of the Lord was on Him to preach Good News and set the captives free. Without question Jesus serves the whole person.
 
I have sometimes talked about and heard others talk about community transformation in a very flippant way. . . “We do transformation” or “our organization is all about integrated community transformation.” It should be and never can be that the task before us is casual or nonchalant. In studying Luke 4 (the Spirit of God is on me to preach Good news to the poor passage), I was floored again with the mission of Jesus. The task and life before us assumes fullness of the power of God. Everything that comes after that is merely and overflow of the infusing of the Spirit.
 
Molly was flying out to Chicago to meet us last week when she was reading over some ITeams publications. She read and re-read this line of “lives and communities transformed by the power of God.” The phrase “by the power of God” stood out to her as if someone dropped a weight on her lap. She was deeply convicted by this phrase – transformation, ministry, sharing the Good News, life itself doesn’t happen without the power of God. Spirit fullness through prayer and waiting on God was the clarion call for our team this week.
 
Our Nepali brothers and sisters along with Charity, Amos, Molly, and I want to know and depend on the power of God for transformative ministry. We can all so easily depend on things that have worked in the past, our education, our social skills, charismatic personality, quick wit . . . whatever. But without the power of God rising from our souls in prayer and dependence on the Spirit, we’re simply a humanitarian mission trusting in organizational leadership skills to fuel God’s program. Sick dudes. I mean gross, gross. Next.
 
Next week or the week following, our team is going to start a 1-2 week fast to re-focus and really try to catch God’s vision for transformation. Listening to the community and serving in community development, asset-based sort of principles is good. But it just isn’t good enough. We need a God-shaped vision that is fueled in God’s heart. We generally know where we are headed but we are all feeling a deep need for God to speak about His vision for our community. We want to hear from Him, need to hear from Him.
 
We will be inviting our Nepali Christian brothers and sisters into this fast as well as any of you who would like to participate. We are looking at the dates of January 16-29. Some of you may want to give a day or two to this or a more extended time. I will be giving out more details in our FB group with very specific prayer requests. Lives and communities transformed . . . not by our strength or effort, but by the supernatural power of God. Hands in the pile together!
 

More on the slow way of transformation in mission

I was on a call this morning with co-workers from around the world and we were discussing the role of mission workers in our communities. Entrance points and long-lasting transformation was a theme that came up. A guy from Central Asia gave a really interesting insight in what kind of entrances we have in our communities and how fast we often try to develop projects. He said that often times missionaries try to go extremely quickly, have a lot of ambition but this almost always leads to dependency. We provide the building, the funding, the timeline . . . .all the while we do not have the relationships or trust and we end up doing everything ourselves. You fast forward a couple years and those same determined, task-driven missionaries are whining their butts off about locals not joining them in the work. In a nutshell, we aren’t really doing much good for the very people we serve. Patience and going slow is difficult but the sort of slow transformation that last is beautiful.
 
I can often complain about more things than I cheer about. But I do have to pause and be thankful for the slow, steady growth that we are seeing. The Nepali church where we are involved has completely released us to speak into and work side by side with them in seeing God’s Kingdom grow around here. With every visit to a home, road trip, or ministry function, that trust deepens. We often like to think of resources in regard to money, buildings, or education. Those are certainly helpful. Yet, in so many places of the world, we see all these things being provided but there is no social networking or relationship to make any of it last. There is so much richness among Nepalis – social networking, helping each other out, hospitality. Today’s session with my co-workers this a.m. was a good reminder that slow and steady does win the race and the beauty of trust, transparency, and encouragement is a wonderful thing you get to experience along the way. 
 
For the last couple months my 21 year old neighbor has kept bothering me about starting a higher level English class for students in their late teens and early 20s. I have helped several students with writing essays, conversational English, and other sorts of issues but I kept pushing back on my neighbor’s suggestion. I asked him what would make an initiative such as this any different than any other program in the community. Typically, I’m a sucker for starting programs and running with them. Over the years though, I have learned the lesson that I shared above. When I move really fast, it usually ends up being me alone doing the work, championing my own vision, and then it all blows up in a relatively short period of time. Finally, after much prodding and pushing I agreed to start doing a higher level English deal in the basement of our house.
 
Because I did not initiate this, it just has such a different feeling. There is enthusiasm around the class. Students are already talking about how to grow the group. They are learning in a way they can understand. Time goes by quickly. There is so much potential in all of that. For me, the bigger message is not about this program or whether it succeeds or fails but what it is doing in the lives of my Nepali brothers who are steering it. Just last night my neighbor told me that his vision for the group is to set an example for many students in the community to see that it is possible to improve their English and succeed in college. He said that his dream is for students to turn around in a year or two and say, “Why are these people helping us so much? Why do they give English lessons for free? What is this all about.” And ad that time, we can say, “It is because Jesus has so changed our lives that we do everything possible to serve.” 
 
I have said these things before. I’ve had the very same thought. But man, when it comes from a 21 year old Nepali believer driving Christ-centered transformation in his own community it just makes all the difference in the world. This is the slow way of the Kingdom and we’re learning day by day. This would never be the road that I would choose but I’m thankful that Christ and His patience with me continually teaches me to walk patiently with my friends.