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.
 

Transformation is slow, Miracles don’t happen every day

the way of transformation is slow. Miracles don’t happen every day. . . I guess that is why they are miracles. Life can be brutal and so many find ourselves in situations that we never predicted. The life we are living is likely not what we imagined for ourselves. But here we are, trying to make the best out of what has been given. Clearly, we do get to have these glory moments when it seems like the universe has revolved around our exact situation and nothing could be better, but many of us live pretty normal lives with normal interactions. And it is into this mundane sort of stuff that we find this slow, slow path of transformation.
 
I am thinking of a conversation I had with a dear friend several years ago. She was talking about working with several of her friends from Southeast Asia and she mentioned that she had some sexy ideas of saving the world abroad. But God led her to a small ethnic enclave community in a less than glamorous location in Minnesota. I came across her note recently:
 
The deeper I get into ministry and presence here in this community, the less and less I feel like I’m on a rollercoaster. Part of that is that when I stick around I get to see people healed! It’s such a process, and God has really spoken to me a lot in the past few years about sticking around. First I thought I was going to move to “Africa,” then I committed to go to grad school in California. I finally gave up on all my sexy dreams of going abroad to stay in my studio apartment in Minneapolis. But I wouldn’t trade the peace that comes from being obedient for any beach, ocean, or stardom. God’s got plenty in the pipeline comin’ our way…and it ain’t gonna be boring. And you know, it doesn’t feel like such a revolving door of insurmountable needs when you stick around because you’re more CONNECTED to people, resources, and you don’t see people isolated in their problems.
 
This old email today reminds me that the pressure is off. Transformation is not in my hands. Sure, we have a role to play. We work our tails off around here to try to do our part. . . .But God is the the Divine One who transforms. As we commit to daily surrender and love, God alone does His miracles. They don’t happen every day and in my life I would dare say they don’t happen often. But they do happen. Grueling, hand to the plow sort of relational discipleship is where we get to see God bust in and do His work. The pressure is off. The stress is not ours to carry. Christ bore all that. . . . Walking faithfully is our part.
 
The ministry context we are in continues to evolve and solidify. We are mostly working with Bhutanese-Nepali believers very new in their faith. Our dear friends don’t really have much of a framework for all the vision statements, flow charts, and processes that a mission organization such as mine employs. The amount of education, years of experience, and presentations I have given doesn’t carry a whole lot of weight. We continually find ourselves amid Nepali relationships with a completely different paradigm for understanding success or ministry. It is in the midst of this context that I have to come back to the simple truth. My Nepali friends would give their life for me. They may not get exactly it is what I do or even how I would like to come alongside and serve but they know Jesus. They love as Christ loves and give as He gives. Maybe clout, recognition, and all that jazz is way overrated.
 
The pressure is off. We’re not the Messiah and were never asked to be so. We faithfully walk over a long period of time and God does His miracles. Donors looking for a big, janky project may not get super excited about the slow grind of transformation that begins with many whom the world has ignored but we are convinced that this is what Jesus does. He takes the wisdom of this world, flips it on its head, and shows His matchless glory. 
 
May we all continue to let go of things that we were never intended to carry. May we realize that we are not nearly as important as we think we are and perhaps we were never intended to put all of our emphasis on hitting a home run at this moment or that moment. The way of transformation is slow. Miracles don’t happen every day. When we stick around, we get to see people healed and made whole! That is beautiful guys. . . . so, so beautiful.
 

Blind Travel Underrated 

The end of August finds us moving into a new rhythm as much of our summer was poured into the pioneering of youth and children’s ministry for a Nepali congregation here in Pittsburgh. Molly and I were able to spend hundreds of hours in the homes of new believers and that has established such a broad base in terms of relationship. If it were up to me, I’d spend all day every day doing just that. But this next few months has me balancing a lot more things – continuing education, discipleship curriculum development, admin sort of assessing what we’ve learned so far, as well as continuing on with hospitality and visitation.
 
I had just finished a video meeting this morning with ITeams workers in Ukraine, the Middle East, South Africa, India, and the US when I decided to visit some friends that I am close to about 30 minutes’ walk from here. The route is pretty straight forward but things didn’t go exactly according to plan. I haven’t posted much on blindness and travel lately so here we go. . .
 
I headed down Brownsville Road (the main corridor in our neighborhood which has pretty heavy traffic) and people were out and about. A lady on her steps early into my walk greeted me and about 10 minutes into my jaunt, another woman ask me to come over to her. She asked me for 2 dollars so she could take the bus and I responded that I didn’t have any cash on me. I’m all about the blind and independence but with a 70% unemployment rate among the blind I usually chuckle when I get hit up for money. 
 
So I continued on when a few minutes later two construction workers stopped me telling me I couldn’t walk down the sidewalk any longer. I assertively told them where I needed to go and these two dudes walked me across the street amid busy traffic, got me past the construction, and got me back on the path on my original side of the street. I couldn’t have asked for more understanding people.
 
I have several apps on my IPhone that I use to alert me to where I am. I knew the address where I was going but I had actually forgotten the name of the cross street. I don’t like to use GPS as it runs my phone battery down and it doesn’t really teach me to navigate. I simply asked Sire on the IPhone what my location was. I needed the 200 block. I asked Sire at 551, 315, and finally she told me that 220 Brownsville was on my right. I turned the corner and went to my friend’s house whose entrance is on the backside of that block. I found their door just fine but no one was home. Yep, 32 minutes of walking but not so much success. I tried to get a hold of them to no avail. I stayed for several minutes in front of their house and prayed over the family and home.
 
I started my walk back and I came upon a funny intersection and without knowing it continued down the wrong road. By the time I realized that I had obviously made a mistake I was several blocks off course. I got my cross street coordinates, I had never heard of either of those roads. Again, I didn’t have a ton of battery so I didn’t do GPS just to float me back home. I listened for the loudest traffic I could hear, assuming that traffic was Brownsville Road. I made a couple wrong turns away from the traffic but finally I got to a somewhat busy intersection and got my coordinates again. One of those roads I was familiar with but the cross street normally runs parallel with this road I was on, not crossing it. SO yeah, that was freaking confusing but I kept following the steady flow of traffic and got back up to Brownsville Road.
 
I am talking pretty chill about this right now but when I get lost (which certainly happens from time to time) I go through a few emotions. The first is usually frustration. I start asking myself, “why in the hell does this have to take so long? Can my life be simpler? Can I just go visit someone?” Then, if I can’t figure out my way out of the situation quickly, my emotion can progress to fear. Half the time when I ask people for directions they give terrible clues and when I need help the most, there usually is no one outside. Having coordinates that I can’t really assess don’t really help. So yeah, there definitely is a level of fear. This can then be followed by determination mixed with anger and usually is ensued by me saying a bunch of crap to myself that shouldn’t be repeated.
 
I have never gotten so lost that I couldn’t find my way again. Today was no different. My walk home took over an hour when it should have taken 30 minutes. But once you can learn to problem solve (not simply go from point A to point B) it gives you a lot more confidence the next time you get turned around. There is also a sense of accomplishment and joy that comes with getting out of a tangled mess. So once I got back up to Brownsville Road, I could sort of continue on with a much better attitude of prayer that I had for the previous 45 minutes I was walking around.
 
The moral of the story is that it is not the worst thing in the world when you get lost. I had a text conversation on the way home with Molly and Charity that was humorous. And the many people I got to pray for because of a longer walk today was well worth it. Many have asked how I get around or what travel entails so I share this one with you. No need for sympathy or commendation . . . it’s just my life. 
 
The bigger story within the story is how easily rattled we all are by pretty mundane things. Annoyance that my friends weren’t home. The lady begging for money. Getting turned around in the hood. These don’t need to be meltdown moments. Exercise is good. Prayer is even better. Take it down a notch Trotter and try again.
 

Discovering the Story of God

One of the reasons in creating this blog and mission page was for readers to be able to get a small glimpse into the daily routine as we serve here in Pittsburgh. Over the years I have shifted quite a bit (at least I feel like I have) in the way that I talk about this missions life. Refugees, the marginalized, the lost, or even “those we serve” are terms that just don’t make it into my conversation most of the time. I’m sort of done trying to help readers or potential missions supporters understand who is on the inside and who is on the outside.  

Clearly, I know enough about Scripture to make some judgment calls on defining parameters and strategic mission guides our decisions. But more and more, I find my life being so surrounded by my Nepali brothers and sisters that it feels sort of strange to say these are the people I serve. Or they are in some way marginalized and in need of my charity (no pun intended). I needed a sound system speaker today and the first person I called was an 18 year old Nepali guy. If I need a ride somewhere, again I’m gonna call a Bhutanese-Nepali friend. The “people I serve” are simply my family, friends, and neighbors. While our stories and personal background may be altogether different this family is done with labels.

 

In light of all that, I’ll share a small window today in one of the things we’re doing to help disciple each other around here. I give the first bit here as a backdrop, helping anyone reading to understand that discipleship is a two-way street in which we are constantly learning from each other.

 

Bible Discovery Tool

We are using this simple tool to help each other think about Scripture called Bible Discovery. I believe it was originally intended to be a method to use with people who have no biblical literacy at all or who have never heard the story of God. We are using it primarily with new believers. Basically, you take 30 or so stories from cover to cover in the Bible and you read them one at a time together. The first time through students read alone. Then someone reads aloud while students listen to the passage. Next, students take turns retelling the story to each other. If they have omitted anything, students in the group help. If they included something that was not directly in the passage, students bring clarity to that as well.

 

After reading, hearing, and speaking the Word of God this way, we ask a few basic questions. What do we learn about God? What do we learn about people? What do we need to change in our lives to obey? The multiplicative edge to it is that anyone can retell the story or start their own group of sharing these stories with others.  

 

We are doing this in 3 different forums in ministry right now. We do this at a Nepali youth group that meets every Saturday. I host a very small discipleship group of 3 young men where we are doing this as well. And then on Sundays, we lead a small children’s church for a Nepali congregation where we use the Bible Discovery process as a foundation for all that we are teaching. The goal is for this format to be expanded into various age groups of people and amongst various groups of believers and seekers in the Nepali community.

 

Being Transformed During Our Own Team Study

Probably one of the most exciting things I’ve ever gotten to do in ministry is meeting with our current ministry team (that has consisted of Molly and Charity over the last few months) and does the Bible discovery together. Our commitment is that God should be dealing with us first and we should personally be discovering the story of God afresh. We find ourselves overwhelmed with huge questions about God, struggles, doubts, and man, it is so incredibly challenging to honor Jesus with our obedience at times. There have been many Tuesday mornings where we stop, with tears in our eyes, wrestling with big questions about God, realizing that He is God and we are not and we still have so much to learn. On more than one occasion, I let my rich theological education interfere with simply hearing Charity or Molly and I have to let this discovery of the Bible be renewed again. These two ladies continually remind me that I don’t know everything and the Spirit is deep, deep at work in their hearts.

 

The Bigger Picture

I guess I’m blogging about all this today to give some of you a glimpse into the bigger picture of what it is that we’re after around here. The mission and aim of our work is to see transformation come individually and collectively to the Bhutanese-Nepali community here in South Pittsburgh. This includes a holistic scope including people’s spiritual, emotional, economic, educational, and vocational needs. We choose to start with the foundation of the story of God as it is His very Kingdom alone that inaugurates all transformation. The Lord’s Prayer after all was that God’s Kingdom would come on this earth as it is in heaven . . . in bible studies, in personal relationships, in business practice, in health care . . . in all of it. His Kingdom come. His will be done.

 

So we are thrilled that we get to do all the relational stuff that I have talked about before. Inviting people into our homes, being present in theirs, communicating in Nepali about very personal issues – those are huge, earth shattering sorts of things in our work. There is so much love and trust in that. Now though, we get to come alongside our neighbors and discover the actual story of God together. Such a story has always led to and always will lead to God’s creation being renewed and transformed. We all feel like this is something we can give our lives do. So we continue to study. Continue to talk. We continue to obey. Ultimately, this is all about worship and hopefully when it is all said and done, Christ will be reflected as the true and beautiful Lord that He is.

 

There is the window guys. Thanks for reading and peeking in a bit tonight. The story of God is the story of all stories and the one we continue to fix our gaze upon. 

 

 

Identity and being the right person

i remember where I was sitting back in 2005 when I wrote my first blog. Blogging was a new term to me and I was living in the Mariana Islands at the time. Blogging helped me connect with the rest of the world outside my tiny island and gave friends and family a window into my world. I’ve written off and on for the last decade on a variety of topics, creating a sort of identity online. I would imagine that more than a handful of entries have been composed on the topic of missionary identity and being true to myself as I live cross-culturally.
 
The gig can be difficult to explain to my neighbors when they ask directly how I get paid or where my office is located. Missions isn’t exactly an office 9-5 sort of deal. Then you have the whole complication of fundraising, donors, a central office near Chicago and on and on. Generally speaking, I’m okay with the lack of clarity. Amongst my native-born American friends I have tended not to fit in as much as I would like as we’ve lived for such a long period of time now in a culture that is not our own, communicating in a language other than English. The values of Nepalis have blended with my own American values. I speak only Nepali to my son. Charity speaks only English. Our lives are like this weird sociological experiment that we are sort of okay with . . . well, most of the time. J Honestly, identity can be a real challenge but we try to do our best to remind ourselves that a cultural or vocational identity isn’t ultimately all that important. Being understood isn’t exactly the mandate of Scripture. Obedience to Christ is what counts and His greater calling and connection to the Spirit is what we hold tight in our grasp.
 
Today I went to the park with a friend of mine and his two kids. Charity, Amos and Molly came along. My friend has been in the country 5 years or so and is disabled. His kids are extremely intelligent and his wife works hard during the day. I was having this weird moment at the park . . . battling yet again with my identity as a missionary. Everyone at the park was a stay at home mom or they were retired. The fact that I have a different sort of schedule where I can take neighbors to do things like this has been enabled by this missionary status that I’m so blessed to live. But I was still struggling as I sat there chatting away in Nepali with my friend. Charity, Molly, and the kids were all running around, the kids rambling on in perfect English. My friend and I sat alone on a bench and he told me so many different details of his life. For nearly 2 hours he asked me everything under the sun.
 
My friend (let’s call him Hem) was commenting on so many different things and I could just tell he rarely gets the opportunity to do what he was doing – sitting and talking. He discussed how our government provided funding for beautiful places such as the park where we were sitting. He thought it was so cool how you could make food there if you wanted. We talked about war and how my dad was wounded there. Hem was amazed that this park was right in the heart of the city but off in the distance you could see the forest. He lamented his hearing difficulties and struggles with coping with boredom. He dropped a heavy burden on me as he seemingly is not able to overcome something in his personal life right now. He wanted to know what the bible said about it. Hem is in his 40s and at one point he told me we should go swing so he grabbed a swing and started flying through the air.
 
As the conversation continued, I realized that Hem was seeing some pretty massive identity issues of his own. He has only been a Christian for a few years and now he is forced to take his mostly Nepali-Hindu worldview and squeeze it through the lends of Jesus. He has been transformed and he is a wonderful husband and father but everything is so new. He has a hard time understanding his kids because their Nepali kind of sucks. They speak very simple Nepali, operating most of the time in English. He watches others sort of adjust quickly in an extremely fast paced society while he is sort of forced to figure things out on his own. The isolation that Hem must feel at times has to be unbearable.
 
But there we were today . . . swinging along. I realize that if I didn’t have this sort of missionary identity that I would not have been able to speak directly into his situation. I likely wouldn’t have learned this language, have the time to invest in the relationships I have, and I sure wouldn’t be at the park at 10:30 on a Thursday morning. Hem held a very long embrace today as we left. Identity is all a matter of perspective. 
 
Later on today, I was talking to a Nepali church leader and he shared that the elementary age children probably understand less than 40% of the Nepali language as they are growing up in America. Identity struck again. Uprooted from Bhutan, off to Nepal for 20 plus years. . . . This is the story of most of my neighbors. Only recently have they been able to be resettled in this great country. If our friends and neighbors didn’t have much, at least they had the ability to communicate easily with neighbors and family members. But the cultural adjustment is extremely accelerated in the Nepali community right now. Changes are coming so fast that even kids within their own families won’t be able to understand each other well in a matter of years.
 
As I sat and talked to this ministry leader I asked him what he would suggest since we are developing youth and children’s programs at his church. I explained that we need to train leaders but the young people have to be able to understand the gospel. They have to be able to understand those doing the teaching. It was sort of a tangled mess. In that tangle though, I was thankful for this missionary identity. Our small little team here in Pittsburgh can be these amphibians going back and forth between American and Nepali cultural, switching on and off English and Nepali. Without that sort of identity we simply wouldn’t be able to do what we are doing.
 
All Nepali language speaking with the adults and elders. A mix of English and mostly Nepali with older teenagers. All English with very little Nepali as we work and talk to the kids. These are the ways we communicate with our neighbors and the different modes of ministry before us. Coping with our own identity as missionaries makes it possible to relate, at least a tiny bit, to the identity struggles of our friends. 
 
I’m thinking of another person who had an identity dilemma on His hands. Heaven to earth. God became man. Jesus was divine and human all at the very same time. The incarnation is a beautiful example for us. We, like Jesus, simply want to lay our lives down and live out the Kingdom. The incarnation was slow and so often, so is the transformation process. Jesus never seemed to be in a hurry. He knew who He was. So too, must we.