Thursday, February 21, 2008

praxis nexus

So sorry, gang, to be slow on the draw here. Last week I was in Charleston SC for a National Vineyard Leaders gathering, flew home and then turned around and flew down to Orlando for an informational/planning meeting for Willow Creek’s Leadership Summit this August. I’ll get home Friday, but feel behind on everything.

Joe did a fabulous job last weekend with the wrap-up of our Ragtag Rebellion series. Those kind of Patton-type messages are actually difficult to do in our context…and even more so for “the new guy”; it requires a fair amount of equity and authentic personal buy-in from the communicator to the vision of a particular church. I was more than thrilled.

Equity and trust in a pastor take a long time, mostly because we want to see if “believability” is warranted. People want to discover integrity. Because of our hyper-information-age cynicism (especially in a vocal and polarized culture), we are thoroughly jaded. But we want to believe there are integrous people out there; trouble is, that process takes time. The question in the Church is: Are the pastor/priest/reverend’s message and actions congruent? When theory (science) or belief (religion) synthesize in real practice, we have praxis. Each feeds the other. I think we’re starved for praxis in the Church.

I’ll leave you with an interesting recent blog from Seth Godin. Godin is an author, entrepreneur and marketing guru. I thought his post succinctly captured the New World we live in. The need for philosophy and practice to be in alignment is critical. There’s an obvious truth to James urging his readers to be “slow to speak” in the New Testament. But whether thoughts tumble out fast or slow, we can be undone by what’s really in our hearts; and whatever is in our hearts will eventually leak out. At least that’s what Jesus said.

There’s a lot between-the-lines in Godin’s blog. I’m sure it’s not his intent, but in our YouTubed world we may have the closest thing yet to God’s omnipresence. Or at least, as the proverb says, “Character is what you are when no one’s looking”…and we are quickly arriving at the place where someone’s looking all the time.

Christians call that accountability. Libertarians call it Big Brother. I call it creepy. But it may not be a bad thing when you seriously think about it.

Politics aside, read the following with trepidation. Hopefully we all become circumspect for the right reason: we want to please God with all that is within us. Not just for approval ratings, but to honor the God who loves us wildly.

Expose us, God.

Seth Godin’s post: Why George Allen isn't running for President

It was a great Web moment. George Allen was the Republican Party's next star, anointed as a potential candidate for president in 2008. But first he had to win the Senate race in Virginia, considered by many to be a layup for him.

The traditional way to run a political campaign is to control your message. Control what you say and when you say it. Control who hears it.

Tell one story to your raving fans, and a more moderate story to people in the center.

As voters have seen again and again, politicians are good at this. Some people call it lying. But in general, politicians have gotten away with it.

The top-down, control-the-message strategy worked in the past for a few reasons:

--Media companies were complicit in not embarrassing the people they counted on to appear on their shows and authorize their licenses.
--Politicians could decide where and when to show up and could choose whether or not they wanted to engage.
--Bad news didn't spread far unless it was exceptionally juicy.

But George Allen discovered that the rules have fundamentally changed. Allen's challenger asked S.R. Sidarth, a senior at the University of Virginia, to trail Allen with a video camera. The idea was to document Allen's travels and speeches. During a speech in Breaks, Virginia, Allen turned to Sidarth and said, "Let's give a welcome to Macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia," said Allen. As I write this, YouTube reports that Allen's slur has been watched on YouTube more than 318,000 times. Add to that the pickup from the broadcast media (which picked it up because it was popular, not because it was "important"), and you see why George Allen lost the election.

The ironic part of the appearance is that the first words out of Allen's mouth on the tape are, "Ladies and Gentlemen, we're going to run positive campaign." The story didn't match the facts, and the facts showed up on YouTube.

For non-politicians: You can't tell two stories at the same time. Not for long.

Amen, brother. That goes for pastors, too. And Christians in general.

Monday, February 11, 2008

energy, trust and einstein

There is so much energy in the room at VCC on the weekends. I feel buzzed most Saturdays & Sundays.

I know, I know. That sounds corny. But as a communicator, please believe me, you can tell the difference from year to year. And I’ve been at VCC for twenty-four years. That’s a long time and a lot of peaks and troughs. Longer than some of you are old.

Big group energy seems to primarily come from two sources: First, the critical mass of people coalescing around a common mission; there’s some mysterious tipping point that occurs. I’ll leave that to Gladwell and his higher thinking.

The second is obvious: God. And that’s even more mysterious. Maybe that’s e=mc2 at a spiritual level. Mass times the velocity of Light squared.

I would like to think that maybe God finds us trustworthy of His energy.

One day a friend of mine at the Vineyard who was deeply involved in the prophetic/intercessory prayer stream and somewhat suspicious of the “seeker sensitive” movement unloaded an honest confession on me.

Digression: although I would not label us a “seeker sensitive” church, I certainly see why others would. After all, we see the weekend celebrations as more than a gathering of believers to get inspired and/or challenged to do something for God; there’s an attraction/inviting element that is promoted and hopefully created that makes it ideal to bring not-yet-believers. The evangelism/grace-slant that we have is evident, both in the weekly challenge and the atmosphere itself. That’s intentional.

Anyway, my friend—who had been a part of an unsuccessful churchplant—confessed that they stood in the back of the auditorium one Sunday during a packed out celebration, felt troubled and cried out to God, “Why them, God? Why this place?” I can totally relate. There have been times that I’ve wondered why God would use a particular person when there seemed to be so many troubling aspects of their personality.

My friend’s frustration was all about not seeing more obvious charismatic signs manifested. I understand; that’s my background, my roots as well. My difficulties have been around the typical Pentecostal-church-subculture expressions; my theology and experience is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. But I just haven’t been convinced that all the conventional corporate expressions are expedient, or to contextually stretch Paul a bit: “We are allowed to do all things,” but not all things help others grow stronger. (1 Cor. 10:23b).

Anyway, my friend said God suddenly broke through and answered sharply, “Because I can trust them.”

I was stunned. First that my friend told me, because we typically tell stories that make us look good or that support our ministry style.

Then I was honestly humbled that God would trust us at all. I’m not sure I trust me.

Which leads me to another thing that probably taps into the melancholic side of my personality: To whom much is given, much is required. Trust is nothing to squander. Especially when it comes to God.

These are good times. Certainly for me personally. More fun. More challenging in peculiar ways. But somehow more confidently dependent on God. Yeah, that feels weirdly risky…but way more fun than internal politics and five-year plans.

Maybe even oddly rebellious. And certainly ragtag.

Monday, February 04, 2008

to nigeria and beyond...

Good to be back and orbiting the blogosphere again. When you’re gone for ten days, work feels hopelessly behind plus it’s time to get ready for the weekend. We’re launching a new series called “The Ragtag Rebellion” based on our vision statement. It’s a call to get everyone at VCC to exercise their innate abilities and Spirit-empowered gifts in some serving role.

I kept a family-journal on the trip. This is probably the boring equivalent of a slideshow, but some of you who wanted more info on our trip to Nigeria might find it interesting. I said, might. This is long…just warning you; don’t let your boss catch you.

If you only want to see a cool four-and-a-half minute video of the trip, check this out on Youtube.

Day 1: Friday

Leave Cincy airport at 6:40pm for Detroit-Amsterdam-Abuja, Nigeria. The team consists of seventeen people including my buddy Emmanuel Itapson, our original connection with Nigeria. We're off to be part of the first official borehole/well drilled by our Nigerian team...the first-fruits of the Luke 4 Challenge.

Day 2: Saturday

More flying. It will take about twenty-two hours total to get there. The flight to Amsterdam was oddly on a smaller plane…and jammed. From Amsterdam to Abuja I was in the very last row, next to the bathroom.; at least you get to meet most everyone in coach at some point during the flight. Emmanuel came back and laughed: “What sin in your life has caused this?” We got into Abuja at night; the team stayed at a Methodist mission; Emmanuel and I went to Patrick Dakum’s house; Patrick’s wife Sarah and Emmanuel’s wife Lydia are sisters.

Day 3: Sunday

Spoke at a church in Abuja…about 800 to 1000 people total in two services: one in English at 8am and one in Hausa at 10:30am. The English one went great, the Hausa was awkward; having a translator slows things down terrifically and I was constantly contextually editing and rephrasing internally. The services were long and somewhat traditional in an “old-style American” sense: long announcements and the reading of finances by one of the elders. There was a marked difference socioeconomically between the services; the Hausa seemed more spirited, happier and poorer. Interesting.

The whole team came to the Hausa service and then back to Patrick and Sarah’s for a late lunch; met lots more people. We left in the afternoon for Jos…about a three hour drive. We’re staying at the Self-Sustaining Enterprises compound. Nice and simple with bunk beds; the team will stay together here. Jason and Emilee Munafo live there year-round; they are establishing a base with an organization called Back2Back.

Jos is a mid-sized city (under a million). There is little infrastructure; electricity can be out for days. There seems to be a zero-maintenance culture (typical for a third-world country), probably a carry-over from subsistence farming and the instability of the government. People from northern Nigeria are flooding in because of oppressive state governments (Sharia law). It takes a few days to get used to the dust (constant in the dry season), the heavy smell of exhaust, the abundance of motorbikes (the local taxis), and men simply standing by the side of the road urinating. To me, the poverty in the city feels more debilitating than the poverty in the rural areas.

Day 4: Monday

We went to where our first borehole is drilled; the “commissioning ceremony” happens on Wednesday. Chief Adamu Adiwu will be there with the district chiefs and village chiefs as well as the village pastors. It’s really an interesting cultural experience; they are very serious about the commissioning. He will give a speech, then others will speak, and me as well. I met with some of the pastors today and had a lot of fun with them; once we started kidding around with them, they loosened up. They are very warm, respectful, and expressive with gratitude. This water supply will serve literally hundreds of people. The team of five Nigerians here who make up the Self-Sustaining Enterprises drilling team are pumped about being hired to drill wells; they are all believers and can articulate the vision beautifully; very smart college-degree guys (hydrologist, engineer, etc.). I was kidding around with them and asked them which one was the hardest worker and they all laughed and said, “We’re a team”. Very impressive…and they didn’t know each other until this team was formed. They thought they could eventually drill fifteen wells a month. Wow—a little overly ambitious, but cool.

The road to get to this place is rough. A car can make it, but tricky, though I saw a guy riding a motorbike with a twin bed mattress on his head. The rest of the team got to go to an orphanage and had an heart-rending visit—they delivered fourteen beds for the kids…some we’re sleeping on tiny bare piece of thin foam—several on the same piece. They said they got so excited to see the beds. They also built shelves, picked up trash, but mostly played with the kids. The poverty is overwhelming; the spirit of the people is amazing.

Day 5: Tuesday

Today Emmanuel, Kande and I traveled to Bauche and met with a group of thirty pastors. The area they live in is under Sharia (Islamic law). Emmanuel told me we would just be hanging out with them and dialoguing; when we got there, it was advertised as a seminar! The pastors were so warm; several of them spoke no English so it was very slow. I talked about three main things we talk to our churchplanters about: mission, values and practices. Then I described our values: servant community, outward-focused, worship, empowered transformation and relevance. Then we talked about being outward-focused in our culture.

Then they talked…

One of the pastors told about how Muslim extremists rioted after a rival Muslim sect tore down a mosque that was being built—only about three concrete blocks high. They blamed the Christians and burned down 23 of their homes. One pastor had two elders lose their homes and belongings (which are barely anything). I told them we needed to learn from them. It was an eye-opening experience. I promised them that the Vineyard in Cincinnati would pray for them. I cried later that night thinking about it. We were busy all day and never stopped for lunch or dinner.

Day 6: Wednesday

Today the commissioning of the borehole was held. This was a big deal to the people involved; the paramount chief (His Royal Highness Chief Adamu Adiwu) and the district chiefs were there. When the people approach him they bow to the ground; westerners bow their heads and women curtsey. He is a believer…and very outspoken. The culture is such a mind-blowing thing; the chief has a man who follows him brandishing a whip. It went on forever; two different women’s choirs sang (from the area Women’s Fellowship). It was totally a Christian thing…lots of songs of praise with percussion instruments. Most of the speeches were in Hausa, the tribal language. My new name is something like Daude Maiaike. Brian Hitchcock (director of Self-Sustaining Enterprises—who’s been here since January 1, God bless him…), gave a beautiful speech; extremely heartfelt. The sound system kept cutting out and they had a little band there with old equipment; it was sweet. We thanked God for the well and prayed for the drilling team. Then we opened the tap on the tank from the well and water came shooting out. We brought about five-hundred buckets for people; a glass was poured and the chief, myself, Brian, Kande, and the director of SSE Nigeria drank it. Big gulps; it was important for the people to see that. Then there was almost a riot as the women pushed and shoved to fill their buckets (they’re the ones who have to fetch the water every morning). The need was so great; some of the team was unnerved and got upset, but we were reminded how Americans will stay up all night to be the first one to buy an Xbox…and fight over them.

After it settled down, the Chief stood and scolded the people and said they shamed themselves in front of their guests and told them to return all the buckets. They did and then buckets were handed out to the oldest women first. But it was wild, to say the least. It was a microcosm of how complex the issues are here. Anyway, we were thanked graciously at least a thousand times. The location of the borehole was historically strategic for the tribe; it’s on a school ground that’s run by ECWA (Evangelical Church of West Africa) founded in 1921 by a woman missionary from America. The chief was practically raised by her. It was the beginning of Christianity here and has a lot of significance for the people. How she ever found this place just amazes me, especially as remote as it would have been then. It’s interesting: there’s a lot of respect for Americans here…but they think everyone in the U.S. is a Christian. We met a gazillion people; lots of remarkable pastors. They were so proud to offer everyone on the team a Coke.

It’s all simply mindboggling. Emmanuel told me when he gets home it takes weeks for him to process it and tell his wife what happened. They continue to inform us that we have no idea how significant this was. I told them the only reason we’re here is because God loves them and heard someone’s prayer in the tribe.

Day 7: Thursday

The weather was very cool today. Most of the group worked here at the SSE compound to prepare the place for rainy season (digging trenches), some went to see a similar drilling rig to what we’ve purchased in operation, while Emmanuel, Kande and I went to meet with a group of pastors here in Jos. I have fallen in love with the pastors here; they have so little to work with. There were about fifty pastors there and they had been waiting for a while (Emmanuel had a previous meeting back up). Emmanuel introduced Kande and me so we gave some VCC history, spent some time on mission, values and practices, and the talked about our core values. Even though the cultures are so different, there is always a difference between “church subcultures” and the particular broad culture of non-Christians in any city. You could see light bulbs going off with these guys. Then we did Q&A; it was totally fascinating. The questions were more about mechanics in an outward-focused church. Very cool. They were, of course, so appreciative and grateful. I think we actually stirred up a little trouble because of some of the systems/processes in the ECWA (Evangelical Church of West Africa) denomination, but they laughed about it themselves.

Afterwards we stopped to see a friend of Emmanuel’s who is a surgeon at the local ECWA hospital. Unbelievable conditions, but very good for Nigeria. He is actually an American who’s been here for seventeen years. What a model of sacrifice.

We left there and went to the ECWA seminary. We barged into a missions class and the professor invited us to talk about what we’re doing…after Emmanuel told him he had to since he had been his mentor years ago! There were fifteen students in the class in old wooden desks with a worn-out blackboard and open windows. The prof was talking about a shift in missions strategies from rural areas (traditional approach in Africa) to cities which are now overloaded and diverse. It’s an obvious mission field but a paradigm shift in missional thinking here—less about geography and more about where cultures are being relocated. It was a clear fit with what we’re doing (as in: Greater Cincinnati is our mission field), so it was a great segue. This turned out to be a total God-moment. As a matter of fact, during Q&A one of the students (who looked a lot like a young Spike Lee) spent about five minutes thanking us and remarking that the past thirty minutes had completely changed his view of ministry and was worth all his time in seminary. No kidding. The students were all nodding their heads…and all we were doing was talking about our mission and values and spending time describing an outward-focused, relevant approach in whatever culture you’re in. I’ve never been in a classroom setting that was so much like a giant sponge. This was way worth the stop. We ended up being there for a good while.

It was a full day; we again skipped lunch but we did have dinner tonight at a Nigerian pizza place(!) with a Coke and, get this: ice. Beautiful.

The team is resting tonight, playing Scrabble, laughing, and sending emails home. It’s been a good trip.

Day 8: Friday

This was our last whole day here. Tomorrow morning we drive back to Abuja, meet with another pastor, and then fly out around 9:50pm. It’s about a seven hour flight to Amsterdam, then a six hour layover, then the longer flight home to Detroit, then Cincy. Whoohoo!

Today we took the kids from the children’s home to a park to play. There was even grass there—scrappy, but almost green. The kids are simply beautiful. Some have lost parents to AIDS, or a mom or dad simply abandoned them, or were turned over here because conditions are better than home. Our team got them all beds and new sheets the first day; you’d think it was Christmas. Some didn’t even have beds. Anyway, it was a day at the park with some old swings and slides. They played soccer and had a blast. We were even able to rent a bouncy trampoline-thing. It was hilarious. They called me (and all the guys) “uncle”, but sometime would call me “daddy”…I think because of my gray hair. All the women are called “auntie”. They are learning to speak English as well.

What a night! Big ending party at the SSE house with the SSE/Nigeria board, the drilling team, our folks and others. They roasted a whole goat and everything, I mean everything, is eaten. Brad Wise (our creative director) and I probably laughed more than humanly possible. He asked what one piece on the grill was and the cook replied in broken English: “That’s the tube that goes to the butt.” Mmmm. I said to Brad, “Can you imagine being at a party and saying, ‘Please…I can’t eat another bite of tube-that-goes-to-the-butt. I’m stuffed!”

Chickens are cooked whole. They leave the head on it, cut the feet off, and then jam the feet into the beak and cook it all. This ain’t no freakin’ KFC.

I ate everything (intestines aren’t bad), but in the dark. Tribal musicians were hired and did their particular tribal dances while playing wooden flutes (like recorders) with three guys on drums. It was absolutely the strangest music I’ve ever heard. At first it made no sense, then I began to realize how complicated it was—with polyrhythms and melody lines mixed that sounded crazy and cacophonous. Only problem: every song really sounded the same and they played forever.

It was fabulous hanging out with all our Nigerian friends. Real Christians anywhere in the world are really special people; there is a level of sacrifice that is amazing. When I invited a pastor to come and stay with me, he smiled and said, “The ticket is about a year’s salary…”. We are terrifically spoiled in the U.S.

The electricity was out today…that meant no showers (because they use an electric pump), but tonight it came back on. Everyone is really tired. A few are playing “speed scrabble”, talking, packing, chilling out. It’s been a good team; everyone has gotten along well; I’m so proud of our folks…they are true servants.

Day 9: Saturday

The three-hour drive from Jos to Abuja was eventful for the team. Kande, Emmanuel and his brother Brian and I left early and drove down. The flight left at 9:50pm, but the airport gates close at 7:30…no matter what. But the bus driving the rest of the team broke down in Jos. They crammed everyone(!) into a 1992 Toyota minivan and a truck and left at 5pm. They made it to Abuja…but then the van broke down before they got to the airport. Emmanuel and Patrick were calling airport officials and government friends to get the gate to stay open another hour while Patrick took his car to transport people. Incredibly, everyone made it—with luggage—and got through customs by 9:30pm. Close.

Day 10: Sunday

Arrived in Cincy at 4:30pm. Anita picked us up and drove Emmanuel and Brad to VCC to get their cars. It’s really cold. Went home and took a shower for a long time. Water. Felt spoiled.

Now comes the task of processing everything…and determining what to communicate to VCC. I love this church.