Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Vast and Overwhelming need...

"At the deepest levels of a man's heart, we are all the same. We need life. We need love. We need others. We need real. We need truth. We need Christ. When a man looks into others at these deepest levels, we see ourselves in everyone. Then and only then, we know exactly what they need, and how to call it forth from them. As we create our own platforms for doing so, we position ourselves to love others as God intends." - Yours Truly
There were 11 guys in my basement a week ago Tuesday night.
We gathered as we do each week, looking for truth, friendship, help, challenge, hope, acceptance, and life.
4 of us remember about a year ago, when we were a group of 8 guys looking for the same things together, but finding it hard to stay engaged with each other with so many of us in the basement. We prayerfully cast lots, and made two groups of 4. 
Those 4 were there along with 7 more that have joined us looking for the same thing. The conversation moved as it did about a year ago, all of us speaking of the need to be fewer in number in order for us to stay vulnerably engaged in the fire of each other's lives.
So we committed to pray and come back together last night with our desires and convictions concerning our group splitting up again. We all squeeze our teeth at the perceived "loss" of what we have, but the desire and need for life presses us forward into constant transformation thinking, season of life understanding, and Kingdom growth living.
We assessed ourselves and our situation openly and honestly, and in community: 
* This group of 11 guys includes one brand new guy, and we haven't had time to give him "the floor" because there are so many of us.
* We counted between 10-12 guys who weren't there, but have visited us regularly, and we know they need this kind of brotherhood and fellowship, but they probably feel like 1) they are imposing on us or 2) we can't give them the attention they need because there are so many of us already.
* We listed 8 guys who we know need an invitation to this, but we have been hesitant to invite them to our group because of the size.
* We saw among us 4 guys ready to lead, so long as they go out with at least one other from our group (2 by 2 sounded familiar to us).
These, among other things, convinced us. And after we all shared all week with each other, and then each shared our convictions about "who we want to be with" and "who we want each other to be with" honestly, we fairly effortlessly divided into 3 groups. Ego's weren't hurt, excitement was built, a plan in place, relational commitments to each other restated, and up we came from the basement. As each of the 3 groups spoke informally as we were leaving, they were already talking about the guys they knew they needed to invite into their fellowships. "Wow," I thought, "The need for this kind of Christ-centered fellowship is vast and overwhelming."
This was just trying to happen.
To encourage one another, and to celebrate and share how God is working to advance his Kingdom in our hearts and the hearts of other men, (and maybe also to wean ourselves from each other) we decided that we would all gather back in the basement on the first Tuesday of each month, for the time being, and worship God together. We'll get to meet each other's friends and just let the unity of what we are all doing, trying to become more and more like Christ, living more and more abundantly in the life he's offering, just saturate all of us.
Pray for us. We want more life. And we want more men to have more life so that more families have more life so the more people in the world find the best possible life available to human beings.
Christ's life.

Small Group Leadership Training

"Go and make imitators of me." - Jesus Christ
"Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose." - Jesus imitator, Paul
"A group of people are in unity, not when they are in uniform outwardly, but when they are in uniform inwardly." - Yours Truly, Jesus imitator wanna-be
We have a bunch of leaders at the Southwest church (including, but not limited to, the elders and ministers) who have committed to being in or leading a small group of people who meet for the express purpose of  becoming what God intended us to Christ.
If they want to create an atmosphere that is life-giving, then they must:
1) genuinely love God,
2) genuinely love all people,
3) be on the journey of becoming more like Christ themselves, 
4) be willing to help others on the journey of becoming more like Christ.
The truth they have learned, and I from them and among them, is that they can do none of the above without doing all of the above. They've learned this from the Bible, from their experimentation with love, form their regretful experiences in lacking love, from their own hearts, and from one another.
Every group of people, large or small, if they are any kind of group, ends up with an internal vocabulary that communicates much more among them than the actual words themselves. Our group has a list of "elements" that make up what we call an "atmosphere of life". We find that Christ himself created this atmosphere when he walked among us on earth, and we are attempting to create this same atmosphere as we walk the same Christ did...and only with his help.
We have some words, that while we want them to communicate clearly to everyone, communicate in ever-increasing clarity to and among us as we learn to live them out.
This group of leaders is giving this (living out thing) a go, some for the first time, some once again, and some in their continuing efforts. In support of them, and out of great faith in them, and for the sake of the world, I (humbly) offer this list of elements that continue to communicate deeply and meaningfully to us, and hopefully through us.
I love these guys and galls, and am with them in the incredible work of Christ that God has gifted to them.
If they want to create an atmosphere of acceptance, then they must unconditionally accept themselves in all their imperfection and messiness.
If they want to create an atmosphere of teaching, then they must learn all that they can that really matters and then share it freely and constantly.
If they want to create an atmosphere of modeling, then they must do only those things that bring them life.
If they want to create an atmosphere of accompanying, then they must be willing to go with people into their hardest places when it is uncomfortable for them to do so and stay there for an uncomfortable amount of time.
If they want to create an atmosphere of invitation, then they must build a life that is "inconvenience-able".
If they want to create an atmosphere of challenge, then they must tell the absolute truth in absolute love.
If they want to create an atmosphere of remembering, then they must bring all things back to what Christ has done as their reason for everything they do.
If they want to create an atmosphere of celebrating, then they must value any little step towards life, by any one, and be eager to point it out to everyone as such.
If they want to create an atmosphere of freedom, then they must be operating out of their freedom.
If they want to create an atmosphere of guidance, then they must listen to God on behalf of other people.
If they want to create an atmosphere of transcendence, then they must believe that God is afoot in every relationship they are in, that God is showing Himself in every moment and every thing, and that He will be appropriately amazing when we see Him..
It will cost them their lives...and it will give them their life. Life to the full, by the word of Christ. 

Thursday, October 18, 2007

I don't know how many of you watched "Star Trek: the Next Generation," but on that show there was an very sophisticated artificial lifeform, an android name Commander Data. He had a super fast, mega-capacity brain that could take in truckloads of information and process it and analyze it with lightening quick speed and then apply it effortlessly to any given situation that the Starship Enterprise crew found themselves in.
I haven't been able to do that with my trip to Zimbabwe. I'm having to take very small chunks, because it seems that no matter how small it is, I'm able to wring out an infinite amount of valuable information.
The culture was very different over there. The political climate, the assumptions of society, the economic situation, social norms...all very different. But that's not what surprised me most. What surprised me was how much is the same.
An example: I met a man named Edmore. I and the team got quite a bit of time with him during our 4 night stay near Wedza, because he was an employee at Imire Game Park ( and usually served our breakfast and dinner. I really got to know Edmore, and had a few very cool personal and spiritual conversations.
Let me back up by telling you about the Apostolics in Zimbabwe. As we were driving through the capital city of Harare, we would see groups of people in clean white robes either walking along the road, or gathered out in small huddles off the road under a tree or on an outcropping of rocks. When we asked the preachers who they were, they called them "Apostolics". It was explained to us that it is a group that claims Christ, but has the distinction of being polygamists. They are also distinctive, it was explained, because they believe in "prophetic words from God". And, by the way, they wear the white robes because of the description of the saved in the Book of Revelation that says they will all be wearing white robes. So, they figure, hey...let's go ahead and get started! And they meet out in fields under trees, never in church buildings (I'm not sure why...but I like it).
One of my last visits with Edmore included me asking him if he had any kind of church home. He told me he was a part of an Apostolic congregation. I asked him if his group lifted up Christ as the means and point of everything, and if Christlikeness was taught as the goal of humanity and the gift of God, and that the life we have in Christ will last forever. He surprised me by saying yes. I told him what many of my Church of Christ brethren in Zim told me about them, and asked if it was true. He said that the prophetic stuff is true, and that anyone can claim "a word from God" on any point of doctrine or practice, and the result has been many divisions of groups, prophets taking those who agreed with him "to another tree in the field". He said that some of those divisions practice polygamy as a result of this (he used an example of a prophet saying "God gave me a vision that that man should marry those 3 women"). He said there are many sects within the Apostolic church, and gave me the names of a couple, one of which stood against polygamy and another which practiced it. He said that his group was neither, and would better be described as a Christ-centered group.
I told Edmore that the Apostolics sound very much like the Church of Christ in America. That over the years, mere men would claim a "word from God" and then move the group that agreed with him "to another tree" to worship on Sundays. The only difference is that Apostolics claim their particular "word from God" came by the Holy Spirit in a vision, and Church of Christ folks claim that their particular "word from God" came by the Holy Spirit through the Bible. I told him that the church I run around with in Amarillo, TX would better be described as a Christ-centered group, too.
We then shared in humble laughter that most of the divisions of Apostolics in Zimbabwe, and most of the divisions of the Church of Christ in America, would all describe themselves as Christ-centered (just like each of us where doing right there!). Wow. We are all so the same.
Edmore finished our conversation by saying, "I have been thinking about trying to meet with a Church of Christ."
"Why are you considering that?" I asked.
 "You know how you and your team have been preaching Christ? How he needs to take up actual residence in the heat? How he should really be touching our real heart?"
"Yes." I replied.
"Being with your team has touched my heart," Edmore replied.
I told Edmore that that is the only reason I would want him to leave his current group of Christ-followers to meet the groups of Christ-followers that we were running around with. If it would truly help him and his family become more and more like Christ in his life and in his heart.
The next morning, I got up early before we left, and drove Edmore to his humble house where I got to meet his wife and his daughter (he also shares the burden of taking care of his brother's two children due to their parent's death to AIDS). I gave his sweet daughter a little toy that my daughter sent with me to give to some special girl, along with a used jacket and some fruit bars. Her reaction almost brought me to tears.
You see, when you are grateful to someone for something in Zimbabwe, you gently pat your two hands together towards the person you are thanking, almost like applause, only way smaller gestures and gentle enough to make no noise. When you are VERY grateful to someone, you go to your knees and lower your head, and you do the same thing.
So you can see why I about lost it when a used stained jacket, a couple of granola bars, and a McDonalds Happy Meal toy filled this little girl with gratitude enough to go to her knees (you can see it in the attached photo, along with a picture of Edmore and his family).
May God bless this family and help them. May God bless my family and help us. Whether it is by the church group, by the family group, or by the individual man...we are all so the same.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Between Worlds

I am on a plane between Harare, Zimbabwe and London, England.
I am ready to see my wife. I am ready to see my kids. I'm ready to see my church family.
And I miss my new family in Zimbabwe.
There is no way to comprehensively cover the goings-on in my heart from or during the last two weeks of my life. And I have yet to see how they will integrate into and shape my life to come.
Do I want to move to Zimbabwe? Yes. Do I want to take my whole family there with me? Yes. Do I want to stay in Amarillo? Yes. Do I want my whole family there with me? Yes. Do I love the poor and hurting people I have briefly come alongside of in the villages of Africa? Yes. Do I love the poor and hurting people I have briefly come alongside of in the neighborhoods of Amarillo and Houston and Honduras and Guatemala and Australia? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
I have too many "yes's" that I want to give my life to, but only one life to spend and pour out in love for God and love for people. I have too many nations that I love. I have too many individuals that I love. They cry out for my life to be poured out for them, as does my Master and Teacher Jesus Christ, as does my own soul and heart's desire.
Once again, I must turn to the living God, completely undone by the immense hunger and thirst in the world, whether in a land that is profoundly wanting or in a land of illusionary "plenty". Whether it is from the ugliest and most sinful places of my flesh, or from the most noble and selfless places of my heart, it seems I must run to grace to find any peace, joy, comfort, and satisfaction at all.
How busy my heart and mind are right now. I must either drown them out by the distracting and numbing drug of on-flight entertainment, or by mind-clarifying and heart-shaping prayer. The former is easier, the latter is healthier. The former costs nothing, the latter could cost me everything. The former is understandable and excusable and might give me some rest, the latter is inconvenient and scary and might give me life...fuller, truer life. Decisions, decisions.
The question for folks in the state I am in is, "what shall I do?" And the answer can not come quickly, unless God thunders it down unmistakably from Heaven in a loud and clear voice, or it will surely be a logical, compromising, rationalizing, but good and commendable response.
For example, I can not, with integrity, consider not moving to Zimbabwe without, with integrity, consider moving to Zimbabwe.
On what does a follower of Christ base a decisions like these with integrity? The age of his children? The practicality of the decision? The cost financially? Ease of life? Difficulty of life? Whatever would be "harder to do" is no basis for any decision, as if difficulty that has any merit all on it's own, any more than making a decision on what would be easier.
No, I must walk with God daily.
I must be resolved to know God by knowing his son Jesus Christ with the help of the Spirit. And then, in that constantly growing relationship, I should be attentive and listen, longing for the direction of God. And in each moment that I hear Him, I should obey.
There is no other way to experience God. There is no other way to make any decision for the follower of Christ. Christian logic isn't human logic at is obedience. Obedience is the only logic a Christ follower has. And obedience to something demands hearing a command. I guess this is why so many Christians use human logic to make spiritual decisions...they don't listen. They don't even expect God to speak.
For now, I know that God wants my heart to be broken like his heart is broken. He has made that clear to me. He has said as much to me, many times and in many ways, before and during this trip to his nation of Zimbabwe.
That I can do. This I will endeavor with all my energy to obey. 
And while I long to "do more" as a result of my brokenness, I can't. There is too much of it. And I haven't received my assignment yet. I read that a baby duck must stay trapped in it's egg for 28 days exactly for it to be hatched into a fully developed duck that will function and grow as it should. Take it out on day 27 and it will die.
So for today, on this long flight home, between worlds, both of which I love and want to die for in the name of Christ, I sit with my broken heart, allowing it to be broken, even fighting for it to do so, so that it can develop fully into something that will function and grow as it should.
May God help us all.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Off to meet Christ in Zimbabwe

Note: this is the first of two "bookend" emails from my last two weeks which was composed of a journey to the nation of Zimbabwe. I had not the time nor inclination to miss a moment of my experience by writing, and I didn't have email access for my laptop anyway, but I wrote this piece on the way there and the next one (coming shortly) on the way back. To try to describe all things in chance. I love you all for sharing with me in my continued journey towards Christ, and hope to God it plays some useful role in yours. And for all of you who supported me in this through prayer, finances, and taking care of my family while I was gone...I am eternally grateful.
I'm on a plane, sitting between two mighty warriors of God, going with them and 3 others just like them to a foreign land that is thirsty with no water, hungry with no food, oppressed and in need of freedom, desperate and in need of hope.
I don't have enough water, food, clout or money to even touch the needs that I am about to see and touch.
But I'm going anyway.
In a way, I feel like a deceptive swindler. I have been asked to go to Zimbabwe to teach and proclaim Jesus Christ to others. But I know full well in the secret places of my heart that I accepted the assignment in order to have Jesus Christ taught and proclaimed to me. Truly, in a very real and practical way, I believe that I am going to Zimbabwe to do nothing less than see and meet Jesus Christ. 
I know I am going to have my heart broken...and I intend on letting it happen.
I know I am going to learn better what I mean when I preach that "everyone needs hope."
I know I am going to see more clearly what the word "poor" means in a land of little, to come home and see more clearly what the word "poor" means in a land of plenty.
I know I am going to have to leave part of my heart in this new-to-me land...and it will be for "me" much more than it will be for "them".
Ninety-something percent unemployment. Average death age of men is thirty-something. The number of orphans due to aids, sickness, and hunger is staggering. 5000 percent inflation in the last year (the next highest nation was in the 30's, I think).
I called my friend who is from Zimbabwe, and who is running a feeding program for hundreds of those orphans. It costs him his life. He gives every penny he can earn and raise to the single-minded cause of feeding hundreds of kids a small "survival meal" per day. In the winter, he has to use some of that money to get blankets for those kids so that he has kids to feed a survival meal to.
When I first met my friend, it was winter in Zimbabwe, and he told me of the dozens of orphans that crammed into the pews of a church building (where these kids received their daily meal) for a worship service on a Sunday. By the time the service was over and the kids filed out, two of those famished, freezing children fell over on the pews dead. Last night he told me of the news from a family who hung themselves rather than die the slow death of starvation that they have long been on and feel creeping in.
God help me.
God help me believe there is hope for them. God help me believe there is hope for me.
I took my two oldest kids routinely to school this morning with a little more attentiveness to the beauty of my routine - with a particular emphasis on "them". My youngest son and my sweet wife took me to the airport this morning. I was doing okay until the small gathering of friends that came to see us off surrounded us, and one of our shepherds tearfully prayed for us, and then I opened my eyes (I know, I know...I'm not supposed to do that when I pray) and looked down just in time to see a tear from the eye of my wife hit the ground next to my feet as she was loyally and supportively standing beside me.
I am so rich. I met Christ in who I left this morning, and will be meeting Christ in who I meet tomorrow, and on top of that, I am meeting Christ as we speak, in the people I'm traveling with.
I started this piece in Dallas, and I'm in Detroit now, where we will meet one of the additional members of our team, and then will leave for London, where we will meet up with two more members of our team (the veterans), and then we will go to Harare, Zimbabwe.
Pray for me. Pray for us. Pray for them. Pray for you.