February 2013

Development and Relief

The Christian Urban Development Association.  That is the name of our NGO.  This is where you consider skipping the rest of my article.  But seriously, have you stopped to consider what we decided to say through our name?  We are Christians who have, as a formal group, decided to work towards development in an urban setting.  Our urban setting is obvious (Arequipa) and our Christianity is worked into the way in which we carry out our work.  The hard part of our title to really capture is: Development.  Now there are a lot of definitions for what development (in our case international development) means: freedom, good change, advancement technologies and many many more.  What I find we have the hardest time explaining sometimes is why we’ve chosen development over relief, and if we will ever partake in relief work.
Where development generally carries a long-term outlook on it (community planning, basic services acquisition, health care provision, economic development, empowerment, etc.) relief is a here-and-now enterprise.  Handing out food in a famine-stricken country, rebuilding homes after an earthquake, feeding/housing families displaced by natural disaster or war, etc.  In any city like ours you will find groups dedicated to both causes.  In the poor neighborhoods surrounding the city, groups will hand out food, clothing, clean water, school supplies and other items to families that spend each day just trying to get to the next.  In these same neighborhoods, some groups will instead dedicate their time to community development and planning, training unemployed husbands and wives in skills to help them land a job, advocating on behalf of communities with no running water that the city would see their need and respond.  As an NGO we’ve chosen to focus on improving the education system in individual schools by teaching teachers how to teach (Nice, right?) and through empowering small-business owners with small, no-interest loans to help them take one step forward, and then another, and then another.  We have other long term projects in the works but they all fall into the long-term development spectrum and we have not had any desire to branch out into relief.
It is no surprise that often our desires are swayed by what we experience.  On February 8, the city of Arequipa experience its highest ever recorded rainfall of 4.8+ inches in just 5 hours time.  For a city that can go a whole year without receiving such a small amount of rain you, can imagine the consequences.  Slightly sloped streets became swiftly-flowing rivers two feet deep that could knock a grown man off his feet.  Car sized holes ripped open in the streets and, not surprisingly, cars fell into them.  The waterways/spillways throughout the city designed to keep streets clear ended up filled with mud and stone, causing water to spill out and the roads they were protecting to crumble and vanish into the flow.  We experienced this in my neighborhood where streets were “well-paved” and protected from rain.  In the poor neighborhoods on the mountainside where they have no paved roads, no drainage system and usually no electricity, the damage was less expensive but no less devastating for some families.  Houses filled up two or three feet high with mud ruining possessions and at times carrying them away completely.  Water and sewage pipes broke as the water took apart the ground itself, making it look like an earthquake had split the earth.  Some families came out of that storm just wet and cold.  Some families came out wet and cold realizing they had no food, clothing, blankets, or shelter.
In the face of this emergency situation, our organization is left trying to decide what we do.  While there is a way to “do relief” well, very often that does not happen.  While there is a way to do it well, we have no experience in this area.  Even still we are being stirred to some response for certain neighborhoods where we have a connection and would ask for your prayers and support as we assess what help we will provide to these families.  Since we have no money budgeted for emergency relief we will be seeking people to partner with us in our response.  I ask you to be praying, now, for how you might help one of your global neighbors in a time of need.  More information and details will be forthcoming and I appreciate your patience, prayers, and the support you all are always so faithfully extending to us.

Coming to Faith

This morning I finished reading the book of Mark with a dear friend that is in a journey of seeking. I cannot explain how exciting I find it to share the end of Mark's story with others. After reading the section of Jesus on the cross and his final words, I always turn the reader to Psalm 22 where Jesus is quoting, “My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me.” If you haven't read the Psalm in its entirety, take the time to read it. The final two verses always give me chill bumps in the context of sharing Jesus's story with someone:

Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.
— Psalm 22:30-31 (NRSV)

He has done it! Booyah (pardon my English expression from the nineties). There is a fire in my bones when I truly understand what it being communicated in those words.
We imagine hearing God's voice of authority at the baptism of Jesus. We read through the life of Jesus and imagine what it would be like to be a disciple following after this soon-to-be-King. We are in awe of Jesus's power over demons, sickness, nature, and death. We shake our heads as the disciples fail to get it time after time. We question what type of soil we are as we read through Jesus' parables. We internalize the message for ourselves as the man exclaims to Jesus, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” We sympathize with the followers as their leader is led away like a lamb to be slaughtered. We mourn with those women at the foot of the cross after they have witnessed a horrific death to a man of humility, compassion, and honor. We discuss the freedom we have in Christ and the barriers that have been removed when the curtain is split in two. We are in awe that the centurion, a Roman Gentile, is the first to confess Jesus' name after he breathes his last, but then we rejoice with the women that proclaim the news of the resurrection. We cling to hope that he does what has been promised since the days of old. For he has done it!
I explain to my friend that I want her to make a commitment to God. But I don't want her to commit from pressure she feels from me. I want her to feel the pressure from the Holy Spirit. It is her decision, and it is not a decision to take lightly. Taking up your cross to follow is not a walk in the park. We discuss making covenant with God in front of the family of God, and through the act of baptism that is such a powerful symbol of dying to self but being raised in Christ. We discuss the Holy Spirt and the meaning of circumcision of the heart. We mention “the kingdom of God” being here and now and not yet. I share why the phrase “freedom in Christ” is so special to Christians. She tells me she is so close to making this decision. She tells me she needs to read and reflect. We pray; we hug; we plan our next time together.
Coming to faith is the work of the Spirit. The Spirit transforms us. But he only is able to do his work completely when we are seeking. My friend is seeking. It is my prayer that I call her sister very soon, and then I will rejoice. For he has done it!

Part 10: Theological Education as Missional Equipping

No one is really in a position to say what missional means—it’s still under negotiation among those who care about the precision with which we use words connected to important ideas.  The ideas to which missional is connected are very important, in my opinion, but the discussion of the word for the last decade or so has been especially fraught because it is also about a movement.  Local expressions of Christianity are changing, and some (hopefully much) of what is emerging is about a realignment with God’s mission.  In part, this means recontextualizing the gospel, and therefore the church, in Western postmodern subcultures.  And in part it means correcting some of the assumptions and structures that have long prevented congregations everywhere from participating in God’s mission to the extent they might have.

One Way to Look at It: Prayer

From where I stand at the kitchen sink, I can see into the laundry room through a window.  It is a clear view to where we have set up a small table for arts and crafts for the kids.  They color, cut, and draw to their hearts’ content.  I can see their work and hear their conversation.  I basically know what they’re up to anytime they are in there while I work in the kitchen, even without them telling me about it.  
I have heard criticism of the practice of of listing out prayer requests to then pray about, likening it to a family conversation around the dinner table, where the children discuss amongst themselves what they will say to their parents, then turn to deliver the information to them, even though the parents were present through the entire conversation already.  There is no need in this situation to delineate which part of the discussion was intended for them; they got the whole thing.  So why discuss prayer requests and follow it with a prayer that repeats it all?  Can God not hear the entire time? 
I have heard the opposite, that any discussion of prayer needs and life struggles deserves the blessing of purposeful prayer, to distinguish the need and response beyond a basic conversation between two people. In this instance, it is not about being necessary, but about lifting the conversation to a different plane, not for the purposes of informing, but of offering.
But there’s something else that is easily forgotten.  It is not just about what we say or how we say it, or if we frame it with a beginning and end or not, or if we use formal language or not.  It is about to Whom we talk.
I watch my kids do their projects and create their masterpieces.  I neither need information from them, nor do I need them to demonstrate the importance of their efforts.  However, I love that they value me enough to want to show me.  At my simple request to tell me about it, they are off and running, describing their choice of form, color, image, material, folding, staple placement...they love telling me, and I love hearing it.  It’s neither necessary nor merely holy.  It’s relationship.  I show them how I value their contribution by listening, and they show me how they value my knowledge of them by opening up and sharing.  Whatever they have done is made more real by our sharing of it.
And God is our Father.  Prayer should not be limited to informing Him of our troubles and our suggested solutions to them, with the caveat that He choose otherwise if He sees fit.  Nor should it be limited to a verbal sprinkling of holy water to deem a life experience officially handed over.  These two approaches focus too narrowly on what exactly we do and how we do it.
Remembering why we do it can make a huge difference.  
It’s about conversation with Someone close to us, eager to hear what we have to say, uninterested in eloquence or efforts to impress. Just talk to Him, discuss life, questions, frustrations, exciting experiences...everything.  Will you choose to include your desires and requests?  Sure.  Will you hand over your daily life as an offering as you share it?  Absolutely.  Those are good parts of prayer.  Just remember that He wants to hear about what you are drawing and what it means to you, too.  And as a good conversation with a close friend can result in us gaining clearer insight and understanding into our own experiences, so can a good, personal conversation with God help focus our vision and align our hearts more with His.