Wednesday, November 29, 2006


While reading 1st and 2nd Thessalonians, I was reminded again of how much those letters from Paul, Timothy, and Silas drip with affection, nurture, longing, satisfaction, tenderness, thankfulness, endurance, and perseverance. These letters richly illustrate what can happen when a small group of people decide they will openly and intentionally share their lives in the hope of becoming an authentic, transforming, spiritual community. I pray that the words and imagery of these letters will increasingly be true in the experience of our communities as Christ is formed in us.

But the real kicker for me in these letters is in the idea of the power of example. The community of faith in Thessalonika had become exemplary and renowned in the region because they had, among other things, imitated Jesus and the lives of Paul, Silas, and Timothy. The writers were confident enough in the integrity of their lives to challenge the church to just go ahead and imitate them. Whoa. Would I do that? Would I feel confident enough in the way I do life to simply ask others to follow my example?

If you've ever watched the Tour de France or NASCAR, (I hear some folks from the south actually enjoy watching a good 'ol car race), you're familiar with the power of drafting--—getting right up behind the person in front of you and getting sucked into their momentum. You stay right on their tail, benefiting from their wind-breaking lead, right up until the moment you catapult past them having drawn on the energy they had exerted while being in front.

It seems to me like imitating is a lot like drafting. You get right up next to someone and follow their lead. You stay right in their tracks until you're ready to surge ahead. And when you're ready to go for it, you do it knowing that you're far better off than if they had never been there.

I've been asking myself this question a lot recently: If someone were drafting me, if someone was imitating my life, what would they be like?

There are several follow-up questions that immediately jump into my mind as well. Questions like:
What would they be doing?
Would they be seizing the day or blowing it?
Would they see kindness and tenderness or sarcasm and impatience?
Would they be self-centered or other-centered?
Would they hunger more for Jesus or ESPN?

When we invite someone to journey with us in one of our communities, (our intentional communities are called NieuCommunities), we're inviting them into the pursuit of Jesus. We're inviting them to be imitators of Christ. But we can never forget that implicit in that invitation is the invitation to draft follow our lead. And if those who have entrusted themselves to us are to become exemplary individuals, we must lead them well by living exemplary lives.

So I'll leave you with this question to consider in your own heart and in your own community:

If someone were drafting your life, what would they be like?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

sabbath reading

This summer, after returning from Africa, I had the opportunity to exhale and take a little extra time to read, study, and reflect. The following books are the ones I found to be most helpful, stimulating and encouraging.

Spiritual Direction by Henri Nouwen. This is Nouwen’s most recent book, and it was actually written posthumously by two of his former students/apprentices based largely on Nouwen’s university teaching notes on the subject. It’s an outstanding book and it shows us how to live in sync with God and how to find wisdom for our long walks of faith. And hey, getting Nouwen as a personal mentor ain’t bad either!

Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense by N.T. Wright is simply a masterpiece! It’s not a simple read, but it cuts to the core of what it truly means to be Christian and why the deepest longings of our heart make so much sense. It felt to me something like a postmodern version of C.S Lewis' classic, Mere Christianity. My blog post below, “echoes of africa,” borrows heavily on Wright’s thinking, so read that post to get a feel for where Wright will take you in this brilliant look at the very nature of God and his followers.

The Shaping of Things to Come by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, is a provocative look at emerging culture and a stimulating exploration of the kind of church it will take to reach the postmodern world. Their understanding of what it means to be church is radically different than what most followers of Christ have come to experience as church. I love what they write, and I’ve had a taste of a new kind of church through our involvement in NieuCommunities. But I suspect their way of being church will still, for at least a few more years, be primarily attractive to counter-cultural people rather than popular culture. But if you have a bent to challenge the status quo and connect with people who just don’t “get church” as they see it lived out in their neighborhoods, Frost and Hirsh will get you thinking!

Mere Discipleship by Lee Camp is a full-on challenge to those of us who call ourselves Christians to cease playing at faith and to become radical followers of Christ. He challenges the softness that often characterizes our faith and our churches. He offers a different kind of discipleship, a different kind of following God that involves sacrifice, risk, and asking our world and ourselves the uncomfortable questions. Throughout the book I found myself wondering, “Just how much have I unknowingly become culturally captive? How much of my faith is more middle-class conservative America than it is Christ-like?” Don’t read this book if you’re looking for confirmation of what you already practice. But if you’re ready to take a hard look at the way you follow God in light of Scripture, Camp will take you on a profound ride.

Leaving Church, by Barbara Brown Taylor. This book was recommended to me by a good friend who has left the church, but not God. In fact, his relationship with God is as rich now as it has ever been. Taylor is an Episcopal priest, and this is her personal story about breaking free of the religious machinery of the priesthood in hopes of finding a fresh and freeing faith. This is a warm, thought-provoking, sometimes sad, but very well written book. I wouldn’t want to give up as much as she has to enjoy a life-giving faith, but after 20 years of voactional ministry, there are certainly parts of her journey I resonate with.

On the lighter side, I had a blast reading The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. This historical fiction follows the lives of a handful of historians who are searching for the tomb of Vlad III, the 15th century Romanian prince who fought against the Ottoman Empire. He was also called Vlad the Impaler, and his life is the stuff of the legend of Dracula. This is a fascinating tale that takes you on an investigative journey through Amsterdam, France, Istanbul, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Fascinating stuff…especially if you’ve already visited many of these places or have always wanted to!

echoes of africa

I have friends who tell me that God has told them—presumably in an audible voice—to do certain things or to not do certain things. I don’t know about you, but God has never actually spoken to me like that. I sometimes wish he would, but unless I’ve just missed it, he has chosen not to. What I hear—and I hear it more with my soul than with my ears—sounds more like the echo of a voice than it does the voice itself. It’s the echo of a voice that sometimes sounds near and sometimes far more distant, but it’s real and it compels me to move in the direction I sense it coming from.

To live in South Africa this past year was a remarkable gift for us in many, many ways. But the greatest gift of all was being in a place, and having the time and space, to listen for that voice and to feel it bouncing off the walls around us. I don’t want to imply that our experience in Africa was picture perfect, because it wasn’t. In fact it was sometimes grueling, occasionally dangerous, and it revealed things in us that weren’t always pleasant to see. But there was something about the rhythm and fullness of life there, something about our interactions with the world around us and the people near to us that was actually telling us something about God. If what we were experiencing was perhaps the echo of the voice of God, what was the voice calling us to? What is the voice telling us about what we are all created for?

In Africa we heard the echo of a voice that calls us to beauty. The beauty of an African sunset, or the graceful strides of a cheetah in the wild are breathtaking. God created us to enjoy beauty. To preserve and protect it. To invite others into it, and even to help create it for others to experience. Beauty doesn’t have to be extravagant. In fact, it's usually the simple and natural beauties that we enjoy most. In Africa we experienced a piece of God’s Eden, and in it we heard the echoes of a voice calling us to create beauty for others wherever we go.

We also heard the echo of a voice that calls us to live in deep relationships. We were made for each other…to enjoy each other…to challenge each other…to make each other better. Our experience of community wasn’t always pretty, and at times we were even disillusioned. But we learned to fight for community. We learned how to fight fair and what is worth fighting for. We experienced a taste of doing life together that was more holistic than anything we had previously experienced, and even though it was often hard, it was so worth it.

In Africa, where countless cultures have thrived and faded throughout the ages, spirituality takes on many diverse and nuanced forms. But in just the sheer volume of religious expressions we heard the echo of a voice calling us to spirituality. It’s in our blood as humans. We were made to be spiritual. Whether it is sought out in the designer religions springing up throughout the west, or in the ancient rites of the people of Africa, we are all created to be connected with the Divine Presence. And so we worked hard in South Africa to create a place where people could linger long with God and have the opportunity to get soaked in his presence just as they were meant to be.

But there is another echo we heard in Africa, the echo of a voice that has been far too faint in my life, far too distant. It’s the echo of a voice that is calling us to justice. It doesn’t take long in a place like Africa to see and feel painful injustices that have gone on far too long. My eyes were opened to see just how far out of joint and brutalizing our world really is. My eyes were also opened to truths in the Scriptures that I had missed before. I found myself immersed in the gospels this past year, and for the first time I was reading the words of Jesus not just as the words of the One who gives life, but as the words of a subversive, provocative revolutionary who was set on overturning the unjust status quo of the 1st century world. And in his story I realized just how domesticated my faith had become.

You don’t have to go to Africa to see gross injustices. Sure, they’re more conspicuous there than they probably are where you or I live. But there are certainly injustices all around us. We simply need to hear the echo of the voice that calls us to act on behalf of the marginalized, the poor, the weak, and the defenseless just as Jesus did and just as he calls us to.

Beauty. Relationships. Spirituality. Justice. Those are words that are true about our God and worth pursuing with all we’ve got, whether we live in Africa or Anaheim.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

marriage...what is it good for?

Most people I’ve met want to get married. Maybe not right away, but eventually. But why get married? What purpose does marriage serve? That’s a question most people haven’t thought much about.

For those who have considered the question, the most common responses seem to be things like “for companionship” or “to have children and start a family.” But people make lifelong friends and lots of babies all the time without marriage, so it seems like there must be more to it than that.

From a spiritual perspective, I’ve heard that marriage is like a picture of the divine union God wants to have with us. In that sense we actually get a glimpse into what it’s like to be in relationship with God through our relationship with our spouse. I think that’s true, but it doesn’t really help me much when things aren’t going so well and my marriage feels like anything but divine.

I’ve landed on another purpose for marriage that is a little easier for me to grasp, a purpose that lines up more naturally with what I’ve actually experienced, and challenges me to make the most of my marriage. For me, marriage is the ideal context, the perfect crucible, to shape my character and to make me more like Jesus. The purpose of marriage is to make me a better person. Not just a happier person, but also a holier person.

It’s in the crucible of marriage that my pettiness, my impatience, my self-centeredness, and all my other ugly weaknesses are completely exposed. Katherine Anne Porter wrote, “[Marriage] is the merciless revealer, the great white searchlight turned on the darkest places of human nature.”

There’s no cover-up scheme imaginable that will hold up under the raw reality of marriage. In every other relationship, I am way more capable of measuring out my downsides in palatable doses. And if I can’t hide, well, I’ve always got the option of simply easing out of the relationship to lower the heat.

But not in marriage. In marriage, we either linger under the bright lights of our inadequacies, (and blame our spouse), or we change. I think we’re supposed to change. We’re supposed to become more like Christ. And when that’s happening, when we’re becoming more like Jesus, then maybe our spouses do get a little taste of heaven.

This past year Laurie and I and the couples pictured on this post--Sean and Deb Fraser, Bryan and Daleen Ward, and Arthur and Melissa Stewart--spent several months reading through John Gottman’s outstanding book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. It was a powerful experience for all of us. I recommend it highly if you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and work at making your marriage the kind of marriage you always dreamed it would be.

Last weekend, Laurie and I took a short flight up to Zambia to spend our 25th wedding anniversary at a place the local people call mosi-au-tunya, "the smoke that thunders." The English speaking world still calls it Victoria Falls, the name given to it by the explorer David Livingstone, and it truly is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. We expected it to be beautiful, and it was. But it is more than beautiful; it is awe-inspiring...almost scary. From miles away in any direction you can see the smoke (mist) rising up above the African bush and hear the daunting thunder. And then, when you approach the falls from the ridge that juts out directly in front of the river, you literally step out of a blazing African sun into a torrential rainfall that makes you want to reach out and grab something to steady yourself. The smoke that thunders. I now know why Livingstone found it the most spectacular site he ever stumbled upon in Africa.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

finding family

Just down the road from us is a locked-down K-12 boarding school, called Tutela. It’s not a boarding school for privileged kids who don’t fit into their parent’s lifestyles. It’s a school for kids whose parents aren’t fit to raise them. It’s a place of refuge for kids who have been neglected, abused, or abandoned. Tutela is a kind of home for hundreds of kids who have never really experienced anything that resembles a true home.

I’ve often described NieuCommunities as a place where we gather young leaders around us to show them how to create home—spiritual home—for those who can’t seem to find it in all the normal places. If we fail to do that, then we have failed to meet one of the primal needs of humanity. And so, as I travel from site to site, I look for signs…signs that our communities of faith and training have also become spiritual homes; places of refuge and hope; places to encounter God and to dream again. Last Sunday night I saw one of those signs.

As she sometimes does, last Sunday afternoon Laurie drove over to Tutela to pick-up a van load of teenage girls and bring them to our weekly BBQ and time of spiritual reflection. To be honest, bringing these girls to our gathering is not as easy as it sounds. First, you have to become trusted enough by the administration of the school to take them off the secured campus. And second, most of these kids struggle to even know how to behave out in the “normal” world. Like a lot of young people I meet today—whether privileged or abandoned, black or white, American or South African—they have trouble experiencing the very thing they long for…home.But Laurie is awesome with these girls.

She is tender and nurturing. She walks them around the property and through our home to help them feel more comfortable in this new and strange environment. She brings them into the kitchen with her to help prepare the community dinner that they will join. She introduces them to all our staff and to all our guests, and she gently walks them through the evening’s experience.

As our weekly gathering was coming to a close, one of the girls voiced these words in an attempt to summarize what she was experiencing; “Everybody here feels like family.” It was a simple statement, but it was one of those signs of effectiveness I look for. In those few words Meloney both betrayed her heart’s deep desire and signaled that we had created what we had hoped for

May each of us, and all our communities of faith, become the kind of families in which people will experience a deep and satisfying sense of being at home and being at peace.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

buying a bride

Once upon a time in America it was customary for young men seeking a bride to pay a dowry to her family. The idea was to give something back to the family for all they had invested in the woman they are about to give away. Somewhere along the way we discarded that tradition, which is too bad for a guy with two beautiful daughters!

Well, in South Africa, the dowry is called a “lobola,” and the tradition is still very much part of the fabric of the African culture, which creates a sometimes insurmountable obstacle for young men like my Congolese friend and teammate, Luc Kabongo, who has fallen in love with a wonderful South African woman named Petunia. This past Saturday I was part of a 6-person team (pictured at left) who traveled 250 kilometers south of Pretoria to meet Petunia’s family in a small mining township and negotiate a lobola on Luc’s behalf.

When we arrived at their small rural home, Luc was not allowed to enter the gate of the house. That’s part of the tradition. He and Petunia had to wait outside until the negotiations were completed. Our “team” was unique in at least 3 ways. First, we had 3 women on our team. These negotiations are traditionally done only by the men of the family, and women are not even allowed in the room. Second, we had 2 Americans on the team—myself and Arthur, another NieuCommunities
teammate. And third, being a refugee from the Congo and separated from his family, Luc’s team was comprised of his spiritual family, not his biological family. Several times I was referred to as the “papa” on the team, in a sense standing in the place of Luc’s father. Their team was comprised of 6 men, somehow all related to Petunia, and most hoping to get something out of this deal (pictured at right).

Now, I’ve been a part of lots of negotiations in my lifetime, but never anything like this. First of all, we were negotiating for a person. And second, we were negotiating in the currency of cows. Yes, cows! Our team’s hope was to “buy” Petunia for 5 cows. Now, nobody really expects to receive cows anymore. At one time in the culture the payment really was made in cows, but now it is made in Rand, the South Africa currency, with 1 cow equaling 1,000 Rand (about $165).

Anyway, back to the negotiations. When we entered the room, Petunia’s family asked us to state our intentions. We said that Luc had found a beautiful flower in Petunia, and that we had come to pick the flower, to pay them for the flower, and to bring the flower home to Luc. They welcomed us into their home, they thanked us for coming, and then promptly asked us for 20 cows! We were all a bit stunned, but quickly relieved when one of Petunia’s uncle’s corrected the mistake and adjusted the request to 12 cows. They explained that 2 cows were for Petunia’s “head,” and that those were not negotiable. I’m still not sure I fully understand what it means to buy her “head,” but the primary meaning has to do with purchasing the right to bury her with your family. If you don’t buy her head, then she would be buried with her birth family when she dies. After presenting their demand, they left the room so that we could discuss their request and respond.

When they returned, we assured them that 12 cows was certainly a very fair price for Petunia, and that she was surely worth much more than that. But we humbly told them that all we had was 6 cows, and that we would be willing to give them all we had. We told them that we just didn’t feel we could promise to give them more than we actually had. We were sincere, and honest, and they accepted the offer. We also agreed to give a gift to each member of the family who played a significant role in raising Petunia. They will then give us a list of the gifts they each would like to have, which typically are things likes dresses, or suits, or blankets.

After the lobola was negotiated, Luc was brought into the house and introduced to the family. That was the very first time he and her family actually met…only after the price was fixed and the transaction was agreed upon was he allowed into the house and introduced to the family.

Luc and the negotiating team will return to the village in November with the requested gifts and to get his bride. They will slaughter a sheep, there will be a feast, and the lobola payment will be made. In African eyes, that day, and that transaction signifies marriage, and Petunia will be given to Luc. One month later there will be a wedding ceremony back in Pretoria, and for Luc and Petunia, on that day, they will be married in both African eyes and in God’s eyes.