Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Retooled

I [Chris] just returned from 7 weeks in Texas.  It was 7 busy weeks of class, 7 weeks of missing my family, but 7 wonderful weeks of being with my arts colleagues.

I was at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics, where many Wycliffe and other missionaries are trained before heading to the field.  This is the same place that we lived during 2012, before heading overseas.

My purpose this time was to take a couple of classes that will give me more tools to use when we return to Cameroon in July.  The first class was four and a half weeks and was entitled Scripture Engagement Strategies.  I would have liked to have taken this class before going to Cameroon the first time, but we didn’t have the time to fit it in.  I especially enjoyed this class because the lead instructor was the guy who literally wrote the book on the subject – one of them anyway.  Dr. Dye has a ton of experience and has been the leader in this field worldwide for decades.  It was great to learn straight from the horse’s mouth, as they say.

Loved seeing beautiful Texas sunsets over the nearby lake
The second class was a two-week intensive entitled Arts & Trauma Healing.  The course was designed to give us the training for conducting trauma healing seminars that our mission has done for years, but with the twist of using the arts as therapeutic intervention.  It was a lot to do within two weeks and I was glad to finish the class and the accompanying projects.  This course will have application in Africa with the many trauma healing workshops that happen in our area.  I don’t know how soon I’ll start with facilitating trauma healing in our area, but I’m now equipped and ready.

One other retooling that happened while I was in Dallas was completely by accident.  I learned a lot about the practice of Bible storytelling.  Bible teaching through orality is becoming a big deal and I was fortunate to meet a couple of the key people that are masters of this technique within our mission.  I was fortunate enough to get some basic training so that I can start to experiment with storying in our area and hopefully generate some momentum so that more folks can hear the gospel.  It was an accidental meeting and I’m so glad to have learned what I did.

I so enjoyed being in Dallas with many of my arts colleagues, but it’s always better to be home.  In another entry, I’ll share some other things that happened during my time in Dallas and afterwards.  Peace!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Life’s hard…everywhere

I [Chris] have had a really interesting question lobbed at me a couple of times recently.  The question, though worded differently each time, is basically something like this:  is it harder or easier to live without so many modern conveniences when you're in Cameroon?  The question points to an obvious implicit dichotomy.  On one side, you have life in Cameroon without ubiquitous technology but with many things that have to be done manually – things that we take for granted here in the US.  On the other, you have life with every conceivable modern convenience which then leads to having so much more to do/worry about.

My answer has essentially been, “It’s harder everywhere.”  That doesn’t make much sense, although it’s the truest answer I can give.

Honestly, it’s at the core of some struggles we’ve had in adjusting to life in the US.  And to be clear, struggles of adjustment in the US are mostly between the ears – stuff that’s hard to find a place for and comprehend.

So on the one hand, when we’re in Cameroon, we see a hard life for so many of our friends.  We have friends, some in the village, some in the city, that live in conditions that our American friends could not imagine.  There are struggles in child-rearing – the most significant of which is finding money for school fees.  There is not guaranteed public education to benefit from and the fees a family with three children must pay can take about a month’s worth of income for someone from the working middle-class.  Lower middle-class and below?  Education might be rationed within the family (selecting which child will be educated) or not even become a part of their life.

There are struggles in the day to day.  Many people in Cameroon, again both in the city and in villages, struggle to have clean drinking water.  As a result, families may have a lot of illness which they probably won’t have the money to treat and the cycle just spirals.

Also, imagine living in a home with a curtain for a front door, basic cloth curtains in the windows (no glass or screens), no indoor plumbing, and an outdoor kitchen.  There you have a fairly average home in our city.

And this is just scratching the surface.  Frankly, when I consider our “struggles” after considering struggles of the average person living around me in our context in Africa, I feel like a spoiled brat.  Our lack of a dishwasher, our two bathrooms that only have ¾ height wall between them, having to spend most of a day to do the week’s grocery shopping at several different stores, power outages a few times a week, etc. are difficult for us coming from the US, but less than a drop in the bucket compared to what our neighbors contend with daily.

So yes, life is hard in Cameroon.  But that doesn’t mean it’s easy in the US.

Having so much modern convenience means a fuller docket in daily life.  There are so many activities to chase our kids to.  There are appointments to make and then keep.  There are so many technological things to catch up on and keep up with…in part because our kids needed “devices” to use in the classroom (it was a shock to come back here to find that just about every middle school kid has a better phone than me).  There’s learning Google Classroom in order to help the kids with homework.  It goes on and on!

And then came the need to manage some of our financial matters and take care of our retirement funds while we’re here.  And the management of our fundraising and all of the people and churches that are implied in all of that.  The sheer number of “irons in the fire” has quickly become overwhelming. 

There are so many things to take care of on so many angles that life here in the ultra-modern world…is hard.  But beyond the visibly difficult aspects of life in the US is that we make it worse by covering it up.  It seems that in Western culture, all of the conveniences that we have and use mostly serve to mask the frailty of our existence and put “makeup” on the real struggles that are deep in each of our hearts.

It can be a mess in our heads, living in both worlds simultaneously.  We’re still in touch with life in Cameroon and wanting to be back there in 8 months.  But we’re here now with feet in both worlds and not completely hanging tough and savvy in either one.  Both the heart and the head are struggling to manage both and have proper perspective.  Being bi-cultural is great, but it has exposed the blind spots that we had in our understanding of this life and how certain struggles were hiding behind the method of life. 

Then there is the deeper implication:  the fact that life is hard everywhere points to our brokenness – every darn one of us.  From the most impoverished to the most wealthy, we’re all insecure, lost, and lonely in a difficult world.  We’re all in need of a purpose…and a way toward fulfillment.

My prayer is that this season of advent will usher us toward the understanding of the greatest gift ever given:  Jesus, God’s gift that gives us the opportunity to dwell in fullness forever.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Well done, good and faithful servant.

Our family had an old friend pass away last week.  It is sad, for sure – especially for his family.  But there is an underlying joy because of the fact that when I think of this guy and what he did with his life, I can’t help but picture that moment when he reached the glory of heaven and he heard the Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

We first met Larry Mills in the year 2000 in Pharr, Texas when we began attending Living Word Evangelical Free Church.  Larry was a guy that was very involved in the life of the church as a deacon, Sunday school teacher, AWANA leader, etc.  He was the type of guy that everyone sort of gravitated to as a friend.  He wasn’t a polarizing person and was very well respected.

About a year and a half after we met Larry, his wife Brenda, and their family, Larry and Brenda felt called into full-time ministry.  He became a missionary with Mid-America Mission and was going to Arkansas to run a Christian camp.  When he began his fundraising process, I remember vividly hearing Larry’s story and how his life was changed to become a powerful force for the Lord through extreme brokenness.  He lived for many years with a severely limiting heart condition – on the magnitude that, according to conventional medical explanations, he should not have even been alive when we met him in 2000.  But the Lord found it fit to defy convention and keep Larry around for a few more decades via a couple of sets of artificial heart valves.

So Larry left our church community in Texas to be a missionary to Arkansas…and then my connection to him became unique.  In the wake of Larry’s departure, there were many roles to be filled in the life of the church.  I became very familiar with the refrain of, “Hey Chris – Larry used to run the junior high AWANA group and we were wondering if you could take his place,” or, “Larry was leading this Sunday school class – could you take it over?”  I must have been approached about four different things to replace Larry’s roles in the church – some I accepted and some I didn’t feel qualified for.  I felt flattered to be seen as a replacement to a guy that everyone respected and depended on.  But at the same time, I didn’t feel like I measured up to be “Larry’s replacement,” having seen how his life was so in tune with the gospel.

I remember talking with Larry about a year or two after he had begun his ministry in Arkansas and hearing him talk of extreme discouragement at the start.  He was able to confess his need and not act as if he had it all under control.  That conversation made a strong impression on me.  I’m still trying find that level of humility in my life…I’m so not there yet.

Larry Mills was a fantastic family man and a missionary of very great substance.  His task of running a Christian camp in Arkansas evolved into other things throughout his decade and a half of ministry in Arkansas.  He took on administrative tasks for the ministry.  He spent a lot of time in pulpits, filling in as churches in the area had need.  He took on prison ministry in a few prison units in Arkansas. 

I must say that his prison ministry struck me the most.   Every week for the last four or so years, we would get an e-mail with prayer requests from prisoners that Larry was reaching out to, either in person or through correspondence Bible courses.  I’ll admit that I didn’t read the prayer requests every time.  But often reading them was an encouragement to me – seriously!  It wasn’t the, “Wow, their lives are so screwed up that it makes my problems look pretty small,” type of encouragement.  It was the, “Wow, Larry is putting it out there, being used mightily by God to reach the rejected and forgotten of society - against all odds,” type of encouragement.  Reading the words of those prisoners, many of whom were requesting more course materials and praising God for their spiritual growth, made me relearn every week how one gets used by God like Larry did.

Larry Mills wasn’t perfect and didn’t have it all figured out.  But his ability to confess that and rely on the Lord to lead him is what made him a good and faithful servant.  Well done, Larry.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

With My Tribe

The one part of our work that I [Chris] have positively loved the most since entering our ministry life, is our co-workers.  I’ve been amazed at some of their stories and have made some of the best friendships of my life in these last five years.  This past weekend, I had a reaffirmation of just how much I love the people I work with.

I went to Dallas for the Evangelical Missiological Society conference.  The event was held at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics, where we studied in 2012 in preparation for the field.  I had been asked to present during the conference and I also volunteered running sound and doing some photography at the conference.  It was a full visit in more ways than one.

In part, it was full because I was busy.  I was all around the conference taking photos whenever I wasn’t checking on projectors in the different presentation rooms.  I also ran the sound board a few times for some sessions.  In the middle of it all, I presented during a thirty-minute session.  I don’t think I did a very good job on my session, but so be it.  I like these things to marinate in my mind and I didn’t really have my topic fully “tenderized” in my head, so it was a little rough around the edges.

Even before the conference began, having arrived a day and a half early, I visited with two different longtime friends from Virginia that have relocated to Texas, in addition to seeing my sister and her family that live around the DFW area.  Also, when the conference ended, I was able to visit briefly with the church that we called home during our time of training in 2012.  Those visits were all fantastic and relationally rewarding.

But, with apologies to all, the greatest fullness from the weekend was from being “with my tribe…” my ethnoarts family.  I was able to spend at least a little bit of time with more than 15 of my ethnoarts colleagues during four days at the campus in Dallas and it was straight up joy.

For those of you that at some point in your life have been in love, do you remember the butterflies you got in your stomach when you were about to ring the doorbell to pick up your date?  The anticipation of the moment that you finally get to be with that someone special?  That’s the feeling I get whenever I’m about to be with my tribe.  I know it sounds silly, and maybe even foolish to describe it in those terms…but that’s the type of feelings I have when I’m with these folks.  They are just awesome to be around and I can’t get enough of their company.

One thing that has been really difficult to describe in our last few months of furlough is the closeness I have with my ethnoarts family and how it can be a bit taxing emotionally that some of us have such deep connections but are scattered far and wide around the world.  I have colleagues from different domains that I love very much and that work right beside me in Cameroon…but it’s just not quite like being with my tribe.


So now it’s back to Virginia, where there is only one of my ethnoarts family nearby instead of more than a dozen.  But be assured, my mind is always wandering to the big calendar in my head, thinking how long it is until the next time that I get to be with a large segment of the tribe…and the next time…and the next…even looking forward almost two years to various meetings and events where I will be enjoying some here and some there.  I truly work with the best and most fun people in the world.  You could say it’s bittersweet, but I don’t think that’s quite right:  they’re so good, so sweet, that they outclass the bitter.  Sweetbitter…that’s what we'll call it.

With mentors and colleagues Frank Fortunato, Robin Harris, and Brian Schrag.