During the weekend of January 13-15, some of the NieuCommunities South Africa crew took off on a retreat to our old stomping grounds of Pangani.  For nearly a decade, Pangani was a space God used to richly bless countless lives of ministry leaders around the world.  Standing in this position of trying to sell it and honor the past has been a very humbling experience.

Most of those who now participate in NieuCommunities are of an African culture now.  The only person in our leadership team that has experienced living here are Curtis and myself.  It was an important step to give the other members of our leadership team (and some of our other members) that understanding in a tangible way.  What better way to constantly remind ourselves of our past than building an ark with relics from the past?

Just as the people of Israel placed crucial relics of their past, I took the team on a tour of the property.  I told stories as I remembered hearing them from before my time as well as stories I helped to write.  It was painful, joy filled, and emotionally driven for me.  As we worked our way to the coffee shop, I stood in a very important place.  Natalie and I sat with Rob Yackley there a little over two years ago to confirm the vision God had been placing on our hearts to stand next to African leaders in community, helping birth new initiatives wherever God opened doors.  It was in that room that we launched into what we are now busy building today.

Builders build on foundations.  Without the solid foundation, whatever you try to build just collapses.  I wanted to make sure that at this pivotal moment in the story of NieuCommunities, we captured a deep understanding of that very foundation.  I want us to throw our hammers wherever God allows us to while anchoring our identity in what God has already begun.  This ark serves as a constant reminder that we are standing on the shoulders of many tears & celebrations.  May His kingdom come and His will be done so much more deeply as we choose to carry these memories with us.

The Patience of Mary

Since the robbery in October, God has been overwhelming me (Joe) with some uncomfortable revelations of Himself in my life.  Natalie and I have said several times in these past three months that the robbery may have been more of a gift from God than a curse of the fallen world.  I don’t really know about the theology of that, but it’s obvious God uses these moments to take us to deeper places of transformation.

I can’t really go into the depths on this blog as to where I’ve seen my need for resurrection in my life (because it’s embarrassing and far to vulnerable for the internet).  But I thought in light of this Advent season I should share this piece:  There are moments in my life where I feel like God is rather lazy.  If He would just act a little more quickly, then His kingdom would come that much more quickly.  Why doesn’t God do that?

During these last three months, I have intentionally submitted myself under the prayerful support of two older followers of Jesus.  Their prayerful words into my journey have been both incredibly painful to receive and yet utterly transformative (it kinda happens that way every time though right?).  One of the words they gave me was this :

“I realize you feel anxious about the pace of God.  That makes sense.  But for a second, I want you to imagine Mary.  A terrified teenager holding the Son of God in her womb.  God chose to enter the world the same way we all did.  That nine month progression was important for his full submersion into our world.  And Mary waited.  She let Christ grow in her and when the time was right for Him to emerge, He changed the entire world.  What would happen if He had been born pre-maturely in that stable?”

Letting Christ grow in us.  Christ is growing in us, forming in us, and emerges around us in the perfect moments.  When He does, it usually blows our expectations.  We’ve experienced that, we know that, but for whatever reason we lose it so quickly.

This advent season is reminding me again to wait as Christ is formed inside.  The invitation is deep and the hope is wide.  Blessed Advent season everyone!

Kids on Mission

In July, my parents made the long flight down to Pretoria to hang out with our family for a few weeks.  We had such a blast.  Then towards the last day they were with us, we had a family Christmas.  One of the toys they brought with them was a baseball pitching machine.  You put six plastic balls in the top and it spits them out at you.  I think I was more excited than Ezra was for that one!

Several times in the course of the week, we take this very strange toy to the park by our house.  Lately, we’ve been taking the Zimbabwean kids who stay on our property with us as well.  You wouldn’t believe how many conversations get started as I stand and proudly watch my boy belt another shot towards the swings.  It takes all of 30 seconds for every other child at the park to rally around and get a little game of “chase the white ball down”.  It’s awesome because none of these kids have ever experienced baseball.  (They play the ugly step sister game cricket… just kidding ;)).

I’m convinced that way too much money gets blown on strategy meetings for becoming more missional.  I think we forget how simple a plastic ball can bring people together and kick off really interesting conversations.  I think we’ve shoved our kids off on the chid care workers instead of incorporated them into mission.  Ezra teaches me that every time he asks me to take him to the park and I’m just too tired to do it.  I’m always glad when I submit to my ministry partner.  All of our kids get it.  Keziah plays mommy with the other little kids, Malachi chases the balls with the other short people (demanding his turn to swing the bat from time to time), and Ezra sits back coaching the other kids how to hit it.

What a tool for the kingdom.  We didn’t have too many strat meetings with the kids for that one, and it cost us whatever Grandma blew at Walmart that afternoon.

Lesson: listen to the kids, because they take you into the spaces where life is happening… and that’s where the kingdom needs to get to.

The Silence of Christ

This comes from a reflection I offered our community recently.  It has been a source of deep communion in my own heart and I wanted to share it wider.

“Go pray about that, and you will find your answer.”  The Yoda like response from every Sunday School teacher I ever had.  The favorite catch phrase at the end of countless sermons I have ever heard.  Yet, when up against a wall with no clue which way to turn, many find themselves in this place on their faces begging God for a clue.

And then there’s silence.

What do you do with the silence of Christ?

I was meditating on the passage in John 1.35-39.  Jesus is simply walking back to the place he was staying.  Two of John’s comrades saw Jesus and just started walking behind him.  Jesus invited them to come check out the place he was staying and that was it.  Insignificant story?  Not even close.

They walked away from the pinnacle of a ministry career.  John is baptizing the crowds.  They got to play in THAT playground.  They hit the big time!  But somehow they knew the glamor there was NOTHING of what being with Jesus would bring.  But in that space, Jesus didn’t answer the hard questions about their purpose for existence.  I imagine he took them back and made them a cup of coffee.  They chilled together.  Maybe they even raced back to the house (you know, ‘cus Jesus was such a jokester like that).

I have sensed in the last month that prayer is far too often us going and looking for solutions to our problems only to be greeted by a warm cup of coffee in the place Jesus is sleeping that night.  No answers.  Just that big goofy Jesus grin pouring us a warm treat.  Perhaps the silence of Jesus is the invitation to peace in the storm.  The answer of “what do I do now with my life” is answered by “Chill.  Sit here and let’s linger for a bit.  In time, and in stride you will see.”

This is no excuse to stop working and following leads.  God brings those things our ways and we must pursue those options.  But He’s extending a hand of peace and solitude in the midst of the chaos of our bigger questions.  Linger in that space and feel that pleasure while you go.  After all, when it’s all said and done, every knee will be bowing at his feet in any case.

responding to crisis

It has been a roller coaster of emotions since Natalie and two of our kids were robbed last week. As you can imagine, a situation like this unearths deeper issues making the healing process very confusing. I do not believe I have fully regained my footing yet, but there have been glimmers that I needed to write down. This not only for my own healing, but perhaps as a dialog for all of our healing.

In moving towards the one pain of this one event, I’m finding multiple layers of pain. The pain of the two thieves who were desperate to take advantage of a woman with her children. The pains of a society that keep us resorting towards fear and anxiety. The pains of all humanity.

I want to be a person who weeps not because I was wronged but because people who wrong others are wronged themselves. I want to be one who consistently extends the peace of Christ, tearing down my fences as opposed to building them higher. But I am abundantly aware there is no possibility of accomplishing this on my own. In communion God invites me to a community that holds my hands while we move towards the mission of our context. May we continue to pursue peace and weep for those who find comfort in the violence of war in our societies.

Complex Questions

One of the people I’m coaching at the moment has been wrestling through some very amazing questions.  I asked if I could share some of these so others might start asking the same ones.  I hope these wreck you as it they have been him (and me consequently).

  • Why do I worship, sit, socialize, etc… only with people who are the same as me?
  • What realities are at play that keep me from drawing towards those who think or look different than me?
  • What does it take to undo these realities and enter into real relationship?
  • What would I gain from that?  What would they gain from that?  What would the kingdom gain from that?
  • What would we all lose?


September Update – Ninja Story

Almost a year ago, I met William Taute.  He was sharing his heart in at our church about the ongoing racial tensions in his residence hall.  His heart was bleeding out on the table as he described the situation.  It moved me deep in my bones, so I asked him to have coffee with me that week.

What transpired was a regular set of meetings where we walked together towards a solution.  William found eleven other leaders in the hall and we began forming a leadership community.  That community of leaders was tasked with one objective : stop the racial tensions in the residence hall by spreading love.

Every week, we look to the scripture to guide our journey as a community of leaders.  What has transpired in a very short time has been unthinkable.

  • The house parent (Residence Hall Director) has told the group how much of a difference he has seen because of the group.  Conflict in general, and more specifically, racial conflict, have dropped more dramatically in the last six months than ever before in his entire tenure at the University.
  • The leadership community has grown to 16 students and is considering increasing their core objectives for next year to include a massive discipleship movement.  Each “ninja” being tasked to disciple a minimum of 3 other students in the residence.
  • In the last month alone, three students have begun following Jesus.  One of those just recently was baptized.
  • Leadership is shifting from William to two others as William graduates and takes the DNA of the Ninjas to his next location.

Think about this in the long term.  Every year, Ninjas will graduate and take this experience of the gospel all over the world.  As they move on, they are being replaced with a fresh group of inspired leaders for South Africa’s future.  This movement is much broader than one small residence hall in the corner of Pretoria University!!!

UnHelpful Critiquing

Unfortunately, our natural inclinations are way too often negative attacks masked in the form of “constructive criticism”. Constructive being an operative word that is often left out. Though to be fair (and constructive of this assessment), people (I believe) are good natured and want to build things up. It just happens that we forget how to communicate in ways that are helpful in our regular analysis of… anything.

For our purposes though, I’m talking about unhelpful critiques of ministries and churches.

You’ve heard it in every church across the globe: “oh that church doesn’t do…” or “this church does this, and that one doesn’t…” whatever. Fill in the blanks, you get my drift.

Why do we do that? What is so deeply wounded in our souls that leads us to conversations about this? It can come across as arrogance, pride, competitive natures that are tearing down rather than building up. So where did the wound come from and why do we refuse to be healed from it? Or do we even realize what we’re doing?

This line of questioning is something that NieuCommunities is wrestling with together. All of the ministry endeavors that NieuCommunities participates with hear these critiques, and have contributed towards the spread of negativity ourselves. It’s time to stop the unhelpful critique and learn how to accurately love and assess those we partner with to build the kingdom. That will require healing from wounds that, unfortunately, have come at the hands of the very ones we are caught critiquing.

Face your shadow and mourn. Move towards Jesus and be healed. Look to those that have hurt you and forgive. May the kingdom of God come because we choose this path of honest and helpful, loving and respectful assessing and uplifting of all parts of God’s Church.

Strategic Ninjaing

Sometimes you can’t fight back the tears.  Sometimes you listen to the reports of what God is doing and if you have a pulse, you are overwhelmed.  This week’s gathering of the Ninja leadership team in one of the residence halls at Pretoria University was a strategy and planning meeting.  The year here is coming to an end and it’s time to recruit new Ninjas.  The head Ninja graduates this year, so it’s also time to entrust leadership.

In the review section of the strategy meeting, this is what God’s been busy with…

  • Three students in the last month have given their life to Christ
  • New cell groups are forming in the corridors of the residence halls… and their mixed with white and black students
  • One of the black Ninjas was running for house committee and received a large bulk of white votes (that’s a pretty massive deal as this one is usually done along racial lines)
  • cultures are colliding on sports teams & at the dining tables (the social part of the res hall).

Next year is still in the works, but one of the things that was abundantly clear, Ninjas are multiplying next year.  They want to increase the leadership circle and make a higher commitment level that demands each Ninja to reach out and disciple a minimum of 2 other people.  This is the start of a much wider movement.

Thank you for your prayers on this front.  The University being in our back yard, this is a really great way for us to engage the population from the grassroots up.

Controlling Improvisation

“Leaders must master the art of improvisation-navigating concrete contexts with the right measure of knowing and not knowing.” Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice.

It’s no secret that one of my greatest joys in life is the art of the open mic night with various musicians who have never played together before.  Something about laying down simplistic rhythm patterns and seeing how other people contribute to the formation of sick riffs just brings out a picture of heaven.  It’s usually out of control, gets a little ridiculous, but always creates something bigger than anyone could do on their own.

My time with NieuCommunities has taught me some pretty interesting lessons about improvisation that I knew applied in music but didn’t think was acceptable ministry or business practice.  In apprenticing missional leaders and journeying with them in their various ministries, you have a choice to tell people what to do or coach them towards discovery of all the options available.  You have a choice to control a destiny or improvisationally create a hopeful future for people you will never meet.

There are way more times I’ve erred on the side of telling vs. joining a discovery process.  My theory is that telling is faster, so it has to be more effective.  Problem with that though, every time I’ve joined a discovery process, new expressions of mission happen that I never even thought was possible.  Students I have never met are meeting Jesus.  Families I’ve never visited have been given new sources of energy for their homes.    And so on and so forth…

Something about improv jazz & mission that is just more fun and fruitful than the controlled polka flavored mission.

Gotta stop trying to control discovery and creation.  So much gets lost when we start doing that.