Monday, December 30, 2013


It has been almost ten years since David Brumbach and I boarded a New's Year Eve flight to Brazil. I could not tell you exactly at which point during this period Brazil became "home" to me. I regard it less as a moment of rapture and more as a progression of seasons. I can only tell you that in these last few years when posed the question "so, how does it feel to be home?" during one of our occasional visits to the States, in some strange way I felt dishonest in answering it.

I tell you this to couch the news that Carol and I are moving to Denver, Colorado to work with Northfield Church. This is as much of a surprise to us as it may be to you. The whole process was somewhat of a whirlwind, so I will do my best to give you the brief version here.

Back in June, when Carol and I recognized that our plans to grow the Sombra Road House did not seem to align to the Lord's plans, we began to ask Him to clarify His desires for us in this next season of our lives. Given our work in the favelas, our involvement in the seminary and the close network of friends and family, we naturally assumed that we would just roll off Sombra Road staff and find something new to do in Brazil. At that moment, going to the States was not even on our radar. However, in July, I received an e-mail from some friends encouraging us to consider applying for a position at the church which they attended. We decided to apply, regarding it as a remote possibility at best.

I would not say that our circumstances were supernaturally altered upon submitting my resume for this position. I think the decision just encouraged us to step back and take inventory of our lives. We began to realize that the people in whom we had invested were either mature enough to walk on their own or had been introduced to others who desired to walk beside them. In evaluating our work in the favelas, I perceived that each one of our projects was now being headed by a local leader. In assessing the maturity of the guys in our house, we felt that their individual relationships with the Lord had reached the point in which our distance from them could actually promote further growth. Slowly, we became open to the idea of stepping away.

Meanwhile, our conversations with Northfield Church were stirring expectations of learning, new challenges and contributions. We discovered that their desire for discipleship, their commitment to community and their "gospel-neighboring" approach to outreach mirrored our own. The "get to know you" process took the better part of two months, and we were invited to visit in October. At the end of that visit, they extended the offer, and we, after much prayer and some tears, accepted.

It is with much gratitude both to the Lord and to you that I relate this news. As I reflect upon these ten years that were shared with most of you, I am reminded of all that the Lord accomplished according to His mercy. There were the kids at REAME, the kids in the community of Sao Goncalo, the youth from Morro do Macaco, Casa Branca, Jacarezinho, Sao Joao, Morro do Amor and Ilha da Governador. In sum, I would say that between David, Camilla, Jason, Kristin, Carol and I, Sombra Road maintained relationships with upwards of five hundred kids during these ten years. But, as you know, this ministry has always been less about the numbers and more about individual stories - stories that over time became our own. And although this particular blog will no longer relate these stories, I pray that they will linger on in our memories as a testament to God's goodness, encouraging us to surface said goodness in the relationships that await us tomorrow. 

Monday, September 2, 2013


I'm not much of a night owl. If I stay awake past midnight, my eyes glaze over, and I go catatonic. If I start a movie after 9:00 p.m., consider it a novelty if I make it past the opening credits. It was these nocturnal tendencies that earned me the nickname Pillow. So, if there is one event here in Brazil that I attempt to dodge at all costs, it is the eventual Vigilia service. Literally translated "the night watch," a Vigilia is a prayer vigil that usually runs from 10:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m. the next day. So, when a friend of mine asked Carol and I to help lead one such vigilia a few weeks ago, I would be lying if I had said that I was excited for the chance to serve.

My friend had planned for a large turnout, so I prepared a sermon on the Lord´s prayer. However, when only ten people showed up, we ditched the sermon in favor of an interactive study. I was delighted, not merely because it kept the night more lively, but also because it allowed each person to contribute to the evening from his or her own personal experiences with God. Carol and I were particularly marked by the story and thoughts of one young woman named "Adriana". In her early twenties, Adriana is one of the worship leaders in the church. While her mom and sister are believers, her father is an alcoholic who steers clear of all things church-related. When he´s drunk, he's not a violent man, but he is loud and obnoxious. His antics draw stares from the neighbors and make the family members want to hide their faces. But, Adriana is not bitter, nor is she self-deceived. From her words, you can see that she recognizes in God a Father that is able to restore her own. In her eyes, God doesn't have to prove His goodness by transforming her dad. To Adriana, God is good a priori, and she asks this good God to reveal Himself to her father. In this way, her songs of praise are not some underhanded attempt to manipulate God into doing her will. Instead, they are a light that shines in the midst of real darkness. I cannot say that we stumbled upon any amazing insights through our study of the Lord's prayer that night. However, I can affirm that the hope that pulsed through that vigilia was able to keep this Pillow awake for a night. My wife, who I feel led to throw under the bus, cannot claim the same.

Thursday, August 1, 2013


This past weekend, I had the chance to speak to some youth about the gospel. I recounted the following story as told by Watchman Nee:

I was once staying in a place in China with some twenty other brothers. There was inadequate provision for bathing in the home where we stayed, so we went for a daily plunge in the river. On one occasion a brother got a cramp in his leg, and I suddenly saw he was sinking fast, so I motioned to another brother, who was an expert swimmer, to hasten to his rescue. But to my astonishment, he made no move. Growing desperate I cried out: "Don't you see the man is drowning?" and the other brothers, about as agitated as I was, shouted vigorously too. But our good swimmer still did not move. Calm and collected, he remained just where he was, apparently postponing the unwelcome task. Meantime the voice of the poor drowning brother grew fainter and his efforts feebler. In my heart I said: "I hate that man! Think of his letting a brother drown before his very eyes and not going to the rescue!"

But when the man was actually sinking, with a few swift strokes the swimmer was at his side, and both were soon safely ashore. Nevertheless, when I got an opportunity, I aired my views. "I have never seen any Christian who loved his life quite as much as you do," I said. "Think of the distress you would have saved that brother if you had considered yourself a little less and him a little more." But the swimmer, I soon discovered, knew his business better than I did. "Had I gone earlier," he said, "he would have clutched me so fast that botgh of us would have gone under. A drowning man cannot be saved until he is utterly exhausted and ceases to make the slightest effort to save himself."

A young woman, probably in her mid-twenties, approached me after the sermon. As her eyes watered over, she whispered, "I've been trying to swim for 13 years. I feel a freedom and hope in this moment that I have not felt experienced in all of that time."

The goal is not to figure out how to become a good swimmer. The goal is to grab on to the Good Swimmer who treads in our stead.

Thursday, July 4, 2013


On an hour long train ride back home last week, I was offered five distinct "once in a lifetime" opportunities to purchase cd's, a refillable ink pen, an led bouncy ball and an assortment of candy bars by various vendors toting microphones and portable speakers. As the peddlers hawked their items, I noticed that most of the seasoned commuters did not even look up, their eyes fixed in a trance on the empty space before them. The vendors scanned the train for some trace of eye contact. The scene went well beyond rejection. Rejection is when the girl you ask out refuses and fumbles for an excuse. This was more like asking a girl out, only to be rebuffed by the question, "I'm sorry, but what's your name?" It was painful to observe, but the zeal of these merchants did not flag. I don't believe I would have appreciated the scene had it not been for the meeting from which I was returning.

At 7:30 in the morning, this is what I experienced. (You only need to watch the first minute.)

It's a training course called "Manufacturing Entrepreneurs", focused on equipping mostly impoverished individuals interested in starting their own businesses. The course focuses on imparting basic sales principles. Each day, approximately 30 to 40 individuals meet in order to review the guiding principles, role play, share their difficulties and promote personal success stories. The atmosphere is electric, and the coffee is not even served until the end of the meeting. During one activity, I was positioned a couple feet in front of a wall, with my back towards it, and asked to place my finger as low on the wall as possible by bending backwards. I was then asked to repeat the activity with my eyes shut. The purpose was to demonstrate the way our vision can actually limit us. However, I think the reality of a thirty-seven year old back was my true limitation, as the two marks fell at about the same spot. The group facilitator pushed right through the botched example and landed his point. The hour and a half meeting surged forward amidst the varied activities, with the group shouting in unison their mantra "MORE ENTHUSIASM! MORE ENERGY! GO!" whenever the opportunity presented itself. At the conclusion of the meeting, each individual was given a bag full of hand-held, battery operated massagers and told to hit the streets. They left with a sense of mission and, more importantly, a sense of belonging.

This group reminded me of why Sombra Road is here in Brasil. Our goal is not merely changed lives; it's changed communities. We want to help kids learn to contribute, participate and receive in the context of committed relationships. We've experienced that in this house and our goal is to invite more people to walk beside us, independent of whether they come to live with us or not. I'm thankful for the communities in which I've participated that have helped me see that. My prayer is that you are able to participate in the same.   

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Cost of Free

Lately, I've been studying the life and thoughts of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor whose view on faith and grace incited his participation in the conspiratorial efforts to assassinate Hitler during the Second World War. Of particular interest to me is the distinction he draws between costly grace - a view of discipleship that demands identification with Jesus both in His suffering and in His resurrection - and cheap grace - a spurious knockoff. In the words of Bonhoeffer:
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
In glaring contrast lies costly grace which Bonhoeffer describes in the following manner:
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: 'Ye were bought at a price', and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.
In a culture that is inclined toward cheap grace, my tendency is to think we need to make some qualifiers that make grace more costly. But, I was reminded last Thursday that qualifiers (read "rules") are never the best path to understand the paradox of costly grace. Larissa, a girl from our discipleship group, was expressing her sentiments about the group. Her words were the following: "Discipleship has allowed me to see the worth of the cross." Bear in mind that all we have done in this group is lift up the worth of Jesus. She arrived at the cost on her own. Thus, the equilibrium achieved through the paradox of costly grace is not achieved by the laborious juxtaposition of these two concepts. Rather, it is achieved through a life of simple submission to the worth of Jesus. 

Larissa's life is a testament to this. She serves in her church with little regard for recognition. Her questions about the faith are simple and practical. Her worship communicates a depth of relationship that goes beyond our Thursday night discussions. Her life encourages me that God has not cheapened the cost of discipleship nor altered the essence of His grace. Such paradoxes can only find their home in the "mystery of divine personality." 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Cloud of Witnesses

"I just don't see how it's possible to see Jesus as a Savior without also seeing Him as Lord."

Those were Victor's words during our last study on the book of Romans. His tone was neither belligerent nor pedantic. Instead, he was intense, somewhat confused - confused by the possibility of a divided Jesus that his own experience just could not concede. His words were less of an argument and more of a testimony. We listened - in silence.

Victor is only fifteen years old. However, it is not his age that really causes the impact of Victor's words to land. I believe it to be his context. Victor lives with a father with significant mental problems. He and his mother struggle to define their family dynamic in the wake of his volatile temperament. Accordingly, peace is an abstraction for Victor. A year ago, these struggles led to his distancing himself from the church. I just don't think he could reconcile the promises of God with the painful reality in which he lives.

Sometime in the last year, God used his youth leader Danielle and the others from our Bible study to demonstrate His love for Victor. Something happened. That something didn't remove him from his painful reality. Instead, it infused hope right into the midst of it. Victor was changed. In the three months I've know him, he has consistently radiated joy, passion and a hunger to learn. I can always expect to get peppered with questions from him on the way to my car - questions like the difference between justification and sanctification or the nature of John's baptism. Victor's love for God renews my own, as I'm hopeful for the generation that He is preparing for Himself.

Pray for this generation. I know that they spend way too much time on Facebook and cannot seem to hold a conversation more than a minute without checking their cellphone. But, I find real reason to hope based in God's faithfulness and their uniqueness.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Sum of its parts?

Sixty kids in a school gym running in sixty different directions with eleven adults scurrying after them in order to herd them into a central circle. It was an experiment in futility. That was the manner in which my Saturday morning started. A month prior our church had committed to assume the programming for a Community Children's Project, and this was the chaotic fallout. On paper, the idea of a group obstacle course seemed appealing as a team building activity that could channel the kid's energy in a positive direction. But, the gap between our idealistic expectations and the harsh reality could not be bridged by some good intentions and a microphone. It was in that moment that the individual faces of the children seemed to just blur together into an unmanageable mass, and the focus changed from service to survival. I think most members of our group would have chosen to spend the next 2 hours in a prison cell over accompanying this nightmare to its gruesome end.

That's when we opted for a different route. We divided into groups based on interests. Carlinhos corralled the aspiring thespians; Rodrigo and Leonir opened up a workshop on graffiti; Carol pulled out colored pencils and paper; Marcos, Daniel and I assembled a soccer tournament; Barbara, Lenice, Aldair and Andreia offered support. In these smaller groups, each leader was able to establish a personal connection with the kids and define behavioral expectations. Accordingly, that which was previously a frantic blur of movement became individual faces with unique stories and talents. Loving acceptance and clear boundaries opened the door to genuine interaction. We left three hours later with some memorable stories, petitions to return and ideas on where to go from here.

I tell this story not because I feel as if we stumbled across some novel new approach of working with at-risk youth. Honestly, I learned most of this stuff from Tom at Next Exit over thirteen years ago. Instead, I tell this story because it provides a glimpse of that which God desires to accomplish through a people that He aligns in a common direction. I pray that this may be your experience as well.