Monday, November 30, 2009

Rhino hanging on my wall

On the wall of my office hangs a work of art. Now, this art isn’t a famous piece or an image that might catch a collector’s attention and cry out, “purchase me!” Still, the drawing in my office means a lot to me. I can still remember the day that I first saw this drawing and thought, “I’m going to buy that.”

Having just returned from the AIM field in Glasgow, the world was now a much different place than it had ever been before. I walked with a swagger now, having “seen the world” and living in Great Britain, I knew what life outside the U.S. was like. I was informed and self-aware, unlike so many of my other contemporaries that I went to high school with (or so I thought). However, there also existed a great contradiction within me. While newly awakened, I was also “broken.” Things that I once understood and knew were now more complex and confusing to me. The seriousness of God’s call, the largeness of God’s world and word, the truth about my own sinfulness, these too filled my heart. Needless to say, I was a living inconsistency in my character. I was a mixture of both “good” and “bad”, both “humility” and “pride”, both “flesh” and “spirit.” I was confused! Looking back, it makes total sense to me why I first took notice of the piece of artwork that I ultimately purchased and placed on my wall.

Walking through an art show at Texas Tech, an older, wiser AIM assist had invited me to come and look at the work on display in the University’s art department. So, I jumped at the opportunity and gladly strutted through the gallery, taking in every image mounted on the temporary walls of the Red Raiders’ formal meeting room. One could say that the art was a testimony of its time. Some images exposed the “demented minds” of young university students who were for the first time enjoying the freedom of expression that a state school could provide. Other paintings were more traditional in nature, focusing on the simplicity of color and light within the natural world. I must admit, I loved walking around the art studio, just to take a peek into the minds of those living in Lubbock. I felt as if I had a “sixth sense” to be able to know the inner thoughts and workings of those around me. The experience was eye opening to me.

At the end of the room, stood an art display that I had been anticipating seeing since we first arrived at the gallery. In fact, this final display was the reason that we had come to Tech in the first place. You see, it was an AIMer’s work that was on display that had called us to attend the event that evening. At the time, I didn’t know much about that former AIMer who I have now come to think very fondly of. All I knew was that following his AIM experience, he had returned to Sunset for a short while, and then had begun Texas Tech. As I looked towards his display, I turned to see the work of art that would change my viewpoint on life. The black and white image seemed to jump off the page in an almost three dimensional way. Every line was so perfectly placed, so wonderfully balanced, that I could not tell if the image had been drawn with pencil or pen, carved, or stamped using some technique that I was ignorant of.

What made the art amazing however was not the way it had been created, but rather the subject matter being used. The image was of a rhinoceros, lying wounded on the ground of a library floor, covered with books. As I looked at the image, I saw deep into the rhino’s eyes. He looked so sad, so broken there. The great beast had been leveled by books! The monster had been defeated by information! And not just any books had killed this goliath, this behemoth, but rather theology books. Books about Jesus, books about creationism, books about Biblical history and archeology had put the rhino in his place. As I stood there blown away by the image, I heard a gentle voice over my shoulder. The artist himself stood behind me, as if to offer some appropriately needed commentary to the image. He said, “You’d think a rhino could stand up to books.” He then paused and said, “There is one more book that can’t be overlooked.” As the former AIMer pointed to the page, I saw that behind the rhino was one final book, with words too faint to read without careful study and examination. After a minute of looking, I asked, “What does the book say?” The artist then replied, “It says ‘faith’ Chris.”

Today hanging on the wall of my office, next to a shelf of theology books, is that drawing. I purchased the image in 1997 for under fifty dollars, had it framed, and look at it almost daily. That image reminds me of how far we’ve come. At times, we feel like giants. There are days that we feel as if we have truly “arrived.” In many instances, we believe that we have been “through it all” and are able to “handle it.” We are majestic beasts, with armored plating that stand tall over the plains. We are like rhinos! However, other times we surprise ourselves how easily we can fall. We find ourselves lying on the ground, broken and empty inside, in need of answers, filled with information. Sadly, sometimes it seems that the process of greatness is exactly that thing in which is now destroying us. Sometimes the road we have taken has lead us further and further away from who we truly are. And like a rhino on the floor of a library, we lay down to die, losing the very thing in which we hoped to gain, “our faith.”

Why have an AIM Alumni Association? That is the question. And while “networking” seems to be all of the rage these days, this is not the reason that I am here. My answer is always a simple one. “There are people who went to AIM, did incredible things, but afterwards have been paralyzed in their walk with God.” I love AIM, I always have and I always will. I grew to know God in AIM. When I returned, I was different. And while I’ve seen countless people return and grow closer to God, I have also seen some people return and “burn out” with God. I’ve watched people get lost in a “post AIM world.” And so, it is to these that I write today. My friends, don’t lose heart! While faith may be hidden, I can assure you that it need not be gone forever! In the library of our “post AIM worlds”, there are lots of books, lots of things that would challenge us and even discourage us, bringing us to our knees. Still, we have people who love us, people who care about us and who desire to encourage us to “walk once again.” In my mind, this is what an AIM Alumni Association will bring to the table. A place for those who are hurting, a place for those in need. Likewise, a place for those to serve and a place for those to share.

We are all in this boat together my friend. We all leave Aim with all of the potential and all of the challenges. I pray that God will bless you in your journey. I pray that if you have found yourself hurting after the adventure, you will see that there are others around you who care. You are not alone my friend. The adventure has only just begun!

- Still Aiming, Chris Johnson

Monday, November 23, 2009

AIM and the Afterlife

Fresh out of the ‘80’s, Mississippi Angie picked up an AIM pamphlet at the Tulsa Workshop. Eighteen years ago, I dropped out of college, loaded up the Chrysler and moved out west with only a Michael W. Smith cassette and a dream. And a small portable t.v. And a coffee pot. And some silverware. And a curling iron. That Chrysler was huge.

Fortunately AIM didn’t disappoint… incredible friendships, the good news study with Rex, the best singing ever, area churches, brown bag lunches, mission term, parading flags around auditoriums…

Overall, I fit the “good AIMer” profile: very studious; definitely a rule-follower; of course I crushed on some of the guys, but managed to flirt my way through temptations. I was one of those who thought I might not be invited to the mission field because I hadn’t completed all the Daily Bible reading assignments… Looking back at little legalistic Angie trying so hard is exhausting!

As AIM alumni, our time in Lubbock is likely where any similarities end. From there, we went global, serving under different missionaries in different kinds of churches… And now we’re really all over the map – in more ways than one. “After AIM” wasn’t just for “Adventures in Matrimony.” Some of you are still trying to find your place. Not to dash your paradigm of hope, but even with help from AIM and support from alumni, there’s no handbook for this.

Earlier this year Buzz Aldrin was interviewed on the 40th anniversary of his “short-term mission trip.” We’re not astronauts, but it’s still similar, don’t you think? Being launched into space, landing on foreign soil… How do you follow that? Speaking about the title of his autobiography, Buzz said, “It was not ‘Journey to the Moon’ it was ‘Return to Earth’ because that's what was difficult for me.”

AIM can take you places, geographically and spiritually, but it can also serve as a whirlwind of distraction from issues that have to be dealt with sooner or later. Aldrin spoke of his mother’s suicide that took place a year before his moon landing. His anxiety from that tragedy coupled with his own tendencies toward addiction to alcohol rose to the surface in his unstructured life after the mission.

“And I was left without goals to pursue, without a team to work with, and I had to begin recovery from that. That's a long process, and it's a process that (requires) changes in your life. But I went through the magnificence of Apollo to the desolation of recovery and I want to share those things with the rest of the world.”

AIM will always be one of the highlights of my life. It created a place for discovering God and self that is unlike any other. It deepened my reverence for the Word. It opened my eyes to the rest of the world, with its beauty and suffering.

But it’s not the pinnacle of my existence. It didn’t get me through the unyielding sadness of clinical depression. It’s not a reserve tank of spirituality that I can live on today. It’s not Jesus.

So, if it’s hard for you, I feel you. I’ve never tread a traditional path. But I keep coming back to Jesus.

There is life after AIM. And maybe your best spiritual adventures are yet to come.


Monday, November 16, 2009

Why have another AIM Alumni Group?

As of this moment there are at least 3 different AIM Alumni or interest Facebook Groups. So why add another? Ultimately the reason is that we feel led by God to serve those who are hurting, but let’s begin at the beginning.

When a person enters AIM they are typically at a place in life where they desire change. Though the type of change varies, change is what is desired. And AIM quite skillfully provides the way to make that change. Through intense classes, intense relationships and intense scheduling each student is refined by fire with a specific target in mind: The Field. For those that continue on to go to The Field, this intensity continues. Whether you are in the US or in a foreign country, you are placed in the center of a community and church culture that is not your own, under the guidance of someone you don’t know, serving people that you desperately want to help. It is intense. By this point you don’t think about it as intense, you think about it as “being an AIMer”.

Then suddenly, everything stops. You leave the field a month, a year or 20-something months later and life changes dramatically. It is not that you don’t have things to do or goals to accomplish. It is that you have had an identity refined by fire that suddenly ends. Though there are times that any AIMer wishes they weren’t called by that name, the loss of that name is startling, even if you don’t consciously notice it. Though there is now freedom, that freedom comes with the cost of suddenly feeling…AIMless (I know, I know, I’ll try not to do that in the future). Yes, reverse culture shock is a big and real issue, but culture shock doesn’t entirely account for the emotional whiplash that many encounter and the struggles with God, the church and themselves that they experience.

So that you will know, I love AIM. AIM was the tool that God used to change my life dramatically. My wife, 2 brothers and 2 sisters-in-law have gone through AIM. I have been an Assistant, a Staff Coordinator and a Field Coordinator. In the 7 years I have been at Memorial Drive Church of Christ, I have been thrilled to be part of sending 12 students to AIM and we are preparing others to go in the future. Any association I can have with AIM I jump at because I love the vision and love the people leading it. But the bottom line is that AIMers coming off the field need help and we want to be one of the places that they can get it. AIM has done its job of providing training and a place to live that training out. Likewise, they offer a brief reentry to help with the first steps back. Yet we, as alumni, want to do our part.

We want to provide a place where very specific information about the post-AIM experience can be gained. We want to provide encouragement and support to each other as a family of believers who share a common experience. We want to be a place where people can make connections so that recently returned students can find mentors to guide them through the first months home. We want to provide a forum so that we can share ideas that work. We want to be a catalyst for grass roots efforts to provide regional places to connect such as retreats. We want to help.

Anyone can be a critic. I have loads of experience in this area. We want to put all of our insight to good use. If there is something that would help others, instead of sitting on the sidelines and complaining about it, let’s jump in and see how God will lead us to be a blessing to the next generation of returning AIM students. Who knows, as we help others, we may find God healing us as well.

By faith…Jason Thornton