Leaders Who Know How to Follow

We recently discovered that one of our colleagues here was best friends growing up with a good friend we knew from our sending church.

“You were best friends with Matt?” I asked. “That’s amazing. We really appreciate that brother.”

My colleague went on to tell me about their growing up together and sharpening of one another.

“You know what I really appreciated him?” I said. “Matt was clearly gifted in leadership when he showed up as a new seminary student. But he didn’t balk at the time it took to become known in a church that was already full of gifted leaders. He plugged in, he served, he didn’t demand to be platformed quickly. Not everyone was able to do that. But he humbled himself and spent years as a good follower – and then became a servant and leader in the body – especially to the internationals.”

It’s true. Matt was one of the promising leaders who made it. Our sending church is in a seminary town. And it has a very strong and gifted team of elders. That means it attracts young men who are eager to lead and teach – because of its culture, its location, and its robust track of leadership training.

It’s as if the church is located at a river delta. Many streams brought the students to the seminary and for a period they are bottle-necked in one place, jostling around awkwardly in the current, before being sent out from the delta to do ministry all over the world. This river delta dynamic presented some real advantages – and some serious challenges – for our church and its leadership.

It also provided a crucial testing ground for young leaders.

What would they do when faced with a church body with a hundred other men just as gifted as they are? What would they do when told that they wouldn’t have opportunities to teach quickly, but that the nursery was desperately in need of help, the refugee ministry needed volunteers, and there’s a three year leadership apprenticeship that they could plug into?

I was one of the young and sure-of-myself students who experienced these dynamics myself. Then eventually I had the privilege of serving as an elder – focusing on strengthening and overseeing our leadership development and sending out of church planters and missionaries. As I’ve written before, I learned in this season how the teachable will lap the gifted. The ones who got to work in the messy behind the scenes ministry, who served the widows, and who didn’t push to be platformed – those men are now serving as faithful small group leaders, deacons, elders, church planters, and missionaries. They are faithfully laboring in the trenches of the kingdom of God.

But many did not pass the test. Faced with a seemingly insurmountable leadership ladder, some left for places where they could lead upfront more quickly. “There’s nowhere in the world harder to become an elder than at this church” is how one brother put it (Though he later became an elder – sweet irony). Others bristled under the slow pace at which they were invited into visible leadership and left angry, broadcasting stories to this day about the supposedly abusive leadership they experienced when they were “unjustly” not given the kind of influence they desired in their preferred timeline.

For all of the situations like this that I was aware of, one thread stood out. Men felt they deserved to be in leadership – and they were not content to be faithful followers for a longer timeline than they had expected. Overall, these brothers who left have not thrived in the contexts where they have ended up. Should we be surprised? “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, and at the proper time he will exalt you” (1st Peter 5:5-6).

We need to be careful as terms like “spiritual abuse” are being thrown around like trump cards on social media – and mud is being flung at the bride of Christ. What I saw going on behind the scenes was very different than abuse. It was leaders wisely saying “not yet” and young men reacting to this in pride rather than in humility. Idols were being exposed. And that always gets messy.

Do I grieve the fact that dear brothers experienced hurt through not being invited sooner into leadership? In one sense, yes. But I am also grateful for what that delay exposed in their hearts. I do not want to be led by a man who does not know how to wait and how to follow. I myself do not want to be a leader who does not know how to humble myself and embrace a slower timeline – even if I disagree with it. A leader who does not know how to defer is not a trustworthy leader. Rather, it’s when he doesn’t get his way that a leader’s true character is graciously exposed.

Furthermore, leadership is often synonymous with suffering. My most recent increase of responsibility was not one I was looking for, but one given to me, attended on my end by some degree of trepidation. The previous two men had to leave the field because of the costs associated with the role. I myself have already known many of the costs of leadership far more intimately than I expected – costs to my heart, my health, my family. From this vantage point I cannot help but wince a bit at young men who are hungry and ambitious for increased leadership. Brothers, do you really know what leadership is going to cost you? Why is it not enough to serve unseen? Do you not know that God sees and rewards it all?

Let us seek to be and to raise up leaders who know how to follow, who know how to wait, and how to defer to other wise believers. The transience of this life is such that, sooner or later, it will be our turn to lead. Let us trust God with that timing – Like my friend Matt, who is now a church planter.

Photo by Chandler Chen on Unsplash

The Sheikh’s Spells

“You see those peacock doors?” my friend asked as we drove along a major road in our new neighborhood. “That’s where The Sheikh lives. He is super rich from all the people that come to him for – what do you call it in English? You know, when someone uses paper and verses from the Qur’an to curse someone’s enemies?”

“You mean spells?”

“Yes! Spells. He charges $35 for a basic spell – and dozens of people come to him every day. So many women come to curse families that they are fighting with. And he’s been doing it for decades.”

“Is that legal? Does the whole city know about him?” I asked.

“Ha! Yes, the government won’t stop it. And he’s super famous. Everyone knows what he does.”

“So do people come to him for blessing spells as well? Like if they want their child to recover from an illness?”

“Oh yes, that too. Spells for cursing and for blessing. And $35 is only for the most basic ones. He charges a lot more for the bigger jobs.”

“It’s just like Melanesia,” I said, shaking my head. “Every village had a man called a sangumaman, and he was basically the village witch doctor, cursing and blessing (for the right price), helping people try to manipulate the spirits.”

We drove along and passed a shiny new shopping mall, a place seemingly proclaiming the triumph of globalized commercialism over the superstitions of the past. It felt a world away from the strange peacock doors we had passed just a few minutes beforehand. I remembered again the subtle trap of believing that modernization in terms of businesses and other external infrastructure was actually changing the inner worldview of the culture. It isn’t – or at least it isn’t any time soon. What do they do when their child is deathly sick? That was always an important test in Melanesia for locals and professing believers. I didn’t expect it to have such a direct parallel here in Central Asia. Apparently folk Islam is still alive and well and running a profit right under our noses.

“You know,” I said to my friend, “someday one of us believers might need to challenge The Sheikh, and tell him that his most powerful spells can’t affect a faithful believer who’s got the Holy Spirit living inside of them. Now that would be an interesting contest. And when his curse failed, then I bet the whole city would know about it.”

“I’m down bro, when do we do it? He has destroyed so many families. Let’s take him down!”

I smiled at my friend’s enthusiasm. That day could very well come. But we certainly won’t go searching out that kind of confrontation. If the Lord clearly asked us to confront him, we would. I’ve read enough missionary biographies to know that the witch doctor has real power – but that he doesn’t stand a chance against the Holy Spirit. And though we are planning for a subtler route for gospel impact, sometimes that kind of direct confrontation is exactly what is needed for breakthrough.

I am reminded one of the main points of Sinclair Ferguson’s book, The Holy Spirit. That point is simply that over and over again when the Holy Spirit appears in the Old Testament, it it for this purpose: to go to war. Sooner or later, He will come for The Sheikh. And on that day all The Sheikh’s little spells will fail him.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

An Idiom on Futility

Like I’m hammering cold iron.

Local Oral Tradition

This is our local equivalent of “beating my head against a wall.” In other words, said venture is utterly futile. Moving cities, though it is not actually futile, can sometime feel like it. This move in particular for us has felt like it has dragged on for a very long time. Multiple trips between cities, endless government office visits, drawn out house projects. Is this our new life? Doomed to be moving forever (during Ramadan at that) and never completely moved in? How many weeks have we been at this? Thankfully, we are actually “beating hot iron,” even if it might be a particularly stubborn-seeming piece of metal. Progress is happening. Today we got our internet set up and a hole drilled in a wall to drain out all the mess we’re making by taking the plaster off of a beautiful stone wall. The new paint is steadily creeping its bright way along the old walls and ceilings. New electrical wires are going on the walls – the house is so old there are no wires inside the old stone and plaster. One city’s permission papers to move are in hand. Tomorrow I will try to complete the first step of getting the others. These papers will allow our moving truck actually get through the security checkpoints. Yes, one bit at a time we will come out of this time-warp of moving limbo. In the meantime, God continues to use these processes to teach me more about what it means to be a pilgrim – and to teach me some new local proverbs and idoms, like the one above. For this, I am very grateful.

A Song on When to Obey the Government – Or Not

Occasionally we make up songs with our kids as we’re reading through the Bible together and come across important passages that we don’t know any kids songs for. This song was inspired by Romans 13:1-7 and Acts 5:29. Living in a pandemic lockdown world and seeking to lead Muslims to Jesus in a country where this is illegal, these categories of obeying the government – except when they ask us to sin – are ones we want our kids to grow up chewing on. It’s complicated out there! But we hope that these big biblical categories will help them navigate a faithful posture towards government in their own families and churches someday.

Lyrics:

Obey the government says the Lord
It's for a good reason that they bear the sword
To punish the evil and reward the good
So obey the government says the Lord

But not if they tell you to sin (no sir!)
Not if they tell you to sin (no sir!) 
Not if they tell you to do bad things
Then you don't have to obey those kings 

Please Bring Your Holy Imagination

A few weeks ago we were asked by some future teammates if there is anything they can do to prepare for the mission field during their last few months in the US. I said something to them that I had not previously mentioned in these types of conversations.

“Try to go deeper in knowing yourselves. Ask your mentors, friends, and family for feedback on your strengths and weaknesses. Come to the field ready to be honest about those things and knowing how you will need to lean on others on your team. If you have a better understanding of who you are, you will be better able to understand your teammates – and you’ll be less likely to fall into unnecessary conflict.”

I said this because I am slowly coming to the conviction that a lack of self-awareness and a lack of holy imagination are at the root of much team conflict. And the two are related. Regarding self awareness, it simply takes a long time to truly see ourselves in relation to others. Most of us start off kind of ignorant of what we’re actually like, thinking that we are the definition of normal, balanced, and gifted, and that the world would be a better place if everyone else were more like us. It’s often after a long process of clashing and bonding with others who are very different from us that we really learn to live in a robust theology of the body of Christ – that there are all kinds of differences among the members and that this is actually worthy of celebration. We as individuals have some real gifts and strengths, and a unique slew of corresponding weaknesses. But the body of Christ working together is beautiful in how the members complement one another.

We need to get better at knowing ourselves – learning our own personal culture, as I like to think of it. But we also need to pursue growth in putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes – in what has been called holy imagination. I recently listened to an interview where professor Karen Swallow Prior was advocating for Christians to read more good literature – like Frankenstein. Her argument was a new one for me. She said that God has given us imaginations, and we will engage them somewhere. If we don’t engage them in healthy ways (like fiction books), then we will be more drawn to unhealthy things like conspiracy theories. Yikes. An underdeveloped imagination is also likely to lead to ugly conflict with others as we fail to exercise our imagination in interpreting their words charitably. For exhibit A, log on to Christian Twitter.

Yes, believers say things that seem hurtful or offensive all the time. But can we interpret those words in the broader context of our relationship? Can we understand why they would feel that way and speak that way given their history and their personality? Can we see things from their perspective? Feel things even from their perspective? This is what I mean by holy imagination. The Scriptures say that love bears and believes all things. Well, one way to practically apply that is to say that love puts itself in someone else’s shoes. When we consciously put ourselves in someone else’s situation and worldview, we end up more compassionate, patient – and better able to bear with their brokenness and their sin. And turns out this also makes us better at addressing their brokenness and sin.

Why are we so bad at doing this? I think I have more guesses than answers at this point. Though we are very strong in God’s book of revealed Scripture, I wonder why my tribe of reformed evangelicals is not particularly strong at reading God’s book of Nature – which includes things like culture, personality, and history. We are God-centered, but somehow not God-centered enough to study the complexity of God’s creation. We pride ourselves in knowing Paul’s logic in Romans, but for some reason use that as an excuse to not engage poetry as Paul did. Perhaps KSP is right, and we don’t engage our holy imaginations enough in things like literature and art. Is there something we are afraid of there? Or are we simply too busy doing ministry? Has anyone else ever found it ironic that the most influential fiction writers among evangelicals – Tolkien and Lewis – were themselves not evangelicals, but a Catholic and an Anglican?

As locals say when something doesn’t sit right, “there’s a hair in that yogurt.” Missionaries on the field are simply a reflection of our churches back home. And we are not very good at knowing ourselves and in our use of compassionate imagination. These are areas where we many of us need to pursue proactive growth – and I include myself in this.

So, to anyone reading this who is heading to the mission field, please do some hard work understanding yourself before you land on the field and join an already stressed-out team. Bring a metaphorical mirror to the field. It will really help. And please, bring your holy imagination.

Photo by Eddy Klaus on Unsplash

Shot Through With Flashes of Heaven

Like the cauldron, it was forged for ritual, bit it makes a happier statement about sacrifice, for the God to whom it is dedicated no longer demands that we nourish him and thus become one with his godhead. The transaction has been reversed: he offers himself to us as heavenly nourishment. In this new “economy,” we drink the Blood of God, and all become one by partaking of the one cup, the one destiny. The silver Cauldron was made in thanksgiving for some great favor: it was not meant to be seen by human eyes but was made for the sole delight of the swamp god. The silver Chalice, on the other hand, was meant to delight and refresh the humans who drained its mystical contents. Its elegant balance, its delicate gold filigree interlacings, its blue and ruby enamels beckoned from afar. As the communicant approached the Chalice, he could admire more fully its subtle workmanship; and as he lifted it to his lips, he would be startled to see, debossed in a band beneath the handles, the almost invisible names of the Twelve Apostles. As he drank the wine – at the very moment of communion – he could briefly upturn the base toward heaven and there would flash skyward the Chalice’s most thrilling aspect: the intricate underside of its base, meant to be seen by God alone. This secret pleasure connects the Chalice to the Cauldron and to all the pagan ancestors of the Irish. But the pagan act of pleasuring the god is now absorbed completely into the New Imagination and to all that will follow. The smith is still a “man of art,” a poet or druid, but he is no longer one of those whose evil craft and power Patrick had to protect himself against:

“Against craft of idolatry,

Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,

Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.”

For God’s pleasure and man’s are reunited, and earth is shot through with flashes of heaven, and the Chalice has become the druidic Christian smith’s thanksgiving, his deo gratias.

And that is how the Irish became Christians.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 143-144

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

I Finally Got a Pretty Phone Number

I finally did it. I caved and purchased a pretty phone number for around $30.

As cross-cultural workers, there are some aspects of the culture that we are eager to put on. “Wow, the locals are so good at generous hospitality!”

There are other aspects that as Christians we will never put on, such as the shamefulness and suspicion attached to adoption among locals.

Then there are issues of preference in the culture that for one reason or another we just don’t care to put on. The fact that locals spend money to buy phone numbers that are deemed more beautiful? I just haven’t found that very important. Rather, in the age of smart phones it’s just felt kind of vain and goofy. Who cares about phone numbers anymore?

And yet every transition is another chance to reexamine our posture toward local culture and to take some additional steps so that we ourselves might seem less weird and goofy to the locals. This time around, my new platform manager joked that I should get a pretty phone number for my new business cards being made. We laughed about it, but the comment made me realize I was no longer absolutely closed to the idea, and it might be an experiment worth trying. After all, locals have been asking me about my ugly phone numbers for years. So I took the plunge and got a pretty phone number.

The first local friend I gave it to was *Frank, himself a very practical man more concerned with things working than with beauty. But sure enough, even Frank lit up. “Wow! Where did you get such a pretty mobile number?”

I just laughed to myself and then awkwardly told him how much I paid for it.

Locals can’t always put their finger on it, but they sense when cross-cultural workers are doing what they can to put on the local culture. It is meaningful because it is not absolutely necessary. “Why would you willingly change preferential things that you have grown up with in order to live more like we do?”

It’s not that a small step like this will make all the difference in becoming all things to all men. I remember being at an evangelism methods debate years ago where a white American brother proclaimed, “I do not need to learn how to shake hands like a black man in order to share the gospel with black men!” A Bolivian brother and I who were part of the discussion just kind of grimaced. Of course, this comment is correct on one level. We don’t need to learn culture as a precondition to sharing the gospel. The gospel itself qualifies us to share it across cultural lines. However, if step by step we also gradually reduce the cultural barriers that might be there, then we often find the cumulative effect to be a more attentive ear – and yes, a more skillful evangelist. The fact is, as an evangelist I have to drop some very hard truths on you regarding eternal damnation. So why not try to remove things that could tempt you to write off my message as for only my type of people?

We have learned that these kinds of shifts are just one more practical way to show love. This is true of any culture. But when foreign workers come from more dominant cultures and then willingly choose to identify with hidden or oppressed cultures, these small steps can mean even more. I can’t tell you how big the smiles get when we drop a few phrases in a minority tongue that no foreigner is supposed to know.

Yes, I am fully within my rights to continue living in the culture of my own heritage. It’s just as much a good culture as the local one, fully equal in its dignity and its brokenness. My parents’ culture is not inferior just because it is Western and has been very influential for a while. To act like it is is to fall into a different kind of error. However, when I willingly lay down my rights for the sake of love, when I take steps to identify just a little bit more with locals – just one more nod toward the honor and dignity embedded in their heritage that still endures even given all the fallenness and sin – this can open remarkable doors.

A pretty phone number will not be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and ushers in revival. But perhaps it will add to the stack! And thus it is an experiment worth attempting.

*Names changed for security

Photo by James Sutton on Unsplash

A Proverb on Unintended Consequences

We went for the beard, but we lost our mustache too.

Local Oral Tradition

Ever had a confident attack backfire? This is a great proverb for that time when you should have held your tongue or refrained from picking that fight with that guy two times your size. This proverb alludes to a disastrous trip to the barber, where all you were hoping for was a beard shave, but in the process you also lose your mustache, a traditional mark of manhood.

Photo by Arthur Humeau on Unsplash

We Have Found Our New House

We are now the proud renters of a traditional stone house, built in 1955, right on the edge of our city’s bazaar. It’s a got a large garden courtyard that wraps around three sides of the house, enclosed by beautiful, though neglected, stone walls. The house is made of the same kind of stone. The different limestone blocks are subtle shades of grey, pink, tan, and yellow. Small fruit trees line the courtyard – loquat, tangerine, fig, olive, and some grape vines. It also has it’s own well.

The interior rooms are plastered, broad, and lit by many traditional metal windows which are lovely in the spring, but will do very little to keep out the cold of winter. There’s only one squatty potty, and a small traditional bath/sauna room. Three walls have some considerable water damage. The kitchen door is so small we won’t be able to fit in our appliances or counters. There’s a lot of work to be done, but it has such potential and will actually be a beautiful house once it’s fixed up and lived in, in contrast to many of the ugly cement structures of the more recent eras. And beauty may not always seem practical or efficient, but we are finding that is supposed to play a much bigger part in our lives than it has in recent years.

The location is also exciting (for us anyway!). It’s right on the edge of the bazaar, in a very old neighborhood, the one where *Hama grew up. That means it’s a two minute walk for us to be in the bazaar proper and a ten minute walk to the center. I have access to a traditional man street of the bazaar and my wife can walk just a bit further to get access to a street frequented by women. That means I would probably be within walking distance of two dozen tea houses and my wife within walking distance of two dozen used clothes shops.

We have always loved the bazaar and can’t believe that we actually have a chance to live right next to it now. Our hope is that this will mean we can go even deeper into the local language and culture and that our neighborhood will be much more accessible to local believers who are dependent on walking and public transit. All the buses flow to the bazaar. Locals themselves seem to naturally flow to the bazaar, ending up there even on days when they swear they are completely broke or booked by work, study, or visiting relatives. It is in a real sense the soul of the city. We’ve spoken for years about the ministry advantages that could come by living close to the bazaar. Now we get to test it out.

It is a little odd that we are moving into this area. Very few, if any, Americans have lived there. Locals bemoan the terrible afternoon congestion of the area streets and the electricity and water issues. But once we explain that we are old souls who love the bazaar and the classic houses, they seem to mostly understand. “He is a confused man. But alas, whoever does not accept their neighbor is not accepted by God!” is one older neighbor lady’s comment about me now that we’ve actually rented the place. For her part, she was very kind and concerned that we were paying far too much rent for the place given the poor economy and it’s condition. But I am willing to pay a bit more rent than locals would because I believe a little bit of work will make folks a year from now shocked that we got it at such a good price. Plus the economy is likely to rebound, sending rent prices up again. But we’ll be locked into a very reasonable rate. And a big yard right in the middle of the city? That’s an almost impossible find. And at 2, 7, and 9, my kids (and their parents) would be greatly helped by having some space and some dirt and some trees.

We’ve been praying hard for this past month that we would find a good house, close to the bazaar and life-giving for our family. Though it’s a fixer-upper, we are amazed at God’s kindness in answering through this lovely old stone home. May it become an oasis of hospitality, rest, and even eternal life.