I recently had the opportunity to speak to a number of my colleagues on the importance of sustainable sacrifice (a term borrowed from author Christopher Ash in his book, Zeal Without Burnout). Together, we looked at 2nd Timothy 2:1-7, and specifically, Paul’s examples of the soldier, the athlete, and the farmer. Each example would have communicated to the original audience a lifestyle of sacrifice, as well a lifestyle of disciplined pace – long-term labor that requires a long-term posture.
While preparing for this talk I decided to include a historical illustration from Roman military history. Julius Caesar conquered the Gauls (or Celts) of modern day France between the years 58 and 50 BC. These now famous battles, called the Gallic wars, made the Gauls of western Europe (relatives of those Galatians down in Asia minor) Roman subjects. Eventually they would become models of Roman assimilation, more Roman than the Romans as it were. But in the beginning they were something terrifying to behold – particularly in battle.
The warriors of Gaul tended to be much taller than Roman soldiers, with blonde hair (often bleached even blonder) and long mustaches. Sources say they would charge into battle naked – save for a metal band around their neck – and painted in blue war paint. Their preferred way to fight was to charge the enemy line, fearless and screaming, caught up in some kind of battle rage. This would have been a terrifying thing to behold and try to withstand, and much discipline would have been required to hold the line. In the back of a Roman soldier’s mind, they might also be thinking about how the Gauls liked to collect the heads of their defeated enemies and decorate their houses with them. The Roman consciousness was also haunted by the memory of the Gauls who had sacked Rome hundreds of years earlier.
No doubt many a Roman line did not hold in response to a charging hoard of Gauls (You can’t blame them). But Julius Caesar learned one valuable secret. That secret was the importance of pace. The Gauls were using massive amounts of energy in their fanatical charge at the Roman line. If the legions could just hold the line for a little while and save their strength, then the majority of the Gallic warriors’ strength would be spent, and the Romans would be able to get the upper hand – by simply having enough energy left to finish the battle.
Of course, the Romans also employed advanced military tactics and discipline, and no doubt these all played their part. But I was struck by the fact that battles could be won simply by the power of pace.
We have not been very good at pacing ourselves here in our corner of Central Asia. Many limp to the end of their first term and beginning of furlough. Most long-term cross-cultural workers leave here after 4-6 years. Everyone with high-school age kids leaves. We come in with an immense amount of energy, throw ourselves at language learning, evangelism, and discipleship, burn into sleep and family time, and justify it all because it’s ministry. Then one day we wake up realizing there’s suddenly nothing more in the tank.
In short, we have been fighting like Gauls.
My encouragement to my colleagues (and myself) is that we need to learn to fight more like Romans. Let the short-term teams fight like Gauls (but clothed, please). This is because their battle is much briefer, more like a sprint. But for those of us who hope to be here for decades, we need to learn the kind of posture and pace that enables us to endure a very long war full of very long engagements. To jump historical eras, we are in WWII Stalingrad, not in the fall of Paris.
Borrowing categories from Christopher Ash, this means we need to be serious about sleep, sabbaths, friendship, and inner renewal. It also means we need to embrace a posture of grace toward our teammates, so that we might prevent and mitigate the devastating effects of team conflict.
Ultimately, we don’t know how long we will be able to stay on the field. Some factors are beyond our ability to influence, such as geopolitical changes or getting cancer. But we can and should seek a wise, long-term posture, one where we do not fight like Gauls, but instead fight like soldiers who know there’s a lot of battle still to come – and who want to actually be there to see the victory.
Photo by Wikimedia Commons