Beware Evangelical Talk

When I was a brand new missions pastor, I was given a great piece of advice from the lead pastors that I reported to.

“Beware Evangelical talk,” they said.

“Given your position,” they continued, “you will have countless opportunities to meet and network with other pastors and people in ministry. Many of them will want to spend precious time talking about what they are about to do, or what they would like to see happen in the future (you will too). Watch out for this, and spend your time first actually getting things done, and then you will have something to talk about.”

I nodded and tucked this piece of advice away. Before long I found out just how necessary the warning was. I was inundated with invitations to meet with other ministry professionals to “connect,” “network,” and get to know one another. Some good came out of these meetings, and some important relationships were formed. But there were also many meetings where it wasn’t quite clear in the end why the meeting had taken place at all, beyond us feeling good about having spent some social time with a new person in a somewhat-related role. Plus, we were in Louisville, so the coffee was often quite good (Sunergos, Quills, Vint, etc.).

Group gatherings of ministry professionals could be the worst in this regard, and not only in ministry contexts in the West. This is a dynamic that also continues on the mission field when groups of workers from different organizations meet together. It usually goes like this. A bunch of evangelical ministry types feel the urge to meet together regularly because “unity” and “the kingdom is bigger than your church” and “don’t be tribal because that’s bad.” But these vague notions don’t often get any more defined than that. So the group meets, and when it’s time to share the bulk of the time is spent by those talking about exciting things that seem right about to get started – or it’s monopolized by someone who has had some measure of success and now believes that what they did is the silver bullet for everyone else’s context. Most leave vaguely encouraged, but each would be hard-pressed to define anything specific that came of those several hours spent together. “Yeah, it was… good to… connect?”

Any time I’m asked to be part of planning a time like this, I always ask for one condition for the sharing time, “Can people please stick to what they’ve actually seen happen and resist the urge to share about items they think are right on the cusp of being the next great thing?” I often find myself needing templates and models that have actually proved faithful and fruitful, not just creative ideas that might work or might go down in flames (I tend to have too many of those on my own already). And at least in our context, the work is hard enough that always focusing on that new relationship or initiative seems to be a bit of a coping mechanism that keeps us from facing our repeated setbacks. We’ve sometimes lamented that our corner of Central Asia could be called The Land of a Thousand False Starts due to how many promising beginnings simply fail to go anywhere. Workers focus on what’s just around the bend for 10 years and then go home disillusioned, without having left anything behind that lasts.

“But ministry is all about relationships!” Yes, relationships are key, and I don’t mean to minimize the importance of having a network of trusted friends. Meetings, whether one-on-one or a group, can be a great way to build the type of trusting relationships that just might someday save your life – or keep your church from imploding. Effective ministry requires having these kinds of friendships with others who are allies or at least co-belligerants. But the cost of long rambling meetings must also be taken into account. Does it take away from time you could be shepherding your people? Sharing the gospel with the lost? Learning the local language and culture? Working on those important but not urgent projects that seem to be forever punted? Prayer?

I’ve found that a very slight uptick in definition, common ground, and goals for ministry networking can lead to making the best use of the time when meeting with other Evangelicals. What exactly is this meeting and why am I going to it? Why are they wanting to meet with me? What piece of wisdom or experience or help can be gleaned from this time? And what can I give to serve them? How much common ground do we share in terms of theology and methodology? (This last question helps to focus the conversation on the more appropriate areas of partnership).

Building the relationship is often a win in itself, but not always. When thought has been put in to define the meeting, work out its purpose and at least one goal, and do some theological/methodological triage, then relational ministry meetings often are worth the time invested. But without thinking through these things on some level, we risk getting pulled into the Evangelical Ministry Talk Vortex. And one can spend decades in there, floating around from one meeting over coffee to another.

Beware Evangelical Talk. It’s a subtle danger in a world without enough laborers. Let’s get to work, and then we will have a great time meeting to talk about it later.

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A Proverb on Learning One’s Lesson

If they cut off your arm, God will judge them. If they cut off your the other arm, God will judge you.

Local Oral Tradition

This is our local equivalent of “Fool me once, shame on you; Fool me twice, shame on me.” In other words, once someone has proven themselves untrustworthy or even dangerous, a wise person should no longer extend to them the same kind of trust they did previously. To do so is not only foolish, but this local proverb goes so far as to say it’s the kind of folly that even invites God’s judgement.

And now for a flashback demonstrating the importance of knowing your proverbs, especially if you are going to use them publicly:

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The Lone and Level Sands

Our corner of Central Asia is an ancient place. We had some first-time visitors with us this past week, and while traveling back from another city we took the opportunity to visit some very old ruins – old, as in circa 2,700 years ago. Remarkably, ancient carved script was still clear and legible on dozens of the large limestone blocks.

The few scholars that can read that script say that most of it is typical of the bragging monument-speak of ancient kings. “I’m the king of the world” and all that. If you’ve ever read the poem “Ozymandius” by Shelley, you’ll understand the sad irony felt when that kind of chiseled pride is contrasted with the desolation that inevitably comes with the passage of time – and with death.

I’m reminded of the time I visited the ruins of Ephesus. The site of the temple of Artemis only contained one pillar still standing – and that from a recent German reconstruction – and a whole bunch of grass and grazing sheep. So much for “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19). The site in Central Asia we visited was similar. Broken beer bottles littered the site itself, and nearby were tents of nomads, their shuffling flocks, and a lazy guard dog. So much for “the king of the world.”

What’s left of the temple of the great Artemis of the Ephesians

However, I’ve also read that this particular monarch (later murdered by his own sons) may have been privately realistic when it came to his own mortality. In public he may have claimed to be a semi-divine global ruler who would live forever. But scholars say that on the underside of some stones, hidden for centuries, a very different kind of message has been discovered. It’s along the lines of “If you are reading this, then my kingdom has been destroyed, I am no more, and was a mere mortal after all.” That’s quite the time capsule message to leave buried beneath massive limestone blocks. And a rare example of realistic humility for ancient royalty, if these carvings were indeed commissioned by the king himself and not a sneaky dig made against him by the head stone chiseler.

The visitors and I had a great time exploring the site. It’s simply astounding that ruins like this exist and that they have lasted so long – especially the carved script itself. 2,700 years is no small achievement for an ancient mason or scribe shooting for quality work. It was an invigorating place because of the remarkable history, but also a humbling one. Our empires’ greatest public works will one day look just like it, if they even last half as long. A testimony in the desert to glory long gone. It makes one long for the city whose foundation blocks will never fall or waste away.

I found myself wishing the pompous autocrats and politicians of our contemporary scene could visit this historical site, and take away lessons on both the enduring legacy of bold projects and the importance of humility for any powerful – yet oh so temporary – leader. Yes, we may be “crowned with glory and honor” for a day, yet all too quickly it comes to an end. They, and we, would be wise to more often consider these things, and to heed the warnings of Psalm 2:10-12.

Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Their glory and honor will fade. Only one ruler has a throne and a kingdom that will last forever. If they do not take refuge in him, if they do not give him the kiss of loyalty, they will fade into the sand, just like our local “king of the world.” Just like Ozymandius.

In case you haven’t read it before, here is “Ozymandius” by Shelley.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

“Ozymandius” by Shelley, from Poetry Foundation

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A Proverb on The Sweet Spot

Everything with salt, and salt in right amount.

Local Oral Tradition

This local proverb speaks to the bell curve present in many virtues. Too little of it turns it into a vice; too much, another kind of vice. Just the right amount – the sweet spot – is where wise conduct is to be found. Think of the goodness of being transparent with others. Too little transparency, and we risk hiding important information and undermining trust. Too much transparency, and we cross the bounds of what is appropriate and violate trust. I am excited to have learned this proverb because it speaks to the kind of nuance so often needed in mature Christian conduct and speech.

“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer each person.” – Colossians 4:6

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Things Not to Do in Minefields

During my college gap year in the Middle East, I worked to secure a grant for a landmine removal organization. Part of this process included visiting a remote village where this organization was painstakingly working to remove mines that had been placed decades earlier.

One of the terrible things about landmines is how easy they are to deploy, yet how difficult they are to remove. There are still more landmines than people in that particular country, though many of them were placed decades ago. At the time of our visit to the village area, we were told that not a week went by that an animal or person didn’t get maimed or killed by stepping on a mine in the broader region. The mines were mostly American, Italian, and Chinese-made, a sad testimony to the global weapons trade. And though villagers often knew where the minefields were, sometimes mines could be washed down a hillside during heavy rains and end up on a path that had been previously safe.

We were given a very important tip that day for traversing territory where there might be mines: Follow the livestock trails. If walking through a field or on a mountainside in an area which has historically been mined, the safest bet is to look for the well-worn trails taken by goats, sheep, and their shepherds. In that part of the world these trails are very distinct, interweaving on dry mountainsides in a web that comes to resemble a kind of net pattern. Just in case you ever find yourself in this kind of territory, look for these animal trails. It just may save your limbs or life.

It was a sobering day trip, yet also encouraging to see the common-grace, painstaking work being done by international and local organizations to make mined areas safe again, one field at a time. It’s not a cause that gets a lot of press, but the world needs more people and organizations committed to mine removal. It’s dangerous and slow work, but vitally necessary.

That particular day trip wasn’t without a dose of humor, however. About an hour into the initial drive a colleague’s vehicle pulled off to the side of the road. It was the SUV directly in front of mine. *Greg, a short mustachioed colleague, had apparently had too much coffee to drink. He began wandering off into a field to “drain the radiator”, as they say in a certain Kentucky idiom. At that point in the drive, none of us foreigners really knew where we were. We simply assumed we were still in safe territory.

Greg found a spot in the field comfortably far away and began to relieve himself. Suddenly, the lead vehicle in the convoy screeched to a halt a ways up the road. The driver and copilot of that vehicle, local employees of the mine removal group, began running back toward us, waving their hands and shouting something.

We all strained to make out what they were saying and doing, since they were a good distance from us. Finally, we heard it.

“Mines! Mines! Mines!”

Suddenly, we all started waving our arms and yelling at Greg as well, “Greg! You can’t pee there! It’s a mine field! Get back, Greg! Mines, Greg, mines!”

Poor Greg was caught in between the will of his bladder and his will to survive. He began hopping sideways and backwards, earnestly trying to get out of that field while still preserving some dignity and fumbling to get his trousers fastened.

After a few nail-biting moments, Greg made it safely back to the road. The sprinting and yelling locals stopped and hunched over, hands on their knees, breathing hard and shaking their heads, perhaps regretting signing up for this little outing.

For our part, our crew of expats sat stunned for a minute, then burst out in peals of laughter, slapping Greg on the shoulder and shaking our heads as well. Since he was safe we were free to laugh about the whole incident. And for months we didn’t let him live it down.

There are many nuggets of wisdom I have picked up over the years while working in foreign contexts. Some are quite eloquent and inspiring. Others, well, they are a little more down to earth and practical, blatantly obvious and yet still needing to be said. This one is definitely the latter. Friends…. Don’t pee in minefields.

Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

*Names changed for security (and dignity!)

Another Take on a Character Proverb

Travel and business are a gold appraisal tool.

Local Oral Tradition

I’ve posted another version of this proverb in the past, but I believe that this version is the older one. In the local culture, they used to appraise gold by scratching it with a special device. The appraiser was able to tell the quality of the gold from the scratch made in its surface. In this proverb, the gold represents a person’s character. So in essence, travel and business, like a gold appraisal tool, reveal a person’s character.

As one who has traveled for my entire life, I testify that the travel part is certainly true. When a trip is long enough (and it doesn’t have to be that long), people are unable to keep up appearances. Sooner or later, they will get tired or stressed or sick or inconvenienced in some way. And at that point, character will spill out.

Every time we travel internationally, I am reminded of the difference the new birth makes in when it comes to simple kindness. In the dehumanizing environment of a crowded airplane, most want to protect at all costs the few rights and the small space they still have. Those who are kind to families with small children or to the sick or the elderly stand out. And often, turns out the kind and sacrificial ones are those who know Jesus.

In an age where we often lament the lack of difference between the Church and the world, I am happy to say that travel truly can reveal the reality of the new birth – and that it is a golden, wonderful thing.

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When You Step Out of the Wind

We once stayed on the coast of the Black Sea on the return journey to our corner of Central Asia. After a stormy night, I ventured out for a late morning prayer walk once the rain had stopped. The downpour may have ceased, but the wind and the waves crashed in relentlessly toward the land.

This constant and steady shove of the sea winds led to me walking tilted to one side. But I didn’t really notice this until I passed one of the enclosed bus stops that periodically lined the road. As soon as I stepped behind the shelter of the bus stop, the pressure disappeared and I almost lost my footing and tumbled into the benches. I regained my posture, laughed at myself, and continued on out into the wind again. I paid attention to see if this would happen at the next bus stop. It did, I recovered slightly better this time, and I began to enjoy this unexpected pattern of this particular walk. Walk, lean, lean, stumble and correct, lean again. It was quite surprising how disorienting it was to step out of the wind and into the safety of the shelter.

This little seaside walk reminded me of what it’s like to step out of a high-stress missions environment – or really any high-stress environment. When the pressure is constant, you adjust and gradually cease to notice it. Then you step out – take a vacation, go on furlough, etc. – and boom, you find yourself quickly reeling as the pressure is removed.

“I feel like I’ve been sleeping for weeks and weeks,” one friend told me after leaving a particularly dangerous part of Central Asia. “We didn’t really realize how much stress we had until we got out,” another recently said. Others might feel numb after stepping out of their context, or they might get sick. Feelings of calling and spiritual affections might go strangely haywire. We sometimes get headaches that seem connected to the collapse of the stress and the schedule. Or, after a hard year and a 16-hour flight with small children we might simply feel like chucking it all and going to live like hermits in the woods somewhere.

What’s important to notice is that this sudden disorientation is normal. Though it doesn’t always happen, it happens enough to represent a real pattern. Missionaries stepping out of their context of service will likely face some kind of a disorienting and reorienting period, often due to the removal of the pressures of said context and the effects of reverse culture shock.

It’s important that the missionaries themselves don’t get freaked out by this. And that those receiving them keep the possibility of this kind of adjustment period on their radar as well. Right after return to the home country might not be the best time for a debrief – or at least not the main debrief. It also might not be the best time for lots of scheduled ministry engagements.

Time to get one’s bearings is important, time to let more the temporary feelings dissipate and to let the deeper affections rise again to the surface. Quick decisions about the future should probably be avoided. Instead, what is needed is sleep, steady friendship, time to reconnect with Jesus, and some plain old time to think (preferably while sipping on some good tea or coffee). If coming from high-communication cultures, colleagues may need to cover for their teammates who need to go dark for a while.

We are currently in the midst of a week like this ourselves. After a busy couple weeks of traveling (eight different beds in twenty one days), yesterday I was feeling pretty pessimistic about lots of things. Today? Things are seeming a lot more grounded and good. Nothing really about our circumstances has changed. We just got some extra sleep, some restful time in nature, and some good time to pray. A few more days of this, and we might be ready to step back into the wind, as it were.

If you step out of a high-pressure ministry context, prepare for a bit of a jolt. This is normal. And it is itself an important part of realizing how to live sustainably and sacrificially in that particular context.

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A Proverb for a Lazy Worker

For fear of day labor he became a musician.

Local Oral Tradition

This proverb is for the person who shuns hard work and seeks out the easier tasks. One young man was hired to help paint our house when we moved in. There was a ton of work to be done, but I kept catching him watering the trees. He really liked watering those trees. Or perhaps he just really didn’t like painting.

I didn’t know this proverb at the time, but it would have been an apt one to use. Needless to say, the painting only got ninety percent done. But the garden trees look great!

Photo by Ben Albano on Unsplash

A Proverb on Conflict

A clap is not achieved by one hand only.

Local Oral Tradition

This one recently emerged in a context of – you guessed it – conflict. It’s the local equivalent of “It takes two to tango.” While exceptions to this principle exist, and greater and lesser degrees of fault are important to consider, conflict often has two parts: a sinful action and a sinful reaction. This is good news for peacemakers who are involved in conflict. There’s almost always a way to lead, to initiate, with a humble admission of our own sin or shortcoming. And that is often the key that unlocks the main offender’s repentance as well.

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