Leaders Who See the Lowly

My wife has always maintained that those going into ministry should first work a few years in food service. Her main point in this claim is that you will never treat that server, barista, or otherwise unimpressive worker the same after you’ve known what it’s like to be in their shoes. My wife worked her way through college, picking up countless shifts in the campus cafe, serving at banquets, and working in the cafeteria. She finished her undergrad with no debt at all, a feat that her future husband was unfortunately not able to replicate.

Most of my wife’s jobs were on the campus of Southern seminary, where she attended Boyce college. Over the four years she worked on campus, her brief or repeated service interactions with students, staff, and visiting leaders gave her a unique window into the character of each. This is because the way we treat those with supposedly unimportant jobs always says something about our humility. Seminary can be a heady place. World-renowned scholars are teaching and being made. Current leaders rub shoulders with future leaders. Famous pastors preach in chapel and visit to give prestigious lectures. In other words, the temptations of fear of man and showing partiality are regularly present, made all the more slippery in that everything is set in a context of preparation for ministry. After all, why slow down and engage the college kid behind the counter in a black apron when standing right over there is the author of your favorite theology book?

These dynamics meant that my wife and others working service jobs always noticed the ones who would indeed slow down and truly engage them as people and fellow heirs of the kingdom. And of course, they would also notice when students or leaders didn’t extend even basic Christian courtesy. Now, everyone has bad days where we are lost in our thoughts or discouraged and forget to make eye contact or interact genuinely with the person behind the cash register. The issue is not what happens as a one-off, but what is the pattern of our lives and interactions with those in everyday or lowly roles around us? Do we truly see and value those around us whom the world deems unimportant? Do we ever slow down and genuinely engage them, seeking even to delight in them? Pay attention to those who do this well, for they are the kind of leaders worth following.

In the field of leadership training, some authors speak of the “waiter principle,” the idea that how a leader treats a server speaks to whether that leader is truly a leader of integrity or not. A true leader will understand that every role in their organization or company matters, and this will affect how they treat those in even the lowest roles. In Central Asia, it’s not so much the restaurant servers who get treated poorly, but the cleaners or the chai boys. When we’ve taught leadership seminars in local universities, we’ve learned to slow down and focus on this principle, because in a patron-client hierarchical society, the culture says that it’s actually shameful for leaders to treat the unimportant with respect. While Western culture is a little stronger on this point, the temptations toward showing favoritism toward the important are really universal. No matter where you live, our sin natures want to judge by appearances, honoring the rich, talented, and important, and belittling or ignoring the poor or average among us.

Somewhere like seminary can illustrate why it can be downright foolish to judge by appearances. That foreign exchange student making your sandwich might in a few years be leading a thriving church overseas and show up on a 9 Marks podcast (as took place in my earbuds this week). The guy doing landscaping may end up planting a church in one of the hardest cities in North America. The gal making your coffee may become a well-known author, or, in my wife’s case, serve faithfully on a frontier church-planting team in a region overseas where many others would never even consider raising their families. Basic wisdom tells us to honor even the lowly because we cannot predict if or when they will be lifted up to a place higher than ours – and if that someday happens, then our honor or shame is tied to how we treated them before.

But this strategic wisdom really shouldn’t be our primary motivation to show respect to those who appear unimportant among us. It still assumes that it’s the potentially-powerful who are worthy of more honor. Instead, the deeper motivation should be that God has welcomed the lowly, honored them, and even delights in them. We need to remember the upside-down logic of the kingdom of God, “many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matt 19:30). Jesus welcomes little children and rebukes those who don’t (Mark 10:14). He befriends the outcasts (Mark 2:16). He pronounces blessing on the poor and pronounces woe upon the rich (Luke 6:20, 24). Not many of God’s chosen are rich, powerful, and important in this world (1 Cor 1:26-31). The sick and the poor are the true treasures of the church, and every person we interact with has a fascinating story that overflows with God’s glory, and the potential to themselves be eternally glorious – to even be a judge over angels (1 Cor 6:3).

Being reminded of the nature of God’s kingdom can help us live in such a way that we become believers and leaders who truly see the lowly. Picturing that service worker resurrected and remembering that we are to consider others as more important than ourselves (Phil 2:3) can transform our everyday interactions with those around us – and give life to those who often feel invisible. And if seeing and delighting in those deemed unimportant becomes a pattern in our lives, then we are well on our way to developing this character trait of a true and trustworthy leader ourselves.

While I didn’t have too many jobs in food service (Stints at Jamba Juice and Jimmy Johns showed me my hands could never seem to move fast enough), I have often experienced a similar dynamic because I don’t present as physically or interpersonally impressive. I have a pretty average appearance and bearing and I find myself not very good at first impressions in a Western context. This means that those I’m briefly introduced to often quickly move on to those who appear more interesting. I can’t help but notice that there’s often a very different sort of interest shown later – once they learn about my ministry and story. This means that those who show a kind engagement before they know about my background and ministry accomplishments truly stand out. Their posture toward an unimpressive person has shone a light on their character. Without knowing it, they have outed themselves as humble and trustworthy.

I’ll never forget the time I met a very well-known pastor and author during my first week as a green, 25-year-old missions pastor. This leader was a regular speaker at T4G. He had published numerous books and spoken to tens of thousands. He was at our church for an important meeting with our senior leadership, and I was somehow invited to sit in, even though I was the brand new kid on staff. Yet in the hallway, as we made cursory introductions, this leader didn’t quickly move on to talk with the more dynamic leaders like I was used to. Instead, he slowed down and turned to me, deeply interested in the couple of details that my lead pastor had told him about me. Looking me in the eyes, he seemed to be fascinated by what he had heard. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Brother, I hear you’re just beginning a new role as a missions pastor. I am so excited about your ministry.” I was so taken aback by this kind of focus that I have no idea what I said in response. It was qualitatively different to be seen in that way. And it made me desire to be the kind of leader who would see others around me, even when they haven’t achieved enough to “deserve” that kind of focus. It also made me want to repent for the times I was guilty of ignoring the unimpressive.

Leaders who see the lowly and unimpressive are the kind of leaders worth following – and the kind of leaders we should want to become. This is because how we treat the lowly is truly a window into our character. Let’s keep that in mind the next time we meet someone who doesn’t appear that important. And if God is calling you to go into ministry, then follow a wise woman’s advice and consider first working some years in food service.

Photo by Steve Long on Unsplash

A Proverb On Hope

There is a path to the top of even the highest mountain.

Regional Oral Tradition

It is a satisfying thing to summit a mountain. It is even more satisfying after a previous attempt to do so has failed. I had this experience while trying to climb a tall peak overlooking our city, named after an unknown magi from the distant past. Our first attempt up the nearer side of the mountain failed when we reached cliffs and vertical stone walls that barred us from going any further. We weren’t alone in not making the summit. Other foreigners had recently gotten stuck on the mountain side and had to be rescued by military helicopter. But rather than give up, we sought a different route. On our second attempt we came up the back side of the mountain, a route which took longer but provided mostly walkable slopes all the way to the rocky top. At the summit, we were richly rewarded by the stunning views, the cool breezes, and the taste of chocolate – which is somehow always richer on long hikes, so make sure you’ve got some in your pack. There had indeed been a path up the mountain, even though we had previously failed to find one.

This Central Asian proverb speaks to hope in spite of great obstacles. To me, this proverb sounds more American than Central Asian, since my passport culture tends toward the naively optimistic while Central Asian culture tends to be more fatalistic. Yet here it is, a proverb from the heart of Central Asia defying fatalism and offering hope that even the most daunting of obstacles might be overcome. This is a good proverb for those learning a new language. Or for those attempting to do something which feels impossible, like planting a church.

Photo by Jerry Zhang on Unsplash

A Proverb On Proximity and Affections

The one before the eyes is the one upon the heart.

Local Oral Tradition

This Central Asian proverb speaks to the effect proximity and distance have upon our affections. We have a similar saying in English, though it focuses on the inverse of this idea – “Out of sight, out of mind.” As humans, we seem to be hard-wired to prioritize the relationships that are immediately in front of us, and we struggle to maintain those relationships that are long-distance. We quickly give resources to the needs that we are faced with, and have trouble feeling the weight of those needs that we don’t ourselves physically interact with.

A wise person will therefore do what they can to to be reminded of those important people and needs in ways their eyes can see and body can sense. This is particularly important for those who have grown up with a lot of transition and goodbyes, as missionary kids have. The temptation after a move is to cut off contact completely and to only focus on those relationships right in front of us. This is because continued contact reminds us of the distance and the change, and therefore the loss. But the seemingly easy way is not really the healthy way here. MKs and others like us need to learn to be present friends, even from a distance. I still have a long way to go on this front.

This is also why daily spiritual disciplines and corporate worship are also so crucial. We do not physically interact with Jesus in the ways his first disciples did. Instead, we interact with him by spirit, through faith, in the realm of the unseen. Our affections for him will fade and we will largely forget him if we do not have ways in which we are reminded regularly of his friendship for us. Hence Bible study which engages our eyes and hands, prayer which engages our lips and ears, and tangible reminders like the Lord’s Supper that engage our taste buds. In fact, Christians should be known as those whose deepest love is for the one not before our eyes, the one we can’t yet see and touch.

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and full of glory.” – 1st Peter 1:8

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Tell Me About a Time You Deeply Hurt Someone

We learn to ask certain questions only after experiencing significant pain or dysfunction. A new question was recently clarified for me, one that I will be sure to ask in any future interviews with those who desire to serve overseas. That question is, “Tell me about a time you deeply hurt someone, and how you made things right.” The ability to answer this question – or not – might make the difference between a teammate you can trust in the midst of conflict versus one who is dangerously self-deceived.

It is said (accurately, in my experience) that team conflict is the number one reason missionaries leave the field. That means that sending and receiving missionaries who are mature in the midst of conflict is of utmost importance. The pressures on missionary teams are immense. Culture shock can send stress levels sky-rocketing. Language learning can make you want to pull your hair out. Life logistics can be maddeningly cumbersome. Security threats can keep missionaries constantly on edge. Cross-cultural relationships are complex and often hurtful. Ministry disappoints. The organization’s or supporters’ demands can be overwhelming. Health issues press in. Marriage and parenting struggles often escalate in a foreign culture.

Who must bear the brunt of these pressures? Often, the small missionary team. A good team will seek to care for one another and as others have wisely emphasized, be “the front line of member care.” But the team itself is also a pressurized environment. Thorny ministry decisions must be decided. Work responsibilities need to be juggled and shared according to the season and abilities of the individual missionaries. The team is often church for one another, family for holidays, the friends who throw you a birthday party, and those you must depend on for all manner of life logistics.

Conflict is inevitable because teams are made up of humans, each of whom has a sin nature. But add in the above pressures, and it’s no wonder that teammates blow up at one another. It is in the prevention of these blowups and in their aftermath that someone’s maturity or character is so vital. Specifically, a certain kind of humility and honesty is needed regarding our own capacity to wound others, a self-awareness that leads to owning our sharp words, our weaponized silence, and our sinfully-expressed emotions. What I am speaking of here is the hard yet simple thing of taking responsibility for our own sin and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation when we have hurt others.

Many Christians end up on the mission field who do not possess this kind of maturity. In conflict situations, these individuals refuse to see or admit any wrong-doing on their part. They vigorously fend off any attempt to lay at their feet any part of the blame. They posture themselves like Teflon – nothing is allowed to stick. They claim there are circumstantial factors that explain everything. Or the wounded party is in the wrong for understanding it that way. Or it’s actually the team leader’s fault for creating this mess in the first place. Deflect, justify, attack.

The defenses employed by this sort of person are legion. But they all serve the purpose of protecting that individual from having to admit any blame or sin in the situation. And this kind of posture kills the possibility of true reconciliation. It can also kill the team – and any hope of doing healthy ministry through the team.

These teammates who refuse to own their sin seem to be engaged in a desperate attempt to protect themselves. From what exactly? What is so terrifying about admitting that we have wronged another believer? After all, it’s Christianity 101 to admit that we are forgiven sinners and saints who still stumble. In reflecting on a number of these situations, it seems there is a kind of terror there at what might have to be faced if they admit that they can and have hurt others. So the door to this part of their heart is guarded at all costs because they are horrified of what it might mean about them to be in the wrong. There are likely voices of condemnation always running in the background that must be silenced at all costs – even at the cost of a fellow teammate. This terror leads to enormous efforts to suppress these thoughts and emotions, to a kind of self-deception. They cannot admit to their team that they were wrong, because they do not dare admit it to themselves.

This kind of person needs the freedom of the gospel. They need godly pastors and counselors. They need to understand where their terror-fueled defense comes from and how to heal those deep roots. They do not need to be on the mission field. If they remain, they will slowly but surely poison their relationships through their inability to admit blame and pursue true reconciliation.

I have learned to ask upfront about a person’s awareness of their weaknesses, of those areas in which they will need to lean on others’ strengths. This is helpful, since it can show if someone has the spiritual maturity to delight in and depend on the diversity of the body’s members and gifts. This will prevent a certain kind of team conflict, since this missionary will be less likely to fall into the trap of thinking his unique gifts are really the superior ones. He will thus be less threatened by his teammates and more thankful for the ways they are different from him and the areas where they excel and he does not. But there is a way to acknowledge our own weaknesses that still might not show that a person is capable of being in the wrong, of truly repenting. “Sure! I’m bad at admin…” That’s why I want to ask about how they have deeply hurt someone in the past. This has the chance of getting closer to “seeing” their character. The cost on the field is too great to not have at least some evidence that a missionary will actually be able to navigate conflict with some maturity.

Some would name the kind of person I have described here as a narcissist. I heard a podcast this week where author Chuck DeGroat drew that connection. Just as the mythical character Narcissus was not in love with himself, but with an image of himself in the water, so some kinds of narcissists are committed to seeing themselves as never truly in the wrong. It was a new category for me, and one that I want to think more about. But if this dynamic really is describing narcissists, then that would mean that Central Asian culture (and most honor-shame cultures) is full of them. We must therefore be able to model on our teams something drastically different. We must be able to admit when we have hurt others, and to repent. We must even learn to glory in the ways the gospel has healed relationships where we have deeply hurt others.

Every spring the fields of our corner of Central Asia burst to life with green grass and spring flowers – among them the yellow and white narcissus. They are beautiful flowers, but they are ever so fragile, wilting remarkably quickly after being plucked. And they don’t stand a chance against the summer sun. In a similar way, too many missionaries have a kind of fragility in the midst of conflict that keeps them from admitting wrong, and which keeps them from faithfully enduring the tremendous pressure of the mission field.

Pastors and sending churches, make sure you only send missionaries to the field who are deeply honest about the ways they have wounded others, and who have the kind of character that is ready to own it when they do it again. Missionaries on the field, please screen those you are interviewing for these things. Conflict on the field is inevitable. Let’s do everything we can to be sending those who can navigate it with humility.

Photo by Mohammad Asadi on Unsplash

A Proverb On True Friends

A good friend is in suffering revealed.

Local Oral Tradition

This Central Asian proverb speaks to what many in seasons of suffering have experienced – that suffering reveals who our truest friends really are. When the good times end and the trials have come, we find out who is still able to be a companion, even in the darkness. And who was there only for the proverbial melons. We have an equivalent English proverb that gets at the same idea: “a friend in need is a friend indeed.”

Very few people naturally know how to be a good friend in suffering. It seems to be something we must learn, often as we suffer and grieve ourselves and thereby grow in the unique wisdom of those who mourn. We also learn how to do this as we experience responses to our suffering that are not so helpful.

I am trying to learn to not pivot so quickly to the sovereignty of God in the midst of pain. I’ve learned there is a cheap way to turn to this glorious doctrine that can keep us from lamenting as we need to, whether for our own pain or for others. It can function as a deflecting mechanism of sorts because I am afraid of what will happen if I am truly open to the pain. I find it instructive that Jesus does not plainly tell Mary and Martha in John 11 what he is up to, that he allowed Lazarus to die because he is purposefully bringing about his resurrection from the dead. Instead, he hears their tortured questions, reminds them of who he is, and then weeps with them. It seems that even a death of a mere four days must be mourned before it is appropriate to start putting the pieces together. The faithful friendship of Jesus is revealed not only by his bringing Lazarus back from the dead, but also by his choosing to weep with his family first. “See how he loved him!” (John 11:36).

Many of us can grow in being better friends in suffering. Our own suffering will inevitably teach us how to do this. But we can also learn by listening well to those who are currently in seasons of grief and pain, or those who are reflecting on what they needed during their own dark season. Often, the desire to be a good friend is there. It’s a part of our new nature as believers to want to be this kind of friend for others. But we can often lack the practical know-how of how to actually weep with those who weep (Western culture is a terrible tutor when it comes to how to grieve). Our fear of saying the wrong thing can cause us to not send that note or make that call. When in doubt, we should take the risk and err on the side of extending comfort, imperfect though it may be – especially since so many agree that it’s not the words in the midst of suffering that mean the most, but our presence and mere willingness to enter into the sadness.

This Central Asian proverb echoes the eternal wisdom of God’s word also. Proverbs 17:17 – “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.”

When adversity inevitably comes to those around us, may we be revealed to be good and true friends. And may God provide these kinds of friends for us in our suffering as well.

Photo by Josue Michel on Unsplash

When the City of Man Creaks

Eating out just hasn’t felt worth it these past couple months that we’ve been back in the US. While restaurants in the states are open again, most are understaffed and alarmingly expensive. The lack of staff usually means pretty poor service, and even the quality of food usually strikes us as not what it used to be. Hearing others in the US voice similar sentiments means it’s not just those of us who have been living overseas who notice these differences. The food service industry is creaking, trying to lurch back to what it was before the pandemic. There is this sense that – convenience though it is – we can’t count it like we used to.

Food service is not the only system struggling to regain its pre-pandemic efficiency. International air travel has still not recovered either. We’ve never had the kind of travel difficulties that we’ve experienced over this past year. Even business behemoths like Amazon seem past their, ahem, prime. More seriously, crime has also skyrocketed in many American cities, with the understanding in some places that if you are the victim of certain crimes, you are on your own.

The strange thing about all this for highly-educated millennials like us is that we’ve hardly ever known the systems around us to get worse, perhaps with the exception of our elected government. By and large, we’ve only known the infrastructure and services offered in the West to (eventually) get faster, more efficient, and more user-friendly. This was also the worldview of our parents’ generation. Progress in the systems we rely on for life necessities or conveniences has been assumed. The pandemic and its aftermath have challenged this assumption and, whether temporary or long-term, the systems around us are showing their weakness.

Systems don’t last forever. The prophecy of the twelve eagles was right – Rome would fall. The Roman legions would leave places like Britain in 409 and never come back. Which meant the structures of empire that the Romanized residents of Londinium (London) relied upon would have slowly but surely broken down. A thousand years later the Portuguese would successfully sail to India – thereby causing the economic collapse of the Central Asian silk road. Trade routes that were kept safe by the wealth and power of regional regimes would become frequented by violent robbers and be slowly abandoned by the caravans. Empires rise. Empires decline. At some point a certain generation realizes that things are breaking faster than they can be repaired, and life is likely going to get a lot worse before it someday gets better.

As the systems of West have begun to creak, we’ve had an opportunity to get a glimpse of what it might be like to live in a declining empire, what it’s like to have things regress, as it were. We’re nowhere near what someone like Augustine would have experienced as the Vandals laid siege to his city during the last year of his life. Bad food service, late packages, and lost luggage are not nearly the same thing as barbarians at the gate. But if we stop and pay attention, we might be able to identify just a little more with all those communities throughout history that have known what it’s like to have their faith in their systems shaken. This is not all bad.

Who among us in the West has not at times believed the myth of our society’s unceasing progress and influence? It’s only human to believe that the way things are is the way they are going to be – certainly for our lifetimes, if not for much longer. But a shockwave through society’s systems can function much like a personal health scare. It can awaken us to our own transience. Our lives are like a vapor (James 4:14). So are our civilizations. Like Ozymandius, all the great boasts of this world will one day end up the equivalent of a monument buried in sand, abandoned and forgotten. Remembering our transience fosters humility. And our God gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).

Creaking systems can also foster a hunger for better ones, those that cannot be shaken (Heb 12:27). It’s no mistake that Augustine writes The City of God in the twilight of the Roman Empire, and in light of the first sack of Rome. When the temporary systems (the City of Man) that we live in get shaken, believers are forced to cling to our true home, our eternal one (the city of God). Just as all the transitions of a refugee’s or a TCK’s upbringing can cause him to hope more tangibly in an eternal home, so the church collectively can come to believe more deeply in the steadfast kingdom of God when their own societies of sojourn are coming undone.

Shall we grieve for our Babylons when their time has come? Yes. The losses are real, if indeed we sought the good of the city where we sojourned. And yet there is also hope and a renewed clarity that must intermingle with the grieving. We knew all along our common grace systems were eventually going to fail. But we also knew that their creaking and their failure would also (ultimately) serve as the prelude to the eternal story of the New Jerusalem.

Finally, these things also help us identify with the Church global and historical. When we ourselves wrestle in faith to trust God in the breakdown of our systems, we learn better how to pray for Christians who live in failed states or economies, for those whose societies experience a great deal more instability and turmoil than ours have. We are reminded that we should have been primarily identifying with them all along, rather than with our temporary fellow citizens and partisans.

When the city of man begins to creak and groan we may naturally feel a good deal of fear or disorientation. I don’t think there’s any way around this. But this creaking is also an opportunity for humility, for renewed faith in the New Jerusalem, and for identification with the historical and global Church. In this way, no matter if the cracks get worse or if they get patched, we will be able to maintain hope, to serve our brothers and sisters and even the perishing, and to point to what is coming.

For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.

-Hebrews 13:14

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Reflections on Anxiety Attacks and (Mostly) Quitting Caffeine

It’s been about nine years that I’ve been suffering from periodic anxiety attacks. Apparently, many third-culture kids experience some kind of health or mental health collapse in their mid-twenties, which some researchers in the TCK counseling community are saying is due to years of unprocessed grief and the built up stress of so many goodbyes, transitions, and losses. In my case, this pattern fits my story almost too well. I literally collapsed one morning as a 25-year-old while doing an evangelism training, passing out just a couple minutes after I had taken the stage. This started a long pattern of anxiety attacks connected to speaking in public and eventually, to anxiety attacks in many kinds of high pressure conversations.

It’s been a long road trying to pursue healing from this struggle. Certain years have been better than others. I’ve learned to recognize the occurrence or even the hints of the beginnings of these attacks as a warning light of sorts – a signal that I am pushing beyond my God-given limits in unwise ways. I’ve also been learning of the importance of digging into my story to better understand why things like conflict conversations and the possibility of public humiliation are so terrifying to my sympathetic nervous system, the part responsible for our fight, flight, or freeze emergency responses. These things always have a context. And we often can’t skillfully apply gospel truth to our deepest struggles unless we understand that context.

2021 was very stressful year for our family. Unexpected leadership transitions on the field meant some major reshuffling was needed in order to stabilize two of our teams. It also meant that another move was needed for our family, causing us to pack up our house in the desert city we were serving and to move back into the mountains, to the city where we had spent our first term. As is the case with most leadership transitions, there was some pretty serious conflict which ensued during this season on top of everything else. By the fall of 2021 I was in a pretty weak place, finding even doing public introductions to be an exhausting battle.

We were attending some training in the US and one of the trainers was also a trauma counselor who offered to meet with any of us that needed it. My wife and I quickly signed up for a slot, particularly wanting some insight into our struggles with anxiety. I described my long-term struggle with the counselor, and was met with a surprising response.

“First thing I would tell you is this: No caffeine or sugar for forty days, lots of water, lots of celery. We need to flush all that cortisol out and after that see what kind of effect that has.”

“Really?” I responded, “You think coffee could be affecting my anxiety?”

“How many cups do you drink a day?”

“Three or four.”

The counselor raised his eyebrows and gave me a “You should be able to put the pieces together here” look. Apparently, caffeine can interact significantly with cortisol, the body’s stress hormone, and make struggles like anxiety much worse. I thought back to the season when my anxiety attacks had started. Sure enough, in those years I transitioned from a free social drinker of chai and coffee into a lifestyle that was dependent on several cups of strong coffee a day. It was easy to do, given the fantastic coffee scene of Louisville, Kentucky. Many a ministry meeting took place in award-winning coffee shops like Sunergos and Quills. Much dark chai was drunk and spilled with our Middle Eastern refugee friends. I’m also not a very big guy, thinly built and weighing in at an average of 150 pounds/68 kilos. It makes sense that body type would also impact caffeine’s affect on the nerves. This is made worse if, like me in that season, one is not exercising regularly and in general ignoring that they are an embodied being with limits.

This bit about caffeine was one of the more practical pieces of counsel I had received, and I excitedly decided to start right away. The next day of the intense training I abstained from all coffee and sugar – and suffered an awful migraine. Right, I thought to myself, better figure out a way to do this gradually. I found a plan to cut caffeine out by a quarter of a cup every three days and proceeded at that pace, thankfully migraine-free. After several weeks I found myself spending entire days without any caffeine, and ready to see if it was actually going to help.

The short answer is yes, it helped tremendously. While I never got as serious about the no-sugar or lots of celery parts, the no-caffeine advice proved to make a dramatic reduction in my anxiety. It’s not that anxiety stopped surfacing, it’s that it was much less likely to tip over into the cold-sensations-up-the-back-of-the-head, heart-pounding, language-blurring, head fog arena of anxiety attacks. This bought me more room to focus on relevant truth vs. lies in situations where I was feeling anxious. It also eventually meant anxiety was no longer so close to the surface, right up in my throat as it were. There was more margin to endure hard things before the the anxiety started.

I was also surprised by how my body’s energy levels adjusted. It was as if if the high peaks and deep ravines of energy in my caffeine-infused days gave way to much more gentle hills and shallow valleys. Sure, I wasn’t feeling the same kind of creative, energized high that I would get after a good homemade pour-over – or if I was out in the bazaar, a punch-you-in-the-face bitter Central Asian Americano. But the upside was less crushing fatigue. Energy was more balanced all around. I also started sleeping better. And waking up was not nearly as hard as I thought it would be.

I was worried about the gut effects of quitting coffee, since I’ve found it so helpful over the years as a way to supplement my weak stomach – something I learned from missionaries in China. A good cup of black coffee meant I could eat a greasy kabab in the bazaar and on a good day not suffer the consequences. But turns out decaf is almost as good as caffeinated coffee for providing these kinds of medicinal benefits. And yes, thankfully we live in a day where good decaf does indeed exist. I’ve enjoyed the aptly titled No Fun Jo for any who might be curious.

My Western and Central Asian friends responded in shock when I told them I was quitting caffeine. “Every time I see you, you have a caffeinated drink in your hand,” was how one colleague put it. Some openly doubted that I could do it, which provided some helpful challenge motivation when I was freshly mourning the loss of my delicious dark beverage. I was, however, never able to completely quit all caffeine entirely. I still lived in Central Asia, which meant that periodically I was honor-bound to drink that cup of thick black chai for the sake of my host. But for the most part I went a full nine months with almost no caffeine before I started experimenting with carefully adding some back in.

Truth be told, I missed the creativity and motivation boost that came from a good cup of coffee. For knocking out some needed admin work or writing up another blog post, there is something good and helpful about a healthy dose of caffeine. I think this is likely why God has given us so much caffeine in so many different kinds of plants and drinks around world. It’s a good gift for workers and creators, when it can be used wisely. While in Central Asia, this meant in the last six months I’ve gotten back to having one cup in the late morning or midday. Here in the US, with this country’s early morning culture and increased coffee options, I’ve been enjoying a half-caf* mid morning and another one midday. So far this has not seemed to have any negative impact on my anxiety.

On the spiritual side, it has been good to experience coffee again as something which can serve and equip, rather than something which I am bound to. “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything'” (1 Cor 6:12). This time around, I hope to better navigate my use of caffeine such that I don’t have to become so dependent on it again. Even if I didn’t have the anxiety attacks, it would have been beneficial to fast from caffeine for a season for the sake of rightly-ordered affections.

What about public speaking and conflict conversations that previously led to anxiety attacks? Over the past year I have noticed a significant increase in my resilience in these settings. While not completely free of the initial waves of panic, in many of these challenging settings I’ve been able roll these waves of fear back and carry on with a high degree of freedom. Even conversations where I have been under attack and several high pressure public speaking situations have gone well. I don’t doubt that the counseling, journaling, prayer, exercise, and other aspects of pursuing healing in this area are also proving helpful. But the most immediate and dramatic change in my struggles with anxiety came from this very earthy kind of spirituality – that of quitting caffeine.

We are such complex creatures, with the body, the soul, and the mind intermingling in mysterious and surprising ways. We need to be careful that we are not so spiritually-minded that we miss the importance of the body when it comes to areas of deep struggle in our lives. Paul tells Timothy to no longer drink only water, but to drink it mixed with wine for the sake of his stomach (1 Tim 5:23). Wise Christian leaders have said that sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is take a nap. For me, it was an act of practical spirituality to cut caffeine for a good long season.

I likely still have a long road ahead of me regarding battling anxiety – an area in which physical suffering and spiritual sin can overlap in confounding ways. Anxiety can be entered into as an act of sinful distrust in God’s provision. Anxiety attacks, however, seem to fall much more in the realm of suffering, when an experience of past suffering gets stuck in our bodies, reemerging to hijack us in situations which one part of the mind reads as dangerous. But whether suffering or sin, I rejoice that complete freedom is one day coming. In the resurrection we will only know courage, love, and freedom, and anxiety will be a distant memory. The coffee will be flowing, and we will drink it in perfect self-control and freedom.

So I sip my second and last half-caf of the day, and believe again that day is coming.

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

*A half-caf is a simply half caffeinated coffee and half decaf. It provides a gentler boost than a full cup, which can be helpful if the drinker is more sensitive to caffeine’s effects.

An Encouragement to Young Husbands

A good friend recently got married and I was invited to his bachelor party, which in true Kentucky style consisted of shooting clay pigeons with shotguns (“shootin’ skeet”), grilling meat, and a very large bonfire. While eating our steak and porkchops, the rest of us there – all married – were asked to share some marital wisdom with the groom-to-be.

Now in my second decade of marriage, I thought back to my days as a newlywed, a sweet time which was also full of a lot of youthful idealism and pressure. As a young husband, I wanted to do this Christian marriage thing right. As a couple who felt called to missions among the unreached, I wanted us to discipline and focus everything about our lifestyle toward that end. I desired for us to be an example of a sacrificial, Jesus-centered marriage. These desires were not bad. In fact, I would say they were God-given. However, they were also paired with a rushed time-line, anxiety, and pressure. During this newlywed period I was missing what should have been a major emphasis of that time – helping my new bride to simply rest securely in my love for her.

Like many young believing husbands, I felt that shepherding my wife meant noticing weaknesses, projecting their supposed impact on our future, and offering correction and leadership accordingly. What I didn’t realize was just how much pressure on herself and anxiety my bride had brought into the marriage on her own – questions deep down in her soul such as, “Am I really a good enough wife?”, “Is he going to keep on loving me even when he knows my quirks and weaknesses?”, and “Does he enjoy ministry more than he enjoys spending time with me?”

Meanwhile, I was over here shooting down my wife’s desires to get some more clarity on her health issues by cutting bread out of her diet because I was worried about how that would impact our ability to show or receive hospitality from Muslims. Or concerned that her disappointment that most nights were spent on ministry relationships meant that we might not be very effective missionaries someday. I very much felt that we needed to get things like this right – and pronto – so that we could effectively minister together in the path to which God had called us.

I remember getting counsel from one of our pastors during our second year of marriage, talking about our frequent disagreements about how many nights per week should be reserved to simply spend time together vs. ministering to others. “It’s been like this our whole marriage,” I lamented at one point. “Brother,” he responded, “you’ve been married for a year and a half. Don’t say whole marriage like that. You’re still very much in the early days.” This comment began to wake me up to the arbitrary timeline for achieving “optimal marriage” that I was operating by.

Another moment of clarity took place that same year during a work trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee. The organization I worked for had put us up in a grungy extended stay hotel. We didn’t know a soul in Chattanooga. So, for the next two weeks when I wasn’t out canvassing the city, my wife, myself, and our newborn son were in the hotel room together, hanging out, eating snacks, and watching Downton Abbey. I was caught off guard at the end of the two weeks when my wife expressed her surprise at how happy I had seemed to just spend time with her and our son. “Of course,” I responded, “I’d always rather spend time with you than with anyone else.” “You really mean that, don’t you?” was her earnest, hopeful response. Though I thought I’d expressed this to her before, I realized that she had not really felt that this was true until we were cooped up together for those weeks in that small and gnarly hotel room.

Situations like these made me progressively more aware of shepherding emphasis I should have been embracing as a new husband – that of helping my wife simply rest securely in my love for her. There were deep fears and anxieties that she was wrestling with as a new wife, wondering if my love for her was works-oriented, dependent on her performance. Instead, I needed to model covenant love for her, the kind that not only told her but also showed her that my love was steady and not going anywhere – regardless of performance, conflict, or weakness.

In this season I began to visualize a beautiful, though small, flowering plant. The wrong kind of focused messing with the plant would eventually kill it. Instead, it needed stability, dependable sunlight, regular watering, and it would blossom. My nit-picking and projecting on the future were preventing the kind of relational safety that would actually lead to growth. The gospel logic of “accepted, therefore free to grow” was beginning to work its way into how I sought to shepherd my wife.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church (Eph 5:25). I knew these words well, and swore by them. Yet my approach early on was overly focused on “fixing” my wife, rather than letting her bask in the warmth and rest of covenant love. I was skipping over the foundation of true covenant, the kind of steadfast love that constitutes Christ-like shepherding and eventually makes for the deepest change and unity.

All of this, in summarized form, is what I shared with my friend during his bachelor party. For any soon-to-be or new husbands out there, this would be my counsel to you as well. Take it slow when it comes to attempting to lead your wife by addressing sins and weaknesses. You have lots of time. And it takes time to wisely discern which things are worth addressing and which concerns are actually a reflection of your own immaturities. Release the pressure you are both likely feeling and instead lead by helping your wife to simply rest in Christ’s love and your love for her. Help her to know in her very bones that this love for her is steadfast, no matter what. As Christ has welcomed you into his rest, so welcome her. Do this, trusting God with your futures – and then sit back and watch her bloom.

Photo by Alvin Mahmudov on Unsplash

How Central Asian Yogurt Took Over America

My kids had plain Greek yogurt for breakfast this morning. Later, my wife told me that our son complained about that other American yogurt while eating. “It’s so gross,” were apparently his exact words.

“Well,” my wife responded. “A lot of Americans might think you’re the strange one for enjoying thick yogurt without any flavoring or sugar in it.”

I smiled when she told me this later in the morning. “Well, except for all the Americans who now eat Chobani. That’s why it’s so popular, because it’s so different from the runny, sugary stuff that used to be the main kind sold here.

We were standing in the kitchen and she held the Greek yogurt container up to our noses.

“Smell this. Isn’t it wonderful? I miss it.”

I took a deep breath, enjoying the sour, rich aroma. “We will have new stomachs, my love, in the resurrection. And we will eat lots of amazing, resurrected yogurt.”

Something has happened to our digestive systems over the last decade, so we can’t handle much dairy anymore, no matter where it comes from.

In spite of this, I always smile to see how many inroads Chobani yogurt and its Greek yogurt competitors have made into the grocery stores and culture of my passport country. What most don’t recognize is that this represents a quiet Central Asian* culinary invasion.

Greek yogurt isn’t really Greek. It would be more accurate to call it Kurdish, Turkish, or Armenian. Even the name of the company that popularized “Greek” yogurt gives this away. Choban is the Turkish and Azerbaijani word for shepherd. It’s one of many related variants of the same word in the region. Kurds say shivan or shwan. Persians say shiban and Tajiks say supon. So, Chobani yogurt means shepherd yogurt, or, in a direct translation, shepherd-y or shepherd-ish yogurt.

The founder of Chobani, Hamdi Ulukaya, is a Kurd from southeast Turkey, who comes from a family of villagers and nomads who made and sold yogurt from their herds. He immigrated to the US in the mid 90’s, and like many from that region, was disappointed by the runny, sugary stuff that Americans called yogurt. Eventually, he purchased a shut-down Kraft factory and began selling denser, more natural yogurt to Americans. It got traction, and today Chobani has around twenty percent of the US market.

Calling it Greek was a shrewd marketing move. Hamdi says there was already a small category of yogurt which was called Greek in New York, but it’s also true that Middle Eastern and Central Asian restaurants and food brands regularly rely on terms like Greek and Mediterranean in order to market themselves effectively for Western customers. Occasionally you’ll find a Mediterranean restaurant that is actually run by Greeks, but more often than not it’s guys from Iraq or Syria. Truth be told, had Hamdi called it Kurdish yogurt, it’s a lot less likely it would have taken off in the way it has.

Hamdi brought with him not only a superior yogurt savvy, but also some sound wisdom from his Central Asian village roots. From the beginning, he opted to pay his factory workers good wages. He gives his employees stock in the company. He actively hires refugees and immigrants alongside of locals. His people-centered approach to business is a rebuke to much of American capitalism – and an example to Christians of how to hold on to your core principles even when your business takes off and grows exponentially. Check out this interview for more of Hamdi’s encouraging story.

Central Asian yogurt’s takeover of America illustrates the benefits that come when different cultural streams mix. Each stream can reintroduce its strengths to the other, in a reminder of sorts of things mostly forgotten. Central Asians teach us what good yogurt is. We teach them what good coffee is. They remind us about the importance of hospitality. We remind them of the importance of transparency.

Perhaps this is one reason God has cultural diversity baked into human history. We too easily forget his wisdom, not only personally, but also collectively. We are in need of other human groups to show us our group’s blindspots and to help us balance our weaknesses. This is an important way the global church can serve local bodies of believers, wherever they might be. By mixing our streams we can more effectively build local church gospel cultures – not uniform, but harmonious, a diversity of expression that grows out of a solid universal core of creed and principle.

The next time you see Chobani or Greek yogurt, think of Central Asia. And if you want to go all the way, eat it with some flatbread, eggs fried in an ungodly amount of oil, olives, honey, walnuts, and extremely sweet tea.

*Here I define Central Asia culturally, rather than geographically, as the collection of cultures in Asia that are Turkish or Persian-related.

Photo by Jainath Ponnala on Unsplash

A Proverb On False Dilemmas

His head doesn’t hurt yet he ties it with fabric.

Local Oral Tradition

This proverb is used when a local is overthinking or anxious about things that are just not that big of a deal. It might also be used for someone perceived to be a bit of a drama queen or troublemaker. There are enough real problems, the local logic goes, so don’t go making a dilemma when one’s not really there. Pretend something is a problem long enough and it just may become one. It’s not far in meaning from another local proverb, “He makes a fly into a bull.”

The practice of tightly tying a strip of cloth or band around the head to treat headaches seems to be quite widespread. I remember elderly villagers doing this when I was a boy in Melanesia. It’s also practiced in our area of Central Asia. Last week we were watching Little Women, a story based in New England in the period of the Civil War, and the mother made mention of this same practice. To be practiced in such diverse contexts it must be effective – as long as there’s a real headache there to treat, that is.

Photo by أخٌ‌في‌الله on Unsplash