A Verse on the Uselessness of Proud Pilgrims

A wish for the days of homemade naan
In a thousand homes, a pilgrim only one
Now for all, "Pilgrimmy pilgrim" is claimed
But pilgrims they're not, nor their bread e'en homemade

-Local Oral Tradition

This local poet’s verse takes aim at the many in his day who went on pilgrimage, hajj, to Mecca, only to return proud and useless. His logic is that at least back in the day they were useful and contributed something! But now they all claim the respect due to one who has gone on pilgrimage, the deference due to a Hajji, but none of them actually live like true spiritual pilgrims. And in their pride they have lost even the practical good they used to contribute to the community, here represented by making homemade bread.

I’ve heard many stories of locals known as crooks and swindlers who have made the expensive trip to Mecca only to return twice the sons of hell that they already were. Now they could wrap their corruption in the veneer of a false penitent who has supposedly pleased God. Locals tell these stories and frown, sensing in their conscience the way their society is being played by this monopoly of the religious establishment, wondering aloud why all this money spent on this required pilgrimage to the land of their conquerors does not instead go toward serving the local poor. Would this not be a more true and just way to honor God?

They are not wrong.

Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.

Matthew 9:13

A Question Very Few Are Asking

Today a colleague asked me a very good question.

“Assuming that the worldview of the West is more youth and future-oriented, how do you think that influences missionaries?”

I responded that two effects come to mind right away. The first is the preference for new and novel methods over those that are old more traditional. These older methods, “Grandpa’s tools” as it were, are dismissed out of hand simply because they feel traditional or old-fashioned to us. Very few Westerners would even ask if these older methods are contextual (Since the assumption is that they were mindlessly imported and therefore are not). And even if they turned out to be, few would be without some kind of emotional resistance to employing them. Why is this? Because our future-oriented worldview biases us to the new, the exciting, and the ground-breaking. These novel approaches scratch a very powerful cultural itch that has to do with what we find to be convincing and compelling. Add to this Westerners’ ever-present underlying fear of being paternalistic or of even being perceived as colonial-lite, and we have one powerful combination. Out with the old, in with the new. And very few asking what is actually contextual for a specific foreign people group – meaning what method is the most effective for living and communicating clearly within the locals’ culture? That should be the rubric, not some emotional new-always-better-than-old bias I brought with me that grew from the soil of my passport country.

What of Western culture being youth-oriented? Here I believe there is a connection with our obsession with movements. If you think of the life cycle of a group of churches, the beginning is incremental, steady growth. This could be compared to birth and early childhood. Then comes the movement stage, when growth and multiplication take off at breakneck speed. You could compare this stage to adolescence and young adulthood. After this comes stabilization and institutionalization, which corresponds to mature adulthood. Finally comes decline and possible disappearance, which could correlate to old age and death. What part of the life cycle of a group of churches is missiology obsessed with? The movement phase. Adolescence and young adulthood – just as our culture is obsessed with this very same stage of our individual physical lives. Westerners dream (and sing) of being forever young. So does our missiology*.

I have sat through missions and church planting trainings where this life cycle of churches is graphed out and the goal of the session is to show how bad institutionalizing is and how good the movement phase is. The goal of said trainings is to keep churches forever in the movement stage, always multiplying and growing at remarkable speed. As if a 40-year-old should be expected to grow six inches and three shoe sizes in a year just like he were an adolescent. The implication is that one stage of church life is where the Spirit is really at work, and childhood and mature adulthood are well, just not really where it’s at. And God forbid we ever get old and start to decline. Young, sexy, and multiplying is evidence that we are truly doing ministry like the book of Acts, while stabilizing and forming healthy systems might even be evidence of compromise.

The problem with cultural blind-spots like these is just that – we often can’t see them. Missionaries are very good at seeing the blind-spots of the church back home, but we need help finding our own. I’m convinced that this future and youth-orientation seep into our methods and missiology often unexamined, priming us to leap at the novel, the exciting, and the informal, and to prematurely dismiss the traditional, the slow, and the formal. Thankfully, we do have some wonderful allies for exposing these blind-spots: the global church and church history. There is a reason I post excerpts from the stories of the ancient church in Ireland and Central Asia. They provide me a welcome and very different draught to the ever-present kool-aid of the present age. I don’t always agree with everything they did, but these long-dead saints have many things to teach us as they poke at our blind-spots from beyond the grave. Local believers can also be wonderful allies on this front, as they see through some of our cultural assumptions so well.

The key thing is to recognize that our Western worldview really does influence us, and to humbly and courageously admit this, without falling into any silly cultural self-deprecation that forgets that all Christians in every era and culture have to deal with their own version of this very same thing. Once we’ve owned this and developed a healthy curiosity for where this might be happening, then we’re in a good place to begin the difficult task of recognizing our biases. We may end up keeping them, but at least then they will be intentional biases, and not those that exist by mere cultural default.

Missionaries are very good at studying other cultures. May we become just as good at studying our own.

*for some good data on this, see the book “No Shortcut to Success” by Matt Rhodes

Photo by Nicholas Green on Unsplash

Trying to Hug a Parade – a Framework for Goodbyes

The life of a missionary or missionary kid is one of constant goodbyes. Transition to the field, back to the field, to a different field, or off the field means a relentless lifestyle of “we meet to part, and part to meet.” I myself recently counted again and I have moved thirty two times in my life, only counting moves where we lived somewhere for several months or longer. I’m in my mid-thirties.

Then there are the goodbyes caused by everyone else’s transitions – coworkers, friends, partners who themselves leave, and often with very little notice. When others’ transitions are put together with our own, this revolving door of relationships only picks up speed. So many goodbyes begin to add up.

It’s like trying to hug a parade. This was how it was often put at our sending church, describing the cost to those who stayed and continually sent out worker after worker to the mission field. Whether sending or going, goodbyes are costly. And we don’t tend to naturally lean into them. Rather, those of us who have to say the most goodbyes often get very good at strategies to numb ourselves to the natural grief that accompanies every loss of relationship and place. Like Adoniram Judson, we’d rather slip off early in the morning and skip all the emotion and ritual. I know I have done something similar countless times.

After all, why make goodbyes a big deal when you have to navigate them so frequently? Who can handle that kind of emotional investment? Is it even practical? However, as hard as honoring each goodbye might seem, eventually some of us learn that to suppress and ignore them might come at an even greater cost. That cost might spill out in surprising ways, as bodies and souls begin to break down from all of the sadness that has been building and has been shoved under the surface now for years.

Strange as it might seem, it was only a couple months ago that I heard for the first time of a healthy framework for saying goodbye. It came from the book, “Raising a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids,” by Lauren Wells. Along with lots of other tested wisdom for caring well for TCKs, I found Wells’ recommendations in this section of her book both insightful and practical.

She presents this framework in the form of an acronym – RAFT. Now, I love sticky tools like acronyms because it means I’m so much more likely to remember a given framework or set of truths. I’ve still got RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) stuck in my head from my high school sports medicine class – Mr. Hemphill, if you’re out there, good on ya.

RAFT stands for Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewell, and Think Destination. Wells describes Reconciliation as, “Make amends with anyone you may have hurt or been hurt by before moving.” She then reports how many TCKs form a bad habit of skipping this uncomfortable step as it’s just easier to get on that plane and leave. Instead, this kind of proactive reconciliation is a very wise and God-honoring step to take as we plan to leave a place.

The Affirmation step is described as, “Tell the people you love that you love them.” It’s very important that we say thank you and express our love to those we care about before we leave. Again, due to the emotions this stirs up, it’s easier to just leave. But both of these first steps will lead to regret if neglected.

Wells then discusses the step of Farewell, where she encourages TCKs to “say good-bye, not only to people, but to places and things as well. This is especially important for young children.” Wells writes that it’s crucial for healthy grieving that kids know when they are saying their final goodbye to a friend, a favorite place, or a special thing. Evidently, in God’s mysterious wiring of us, our souls hunger for this step of verbal ceremony in order to be able to move on to our next season well.

Think Destination is the final part of the acronym, where Wells encourages us to regularly talk about where we are headed next so that we quickly have things to be excited about, even as we grieve what is being lost. This step can be an application of our trust in God’s steadfast love to us. He has been kind to us thus far, he will be kind to us where we are going next – so let’s dream about how that kindness might be expressed.

Reconciliation. Affirmation. Farewell. Think Destination. I plan on giving the framework a test run the next time we experience a major transition. I think it would bless my kids – and do my heart good as well.

This framework is very simple. Yet how very practical for those who are called to live as sojourners and strangers. How is it that so many of us have embraced ministry lifestyles of costly transition without any practical tools for saying healthy goodbyes? I don’t think I’m the only one who had never heard of a framework for saying goodbyes well. When was the last time you heard a sermon, a podcast, or heard of a book written on saying goodbye well as a Christian? What a strange blind-spot for us to have. Perhaps there is a practical theology of goodbyes out there somewhere. If not, it needs to be written.

To this framework of RAFT I would only add one more step: Resurrection. Speak to one another and remind yourself of the very real hope of the coming new heavens and new earth, where there will be no more goodbyes. Each and every goodbye now is a chance to build our faith and love for that coming world where we will be reconciled with so many of those that we have said goodbye to, and where we will somehow find even the true and better forms of those places and things that we left behind. However much I love the bazaars, cafes, and libraries of this world, I will find in the world to come places that put them all to shame and are in fact their true essence fulfilled. The library as it was always meant to be, as it were. The pang of each goodbye therefore is a reminder that heaven is real and a chance to strengthen the solidity of this hope in the invisible.

We should speak and think of the coming resurrection as we say our countless goodbyes in the here and now. While I haven’t been the best at carrying out the points of RAFT, dwelling on the coming resurrection has been very good medicine for my transition-weary soul. So then, the acronym comes out to be RAFTR, a big clunkier to be sure. But hopefully even more powerful.

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A Proverb On The Power of the Tongue

A word gone to a mouth goes to a mountain.

Local Oral Tradition

This Central Asian proverb speaks to the power of the tongue, specifically how seemingly private speech can all too quickly spread like wildfire. It agrees with the warnings of scripture regarding the dangers of the tongue. “So also the tongue is a small member, but it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” (James 3:5).

I can’t tell you how many times locals have prefaced a sentence with the disclaimers “Just between me and you,” or “Let no one else know this.” Yet in spite of these common agreements of confidentiality, word almost always spreads anyway. This represents a major problem in our local culture, one which constantly undermines trust and breaks relationships. Gossip is very deeply rooted, one of those parts of the culture so ingrained that local believers despair of ever driving it out. We trust that it can be driven out, however, and a redeemed tongue will be one of the astonishing markers of the redeemed community.

On the other hand, this proverb could be turned on its head and applied in a counterintuitive way to sharing the gospel -“good gossip” as it’s been called. If the Central Asian loose tongue could be harnessed for the sake of evangelism, now that would be a mighty force to be reckoned with.

Photo by Abbas Tehrani on Unsplash

A Proverb on Undeserved Blessing

When God sends it, he doesn’t ask whose son you are.

Local Oral Tradition

This is a proverb locals use when commenting on a case of unexpected or undeserved blessing. “Your landlord is a stingy man. What did he do to get good renters like you? Well, I guess when God sends it, he doesn’t ask whose son you are.”

The point of this proverb is that God often generously blesses those who are unjust – simply because he is God. His generosity is overflowing and his will is mysterious. It’s not as simple as the worldview of Job’s moralistic friends. God sends rain on the just and the unjust.

It’s curious that the proverb doesn’t say, “who you are” but “whose son you are.” This shows the importance that the place of kinship and father-lines in particular hold in this culture. “Whose son is that?” might be overheard when someone commits a very noble deed or an equally shameful one. The deeds of the son reflect on the father’s name and the father’s name is very important for knowing where to place the son in terms of social honor.

This proverb is therefore an admission of sorts that God doesn’t play by the rules of Central Asian culture. It’s a saying that highlights the limits of the human viewpoint. And that’s a good kind of proverb to have on hand.

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A Proverb on Complicated Matters

This dough takes a lot of water.

Local Oral Tradition

Yes, it’s true. I took an unplanned break from posting for a number of months. I do apologize for going dark there for a while. I have truly missed writing though, so I hope that I am now making a return to regular posting again in earnest. However, the upside of this time away is that I now have a fresh crop of Central Asian proverbs! I know, you can barely contain your excitement.

I heard this particular proverb dropped during a question which touched on a complicated Bible passage. The speaker used it to indicate that the discussion required to unpack that topic would take a good deal of time – more than we had at that moment. Turns out this proverb on extra-absorbent dough can be used for all sorts of situations that involve lengthy discussion of complicated matters – or the intention to avoid such a discussion. It seems to function similarly to how English speakers use “it’s complicated.”

Tonight we are hosting the believing local men at our house for a Q&A session. “Bring your hardest and deepest questions,” we told them, “and we’ll work together to try to answer them from God’s word.” I do anticipate some tough and unexpected questions coming our way tonight. And just for fun, I will definitely try to sneak in this proverb if I get the chance.

Photo by Vaibhav Jadhav on Unsplash

Scalable Platforms

Many missionaries in the 10/40 window live in what’s been called creative-access countries. In these countries there are no missionary or religious visas available to cross-cultural workers, so they need to have “platforms,” whether business or non-profit, in order to maintain legitimate access. I’ve written in the past about the importance of doing tent-maker/platform work that 1) results in an excellent product that brings value to the community and gives God glory and 2) leads to gospel opportunities and relationships with locals.

You want your platform to be strong and valuable enough to provide some cover when locals start coming to faith and others potentially start complaining about you. Of course we can’t guarantee we won’t get kicked out even if we have the ideal platform, but we should still do the best we can so as to protect access to the unreached.

Now that I’m some years into the creative-access gig and working under my fourth platform, one other very important principle is emerging – that of a platform’s scalability. This principle is important not because of dynamics among locals, but because of dynamics among us foreign workers.

Ours is a lifestyle of high and costly transition. We’ve recently been joking that we should give up on annual goals in favor of quarterly ones due to the sheer amount of transition that we experience. It feels like we are always saying goodbye to workers leaving the field, or welcoming new ones, adjusting to others who have left for furlough, or taking in the news that others will be significantly delayed in getting back to the field. This can make maintaining a solid core of platform workers quite difficult.

The goal of our platforms is to serve the church planting strategy, not the other way around. But we have also experienced seasons where the needs of the platform are so demanding, often due to staffing shortages, that it very much feels like we are serving the platform – and the church planting work is taking a back seat. This is a tension we live in, hoping that a season of investing in a solid platform can later result in greater freedom for ministry. Sometimes you just have to hold the beachhead until reinforcements arrive.

However, what would happen if we built the reality of worker transience into our platforms from the very beginning? Rather than being blindsided by the next unexpected departure of our staff, what if we anticipating it and planned accordingly? For several years now I have been chewing on the idea of a platform designed to be scalable. On the one hand, one person working part-time could keep it running if he had to. On the other hand, it could scale up to accommodate a raft of new personnel who arrive in need of visas and a legitimate work identity. What kind of businesses and non-profit models might be this flexible?

My current non-profit platform serves as a potential example of this. For the past year we’ve been providing training several times a week to a small group of students. The teaching load is manageable because we have several staff who share the load. But it would be a lot for only one teacher. On the other hand, the group is too small to justify bringing on many more staff. However, this group of students recently graduated from the program and since then we’ve started experimenting with modular trainings in partnership with other organizations.

Now that we only have a few modular (1-3 day) trainings per month, we are finding ourselves really enjoying the increased time in our schedules for relationships and ministry. We have also stumbled into a model that is unusually scalable. If we have more colleagues join us, we can always increase the number and kind of modular trainings available. If everyone is gone or on furlough and only one worker is left, he can scale the trainings back to a pace that is realistic. This gives us hope for greater sustainability, even as the modular trainings give us access to a broader scope of the community.

Now, the content we are providing is masters-level stuff and our partners are able to gather decent crowds for our modular trainings, so that makes a pared-down schedule doable yet still very respectable. Not everyone will find themselves in this kind of situation.

Yet the transience factor is not going away. As missionaries, churches, and organizations wrestle with how to keep workers in creative-access contexts for the long-haul, the scalability of platforms should be considered. Scalability means sustainability, because the worker remaining on the field doesn’t have to be crushed by the platform work created by that recently departed or arrived coworker. The platform can grow or shrink according to the needs of personnel and the ministry.

That kind of flexibility may sound idealistic, but the potential is worthy of some experimentation. If platforms became more scalable, that would help assure that they are truly serving the missionaries, and not the other way around.

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A Proverb of Caution

Don’t cross the bridge of the dishonorable.

Local Oral Tradition

This local proverb warns against trusting the untrustworthy. It reminds me of Proverbs 26:6, “Whoever sends a message by the hand of a fool cuts off his own feet and drinks violence.” Trust is good, but trust without wisdom is dangerous. We need to know the character and the ability of the person we are extending trust to. Historically, to cross a bridge is to take a risk. A bridge usually crosses some kind of dangerous water or gap. Will its construction hold? A bridge is also a chokepoint. Could it lead to an ambush? In local wisdom, to cross the bridge of man known to be dishonorable is to invite harm. Of course, as followers of Jesus we will at times violate this principle for the sake of the gospel (such as in Zacchaeus’ case), sometimes to powerful effect, but we still live in a universe where we are foolish to trust the untrustworthy naively.

This is one of the stronger local proverbs I’ve heard recently, and one which must be used with caution. That word dishonorable is so loaded in this honor/shame culture, that you would never want the one you use it for to hear about it. If they do, you will at least have broken the relationship, if not have also invited threats of violence.

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A Proverb on Having Your Cake

You want God and you also want dates.

Local Oral Tradition

This is our local equivalent of “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” In this local proverb, you can’t want God (a spiritual life) while also wanting to eat dates (a pleasurable life). You can’t have it both ways, local wisdom says.

It seems that locals use this proverb for someone struggling with doublemindedness. I learned it from a local friend whose mom had just used it on him as he lamented about not knowing which of multiple good options he should pursue for his future. He was stuck, knowing that to choose one good was to deny another. “I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence!” wrote Robert Frost, recalling a friend who regularly lamented the roads not taken.

Central Asian mamas don’t have any time for that kind of stuff, busy as they are serving their family (including adult sons) hand and foot. “Listen, son, you want God and you want dates? Pick one and quit your drama …and here’s some more chai, sweety.”

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A Proverb on Knowing Value

The value of gold is with the goldsmith.

Local Oral Tradition

This local proverb speaks to the importance of experience in knowing the value of something. A parent truly knows the value of children. A scholar deeply feels the importance of his area of focus. The goldsmith or gold seller – and we have entire sections of our local bazaar full of gold shops – is the one best able to value gold.

Much missiology is done in reaction to unhealthy churches. Cross-cultural workers who have never been part of a healthy church come overseas confident of what they don’t want to plant, but have no clear positive vision for what they want to see come about. This can mean that church gets radically redefined or even dismissed. These workers are ripe to be swept up in the latest missiological fad which promises amazing results. This is due, in part, to a deficiency in their experience. Perhaps all they have known are churches that are dying due to an unwillingness to change extrabiblical traditions or megachurches awash in seeker sensitive antics.

However, one who has been a part of a healthy church knows the value of a body of believers that pursues the biblical characteristics of a local church. They have been inoculated to the position that “We’ve done church all wrong in the West” because they have seen and tasted the power of a faithful New Testament local church. They know the secret that healthy church principles transcend centuries and cultures, albeit while putting on appropriate aspects of local culture.

Don’t send out missionaries who practice a missiology of reaction and who have a dismissive attitude of Western local churches – all the while being funded by them. Look for those who have lived as healthy church members and who deeply love the local church, even with all its flaws. These workers are in the best position to take New Testament principles for the local church and to seek to plant them across cultures.

Photo by Adam Jones on Wikimedia Commons.