This week a local friend and I were standing on a street corner waiting for another friend to connect us with a realtor. After a while, the friend we were waiting for pulled up in his car with the realtor in his back seat. However, at the mere sight of us the suited realtor jumped out of the car, claiming that he wanted nothing to do with us. My friend who had driven him was shocked, and then quickly lost his temper at the shameful way the realtor had judged us without even giving us a chance to speak. This was no way to treat potential renters, and a foreigner who would make a reliable tenant at that! As he railed at him in middle of the street for how utterly disrespectful he was being, this proverb was one of the tamer things that came out. It’s basically the equivalent of “don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” Except this local proverb hints at the disastrous damage that can come by judging by appearances.
Afterward, we talked together about what might have caused the realtor to act so shamefully. Could it have been the beards? An acquaintance with a hipster-style beard had been with my friend to pick up the realtor. This could have raised some questions. Then when he saw me standing next to my other local friend – himself sporting a starving artist sort of beard – he may have thought we were some kind of Islamists. The older generations really don’t like beards because of their association with radical Islam. They prefer respectable mustaches. Or maybe when he only saw only younger men and no family, he thought we were lying to him and looking to rent a house for prostitution, as young wealthy men here sometimes do. It’s hard to say, but it was an unfortunate event all around. Had he given us the time to speak, he would have likely been excited as he discovered he had a chance of renting a house to an Western family. But since I can pass as a local sometimes, he made a snap judgment, “shot into the dark,” and tried to make his exit. My friend’s honor-shame berating of him in the middle of the crowded intersection finished off any interest he may have had.
Alas, the chance of finding a house through that important realtor’s office is gone. But least I got a proverb out of it! One that will definitely come in handy.
This week we have been house hunting. Unpredictable, exciting, disappointing, stressful, and even fun. We are moving back to the mountain city where we spent our first term as a family, and where I first served as a single twelve years ago. This was the city where I first felt the strangest sense of fit. As an American TCK (third culture kid) who was raised in Melanesia, I didn’t expect to find myself so alive in a place like this – a cultured mountain city of Central Asia. It still surprises me. I can’t really explain it, but the mountains, the locals, the culture, it all seems to enliven my soul such that I’m better able to do ministry in the power and joy of the Holy Spirit.
Should a geographic locale have that kind of effect on a Christian? I’m not quite sure. The idealist in me says no. I should be just as free to minister in another city and culture as I am in this one… right? And yet I can’t escape the repeated experience. When I’m in this city, I come more fully alive. I have more openings to share the gospel. Those gospel conversations seem to bear better fruit. This is all very subjective, but it’s so prevalent that even locals and foreigners have commented on it. “You are meant for this place,” seems to be the steady feedback we get.
Leaving this city two and a half years ago was one of the hardest things we’ve ever done. A local church plant had been established. Dear local believers were growing in their faith. We had solid teammates and partners with whom we had walked through fiery trials. We ourselves had loved and been deeply shaped by this context. But a critical leadership need in another city emerged, and we felt that God would be honored if we moved in order to serve that team and work. We left, we grieved, and we tried to do good work. Two and a half years later, another critical leadership need has called for us to return. It’s as if the beloved city and people we had given up for Jesus were now being given back to us in a way we never expected. It has felt very much like coming home, after we had been called to give up home for the sake of the gospel. Well, we say to ourselves, I guessnow we know it’s not an idol. We gave it up for Jesus. Now he is graciously giving it back. And we are at times afraid to believe that it’s actually happening.
Christian, pay attention to the desires that won’t go away. In previous years I had a wonderful job as a missions pastor at a healthy sending church. On paper it seemed to be the perfect fit. But every time I took a short-term trip overseas, I felt the desires to return and minister in this type of missions context growing stronger and stronger. I experienced a similar dynamic over the last two and a half years. Try to suppress it as I might, stubborn desires for a very specific kind of place and ministry simply would not leave me alone. I have learned that those stubborn and good desires that won’t go away – especially on the good days – are often indications of the Spirit’s leading. As those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, deep repeated desires for good things are often right and godly. We have new hearts, and this means He often leads us through his gift of specific and long-term desires. “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim 3:1).
But isn’t this selfish? What about duty and honor and loyalty to the greater good? These virtues are all weighty and important. But to wisely and patiently respond to the strong and biblical desires given by the Holy Spirit is not selfish, it is in fact obedience, walking in step with the Spirit. In fact, the desires are often present because of some providential need you don’t know about at the time, but which you are meant to fill.
Don’t give too much weight to the strong desires that emerge occasionally and only on the bad days. But those good desires that come back again and again, even on the best of days? Lean into those. It’s there you’ll likely find your calling – and some of your deepest joys.
I appreciated John Piper’s recent answer to this tough question. His last couple paragraphs sum up his argument.
Look, he’s God. He’s God! It is just like God to bless his mission-minded followers with the desires of their heart. God knows what we need. God is good. God is wise. God is sovereign. God is able to do what seems impossible for man to do.
So, I return to my wife’s first thought: How serious and how deep and how confident is this sense of calling in this young woman? Because if it is serious and deep, then probably she should set her face, her heart, to pursue it and trust God that, on that path, she will find her greatest joy and do the world the greatest good and bring Christ the greatest honor.
We simply don’t know what God has in store. If God has been clear and given a calling to go to the nations, and then along comes a potential spouse who is not interested in that kind of life of service, then wisdom would seem to suggest either converting them to missions (as my mom did to my dad), or leaving that potential spouse behind. When God has been clear, we need to move on that clarity – and trust him with the fallout. When we do, we will often find the desires of our hearts met in unexpected ways.
This is a bigger risk for single women than it is for single men. Single men are outnumbered overseas by single women by a scandalous ratio something like of ten to one. For any godly ministry-minded man who is wondering where all the amazing women of God are – get thee to the mission field! Wonderful single missionary ladies are out here, serving faithfully and risking much. But even for single ladies who feel called to both missions and marriage, many faithful brothers are out here too. For both men and women, let us also not discount the goodness of cross-cultural marriages. Some of our closest friends in the US are a formerly single missionary who fell in love with a godly Middle Eastern brother. And let us also not discount the goodness of godly celibacy. Our evangelical culture still tends to not celebrate this as much as the Scriptures do.
We cannot promise one another anything – only God knows the future. Some find spouses on the mission field. Some live lives of devoted singleness. Some lose their spouses on the mission field. My parents went to the mission field together, only for my mom to become a widow three and a half years later. She later continued on the field as a single mom for 7 years.
The key is walking in obedience to the Holy Spirit. Has he unmistakably called you to the nations? Then go. And trust God with the consequences. He is worthy of this. Those who risk their deepest desires for him are never put to shame. Somehow, in some unexpected way, he will give them back better things than those sacrificed – even a hundredfold – and in the age to come, will give eternal life.
The one upon the slower ways comes upon the blessings.
Local Oral Tradition
This local proverb emphasizes the wisdom of slow and steady gains over those more hastily made. However, the local language word for graves also rhymes with blessings, so if you want a quick snarky reply when someone quotes this proverb, you can respond with “The one upon the slower ways comes upon the graves!” i.e. if you go that slow you might as well be dead.
Personally, I prefer the original. My colleagues tell me I’m an old soul and I do indeed find myself more and more identifying with Tolkien’s Treebeard (a character modeled on C.S. Lewis) and his philosophy, “We must not be hasty.” To our local friends who want to go big and go fast and expensive in starting churches, we have jokingly referred to our church planting philosophy as more like that of faithful tortoises. Not very impressive in the beginning. But give us a hundred years…
In other words, traits and habits present in early childhood (breastfeeding) often persist until someone is elderly. I’m currently leading an English conversation class and the last time we met we were discussing how to discern character. When I shared the English proverb, “A leopard can’t change his spots,” this local gem emerged. I hadn’t heard it before, but it’s a good one to have in the arsenal. We should be able to use it when speaking of the importance of parenting and in discussions about character formation. It could be used to illustrate verses like Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
On a personal level, now that I am in my thirties I am frankly amazed at how much my childhood is still affecting the ways I think, behave, and struggle. It’s as if the frenetic activity of my twenties came to a loud and tumultuous end, only to reveal that little curly haired missionary kid playing in the Melanesian clay, still there, and waving at me. It is strange and encouraging to meditate on the idea that God sees me now while simultaneously seeing me in every season of my life. During one part of my prayer walk this morning I listened to the song, “Future/Past” by John Mark McMillan. I was also meditating on 2nd Peter, including the passage that teaches that God’s relationship to time is different than ours (2 Pet 3:8). I realized that I tend to find it easier to look forward with faith that God will delight in my future self. I wrestle daily to believe that God delights in my present self. It’s even harder to believe that God delights in my past self. Yet surely this is what it means to be known as an adopted child of God. He knows our beginning from our end – and he still delights in us. From our habits of milk ’til our habits of old age.
The LORD your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing. (Zeph 3:17 ESV)
Somewhere along the way, my wife and I developed a decision-making philosophy for costly or risky situations. No matter what, if we moved into that risky situation, we would only do so if we were both on the same page – and if we felt that God had been clear with both of us. That way, whatever costs might come, we could together rest in the knowledge that these were potential costs we had both embraced, and costs which were from our Father’s kind hand.
This knowledge has been practically helpful countless times, such as when a gang of refugee Somali youth tried to break down our back door, when a local leader-in-training turned out to be a divisive wolf, and when our daughter almost died in a Central Asian ICU from new onset type-1 diabetes. What in the world are we doing here?! Oh, that’s right, we came into this together. From everything we could discern, God was clear with us. We obeyed, and that has brought us to this place.
This step keeps us from blaming one another or others when things go sideways. It also serves as another safeguard to make sure we are rightly applying verses like 1st Peter 2:20.
For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.
When suffering because of ministry and lifestyle choices comes, it can make all the difference to be able to fall back on these kinds of thoughts – that we’re not facing this fallout because of sin, foolishness, stubbornness, or self-will. This suffering is simply part of the good (though painful) path we have been asked to walk. It has a thousand good purposes that we may someday see. And yes, we signed up for it.
But as a newer team leader on the mission field, I have at times failed to invite my whole team into this same cost-embracing posture. And that’s where I made my mistake. I stepped into leading a team, knowing that some things would need to change, and by the very nature of where we work, many risky decisions would need to be made. I believe I did a decent job of listening, getting feedback, and pondering. I am a reflective, creative-thinker type. So I’m in my happy place when I’m getting feedback on lots of issues and exploring what possible changes can be made to improve the situation.
Yet I underestimated the importance of having discussions and conversations as a whole team when it came to the actual issues and changes that needed to be made. I would have many one-on-one conversations about issues, chew on things for a while, and then introduce a change – one made very much in response to what team members had been saying for a long time. Surprisingly (to me), I would then get a lot of resistance to these changes. As I tried to figure out why the team was kicking so much against these decisions, I began to see how much change and transition itself was costly. That made sense for our context, where transition can seem never-ending. Sometimes a bad system is preferred over the cost of yet another change. Were I older and wiser, I would have known to ask, “So I hear you saying that this is difficult. Is it the kind of difficult where you think we should take on the costs of changing it?”
I also began to better understand the nature of healthy team decision making in a costly environment. These decisions were in fact resulting in risks and costs to the team as a whole. Sometimes they were big costs, sometimes only more transition. The most heartbreaking one was losing a teammate. Yet my team wasn’t sensing that they had been able to speak into those risky calls enough to have buy-in. Hence much of the pushback.
Just as my wife and I gave one another ample time to discuss, wrestle with, and pray though an issue, turns out my team needed this as well. I began experimenting with discussions in team meetings about difficult things that we might need to change. After a couple hours of everyone getting to say their piece and wrestle with our limited options, we would often arrive at a calm unity. No one was under the illusion that costs weren’t coming. But the team had been able to discuss together which risks they were more or less willing to embrace.
As I reflected on this and back on many team conflicts from the past, the light bulbs started flickering on. Much of the resistance came from costly decisions being suddenly announced, without proper time for contributing, processing, praying, and buy-in from those affected by the changes. Just a little bit of this quickly leads to team conflict. A lot of this can make people leave the team or the organization.
Now, organizationally, I am free to make the decision as the team leader. I am fully within my rights and authority to make most calls without consulting the team or having a lengthy discussion. This might be more efficient on the front end. However, for my team – and many teams made up of millennials (or just humans?) – it has proved to be much less efficient on the back end as we continually had to rehash decisions team members thought should have been made differently. As I grew to know my team more, I understood my mistake more clearly. These discussions, though very time-consuming, were key for us being able to embrace the possible implications – together.
Going forward, as much as possible, I hope to embrace this principle of wise leadership: If a decision is likely risky or costly for my team, I need to lead a team discussion about it before that decision is made. Just having a voice into that potential cost honors my team members. And yes, even the new folks should be encouraged to speak up. But in addition to having a say (or even a vote) in the matter, this kind of conversation enables a team to embrace possible costs together, and with a good conscience – and when things go sideways, that can make all the difference.
Other leaders may feel differently, but I need the teams I lead to have the freedom to fail. We are seeking to plant healthy local churches in the hard soil of Central Asia. We need to take big risks. Our very living here is a big risk. But to do this well, we must find practical ways to embrace these costs in ways that don’t divide us. So I hope to learn from my mistakes, and thereby do a better job of honoring my team in costly decisions.
Time is like a sword; if you don’t cut it, it will cut you.
Local Oral Tradition
This is a surprisingly time-oriented proverb among our focus people group, which is typically event-oriented. Things are changing because of globalization and urbanization, but most locals here still consider time as more like a lazy river that must be traveled. It is linear, yes, but not something to be dominated. But then comes this sharp proverb out of nowhere, perhaps functioning as a warning against those who might get a little too relaxed when it comes to the use of time. I guess no matter how a culture is oriented to time, there is always some kind of lifestyle that represents a failure to make use of the potential that time affords.
Were I to teach on the biblical truth of “making the best use of the time, because the days are evil,” (Eph 5:16) I would likely reference this local proverb by way of illustration.
I’m not one of those people who likes to dunk on seminaries. By this point I’ve heard the publically-spoken question, “Why didn’t they teach me this in seminary?” to the point of nausea. Come on, brother, you really expected the seminary to have specialized classes in your niche ministry and specific problem-people? There’s a reason I never had a class in how to draw on a Melanesian MK upbringing to deal with a Central Asian wolf in sheep’s clothing in whose house we had just planted a church together with our Mexican partners (true story). There is no seminary professor who could or should teach that kind of specific material. Rather, professors should teach the theology and principles that equip diverse ministers of the gospel to apply God’s truth to infinitely varied ministry contexts around the globe.
My pro-seminary posture is also because I live in a part of the world where there is no access to theological training in the languages of people groups that are millions strong. It’s easy to take pot-shots at seminaries when they’ve been around forever and are taken for granted among your people group. I also don’t buy the whole “they’re not reproducible” line so popular in missiology. If they’re not reproducible, why have thousands of them taken root all around the world, even in ancient times and places like Sassanian Gondishapur where Christians were a persecuted minority? Perhaps there is a bit of a hidden and arbitrary definition to that term “reproducible” that so often functions as a trump card in discussions of methodology.
But it’s also easy to forget their weaknesses with the rose-tinted glasses that can come with distance. Some of the critiques do stick. God has given humans a remarkable ability to find patterns in things. And one of those unfortunate but true patterns is represented by the awkward and out-of-touch seminarian who struggles to notice the real people around him. There is a great need for those studying at seminary to accompany their classroom training with down-to-earth mentoring in people skills. Local church relationships that model for seminary students wise and practical ministry intuition and care are crucial for keeping these students effective in the real and messy world of actual people.
I’ll never forget the time I took my wife on a date during a particularly exhausting period of our newborn days. We were broke, had an infant with sleep issues, and were trying to mentor new believers and share the gospel with refugees. And we were desperately in need of an affordable date. I had the idea of going out to a discounted dinner and then making use of our free alumni access to the seminary pool and hot tub. My wife agreed to the plan and we were off in our beat up ’95 Honda Civic our Iraqi friends hadchristened Baby Camel because of its fantastic gas mileage and minuscule size.
Things were going swimmingly. We made it to the seminary, the pool area was nice and quiet, and the hot tub was empty – perfect! So we got in and began to have a good conversation, sharing our hearts with each other. But before long, a student and acquaintance from church entered the pool area. We waved and said a friendly hello, and strategically mentioned that we were on a date together. I turned back to my wife to continue our conversation. But the man plopped down in the hot tub next to me, eager for discussion.
Internally, I winced. How did he not pick up on the dynamics of this situation? But, resolving to be kind and hospitable, I turned and engaged him in friendly conversation. My wife had a not-so-subtle expression on her face, but held her tongue. The man didn’t seem to notice. Were I older and wiser, I would have said something direct about my wife and I needing this time so that we could connect in our sleep-deprived state and care for each other. Instead, I kept trying to drop hints in the conversation and with my body language to get the brother to move along to splashing in the pool or something.
But my talkative friend was not going anywhere. Instead, he stretched out his arms and relaxed and considered this the ideal moment to get into the depths of why he was actually a Thomist when it came to philosophy instead of a Van Tilian Preuppositionalist. I had only had one or two philosophy classes, so I knew just enough of this topic to drop a semi-informed comment here and there. But eventually I just stopped speaking to see how long the monologue would go. It kept going, and going, for quite an impressive length of time. I was perplexed. Why oh why did he feel like this particular conversation was at all fitting for this context? I shot a look back at my wife whose face conveyed a look of incredulity at what was going on in front of her.
“Can we go?” She mouthed in my direction. I nodded. Things had finally gotten awkwardly silent. It was time for a tactical retreat. We said our goodbyes to the hot tub philosopher and made our way back to the locker rooms.
I thought of my seminary – and of myself. The dangers of getting lost in the world of the mind and losing touch with practical kindness and social skills are real. I’ve felt the pull of these things when I get a little too excited about sharing about something I’m learning, only to realize those I’m sitting with have gone quiet and are fidgeting a bit. My brain can run away from me and I can stop tracking with the emotional state of those I’m supposedly conversing with. At that point I’m not really conversing with them in a loving way at all. I’m merely on a monologue.
While not neglecting the life of the mind, we must learn to ground it with an understanding of our flesh and blood neighbor. Yes, we must study the books. But we must also be students of people. We must be those who can get taken in by the beauty of an idea while still being conscious enough of the present to sense the body language of our hearers. What if, like me, the life of the mind comes more naturally than people intuition? How do we learn to study people? We can start by praying regularly that we will grow in this area. We can make a careful effort to study what God’s word says about the way people act and think. We can read great literature – after all, it’s great because it has been proven to be a window into human nature across many generations. We can read up on ways that hard-to-see things like cultures and personalities have been mapped and categorized by others. Finally, we can get some good feedback and tools on our particular God-given wiring. After all, if we don’t really understand ourselves, we won’t be great at understanding others either.
I would be remiss not to also mention what can be learned by shadowing those who are pastors in the truest sense of that term. Much skill in this area must be caught, rather than taught. And catching it often means accompanying those older and more experienced than we are, observing how they wisely interact with these wonderfully complex and broken beings called humans. Watching how and when an experienced pastor says, “I’m so sorry” can be a powerful lesson in what effective empathy actually looks like.
Plus, mentors like this also tell us when something is simply awkward or weird – like climbing in the hot tub with a couple on a date in order to talk Thomist philosophy. We all need someone in our life who will put their arm around us and simply say, “Brother, that’s weird. Don’t do that.”
This is a proverb very appropriate for a culture like this one that prioritizes the group over the individual. In contrast to the English proverb “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” this local proverb tells you that it’s better to relinquish or hide your advantage and handicap yourself for the sake of not bringing shame to the community. This is the logic I’ve often heard in this culture for married couples being discouraged from showing affection in public. “Think of how badly the singles must feel when they see that,” is how my local friends put it. Similarly, I’ve read of cultures where it’s shameful for a runner in a race to win by too great an advantage, because that would make the other runners feel too embarrassed. Cultures or individuals who are more individualistic might be fine with displaying an advantage that others don’t have. “What about my rights and being true to myself?” But in group-oriented cultures, this can be considered immodest and even shameful.