A Proverb On Solidarity

When in the city of the blind, cover your eyes.

Local Oral Tradition

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.

A Proverb On Blame Shifting

You don’t know how to line dance, so you say the ground is uneven.

Local Oral Tradition

Humans tend to blame shift when they are actually the ones coming up short. Apparently we have an English equivalent that goes, “A bad workman blames his tools.” However, I had never heard of this English-language proverb until I came to Central Asia. That could mean it’s from a different part of the English-speaking world, or it could just represent another TCK gap in my American cultural knowledge – these still emerge occasionally. Yes, I’ve still never seen Mary Poppins and I know precious little about professional sports. But no, that is no one else’s fault. I take full responsibility!

A Proverb on the Painfully Obvious

A night’s moon appears in the evening.

Local Oral Tradition

Here is a proverb for those times when no argumentation should be necessary. When the facts or conclusions are just blatantly apparent for all to see.

“But are you sure this email promising me the riches of a dead African ruler if I just share my bank account info is a scam?

“Come on brother-man, a night’s moon appears in the evening.”

Photo by Benjamin Voros on Unsplash

Mistakes Made: Bypassing the Discipler

When committing to something new with a local believer, always check with that person’s primary discipler first.

I haven’t always done this. And I’ve been hurt and hurt others by not following this wise practice. It’s quite easy to justify bypassing the discipler, especially when there are theological and methodological differences. “Why should I run this by that other foreigner? He doesn’t understand healthy church. He doesn’t know the language and culture well. Or he isn’t reformed. Clearly this local has approached me because he has seen our work is more solid.”

We might have the opportunity to start studying the Bible with a local, to invite them into a training program, to hire them, or to invite them to our church plant or discipleship group. But these wonderful opportunities can become hidden landmines if we ignore that other believer who has invested so much in this local.

Not that there are never times to bypass someone’s mentor. If that mentor teaches a false gospel, then that would be a different situation. But I’m referring here to mentors or disciplers who are evangelicals in the sense that they agree on the fundamentals of orthodoxy and the gospel.

What do we accomplish when we run a certain new plan or idea with a local believer by their primary discipler? First, we honor that person and the spiritual investment they have made in that local. This is very important for modeling how believing leaders should relate to one another. Second, we have the opportunity to get buy-in from that discipler, meaning they will be supporting this new plan from their position of relational weight. It’s more likely to succeed if the local’s first Christian friend and mentor isn’t taking potshots at your efforts when visiting with that local, but is instead increasing their trust in you. Third, this gives us an opportunity to be aware of hidden issues that might be going on underneath this local’s excitement about us and our new opportunity.

What might those hidden issues be? Perhaps that discipler called the local out on some sin, and the local was unwilling to repent – and that’s why they’ve excitedly sought you out to be their new discipler. Maybe there are longstanding issues with sin or weakness that provide helpful context or a wise change in direction. Or the local is upset about his discipler not turning into a patron for him in financial terms and so he’s moving on – hoping that you will be the one who bankrolls him. It could also be because of some real issue with the discipler himself, something that can come out more clearly if we actually meet with them instead of sidestepping them.

During a season where my family was the only one from our previous team on the field, a neighboring country had a devastating earthquake. I was asked by my organization if I would help lead a relief project. The only problem was I couldn’t get into this country as an American, so I would have to send locals in to do the work. I planned to send in some local believers, because of the deeper level of trustworthiness that is supposed to be there among those of the household of faith. Our initial plan was to send in supplies that we bought ourselves. But there were issues at the border. And friends in the relief and development world pushed back, saying that it hurt the local economy of the area affected if we flooded it with supplies from the outside. Better to send in workers with cash who can buy the needed supplies locally.

100,000 were homeless. It was winter. I had my parameters – hire a couple local believers who speak the right language, send them in with tens of thousands of dollars to buy relief supplies and distribute them, and just make sure there are receipts and photos to document everything. I knew only a few local believers who spoke the right language, and one of them turned me down. Another agreed to do it. So I reached out to a new English student of mine, *Tony, knowing that he was a new believer and knew the right language. Tony was thrilled to do the work and committed to the project right away.

We were already far along in the planning process when it dawned on me to inform Tony’s discipler, his best friend of ten years, another American missionary. I called him up and let him know, and as we talked I began to wonder if I had gone about things in the wrong order. He was gracious, but clearly concerned about the whole setup. Apparently, Tony had some deep money issues, and some issues with honesty. His discipler was worried that this would be a bad situation for him and provide some strong temptation. But it was too late at this point to back out, or so I felt. Plus, I had some concerns about this foreigner’s methodology and theology – and those concerns didn’t leave me as open to his experienced counsel as I should have been. I proceeded as planned, trusting that everything would work out.

The earthquake relief project initially looked to be a smashing success. But after only a few months, things began to unravel. $4,000 of the project cash was “stolen,” likely an inside job. There was evidence of inappropriate use of the funds when they were on the other side of the border. Tony and the other man’s love of money was stirred up, and they began deceitfully scheming to get funding from other Christian groups for their ministry efforts, which ultimately led to a heartbreaking church split. It had all started so well, but ultimately proved to be kind of a disaster.

In hindsight, before I even called Tony to float the idea to him of doing this project, I should have called his mentor and gotten his counsel and his blessing. He probably would have told me not to send a new believer with money issues across an international border with tens of thousands of dollars. But in my haste and presumption I was only focused on helping those in need as quickly as possible. And I bypassed the discipler.

Sadly, my tale is not that uncommon. In contexts where missionaries from different organizations are working, relationships with local believers often overlap. And in our suspicion of one another and excitement to agree to new plans with locals (especially when they affirm us so warmly), we often end up hurting other missionaries, getting hurt ourselves, and undermining the spiritual growth of our local friends.

When committing to something new with a local believer, always check with that person’s primary discipler first. In this is wisdom.

*names changed for security

Photo by Jamison Riley on Unsplash

A Local Tale on Unity

Our focus people group suffers from an unusual amount of internal disunity. Just ask any local man in the bazaar and he will gladly elaborate for you on this theme. Now, I know that the entire world seems polarized right now. But there’s something about people groups that are still essentially tribal in their thinking – and who haven’t had a powerful unifying leader or consensus emerge – that keeps them particularly and continually divided by outsiders and among themselves. Even when the outside world fumbles and they have a chance to gain some advantage they “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Personal gain undermines the common good time and time again.

A local tale cautions against this kind of disunity and holds out the hope of a better strength that might someday be possible. It goes like this.

“There once was a father with seven sons. He was up on the roof working and he overheard his seven sons fighting… again. Frustrated, he descended from the roof and called his seven sons together. One by one he gave six of them a single stick.

‘Break the stick, my son,’ the father ordered his sons, one after the other.

Each of the six sons with a single stick was able to break his stick in half easily. The father, after observing this, gathered up the stick fragments in a bundle and handed them to his seventh son.

‘Break the sticks, my son.”

Try as he might, the seventh son could not break the bundle of sticks.

‘Pay attention, my sons!’ said the father. ‘When you are divided and each of you stands alone, you can be easily broken. But if all seven of you stand together, you will be unbreakable.'”

This tale reminds me of the wisdom of the scriptures.

And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:12 ESV)

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! (Psalm 133:1 ESV)

Unity for unity’s sake is always an illusion. Unity requires substance, a shared love, shared commitments, and confessions. It requires definition. Broadness and narrowness applied in the right places. I don’t know if the tribes and political parties of our focus people group will ever be able to achieve meaningful unity. Perhaps. But my hope is that if they do, it will be because they will have learned it from the brotherhood displayed by a future network of healthy churches. The gospel will advance among this people group. And that means that one way or another, a healthy unity among believers and churches here will one day emerge.

Photo by Lorenzo Campregher on Unsplash

A Proverb on Goats and Doom

The goat which is doomed is the goat which eats the shepherd’s food.

Local Oral Tradition

He ate the shepherd’s food, so now he becomes the shepherds food. Out in the mountains, the shepherd doesn’t really have another choice. This proverb seems to be somewhere in the realm of “don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” Perhaps with an emphasis on avoiding the stupidity of shortsighted self-interest. It also makes a nod to the strong emphasis on fate and determinism in this culture. “It was fated to be so,” locals might say, shaking their heads at this kind of goat (or person) when their own actions bring about their doom.

Photo by Lauren McConachie on Unsplash

A Song For Those Wanting to Run Away

Many believers hear an occasional voice that tells them that life would be better if they would chuck it all and run away from God and from their believing community. I know I have heard this voice at times. This song weaves together the logic of Romans 8 and Psalm 139. Where can we possibly run from the God who is everywhere, from the God who even dwells within us? And why would we want to run when he’s already told us that nothing can separate us from his love? Running, far from delivering the kind of peace we are looking for, would instead make us miserable because of the dogged pursuit of the Spirit – who would lovingly never let us go. And he would be kind and right to deliver us from our temporary insanity. I know this thought has stabilized me during particularly discouraging moments. I am helped by this song when it comes around on my playlist, then today I found a medley where John Mark McMillan merges it with the song, “Stand by Me.” Listen for the transition at 4:26. So good!

There is not a man or a beast
Nothing on the land or underneath
Oh, nothing that could ever come between
The love You have for me

I could lay my head in Sheol
I could make my bed at
The bottom of the darkness deep, oh
But there is not a place I could escape You

Your heart won’t stop
Coming after me (Coming after me)
Your heart won’t stop
Coming after me (Coming after me)
Your heart won’t stop
Coming after, coming after me

There is not an angel of the stars
There is not a devil in the dark
Oh, nothing that could change
The way You are, the love You have for me

I could lay my head in Sheol
I could make my bed at
The bottom of the darkness deep, oh
But there is not a place I could escape You

Your heart won’t stop
Coming after me (Coming after me)
Your heart won’t stop
Coming after me (Coming after me)
Your heart won’t stop
Coming after, coming after me

-“Heart Won’t Stop” by John Mark McMillan