Resilience on the field when it comes to sin {We need your help}

Howdy friends,

A couple of weeks ago an organization that does field orientation contacted me with a request. They have a unit on “resiliency on the field” but noticed a hole when it came to the intersection of sin and resiliency. What’d they noticed is that many who participate in their training think that because they have been called by God into full-time ministry, they will get a dispensation on sinning.

Those of us who have been on the field know this isn’t true. However, as I shared about this subject over lunch with a friend who works with pastors, she recognized this kind of thinking in many North American pastors who end up in total burnout and coming to the retreat center she helps run.

We know this isn’t a new subject. Paul expressed this tension well when he asked in Romans 7 about doing what he didn’t want to do and not doing what he wanted to do. None of us go to the field thinking, “I really hope I sin … a lot!”

The pre-field training organization wondered if Global Trellis had any resources related to helping Great Commission Workers be more resilient—or at least more aware of the realities of sin on the field. We don’t specifically, but I think it’s an important and fascinating subject, I created an anonymous survey to gather information from YOU. I’ll be happy to share the results/themes with you in future months. The survey is five questions and they are:

1—How long have you been on the field? Or how long were you on the field?

2—In what ways has being on the field had no impact on the ways you sin? (In other  words, you are you wherever you are in the world?)

3—In what ways has being on the field “positively” impacted your sinning? (In other  words, how has being on the field helped you to sin less?)

4—In what ways has being on the field “negatively” impacted your sinning? (In other  words, how has being on the field contributed to you sinning more?)

5—With where you are now, what advice would you offer to someone going to the field?



You can take the anonymous survey here. Thank you in advance and my hope is that even in this survey God will meet you as He uses you to serve and help the next generation on the field.

With gratitude,

Amy

You Know You’re Language Learning If…

I have three pieces of advice for adult language learners: talk to people, don’t panic, and trust your brain.

Language learning brings with it a whole host of new physical and mental sensations. You’re going to feel awkward and like a poser sometimes. Some days it will feel like your brain is going to explode, or like you’re not learning a new language so much as forgetting your first one. But if you keep talking with people and don’t let these new sensations worry you, your brain will do something magical for you: it will learn the language.

While you are giving it lots of meaning-rich input from actual people, and trying not to panic, your brain will be calculating. You’ll be going in there and dumping tons of new sounds, syllables, and meanings on the floor of your brain, and at first, your brain will be like, “Uh… housekeeping?”

But soon, your brain will perform a kind of miracle. It will start to categorize all that meaningless stuff. It will find boxes in a back room and start heaping verbs in there, along with images, sensations, and memories to add meaning to those verbs. Your inner librarian will start putting stuff in filing cabinets and shelving like items together. (Am I the only one who pictures their brain like a giant library?)

Anyway, when you’ve been listening and talking all day and your brain shuts down and you can’t remember your own name, rejoice and be exceeding glad. This is a good sign. It means your brain is doing so many important things in the background that it’s closed the library for the day. 

Don’t be surprised if you wake up remembering a random word for which you have no meaning. Go find the missing meaning, and you’ll never forget that word. Trust the process. And if you need a reminder that you’re not alone on this language learning journey, read on.

You Know You’re Language Learning If…

Even though it’s more expensive, you often shop at the Supermarket because you still can’t tell the difference between 12 and 267, and because at the Supermarket you don’t have to talk to strangers with the seven words that you do know.

Or, if you are more extroverted, you only shop at vegetable stands, and become best friends with all the vendors, and stay there all day talking about how many brothers and sisters everyone has within a five-mile radius.

Even though you can’t speak a complete sentence in your new language, you cannot remember the word for “beans” in your mother tongue. It has been replaced by the new-language equivalent. Even though you worry this is permanent, you are secretly proud of yourself.

If this is your third language, your brain keeps offering you words from your second language. You reject these. As a result, your brain purposefully forgets your second language, leading you to think it’s gone forever. (It’s not necessarily gone; it’s in storage. Just be sure to use it occasionally, or your inner librarian will chuck it in the dumpster.)

Talkative people who repeat themselves a lot are your favorite people in the world. Especially if they give you cake and frequently tell you what a good job you are doing.

You get the gist of what people are saying… except sometimes you’re wrong. Like when someone asks you a question, and you respond, “I like chicken,” except they didn’t actually ask you what your favorite food was but rather where you are going, and they look at you like you’re from another planet.

You are thrilled to realize that you now notice the spaces between words. Soon, you can identify and ask about a single word that you need a definition for.

You post so many words on your walls that your apartment starts to resemble the shack in A Beautiful Mind.

Someone mistakes you for a native speaker, and you are thrilled. The very next day, someone doesn’t understand you when you ask what time it is.

You make a funny language faux pas.

You make an X-rated language faux pas.

You are thankful that everyone laughs at your faux pas. You laugh, too. You even laugh when you don’t know why everyone is laughing, like a two-year-old at the dinner table. Which is great, except when someone asks you, “Do you understand why we’re laughing?” And you have to say no because Christians don’t lie.

Your kids correct your pronunciation.

Someone says your spouse is better than you at the language. That very same day, someone else says you are better than your spouse.

Because of the two previous points, you realize you might need the tiniest little vacation. And maybe some therapy.

Sometimes you think you might be fluent. You are talking quickly and everyone is understanding what you say. Until the next day, when you can’t remember the word for “the.”

You make your first real word-play joke in the language. However, the comedic effect is ruined when your friends try to correct what they assume is a mistake.

You ask for the Chinese newspaper on a Chinese airline, but when you try to ask the flight attendant for water in Mandarin, she looks at you with disdain and says, “Sure. You want me to bring you the English newspaper, too?” (True story!)

You start dreaming in your target language and understand everything better than in real life.

You tell someone the gospel story in your broken, weird, childish way… and their heart is touched, and they want to know more, and you feel like you could do this forever, even if it is hard on the pride.

What about you? How do you know you’re a language learner?

What’s Your “Fancy Like . . .”?

If I were to say that I was “fancy like Applebee’s” you might make some assumptions about me. For instance, I might be an American, not the richest guy in the world, and someone who listens to country music in his pickup truck.

And if you don’t fit into all those categories, you might wonder what “fancy like Applebee’s” even means. If that’s the case, two step over to YouTube to hear Walker Hayes’ top-ten country-western song from last year. In “Fancy Like,” Hayes sings that his “low maintenance” lady is usually content with eating at Wendy’s, 

But every now and then when I get paidI gotta spoil my baby with an upgrade
 
Yeah, we fancy like Applebee’s on a date nightGot that Bourbon Street steak with the Oreo shakeGet some whipped cream on the top tooTwo straws, one check, girl, I got you
 

Similes (those “like” and “as” phrases) show what we know. They reveal what we identify with and how we use that to describe the things around us, things that are new, or old things that we want to help others see in a new way. Sometimes they get it. Sometimes they don’t. That’s the way it is for country-music stars, and for cross-cultural workers, too.

So if you’re fancy like Applebee’s, it might be because that’s where you go for a a Bourbon Street Steak during your once-a-year trip to the city to get your documents approved or to make a supply run. Or you could be fancy like Swedish meatballs in the IKEA cafeteria. Or fancy like a hotdog combo, with extra sauerkraut, at the Costco snack bar. Or fancy like a Caffè Mocha at the window table in Starburks, (yes, I do mean Starburks).

That’s how we do, how we do, fancy like . . .

In that spirit, here are a few similes I’ve come up with. Some are based on my own experiences overseas, and some I just imagine might be true for others. I hope they make sense to you, but more than that, I hope they inspire you to come up with your own. Give it a try:

As cute as the senior citizens ballroom dancing in the park every Saturday morning

Pristine like the sky the day before a typhoon

As silent as an empty night-market alley after the exterminators have passed through

As welcome as an English-speaking taxi driver without strong political views

As improbable as a mom and a dad and three kids on one scooter

Smooth like bubble milk tea on a muggy afternoon

As awkward as an angry foreigner yelling, “This would never happen where I’m from!”

Terrified like the young workers at McDonald’s seeing a foreigner approach the counter

Bittersweet like hearing church members say, “We’ll miss you, but we’ll take it from here”

Nervous like power lines during an aftershock

As unexpected as a free cup of Häagen-Dazs on a 13-hour flight

Hopeful like not hitting water all week but drilling one more time

Rotund like the koi fish in the pond next to the national art museum

Noisy like upstairs neighbors pouring their marble collection on the tile floor at 2:00 every morning

As gorgeous as a new visa stamp in a passport

Glorious like a family showing up to a worship service for the first time because they’ve heard that they could learn about the creator there

and . . .

As incredible as finding a frozen turkey and a can of cranberry sauce seven days before Thanksgiving

[photo: “Applebee’s,” by Mike Mozart, used under a Creative Commons license]

Beyond Our Comfort Zones

Twelve years ago, I visited Indonesia for the first time. I was a twenty-two-year-old American citizen, freshly graduated from university, filled with hopes and dreams. I visited the Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor team, staying with them in a slum community. And I sensed Jesus inviting me to join them and make my home in a slum. My life would never be the same.

In our world today 1.4 billion people live in urban slum communities, and that number is constantly growing. Are Christians in the West even aware of this global reality? And, if so, do we have the faith to believe that Jesus’s good news is not only for Christians sitting on comfortable church benches, but also for those living in slum communities around the world?

I share my story of following Jesus into the slums in my new book, Beyond Our Walls: Finding Jesus in the Slums of Jakarta. My journey in Indonesia that began twelve years ago continues to this day, now with my husband and two young children. But this book is not a success story. Its pages are filled with pain and sorrow—and also the joys and surprises that come while following our good Savior.

Pain. The pain of fires, evictions, floods, sickness, and death. The daily sorrows of seeing beautiful people living in a physical reality that is not worthy of human habitation: haphazard homes pieced together, piles of rotting trash as playgrounds for children, rats and mosquitos and diseases running rampant. What could I possibly offer in such an ocean of pain and suffering?

But as I continued on year after year, learning and laughing and crying with my neighbors, I have found beauty. There is joy, even when surrounded by unspeakable darkness and pain. There is a juxtaposition of living in service of our King—seeking His Kingdom here and now and knowing that His Kingdom is stronger than all the pain and all the sorrow—but also knowing that the Kingdom is not quite fully here yet and that there is still so much that is not right with the world.

This book does not offer solutions to solve the urban crisis of billions of people living in slums. But it does invite you to come and hear stories, come meet some of the beautiful children and parents who have become my friends over the years. Come and experience Jesus outside the walls of our comfortable church buildings, gated communities, and comfort zones.

“As I live within this garbage collecting and recycling community, I am learning about God, the pemulung[1], who sorts through mountains of trash day after day, searching for anything of value. Back in first-century Palestine, Jesus called out to Simon and Andrew, ‘follow me and I will make you fish for people.[2] Two-thousand years later, I imagine Jesus coming to this place and saying, ‘Follow me, and I will make you pemulung of people!’

“Jesus tells those whom the world views as garbage, ‘You have value. Though others have cast you off, you are a treasure.’ As we follow Jesus, our pemulung, to the trash heap, he is longing for us to help him build up those who have been pushed down, plant and nourish those who have been uprooted, be merciful to those who have experienced disaster, and encourage those who are afraid.”[3]

         You can find the book here.


[1] Pemulung means scavenger, someone who looks for recycling
[2] Matthew 4:19
[3] See Jeremiah 42:10-11

Home Hunting

Since 2020, our family has moved all of our belongings five times to five different houses, stayed in too many hotels to count, and slept on the couches, beds, and floors of all our closest relatives.

We’ve been looking for “home” in one way or another for the last two years. Our TCKs often ask questions like “Which home do you mean?” or “When can we go home?” or “Where are we living again?”

We are orderly, scheduled people, and these many moves were not part of our goal-setting, high-reaching, productivity book-reading ministry plans.

As the Proverb says: “We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.”

I know many of us are tired of talking about how covid changed things. But our family’s many moves weren’t just the result of the global pandemic.

Despite covid, we managed to stay in our country of service in our “sparkly house” throughout all of 2020. We loved our sparkly house. It was a huge answer to prayer and has a story of its own. We wanted to stay in that house, serve our people, and participate in their sufferings alongside them.

The strict covid rules, however, meant that our whole family could never leave the house at once. We ended up taking our kids on “dates” to the only grocery store in town one by one. We worked creatively to make home the most fun we could, despite no grass or yard and only a small cement pad on a dusty, busy street to get “fresh” air. We started to look earnestly for a new home with more outside space for our kids.

At the very beginning of 2021, we found a house with a large dirt yard and fruit trees. We were so thankful to find a home that could be a haven for our six children!

My newest baby was just two weeks old when we packed up everything and moved. The kids mourned the loss of their favorite “sparkly” house, but we renamed the new house the “new sparkly house,” and life seemed under our control once again. We could again put down roots and make our plans.

Then on February 1, 2021, we woke up to the news that a greedy military leader, citing election fraud, had imprisoned the rightfully-elected leaders. He was taking over, and the country was slipping into chaos and civil war.

After a few weeks of escalation, violence near our home, and the evacuation of US Embassy staff, our organization made the difficult call for us to evacuate as well. Less than 24 hours later we left our home with only two suitcases.

Our six-week-old baby still didn’t have a birth certificate or passport due to the covid restrictions that had prevented us from traveling to the closest US Embassy.

Three days of little food, a lot of praying, multiple embassy trips, covid tests for the whole family, and God’s presence being our only comfort in the big city, and we were on a flight back “home” to America. Except America didn’t feel like home.

Evacuation was not part of our ministry plans. How could we serve our people and suffer with them if we were a world away?

In America, we rented an apartment near our organization’s headquarters for six months. It was small and cramped, but there was a great tree to climb out front, and so it became our “climbing tree house.” Six months came and went, and we still weren’t sure what we should do. Finally, we decided to continue waiting in uncertainty nearer to our supporting church, so we bought a house in that area, sight unseen.

I was still struggling to feel at home in America, but at least I could have a place to call my own while I “waited to go back.” We bought the house after watching a three-minute video a realtor sent us. It almost didn’t matter to us what the house looked like; as long as we could buy it and own it, we could make it our home and develop a new plan. But how long would this temporary plan last? How long would we have to wait to go back? Could we ever go back?

Somewhere in all that transition and travel, my father died, and I felt like I was losing my childhood home and my current home all at once.

I am a planner, and none of this was in my plans. I am a scheduled, predictable person, and this was all unexpected, upsetting, and out of control.

I am also a sentimental collector of personal relics. I want to hold on to my past by holding on to the things that remind me of the past. I have almost nothing from our Asian home to hold on to. I have almost none of my father’s possessions to hold on to. Home was slipping through my fingertips.

I didn’t want to grieve the loss of my identity, the loss of my home, the loss of my father, all in the span of a few months. I didn’t want to wait indefinitely for things to change, for things to heal. I didn’t want to be stuck in America with nothing to do besides pray. I wanted to live incarnationally alongside our people.

It wasn’t just my plans that felt unproductive. I felt unproductive. I felt useless. I felt misplaced. I felt lost. A disillusioning fog set in and covered my life in total grief.

I started believing lies. If I didn’t have a home, I couldn’t feel at home. I couldn’t make a home. I couldn’t rest in the peace of a home. Maybe I would never fit in or be welcome anywhere. Maybe I would never have a home and never feel at peace again.

Satan’s lies cut deep, and it took time to uncover them, unpack them, and uproot them from my heart. Through the power of God and the avenue of healing prayer, I began to see the lies and let go of control and resentment, grief and loss.

I began to heal, and the fog began to lift.

I opened my heart to serving people who were right in front of me, and I kept praying for our friends who were far away. I allowed others to serve me in my grief and to see the hurt I was experiencing. I mourned. I grieved. I repented. I prayed.

I began to have hope again. I began to have peace again. I began to see that I could feel at home and make a home wherever God called me and whatever unfolded.

And then something amazing happened: we were able to make decisions and move forward.

My husband and I, after prayer and much discussion, decided that although we could not return to our host country because of the military coup, we could continue our ministry from a neighboring country in Southeast Asia.

Opportunities seemed to open up. We finally had a trajectory again.

And this is when our purchased home, unnamed for nearly a year, got the name of the “smiley-love house” by our kids. Hope is a powerful thing.

Fast forward to now. We’ve recently arrived back in Southeast Asia. We moved not knowing anyone in this city. We lived in hotels for two weeks while we were finding a home. It’s taken courage and perseverance. It’s taken God’s mercy and the prayers of many, many people.

But God did answer our prayers, and He has been with us. We had a tangible sense of His peace guiding us. We have found a home, our “nature house.” It is a small house with a giant yard that our kids can play in, an amazing answer to our kids’ many prayers for a house with “nature.”

I feel overwhelmed with gratitude that God has provided us with a home here. But it isn’t this physical home that is His greatest gift: His greatest gift is His presence with me, telling me that I am home because I am with Him.

In my Father’s house, there will always be a place for me. No matter where I go or what happens to me along the journey, He will always be there, eager and waiting for me to return to Him. In His home I am always welcome. He is running to meet me, and His arms are open wide.

Our “nature house” probably won’t be my last house. I’ll need to look for another someday. But I never have to feel lost anymore, because Home is where He is, and He is always with me.

Why is it so hard for missionaries to say “I’m not fine”?

“Why do you think it’s so hard for missionaries to say, ‘I’m not fine?’”

I recently posed this question to author and Third Culture Kid expert Ruth Van Reken. Her answer came swiftly and without hesitation, an answer that can only come from deep, personal experience.

“It can take your whole faith apart.”

Ruth is in her seventies, a missionary kid who learned in boarding school how to copy “I’m fine” from the template on the chalkboard for every letter she sent home. I’m in my twenties, a missionary kid who’s been an expert-smiler since as early as I can remember.

In different ways across different decades, we both learned that being a missionary and not being “fine” is, well… not fine at all. How has this belief snaked its way through the missions community and persisted across the generations?

One reason is that missionaries have historically been misconceived as spiritual superheroes among our Christian communities. I mean, how can superheroes not be fine?

Another reason is the fear that our hardships might cast an uncomfortable sense of uncertainty on the goodness of the God who called us. We sacrificed everything for Him, right? Why is life so excruciatingly difficult?

These subtle questions and misconceptions littered my childhood and contributed heavily to the “I’m fine” theology that I began to live out. To help you fully grasp how these messages contributed to always being “fine,” I’d like to invite you into a snapshot of my story (taken from my new book Stop Saying I’m Fine: Finding Stillness When Anxiety Screams).

From the time I was a little girl, I went to church every Sunday. My dad was a pastor on staff, so it’s what we did. On Saturday nights, I always washed my hair for church the following morning, and I’d lay out something nicer than the clothes I’d wear on a typical Tuesday. I was often known by our congregation as the good girl who recited her memory verses perfectly, was always polite, and never complained. Although these were good, God-honoring things, some of the micro-messages that crept into my heart were not good. Or true.

These micro-messages told me that being a good Christian meant always smiling and never talking about how you really felt.

I learned that putting yourself together and making sure you smelled nice is what you did before you went into God’s house. Although I knew these measures were typically heeded out of respect, I noticed that other people appeared especially happy with the polished version of me.

Is that how God felt about me, too?

When I was nine, my family sold our home and moved to East Asia. My parents planned to partner with local churches in efforts to advance the gospel. In the months leading up to our departure, we sold nearly everything we owned. One Saturday afternoon, I spread out all my toys, with parental instructions to choose three. Everything else ended up in a pile at our garage sale, sporting fifty-cent stickers.

I didn’t really know how to feel that day. I stood in the corner and watched strangers carry out our couch and kitchen table and silverware. I felt okay until a woman with short, spiky hair carried out my green bedspread. That was new bedspread. My throat tightened with a shiver of emotion. I loved that bedspread. I loved my room. I loved my home. I loved my life.

I suddenly really didn’t like this moment.

The losses just kept rolling in. But people kept telling me how excited I must be and how much we were honoring God by our commitment. I chalked up my grief to discontentment and determined to be fine. Wasn’t it silly to be sad about toys and bedspreads and ice-skating lessons when more important things (like gospel proclamation) were at stake?

Besides, I was the good little girl who never complained. The micro-messages seeping into my heart sounded something like this: Anger and sadness are not allowed. These emotions are bad. Being happy all the time is what it means to honor God.

So, I learned to be fine until the lights went out.

Curled up in bed at night, those pangs of loss would overwhelm me. No one told me point-blank that I shouldn’t cry, but the last words whispered to nine-year-old me before boarding that first flight overseas was, “Be a good little girl for your mommy and daddy.”

I wanted to be good girl, and everyone knew that good girls didn’t cry. No wonder Ruth told me that saying “I’m not fine” can take your faith apart. If you can’t hold faith and pain together, then being fine becomes your only option.

As missionaries, have we fastened the value of our faith to the faulty condition of being fine?

I’ll be the first to raise my hand here. As an MK, I wanted to please. I didn’t want to hinder the advancement of the gospel. But those honest hopes and fears eventually suffocated any sense of authenticity from my personal relationship with God. I forgot that the gospel of grace is for “I’m not fine” people. But I couldn’t go the Father in my pain and sorrow when I thought I had to hide it from him.

“There’s a difference between resignation and submission to God’s will,” Ruth wisely told me. “Submission is when we wrestle and eventually say, ‘I will believe that you are good and faithful and true even if I don’t feel that way today.’”

This truth is etched throughout Scripture, resounding of a different, more honest way of engaging in the Christian walk. Jesus at the garden of Gethsemane. David’s gut-wrenchingly honest laments in the Psalms. The apostle Paul’s declaration that the truth (not our tidiness) is what truly sets us free.

Today, perhaps the invitation for you and me is to breathe in grace. Breathe out honesty. To allow ourselves space to wrestle. And to recognize that, in the end, a whispered admission of “I’m not fine” is what oftentimes actually holds our faith together.

Quotes from Ruth Van Reken taken from personal interview with her, August 30, 2022.

You can read more of my story in my new book, Stop Saying I’m Fine: Finding Stillness When Anxiety Screams.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Taylor Joy Murray is an MK, author, and speaker passionate about serving her generation in the areas of emotional health and spiritual formation. Her first book, Hidden in My Heart, which gives words to often unexpressed experiences and emotions of missionary kids, was published when she was just fourteen years old. Her new book, Stop Saying I’m Fine, was just released. She currently lives in Lynchburg, Virginia while completing her Master’s Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Connect with her on Instagram @__taylorjoy__ or on her website at www.taylorjoymurray.co.

 

Toxic Positivity in Missions

What is positive toxicity? Is it something that Christians, and particularly missionaries, need to be wary of? What about our call to be light in the darkness in this troubled world?

Toxic positivity is not just an optimistic or hopeful outlook on life. It is the insistence that, despite the gravity of a situation or the depth of emotional pain one has experienced, one should strive to only feel and express positive emotions. It is an insincere or fake positivity and the oversimplifying or overlooking of complex emotions and situations as you put pressure on yourself or others to ignore negative emotions and artificially speed up the timeline of getting back to the “positive” as soon as possible.

Toxic positivity is a hallmark of our modern-day culture with its emphasis on the pursuit of happiness (fleeting as it may be) and its single-minded chase of “positive vibes only.” This culture has even seeped into some of our churches, leading many to believe a skewed theology in which “rejoice in the Lord always” means never allowing yourself to recognize or validate feelings of sorrow, discouragement, anger, frustration, fear, or anxiety.

For many, positive toxicity can be a form of self-protection. By refusing to acknowledge those negative emotions in themselves or in others, they are seemingly freeing themselves from the heavy burdens or thoughts that accompany those difficult emotions.

For missionaries, it’s easy to see how this could become a serious temptation. For newly arrived missionaries, toxic positivity may be a coping method that they use to try to manage the overwhelming effects of culture shock and to reassure themselves and others that they made the right decision upending their life for this. For seasoned missionaries who have likely had their fair share of betrayal, failure, trauma, or disappointment, toxic positivity can be a way of barricading themselves off from “one more thing,” or it may be deployed to, by their own might, chisel away at the heart of stone they might have noticed forming in their chest.

While there are certainly benefits to trying to have a more positive outlook on life, sometimes we go overboard or astray. How might toxic positivity manifest on the mission field?

  • Internally shaming yourself for ever thinking anything negative about the ministry or God
  • Publicly or privately shaming those missionaries who openly share their struggles with the culture or with host-country nationals and labeling them as “those of little faith” or “immature”
  • Imposing a timeline on someone’s healing (either your own or someone else’s) with suggestions that they should “just get over it” and move on more quickly from a painful or traumatic event
  • Over-compensation, an exaggerated attempt to overcome or diminish negative feelings (inferiority, guilt) by overworking oneself, using excessive flattery, or self-promoting
  • Using scripture out of context to minimize someone’s experiences or feelings by giving them a “new perspective” (i.e., “It could be worse” or “God’s got a plan”) before validating their feelings
  • Refusal to acknowledge someone’s hurt feelings by glossing over those parts of a conversation
  • Newsletters and social media posts that portray a one-sided view of the ministry in an attempt to convince partners, and possibly yourself, that “everything is fine” even if it might not be
  • Overlooking any criticism or critique of the ministry as just someone being “too negative”
  • Suggesting “quick fixes” or suggesting you simply “press on” in difficult or complex situations in an attempt to steer the conversation away from the hard reality that is being experienced
  • Blaming people for their own situations or struggles rather than first empathizing with them
  • Assertation of a very black-and-white interpretation of a situation rather than acknowledging the nuance and seeking discernment together

Have you found yourself believing these types of messages and doing these types of things to yourself or fellow missionaries? Have you been blindsided, hurt, shamed, or confused by someone doing it to you? What was the result?

Unfortunately, responding to hurt or difficult situations by ignoring these negative feelings and spewing out the positive has the potential to make things worse in the long run. Overwhelming the negative with positive may work in math and science, but it does not work in matters of the heart.

Toxic positivity can lead up to the buildup of emotions that are never dealt with, resulting in anxiety, depression, cognitive dissonance, overcompensation, and feelings of powerlessness, shame, or guilt. It can cause people to question their own experiences, and it can undermine one’s sense of reality, which can be very disconcerting, particularly for those who are already struggling to grapple with the disorientation of cross-cultural living. Toxic positivity leads to the breakdown of relationships and safe spaces and isolates people from each other and their support systems, making the chance that they might experience burnout even more likely.

Most importantly, toxic positivity does not reflect the heart of our God, who created the full range of human emotions and is able and willing to sympathize with us in our weakness and times of trouble. Toxic positivity is not how we shine a light on the darkness because toxic positivity is a reaction that stems from fear and shame rather than faith. It focuses on self-reliance to “power through” and create or shine our own light rather than calling us to step into the light through surrender to the one true God. Toxic positivity is a shallow substitute for the hope of the gospel and a genuine relationship with Christ.

How can we do better and avoid toxic positivity?

Rather than asking ourselves or others to ignore the messy, difficult, uncomfortable feelings of this life overseas, let’s use our words and our actions to point toward Christ, who alone can provide true healing and comfort in the midst of our weakness.

Rather than toxic positivity, let’s practice empathy, compassion, and authenticity.

Let’s be devoted to one another in love and be a safe space for our fellow missionaries to let go of their strivings and find peace as they are reminded that we and God are here for them, no matter what.

Let’s listen before we speak, acknowledge other people’s emotions as real and meaningful, give grace to those who are struggling (including ourselves), and bear one another’s burdens by mourning with those who mourn just as our Savior did.

Let’s remind each other that failure and sorrows are not the end, though they may be our reality right now, and that the negative things that we experience and feel are just as real and as useful in drawing us near to Christ as are the times of unbridled joy and celebration.

How to Serve Abroad Without a Savior Complex (an interview with Craig Greenfield)

by Rebecca Hopkins

Are you cautious about being a “white savior” but still feel called to be involved in mission work in other cultures? Craig Greenfield’s newest book, Subversive Mission: Serving as Outsiders in a World of Need offers five categories—catalyst, ally, seeker, midwife, and guide—for the outsider who wants to be sensitive to pitfalls such as power, money, and complicity that can trip up the most well-intentioned global worker. I recently sat down with Craig to talk about his new book. Before we get to that interview, here’s a bit more about Craig, for those of you who are unfamiliar with his work:

Craig Greenfield is the founder and director of Alongsiders International, a fast-growing movement mobilizing and equipping thousands of young Christians in 25 countries to walk alongside those who walk alone – vulnerable children in their own communities. Craig is the author of The Urban Halo (now available free on Craig’s website), Subversive Jesus, and Subversive Mission: serving as outsiders in a world of need. You can take a Missional Types test at www.craiggreenfield.com/missionaltypes to find out your unique gifting for cross-cultural ministry.

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I really enjoyed your book. I felt like this was the book I was missing a few years ago when I was really wrestling with this very issue. There was so much discussion about what wasn’t working in missions. And then there was this whole other conversation of, “Oh, nothing’s wrong.” But your book bridges that gap for people who see that some things aren’t working but who still want to be engaged and who wonder if there’s a different way to do things.

With the generation coming up, there’s a lot of paralysis. Many people still have a sense of being “called” and wanting to be connected with the wider world, but “missions” is tough for people to see themselves in.

Why is it important to continue to engage with the world?

Whether they’re across the street or across the oceans, Christians are called to love their neighbors, serve them, point them towards Jesus. A lot has changed, but that hasn’t changed. So how do we do that? That’s the question. In the past, we’ve sometimes done that in ways that were not so healthy or not so helpful. We need to try to do better and find ways that will be more healthy and helpful.

What problems were you solving with this book?

I wrote this book for two quite distinct audiences. I wrote it for those who perhaps are interested in engaging in mission but have not reflected deeply on some of the pitfalls, blind spots, or dangers of going cross-culturally. Often that’s not any fault of their own. There are just not that many books that go very deep into examining some of the systemic issues or that reflect on our own complicity in that history or even consider the idea that we are part of groups that have been part of colonialism. So I felt like we needed a book that would offer some hopefully healthy critique of how missions has been conducted.

But the flip side of that is that the general conversation in society has been, “missions is colonialism,” and there’s some truth to that. But that can lead to paralysis for people who have a passion or interest in issues of justice. So those people who have a sense of, “God is calling me to love people from another nation or serve or move,” they don’t see any way forward because missions carries so much heavy baggage. So then those people, on the flip side, need to see a way that they could serve and recognize some of the things that we want to leave behind, but offer them a pathway forward.

What do we lose if we just continue with the old patterns? Why have this kind of upheaval? It can feel destabilizing.

I think we would see the death of missions, certainly from the west. I wrote this book absolutely immersed in Asia and Africa during COVID and then came back to New Zealand. Going around talking about missions, it’s clear that there’s a massive downturn. One of my friends, Jay Matenga, who’s the head of missions at World Evangelical Alliance, said that for missions agencies, you can think of the analogy of an airplane. Some of them are massive jumbo jets, so they’re huge. And their trajectory is kind of up here. But it will go down. They’ve got further to go down but they’re now turning downwards. The small little missions, they’re already almost hitting the ground.

I was speaking at a missions course yesterday at a Bible college, and it was a compulsory course. But none of those people, as far as I knew, not one of them, was preparing to be a missionary. They were all preparing for other things in ministry. We are in a massive turning point. Unless we recognize the baggage of the past, deal with it, repent of it, and engage with new wineskins, that’s the end of that as far as I can see.

Do you call yourself a missionary at this point?

I don’t. Honestly I think the word has had its day. It carries way too much baggage. I consider myself a social entrepreneur because I identify with being a catalyst. The calling on my life is to help initiate things that will benefit the poor and the marginalized.

Interesting. Maybe “missionary” has always felt like too big of a term. You can be a doctor. You can be a teacher. You can be an evangelist. You can be a lot of different things without calling yourself a missionary. But the categories in your book (catalyst, ally, seeker, midwife, and guide) can really help people see themselves in the bigger picture.

Two nights ago I was on a Zoom call with 250 tech startup founders. All of them are young and gifted, and their startups are out to change the world. They want to create some ecological alternative to this or empower that group of people. So, these are 20- and 30- and maybe some 40-somethings who want to change the world, who will go through the exact same mistakes that we are pointing out that missionaries have gone through. They will also do it in quite a colonial and ignorant way, no doubt in my mind. But that’s where the energy is.

Something that I probably wasn’t very explicit about in the book is that the generations that are coming, from millennial and Gen Z, and Gen X to an extent, each generation has this major biblical theme that they are tasked with recapturing or are passionate about or energized by. I would say that these last couple of generations are energized by issues of justice. Once they examine missions through the lens of justice, they immediately see all the ways that missions has been yoked together with colonialism – or the empire, which is the biblical theme. They’re easily going to focus on the injustices even though there are many great things that were done historically. I said in my book that my grandfather and grandmother were missionaries who did good things. But they also did it in quite a colonial way. So, we need to learn from that and move on.

So what do we gain by using your new paradigm, your new way of seeing things?

Hopefully, we gain a framework in which people can see themselves that doesn’t hold the same issues of money and power, which are the twin pillars of colonialism or empire. Intuitively, people of these generations know that there are major issues around money and power, so they’re looking for ways to serve that deliberately strip those things away from the relationships we cultivate. So hopefully, it’s a framework for moving forward into cross-cultural service and ministry.

What do we lose if we disengage with other cultures?

We lose perspective, and if there’s anything the western church needs desperately needs right now, it’s perspective. I have just been so discouraged in many ways by what I see as I’m going around speaking in churches. We’re just looking at ourselves. It’s just a very therapeutic kind of faith. “God bring me what I need.” “You’re on my side.” “You will make a way for me.” And none of, “Lord, you love those who are downtrodden.” Or, “How can we walk in your footsteps?”

Anything else that you feel like you want people to know as they consider reading your book?

Hopefully people will also see it as helpful for domestic cross-cultural situations where we want to serve in places where we are not necessarily insiders. One of the things that they were saying yesterday in the missions course that I was teaching was that we could apply this even in our churches because people are looking for a more humble approach to service and leadership.

Very well said.

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Rebecca Hopkins (www.rebeccahopkins.org) is an Army brat, a former cross-cultural worker in Indonesia, and a freelance writer now based in Colorado. She covers missions, MKs, and spiritual abuse for publications like Christianity Today and The Roys Report. Trained as a journalist and shaped by the rich diversity of Indonesia, she loves dialogue, understanding, and truths that last past her latest address.

Where is your story held?

Years ago, standing in our parent’s basement one of my sisters wondered what it would be like to deal with all of our dad’s paperwork. While not a hoarder in other areas, every piece of paper the man had touched through his life, he kept.

In that moment, the Lord gave me this insight: All this paper is more than paper, it is the container of your dad’s story.

Tax records going back decades were not kept in case of being audited. No, they were kept as a record. A record that said, “I was here, I took care of my family, I held a job, I gave to my church and charities. I invested myself in what matters in this world.” I can tell you this is not what my tax records mean to me because I do not keep my story in tax records.

Oddly, though a non-car person, my story is held, in part, by the cars I have owned.

As a college graduation present, my parents got me a car. It was love at first sight! She was a  red Dodge Shadow and had an air spoiler and a strip down her side. In sixth grade I was cast as Margot Lane in a radio play about The Shadow; so, her name was Margot.

My education program was completed with a year of student teaching and graduate classes. Margot drove me out to Perry Middle School in rural Kansas. We had our first near death experience along those roads. She drove me to South Junior High where I learned to love teaching Algebra. And from South Junior High we hurried to the University of Kansas where I taught ESL to students from around the world as I completed my Master’s Degree.

During the summers we spent hours together driving home to Denver. And then hours apart as she sat in a parking lot while I taught English and fell in love with China. After several years of teaching in Kansas and summers in China, Margot watched as my dad helped load a U-Haul to take my worldly possessions back to Denver to live for two years in my sister’s basement.

Dad headed off to Denver and Margot and I hit the road for a detour through Wichita. A dear friend had donated a kidney to her brother and I wanted to visit her one last time before I moved to China.

Because I was only going to China for two years, it seemed silly to sell her. So I didn’t.

I do not know where my story would have been stored if I had sold her. I am also not sure when she became the keeper of my story. All I know is that she did. Every time I returned to the U.S. she was there to drive me around and provide me with a sense of independence.

In the blink of an eye, nine years passed.

I returned to the U.S. on a study leave. Margot and I were united again. And again she drove me to school, to visit friends, to speak at churches. She heard me sing and bore silent witness to the tears I shed in the months leading up to another goodbye.

In the blink of an eye, three years passed.

I returned to China. My beloved Margot sat once more, waiting for me.

Whenever I returned to Denver, she was there. She provided me the gift of coming and going at will. But then one summer, it was obvious that Margot was aging and the time had come to do the unthinkable.

No one would have paid her true value and I could not bear to have her underappreciated. I called the local rescue mission and explained I had a car to donate. We set up an appointment for me to turn over the title, I had only one stipulation: You cannot take her until I have left for China. I cannot bear to see her drive away.

The pain cut so deep, it went beyond reason. I might have given my left arm to be able to keep her. And that’s when I hit me.

Margot held my story.

I loved living overseas. I thrived. But every now and then as I aged the twinge would come when I thought of siblings and peers who had houses and cars and other “normal” markers of adulthood. I had a passport full of stamps, yes. But I had nothing tangible to point to that indicated “Here is an adult. Here is a ‘real person.’”

Margot had been with me through my 20s and 30s. She was the one constant in a sea of change. While I lived a more nomadic existence, packing up after each year in China (another story for another time), and I found myself at age 30 having life rhythms I had had at twenty, I would say to myself, “Don’t worry, I am a real adult, I own a car.”

This week all of this flooded back.

Four years ago I moved back to the U.S. and bought another car. Much to everyone’s shock, after insisting on only buying red computers, red this, red that. She was blue. As a Honda Fit it seemed only fitting that she be called Fiona.

Cutting to the chase, she was pummeled in a colossal hail storm in May. This week she was deemed totaled. This had not occurred to me when I casually dropped her off the end of August. On the phone with the insurance who went over the details and what I would be paid and steps I need to take, she casually asked if I needed to get an any personal items out of the car before she was reclaimed at the repair place. Of course I do you idiot. (Only part said out loud.)

I still own nothing but a car as a sign of adulthood. And now that which held my story for the last four years, is no longer mine.

My story will go on. God at work in and through me, to be sure.

But I am left wondering who will keep the story now? And why can the cost of the call sneak up? Will Fiona’s new owner know what she is capable of?

It may not be taxes, paper, or cars, but in his mercy, God uses ordinary things of this world to help hold your story. What is it for you?


This first appeared at A Life Overseas here. I was reminded recently how cars help hold my story as another car was “murdered” (aka totaled by a stranger causing an accident) and the grief that came with it for me.

I Lost My Margin. Again.

I hung up the call. Dread hit me deep in the gut as I realized the level of commitment I had just made on another work project. A week later, I sat in a meeting and found my head nodding silently to a speaking engagement while my mind screamed, no! A week after that, the email came: “Would you offer two sessions for the upcoming conference?” Within a couple of weeks, my well-established level of margin had evaporated. And I was floundering . . . again.

In his book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard Swenson writes: “Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating.”

When I read this several years ago, we were in a place of wearying overcommitment. We were verging on what Swenson aptly describes as suffocating. I had unexpectedly begun homeschooling, which was necessitating more time and energy than I had anticipated, and we had full-on become involved in a new church plant, in addition to our weekday ministry life.

Margin was exactly what we were craving, and what we needed for any sort of longevity in our life overseas. “Hurry,” Dallas Willard famously wrote, “is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” (John Mark Comer wrote a needed book on this topic with this very quote as inspiration.) At that point in time, gratefully, God gave us the wisdom and discipline to reject hurry and to build in margin; shortly after, we also began a weekly Sabbath practice.

Building in margin was highly restorative. Some weeks, we felt we had extra capacity and could offer hospitality more freely. Other weeks, we scaled back on further commitments, holding space for that margin for the personal and familial challenges we were facing. We have, over the years, purposefully limited our children’s extracurriculars, our own social commitments, and our work and ministry projects, not because we would not enjoy it all or because the need has been filled, but because at what cost? The destruction of our peace? The unavailability to respond when a need arises, whether inside our home or beyond its walls? The deprivation of rest deep in our souls?

Recently, however, familiar doubts crept back into my heart and mind. Am I doing enough? Will this read impressively in my newsletter? Is our ministry fruitful enough? And from this lowly place of insecurity, doubt, and discouragement, I forfeited my margin.

Sure enough, within a week of all those commitments colliding, the strain hit me. My mind felt in a constant place of hurry; my responses to the ordinary demands of my children were short and tinged with resentment; my unanswered calls to family members were piling up; my spiritual life felt anemic. What had I gotten myself into, and how do I back out again?

Let me tell you: not easily. Our counselor wisely told us, “It is much easier to say no before a project starts than to pass it off in the middle.” So true, I thought. In the middle of my hurried, overcommitted stretch of a few months, I tried to formulate a plan to pass some projects off, but to no avail. I was stuck; I had to finish it out. I had made my bed, yes, and I was lying right in the middle of the enormity of it.

Once I realized the inescapabilty of my situation — and after wallowing in shame for several days — I began to ask God for glimpses of margin, for restorative moments in the middle of my overcommitted present. Graciously, he gave me the eyes to see them.

Margin was in the early predawn minutes when I climbed out of bed to sit silently, alone, until the creak of the children’s beds alerted me that precious little bodies were descending.

Margin was in the little moments of homeschooling, when I must put aside all other work commitments in order to give my undivided attention to these little budding minds and hearts under my wing.

Margin was in the early morning forest walks with a dear friend or in the afternoon campus walks with my husband when the children rollerbladed around us, interrupting every few minutes with their essential declarations (they are all essential, you know).

Margin was at the dinner table, when the cooking and tidying was mostly finished, and we could gather with thanks for provision and lively chatter about the day.

Margin was in those sleepless nights, those restless midnight hours when although I would rather my body sleep, He could grant my mind rest.

These small moments of margin were many; moments to pause, to acknowledge the beauty around me, the goodness and grace of God in the in-between places. There were as many moments in a day as I needed, if only I had the eyes to see and the heart to receive.

In other words, margin is where God sustained me.

//

The overcommitted season has mostly passed. A few more weeks, and my plate will be filled with the usual amount of commitments again, and I am eagerly awaiting. The pace of my hurried mind has gratefully slowed; my mental state is no longer a flashing billboard of work commitments at lightning speed. My capacity for the ordinary demands of life and my children has improved, my soul can more readily sense the presence of God, and I do not plan to forfeit my margin again anytime soon.

Although God can meet us there in that messy middle, I do not believe it is where he wants us to stay. Rather, we make a habit of building margin so that we are available to the purposes of God. Regarding rest, a foundational part of margin, Swenson writes that it “is a self-weakening unto God-strength. It is a self-emptying unto God-fullness. It is the rest of full surrender.”

What if we were to put aside our ill-conceived, worldly perspectives on success and productivity? What if we rejected the false narratives of self-importance and worth based on accomplishment? What if we, like Christ, “self-empty” ourselves unto God? “What if,” writes Swenson, “instead, we were to begin measuring our progress not by our wealth but by our virtue; not by our education but by our humility; and not by our power but by our meekness?”

This is the margin I am committed to building, for the sake of my soul, for the health of my family, for the glory of Christ.

A Past Voice from the Field: On Darkness, Light, and Skies of Brass

Zermatt, Switzerland

Today I’d like to share a post that connects two others I’ve written. The first one addresses the quotation “Don’t forget in the darkness what you have learned in the light,” attributed by Philip Yancey to Christian publishing executive and author Joseph Bayly. The second discusses the life and work of Lilias Trotter, British artist and missionary to Algeria.

I had read Yancey’s attribution in his book Where Is God when It Hurts? but more recently, it was while thumbing through Miriam Huffman Rockness’s A Blossom in the Desert: Reflections of Faith in the Art and Writings of Lilias Trotter, that I came across

Believe in the darkness what you have seen in the light.

While not exactly the same as the words of Bayly, Trotter’s are close enough to show a relationship in the idea and phrasing. And I knew that Trotter’s writing easily predated Bayly’s quotation, as she died in 1928, when Bayly was only eight years old.

Knowing that Rockness authors a blog about Trotter, I contacted her for more information. In response, she not only told me that Trotter had written the phrase in her diary in August of 1901 but also gave me some background on its meaning. Rockness writes that the diary entry came from a time when Trotter was visiting her brother in Zermatt, Switzerland, “taking a ‘break’ from the heavy load” she was experiencing in North Africa. While high up in the mountains, she wrote:

“Believe in the darkness what you have seen in the light” – That was this mornings “first lesson” – For when I opened my shutters about 5.30, there was a lovely clear happy morning sky above the grey gold rocks a[nd] glistening snow of the Weirshorn & Roth-horn. While a thick bank of white cloud lay below in the valley – Half an hour more & it had risen around us till there was nothing to be seen but a few dim ghosts of trees. Yet one knew having once seen that sky, that a radiant day was coming, & that the clouds could do nothing but melt. And me[lt] they did, the peaks glimmering like far off angels at first, & clearing till they stood out radiant & strong, with the fogs dropped down to their feet like a cast off mantle. All depended on what one had seen first.

Elsewhere in her blog, Rockness puts the quotation in more context, describing Trotter’s “heavy load”:

It is interesting to note that when Lilias recorded the above statement of faith in her diary, she was in the midst of an unprecedented and sustained period of challenge in ministry. After more than 3 years of political opposition  and spiritual oppression, their work had come almost to a halt. Activities in Algiers and itineration in Algeria were severely curtailed as they were dogged by the shadow of suspicion.  Even their most beloved Arab friends pulled away in fear of being identified with them.

In A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter, Rockness writes that the difficulties faced by Trotter included the investigation of English missionaries by the ruling French government and the targeting of young Algerian converts by sorcerers using poison and “black magic.” Also, a missionary family that had come to help in the ministry left after six months, unable to meet the demands of caring for their three children in Algeria.

Trotter wrote in 1897, again in her diary,

One literally could do nothing but pray at every available bit. One might take up letters or accounts that seemed as if they were a “must be”—but one had to drop them within five minutes, almost invariably, and get to prayer—hardly prayer either, but a dumb crying up to the skies of brass.

For Trotter, during difficult times, the skies could turn to brass and clouds could obscure the sun and envelop the world around her. But she had seen the “clear happy morning sky,” and she knew that a “radiant day was coming.”

“Believe in the darkness,” she learned, and passed on to us, “what you have seen in the light.”

If you’d like to know more about Lilias Trotter, you can watch the 2015 documentary Many Beautiful Things, featuring the voices of Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) and John Rhys-Davies (Lord of the Rings). It also includes insights from Miriam Huffman Rockness. The trailer is below, and the complete film is available free here.

(This post is adapted from an earlier one at ClearingCustoms.net.)

(Miriam Huffman Rockness, ed., A Blossom in the Desert: Reflections of Faith in the Art and Writings of Lilias Trotter, Discovery House, 2016; Rockness, in a comment (September 5, 2016) for “Lilias Trotter Symposium,” Lilias Trotter, August 17, 2016; Rockness, “Believe!” Lilias Trotter, July 28, 2012; Rockness, Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter, Discovery House, 2003)

[photo: “Switzerland-55,” by Strychnine, used under a Creative Commons license]

I thought I was here to meet people’s physical needs. Jesus showed me I’m here to meet spiritual needs too.

by Joseph

“What’s the point in helping people materially if there’s no change spiritually?” Our intern had been observing our work in a north Indian slum for a month or so. His question put words to something that had been bubbling in my subconscious mind for some time.

For the past few years I’ve been very busy helping my neighbours. My primary role is in literacy. My Indian colleagues and I have been able to assist several hundred children to become literate in Hindi, their mother tongue. This enables them to participate in schooling much more effectively – as they say, you need to learn to read before you can read to learn. We also started helping many people access government services – things like bank accounts, pensions, and gas connections. The government has many schemes for the poor, but those who are genuinely destitute are often unable to access their rights due to a combination of lack of knowledge, complex bureaucracy, and corruption.

Then Covid hit. Crematoriums and cemeteries were overwhelmed: the pandemic killed an estimated five million in India. Covid saw our education and development work take a back seat so we could respond to a more pressing need – food. Many of my neighbours live a hand-to-mouth existence, and the strict lockdowns meant cutting from three meals a day to two, then one, and, for some families, none. We were able to raise money from friends and colleagues in the West to distribute 30 tonnes of dry food (rice, flour, lentils, etc.) to 3,000 families during the worst of the lockdowns. It was a huge effort, but it helped many people get through.

During the last few years, we’ve seen an enormous number of people helped materially. However, our intern’s critique had some validity: we had brought much needed short-term help, but not longer-term or deeper change. I could point to hundreds of kids who had become literate and thousands who had benefited from our relief programs. But I could count on one hand the examples of significant attitudinal, social, and spiritual transformation – changes in the way people think about themselves, others, and God.

Such changes are less tangible, less controllable, less measurable. They are much harder to foster. My task-focused personality finds it easier to run a project than sit down and have a deep conversation.

Reflecting further, I realised that I’d been under a naïve impression that since ‘actions speak louder than words,’ I didn’t need to use words at all. I further realised that I had been reacting against a watered-down Christianity which ignores the hundreds of passages about God’s heart for the poor and economic justice. I think about verses like Matthew 25:40 (“Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.”) and Luke 18:22 (“Go, sell all your possessions, and give to the poor. Then come, follow me.”) and how we fail to follow them. But God loves us as wholes – body and soul, individual and community, humanity and creation. In reacting against one narrow reading of the gospels which emphasises words over deeds and spiritual over material, I was perhaps imposing my own bias.

This year, after returning from a break in Australia, my family and I started inviting close friends for conversation over a meal. I had already followed Jesus quite literally in feeding thousands (Matthew 14:13-21); now it was time to adopt Jesus’ model of dinnertime fellowship. I don’t know any tax collectors, prostitutes, or Pharisees. Instead, our evening guests are ricksha wallahs (tricycle pullers), mochis (cobblers), and widows.

Our friends love coming out for dinner and often dress up in their finest clothes. Our one-room house, which Western guests struggle to adjust to, is like a palace compared to the dingy, flimsy shacks our neighbours call home. Mum (I grew up here as a TCK and moved back after my university years) makes the dinner, cooking up treats to add to the sense of celebration. We are often astonished by the amount of food our scrawny friends put away. They have learnt since an early age to tuck in when free food is available, as lean times are likely not far away.

After dinner, I ask my parents to share a little as to why they made the decision, some 27 years ago, to leave potentially lucrative careers in Australia to live and work in a slum. They talk about a turning point: the invitation from Jesus to forsake the pursuit of wealth for the sake of something greater. Our friends often recognise this idea, having heard similar exhortations in the Quran or in the Hindu scriptures. We agree with them that every major faith has similar injunctions to serve others, though few adherents actually do it. This leads to nods of agreement.

I sometimes tell a contextualised rendition of the parable of the prodigal son. It’s a powerful story to illustrate our understanding of God not as a distant, angry ruler (a common view in Islam and Hinduism), but instead as a caring father who is very ready to receive us ‘home’ should we be willing to turn around and come to Him.

The story is even more remarkable in this honour-based culture where the younger son’s insolence to his father is a crime beyond forgiveness. I asked one twelve-year-old kid to put himself in the story and imagine what his father would do if he had wasted all that money and then came back home. Prateek replied honestly, “He’d beat me with his belt.” Prateek’s dad looked sheepish but didn’t deny that it was indeed what he would do. In this context, our heavenly Father’s forgiveness is all the more remarkable.

Talking about faith with my Muslim and Hindu friends takes me out of my comfort zone. It is easier to give bread than to talk about the Bread of Life. Sometimes, though, it’s important to use words as well as deeds, to prioritise relationships not just tasks.

It’s hard to think about how to help address people’s spiritual needs in a context of overwhelming material need. As James writes, spirituality is empty without social action: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” Yet over a meal, in the context of a lasting friendship, there is space for spiritual discussion even with those facing the direst circumstances.

I’m not expecting to ‘convert’ anyone, but I hope I’m able to show some of Jesus’ love for my neighbours just as I also experience Christ in and through them. Sitting on the floor with our friends, I feel I am living the words of Jesus: “When you host a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind; and you will be blessed.”

~~~~~~~~~~

Joseph (a pseudonym) was born and brought up in India by his Australian parents. He is part of Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor, and he lives incarnationally in an urban poor community while volunteering for a local literacy NGO. In his spare time, you’ll find him on the soccer field or engrossed in a book.