Fighting My Inner Cynic

 

We were hosting another vision trip for bright-eyed twenty-somethings, and I found myself trying desperately to stifle another eyeroll. A recent college grad was explaining his plans to move to Afghanistan and eventually completely revamp the entire education system. 

“Oh, would you try to do that before or after your closest friends are kidnapped and killed?” 

“How innovative of you! I bet none of the countries that have poured billions of dollars into the country have ever tried such a thing! It’s a good thing that you’re here and can show them how it’s done.”

These are things I was tempted to say, but by the grace of God and the knowledge that I could unleash my eyerolls later, I kept my thoughts to myself.

If you have been on the field for more than a few years, perhaps you are familiar with the cynicism that so easily creeps into the consciousness of the field worker. It’s the uneasiness we feel when new co-workers arrive, but their excitement and fervor feel more like ignorance than vibrant ambition to us.

It’s seeing new teammates talk about the great spiritual conversation they had with a friend but privately thinking that it will not ever really go any further than that. After all, you have had many similar conversations.

There’s no denying how jaded we can become after experiencing countless disappointments and atrocities. Like tire tracks on a dried-up dirt road, my mind had created expectations for disappointment, for nothing to actually turn out well, and for people I love to eventually leave the field. 

What had happened to me? I came to the field with so much excitement and hope. But the difficulties and disappointments had taken such a toll that I could not even respond with a kind word to our young friend’s enthusiasm. Granted, his ideas were lacking historical awareness, but my attitude towards any lofty plan or vision was one of sheer cynicism rather than tempered optimism. 

For most of us, our expectations have been forged by the fact that life on the field can be brutal. Endless goodbyes, evacuations, and friends who had been murdered had all taken a heavy toll on my own ability to retain any sense of optimism. While I had dealt with the trauma of the painful events, I had not acknowledged the fact that my mind had been trained to expect the absolute worst. And I wanted everyone else to expect the worst, too.

I would really love to tell you that I had some special encounter with Jesus or a few breakthrough sessions of therapy that completely turned around my critical attitude. I wish I could report that I now listen to people’s well-meaning aspirations and feel the urge to empower them rather than poke holes in their dreams. But that would not be entirely true.

Not long after feeling convicted about what a downer I had become, a friend and fellow worker came to stay with us. She also happened to be a mental health professional, and she too was feeling the cynicism sneak in when spending time with new arrivals. Together, we prayed for a renewed spirit of joy and compassion when met with the tender naiveté of our friends. 

She asked me what I was like when I first landed in Afghanistan, and I confessed that I secretly thought that I was going to be like Mother Teresa. She shared her own misguided expectations of being in perfect, harmonious friendships with all of her teammates and local friends. We both laughed until we cried as we remembered our hopes that had been blown to smithereens by the ruthless realities of life on the field. We, too, had once been the newbies with preposterous ideas. The only difference was that we did not have the audacity to actually voice them out loud upon our arrival. 

This little moment of clarity did help me to approach short-term visitors and field hopefuls with more tenderness and grace. My friend encouraged me to share my stories with them in a way that was personal rather than didactic. Our stories of heartbreak, disappointment, and times of despair are both true and relevant. 

Rather than telling someone to adjust their expectations, a story gives listeners the option of taking in new information and assimilating it into their own perspective. The difficulty, of course, is that many stories are painful to retell. It is far easier to say, “Trust me, you are about to have your heart ripped from your chest and repeatedly stomped,” than to tell the stories of friends’ tragic deaths. It is more expedient to let newly arrived ladies know that it’s only a matter of time before they are sexually assaulted on the street than to share with them personal experiences of violation. But lasting relationships and trust are not built on ease and expedience. 

When I am really honest with myself, I have to admit that I want people to believe what I say simply because I have experience they do not have. This is unreasonable, pretentious, and ultimately says a lot more about my pride than anyone’s naivete. 

Jesus could have quite easily told his listeners, “Trust me . . . I’m actually God and I know everything.” Instead, he approached the crowds and his disciples with relatable stories and agricultural metaphors. He explained hidden realities with the familiarity of the mundane. Despite his intimate knowledge of each person he encountered, he still took the time to ask questions. “Who do you say I am?” “Where is your husband?” “Where have they all gone?” “Are you going to leave, too?” The compassionate curiosity of Jesus exposes my pride and impatience. 

The freshness of new field workers also tends to highlight how much my faith has changed. Sure, my expectations have been weathered by hardship, but my belief that God is truly a salvager of the perverse, atrocious, and devastating has taken some blows. I want to believe that the wreckage I see is not the end of the story, because my hope is still in the all-powerful God who has promised to make all things new. But asking God for the improbable now requires a painfully honest examination of my heart, because the temptation is to expect disappointment rather than relinquishing the actual fear of failure and disappointment to Him. 

When new co-workers arrive with a head full of dreams and hearts full of hope, their excitement and joy have the potential to ignite new ideas, bring fresh perspective, and remind us to expect beautiful gifts from the Father. The Spirit of God has birthed dreams in their hearts and a fire in their bones, and it may look entirely different than anything I have ever imagined.

That new field worker will eventually be a seasoned one. The hardship and heartache will eventually take up residence, and they will need the refreshing and reassurance that we have also needed. 

As we welcome new arrivals, may we choose to bless their dreams and listen to their hopes with tenderness. May we hold space for them when the disappointments feel crushing, and may we find fellowship together in both joy and heartache. 

Where Are the Men?

 

“I have to go back home and work on my seminary degree.  It’s an org requirement, and it will take me too long to complete online if I stay here. But don’t worry! Once I finish, I’ll be back.” 

Jacob* was resigned to the fact that he would be leaving the field for a while to fulfill the requirements of his sending organization. While the seminary degree in and of itself was not a bad thing, it would be the impetus of his leaving the field for good.

That’s because, about a year into his program, Jacob fell in love with Kara. They shared a deep love for Christ and making him known, but Kara was not at all interested in living outside of her home country. Nevertheless, the couple went ahead with their wedding day. Five years and two kids later, Jacob and Kara are pretty well settled into life in their home country. With Jacob having no intention of going back overseas, the team he left behind now consists of two couples and five single women.**

There’s a cheeky statistic I’ve heard that says, “About two thirds of field workers are married couples. Another third are single women, and the rest are single men.” Of course, this facetious statistic would imply that there are no single men on the field. And while we know this is not correct, most of us have noticed the conspicuous imbalance of single women to single men on the field. 

While I have yet to see a study on why there is such an imbalance of singles on the field, there are some interesting observations to be made and perhaps a few questions we should be asking to get a clearer picture of the reasons and consequences of the male shortage in overseas ministry. 

 

Why Are There So Few Men?
So, why are we not seeing more single men in full-time overseas ministry? It certainly cannot be said that there is a lack of men wanting to work in full-time ministry. Men fill most paid ministry positions in local churches, but when it comes to overseas work, single men are heavily outnumbered. Here are a few observations about this phenomenon:

1. Men are compelled (and are sometimes required) to go to seminary or grad school before they begin service in overseas ministry. Sometimes, this requires several years away from the field. The extra time spent obtaining more education can be long, burdensome, and expensive. In the midst of time spent obtaining this education, these men may find themselves with mounting student debt, in love with someone who does not share their desire to live overseas, or drawn into the world of preaching to congregations in their own country. 

2. Some men who desire to minister cross-culturally don’t want to do so until they are married. However, this “wait for a mate” time often leads to involvement with other ministries or jobs that pull their attention and passion away from living overseas. Some of these men wind up marrying women who do not share their passion or desire to minister cross-culturally. These life changes often mean a complete redirection of plans and passions.  

3. When a single man expresses his desire to minister overseas to his church leadership, these overseers tend to encourage men to stick around and “learn about ministry” by interning or leading a ministry in their local church. While the heart and intention behind this is one of love and mentorship, the experience gained in a local church in the Western Hemisphere is often entirely unhelpful for a person headed to a culture that does not even have a concept of church. 

4. Churches often want men to be married before they go overseas because it’s believed that marriage will save them from sexual temptation and pornography addiction. However, the widely-held belief that marriage will be a deterrent to sexual misconduct is not only entirely inaccurate, but also keeps church leadership from addressing an actual issue that is likely already present in most men’s lives

5. When I have put this question to men who are engaged in ministry in their home countries, many have responded with a real apprehension about fundraising. They might be willing to go overseas and work a paying job, but the thought of asking churches for support feels arduous and humiliating. I am not sure how this mindset might shift between unmarried and married men, but it seems to be a common sentiment.

 

Feeling the Strain
The imbalance of men and women serving cross-culturally has very real consequences. We don’t just stand idly by and make observations because it makes us feel smart or important. The imbalance takes a heavy toll, and many field workers are feeling the strain.

My team in particular lives in a place with a disproportionately large population of male migrant laborers. Our team is and has always been mostly female. While there will always be work for the women to do, there is a much smaller workforce to focus time and attention on a population with whom we, as women, cannot interact: men. We live in a conservative country with strong cultural taboos about mixed company, so there is rarely a situation where women speaking to these men is appropriate. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:32-34 that “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs— how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world— how he can please his wife— his interests are divided.” To put it plainly: We need a more diverse workforce because the harvest field itself is diverse. 

In addition, many ministry teams work in cultures that have oppressive and cruel attitudes toward women. Living in patriarchal societies takes a heavy toll on women. There are spaces where women are simply unwelcome, and there are areas where women know they will be ogled or sexually assaulted. However, these locations may be the only places to, say, get a car repaired or buy a ceiling fan. Within the community of Christ-followers on the field, we depend on each other for help with tasks we would ordinarily be entirely capable of doing on our own. 

Then there are the cultures that simply expect single adult men to misbehave. The expectation is that young men will stay out all night, philander, and live as wildly as possible until they tie the knot. Who will show them another way?  Where are the single men who can live a life of sacrifice, love, and purity among them? We need representation of the body of Christ in all of its diverse beauty, and that includes the unique struggles and freedoms that are inherently a part of a bachelor’s life. Jesus himself lived his life unmarried and devoted to the work of his Father. Ministry as a single man is the first example the church was given, so why would we believe that this status is less than ideal? 

 

How Can Churches Help?
Of course, the questions and observations merit answers. While I do not believe that there is anything simple about the dilemma we face, there are some ways the church can help more single men get to the field:

1. Stop expecting men to get married before they live cross-culturally. Have the difficult conversations and counseling sessions to deal with porn addiction, lust, and objectification. Do not fall for the lie that having a wife will be the fix-all for potential sexual misconduct.

2. If single men express a desire to be married before they move overseas, ask them why they feel that way. We must be willing to ask where this desire is coming from, and to explore their reasons why ministry overseas requires them to be married but ministry at “home” does not. It also bears mentioning that the pool of single women on the mission field is deep and wide. Men who want to get married may actually have a lot more opportunity to find a spouse who shares their vision once they get to the field!

3. Rather than creating years-long responsibilities as a prerequisite for life on the field, set goals and reasonable expectations for men’s personal and theological development. Like anyone headed into overseas ministry, single men need people to walk alongside them to grow in maturity and in gaining an understanding of cross-cultural ministry. But we have to be willing to allow life on the field itself be an instructor. I once heard Vinay Samuel say, “Theology should be written on the mission field.” Indeed, life and ministry on the field will likely be a far better teacher on theology, scriptural interpretation, and strategy than any seminary class.  

As churches, we should be questioning why such an enormous imbalance exists both within domestic ministry, where men hold most full-time ministry positions, and within cross-cultural ministry, where women hold most full-time ministry positions. Granted, the gender disparity is far greater domestically than it is overseas. But, with such an abundance of women in full-time cross-cultural ministry, and so precious few of them in full-time local church ministry, we have to ask: Are women just picking up the ministry positions that men don’t really want? Women have a long history of heeding the call of Christ to make him known near and far, and there have been relatively few barriers to keep them from overseas work. However, if women wish to fill ministry positions within their home countries, the opportunities tend to be limited, unpaid, or for men only.

While I’m not wanting to get into the weeds on gender roles within ministry here, I do believe that we must take a hard look at how ethnocentric our attitudes have become when it comes to women ministering domestically versus overseas. For example, the ESV Bible was translated and overseen by an exclusively male team of 95 scholars and translators. Apparently, women were not invited, so this was not a simple oversight. However, when it comes to women leading bible translation projects in languages other than English or outside the Western Hemisphere, there is scarcely a voice of dissent.  

These are issues of importance not because sexism in church is a hot button issue. They are important because Jesus said that the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. In fulfilling the command of Christ to make disciples of all ethnicities, the workforce must be as multifaceted and diverse as the world itself is. The goal is not just to have a balanced ministry team, but to give the world — women, children, men, marrieds, singles, widows, minorities, rich, poor, and so on — a chance to hear that Jesus loves them from someone who can effectively live and communicate that truth to them. 

 

*Name changed 

**This story is not taken from one individual per se. It is a combination of many such stories that I have seen and heard from multiple cross-cultural workers. 

When Culture Shock Makes You Cuss

It was summer 2008, and I was the only female in my language class. It was my turn to say a simple past-tense sentence, and I had once again managed to maintain my streak of zero percent accuracy. I was on my sixth try that day, and I was failing on all fronts. But that sixth sentence was the last straw, as they say. I abruptly stood up and announced, “I’m going to the bathroom, and I’m going be there for a while.” 

In a country where nearly everyone had giardia or some other parasite prowling around in their stomachs, my classmates understood my announcement to mean that I needed the toilet in a prolonged and urgent fashion. On that particular day, however, my gut was fine. I marched myself to the upstairs bathroom and locked the door. With my face to the window, I let the sobs come rolling out. I cried for a solid twenty minutes. 

“Why am I such a miserable failure at this?” I asked out loud. “Why can’t I just speak correctly and show my teacher that I’m not a dummy?” 

After a serious ugly cry, I exited the bathroom and sat back down in my classroom. The cry had actually helped a little, but I decided not to let any of my classmates know that I had gone to the bathroom to unleash my tears rather than my gastrointestinal distress. 

When we changed fields and moved to the Middle East, I figured I was long past the days of culture shock. “After all,” I reasoned, “this is where I used to come for vacations!” 

On one particularly hot day, I was collecting my daughter and some neighbor kids from school. In classic Middle Eastern fashion, the school traffic was insane, and tempers were running high. The kids were piling into my SUV, and I was about to put our stroller in the trunk. I eyed the passageway between my car and the one parked next to me, trying to calculate if my stroller would fit between my perfectly parked car and the minivan parked by some idiot next to mine.  “Doable,” I thought. 

It was not. 

Two steps forward, and my stroller was firmly lodged between the two cars. It was hot, I was sweaty, and car horns were being honked at deafening volumes. I shook the stroller, then tried to pull it backward to dislodge it, but to no avail. 

The word that came flying out of my mouth at that point cannot be repeated here. Suffice it to say, it was a combination of four letters that would merit censorship on network television. 

Suddenly, the darkly tinted window of the obscenely parked minivan buzzed downward. I had failed to notice anyone sitting inside that van during my expletive-laden outburst. The open window revealed a face that I instantly recognized from church.

“Need help?” he cheerfully asked.

“Oh, no thanks! I’m fine!” I lied.

“Maybe try to fold it up,” he suggested. I did not respond, but I did heed his advice and collapsed the stroller there between our two cars.  Mercifully, it worked, and I was quickly able to pack the enormous stroller into my trunk. 

It was not just the awkwardly stuck stroller, or the heat, or the car horns. It was all of it plus many other small grievances. Traffic, miscommunication, language barriers, and simply not being known were all other factors in my mini-meltdown. I chalked it up to being a crappy mother and feeling overwhelmed. What I could not wrap my head around at that moment was that all of the anger and frustration I felt was actually culture shock.

In our circles we talk a lot about culture shock prior to moving overseas, but it seems we undersell just how pervasive and long-lasting it can be. Without a name for what we are feeling, we can sometimes mislabel ourselves or become so self-critical that we begin believing that we just were not cut out for this life after all. 

Culture shock can take on many forms, but it is rarely one singular event that causes the dam to break. Usually, there are many struggles or tension points that, on their own, feel inconsequential. But after enough of those stressors have compounded, it may only take something as tame as an ill-timed language mishap to bring calamity. 

Culture shock can take the form of feeling overwhelmed by your incompetence, or even by the feeling that you are the only one who actually is competent. 

It can be the deep longing for rhythms and seasons that once sustained you. A longing that may sting even more with the realization that finding new ways to sustain yourself will involve trial, error, and awkwardness.  

Culture shock can take the form of feeling unknown and unseen, with no immediate avenue towards a relationship where you might finally be known and seen. 

Wherever the culture shock train may be taking you, it’s vital to ask how you got there. Get curious and ask yourself the hard questions.

What makes your current feelings so heavy or debilitating? 

Why are you are feeling the way you are, and what you were feeling before you got to this place? 

Were there other things that had you unsettled? When and where did they happen? 

How did the events prime you for feeling even worse when the next disappointment came?

If you have a story that might help someone in the thick of their own culture shock, we would love to read it in the comments.

Was Afghanistan Worth It?

 

In the frigid winter of 2008, my husband and I touched down in snow-covered Kabul, Afghanistan. We didn’t know exactly what to expect in our first year of life on the field, but we knew that it was where God had asked us to go. Young, eager, and probably quite naïve, we and many other Christians went to Afghanistan with our wills written and signed. For some of our dear friends, their time in Afghanistan ended in their untimely deaths.

As we grieved the loss of both Afghan and foreign believers, many of us did not realize that Afghanistan would become our new family, the siblings who would grieve with us when heavy losses hit close to home. We did not realize that Jesus would show up in the form of Afghans comforting us in our loss and grief with their own understanding of the same searing trauma. And perhaps none of us realized that, from the day we first stepped foot in the Kabul airport, Afghanistan would forever be a home to us, a place that would prove to be a far better teacher of the lessons of Jesus’ sacrificial love than any seminary or Sunday school class could ever be. 

Afghanistan was our home for nearly seven years. Our two children began their lives among Afghans who trained them in the art of generous gift-giving. But in 2014 as the country grew increasingly unstable and our oldest approached school-age, we knew the time had come to say goodbye. Leaving the rugged beauty that is Afghanistan was perhaps the most difficult parting we have ever experienced. Afghanistan was rarely in the news those days. But today, bloody images, heart-wrenching reports of abuse, and Afghans’ desperate attempts to flee their country are in the headlines almost daily. News and heartbreak have caused people around the world to ask the question: “Was all of this mess worth it?” Our friends and family have been asking this question as they consider the many soldiers who died or sustained life-altering injuries in Afghanistan. 

Like all things, the answer is nuanced. But Christians should be willing to consider more than just the governmental expense and military loss of life. Prior to the Taliban’s fall in 2001, there were several Christian organizations working in Afghanistan to care for the poor and needy. God’s people had been working in the harsh land of Afghanistan for many decades prior to military intervention. Organizations like IAM, SERVE, and Shelter Now International had been bringing hope and help within the borders of Afghanistan and also to her refugees in Pakistan. They served Afghans with health programs and educational projects. They dug wells, set up hospitals, educated children, and helped rebuild a country ravaged by decades of war. They worked under Taliban rule and sought their permission to implement aid projects.

These Christian men and women came from all over the globe to learn a new language, culture, and way of life very different from the ones they had left behind in their home countries. They came armed only with sincere faith in the God who called them and with the hope that their lives and work would bring some sliver of light to a troubled land. Before the eyes of the world were on Afghanistan, God was at work. And when the country fades from headlines and the world moves on, our Father will continue in the work He started there.   

When the Taliban fell and foreign forces invaded Afghanistan, it brought a new sense of stability to the country. Very quickly, women were given new freedoms and children gained educational opportunities that had not been available during the Taliban regime. International aid started pouring in, and with it came a new wave of Christian workers who would implement new projects and programs and help to start businesses. It was not only Christians, of course. Professionals from many backgrounds, countries, and walks of life came flooding into Afghanistan; some because it paid well, others because they felt compelled to do something to help this struggling country. 

As Christians, we must not fail to miss that the past twenty years of relative stability allowed for a massive number of Afghans to encounter Jesus for the very first time. This happened because of Bible translation projects, media production and broadcasting, and the simple fact that Christians were present and able to communicate the gospel in the heart language of Afghans. This is not to say that stability is a necessary precursor to making Christ known (history proves the opposite is true), but the amount of media coverage Afghanistan received during the past two decades placed it on the world’s collective conscience and in the hearts of Christians around the globe. It’s hard to know just how many Afghans are following Jesus today, but Afghanistan’s long-persecuted Hazara minority has reportedly been the most responsive to the gospel.[1]

While the church is right to grieve the many losses of foreign soldiers in Afghanistan, we must also lament the fact that so many innocent Afghan lives were lost as well. Men, women, and children were slain for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were simply people on their way to a wedding or at home sleeping in their beds.[2]  This loss of life should grieve us just as much.

Perhaps what the church in the west has failed to recognize is how much there is to learn from Afghanistan.Afghan Christians who remain in their country are now living out true humility, sacrifice, and obedience. They are enduring daily harassment, threats, and persecution from the Taliban. Many young Christians depended on the guidance of older believers, but the older believers had to flee the country. These young Christians are weak by the world’s standards, but they are growing strong because of their complete dependence on the help and sustenance that comes from Spirit of the Living God. While we Christians in the west are prone to following the strongest and trendiest in our orbit, Afghan believers are displaying the power of God in their fledgling faith as they follow Jesus with joy, boldness, and trembling hands. 

A military invasion that led to senseless carnage and corruption also gave way to more opportunities and human rights than Afghanistan has seen in my lifetime. The presence of both foreign interference and foreign aid paved the way for thousands of Afghans to meet Christ-followers and to hear the truth about Jesus. Could this have happened without military intervention? Of course. Our God is not confined by the will of the rulers and authorities of the kingdoms of this earth. But we cannot deny that God builds his kingdom in ways that confound us. He can use any circumstance for his glory. The eye of the Father has never looked away from Afghanistan, and I believe that one day the world will marvel at the vibrant church that takes root and thrives in a place that was long notorious for its bloodshed and violence. Perhaps on that day, we will dance around the throne of God and know without a doubt that our God and His kingdom are indeed worth it. 

[1] https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2021/august/afghanistan-christians-taliban-sat-7-farsi-dari.html

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-17334643