I sat on the floor, weeping.
I was two whole days into living abroad, and I was already losing it.
Those tears portended more, and in our first year overseas, the thing that knocked me down the most, the thing that discouraged and distracted and depressed me the most, was the sense that I was failing at fatherhood.
I loved being a dad. It was a very core part of my identity, and something I really cherished. Moving to Cambodia, I had expected cross-cultural stress. I had expected transition tension and unmet expectations. I had even expected conflict with other missionaries and nationals. But I never thought I’d feel like my identity as a father was being shredded up and burned in the furnace of a cross-cultural move. That was a surprise.
Have you ever felt that? Like living abroad was changing your parenting in a not-so-positive way?
We moved overseas when our boys were six and seven and our girls were one and three.
I suppose my fathering style could have been characterized as, um, B I G. I loved playing with our kids in wide open spaces, throwing things, kicking things, climbing things. We played loud and we took up a lot of space, and that’s how we liked it.
And then we moved to a concrete box with bars on the windows in an urban capital of a developing country. No grass. No yard. No large spaces.
For me, the shift from wide open spaces to urban jungle was rough. I had to adjust, but first I got depressed. Often, it’d happen on a Saturday; I’d wake up just wanting to go outside and throw a football with my kids.
And with the clarity of thought that overwhelms at times like this, I felt like I had moved from a garden to a prison. A prison that was 95 degrees and thick with humidity!
I had traded acres of green for walls of grey. En Gedi for Sheol.
I watched my kids hang from metal bars on windows when they used to hang from giant limbs on oaks. They were happy, but I was dying.
I missed being able to step outside and kick a soccer ball. I missed our fire pit on cold autumn nights. I missed our porch swing. I missed our yard. I missed the way I used to father.
But thank God the story doesn’t end there, with a depressed dad missing what once was. No, the story definitely doesn’t end there…
Slowly, I began to realize a few things. First, I still needed to play with my kids, and second, I could still play with my kids. That sounds silly, I know, but in the haze of transition, this realization wasn’t a given.
I knew things had changed; I knew I had lost some stuff. I needed to grieve that loss well and figure out how to adjust and bend and change too. Basically, what I needed was some creativity, a little bit-o-crazy, and the willingness to spend cash.
And so it began.
I penciled in a “man trip” to a national park an hour outside of the city. I took the boys and we hiked and wrestled and joked and ate junk food. It was glorious.
I was invited to speak in Beijing. The boys tagged along (thanks in part to the honorarium), and we walked Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall. We ate at McDonald’s. A lot. The younger one navigated the subway system, and “a clear day” took on a whole new meaning.
I took the girls on a staycation. We got a hotel outside of town, stayed up late, and swam a lot. Of course, we also ate junk food. (Don’t tell mom.)
We started Nerf wars, using multiple levels of our row house, with intense battles taking place over the “eagle’s nest” position on the top floor. Best vantage point and all.
I bought a ping-pong table and crammed it in a corner. One side has two feet of clearance, so we use the walls and ceilings as extensions of the table. That table provides lots of “play time” that my kids enjoy and I need. Does that sound weird? It’s true. I need to play with my kids.
Rainy season hit our town, flooding the streets up to our knees. I yelled at the kids to get on the moto and we plowed through the water, making a giant wake with our urban jet ski. Neighbors laughed at the crazy white guy with three little kids screeching with delight in monsoon rains. In America, we’d find a snow-filled parking lot and drift in our van. Here, we find a flooded street and pretend we’re on a lake! Same Same (but different).
We play “air hockey” on the tile floors, using wooden blocks as pucks and plastic cups as the hand-held hitter things. We use Lego men to play table football. We put a badminton set on the flat roof, supposing that a birdie falling from forty feet would do less damage than a volleyball.
We rent a soccer field for $7/hour to throw a Frisbee or a football. I don’t feel guilty spending the money. In America, we didn’t have to rent the park.
We go “cliff jumping” at the Olympic Stadium pool. My six-year-old actually chipped her tooth jumping from the five meter platform. I was so proud of her. (Don’t tell grandma.)
My youngest daughter loves motorcycles. She wraps her little five-year-old fingers around the handlebar and yells “Faster, Papa! Faster!”
We have disco lights in the bathroom. Long story.
So, here’s what helped me through this particular parenting crisis. Maybe these will help you too.
1. Be Creative. Early on in transition, creativity is very hard to come by. You’re exhausted and on the edge already. So ask around. Ask other parents, “What do you do for family time here? Where?” Just remember, what works for one family might not work for your family. That’s OK. Find the things that work for your family, and then do those things. Boldly.
2. Be Crazy. The Cambodians think we’re crazy, and maybe they’re right. Maybe I am crazy, but I’m also not depressed. Are you willing to look a bit weird? (Wait, you’re a missionary, what am I saying?!) But seriously, are you? Your survival might depend on it.
3. Spend Cash. If you need to spend some money to share a fun experience with your family, spend it. And don’t feel guilty about it. Now, if you feel like God doesn’t want you to spend it, then don’t. But if you’re afraid of spending money because of what your donors might think, that’s a pretty good reason to go ahead and spend it. Don’t let your kids grow up thinking that the most important question when discussing a family activity is, “What will our supporters think?” That question has killed many missionaries, and their children.
My kids still make fun of me for crying in those early days. Thing is, I don’t think they realize I was crying for them; I thought I had lost them. I thought I had lost me. One day they’ll know.
One day they’ll grow up and read this, and when they do, I hope they know how very much I loved being their dad.
In Asia, and
Anywhere else in
This whole wide world.
Resources for Parenting Abroad
Have you ever felt this? Like living abroad was changing your parenting in a not-so-positive way?
How did you deal with it? How are you dealing with it?
What would you add to the “Practically Speaking” section? It doesn’t have to start with a C (but extra points if it does).
Newsletters. Prayer updates. Itinerations. Reports. Furloughs. Presentations.
Are you stressed out yet?
For most of us, living and serving abroad means communicating back to senders. A lot. But this isn’t what we went to school for, and besides that, communicating in person or in print is scary. It’s exposing. It’s like learning a new culture and language; sometimes when we mess up it’s funny, sometimes not so much.
We’re all too familiar with the dangers:
Communicate too much and we’ll annoy people or people will say we’re not protecting the privacy of the nationals.
Don’t communicate enough and we’ll get dropped; people or churches will stop supporting us, because “out of sight, out of mind.”
Talk about the right stuff in the right way. One missionary recently told me that you have to appear miserable enough that people will still support you while not appearing so miserable they want you to come home.
To be sure, communicating with senders (via newsletter or a live missions report) is a unique form of communication, blending a bit of travelogue with a side of sales pitch, and then adding a large spoonful of sermon. It’s like a Christmas Letter got married to a Church Bulletin and had an Amway.
Extreme Sports, Convents, and Space Missions
As crazy as it seems, some people actually love talking. We call these people 13-year-old girls. I’m just kidding. Yikes. Anyways, for some of you, communication is like an extreme sport, full of excitement and danger and the very real risk of serious bodily harm. And you think it’s fun.
For others, communicating (in print or person) makes you feel like you’re wearing the appropriate attire for a European beach when you’d much rather be wearing the appropriate attire for a convent. Communicating, for you, seems dangerous, and dangerous, for you, is never fun.
Writing or speaking can feel like launching a space probe into the cosmos hoping it just might land on a tiny comet and provide even a smidgen of feedback. And when you get one positive e-mail or comment back, you’re all like, “Whooohooo! Mission Accomplished!”
So, You Want People to Care? Try This…
Speak from the heart.
Or be funny.
But never neither.
That’s it. Communicate like this, and you’ll change the world. Or at least your newsletter.
Why This Matters – The Bride of Christ
It’s our great privilege to speak back into the lives of those who send us. They sacrifice too, and not just money: many of our senders have given up relationships and friendships, children and grandchildren. Simply put, they are worth our time.
Additionally, communicating from the field is an amazing opportunity to minister to the Bride of Christ. We can help them see God’s passion for His glory as the Kingdom spreads globally. We can enlarge their vision of God and His mission, reminding them that national politics is a small bit of what’s going on in the world. We can remind them that the Church is alive and well and the Spirit of God is moving in the hearts of people. Of course, none of that happens if we’re snooty.
Even a church missions presentation can be ministry, if done with care and thought. A report could be part of what Walter Brueggemann calls “prophetic imagination,” helping folks see an alternative reality, where the Kingdom is advancing and there’s more to life than the daily grind.
Please be careful not to love the Church only where you serve. Love the Church where you came from too. She is no less Christ’s Bride.
Why This Matters – They’re Volunteers
The folks reading your newsletters or listening to your missions talks are volunteers; they don’t have to pay attention to you or your words. They have chosen to listen to you (except maybe the 6-year-old boy in the third row who’s been threatened with “No McDonald’s” unless he sits still and pays attention).
They are giving you one of the greatest gifts ever: time. Value their gift, and give something back. Make them glad they came. Be wise and “make learning a joy.” (Proverbs 15:2)
Remember, you’re speaking to volunteers. They don’t have to pay attention to you, but if you speak from your heart or you’re funny or both, they will.
It’s Not Just Data – Speak from the Heart
Very few people get excited about data. We’re all tired of data. So, stand in front of a church and give them facts and percentages, sure, for maybe five seconds. And then give them your heart. They can get facts from Google, but they can only get your heart if you give it to them.
Want an easy way to do this? Tell them the Why and the Who, not just the What and the Where. People will care a whole lot more about what you’re doing when they see the heart behind it. Show them that heart.
Why are you going?
Why do you live there?
Why are you doing what you’re doing?
Who’s behind the newsletter?
Who’s the project for?
Who is God transforming?
What are your newsletters and presentations full of? Are they full of What you’re doing and Where you’re doing it? That stuff’s important, but it’s pretty sterile. If the majority of your communication is full of details and factoids, please stop. You’re boring people, and missions should be anything but boring.
Take a step back and ask yourself how to incorporate more of the Why and the Who. Put some heart in it.
You’re talking about people, right? So don’t reduce them to a stat or a large group photo of 50 people no one in your audience knows. There’s enough dehumanizing going on in the world already. Go ahead, show the group photo, but then tell a story about one person in the group who was impacted.
Why did Cecil the lion get so much attention? It’s because he wasn’t just a stat — another lion poached. He had a name and a family. He had a story. If we can give a lion in Africa a name and a story, can’t we do the same for people? God does.
So speak from the heart. About people, not tasks. About hearts, not projects.
Ask for God’s help. Ask Him to help you see people as He sees them, because once you connect with the heart of God on the matter, it’s all over. You’ll never be the same, and neither will your audience.
How to Be Funny
Sometimes, our theology erases our joy. Does yours? I realize that humor and joy are not synonyms, but really, do we actually believe the folks who look completely miserable while they grunt through gritted teeth, “I know I’m not happy, but at least I have the joy of the Lord”? Is there a laughter and peace that comes from God that is actually – really and truly – fun? We take ourselves way too seriously.
God is still in control.
God is still good.
So when was the last time you laughed? Like, really belly laughed?
It’s just that people are really funny creatures.
We should pray more for the joy of the Lord in our teams and churches and families. There is a time to mourn, for sure, but there is also a time to laugh and dance. Make sure you stay balanced. And remember, there’s nothing holier about sadness, just like there’s nothing juvenile or immature or sinful about enjoying life so much that you LOL.
Remember, Jesus got in trouble for having too much fun. Be like Him.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you want to be funny in your communications, learn to laugh, and laugh long and laugh hard. Wrap up your kids in tickle fights and joke about the crazy stuff. Look at other drivers on the road and make up stories about their lives; create a running commentary. Practice various accents. In our family, one person’s good at Russian, two are great at British, another imitates Jim Carrey’s Grinch scarily well, and the last one’s four.
But please, if you don’t think you’re funny, don’t worry. This is not supposed to make you even sadder and even more not funny. If funny’s not your thing, it’s not the end of the world, just make sure you communicate from your heart. No humor required.
Speak from the heart.
Or be funny.
But never neither.
Try it out. See if it changes anything.
And then add me to your newsletter list.
“Staying alive is not about how fast or how slow you go; it’s about how much margin you have.”
That’s what a friend of mine here in Cambodia says when asked about how to not die while riding motorcycles in our little corner of Asia. And since he’s been riding and racing motorcycles since before I was born, I listen.
Going slow with no margin can be more dangerous than going fast with tons of margin. It’s true with motorcycles and it’s true with missions.
Your speed is not necessarily what determines your safety; your margin does. Margin takes into account all sorts of variables: How far can you see? How much space is between you and the next vehicle (or cow)? What are the road conditions? Is this even a road? How likely is it that the large pig strapped to the back of that bus in front of you will stay strapped to the back of that bus in front of you?
Margin & Missionaries
Some of us overseas folk like to move quickly, flying through life and ministry at the speed of FAST. Others prefer to plod, smelling the frangipani and lingering long.
And it’s easy to judge.
The plodders judge the quicksters; “Oh, they’re definitely going to crash. They need to slow down or they’re going to burn out.” And maybe that’s true. But maybe they’ve built in Rest and Sabbath and Margin and maybe they’ll be just fine.
The quickies judge the plodders; “Good grief! They don’t do anything! When are they going to actually get off their bahookies and get to work?!” And maybe that’s true. Maybe they are lazy. Or, maybe they’ve built in Rest and Sabbath and Margin and maybe they’ll still be around decades after the FAST people fizzle out.
I’ve often thought the plodders were inherently healthier, but I realize now that if they lack margin, their speed is irrelevant and their risk of crashing (burning out) remains high. Remember, it’s not about speed as much as it’s about margin.
So, whether your preferred speed is Warp or Waddle, we need to talk about margin. How much do you have?
How much relational margin?
Margin is wasted space that we desperately need. It’s space that’s not accounted for and produces no obvious, easily quantifiable profit. However, margin is extremely important, creating a zone of safety, giving you time and space and emotional capital to react safely when something unexpected (on the road or in ministry) happens.
Often, we make margin a liability: “You’re not busy?! What in the world are you doing?! Think of all the needs!” I used to believe this was primarily an issue for those of us from the West; however, I’m realizing that this is very much an issue for many of our brothers and sisters from the East too. The truth is, we all need to devote some serious attention to how we deal with margin, because the costs of living margin-less are extremely high.
Airlines and the Bourgeois
Many of us absolutely hate the idea of waste. In fact, the title of this article might have been an extreme turn-off for you. I’m sorry about that. I feel ya, really. Here me out just a little bit longer, because with our strong aversion to wasted space, I believe we’re kind of like airlines.
Airlines can’t stand wasted space, and we all know what that feels like. Remember the last time you crossed an ocean in sardine class? It’s like living without margin: you can do it for a bit, but after a while, things start to hurt that aren’t supposed to hurt, and your mind begins to drift to thoughts of revolution and a bourgeois uprising against the folks sprawled out behind the curtain.
Margin, like leg room, seems unnecessary at first; but then you live without it for a while, things stiffen up, and you realize just how necessary that wasted space really is.
Wasting Trees and Asphalt
Do you have any idea how much paper we waste with margins? Neither do I, but I think it’s a lot. Think of all the trees we could save if our magazines and books and newsletters were printed from the very top of the page to the very bottom and the words bled out onto the edges.
People might lose their minds, but hey, at least we wouldn’t be wasting space!
Even my Kindle has a margin. Why is that? Would you read a book or a website that had words all the way to the edges of the screen? Probably not. You’d probably have some sort of visceral turn-that-thing-off reaction. I know I would. Would you live a life all the way to the edges, without margin? Many try.
In the United States, the average interstate highway has 14ft (4.3m) of wasted pavement. You can’t drive on the shoulder. It’s just there, wasting space and asphalt. It’s road margin.
US interstates have enough wasted space to pave a road 14ft wide around the entire planet. Twice. That’s a lot of wasted pavement.
Many of us live in countries where the main roads aren’t even 14ft wide! So why do they do that? Why do they waste so much money on so much asphalt that’s not even part of the road? To save lives, I guess. Because road margin is a great idea.
Why We Need Wasted Space
I need wasted space. My family needs wasted space. My relationship with God needs wasted space. And I need to realize that, in reality, some of the best moments of my life happen in the wasted spaces.
The stuff I remember on my deathbed will probably be the stuff that happened in the margins: The dance I shared with my little girls in a hillside bungalow while the ocean extinguished the sun. The man-talk with my brother about deep stuff that happened in a tree house in a field, doing “nothing.” The unrushed joy of losing a game of Stratego to a small child. Sipping coffee with my soul-mate, pretending to be tourists in our own town, listening to each other’s hearts.
The moment shared with God, unhurried, among trees and grass and falling water. The silent listening.
The moment of sitting still, letting one Word or phrase from Him sink deep, and heal. And comfort. For me, those moments are Life, and they almost always happen in the margin.
When Margin Isn’t
Now, if you’re straight up lazy, this post is not for you. Don’t use this as an excuse to continue being lazy. A blank page doesn’t have a margin; it’s just a blank page.
Margin indicates activity, not the absence of it. And it’s not called rest if it’s all you do.The dowager countess, Lady Grantham, perfectly illustrates this with her pointed question:
Sabbath only occurs after work. Sabbath is God’s margin. It’s God’s wasted space, if you will, that of course isn’t wasteful at all. It’s restorative. And protective. Are you keeping Sabbath? Why not?
The Great Destroyer of Margin
What destroys your margin?
Distractions, that crowd out the voice of Jesus?
Smartphones, with all the apps you never knew you needed to stay tethered to the world you never knew existed?
News, that’ll keep you discouraged or angry or depressed every hour of the 24 hour news cycle?
Blogs, with never-ending comparisons and measurements and opinions?
Personal insecurity that won’t allow you to rest, for fear that you won’t accomplish something, and you not accomplishing something will cause others to judge you, and others judging you will actually make you less valuable? Or more vulnerable?
Take note of the destroyers.
For a season, I deleted the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone. It was a great decision that allowed me to reset and rediscover some margin that I had pretty much lost.
What could you do today to reclaim some margin?
Rein in Netflix?
Learn to say “No.”
Banish the TV or internet from the bedroom?
See a counselor?
Margin is the wasted space we desperately need. So, spend some time in the margins.
Waste time with your friends, your spouse, your kids.
Waste time with your God, just being with Him.
No agenda. No checkbox.
Just love and relationship and coffee.
If you have a strong reaction to the idea of “wasting time,” ask yourself “Why?”
Remember, being busy all the time could be avoidance. Avoiding Sabbath could be idolatry.
Close the computer, delete the apps.
Dance with your daughter and remember:
Life is a breath,
Breathe deep and slow, and
Savor the moments in the margins.
The glorious unpressured time of not-work.
Remember, Jesus slept.
God remains on His throne, after all.
He was capable before you showed up, and
He’ll remain imminently capable after you’re gone.
So work hard and rest well.
And remember, wasting time just might be the most productive thing you ever do.
Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, by Dr. Richard Swenson
I feel worthless.
The feeling rises and crests like an impending wave barreling towards the surface of my heart. And with each wave of worthlessness comes an intense weariness of soul, a near drowning.
The breakers seem to rise from nowhere. I can’t predict them, and that makes me mad. They’re not tied to whether my work or ministry is going well or faltering. They don’t seem to be related to whether or not folks approve of (or agree with) me. They just come. And break.
I wonder if I’m alone. Am I?
I don’t know enough of this language.
I’ll never know enough of this language.
I don’t know what I’m doing.
I have fewer skills than I thought I had.
I have fewer skills than they think I have.
I wonder when they’ll find out.
I haven’t accomplished what I came here to do.
I’ll never accomplish what I came here to do.
What did I come here to do?
This country doesn’t need me.
There are a lot of workers here already.
What can I do?
My passport country doesn’t need me.
There are a lot of workers there already.
I have nothing to offer.
I am worthless.
And the waves of worthlessness crash. And then I crash.
Do you know the feeling? I wonder how many of us know the feeling. I wonder how many of us have drowned in this feeling.
So now, I want to speak to the drowning ones, those gulping for air under the waves. To you, and to myself, I say “Remember your God who descends.”
“I love the Lord because He hears my voice and my prayer for mercy.
Because He bends down to listen, I will pray as long as I have breath.”
Allow these truths to wash over your soul:
God not only hears your prayer, He hears your voice. He hears you, not just some list of words strung together in the form of adoration or petition or whatever. He is near enough to hear your voice, and loving enough to care.
He descends. He bends down to listen, to hear you. He’s not a distant, aloof dad who requires his children to “speak up and for goodness sake enunciate.” He bends down to love you. This is your God.
He is not a God hidden away in a Holy Place, high on a hill. He is not sulking behind a giant curtain in a Temple, coldly demanding allegiance “or else.” He is a God who takes that Temple curtain, that holiness, and wraps it around His own flesh and blood and bones and joins you. And wonder of wonders, He wraps you up in His holiness, covering your worthlessness, calling you worthy.
Worthy of His affection.
Worthy of His love.
Even worthy of His dance.
So if you find yourself drowning in worthlessness, remember. Remember the King who descends. Remember the Father who sings. Remember that He loved you before you even accomplished breathing.
So let go my soul and trust in Him
The waves and wind still know His name
It is well with my soul.
More thoughts from the dark:
Demon & Divine
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
I believe the enemy is real. I believe he still seeks to kill and destroy. He still deceives. He still lies. He still wars against the King.
I also believe we blame him for way too much.
We talk about how we’re “under attack” or how our ministry team is receiving a whole lot of “opposition.” And sometimes, we really believe there’s spiritual warfare going on, but often those words and phrases are simply code for “my life’s falling apart right now and I need help” or “our team members are all really angry with each other.” It’s easier to say “we’re under attack” than it is to say “we’re really drowning.”
A conversation on Facebook illustrates the problem. After a missionary described a bunch of really hard stuff that was happening in their life and ministry, a friend left the following comment: “That kind of opposition makes me think that you’re doing something powerful.”
Do we really believe that? Play that logic out a bit: “Oh, bad things are happening to you, you must be doing something right.” Or reverse it, “Oh, things are going well for you, you must be doing something wrong.” That’s crazy talk, really, but we do it all the time.
Do we really believe that the only reason difficult stuff happens to Christians is because we’re doing something right and the hounds of hell are now opposing us? It’s possible, of course, but we make the assumption automatically and apply it liberally. Is it possible that Satan and his demons are wreaking havoc on a specific missionary or ministry? Absolutely. But just because it’s a possibility doesn’t mean it’s the only possibility.
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing,
Were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth, his name, from age to age the same,
And he must win the battle.
This is not an exhaustive treatise on spiritual warfare in missions. I’m not trying to outline how demons work in unreached areas, or in an animist who’s invited spirits to manifest through him. I am trying to talk about how we talk about spiritual warfare in our families, in our ministries. I’m not so sure it’s healthy.
Defaulting to “demon” has some Biblical precedent: unfortunately, it’s the Pharisees, a group we typically avoid emulating. Remember, they cried “Demon!” and it was actually Jesus. Ooops.
David didn’t blame the demonic for his troubles; he blamed God (and his own sins), “Your arrows have struck deep, and your blows are crushing me. Because of your anger, my whole body is sick; my health is broken because of my sins.” Psalm 38:2-3
Job might have been justified in crying “Demon!” when his world came crashing down, but he didn’t. He easily could have said, “The Devil’s out to get me because I’m a good guy doing good things!” But he didn’t. He went the other direction, blaming God for taking everything away from him. (And God didn’t really deny it, although he certainly added a few theological clarifications to Job’s understanding.)
Jesus himself could have cried “Demon!” in the Garden, but he didn’t. He cried Father.
Again, I’m not saying we can’t call out and identify enemy activity; I’m just saying that we should be aware that there may be other actors, other parameters. Blaming the devil shouldn’t be our default.
Why We Need To Stop Crying “Demon!”
1) It’s not Biblical. It could be spiritual warfare. It could be demonic. But often, we don’t really know for sure. We need to remember that what we call “oppression” or “spiritual warfare” might just be the result of foolish choices. It could be the result of disobedience or God’s discipline. It could be providential protection. Often, we just don’t know. Better to cautiously say what it is that we don’t know than to boldly say what we think we know but don’t.
Imagine a person’s car runs out of gas on the way to church. You could say, “Wow, Satan must really be against you being at church today.” Or maybe they just forgot to fill up on the way home from work on Friday.
Imagine a preacher’s printer malfunctions an hour before church, preventing him from printing out his notes. It could be a malevolent plot against him and the Word, or perhaps he’s a procrastinator and God’s trying to teach him to plan ahead. I don’t know, and that’s precisely my point. We certainly shouldn’t jump on the judge’s bench and condemn the guy, but neither should we excuse any potential character flaws by blaming demons.
2) It’s not helpful. I often hear people cry “Demon!” when they’re trying to encourage someone who’s having a rough go of it. They’re trying to support a friend. Or they’re trying to make sense of their own suffering. There are better ways. When something bad happens, human nature loves to blame someone or something. But when we do this we’re playing a hyper spiritual form of the blame game. And what scares me is that once we assign responsibility to Satan, the analysis ends. No more responsibility. No more accountability. No more discernment required. Boom. It’s Satan. End of discussion. We really need to stop the automatic jump to demon blame.
3) It can block us from finding and treating the real problem. Citing “warfare” can be a wonderful excuse. Blaming demons has a magical way of putting the attention “out there.” It keeps the locus of control outside of me. Maybe it’s a spiritual attack, or maybe it’s depression. Maybe it’s both. Maybe demons are messing with your ministry, or maybe your team just needs some training in conflict resolution.
Maybe you need to attack the enemy and take back ground, or maybe you need to see a counselor. I don’t know. What I do know is that when we’re quick to blame demons, the sort of analysis and prayerful discernment that could lead us to the root never happens. And that hurts our churches, our families, and our souls.
Peter Scazzero, author of The Emotionally Healthy Church and pastor/planter of a large, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual church in New York City, makes some interesting observations about a difficult season in ministry. He says,
“Pausing and reflecting on the state of my soul were both frightening and liberating. At the time I thought all my problems stemmed from the stress and complexity of New York City. I blamed Queens, my profession, our four small children, Geri, spiritual warfare, other leaders, a lack of prayer covering, even our car (it had been broken into seven times in three months). Each time I was certain I had identified the root issue. I hadn’t. The root issues were inside me. But I couldn’t – or wouldn’t – admit that yet.”
Tort Law & Toyotas
There’s an area of American law that can help us here. It comes from tort law (which unfortunately has nothing to do with cake) and deals with liability and negligence.
Basically, proving that someone was negligent requires showing that the events that happened would have been “reasonably foreseeable to the average person.” This “reasonably foreseeable” test could help us pause for a second before defaulting to demonic.
If something bad happens, take a breath and ask, “Was it reasonably foreseeable that this might happen?” For example, your car breaks down after 20 years and 210,000 miles. Yeah, it could be demonic oppression, it could be Satan messing with you and your Toyota. Or, it could just be a really old radiator. It’s reasonably foreseeable that old cars will occasionally act old. Even Toyotas.
On the field, you get a stomach bug. Yes, it could be a spiritual attack, or it could be that you were trying to be polite and ate some food from a street vendor. In your country, street vendors don’t wash their hands or their food. So, was giardia reasonably foreseeable? If so, pause a bit before you cry “Demon!” And take some Flagyl.
To sum up, if the thing that happened would have been reasonably foreseeable, there’s a good chance you’re not dealing with spiritual warfare. It might be, of course, but it’s probably not.
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure;
One little word shall fell him.
Does your theology of spiritual warfare make you afraid? Does it scare your kids? Do you talk more about demons than Jesus? Do your conversations focus more on the power of the devil than the power of the cross? If so, you might need to recalibrate. Remember His victory. Remember His presence. Remember His coming.
There is darkness, yes, but darkness dies when the Son rises.
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours, thru him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still;
His kingdom is forever.
Grief is a powerful thing, echoing on and on through the chambers of a heart.
Loss singes the soul, and death does indeed bite.
We are not the only ones who grieve, to be sure, but those who’ve lived abroad certainly know this to be true: it hurts to leave. It hurts to return. And when others leave, whether by death or call or transfer, that hurts too.
Our stories are the ones written with contrails, straddling continents and seas. And these stories, the good and the bad, the ones that heal and the ones that hurt, must be written. And remembered.
Some would say to get over it.
Some might accuse.
Too little faith.
Too little thought of Heaven.
Too much focus on the past.
As if holiness requires Novocain.
But grief is a part of our story now. Indelible.
Grief bleeds through the pages of our lives, marking the pages and stories that follow.
Failing to acknowledge these chapters is to censor. To edit out.
To delete plot twists and main characters. To murder history.
So we leave the pages as they are, splotched and imperfect.
Because on every single ink-stained page, He remains.
Comforter. Rock. Shepherd. God.
He remains the God who grieved.
He remains the God who understands.
He remains the God who comforts.
He remains. And He is enough.
So we keep feeling, refusing to numb. We keep sketching out these life-pages, confident that He knows our stories. He loves our stories. He redeems our stories.
And we keep trusting that in the end, our stories are actually a part of His story.
And He’s really good with words.
I love flying. It just doesn’t get old for me.
I’ve jumped the Pacific a bunch; I’ve skipped over the Atlantic a few times. I have my own license to fly small aircraft, but still, every time I fly I feel like a little kid who’s milk got spiked with espresso. Sometimes I’m afraid the other passengers are thinking, “Oh for crying out loud, this guy doesn’t get out much. He’s probably homeschooled.” They’d be partially correct, I guess.
I fight my kids for the window seat. I revel in the sensation of takeoff, the joy of punching through oppressive clouds to the open sky above. When we hit turbulence, I close my eyes (like I’m praying, ’cause that’s holy) and say a silent “Yeehaaaw!”
This article is my excuse to talk about aviation. Here’s what flying has taught me about missions. I’d love to hear from you too: what has flying taught you about missions?
1. Pre-flight inspections are a good idea. You don’t have to do a pre-flight inspection. You don’t have to make sure the navigational instruments work. You don’t have to make sure the tail’s still there. If you’re the pilot, you could just get in, start it up and go. And you might be fine. But, you might not.
In missions, it’s best to get some pre-field training. But you don’t have to. You might be fine without it and you might have a wonderful time. Or, you might miss the bird’s nest in the engine that’ll catch fire in a wee bit, or the water that’s in the gas tank, or the rudder that doesn’t work. Pre-flight inspections save lives. So does pre-field training.
Of course, even perfectly performed pre-flight inspections can’t erase all risk. Things might still go south, and an unforeseen mishap might still occur. But even so, there’s a reason most pilots do a pre-flight inspection and most organizations encourage pre-field training.
I should note here that if you’re in Southeast Asia, the bird’s nest might not be in the engine. It might be in the free canned beverage from the gas station. I was totally not expecting that.
2. Communication matters. In most small airports in America, radio communication is not required. That is, you don’t have to talk with anyone on the radio. You don’t even have to have a radio in the plane. But radio communication is strongly recommended.
Most pilots “self-report” their location and their intention, especially when operating close to an airport. They might say something like, “Cessna 63279, six miles east of the airport at 2,500 feet, inbound for landing on runway 18, planning to enter a left downwind.” It’s really cool how this works, ‘cause if everyone self-reports, all the pilots in the vicinity have a general idea of who’s where and what they’re planning to do.
Not talking is scary. One day I was in the pattern with several other aircraft, and we all knew where the other planes were, when a new plane cut right in front of me, preparing to land. He hadn’t communicated anything, and although he wasn’t breaking any rules, he wasn’t making anything safer. Nor was he making any friends.
In missions, it’s great when folks talk to each other. If no one else is there, fine, do your own thing, but still, flying solo without at least a few people aware of what you’re up to is dangerous.
Not to mix analogies or anything, but you might think you’re a lone wolf, taking care of yourself and your ministry, when in reality you might just be a lone wildebeest, separated from the herd, ready to provide a lion his lunch. (Yes, I realize that I’ve used the word wildebeest in a prior post. I like the animal. I want one.)
If there are other workers on the field already, talk with them. Where are they? What are they doing? What’s working? What’s not? You’re probably not the only person in the sky, so don’t act like it. Communicate. Failing to communicate endangers everyone.
3. One-uppers happen. If you fly a lot, you’ve got travel stories. Great and funny and crazy stories, like that one time when all your flights were on time, no one threw up, and everyone arrived fully rested and smiling. With perfect hair. Be careful though, ‘cause it’s hard to tell a travel story without someone needing to one-up it with a story of their own.
Do I really have to explain how this is like missions? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
Do yourself a favor and watch this four-minute clip by comedian Brian Regan. His phrases “me monster,” “lunar rover,” and “two wisdom tooth tale” have found their way into our family vernacular. This sketch is part of our family culture now; perhaps it could become part of yours too.
4. Landing is one of the most dangerous parts of flying. Taking off requires little skill. Basically, you just point the plane in the right direction and push “GO!” Landing, on the other hand, is a bit trickier. There’s a lot more stuff that can go sideways. Landing safely requires planning, careful implementation, and a soft touch.
It’s sort of like landing on “the field” and then landing back “home.” Both landings carry certain risks and should be approached and planned for with care.
Soft landings are the best, so find kind and good-hearted people. Hang out with them. Cry with them. And when you see the next plane coming in for a landing (whether abroad or in your passport country), do whatever you can to provide a soft landing.
5. Landing at a place is VERY different than flying over it. I’ve flown over a lot of countries that I’ve never been to. I was in their airspace, but I wasn’t really there. It’s different, you know. From way up high, the Rocky Mountains aren’t all that majestic, the Grand Canyon’s not that big, Siberia’s not too cold, and the Pacific Ocean is pretty manageable. But stop and stay a while, and things will shift.
Short-term workers need to remember this. Passing through a nation, tasting their foods, and hugging their kids is not the same as staying. I’m not saying it doesn’t have value, but short-termers must remember that being in a place for a week or even a month is sort of like performing a low-altitude flyover. You can take some cool pictures, but you can’t really understand what it’s like to live there.
That being said, long-termers can benefit from the unique vantage point of our short-term brothers and sisters. Long-termers can get bogged down in minutia and forget to come up for air from time to time. Hanging out with short-termers can reinvigorate and re-inspire. And remind.
I guess the main thing I’m saying is this: be aware of your altitude. If you’re just flying over, know what it is that you don’t know. And ask questions.
If you’ve been somewhere a long time, ask the short-termers to describe what things look like from their vantage point. Ask them about where they came from and where they’re going. The relationship can (and should) be very symbiotic.
6. Most (but not all) obstacles are on the map. So look at it. Radio towers, mountains, restricted airspace, etc., they’re all on the map. Pay attention. Learn from others. Learn the lay of the land.
Missionaries, learn from the old people (nationals and expats alike). They have experience that you need, and they’ve already paid for it! Remember, nothing is new under the sun. Most experienced people are happy to share their thoughts and opinions with interested parties and point out obstacles and hazards. No one likes to see a plane (or a missionary) crash and burn.
7. Don’t judge another passenger’s anxiety. On the same flight, excited travelers who’ve planned for and dreamed of the trip for years may be sitting right next to people who are absolutely dreading what awaits them on the tarmac. One traveler may be starting a grand adventure, while another deals with tremendous loss and many endings. A traveler’s anxiety isn’t necessarily correlated to the smoothness of the flight. Don’t judge. You don’t know the stories.
In missions, one person might really struggle with something that another person finds perfectly sublime. What stresses one might excite another. Be careful in the judging, because you just don’t know their story.
Stories are funky things, bleeding through pages of a life. When you see a person stressed or anxious, give them the benefit of the doubt; you don’t know what they left behind, and you don’t know what’s in store for them upon arrival. And often, neither do they.
8. The toilets are different. And they sometimes require, um, how shall we say, skill. And planning. Especially with small children.
9. You don’t always get to choose your travel buddies. Sometimes you get to choose whom you sit next to (and what they smell like), other times, not so much. If you can’t change it, just be glad you packed earplugs and smelling salts. And sedatives.
Sometimes you can choose where you sit, and whom you sit next to. If that’s the case, be bold. Choose. Sometimes things change en route, and you may need to ask to move seats. If you need to, and you can, do it. There’s nothing noble or especially holy about staying in a difficult situation that isn’t necessary.
10. Sometimes you lose stuff. While it’s true that you gain things by flying, you also lose stuff. Like luggage, or your temper, or your ability to answer simple questions such as “What day is it?” “What country am I in?” or “Whose kid is that?” Flying messes with your circadian rhythm, and if you’re blessed to have other forms of rhythm, flying will mess with those too. You lose all sorts of stuff when you fly; some of the stuff you get back, but some of it stays lost forever. Just.Like.Missions.
Maybe it’s innocence.
Or the belief that this will be easy.
You might show up thinking that all foreign workers are pretty much perfect Christians, as if William Carey and Elisabeth Elliot had a bunch of children and named them all “Missionary.” Yeah, that assumption might get destroyed.
Most likely, you’ll lose a bit of ignorance, forever changing how you watch world news.
But loss isn’t the end of the story; God is, and He remains the Great Healer and Restorer. He is the Father who runs, shouting “We must celebrate! For what was once lost has now been found.” He is the God who sees what’s been lost, and cares. He is the God who is here. And there.
May the peace of God rest on His people.
I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence!
If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the grave, you are there.
If I ride the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the farthest oceans, even there your hand will guide me, and your strength will support me.
I could ask the darkness to hide me and the light around me to become night—but even in darkness I cannot hide from you. To you the night shines as bright as day.
Darkness and light are the same to you.
Before we moved abroad, we did some marriage counseling. What I mean is, we sat in an old guy’s office for fifteen hours and cried. It was amazing.
He told us our marriage could be a safe-haven on the field. Or not.
He said we could strengthen and encourage each other on the field. Or not.
He said that our marriage could bring peace and stamina and even joy to the mission field. Or not.
He was right.
If you and I were chatting at a local coffee shop and I asked you, “Hey, I’m curious, how would you describe marriage?” In general, what words would you use?
Would you say, “Marriage is…
&#^$? [that could mean good things or bad things, I suppose]
How do you describe your own marriage? Often, the first word I hear people say is “hard.” And after they say “hard,” they quickly follow up with, “but it’s good.”
Now, think about your relationship with your best friend. How would you describe that relationship?
Would you say, “Our friendship is…
Would you call it “hard, but good”? Honestly, what would you think of someone who spoke of their closest friendship, first and foremost, as hard? Um, weird.
What about your relationship with God? Is it, first and foremost, hard?
Is that really what we’re going for? Is our chief end to endure the hard, with God and our spouses?
On a gut level, I think we know there’s more. There has to be more.
A Dangerous Idea
“The purpose of marriage is to make us holy.”
“Marriage is hard, but it’s ok, because it makes us holy.”
“My marriage is really difficult. But that’s good, because marriage is supposed to make me holy.”
Have you ever heard a variation on this theme? Often, people don’t say it so explicitly, but I’ve heard this a bunch, and I think it’s dangerous. It’s almost like we looked around and said, “Well, marriage is really difficult, and a lot of folks never experience intimacy or joy or happiness in their marriages, so let’s just tell them marriage is supposed to make them holy instead.”
We sound so spiritual when we talk like this, and we think we’re elevating the institution of marriage, when in fact, we’re simplifying it and cheapening it. We’re robbing it of beauty. And, we’re insulting people.
We’re insulting the people who aren’t married. How are they made holy? Are they doomed to a life of less holiness due to their marital status? Are they holiness-deficient? Are we implying that our single brothers and sisters, widows and widowers, or folks who’ve dealt with the trauma of divorce, don’t have access to the thing that can make them holy? Namely, a spouse?
Can marriage make you holy? Sure. Any relationship with another human has the potential to wear off rough edges, point out selfishness, expose our sin, and through the work of the Holy Spirit and the sacrifice of Jesus, make us holy. (See: Parenthood.) But saying “marriage can make you holy” is very different than saying “the purpose of marriage is to make you holy.”
The real-life implications of this belief are what scare me the most. If marriage is to make me holy, and if what I really mean by that is that the hard parts of marriage make me holy, then I’m actually completely justified in staying in the hard parts, without any hope of or desire to change. There is no impetus to seek deeper intimacy with the one I’ve promised to be with forever.
You know, sometimes marriage is hard because we’ve got issues that need to be worked on. But instead of acknowledging the emotional pain, or the fear of intimacy, or the past offenses, we deflect and avoid, consoling ourselves, “Well, at least it’s making me holy.”
This is not God’s plan for marriage.
Instead of hitting conflict or hardships and deflecting to “holy,” we need to start asking the tough questions, like “Why are we having this conflict?” or “Is there deeper emotional pain that’s making this so hard?” Can we stop using the idea of holiness as an excuse to avoid the hard questions?
And more to the theological core, I think we believe marriage can’t be pleasurable and enjoyable, because then it wouldn’t be as spiritual. This is an ancient discussion. Pause and analyze for a second if any of these fallacies have crept in to your thoughts on marriage:
Marriage can’t feel good.
Marriage can’t be good unless it’s purely spiritual.
Spiritual intimacy is the most important part of marriage.
Physical and emotional intimacy in marriage is inherently “less than” spiritual intimacy.
Again, we don’t really talk like this, but it is often our meta-message.
Marriages are not meant to be endured.
Marriage is for intimacy.
The sharing of souls and dreams and flesh.
The first taste of summer.
Marriage, the joining together of two unique persons, predates sin and exists beyond it. Marriage satisfied Adam. It excites Jesus.
The first marriage was designed by a loving Father, for joy and companionship. Closeness. It was good. The last marriage, a proclamation of Love’s victory that echoes in eternal joy and companionship and glory. A celebration such as the cosmos has never seen.
Marriage is the mysterious coming together of two people; the blending of heart and vessel and marrow. The tearing of the veil. Intimate. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to be.
But intimacy can be a scary thing. It’s vulnerable and exposed and leaves us naked. It’s also amazing.
The opposite of intimacy is withdrawal. Distance. Disconnection. Ask yourself, ask your spouse, “Are we close? Are our hearts even in the same room, communicating easily? Have we settled for a dull disconnect?” It’s worth talking about. And for the record, if one spouse feels like there’s distance and disconnection but the other spouse thinks everything’s great, the first one’s right, and the marriage needs help. If you’re the spouse that’s denying distance, I beg you to stop. Now. Listen to the heart-cry of your husband or wife.
Every relationship will have seasons. Seasons of grandeur and awe and warmth, and seasons of darkness and winter. But there’s a big difference between a season of winter and an ice age. If you’re living in an ice age, please get help. It doesn’t have to be that way.
A Blessed Arrangement
Intimacy with your spouse is a gift, a fountain of youth. Treasure it, protect it, and fight for it. Here are some ideas:
Explore the relationship between Christ and the Church. Study Ephesians 5. Read the Song of Solomon. Slowly. Find a marriage counselor, even if you don’t have any “issues.” Pursue emotional healing.
Say no to good stuff so you can say yes to better stuff. Do not embrace your mission so much that you lose your marriage. Keep porn far, far away. Porn will destroy intimacy faster than you can click “delete browser history.”
Read good books about marriage. Trade babysitting. If at all possible, when someone comes to visit you on the field, let them get over jet lag and then leave the kids with them so you and your spouse can get away overnight. When you’ve got little munchkins at home, even 26 hours away (our last getaway) can be awesome. (And someone please tell me I’m not the only one who counts those getaways in hours!)
You may be in a place where getting away is impossible, or unsafe, or just really stupid. So, change your definition of “a date.” Putting the kids to bed early and catching up with your spouse over coffee (or tea, I guess) can be romantic, if you want it to be.
Regarding Sex [a word for my brothers]
Sex and intimacy are not synonyms. But still, a marriage characterized by emotional intimacy will include some form of healthy physical intimacy.
Men, we think we know a whole lot more about sex than we actually know. And that’s a problem, because we think we don’t need to learn, or even worse, we think that we’ve learned about sex already, you know, because we watched some porn once or listened to guys in the locker room. Yikes. Our wives deserve better than that.
Having sex doesn’t take much skill or special knowledge, but really making love to your wife’s heart and body, now that takes some practice. And research.
I think you should research sex. I know you think about it a lot, so why not study it from a healthy source? Have your wife do some research, and read whatever she thinks you need to read. And if she thinks you need to read something, then you need to read it. However, if she doesn’t want you reading about sex, she’s probably got a very good reason, and you should look into that before you start calling her names. For example, if you’ve violated her trust, or pressured her in the past, she’s probably not going to be too excited about this paragraph. And she’s probably right.
That being said, a pretty basic book that might be a good place to start your research is A Celebration of Sex, by Dr. Douglas Rosenau.
A longtime missionary and medical doctor once told me something interesting about sex. (And I always listen when someone tells me something interesting about sex.) He said, “Often, the sex life of a missionary couple is a barometer for the health of their marriage in general.”
Sex doesn’t create intimacy, and you can’t fix an unhealthy marriage by having more sex. That wasn’t his point. He was just saying that emotional distance, or a lack of emotional intimacy, will show up early in a couples’ sex life. It’s a warning sign. And if the emotional intimacy between a husband and wife begins to diminish, it should be addressed sooner rather than later.
It should be noted here that a healthy sexual relationship has nothing to do with frequency. It has to do with intimacy. Do you, as husband and wife, regularly connect with each other both physically and emotionally?
Husbands and wives, enjoying each other physically and emotionally, is very pleasing to God.
When One Partner Doesn’t Care
Maybe you hate this article. Maybe you’re already gearing up for the comments section. Please, hear me out.
For most of this article, I’m assuming that both husband and wife want to grow closer. I’m assuming you both want a healthy marriage characterized by deepening intimacy.
However, I realize that many people live in marriages that aren’t like that. Maybe that’s you. Maybe you’re in a marriage that’s missing something and you already know it and it’s breaking you. Maybe you wish things would change, but they haven’t, and you don’t think they ever will. If that’s you, I want you to know that I totally believe you. I see you, and I’m so very sorry.
It is not good to be alone. But being married to someone and still alone, now that might be worse still.
If that’s you, you may find yourself in a valley of grief, and that might be right where you need to be for a time. Grieving the loss of dreams. Grieving for the broken places, and the broken things.
If you’re in that hurting place, may the Lord of Peace surround you with his love. May you find friends and confidants who will walk beside you, encourage you, and strengthen you. May you find the Church to be a welcome and warm place, full of people who care about you, about seeing you. Not you, the part of the “bad marriage” or the “failed marriage,” but you, the child of the King, who is worth so much. May you know intimacy, with your God and with his people. And may he bring you safely home.
Marriage is a great gift, and we honor the Giver when we accept the gift with joy and excitement. We honor him when we treasure each other, respect each other, know each other.
We miss the Father’s heart when we think he gave us marriage “to make us holy.”
Yes, marriage is sometimes hard, and life is not all peaches and cream, but if your default description of marriage is “hard,” I’m telling you, there’s more. Look for that. Pray for that.
A Marriage Blessing
May your marriage be beautiful. May it remind you often that God gives good gifts. Very good gifts.
May people look at your love and see that there is a God and he is awesome.
May you show the world – and the Church – that it’s not about submission or obedience or “who’s in charge.” That in your love and mutual submission, you will race each other to the bottom. And when you get to the bottom, may you find love, wholeness, joy, peace, and life. In other words, Jesus.
May you laugh often. At each other, with each other, because of each other. And if and when God fills your home with children, may you sit around the table and laugh and laugh and laugh.
May you taste heaven when you taste each other.
And when you walk through the shadowlands, and you will walk through the shadowlands, may the One who led you together continue to lead you together. He is the Creator of the soaring mountaintops and the scary valleys. May he sustain you and remind you.
May 2015 be the best year of your marriage. Until 2016. And may 2016 be the best year of your marriage. Until 2017. May you experience the intense joy of being known, deeply, and the great honor of knowing another.
May your love, promised and given, echo into eternity.
May people hear your stories, witness your love, and say from now until forever, “Look at what the Lord has done!”
My parents had their life all mapped out, and then their baby was born with chromosomal abnormalities and died at home, surrounded by tubes and oxygen tanks, only a month old.
As a teenager, I had my life pretty well planned out (get my pilot’s license, be Nate Saint). But then my mom got cancer and died. And the path of God darkened.
The “plan of God for my life,” the path I was following with full confidence and youthful arrogance, disappeared. Because sometimes the straight and narrow isn’t.
God doesn’t always lead in straight lines.
He is the God of fractals, making beauty and order out of lines that look like a drunk man was drawing during an earthquake. Left-handed.
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform.
He plants his footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
The paths of God meander. But somewhere along the way we got this idea that we should be able to sit down, especially in January, and map out THE SPECIFIC WILL OF GOD FOR OUR LIFE AND MINISTRY FROM NOW UNTIL FOREVERMORE. I’m sorry, but my life’s just not working out like that. But if yours is, then hey, more power to you.
Don’t mind me, I’ll just be hanging out back here with all the folks who are a wee bit confused by God sometimes.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs
And works his sovereign will.
I’m a fan of vision and purpose and alignment. I’ve read tons of books on leadership and vision. Really. My personal “Vision & Mission” statement is taped to the tile on my office wall and I read it several times a week. However, I’m beginning to wonder if these ideas are more suited for a corporation than my life.
Perhaps God has a higher purpose than us coming up with a goal and then perfectly implementing it. It really seems to me that few people, even the heroes of the faith, saw the whole plan of God for their lives, and then developed perfect action steps that they then enacted flawlessly. Mission accomplished.
Perhaps the Kingdom of God advances less militaristically and more organically. Less check box like, and more with an ongoing awareness that God’s plans seldom travel in a straight line (at least from our perspective).
What about Moses? He had the great call and purpose of freeing the people of Israel. However, a good chunk of his life looked very much NOT aligned to that goal. How would we look at a person in Moses’ position, whittling away time in a faraway land while the people of Israel languished in slavery? Was that out of alignment? Do we just blame it on the fact that Moses didn’t follow God’s plan, so he got banished for DECADES? I sure am glad I obey God perfectly. All the time.
Or David, anointed by God, but residing in pastures. Where was the alignment? Where were the action steps? He didn’t even kill Saul when he had the chance! That’s like minus one action step to ruling the Kingdom.
And then there’s Jesus, who knew at age 12 specifically what the Father had called him to do. However, up until the age of 30, his day-to-day jobs and activities did not LOOK aligned to the call or mission of God. What a failure.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour.
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Who’s Flying This Plane?
David says in Psalm 23:3, “He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name.” I’m no farm kid, but I’m pretty sure the farmer gets to decide the “right paths.” Which is a bummer if you’ve already got the straight and narrow completely sorted.
For each transition in our life, Elizabeth and I have tried to listen to God, we’ve tried to discern his path, and we’ve been mostly sure (about 83%) we were heading in the right direction. However, in each case, we did NOT have any idea what the step AFTER that step would be. But we pretty much knew what we needed to do to obey today.
Have you ever noticed that pilots are dumb? I mean, really, who gets from Chicago to Korea by flying north?! It’s like they’ve never looked at a map. Oh, that’s right, they didn’t look at a map, the fools added a dimension and looked at the GLOBE. The flight paths of giant airliners look really dumb if you’re stuck in two dimensions. But wow, add that third dimension and everyone starts shouting, “O Captain, My Captain!”
I imagine God’s kind of like that too. Sometimes, I want to get to Asia and God says, “Um, you know, that’s great, let’s fly over Santa Claus.” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s stupid, I need to go STRAIGHT west and then a bit south.” And God says, “You have no idea what you’re talking about. Would you like kimchi or chicken fingers?”
God deals in dimensions we know nothing about. And I believe he will sometimes lead us along paths that look wrong, that look out of alignment, that, get this, require faith.
If God leads you “off target” or out of alignment, will you follow Him?
There are more parameters, more dimensions, more curvatures of the planet, than we will ever know. If God’s plans really are more wonderful than we could imagine, why do we strive so hard to imagine and define them? Can we rest in a loving Father? Can we continue to move forward in obedience, even if we don’t know where that obedience will lead?
Bonhoeffer (Because, Why Not?)
The dude had guts. And I think an uncanny ability to see from a height that helped him understand things. So, after his life deviated from his own plans in a BIG WAY (think Nazis and prisons) he was able to write:
“I’m firmly convinced – however strange it may seem—that my life has followed a straight and unbroken course, at any rate in its outward conduct. It has been an uninterrupted enrichment of experience, for which I can only be thankful. If I were to end my life here in these conditions, that would have a meaning that I think I could understand; on the other hand, everything might be a thorough preparation for a new start and a new task when peace comes.”
In other words, he knew his life looked out of whack. It looked grossly misaligned and greatly off kilter. But, he pulled out that pesky thing called faith, got comfortable with some intellectual dissonance and the tension of unknowing, and believed that God had it under control. No matter what.
How could he say these things? Because He knew his God.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan his work in vain.
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.
The longer I serve abroad, the less I desire to do great things for God and the more I desire to just be with Him. I feel less ambition and more Peace. Less like I’m racing the buzzer, and more like I’m being pursued by a Lover.
This doesn’t mean that I’ll work less, caught up in some heavenly romance. It means that I’ll work closer. Closer to the One my soul desires. Closer to the One the world needs. Closer to the heart of God.
And frankly, I don’t care how straight or how twisted the path is, if it leads farther up and farther in, I’m so there.
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose,
and we have come to worship him.”
The Star of Bethlehem had a point, an important point. But the star was not the point.
The star fulfilled its role of leading across cultures and religious paradigms, down dusty roads and around a paranoid prince, to the Child. He was the Point, this Son, and he shone brighter. He, the Child-King, deserved adoration from all peoples, in all languages, for all of time.
And the Church, like the star, has a point. But the Church is not the point. Jesus is.
The star inspired a journey, away from comfort and the great “known.” So may the Church.
The star led through danger and politically dicey situations. So has the Church, historically, and so does the Church, presently.
The star challenged prejudice, inviting outsiders in. So may the Church.
The star incited worship, but not of itself. So may the Church.
As we celebrate the incarnation of Hope,
the birth of the Lamb who was slain before the foundations of the world,
let us pray for the Church, his glorious Bride, who waits expectantly for his return
and the restoration of all things.
May your Bride, O Christ, rise like the star, guiding people to their King.
May your Church remember that, in leading people to You, it may lead them into danger, both before they find you and afterwards.
May your Church inspire people to start journeying towards Jesus, no matter how long or treacherous that path might be. May the Church show a clear path to you. Not necessarily safe, but clear.
May your Church encourage people to do things they weren’t planning to do, like forgive, or give, or go.
May your Church draw people from distant lands, astrologers and pagans from cultures distinct and different. And after introducing the Savior, may your Church allow them to return to the places they’re from, knowing that when they return, they go forever changed, having bowed to the King.
May the first Star of Bethlehem shatter into a million pieces, not breaking, but multiplying into galaxies of stars that light up the world, churches calling men and women from every corner of the planet, to come and see this thing you have done, this story for the ages.
May your Church be ever diverse, with layers of cultures and languages, colors and fragrances, incomes and social standings, shepherds and sages, all circled around Jesus, giving their gifts. May they be One, Father.
May your Church revel in the joy of others as they bring their gifts to Jesus.
May your Church, the Bride of Christ, stand strong as a bright and pure witness to the passionate Love of God, made clear through the Son, Jesus. A guiding light to those who would seek you, their King.
May your Spirit, O God, be with your people. Amen.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”
King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”
“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:
‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah, are not least among the ruling cities of Judah,
for a ruler will come from you who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”
After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.
Missionaries are like the church’s Special Forces, right? They go into enemy territory, sometimes covertly, tearing down walls for Jesus. They have special training, preparing them to serve in the darkest places around the globe. Missionaries are on the front lines of the Kingdom of Heaven, right? I’m sorry, but no.
Wherever the Gospel is advancing, there is the front line. Wherever lives are being transformed by the love of Jesus, there is the leading edge of the Kingdom.
But aren’t missionaries the crème of the crop? Um, yeah, no. Turns out, we’re just people. We may travel more than most, and maybe we speak more languages than some, but the idea that missionaries are somehow “set apart” is dangerous. I’d like to begin a discussion about this. Care to join?
Whether these false ideas come from the missionaries themselves or those who send them, the consequence is the same: damage. Damage to the missionaries and damage to the churches who send them.
How These Lies Damage Missionaries
If a missionary believes these lies (crème of the crop, special forces, etc.), and if churches reinforce them, one of two things will happen.
Option 1. When the missionary realizes he isn’t superman (or supermissionary), confusion, discouragement, and maybe even depression will set in. He may be forced into secrecy, covering up and hiding the fact that he is, in fact, human. He may feel like a failure because he now realizes he’s not the best of the best, like all the “real” missionaries. He may create a thin veneer of perfection and hide behind it for a Very.Long.Time. Obviously, this is not healthy, but it does make sense to the missionary who’s comparing himself to the false perfect. And when a whole community of missionaries builds walls and covers up, the fallacy is reinforced; everyone looks super on the outside, and no one can see the inside. And the damage continues.
Option 2. If a missionary believes these lies, and continues to believe them, she may become extremely arrogant, judgmental, and condemning. The judgment and condemnation will be aimed at other missionaries who “just can’t hack it,” as well as all the lesser people back home who never even tried. After all, she’s the top of the class, the one called and equipped for greater works. Again, these attitudes make sense if she starts with the basic assumption that missionaries are better. Now, it’s true, most people will never talk like this. But I bet you’ve met people who act like it.
How These Lies Damage Sending Churches
We’ll address this more in a bit, but for now, let me just say that when a church believes these lies, it effectively keeps missions OUT THERE. Missions becomes something missionaries do somewhere over there. The great call of God becomes disconnected from the church of God. And that’s really, really sad.
Furthermore, it minimizes and marginalizes the godly saints in the local body. The old lady who just put her last few dollars in the plate may have sacrificed more than the family who moved abroad. The arithmetic of the Almighty includes variables we can’t see.
One of the kindest, godliest men I’ve ever known worked on an assembly line for most of his life. You know what he did during his shifts? He talked with God and he memorized the Word. And so, when this blue-collar, shift-worker of an old man looked you in the eye and shook your hand, you felt like you knew Jesus a little better. He was faithful to his Lord for decades longer than I’ve been alive. And whatever reward I get in heaven, I’m pretty sure it won’t be any grander than this faithful, Spirit-filled saint’s.
When the church idolizes young missionaries, it runs the great risk of forgetting the faith-filled old people. The plodders who’ve loved well and remained faithful for a lifetime. And when the church neglects those people, the church misses out big time.
It’s not just the faithful old that tend to get marginalized. What about the faithful young? Is the work I do abroad more important than the local pastor in my home country who loves God with all his heart, and loves his people with sacrificial and compassionate love?
Is my job more important or more holy than my friend who’s a doctor in an inner-city emergency room? He loves and treats folks most people wouldn’t even touch. And he does it with kindness, giving strong witness to the Spirit of Christ who lives in him.
My job, loving and serving people across cultures, is what I’m called to do. I really believe that. But as I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, I sure hope some people are called and equipped to do work other than this. And I sure hope they realize their work isn’t second-class.
The Risk of Idolatry
Why do churches put missionaries on a pedestal? Why do missionaries put themselves there? I’m not sure, but what I do know is that they, and we, do. And it’s dangerous.
I grew up in a culture that idolized missionaries. By the time I was a teenager, I had read the biographies of Adoniram Judson, Gladys Aylward, Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Elisabeth Elliot, Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, Brother Andrew, David Livingston, and others. We revered these people. My parents even made sure I got to meet Elisabeth Elliot when she came to town, and we had a hand written note from her on our fridge!
These people were great and faithful and followed God in amazing ways, and I’m so grateful I was exposed to their stories; I in no way want to dishonor them. The error was mine, not theirs, because somewhere in all those stories I got the idea that really good Christians became overseas missionaries. If I wanted to sort-of serve God, I could become a pastor, but if I really wanted to serve God, I’d become a missionary. And if I didn’t care about serving God at all, I could become a lawyer (which I did, by the way, but that’s a story for another time).
The truly faithful, the truly holy, the ones most loved by God and most in love with God, would obviously serve him overseas. No one said it out loud, but I internalized the message nonetheless. I doubt you’ve heard these things spoken out loud, but have you ever felt them?
For too long, we have idolized overseas missions. We need to stop now.
I’m afraid that in our desire to be good followers of God, we’ve lost intimacy with him. Intimacy is personalized and requires time and a willingness to pay attention to subtle cues; we’ve preferred the one-size-fits-all, task-driven, widget-producing faith that measures success not by love, but by product.
Have we cared more about the work our hands do than the love our heart does?
Have we challenged people to obey “the call” instead of the Christ?
Have we sent and honored missionaries who are filled more with ambition than adoration?
Again, these things make sense if overseas missions is the end-all. But it’s not. Serving cross-culturally is definitely a valid response to the Gospel, but it is not the only valid response to the Gospel.
In fact, if traveling a long ways is how we serve God, then Jonah was doing a great job even BEFORE the whole fish incident. Remember, serving Jesus isn’t about traveling the right distance as much as it’s about traveling the right direction.
We’ve called “moving to a foreign land” the pinnacle of obedience, but in some cases, moving to a foreign land might be more like running away — disobedience, in its most spiritual form.
Please don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying cross-cultural missions is bad. I am a missionary serving outside of my passport country, and I love it. I really do. I hope to stay here for a long time. I’ve recruited people to serve overseas, I’ve preached to teenagers about serving overseas, I’ve passionately extolled service abroad. And I plan to continue! In fact, our personal website even has an extensive resource page for folks interested in serving overseas.
But here’s the problem. Early on, I internalized the idea that this job, this ministry, was in fact the best. It’s what the best Christians do. It’s what the holiest Christians do. It’s what people who don’t have problems do. But you know what, that’s crazy talk. I’m not setting out to discourage folks from cross-cultural missions. I am trying to say, if you’re going to follow God across cultures, do it because he called you. Do it because you love people. Don’t do it because you think it’s what good Christians do.
Before we moved overseas, I wrote a song that had these lyrics, “To the ends of the earth, or down the street, where you send I will go, I will go.” I sang it with gusto and enthusiasm. I now realize it’s ridiculous; it’s based on the false dichotomy that some are called to go to cool places (the “ends of the earth”), and others are just called down the street.
We are ALL called down the street, it’s just that some of us have to travel a bit to find our street.
God didn’t want to send me to the ends of the earth OR down the street. He wanted to send me to Cambodia AND down the street. Why? Because the call of God is local. It’s right here, with the people in front of me.
He may call you to change streets (and that’s totally his prerogative), but once you get to your new street, you still have to love and serve the person in front of you. He may send you to a street that looks (and smells) nothing like the streets you’re used to. Great! But you know what, once you get there and learn their language, you still have to love and serve the person in front of you. It’s not rocket science.
So, whether your street is paved and filled with luxury cars, or it’s a collection of muddy ruts and filled with wildebeests, the call of God is the same. Love well. Serve well. Live your life in such a way, that…
When people look at your eyes, they see our Father’s compassion.
When they see you create, they marvel at our King’s genius.
When they watch you sacrifice, they know our Savior’s kindness.
No matter what street you live on, may you truly experience life on the front lines of the Kingdom; not because you live on a special or super-holy street, but because on your street, “the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.”