In August of 2015 I had the privilege of going to the Kurdish area of Iraq to work with refugees. On my first day there, I was traveling to a mobile health clinic when I got into a conversation with a pharmacist. One year before she lived and worked in Qaraqosh in the Nineveh province of Iraq. When ISIS entered the city, Christians were given three choices: Convert, pay a massive tax, or leave. She got out on the last bus to leave Qaraqosh. As we were talking I asked her what she would want me to communicate to Christians in America about Christians in Iraq. “What?!” she said in astonishment. “There are Christians in America!”
I love this story for many reasons, but the main one is that it reminds me yet again that long before America was born, the Church had been established and was growing even as it endured persecution, human mistakes, and petty gossip. I found out later that the pharmacist’s church was built by St. Thomas two thousand years ago. God and the Church had not left Iraq. They had been there all along.
In my parents early years in Pakistan they felt like pioneers. They stepped out in faith just a few years after Pakistan had become a nation and left the shores of New York Harbor along with two other young couples. There were three couples with five children between them and for three months they lived in two rooms, the only foreigners in the city. My mom talks about the day they arrived in Pakistan in her book, Jars of Clay:
As we stood on the deck of the Steel Recorder with our little ones around us on November 4,1954, we felt like pioneers. Today was the day we would finally set foot on the soil of Pakistan. Our years of study, preparation, and prayer, had brought Ralph and me, and Ray and Jean to this place at this point in time. We expected to spend our lives here in Pakistan, serving God and telling people of his love. We had not come on a short, fact-finding tour, gathering material to write an article or even a book. This would be our life.
However, we soon learned that others had been there before us, preparing the way.
More importantly, God was, and had been, at work preparing the way before they arrived.
In my conversations with people who work overseas, I often get the sense that they see themselves as alone. They are Elijahs in a hostile world of Jezebels and Ahabs. No one else has gone before, and no one else will come after. Instead, they are alone and they must succeed, for if they don’t then there are eternal consequences.
But in the background there are thousands who have not bowed to Baal, thousands who have come before us, thousands who will come after us. None of us has ever arrived in a place where God has not already been working. Because he is God and by his very nature what he does is reveal himself to people in a million creative ways. He generously invites us into his work, because he knows that we will grow and learn in ways that are unimaginable.
In the book The Power of the Call, the authors give some excellent principles that are good reminders for us as we seek to live effectively as those invited into God’s work overseas.
I summarize some of the principles here to remind and to challenge us.
- God has been working in his people long before you arrived. So for your first year, seek to understand what God has been doing so that you can be a catalyst for what God has already placed on their hearts. Do not give the impression “Now that I have come, God has come.”
- Be willing to listen to the hearts of people – 0nly then will you learn what God has begun.
- Affirm the good work that has begun. It will not be perfect, there may be a lot more that you see needs doing. But first affirm what has already begun.
- Above all, approach every person and every program with cultural humility. Be the learner not the Saviour.
- Change your questions. Instead of first asking “What should I be doing here?” first ask “What has God been doing here?” Instead of “What shall I say?” first ask “What has God been saying?”
We are given the great privilege of joining God in what he has done. Recognizing that God has worked way before us, and will continue working way beyond us, helps us to relax and keep our hands and hearts open wide to receive his good gifts.
So today – relax! God has been, is now, and will be at work.
Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion
Is to take off our shoes
For the place we are approaching is holy
Else we find ourselves
Treading on another’s dreams
More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.
We have to try to sit where they sit, to enter sympathetically into the pains and grieves and joys of their history and see how those pains and griefs and joys have determined the premises of their argument. We have, in a word, to be ‘present’ with them.”*
*Quote attributed to Max Warren in 1963