Christian life is like a house. Mine needed a remodel.

I like to envision my life in Christ as a house. For the first 25 years of my life that house was designed, built, and furnished almost exclusively by a very specific brand of evangelical Christianity. I attended a Christian college with a slightly broader brand, and some redecorating started early in my twenties, but for the most part, that house remained pretty much the same. 

I struggled with deep introspection and constant condemnation in my performance-oriented walk with Christ. But I never considered whether something was missing in the house of my theology. Up to that point my spiritual community held to our theology and way of life in very arrogant ways. We believed we were the cream of the crop. We lived thinking we had the most coherent belief system with very little to no contradiction in our understanding of God, salvation, and church government and practice. 

Then in my mid-twenties the Lord used a different flavor of evangelicalism to open my eyes to a fundamental truth about the gospel that I hadn’t tasted up to that point. I started to savor the life-giving reality that the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ was for me too as a Christian, not just unbelievers. This realization rocked my world. The constant introspection and condemnation I had lived with started to ease up as I learned to take hold of the gospel as the only reality that defined my life. 

This began a remodeling project in the house of my spiritual formation and practice. A few walls were knocked down, and the living room became larger. More people could come and sit. I realized I had much to learn from groups that were outside of what I had previously considered acceptable. The more I honed in on the importance of a gospel culture in the church (not just an evangelistic culture but one actually gospel-shaped and motivated by grace), I realized how the culture of my church (and denomination) had been sorely lacking. 

Over the course of the next 10 years (with two huge cross-cultural moves in the mix), God kept slowly remodeling my house but all still within a specific theological framework. He redecorated – adding rugs here and there, switching out paintings and wall art or completely replacing them – but most of my influences were still within a strong word-centered tradition. 

When we arrived at the country where we live now (yes, a third cross-cultural move), the remodeling project became significantly more intense. I went from thinking my house was pretty complete and without much need of significant change, to realizing I needed major overhaul. Through deep suffering the Lord started to expose how the actual foundation of my home needed to be completely replaced. He started to show how my Christian walk was not only shaped by the theological system I had lived in all my life, but also by trauma and dysfunction. 

I needed significant healing and rescue, and my Father was eager to gently, tenderly deliver me. He used the strength of other spiritual communities to help me taste a bit more the fullness of who He is and the riches of his presence. In the contemplative traditions I’ve delighted in being with God, in slowing down and focusing on his actual presence with me. Through my charismatic friends, he has fixed my gaze on the Spirit and on his ministry that pours the love of the Father.

He is growing my dependence on the Spirit’s ability to lead me and guide me in righteousness, not because a spiritual community or leaders tell me how to live but because He himself is able and willing to do it and because he has given me Christ’s ability to discern it. Community matters deeply, and leaders can be a gift, but I am discovering what great confidence there is in listening to the Spirit.

Over time I have found myself jealous for more of the triune God, and that desire is the main filter through which I evaluate different traditions and systems. While I still strongly care about theology and the surety of the word, I want the house of my walk with Christ to have a strong awareness of the nourishing presence of the actual person of God – not just truth about him. 

As I consider this major remodeling that God has done in my life, I have been struck by two things that matter immensely in our Christian formation and practice. Doctrine matters, theology matters, but what matters more than a specific set of beliefs is that we know how much the Father loves us in Christ and that, trusting in that love, we live by the Spirit and not in the flesh. 

Interacting with people from many traditions and backgrounds, I have been struck by how we are all tempted in similar ways to doubt the love of the Triune God and to live with confidence in the flesh. It shouldn’t surprise me since that has been the attack of the devil as early as Genesis 3, when there were no denominations or traditions – only humans. 

The brokenness of the world, of relationships, of our own hearts gets in the way of us knowing deep in our souls the delight of the Father to us through Christ. We forget (or don’t know or don’t grasp) how our in-Christness defines every aspect of our reality. We focus so much on what we do or don’t do, that we think that the love of God depends on that. 

And this leads us to find our security, significance, and confidence in many good things that are not Christ. We boast in our accurate understanding of the word, in our precise theology, in our visions and experiences in the Spirit, in the power and effectiveness of our prayers, in our liturgies and rhythms of fasting and silence and solitude.

But when our confidence is on anything outside of the finished work of Christ and of his life, death, and resurrection (and their power in us), we end up reeking of pride and can become oppressive in our interactions with our brothers and sisters. The flesh is the enemy, not those outside of our circles.

While I have struggled to know where I fully belong in the context of so much theological and practical diversity, I have also come to be supremely grateful for an outsider perspective. I have been learning from many but not fully belonging anywhere.

Yet I am supremely grateful for what God has given me through such distinct theological backgrounds and cultures because in all of it, he is giving me more of himself in ways that offset the profound loneliness of this long season of painful but needed transformation. I have been grasping and savoring the surety of his presence with me because of what he has revealed about himself in the beautiful prism of his diverse body. 

I am thankful for the things I get to keep of the tradition and theological system that first shaped me. And I am also grateful for the freedom to identify which things I don’t want to keep from them – which allows me to recognize the needed gifts and beauty in other traditions.

We all need our houses to be remodeled eclectically. No single theological system or set of doctrines or practices holds the vastness and mystery of God. When Christ alone is the sure foundation, our homes are strong enough to withstand expansive remodeling so that the beauty, glory, and paradox of the triune God is what defines and establishes every aspect of our life in Christ. 

Because at the end of the day traditions and systems and doctrines are just that: traditions, systems, and doctrines. None of them can save. None of them is a sufficient source of confidence. Only God himself is worthy of all our trust, rest, and joy.

The Hardest Thing About Living Overseas

People often ask me what the hardest thing about living in West Africa is.

Is it being away from family and friends? Is it the “strange” food, specifically the lack of cheese and bacon? Is it the bad roads? The unstable electricity? The lack of clean drinking water in your faucet? The lack of healthcare? The different languages? The snakes or the mosquitoes?

The truth is, it is none of those things. Don’t get me wrong, those are very real challenges (even the one about the cheese) but if you want to know the one thing that makes living in Liberia hard…the one thing that keeps me up at night and makes me question whether I belong here or not and makes me feel so tired and weary and like I just want to give up and go home…it is the gray.

Learning to navigate all the gray.

Growing up I used to be so confident in my view of the world, my opinions, my beliefs, the way things were and that was because I so clearly saw a lot of my world around me as black and white. There was right and wrong and there was good and bad and there was nothing, absolutely nothing in between for a rigid and “holier-than-thou” youth-group-going rule-follower teenager like me.  Everything had an explanation and everyone and everything about the world could be categorized, organized, explained, even God Himself.

Viewing the world as black and white is comfortable, isn’t it? It makes it so easy to understand things and so much simpler to process our experiences, to quickly and efficiently judge our actions and the actions of others (though I know this isn’t my business), to categorize people into little boxes, and organize our ideas and responses to certain situations … “if this is the problem, then this is the only option” or “if a person does this, then they are that” and so on and so forth. It allows us to escape thinking about how our outlook on the world may possibly be…incomplete…or dare I say, wrong!

As I grew up in the US, one of the most diverse countries in the world, there were obviously plenty of things to challenge my mindset and my understanding of the world every day, thrusting me into the land of the gray. But at the end of the day, I could always look around and find plenty of people who looked, believed, behaved, or thought just like me and if I tried hard enough, I could always use this bubble to escape the gray….entering back into the land of crisp lines and black and white. 

Being in Liberia, that’s just not the case. For starters, 99.9% of the people I see or meet every day are very different from myself in terms of looks, culture, beliefs, etc. I meet so many people here whose way of life and thinking are so different from my own. Their childhoods are wildly different from my own, their pain/suffering is much deeper than I can comprehend, and their values systems about family, money, community, gender, education, truth, and spirituality/faith are more complex than I can still explain. Every day I feel like I’m walking deeper into the gray. Everyday my mind is swirling and I am overwhelmed with questions like:

  • Am I missing something here because I am looking at this only through my cultural lens? How does their culture, religion, race, poverty, beliefs, pain/trauma, personality, background shape their values and thus affect their actions? How does my wealth and privilege and nationality affect my own?
  • Are my thoughts being influenced by underlying prejudices? Am I making assumptions about or devaluing someone because of their race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, or education level? If I am, why? And how do I stop?
  • How do I know when the tension we are facing/feeling is simply related to cultural and individual differences and not a matter of right or wrong (as defined through scripture)? 
  • Is what I’m doing truly out of compassion or my desire to control situations and produce tangible results? 
  • Should I give money to this person/situation? If I am giving money, why am I doing it? Because I trust God or because I don’t? Is there another way?
  • How many times do I watch someone fail rather than stepping in myself to help? Am I creating dependency by doing or giving too much? Am I becoming lazy/jaded by doing or giving too little? When should I say “no” and when should I say “yes”? 
  • How do I know when to adjust my behaviors/action to fit into and show respect for the culture when it’s ok to just be myself? At what point do I lose myself and my own identity for the sake of respecting culture, a culture that often undervalues my own voice as a woman?
  • Where’s the line between grace and justice? Where is the line between letting someone’s past experiences or poverty become a crutch and holding them to unrealistic expectations and setting them up for failure? How can I even know if I’ve never walked in their shoes?

Maybe you can relate? Maybe you’ve asked yourself some of these questions before in your own everyday cross-cultural experiences? Maybe you’ve even had to ask these questions as you navigate conversations with someone who on the outside may look just like you, but who comes from an entirely different cultural background? 

It can be so exhausting to enter into this gray area, the area where answers don’t always come or aren’t clear immediately. It can be mentally draining spending so much time turning these thoughts over and over again in my head, especially because more often than not it is during these times that I am also confronted with my own sins and misunderstandings of who God is and who I am in His Kingdom. 

The world is not what I thought it was, people are not always who society told me they would be, I’m a much bigger sinner than I had feared, and God’s love is so much deeper than I could have ever dreamed.

What someone does doesn’t always define who someone is. Just because someone’s opinions, ideas, or feelings are different than my own, does not mean that they are automatically wrong or that they as human beings are any less valid or valued by Our Father in Heaven. 

The more we get out of our comfort zones and intentionally engage, listen to, and get to know people who come from different backgrounds than ourselves, the more opportunities we will have to screw up…yes, that much is definitely true. BUT ALSO the more we will learn about ourselves, each other, and God…and that’s a good thing…a really good thing.

The world is so much grayer than I originally understood and I’m learning I learning to be ok with that. 

You see, I’m beginning to understand and even believe that the gray is ultimately where the sweetest parts of life happen. The gray is where we are stretched, molded, pulled, squished, smoothed, shaped, and changed. The gray is hard and painful, but it is where healing happens, where relationships form, and where barriers are broken down and prejudices torn apart. The gray is where the threads of our common humanity and our oneness is made clear and tangible, if even for the briefest of moments. The gray is where questioning/doubts/fears have the room to breathe.

The gray is messy, but the gray is exactly what Jesus entered into when He stepped down from Heaven to live among us in this fallen world. The gray is the area where God invites us in and promises to walk with us, revealing to us both the brokenness and beauty of His creation. The gray is where we are emptied of everything we thought we knew. It is where we realize our inability as created beings to know all the answers, thereby forcing us into the arms of the One who does. 

These days, rather than trying to run away from it, ignore it, or control it, I’m learning more about what it means to actually enter into the gray and embrace it for all that it is. 

May God grant us patience, grace, wisdom, and courage as we enter into and traverse the gray of life together.

Succession

Missionaries are good at many things. We are adaptable, we are frugal, and we often carry a global perspective.

In my experience, one area we are weak in is in planning for the future. Our strength lies in our ability to respond and change, but at times this keeps our focus on the here and now, rather than outward to what is to come.

This is evident in our finances (but this is for another discussion), our relationships, and often in our ministries.

We are the ones who boldly proclaim retirement is not in the Bible.
We wrestle with whether it is appropriate for us to store up future funds when immediate needs are so great.
We often struggle to travel home to maintain valuable relationships due to the immensity of work which needs to be done on the field.

These are generalizations I realize. But, let’s pause for a moment to consider succession in our ministries.

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I seem to meet many in ministry who have no plan for the work to go on when they are unable to continue.

Why is this?

When our family moved to South Africa eight years ago, we desired to build something which would outlast us. I think this is a common goal and dream among ministries and missionaries.

Why is it so difficult to accomplish?

Sometimes we wonder what we will do if we pass things on.
Fear sets in as we question whether our supporters might assume we no longer have a ministry.
Often we won’t hand our “baby” off to someone who is different than us.
We can’t imagine giving things to a younger leader (wanting to protect them from the same lessons we learned in becoming a “seasoned” leader.
It is even possible to assume the right person will only come at the end of our journey.

What if that “right” person shows up earlier than we expect?
Would we be able to accomplish more things if we actively thought of succession?

The objections to this issue are fair and need to be considered;
It’s too soon.
They are not ready.
The timing must be right.

Let’s look at the other side of the coin.

Passing things off earlier rather than later enables us to:
Release local leaders who likely will be more culturally relevant than ourselves, perhaps taking the ministry even further.
Be present for the growing pains of transition in a coaching and mentoring way.
Allow younger leaders some of the same opportunities we were afforded at their stage.
Ensure that ministries or teams are not based on us.
Set a godly example of leadership which is not power based or title hungry.

And all of this does not reduce our personal fruitfulness, but increases it. We have the freedom to pursue new opportunities and see even greater impact in the nations we serve. We can join the “cloud of witnesses” cheering our successors on through support and encouragement.

Even if our work does not include a team or organization, we should be asking if we are reproducing ourselves and our hearts?

This discussion of handing over our teams or ministries does not have a one size fits all answer.

But, I cannot see any damage in thinking of succession more frequently than we do.

We’ve seen transition done poorly. Longevity of a team or a project is so key, it is worth our consideration.

What are your thoughts or experiences in the area of succession?

– Chris Lautsbaugh, Missionary teacher and author with Youth With A Mission, living in S. Africa.
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