Sunday, November 27, 2016

No Longer Simple

"A missionary friend of mine once said, 'Things were simple before I went to Africa. I knew what the African's problem was, and I knew the answer. When I got there and began to know him as a person, things were no longer simple." - Elisabeth Elliot

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This quote starts off a chapter entitled Learning: Seeking Information That Changes You from the book Cross-Cultural Servanthood that I've been reading through the past couple of weeks.

While I've viewed myself as fairly astute in traveling cross-culturally and I have even lived cross-culturally, I'm discovering how much I really have to learn about ministering and serving cross-culturally. What may be viewed as service in the American culture may not be understood as service in another culture--or worse yet, can even be offensive!

When we read about Jesus washing His disciples' feet and following the Jewish custom of servanthood, what do we as modern day, Western Christians think? We know it's supposed to be a model of servanthood, but it really has no cultural relevance for us Americans. I've personally been at seminars where the main speaker literally washed some of his staff's feet in front of all of us. I've also been at weddings where the bride and groom washed each others' feet. We all knew it was supposed to symbolize ultimate service. But the actual act had lost its significance. In fact, if someone were to wash my feet now, it would be odd and embarrassing! I wouldn't feel honored, and I certainly wouldn't feel like I'd been served.

It's the same way with many Western acts of service. We assume that giving clothes to the poor, meeting someone at a coffeeshop, cleaning the home of a new mom or an elderly person, offering money to help out someone in a tight spot, or giving up our free evening to spend time with someone, will come across to the recipient as acts of service. We certainly mean to help out and to serve the other person--yet the recipient may not view it as such. I would submit to you that it is not the duty of the recipient to try to understand that we meant to serve them, it is our responsibility to perform acts of service that are culturally relevant to the recipient.

I would highly recommend this book for anyone serving in any capacity, and in any country--including America. As the US becomes more culturally diverse, we must make sure that our servant model of being Christ's hands and feet is culturally appropriate.

So how we do that? How do we start to identify acts of service in our own culture and then seek out how to serve in another culture? We must start by learning. We must start by learning about the other culture, learning from someone in the other culture, and then learning with them. And when that happens, I think we'll agree with Elisabeth Elliot that "when I began to know him as a person, things were no longer simple."

Friday, November 25, 2016

Giving Thanks, Meeting Jesus - Behind Bars

It's Thanksgiving Day today. It's a time that Americans give thanks for the many blessings we've received--and in recent years it marks the start of the craziness surrounding Christmas!

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, many people are cooking the pies and all the side dishes, and frantically cleaning their homes before the massive family gatherings on Thanksgiving Day. However, my parents and I went to the local jail instead.

Mom, Dad, and I have been involved with jail ministry for the last two years. I remember the first time I walked through the doors of our local county jail, through the metal detectors, past the guard station, and was escorted down the long hallway with separation cells on each side, all the way back to the multi-purpose room in the female wing. I remember that I wasn't afraid of the inmates themselves, or of any physical harm; I was scared that I wouldn't have anything to say, that the inmates would right me off as a "goody, goody two shoes," and that everything I said would fall flat. While none of that happened, the first couple times Mom and I did a tag-team approach until I felt comfortable enough to lead the group.

We never know if we'll have a group of 3 or 13, if there will be one group or 5, if we'll have 15 minutes or over an hour with a group, and if we'll be all together in the multipurpose room, sitting in the middle of the hall, or talking with ladies in separation cells through the slit in the door. I never know if the inmates will be antagonistic towards the gospel, have a vastly different view of Scripture/God (as was the case with several Mormon inmates we spoke with), if all they remember of the Bible is from stories learned at Grandma's feet, or if they are indeed Christians and are using their time in jail to draw closer to Him.

But I know that I can count on God to show up. I know that the presence of God is not bound by cinder block walls or high security systems. I know that Jesus loves these women like He loves every other human. I know that God answers prayers prayed kneeling on a concrete floor from the mouth of a convicted person just as much as He answers prayers from the pulpit in the largest church. And I've experienced a little bit of what Paul and Silas went through as they were singing in the jail at midnight (Acts 16). I tell you, these women can sing!

Paul and Silas were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake so that all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. The jailer was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” The jailer fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house.  At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. He took them home and brought them food. He was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God" Abridged from Acts 16:22-34 NIV

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I usually try to talk about a Bible story when it's my turn to go to the jail. Only a few of the inmates have a Bible, or one that's in a large enough print or in an easily understood version. And we all like to hear stories, especially when we can relate to some of the characters.

I bought this book about 9 years ago, and it's always been one of my favorites. Andrew Snaden takes familiar accounts from the gospels where Jesus interacted with women, then embellishes the story with historical and cultural information to help modern day readers get a deeper meaning. I decided to share about the Samaritan woman at the well from John 4. Here it is in a slightly bridged version:


Abigail paused at the doorway and looked back at the bed. The man snored under the covers. It was nearing noon, and he was still asleep.

She picked up the water jar by the door. When he awoke, he’d want water, and if it wasn’t there, she’d hear about it all day long. Why did she keep making the same mistake with guy after guy? They’d all seemed so nice to her at first. But this one was a loser, just like the rest.

She took a deep breath at the door. Outside, she would have to face all the whisperers. What a life.
Once she stepped outside, Abigail kept her eyes to the ground in case she accidentally made eye contact with any of the other women. They hated her, she hated them.Was it her fault that men found her attractive or enjoyed her company? But at least they had their original husbands.

After walking across town in the hot sun, Abigail was ready for a deep drink herself. She rounded the corner and stopped in her tracks. A man sat on the stones by the well, and by the looks of him, he was a Jew.

Just great. What should she do? She picked this time of day to avoid talking to anyone, and this Jew was sitting right there. What if some of the women walked by and saw her standing there alone with him. They’d draw all sorts of conclusions.

But Abigail couldn’t go home. If she returned without water, the loser back home would just send her back out again. She took a deep breath and walked to the well, as if the man wasn’t even there. She stole a glance at him, and realized that he looked tired. She started to lower her jar into the well.

“Will you give me a drink?”

She froze. The Jew had just talked to her. Jews didn’t talk to Samaritans; they seemed to think that her entire race was a bunch of half-breeds. And no man ever talked to her without expecting something in return. Was this guy trying to stir up trouble?

She paused and looked at him. “You’re a Jew, and I’m a Samaritan. How can you ask me for a drink?”

But instead of the usual sneer Jews gave Samaritans, he replied with a gentle smile, “If you knew the gift of God and who I am, you would have asked me and I would have given you living water.”

Huh? The Generosity of God? The sun must be making him lightheaded!

“Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and that well is very deep! And what do you mean ‘living water?’ Our own forefather Jacob dug this well and drank from it, along with all of his livestock. Are you better than him?”

The man shook his head, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again. But whoever drinks of the water I give will never thirst again. The water I give will become like a spring inside him, welling up to eternal life.”

Abigail was puzzled. At any other time, and with any other man, she would have simply ignored him as a crazy person. But as she studied his face, she realized that he wasn’t crazy. And strangely enough, in this man’s presence, she felt safe!

“Sir, give me this water, so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

The smile faded from his face and he replied, “Go get your husband and come back.”

Abigail looked at the ground. She couldn’t bring the loser. He’d accuse her of being involved with this man. He’d blab to the whole town and maybe even throw her back out on the streets. She said the only thing she could, “I have no husband.”

The man replied, “You are right to say that. The truth is that you’ve had 5 husband, and you’re not married to the man you’re with now.”

Abigail’s eyes widened. How could he know that! She’d never seen him around before. And as a foreigner, he couldn’t have been hanging around town and listening to the gossips. Surely, he would have been discovered. Abigail took a deep breath and steadied herself. There was only one way that he could know this about her. But she still felt the need to remind him how different they were.

“Sir, you must be a prophet. Our forefathers have worshiped God on this mountain, but you Jews say the only proper place to worship is in Jerusalem.”

The man smiled, just like her father used to when she tried to “teach” him something.  “You Samaritans worship what you don’t really understand. But we worship what we do know—and salvation is coming from the Jews. There will come a time when all of God’s worshipers will not have to go to a specific place to worship Him.”

Could this man really mean what he said? “I know that the Messiah is coming, and when he comes he will explain everything to us.”

He held her eyes for a moment. “I am he.”

She went numb. This was all too incredible. The hope of the centuries claimed that he stood right before her. Surely he was toying with her… But no, he knew about all the other men, and how could she explain how she felt in his presence? Part of her felt like a little lost girl whose father found her in the woods, and part of her felt very, very afraid. Just as she opened her mouth to speak, she saw other Jewish men approaching.

The looks on their faces showed they weren’t too pleased to see their friend talking to her. And it was well known that Jewish men didn’t tolerate a woman with a lifestyle like hers. She dropped her water jar, turned around, and ran back to town.

She ran past the women standing outside the market, and right up to the men of the town. Her chest heaved as she tried to catch her breath.  They looked at her like she was crazy, but boy did she have a story to tell them. She’d just met the Messiah and this was something she couldn’t keep silent!

“Come, see a man who told me everything I’d ever done. Could this really be the Christ!?!?”

Mom and I talked through the story with the women, asking questions and pausing to place ourselves in "Abigail's" shoes. We thought about why Jesus "needed to go through Samaria," why He planned to arrive thirsty at the well so He would have something to talk about with the woman, what tone He might have used when exposing her past failed relationships, why He might have chosen to speak to her in order to reach the men of the village, and how the gospel spread throughout the region because of her.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful for a God who goes out of His way to talk with the lowest of the low. I am thankful for a God who looks beyond my past as simply fact. I am thankful for a God who exposes my true needs, even when I throw up smoke screens and try to distract Him. I am thankful for a God who invites us to worship Him in our hearts, doing away with the need to go to a specific place. And I am thankful that even though these women may be behind bars, we can worship this great God together.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Missions Dilemma

One of the courses the SIM organization requires for long term missionaries is called "The Missions Dilemma." It's a 7-part video series and workbook that's designed to open the eyes of North American Christians to how it feels to have "missions done to us," and thereby change how we live and serve cross-culturally. Much of it is  information that  was originally presented through the Perspectives course I took earlier this year, or are thoughts I've had while participating in short term mission trips over the last few years, but it's very helpful to have it presented in a concise manner.

Steve Saint is the course author/presenter. If his name doesn't ring a bell, what about the name Nate Saint? Or Jim Elliot? Steve's father and three other men were killed while reaching out to the Auca people in Ecuador in 1956. Steve's family continued to minister among the Auca people, and later Steve and his sister were baptized by two of the very same warriors who had killed his father. Steve went on to write the book "End of the Spear" which was turned into a movie in 2005.

One of the things I like best about the video sessions are the interviews with non-American Christians, many of them missionaries themselves. Their honesty as they talk about their experiences with North American missionaries coming in to do things for them, to identify their communities' needs and then design a master plan for meeting those needs, and to build churches with cement and galvanized tin roofs (completely foreign materials for many people groups!) is tough to hear. But I've seen it myself. I've committed many of those same mistakes in missions myself.

I'm starting to realize that simply by being white, I have influence (and often power) in many other cultures. Even if I were to live in a mud-brick hut, sleep in a hammock, and cook over an open fire, I would be viewed as wealthy. Even if I have a completely empty bank account, I'm viewed as rich, simply because I could pick up the phone and call someone who could send me money. Simply because I'm American, my words have clout. And most American missionaries don't even realize this. We dominate people simply because of who we are, and without concerted effort to build relationships and come in as learners, we will end up dominating and suffocating the very people we've come to serve?

How much better it would be to come into a community as a learner and to build relationships before I ever begin to open my mouth? How much more could I accomplish by partnering with the local body of believers, or by seeking out the "man of peace" that is open to the gospel? How much more sustainable would a building project or healthcare initiative be if I would assist the local people in doing for themselves and doing it in their own way with their own materials?

Often, I think missionaries feel like they have to have their lives together in order to be used by God. Maybe the American church puts missionaries on pedestals, touting their bravery, their dedication, and their sacrifice. But Steve said it this way, "People don't want to see that we've never suffered. Then we lose total credibility. They want to see that we have a wound where they have a wound, and that ours has healed." (Missions Dilemma, video session 3)

Much of my first term on the mission field will be dedicated to building relationships and becoming a student of the Nigerian culture. Praise God if I get a physical therapy clinic up and running or if I can start assimilating some patient data for a future research paper. But since I'm in this for the long haul, I MUST make sure that I build relationships that will last my entire missions career.

The missions dilemma is this: I want to "go and do." My supporting churches and friends are expecting me to report back results and numbers. However, I cannot burn bridges and dominate the very women I'm going to serve.

If you're interested in reading more about this topic, you can sign up for Steve's email list on the website here, and get his book, "The Great Omission" as an e-book for free.

What do you think? Are any of these new thoughts for you? Feel free to write a comment below and let's dialogue some more.

And for anyone who's looking for a good group video series, this is it. It's pertinent for any American Christian, whether serving as a missionary, supporting a missionary, or simply engaging with God's heart for missions.