I Write Because... Precision

I’ve been writing with some consistency since I was in early High School. Back then a friend of mine pressed me in to writing poetry and I loved it. Though, I still have those poems and they’re pretty embarrassingly awful. Thankfully we get better with practice, of which I’m still in need of a lot.

Writing is fascinating to me because the written word, different from the spoken word, allows for careful contemplation and the ability to arrive more precisely at that which I’m trying to express. I consider myself a relatively well spoken person. And if there is ever a time I feel I don’t express myself well when speaking English, I only have to compare it to my second language speaking to suddenly feel very confident. When speaking English I feel like I have a funnel of words hovering above my head and the ability to think quickly enough to grasp with Swiss-made-watch precision the exact word I want to best express myself. When speaking a second language it’s more like a thin pillar than a big funnel. There may be ten words for thief but I only know 3 of them; or five words for lonely, but I don’t fully understand the nuance of difference between them.

When writing I get the luxury of the huge funnel to start, and then I also get to come back and revise to be even more precise.

I imagine it’s something like how I view a master painter. On my very best days I can draw stick figures that look like people. I always am jealous of folks who can paint something which looks exactly how they want. Even if it’s impressionism and not realism, it still blows my mind that an artist can create on a canvas, that which is in their head.

Perhaps better than many, I can express myself in written word to a great degree in the way I desire. But at the end of the day this is still my frustration, there is something in my head which still doesn’t come out quite as elegantly on the paper as I would like. Often times I edit something five or six times and still manage to miss a simple spelling error. Or I wrack my brain for days and end up publishing something insufficient because I can’t ever bring to mind exactly the word or phrase I want.

I wonder if even the master painter is frustrated with the differences in what is in his head and what ends up on the canvas. Or if the composer never fully gets exaclty what’s in his head out on paper.

I hope that’s the case. Because if I’m the only one still writing because I want to improve my writing to perfectly express my thought, well then I don’t think I could handle that.

I write because I have an idea that will never be fully made clear until it’s expressed in this exact medium. Because the written word is the closest I can get to a representation of what’s in my head. Because I think in words, not pictures or music. And I write because I think someday I just might write a piece entirely imperfect, but perfectly expressing my mind’s imperfections.

The Wall (School Age Kids)

In conversation with my brother-in-law tonight we discussed the wall missionaries hit at around 30 or 35 (give or take) in their lives. Life wasn’t easy when overseas as a young single or even a young couple. But it is nonetheless decidedly different when you have kids, and those kids are hitting school age. Especially when the culture primarily bleeds things you don’t want your kids to learn.

We’re hitting a wall where staying overseas means stepping up our lives substantially. Figuring out how to get our kids in school and live a sustainable lifestyle in this other culture. It’s a wall which causes a lot of people to just move home. And maye that’s what we’ll do. Who knows (though it isn’t our plan right now).

Anyhow, my brother-in-law tonight got to discussing this and mentioned, this is a wall people hit in America too. Actually that’s a big encouragement to me. Even life in America gets tough when your children reach a certain age and life suddenly picks up a certain stress and complexity. Being overseas may add a bit of complexity to it, but life itself reaches a tough point around now.

Figuring out how to get through this next stage of life is a part of life as much as it is a part of missionary life.

America for a Missionary

America for a missionary is a funny place. To us (and especially our children) it’s a great playground filled with delicious food, fun things to do for cheap (or free), and a whole culture who doesn’t treat us like lepers. People don’t stop my children in the street and rub their hands through their hair, people don’t stop to gawk and take pictures. We may personally feel very out of place here, but to everyone else around us we fit in, at least a little bit.

And then there is the fact that my work, when in America, looks very different from my normal work. Support raising is primarily fun meals with fascinating people and then interesting travel and catching up with old friends. Also, I get to be home with the kids a lot more than in regular life.

But it isn’t real life. It isn’t normal overseas life and it isn’t the normal life of a normal American. It’s something “other”. There are times, like runs through beautiful open spaces, where it’s invigorating. And then there are times, like when someone starts talking about their new vacation home, where our eyes glaze over and we get exhausted trying to engage. This is our third furlough in the last eight years, and it increasingly feels cross-cultural to come visit this place.

Though there are some things that we get used to again instantly, like how the roads are wide and people drive carefully. Or how the snack isles are filled with things I find delicious (instead of spicy chicken heads or pickled octopus).

I’m most thankful for the friends that care for me. Love me. And engage with me, even when they’re completely at a loss as to how to continue the conversation. I’m thankful for the sunshine. And I’m thankful for a God that gives rest to His people.

A Missionary Without Honor

We’re on furlough stateside now and it’s the first furlough that I’m wondering how much longer we have overseas. In the past we have always thrived and then, in the last year, found our boundaries. Suddenly where we live isn’t obviously long-term-able for the family. I’m not saying we’re leaving right now—we’re not planning on it. But eventually we will be.

Anyhow, I’ve been chewing lately on why I’m so opposed to leaving. The first and most obvious reason is I still believe overseas is where I am called to be. But the second reason is fear.

We’ve been outside of America for a long time and frankly, I’m not real sure what life looks like state-side.

But it occurs to me what I would miss the most (and maybe what I really fear) in leaving the mission field, is the honor I have being there. I’ve been in-country long enough to be somewhat senior. Not the most senior, by any means, but many people have been there shorter than I have, which earns me some respect for longevity. But then there is that which is undeserved, the honor given just because I’m white, or because I speak Chinese, or whatever.

Someday moving to America means someday giving up an immense amount of honor—honor I’ve grown used to. But that is kind of a lame reason to stay overseas. I hope I lean on the Lord enough to have the strength to stay exactly as long as I’m called. Likewise, I hope I have the courage to leave when it’s time, even though America is intimidating. And even though I would be forfeiting a certain amount of honor with which I’ve definitely grown quite comfortable.

A Weekend Near the Border with Burma

I’ve taken trips to the country-side before. But this one was different for a number of reasons. First of all, it was my first such trip with no other foreigners to share the experience. As such I imagine there were several things which would have made me laugh had someone with a Western perspective been there to share the experience with me, but rather I glossed over them or moved on too quickly.

That said, there was still plenty of note. I travelled with a local pastor friend of mine. I could explain all the relationships and these peoples roles, but it was an unusual event because they all have ties to the government and should never have been hosting a foreigner, so unfortunately I have to leave out the interesting details. Suffice it to say we were headed to see my local friend’s old buddy of the Lisu minority (the people to whom James Fraser of the China Inland Mission famously preached). This Lisu friend was my first interaction with a Lisu minister of any sort, let alone one connected somehow with the government. The Lisu pastor explained to me that he would have to be very careful about how he handled hosting me, but that as long as I wasn’t given the chance to preach in one of the churches he would probably not get in trouble.

We arrived on a Saturday night around midnight and Sunday morning we attended two of the three services our Lisu host normally attends and where he preaches. The first service was a Mandarin speaking service with people who were Lisu, Jingpo, and Han. I was the only foreinger, and the only one who had probably ever attended the service. Foreign missionaries still work amongst these people, but usually (I would assume) with the underground church. We met on the second floor of a country-home which had an open-air living room. The service began in no remarkable fashion, but then I was asked if I would be willing to stand and sing a solo worship song. That was new.

I did my best, when asked about 5 minutes later, to sing Come Thou Fount in a manner reasonable enough to not be too embarrassing for those attending. I think I did alright all things considered. But the suddenness of being asked did cause me to realize just how few worship songs I was comfortable singing from front to back without forgetting the words (especially under pressure). They later did compliment me on my singing, but I have every reason to believe it was a sympathy complement and not an encouragement to pursue this as a career.

We proceeded from there to a Lisu service where I understood nothing of what was said. It is a very interesting sounding dialect. Despite this, it was wonderful to see these people worship, and the way three of the male elders gathered half way through worship to sing an accapella rendering of some worship song in their language—perfectly harmonized. It would have been comparable to a chamber choir or whatever they’re called in the States.

That afternoon I took a bit too long of a nap and therefore the host felt uncomfortable waking me to take me along for the third service. This did make it possible for me to go for a run on the mountains which was something I wanted desperately to do. The paths were only remarkable in that almost none of them weaved slowly back and forth up the mountain, but rather were literally straight up from the village to the peak, often at an incline so steep I could barely maintain grip with my feet while I attemped to move at a pace faster than a crawl.

Later the brother-in-law of our host (we called him Er-Jie-Fu or, the husband of the second eldest sister) arrived and spent some time with us. Erjiefu wore a very large tooth around his neck from a wild boar he had killed himself. I like most people I meet in the city, he was stout, strong, and dark skinned from a life of pretty intense labor. He maintained farming all of the family’s land on steep mountain sides while the rest of the family was now involve in ministry or other work.

Erjiefu insisted on showing us around the grounds a bit, including the crops they were growing in bark on stilts around their house. Even my local native-speaker friend had never heard of this plant, but we were told it sells for a very high price to be used in Chinese medicine. We tried a bit of it (supposedly good for your eyes), but it was nearly flavorless and I’m sure I didn’t eat enough to know if the eye-thing is true.

After this we were shown a bees nest they keep (though they looked like black wasps… but do wasps make honey?), and then given some of the honey. It’s my understanding that bees honey doesn’t really go bad, but this seemed quite … um … bad. In fact the honey was a slightly green color (not orange or yellow) and had a bit of a rancid taste to it. I don’t know if this the result of the strange crop these bees were probably feeding off of, or if the honey had truly turned. It was everything I had to down the small spoonful worth of the stuff I was given for as interesting as it was, it tasted something terrible.

Later as a going-away gift I was given the remainder of the honey in an old plastic jar, as well as some instant coffee (everyone in this country thinks Americans love their Nescafé).

That night around nine when I was ready for bed, the host finally returned from his crazy long day, and he wanted to take us for some late-night cookout. I was very sleepy but could tell he really wanted to go, so I went for the ride. It was a half an hour in to the village, and then quite a bit from there. We didn’t get home until midnight again, but they were quite blessed by my attendance. They offered to bust out some wonderfully brewed local wine, but apparently they really meant grape-juice. A distinction that is very clear in Chinese, and therefore I can only imagine he was joking intentionally when he mentioned it. That said, I would have been quite surprised if they drank real alcohol as it’s something the Lisu believers famously don’t partake of.

The next morning I was guest of honor at Erjiefu’s courtyard, pig-raising, house and then sent on my way.

Beautiful mountains. A spontaneous singing role. Probably-rancid honey. The whole deal. A very interesting weekend.

On Theological Differences and Fruit

I work with a lot of different churches from a lot of different theological persuasions. Just yesterday I met with a pastor I really enjoy and respect, but with whom I have many differences of theology. Throughout his discussion with me about issues in his church, or problems different people are facing, or even in discussing the church as a whole in this country, there are times where I cringe because I fundamentally disagree with his opinions.

What is difficult in these interactions is knowing when to speak up and actually vocally disagree, when to just mention that there may be other views on the topic, and when I should completely keep my mouth shut. Sometimes I walk this balance well, other times I’m not so sure. Most of the time my opinion on a secondary issue (i.e. not the gospel) is of little importance. If he agreed with my view on something he might interact differently or think differently about a situation, but my goal as a missionary is not to bring everyone in to my fold of theological thinking. My goal is to point people to Jesus. And sometimes that means specifically allowing locals to chase the Lord in a way different than I would. But it isn’t always easy. And even more difficult is knowing when holding my tongue is going to cause even bigger conflict down the line.

As a general rule, I try to balance my speaking up with the quality of the fruit the church is producing. In my meeting yesterday I have many disagreements with this pastor, but I can work with him easily because I’m so profoundly impressed with the quality of their church’s fruit. I don’t spend much time worrying about their methodology (even though some of it drives me batty) because their people are walking boldly and blatantly in the grace of the Lord. They understand the gospel and are living it out in their church and in the world. As a result, I don’t need to butt in very much with concern over secondary theological issues. However when a church leader is struggling with his marriage, or his people are dealing with sin or false teaching it’s harder to hold my tongue when disagreements arise. If the fruit the church is producing is scary to me, I speak up. And if a pastor is failing to live, preach, or believe the gospel, that’s not something I ever let slide.

Investment Prospectus for the Kingdom

From a business perspective, supporting an American missionary overseas is not always the best call. A single American may need to raise two or three times what a local couple in that country would need in order to fund their full time ministry. And the local couple would probably be more competent (in most ways) at the work than the American (or other Westerner).

If that American had one child (or six) that cost suddenly increases even more dramatically. And then Americans, like other countries, have our unique problems related to our current social issues. The monthly fee for my medical insurance, for example, is probably enough to fully support a local couple.

However we are not in a business making investments like a businessman. This is the Kingdom, and the CEO of the Kingdom is not limited in resources to the point where he can only make the best investments. He has the finances to take risky bets. He even has the finances to invest in that person He really liked, even though the guy probably won’t be but mediocre at his job. Sometimes God might invest in someone simply because He wants to work with him.

What does this mean for us? It means we don’t just support the most financially strategic people. We support people to do what the Lord has called them to do simply because the Lord called them to it. We support people to full time ministry because the Lord wants us to pray for more laborers and then rejoice when they arrive.

There will always be someone more financially strategic. There is someone somewhere in Africa who is an incredible minister of the Gospel, is unbelievably effective at what he does, and can live off a gourd or three each day. To participate in his ministry financially would cost pennies and have huge payoff; he would be, by the world’s definition, the best financial investment. But he’s not the only one the Lord called. And I’m arguing we should support people for who they are in the Kingdom, because they are humble ministers of the gospel of Christ, and because the God of heaven called them to go.

Don’t be stupid with your money, you are, after all, called to steward it wisely. But being stingy in your investments in the Kingdom for “business” reasons is neither wise, nor good stewardship.

The How

Talked with a brother today who has been wounded by colleagues of mine. Wounded because he wasn’t willing to sacrifice the people he was serving for the cause he was told should take precidence. This is hard to hear.

If our goal is human praised legacies in a perishing world, then the “how” of what we accomplish will always be of secondary concern (at best). But if our goal is an everlasting Kingdom, the “how” is of utmost importance. As is the collateral damage we cause on the way.

Aspiring Faith Healer

I have a local friend (let’s call him Hank) who has recently decided to get serious about his faith. On the one hand this is always good news, he had been a believer for many years and lived a life no different from non-believers until just recently. Getting serious about what he believes and attempting to live the life of a believer is a good thing.

On the other hand, however, is the means by which he’s going about this. And not all of it is good. More prayer is something most of us wish we were engaged in. Hank has gone from next-to-zero prayer to six hours each day of prayer. Again, in and of itself the prayer isn’t bad—it’s great. But the prayer has immediately become a source of pride for him. He notched it up to six hours because he knows no one who prays that much. It has become a point of pride, he wants to know if he prays more than me. Yes. Yes he does. Now it’s hard to reach six hours except he prays in tongues for the good majority of it. A hero of his quit his job to pray every day, and prayed so much his jaw hurt. This is essentially the standard for which he’s striving.

Now while the gift of tongues has become a point of pride (as somehow this specific gift tends to do), finding himself in a new church where almost everyone speaks in tongues took away something he thought made him special. He now is seeking out the gift of miraculous healing.

Again, this is nothing to give me pause in and of itself. Seeking gifts from the Lord is not inherently something to be wary of, especially those intended for the building up of the church. Using the gifts of the Lord to commune with him is also a wonderful thing if that’s actually what’s happening. The problem is when prayer is really just self-absorbed meditation—I have reason to suspect in this situation it may be. And then when, in seeking the power of the Holy Spirit, you become like Simon seeking personal gain and power (Acts 8:18), you have something else entirely.

So with Hank, I keep pressing in about the gospel. Reminding him that prayer does not make him righteous, and he is startled to be reminded this, though he already knows it. I keep reminding him all of this is supposed to make him more in love with his savior, not a famous Christian. But I understand what the draw is—the world remembers famous Christians.

He stands and heads to his computer to show me videos of some of the people he wants to be like. He’s searched online and found Benny Hinn. And a few other personalities with things to… um… give you pause.

His current great desire is to throw huge “gospel” meetings and do well-performed faith healing.

I wish he could have seen things like the Toronto Blessing and the Lakeland Revival up close. Such meetings are enough to leave an impression—the little bit of good (and God at work) mixed in amongst the foolishness.

In the Acts passage, Simon is rebuked and immediately seems to notice his folly. I suppose I could rebuke Hank, to tell him to seek the Holy Spirit for who He is, not the power He possesses. But it would be a lot easier to do so if my motivations were always so pure.

Instead the best I can offer is a reminder to Hank as well as myself, that a famous Christian is not what the vast majority of us are called be. Servants, humbly doing His will, and fading out of the limelight is where we probably belong. More glory for Jesus, and less for us. We must decrease so He can increase.

Divine Machiavellianism

I’ve already spent some time writing about the issues I have with our definition of “church.” How often we misunderstand it to be referring to our Sunday programs rather than the people that make up the body of Christ.

I’m realizing my biggest frustration in this is it causes us to believe our Sunday services are protected by divine right. If our programs, rather than the people of the Kingdom, are the church, then many of our current heartless actions make sense. And running people over to make our programs bigger, better, flashier, etc… are all warranted behavior. In this ecclesiology, jerkface actions are not just good—they are in fact divinely Machiavellian.

Doing Evangelism Still Gets Me Excited—though perhaps for the wrong reasons...

I don't know if I actually like evangelism better than everything else I do (or better than most of it), or if it just fulfills something in my mind of what I think a person in my vocation should be doing. Is my doing it motivated by actual understanding of its inherent value? It does fire me up big time when I get to really tell someone about Jesus. Or is my doing evangelism primarily motivated by my desire to feel validated in the world or in the Lord's eyes?

Because if the latter, it's definitely a wrong motivation or at least one grounded in misunderstanding of the gospel. Not saying I should wait to get my motivations right to keep going about it. And I'm sure my motivations are somehow a combination of both, but it nonetheless makes me pause. Especially as I just had opportunity to share. And I'm pretty pumped pumped right now. 

Then again, getting the opportunity to tell someone about the only hope in this life and the next, getting to be a part of potentially changing their forever, that's no little deal. 

For Those Who's Needs Aren't Being Met

This week someone on Facebook posted a link to this article about bad reasons to leave your church. Number four states: "My Needs Aren’t Being Met". Terrible, terrible people. How dare they selfishly leave a Sunday morning program so absorbed in itself it believes *it* is the church. This article states, and I wish I were making it up, but I'm not, "the Church actually isn’t about you. It’s about Jesus. It’s his Church. He came for it. He died for it. He redeemed it. He continues to build it. And one day, he’ll come back for it. It’s his. . . . The Church doesn’t exist to meet your needs. You are a part of the Church that exists to meet the needs of the world. Put away the shopping cart and pick up a shovel."

All great points about *the* church. And terrible terrible concepts to apply to your Sunday morning program. If your church is saying these things, it might be time pick up your shovel... and dig an escape hole. Let's turn this wording back around on the pastors confusing these things: the Church actually isn’t about your Suday program. It’s about Jesus. It’s his Church. He came for it. He died for it. He redeemed it. He continues to build it. And one day, he’ll come back for it, and you'll be responsible before Him for what you've done with His people. It’s his.

So for goodness sake, let people go when they find life with Sunday services whose pastors don't believe their Sunday attendance should, by divine decree, never shrink. 

Worthwhile Sacrifice

If I felt called by the Lord to service in steamboat springs Colorado it would not be much of a sacrifice for me. In fact if I could move anywhere in the world that's exactly where I'd pick. I could do it. Probably in my own strength, and probably forever. 

But what about when a missionary iscalled from Alaska to an island in the Phillipines without air conditioning? What about him? How much is he who hates heat being called to sacrifice? And what should he be willing to put up with to fulfill what he is called to do?

Heat may be is a small thing and has an easy answer: suck it up. 

However, what I'm really driving at is my current situation. I'm in a place that is awful. Like really truly unpleasant to live, for a number of reasons; many of which are admittedly personal dislikes. But I feel genuinely like this I where the Lord wants me to be. I don't think He always calls us to places that are miserable. But I also am not convinced he will always call us to a place we will easily thrive on our own, or even enjoy. 

So here I am, life isn't great, but the ministry is so much fun I'm having pretty good fun doing it. This alone is nearly enough to sustain me here, at least for a time. The issue then is the family. If my family can't thrive here, then all of sudden I'm sacrificing something very different than my personal displeasure with the oppressive heat, humidity, and lack of sunshine. I'm sacrificing my wife's willingness to follow me places and my children's education and friendships (both of which are basically non-existant here). 

There are ways around these things. There are always other things we can try, and we keep trying them. But nothing seems to work. There is one obvious education option that we have confidence would solve most of out frustrations—but it's about $100,000 out of our price range. 

My question therefore is, what is a worthwhile sacrifice? Sometimes to be in the service of the Lord you need to make sacrifices. Lack of comfort, I can handle, and money I'm willing to give up. But my family? I've put my foot down there. If the Lord doesn't figure out a way for them to do more than just barely survive, I can no longer care how much I feel called here or how much I love the work or see the need for it; I'll duck tail and run. They are, afterall, my most important disciples. 

But that's where it gets interesting. Before I can feel good about leaving I have to do and try everything I can imagine to try and make it work. This means writing letters and asking for favor. This means pleading with our supporters for prayer. And this means putting my kids and wife in less-than-comfortable situations for a time to see if we can figure something out. 

In the mean time, I lean on the promises of the Lord for rest, and for His presence to be obvious with us. He knows how much we can really take better than we do. But keeping our eye on the prize is hard when we're desperately limping forward. 

Here's to praying He figures something out. 

Manpower and the Glory of God

When we have a problem in the church or in missions or whatever we also have a solution. We throw more people at it. Enough people and we’ll solve world evangelism, enough hard work and we can get there.

We have a word for this - manpower.

This has to be at best hilarious to The Lord and a worst an offense to him. After all how often do we see manpower as the solution The Lord uses in the Bible?

When God wants to accomplish something often he first whittles the manpower down to near-negligible before using His way, which is something else entirely: God power.

The problem with manpower is the glory it brings to man. And the reason for whittling down to very little is to demonstrate Matthew 19:26, that what is impossible with man is possible with God.

How does this inform our desire to throw people, hardwork, labor, manpower at our spiritual problems?

If you need 500 wooden chairs built, having 500 people to help you build will definitely accomplish the task quicker than just one man. And maybe that’s all the solution you need (certainly many problems in the world can be solved this way). But in the Kingdom there is only one master carpenter with the skill to build the chairs necessary; with the variety, stability, and durability to suit the king for whom they’re being built.

Is this Even Possible? or: Everyday Missionary Mental Struggles

“This city is too big. There is no reason to go. We will surely not make a difference.”

I’m sorry, but such thinking may have just condemned you to the desert for 40 years. (See Numbers 14).

Problem is, here I am teetering back and forth on the ledge of condemnation if this is true. Thankfully there is redemption, the blood of Christ, the resurrection, and hope for the people of God.