Category: Beautiful Obedience

Discovering Jesus

I recently had an article published in Reach Beyond’s magazine. Here it is for your perusal.

Two ships sit in the harbor. Both tall-masted, with sails unfurled. So alike, so different. 

The one to the north is the HMS Merchantman, a merchant ship laden with valuable cargo. Anchored to the south, an exploratory vessel, the HMS Discovery. Can you see them? One carrying goods, the other carrying curiosity. Hold them a moment in your mind’s eye, then consider…

How might these two ships be equipped – one for commerce, and the other for discovery?

How might their itineraries differ?

Who would you expect to find on each? What skills would be needed in each endeavor?

How might dinner at the captain’s table go on each ship? Who would attend? What might the dialogue be?

If you were to spend a year on each, how different would those years be?

Narratives as vessels for thinking

We like to believe that we deal in facts, but in point of fact, we deal in stories. We are physiologically hard-wired to process facts by building stories to make sense of them. Narratives are the ships our thoughts sail in, the operating systems of our minds, and we can’t think without them. They make astounding cognition possible. But they also limit the places our thoughts can go, and if left unexamined, they can force us to see the world through crippling lenses.

Societies do this, too. Our most important processes are carried out in stories, so that our values can be transmitted undamaged. These processes (e.g. marriage, passage into adulthood, leading and following) are similar across the species, but the way we do it differs from culture to culture. Hollywood and Bollywood tell very different stories about exactly the same things, and this is why.

Cultures often have a central narrative, and members of that culture are rarely aware of it. These stories are usually morally neutral, but when a cultural narrative impedes our ability to obey Jesus, it requires critique, and an alternative narrative must be found.

We do mission inside stories, and sometimes those stories limit and warp our mission. It’s no accident that the Crusades happened during an era driven by feudalism. Conquest was the story, and so the sword drove the narrative of mission. Likewise, during an era of unprecedented Imperial British reach, we should not be surprised to find Colonialism driving the mission narrative of the day. People didn’t always shed blood and subjugate continents motivated by evil. Sometimes they were blinded by their narrative. An unexamined narrative will always misguide us.

Occasionally, an individual or a small group caught on and went off script, opting for a different story to live in. Francis of Assisi is an excellent example. Rattled by the dissonance between the gospels and the narrative on offer, Francis took off his clothes and the story they were made for, stood apart and began building a better story. 

Marketing Jesus

Perhaps the loudest voice in the missiological dialogue right now is the American voice, and the dominant American cultural narrative is Capitalism. It’s in everything we do, much of what we say, and in the majority of our assumptions about one another’s motives. It should not surprise us to find, then, that the narrative we do mission in is a story about marketing Jesus. Let me show you what I mean.

In the bible, pastors are skilled, gifted heads of believing households. In North America, pastors are CEOs of charitable institutions. The books on church leadership are business leadership books, baptized with Bible words. Churches compete for customers, and when income no longer meets overhead, churches close. In the New Testament, all the believers in a city were the church in that city. In the US, a church is where you shop for a spiritual product.

When I was in seminary, Coca Cola was a favorite tool of mission mobilizers. They would show a picture of a shaman somewhere in Papua drinking a Coke, and cry, “We have had the Great Commission for 2,000 years! How did Coke get there before us?” The analogy is totally irrelevant, but we all responded. Why? Because we thought of the gospel as a product we needed to deliver to a market. That’s the only way that analogy holds.

Once we get “over there”, we set out to find the felt needs in our communities. Usually, we walk right past our neighbors to do that. We don’t live deeply in communities; we study them, to find out how best to pitch our product, and we pitch. We talk a lot, and we don’t ask many questions. Jesus asked a lot of questions. So if we don’t do it like him, who’s doing it wrong?

If stuff starts to happen, we measure it. I was a scientist, once. I measured things, to learn about them. But we usually measure results to validate our efforts, our callings, ourselves. We rarely measure how our disciples effect change in their communities. We measure numbers and speed of spread. Market penetration. 

We write mission statements and vision statements and value statements, just like Jesus taught us to. Except he didn’t. We learned that from the business world, so whose disciples are we?

Listen, I think business is good. I love Business As Mission. I hate Mission As Business.

Discovering Jesus

So, here’s an alternative narrative to try out: Mission, not as spiritual entrepreneurism, but as spiritual exploration.

Let’s imagine again. This time, imagine a parallel universe, just like ours, with one exception. In this world, the Western mission narrative for the last three hundred years hasn’t been delivering Jesus to needy markets, but rather discovering Jesus in the world and helping others see him, too. How might mission happen differently in this story?

Mobilizers wouldn’t ask people to “take Jesus to places he isn’t, yet.” Rather, they might invite people to go discover Jesus in the many places he hasn’t yet been sighted. He’s always been there. It’s just that the not-yet-engaged can’t see him.

Proclamation and disciple making would be less about delivering a message and downloading content into people. Rather, the preacher’s task would be to look for burning bushes, evidences of Christ at play, within and without. If I discover Jesus at work in my heart, I proclaim that, and when people have questions, I answer them from my own first hand experience of Jesus and the gospels. Like Peter moving from his contemplative vision on a rooftop to opening the Kingdom to the Gentiles under Cornelius’s roof.

When I discover Jesus at work in a lost community, I proclaim that, and I invite them to see that, too, using the Scriptures in tandem with the Spirit, to discover Christ’s invitation and an appropriate response. Like Paul in Athens at the statue of the unknown god.

Leadership would require a different skill set. We would need to release control of outcomes and learn to sail with the Wind. We would need perceptive skills like listening prayer, collective discernment, and reflective obedience. Leaders would have to become good at hearing the voice of the Spirit in their community, and then working with it until there’s enough clarity to act. Like the prophets and teachers in Antioch, the Jerusalem Council, and Paul’s team hearing the Macedonian Call.

I think I’d walk around differently in that universe. Instead of trudging through a world of darkness and hostility, trying to force a product on people who don’t want it, I could walk free through a world of beauty (with its dangers, toils and snares), seeking out the burning bushes, the whispers of God’s good intentions, declaring them as I boldly go. Playing hide and seek with God like it’s my job, except He’s not hiding from those who look.

We need a new boat

The Merchantman has taken us as far as it can. We need the Discovery. The unengaged need explorers, not marketers. Jesus is nearer to them than their skin, but the god of this world has blinded their eyes to his glory. We, however, can see him.

And I want to see all the ways Jesus makes beauty and justice grow from chaos and corruption. I want to hear His myriad names in as many tongues, watching Him reveal Himself to peoples who have never beheld glory, in households and neighborhoods who have had Him burning their bushes for years, but have never seen. I want to navigate the world, not as a traveling salesman, but as a peregrine, an explorer, witnessing restoration as I help to bring it forth along the way. 

And I know I’m not alone.

Let’s go see what we see.

Monday Musing: Postured to Understand

Happy Monday, to you!

The feedback we get on our newsletters is funny. Lots of folks seem to like the pics and the personal stories. Some seem to appreciate having concrete things to be praying about. And some are helped by the more ethereal, what-we’re-learning bits – “the teachy stuff”, as my lovely wife says. It’s hard to fit all that in an update short enough that people will read it 🙂

So, I had an idea. Occasionally, on a Monday, I’ll write something I’m thinking about, drawn from experiences – with people, with God, with the Text – in this context. We’ll call those Monday’s Musings. Occasionally, on Wednesdays, I’ll hit you up with a story or a situation here, and some concrete things to pray for. What’s Up Wednesday. How does that sound?

We’ve been consulting with another team in the country, here. They’re all new (inside their first two years). So, of course, they’re showing the wear and tear of team life, trying to learn a new language in a new place with a new culture and finding out they’re not who they thought they were, exactly – so, even a new them.

They invited us to a team meeting and we shared some things we wish we had known, or ways we wish we had thought about things, in our first few years here. Essentially, 4 New Orientations for Life Abroad.

Orienting to a Language.

Orienting to a Culture.

Orienting to a whole new angle on You and Jesus.

Orienting to your Team.

The cool thing was that, as I put this little talk together, I found there were themes that emerged – lessons that applied to more than one orientation. Postures for Becoming.

So, for a few of these Monday Musings, I thought I’d share some of those Postures for Becoming. Read on, but only if you care to!

Posture One – Desiring To Understand over Being Understood

There’s a prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi in which he asks God, “Grant that I might seek not to be understood, so much as to understand.” That should be the prayer of every language student on the planet. And everyone in a human relationship.

Westerners get here, and we want to learn language. What that means is we want to control our environment using language. So, what do we do? We try to find a language school so we can start speaking. We start learning grammar very quickly, and we are asked to produce – to speak or to write – quite soon. Usually, we use a book or written text to do this.

Just like the way kids learn their native language.

Wait, no.

Kids acquire language long before they can learn about it. Who learns grammar in preschool? Kids learn language by hearing it, and then by listening (which is different by way of intent). Slowly, the body of language that they understand grows, until eventually, given the right situation, speech just erupts. Language is acquired by long, quiet practice of listening, then, after that, producing. Linguists refer to this as “the silent period” – the time in which language is being acquired but no speaking is happening.

Adults can acquire second, third, eighth languages this way. If they will be quiet long enough. For this reason I always strongly encourage language learners to stay away from programs that have them speaking at all in the first month of full time study (beyond some simple survival phrases). If you want to acquire a language, you’ve got to put a premium and priority on listening. Listening is the master skill of communication. Seeking to understand.

But we get here and spaz out. Everything is out of our control, and we really want to feel like we are mastering something. So we choose programs that have us reading sounds we don’t know how to hear, yet. So, our accent is awful and we never sound quite right. We start talking before we know how people go about saying things, so we wind up cobbling together sentences that make sense to us, using their words, but the meaning is totally lost on them. We often speak without communicating because we let our anxiety push us to value being understood over understanding.

But if we want to share the gospel, we’ve got to be able to communicate. To communicate, we have to value the other end of communication more than we do. Listening is the master skill in disciple making.

This posture is critical if work groups are ever to become real teams, and if teams are ever to last as formative communities. We must seek to understand more than we seek to be understood. When there’s a conflict, we must seek to understand the other person’s point of view, and that has to be more important to us than vindicating ourselves, proving our point, getting our way – whatever, making ourselves understood. It is possible to win a conversation, and lose a community. Listening is the master skill in team life.

I’m noticing this in Jesus’s life, too. Every time there’s a major decision, he disappears into the mountains or across the sea to pray. When he comes back, he has some direction from the Father. Do you think he went off into solitude and started talking and just talked the whole time? How did the Father tell him anything if he was talking the whole time? I’m beginning to wonder how much of Jesus’s prayer life was quietly listening. I heard an older woman answer this way when asked on the fly what prayer is; she said, “Prayer is listening to heart and love of God.” Listening, huh? An author I’m reading these days, while reflecting on the story of Martha and Mary in Luke’s gospel, says of Jesus, “This particular house guest is not so concerned with being served as with being listened to … It is Martha’s attention he wants, not her activity.” What if listening is the master skill of prayer?

So, here’s something to think about. How big a role does (not should, but does) listening play in your disciple making? In your praying? In your family? In your ministry? In your teams? How often do you use good, curious questions? Not leading questions, but questions designed and delivered because you’re really wanting to understand more about the other person, of more of their point of view? When you’re having one of those argument fantasies – you know the ones I’m talking about – how much of that conversation is you asking questions, and how much is you giving them a piece of your mind? What might happen if you flipped the script in your imaginary conversations, and used that creative juice to make a list of questions that might help you understand this person you love, better? Because listening is the master skill of love.

So, pray with me and with Francis, God, grant that we might seek not to be understood, as to understand. Lord, let us listen. Amen.

Fear Not, Little Flock

I’ve had some thoughts banging around in my heart over the last couple of weeks, and I feel like maybe the Spirit would like me to write them. But where to start? Hmmm…

About 6 years ago we were Stateside and I was speaking in a fellowship. There was time for Q&A, and one fella asked me, “Now that you’ve lived in another culture, what’s the thing the church in America is missing? How are we blind and don’t know it?”

Wow. Big question. I don’t recall my answer. It was hopefully something like, “I’ve only been gone a year, so I have no idea.”

A few years later, again, back in the States, I was at a conference and we were praying or singing or something and I was struck with the realization that the pervading spirit in Narnya is despair. I don’t know if I mean an actual demon specifically tasked with making people despair, but I do see now that the vast majority of Narnyans go through life convinced that nothing they do matters and that nothing will ever change. They operate with no hope, and it pervades the church, as well. That was a big step for us to realize.

After that, glancing back at my home culture became much easier, and my line of sight was a little clearer. There’s no condemnation in this – every culture views the world through cracked and cloudy lenses. This is not the primary point of this little article, but it sets the stage for an important contrast that I hope will leave you with more courage and better accuracy as you follow Jesus where you are. The pervading spirit I feel when I am in the States, taking in media, talking with believing and unbelieving friends, is fear. The story that seems to always be on everyone’s lips is a fearful one – either a story of impending doom, or a story about how to avert it with this product, that medicine, this investment strategy, or that lifestyle. Feeling this mist enter my own blood again, I’ve looked around and I think I’ve noticed a few things about the presiding American cultural narrative.

It appears that that Americans:

  1. Seem to believe that something started existing the moment they noticed it. Here’s an example. A toddler was recently killed by an alligator at Disney World. That is just horrible. Of course, the story was all over the news. It was all over Yahoo! news over here. But then, other alligator attacks started showing up online all over the place. Last week I even read of a hyena killing a toddler. Of course, the toddler was asleep…in a nature preserve for hyenas. Do you see what I’m getting at? Absolutely, every one of these stories is appalling. But if you follow the news you get the feeling (it’s a feeling that is carefully being cultivated by the people producing the news so you both feel “in the know” and like you need more info) that these attacks are unusual. In fact, there has been no uptick in toddlers being attacked by wild animals. This didn’t start when America noticed it. It’s always been going on. At a pretty even pace, more or less. This attitude, that it’s happening more and more because I notice it more and more, has a name. It’s called the adolescent mind. It’s a characteristic of adolescence that things become real only as I experience them, and they began when I noticed them. Americans are famous all over the world for this attitude. Sorry. Again, no judgement, just observation.
  2. Americans (me included) seem to have an unconscious internal program running that insists that all of us were endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable responsibilities – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A) We have the responsibility to stay alive. At any cost. This makes disease and death the most frightening thing ever, and makes the cancer journalists the most highly paid and sought-after tabloid writers in the market. We have created a new narrative with a new villain named Disease. And now we are all responsible to eat clean (suggesting a moral component to food), do CrossFit and have washboard abs, and stay impossibly athletic into our 80s. That’s all good stuff, but that’s not what defines “good”. B) We have the responsibility to do what we want – liberty. It’s been observed that the dominant cultural marker of millennials has been “keeping my options open”. God forbid I make a commitment and then miss out on something I want because I limited my freedom to keeping my vows and promises, stated or implied. C) And we have the responsibility to be happy. We have become a nation not of citizens, but of consumers of government. We seek not enlightenment, but entertainment. Our churches work to keep us happy, not to make us holy. We confuse opulence for security and sedation for comfort. This is our great shame.
  3. The North American worldview is basically mechanistic. We believe that everything exists in a cause-effect relationship. Every time something good or bad happens, we look to see the “because”. Further, we experience the universe more as a machine than a mystery. Think of the number of sermons you’ve heard that enumerate “keys” to marriage, leading, following, growing, whatever. Keys get put in ignitions, in machines, so we can make them do what we want. Our cultural story is less about inhabiting a mystery and more about mastering a machine. This also makes us reductionistic – we look for the ONE solution, and this leads us to oversimplify in our quest to control what happens to us (remember, we have the responsibility to stay alive and happy, no matter the cost).

Now, understand, I am an American. I’m glad I’m an American. I love America. I’m writing this on the 4th of July 🙂 There are many excellent things in the American worldview. Things that make us industrious, tolerant of risk, personally responsible, and able to make decisions alone, when necessary. That’s all good, and comprises a needed contribution to the global mission of God. But this little piece is aimed at helping us see some ways we, as American believers, still think the same way our pagan neighbors do. To use Paul’s language, we won’t be able to discern the will of God – generally or in specific situations – when the way we think is the same as the way the world does. That’s why, in order to not be conformed to this world, we must be transformed by the renewing of our minds, i.e. changing the ways we think. To do that, we have to see the false narratives for what they are. This is the point of Romans 12:1-2.

Here’s another example of the American cultural mind assuming that something is new because we just started attending to it. Doomsday. Zombie apocalypse. End of days. The world we live in is becoming increasingly unstable. We are approaching the zero hour on global catastrophe. How do I know that? Because I read it on the internet, and that’s always reliable, right?

Actually, ever since 9/11, American culture has been coming to grips with the fact that we (humans, from all nations) are vulnerable to loss and plague and war and death. As those things keep popping up, and as the internet and technology continue to expand in their capacity to bring “news” to us from all over the place, we become more and more convinced that the whole thing really is about to burn down. It reminds me of the Palantir in The Lord of the Rings. The Steward of Gondor had this stone he could see far off with, but the Dark Lord was showing him what he wanted him to see, in order to take away his courage. I wonder sometimes if Satan is doing that, catching the Western church up in a false story in which it’s wisdom now to be afraid, and to order life around the possibility of catastrophe.

Because my friends from other cultures all agree that the world has always been this unstable. We just started noticing.

I am not innocent of this. I wasn’t convinced that Y2K was going to be the end of all things, but I was sure that any reasonable person would agree that something was going to happen. (For those of you too young to remember, Y2K was the Year 2000, when computer dates rolled over and that was supposed to somehow destroy all banking and nuclear power plants and launch global missile arsenals, or something). A guy had come to my college to get some of us to buy gold and prep for the sure and certain outcome of global destruction. His arguments were convincing, but I could feel then what I still feel now, though I couldn’t describe it then. I knew, in my bones, that I could not follow Jesus and follow this man’s fear at the same time.

Yeah, nothing happened.

But it didn’t stop me from being pretty sure that there would be global collapse of the dollar in 2012. That didn’t happen. It doesn’t mean it won’t, nor that it’s not wise to buy silver or hard assets, but I did start recalling, right about then, how my grandmother’s generation had been certain the Lord would appear in their lifetime. And then I recalled all the church services I was in growing up, carefully laying out dates and stuff about Israel and demonstrating with no room for doubt that they would see the Lord’s return. They have all since passed away. I am beginning to wonder if there is something about middle age that makes us think that since we’re reaching our expiration date in a few decades, the whole world will, too.

More recent examples of my American propensity to read cosmic significance into anything I notice: I was sure ISIS would be about 4 times bigger than it is by now, and that Ebola would have covered the globe by now, as well. When they first hit the news a couple years ago, the apocalyptic tone in the stories – which made us all watch them over and over – spoke to the adolescent cultural mind in me, and made me afraid. I called it wisdom, but it was fear.

It’s funny, I was reading about the plague of 540 AD this morning. Well, the plague wasn’t funny. It’s funny how we read facts as omens (and even those facts are skewed), convinced that the world we’re seeing is the worst it’s been. In 540 AD plague broke out in Pelusium in Egypt. In less than two years it reached the heart of the Roman empire in Constantinople, killing as many as 10,000 people a day. Ebola hasn’t done that. Carried, we know now, by fleas, it spread all over the known world, killing noble and commoner alike. All the recognized boundaries erected against loss and suffering were moot. It reached Britain and Ireland (places the empire itself could not conquer) in by 548, and spread inland from the ports. Even the sea, which had stymied mighty Rome, was no match for Black Death. People everywhere fled their farms, leaving crops rotting in the fields. Whole swaths of empire became little more than ghost towns. Apocalyptic, one might say. End of days.

But it wasn’t.

Furthermore, the Kingdom of God kept coming.

There is no media that can be trusted to teach us the story of the world. Liberal media has an agenda. Conservative media has an agenda. By the way, they are the same. To make money, and to put their people in power so they all can have more money and power.

The underground alternative media, in all its quirky forms, has an agenda. Money. Yep. Their job is to tell you how the other media is all playing a tune, and and to make you feel in the know, so you’ll keep coming back to their site and they can sell more ad time. All media in any culture has one job, to tell the multifaceted narrative of that culture’s values. It’s all the same story, different threads, and it’s not the real story of the world.

In the real story, the world is broken and chaotic. Bad stuff happens. And sometimes even to us. Bombs go off, diseases erupt, hurricanes blow and markets crash. But in Jesus, and in Jesus’s students, God is healing the whole world, making all things new, and undoing the darkness. Our job is not to survive the chaos, but to love the world through it.

As we are loved through it.

It was in a very, very unstable time. In a moment of considerable scarcity, when his audience was not in a position of power or security, that Jesus said, “Fear not, little flock, it’s your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

I find a propensity in me to read Jesus’s commands in Matthew 5-7 and Luke 12 and imagine those apply to secure Sunday School environments, where we’re all eating knock-off Oreos and drinking too much watered-down KoolAid. But in real life, given all this instability, it’s only wise to take lots of precautions. But I am convinced now that if Jesus were to pop in and give a speech right now about “how things are getting these days” or about disease or chaos or loss or any of the bogeymen of our cultural narrative, he’d just repeat Matthew 6 and Luke 12. He would tell us not to make any decisions from the fear in our guts. In fact, that fear in our guts is the lie.

I want to get to Jesus’s teachings on this in moment, because we’re almost ready for them. The contrast is almost clear. But first, let me draw your attention the recent relentless flooding in Houston, Texas. Or the Nashlantis flood in Nashville a few years ago. Or hurricane Katrina a few years before that. Let’s think for a moment: how many doomsday stashes in how many basements were lost in those floods? How many people put a lot of hope in their wisdom, just to have it washed away long before their date with global collapse? It wasn’t even doomsday and they lost their stuff.

I am pretty strong and have some martial arts training. So, let’s say I want to take your hoard. What are you gonna do about it?

“I have a gun,” you say. How about I just take that away from you, because I am trained and you are not. Where did that gun get you?

Worse than the obvious outcome, in the years before I took away your gun, how much sacrifice/redemption story have you not lived, while you’ve been busy living a survival story? Because you can’t live both. Jesus made that clear. You have to hate your life, deny your self and its survival, if you even want to start as his student.

But let’s say your stash is up on a hill (no floods) and you’re better armed and trained than me, and maybe you even have friends up there with you. You manage to hold back the horde from your hoard (both ugly words). What did that get you?

Did you know, you’re still going to die? You’ll fall off a log, or get sick, or just age out. You will have ordered your whole life, or at least your internal narrative that colors and informs your whole life, around the one thing you can be sure you can’t have – survival. You. are gonna. die.

So, Jesus says, “Listen when I say, What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”

Jesus says, “Those of you who order your lives around keeping your lives will lose them. But those of you who lose your lives will find them.” There are two categories here, and they don’t overlap. You cannot make life decisions in both directions simultaneously.

Now, lest you write me off and put me in a camp with dumb lazy people who live soft and silly lives, I have a GOBag. We keep weeks of food in our pantry. There’s a 72hr kit in my car. We keep the car above half a tank. Why? Because bad stuff already happens here. Put another way, we have identified a minimum preparedness helpful to serve a world without living that world’s story. In the world, not of it. We frequently lose water. The city is due for a big earthquake. Politics are a little wonky here.

So this is not an article telling you to be lazy. Or a pacifist, necessarily. When Jesus was about to be taken by the authorities, he asked his 12 men, “How many swords do you have?” When they said that among them they had 2 large knives, he didn’t chide them or rebuke them for having them (classic pacificism). He also didn’t say, “You each need a sword and a bow, and you need a month of MREs in a cave in Engeddi” (survivalism). He said, 2 little swords among 12 men against the best trained armies in a thousand miles would be enough.

I’m not advocating un-readiness. I’m insisting that the American fascination with avoiding pain and death, and our rush to create solutions to what we perceive as problems might have told us a story that feels true, but isn’t.

Jesus told us the true Story. He didn’t say, “Hoard and you’ll have enough. Keep and you’ll find. Lock and the door will stay closed against your hungry neighbor.”

He said ask, and you’ll receive. In his story, God is not watching the world slowly wind down into entropy. God is a good Father, who gives to his children when they ask. He simply does not give us a snake when we ask for lunch. In Jesus’s story of the world, we are commanded not to give much thought at all to what we’ll eat (or what our kids will eat … remember, in this story He’s a Father, too), or how we will keep the elements off us. Why? Two reasons. God already knows and has a plan for how he will provide for us. He already prepped. Second, ordering our lives around mitigating scarcity and chaos, trying to be sure we’ll have enough, reading the tea leaves (via the internet, even) and letting that spirit of fear live in us….Jesus says that’s the hallmark of your pagan neighbors. These are the things the nations seek.

In Jesus’s story it’s irresponsible to lay up stashes for yourself on earth, because of moths and thieves and floods and hurricanes and such. It’s a sure loss. You can order life that way.

OR

You can order your life another way, storing up treasure in the other dimension, where floods and moths and well-trained wanna-be soldiers can’t reach or steal it away. “Wisdom” says to seek first the basic needs of your family, and then the kingdom of God. Jesus says seek first the reign of God, and he will take care of your family. Is that scary sometimes? Yes. But his success rate is much better than yours, and his rifle never misfires.

This might seem overly simplistic to you. It seemed that way to me. I felt caught, for a while, between what I thought the Proverbs taught and what I clearly heard Jesus saying. But I discovered recently that’s a false pair. It’s not Solomon vs. Jesus. The true pair is Proverbs vs. Ecclesiastes. In Proverbs we learn to work hard like the ant because lean days are ahead. In Ecclesiastes we learn, it won’t much matter because we will all die anyway; may as well live first. Even that’s not a versus-pairing, though. Both are true. And I found myself pinned between those two views.

It’s into that paralyzed thinking that Jesus speaks to me, not to answer all the particulars, but to tell me that the Kingdom of God is at hand, whatever else may be happening, and to invite me to live THAT story. Not in addition to my “stay alive, free and happy” story, but instead of it.

Look, I like seeing my gas gauge full. There’s a good feeling you get when you open a well-stocked fridge. When all the pipes here freeze, and it only throws us off a little because we keep hundreds of liters of water in the garage, it definitely feels better than not being able to bathe. But two swords is enough. There is a real difference between being boy scout ready, and making real life decisions for our families driven by the events of empires that have always been rising and falling. It’s not new.

I like how I feel when I take my supplements and when I eat all the veggies Joy cooks. I like the sense of self-control when I just don’t buy the sugary drink. But even if these choices stave off some disease, in the grand scheme of the story of the whole world, short lives and long lives are both short. If I play the avoid-dying game I do two things: I waste the fact that Jesus already set me free from the fear of dying (according to Hebrews), and I play a game we all know I can’t possibly win.

You cannot choose if the world will get crazy, or if you will get sick. You can take some steps. But understand that if you begin to live a story that’s all about not getting sick, or not being caught unprepared, you’ve lost the plot, and you’ve lost a primary means of grace.

Just after the “Do not lay up treasures on earth … for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” part Jesus says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If the eye is single, your whole body will be full of light. But if the eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”

When my eye is on what we’ll eat or drink, or how we’ll stay warm, then Jesus says I can’t trust my sight. I am not in a good space to make decisions as his student – as a citizen of the Permanent Kingdom.

I wonder, with assessment and not harsh judgement, if American believers are often in just that state. We are supposed to be the Society within our societies that lives a different story, sings a different song. But instead, I wonder now and again if the blind are leading the blind, who are leading the blindfolded – all into a ditch.

You have attention enough for one Story. You can either pay attention to the story of empires falling and bodies giving out, or to the Story of the kingdom of God. All these kingdoms must be shaken, while “we receive a kingdom that cannot be shaken.”

My encouragement to you is not to be afraid. Is the world breaking? Yes, but maybe not faster than ever it was. And even if so, the kingdom you inhabit cannot be shaken.

I encourage you, in the name of Jesus, to fear not, little sheep, because your Father is good, and strong, and told Jesus to tell you to let him see to your survival. This is a major way we can live the gospel before our neighbors.

I encourage you, in the name of Jesus, not to be led by the external vicissitudes of empires that come and go, but by the Spirit who has sealed you and empowered you to heal a world, not to survive it.

I encourage you, on behalf of Jesus, not to seek to keep your life, but to seek to lose it, and to live your life exposed and vulnerable. Because you will surely die, as will your children and their children after them. But until you die, you can choose to live, free of the false stories of your culture, free to run in the Story Jesus tells, and you can teach your children that story, only if you live it. You can either fear, or you can love. Choose love.

I encourage you to sit down this week with Matthew 6 and Luke 12, and to ask Jesus to help your heart hear his kind shepherd voice, and make the truth set you free.

I’ll leave you with a poem by Dawna Markova:

I will not die an unlived life,

I will not live in fear

of falling or catching fire.

I choose to inhabit my days,

to allow my living to open me,

to make me less afraid,

more accessible,

to loosen my heart

until it becomes a wing,

a torch, a promise …

 

Amen.

Emotionally Compromised

One of the most exciting things I know of is the experience of being Spoken to. Hearing the Voice. And in the middle of a melee, sword arm tired and shield cracked, it almost doesn’t matter what he says. What matters most is that he’s Talking. The fact that the Voice is coming right now confirms that he’s still in this with us. We are not alone. The King – the Captain – is still mounted, and he will help us hold the line.

My recent encounter with the Voice in Philly (see previous posts) was part of a longer conversation. Without that wordless dialogue, I would never have been able to receive and metabolize what he said next. I wouldn’t have been able to “eat this scroll”.

He is most recently talking to me through Joshua and Nehemiah. And my wife. First, my wife. When I shared with my team the sense of despair and helplessness that Jesus had given me, we talked about forward movement off it. One of the things my wife mentioned was needing to be inspired.

I didn’t like hearing that. I’m the team leader. I know it’s my job to inspire. To keep the team inspired. But I canâ’t make stuff up. I can’t feel my neighbor’s despair, I can’t join them in the black hole, and then make up some rousing crap to inspire my team. And anyway, that is not at all what Jesus wanted me to do. Jesus wanted me to help some of my team mates give voice to what was happening inside them as they identified with their neighbors and friends – as they became flesh and dwelt among Narnyans, with all that has to mean.

But I also know my team needs to be inspired. Honestly inspired. And I need to do it in a way that’s authentic – that is, I have to be able to really go there and be there emotionally myself. We have a No-BS policy. That begins with me. Still, without inspiration – without literally breathing into their sails, we can’t thrive or reach or preach or disciple.

So, of course, I told Jesus that. And I let it be.

His response started with my reading from that day. It was Nehemiah 4:14, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember Adonai, who is great and terrible, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.” I liked that. I wrote in in my journal. And then I forgot about it.

The Conversation continued at home group this last week. A friend led us through Joshua 5:10-15. There was lots of good stuff. The primary impression I took from it was that Jesus would like me to study Joshua for a while. Noted, my King. I’ll start tomorrow.

So, Monday the Dialogue unfolded further as I unpacked Joshua 1. This is familiar territory. Three times God tells Joshua – who has seen plenty of blood and carnage as Israel’s military commander for the last 40 years – to just not be afraid or discouraged. To be strong and very courageous, because the LORD is with him. And the people tell him that they’ll follow him utterly, if he’ll just be strong and courageous, and if the LORD remains with him.

How do I drum up strength and courage when You tore my heart out three weeks ago? I’m comfortable with You only meeting me in pain for periods here and there, but when at the same time You call on me to be bold and courageous, how do I do that?

Back to Nehemiah. So, Nehemiah is a brilliant leader, and he has excellent intuition, strategic ability and emotional intelligence. The Cause is the rebuilding of the wall, and the salvation of Jerusalem, and the glory of God. But the people’s enthusiasm for “The Cause” waxes and wanes over the course of the book. Especially when the enemy seems hell-bent on killing them all – or at least on stopping the work and frustrating The Cause. Nehemiah 4 is one of those moments when the people are wanting to drop the cause and see to their own survival. Put another way, they’re having trouble connecting emotionally with The Cause.

So, Nehemiah takes the men from extended family groups, arms them, and stations them behind the gaps in the wall. Now, they’re not fighting for the project. They’re not fighting for The Cause. They’re fighting for their brother, who is standing next to them. And they are fighting for their children who are 100 meters behind them, hiding in their houses.

Nehemiah put them in a position where they could emotionally identify with the task, and where the risk was personal. He didn’t station them on the wall, where they could pray, “Lord, save my friends down there in the gap.” He put them in the breach, where they would have to pray, “God saveussaveusSaveUsSAVEUS!!!!!”

It hit me like warm sunshine on my face that Jesus had been doing the same thing with us. Since Philly, I find myself totally confident that Jesus will rescue Narnya. And when I pray I tell him as much. But I also have lost a friend – he died and tumbled into the Dark last year. I know that the salvation of individuals is not guaranteed. So, as I pray, weeping, I pray that while he’s saving Narnya, could he please not leave my friends behind. He’s been putting us in a place where we feel our friends’ situation with them.

We are emotionally compromised. And that’s exactly where he wanted us all along.

Now, still honest about the LeadSkyCloud of despair that we sense all around us, and still allowing to seep into us so the gospel can defeat it within us, there is something to inspire us. Now, when we’re too culture-stress angry to care about “Narnya”, or when we’re too smashed under our friends’ despair and our lack of satisfactory answers to fight for The Cause, we can fight for our friends.

When I came here as a strategist, I came for the whole country. The Muslim world. And I’m still in that fight, and the larger game still guides my strategic decisions and my planning. But I fight for Nick. I fight for AC. I fight for Abe. I fight for Jenny. I fight for Victor, for Tom. I fight for my Narnyan friends.

We can see where the despair comes from. We know the lie, and we know the Liar. And I’ll tell you this right now. We’re tired. We’re sad often. We’re broken under the weight of the injustice and hopelessness that every one of our neighbors lives in every single day. And most days we don’t know what the heck we’re doing.

But we will not be cowed by any of that. We will remember Adonai, who is himself great and terrifying, and who is himself Speaking to us, demonstrating his presence with us. And we will fight for our friends. We will stand in the breach next to them, and we will win this City by fighting for our friends. We don’t know exactly what Jesus is up to here. But, by God, we will stand in this hole and we will fight for our friends.

There is a gameness that is naive – American hearts seeking to win a people for Jesus. And there is a gameness that comes once you’ve tasted the air your friends always have to breathe. It’s not an energetic gameness, and it’s not the afraid-of-the-dark triumphalism that makes us quote verses at the night. It’s the gameness of people who died on a cross when Jesus did, and who don’t know how this is all going to turn out, but come hell or high water, you’re going to find them fighting for the blind and the dying.

Adonai is great and terrible. Let the enemy consider himself on notice. We will not be moved. We love our friends. We have been emotionally compromised. It’s on.

The Hard Kernel of Hope in the Sweet Despair

I’m processing out loud here.

So, I shared with my team yesterday in our team meeting what Jesus had done with me in Philly (see the last post). I didn’t have a goal with it, I just sensed that the Lord wanted me to share it with them, to maybe clarify their own emotional situations or to give some flesh to their observations of their friends and neighbors. But, as always, we had an open floor for conversation and a few really good things ensued.

One of the guys reflected on his own observations of his friends, and how all of them seem to reflect that hopelessness in the way they describe their situations. Some even going so far as to ask, “Why did God fate me to have such a terrible life?”

One of the ladies gave voice to her frustration and anger at how women are treated here. Not so much how she’s treated, but rather how women in this culture are property. We had seen a man a few days before beat his wife up on the beach. A couple of us had approached to intervene, and the wife shouted us off. “Who are you?!? This is my husband! Who are you?!?!?!” That had rocked my friend, and she had since been struggling to manage her own anger over that, and the sickness in her gut over the situation here for women.

She actually asked what we should do about the sickness, the despair. She said something like, “I don’t have any answers. I don’t know what I’d tell a woman if she asked me what to do. Even the believers have this fatalism, and think this is the way it must always be. What do we do? Do we just sit in it?”

And in that question, something came clear for me. I sat with the question for a moment, trying to say “no”. But I couldn’t. What I said amounted to this: We sit in it, but not passively. We don’t hang our arms over the precipice and shout down to our friends that we have the answer. We don’t shout down. We jump down into the dark with them. We willingly fall into the hole. And when we strike bottom, we hold our friends’ hands and we, together, cry out to God to save us. Not, “God, go help them.” Rather, “God, come save us. Us. The people down in this hole. We. We need a Savior.”

That might make you uncomfortable. That isn’t my goal. But, well…yeah.

Our 4 2-month interns were apparently much helped by the meeting. Seeing a team wrestle with honesty, anger, and compassion over the people it serves was a good experience for them. One of them asked this question: “How do you not get lost in the despair? If you’re going to embrace your neighbor’s hopelessness and pain, and own it as your own, how do you from there go about being light in the darkness? What about our hope?”

And in that question, something else became clear for me, as well. Down underneath the miasma of my friends’ despair (which is not often acute, but always there), I am not without hope. Down below it all, there is the hard kernel of indestructible hope. I can’t quite articulate how it’s connected to the resurrection of Jesus, but I can feel that it is. It can’t be drown, and it can’t be obliterated, and it can’t be washed away. It’s not some shining beacon, and it doesn’t really warm my belly, but I have hope. I am, after all, His. But that hope doesn’t make the despair any less real. For example, my friend died without Christ last year. I’ll go to his one-year funeral next month. I have no hope for him. And nothing assuages that. I despair – for him. My own hope does nothing for that. And that’s how it should be, I think. But even that despair does not push out or push away the acorn of stubborn hope.

But it’s important to note that Jesus never said to us, “Be the light of the world.” He said, “You are the light of the world. I am the light. I don’t need to worry myself over “if I embrace the darkness around me, how can I be the light?”. I am the light, and I will embrace the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it. Light wins by contact with darkness, not by pushing it away.

I explained it to my interns this way. Culture stress, situational stressors, family conflicts, the emotional violence of being displaced, homelessness, sickness, fatigue – these all have been chipping away at our emotional body armor, and for some of us it’s beginning to crack. What has happened as a result is that the emotional atmosphere here has gained admittance into our hearts. And that was always the Plan. Now, inside us, the risen Lord will meet the despair of Narnya, the gospel will encounter the pain of this place. Not on some white board or on some theologian’s legal pad. Inside our guts, in our hearts, in our raw and raggedy souls. And in the mix, the Invitation might emerge. We might come to know in our bones something of how the gospel speaks to the Narnyan heart. A gift we might not have likely received nor been able to give another way.

The way this plays out might look like this. If 3 weeks ago, my Narnyan friend Abe would have expressed frustration at his own despair, or that nothing here would ever change, I would have opened my Bible and unpacked how the gospel can speak to all that and how Jesus is coming to make all things new. And he would have looked at me and he would have known that, fundamentally, I did not understand.

If the same interaction were to happen today, I’m pretty sure it would look different. I expect I’d tear up. I might even cry. We’d talk about what he’s feeling and we’d known that we understand each other. And then I might open my Bible and we’d look together at how Jesus says he’s making all things new. And, again weeping, I imagine I’d hold my friend’s hand and I’d ask with him for Jesus to make all things new. To make this place new. And I’d ask him to save us, and to show us how to help.

And then, if Abe was game, I’d offer to explore the Bible with him so we could find out together how to help Jesus make this place new. Because, honestly, I don’t have a flipping clue. I truly don’t know. But, I have this hard kernel of hope inside me that insists that Jesus does, so we’d be disciples together. And when Abe wanted to be Jesus’s assistant more than he wanted to be accepted by his people, he might even ask for baptism.

Maybe it wouldnâ’t look like that at all. But maybe you can see the difference. In the first instance I’d try to cure the problem. That dehumanizes people. I am strong and you are weak. You have problems, and I have answers. You are sick and I have medicine. The opposite of cure is care. In the second instance I’d be caring. I’d be caring because I feel it, too.

The thing is, we never lead someone out of the valley of the shadow of death. That’s never been in our power, and it’s never been our job. Our job is to lose our step and fall into the valley with them, and when we get there (as the people who know God), we start crying out for God to come find us, and to lead us home. And maybe that’s how they learn to do it, too. Maybe that’s how they learn Christ.

At least, at this point, that’s what I’m thinking. I’m not sure it’s right. I just know this is where I’m going because I don’t see a better way that is honest with both the Lord and my friends at the same time. Answers are easier. But easy never saved anyone.

Sweet Despair

Jesus gave me a very powerful, negative, painful, freeing emotional experience recently, and it is changing my life.

I was at a conference in Philly, and my friend Josue was leading worship. We were singing ‘Savior, you can move the mountains’ or some such and he paused and asked us to articulate out loud the mountains faced by the people we serve. Before I could think of it, I found in my chest a total hopelessness that nothing was ever going to change, and a paralyzing despair that nothing we do will ultimately matter. And I knew that was it. That was what I had seen written on the faces of every one of my Narnyan friends. That was what conditioned the work ethic of men that stood in metro stations offering to weigh you for 20 cents, thinking that that was their meaningful work. There is no meaningful work when nothing you do matters. That was what was behind the answers to my questions when my friends would stop half way through explanations of why things are the way they are. “It’s Narnya,” they would say.

But I didn’t think all of that. I felt it. I knew it the way I sometimes know the will of the Lord or the next strategy step. Gnosis. And it started to smash me. I put my hands on the table in front of me in an effort to hold up under the weight of it. But it was still too much, so I fled the room and went outside into the sun. I sat on a curb because standing was too tiring, and weeping I prayed. I prayed the feeling back at Jesus, because my words wouldn’t come. I wanted to lie on the ground, not in worship, but because the weight was so much.

I don’t have experiences like this often. I read the mystics. I’m not one. But Jesus has been getting me beyond words, or maybe beneath them. Praying images instead of phrases, sensing instead of always articulating. Sometimes, here, we’re just too tired to do the work of making sentences, and we find ourselves praying a little deeper than vocabulary and syntax will go.

While I was praying, Jesus made it clear again that I, if I’m honest, had been feeling the same thing about my work that my Narnyan friends feel about their lives. I had been fighting off the creeping worry that nothing here is really going to change, and that we’ll spend 20yrs here and nothing we do is really going to matter. For me it was a fear – for them it is the warp and woof of their lives. Jesus helped me see that part of what I had been feeling was mine, but part of it was what I had been intuitively absorbing from my ambient environment. I am a poor feeler. I’m a strategist. But, finally, I was feeling with my neighbors what my neighbors feel. I wasn’t putting on flesh like clothes. I was becoming flesh and dwelling with them, in the experience they dwell in. Jesus was in all points tempted like we are, and now I was finally able to know what it is like to be them, because through my own feelings, Jesus was able to download their feelings into me.

Something like this has happened to me before. But in that case, Jesus used my pain over the sexual abuse victims I had counseled to give me some of his pain over the world, and at that time specifically Africa. It had really messed me up.

This time it’s not his feelings coming through the door my own emotions created. Now, its their feelings coming through that door. And it hurts. And it’s welcome. And it’s setting me free.

Without the Holy Spirit, I don’t know how they get out of bed in the morning. Their theology is fatalistic. “If God wills it” it happens, and everything is qismet – fated. The powerful are really, really powerful (the President’s 11yr old son just bought a multi-million dollar summer home in Dubai), and 90% of the population will never hold any real control over their lives at all. You buy your job here. Or your relative does. Humanitarian workers buy tools for orphanage workers, and the workers just sell them. Why not? If nothing you do is really going to help the kids, if nothing is ever really going to change, the very best – perhaps the moral – thing you can do is sell the stuff so your own family can have better food. If you can’t change things – if you can’t help the kids – at least you can help your family.

It is crippling. It makes my stomach hurt. And I’m okay with that, because it has defeated the anger that had been growing inside me, and it’s making me capable of compassion. We’ve turned a corner. I’m not angry at them anymore. I can’t be. How could I be? I’ve felt what they feel – a more concentrated and sudden dose, maybe, but still the flavor that’s always in their mouth, coloring how they taste everything else. I understand at a much more visceral level now some of why they do much of what they do. And it’s hard to fault them. That’s one immediate result of this. Anger falls. Compassion rises. This darkness is precious to me.

Another immediate result is that I don’t have to fight back the despair anymore. That’s exhausting. I don’t have to fight at all. I can just receive it, let it wash through me like a wave, well up in me like a grief, and turn it into prayer. I can learn here, over again, within me, what it means to receive now the Kingdom, and to see with new eyes. And I can let the light shine in my heart anew, without trying to combat the hopelessness or manufacture the joy. I can own their despair and pray with them for the light to shine on us who live in darkness and in the shadow of death. And that is good.

While I’m not ready to say that I’ve got the good news for Narnyan hearts, I do suspect that this will inform across the long-term how I come to articulate the gospel here. The gospel must address this despair – it must include Jesus’ announcement that the Kingdom has come, and that change is in the air. He is making all things new, and they can join him in that.

And I’m finally ready to call them my people. I had been resisting that. But I’m not anymore. In the parking lot in Philly that’s where I arrived. I agreed with Jesus, and I prayed for my Narnyan friends, and I asked him to set my people free. Then I realized that I had called them my people. And it was enough.

I’ve tried to articulate some of this to a few people at different times. A few understood in theory, a few understood from experience. Some didn’t understand at all, but they tried. But that’s ok. My sense is that this is for me to understand my neighbor, and to help my team understand some of what they have been feeling – to give context and shape meaning for their own struggles. And that, too, is enough.

 

Men should not cry

Today I had a gospel interaction that I was not expecting.

I’ve hired one of my Aikido friends to be my language tutor. He needed work, and I need a tutor – preferably a non-believer. Let’s call him AC. So, today we were having our usual language lesson, and this conversation fell out. My words are in boldface.

I have a question.

Go ahead.

America has everything you need. Why did you come here? What is here that would draw you from America. Everyday something goes wrong here. Everyday you work hard for a standard of living far below what you’d have in America. Why, really, did you come?

Ok. I’ll tell you. There are a few reasons. One is bigger than the others, but really, there are three. The first isn’t the most important, but it’s real. We didn’t want our kids to grow up knowing only one language, only one culture. People in America tend to feel that the US is the center of the universe. We wanted our kids to know the world they live in. That’s hard to do from the US.

That’s it?

Well, that’s just part. Secondly, we wanted adventure. We’re not sit-in-a-chair people. We want to live. You go to France for a month or two – that’s not adventure, that’s vacation. We want to go deep and experience another part of the world.

And third?

Third is this. So, you know that I’m not religious.

You’re not religious. You’re religionless (atheist)?

No, I’m not religious, and I’m not religionless.

There’s a third way?

Yep. I follow Jesus. Religions are attempts to make stairs to heaven. Attempts to control God. If I do this, God will do that. If I don’t do this, God won’t do that. Or even sillier, hoping that my good deeds will outweigh my bad ones. My sins are many and my goodness is small. There’s no hope in that.

Then where is there hope?

Grace. There are no stairways to heaven, but God reaches to us.

Tha’s written?

Yep. In the New Testament.

You read that? Have you read it a lot?

Honestly? Probably 500 times.

But, I’ve heard that they changed the New Testament.

That’s just crazy. I know why they say that. Here, let me show you. I’ve read all the “holy” books and I wouldn’t read one that had been changed. I don’t have time to follow a lie. [Here I showed him how we have copies of the New Testament that pre-date Mohammed, and how our translations come from these. After Mohammed certain heretical books emerged that “changed” the message of the New Testament…maybe these books are what the imams are talking about when they say the New Testament has been changed.]

In the New Testament does it say that another prophet will come after Isa?

It says many will come.

Many? No. There are prophets that don’t bring books, and prophets that bring books. Does it mention another book-brining prophet?

I know what you’re talking about. Isa said that the Spirit of God, who had been with him and with his students, was going to come to live INSIDE his students. This was the one to come after him. Not a human prophet. Now, I’m not saying that Mohammed is a prophet, or that he is not. I’m just saying that the New Testament doesn’t mention him.

But you don’t accept him. Do you accept him as a prophet? If you did, you’d become Muslim. Explain that.

Here, I paused and I looked hard at him.

If I speak openly, are you going to get angry?

No, I won’t get angry.

Your eyes say something else. I see something in your eyes.

What do you see?

Something.

Do I have radical muslim eyes?

No. It’s just…

Here, something happened to me. I was under-rested and over caffeinated. And God, I think used that. Actually, I think God set that up. I was emotionally tenuous to start with. I teared up and shed one or two.

I’m pretty lonely, AC.

Don’t cry. I’m gonna cry. Why are you tearing up?

I’m pretty lonely.

Why?

I love Isa. I mean I LOVE Isa. I spend hours a day in the New Testament. Hours. Not due to some debt, but just because it’s food to my spirit. I love his words. But doing that – reading and thinking about it that much – leads me to talk about him and what he said all the time.

That can’t make you lonely.

No, but this can. I make friends, and I talk about Isa. And this conversation invariably happens. They say, “I’m a Muslim and you’re something else,” and with their faces they say we are friends, but their hearts move away from me. And I am alone again. In your eyes, I see the danger of that now. Again.

You think my heart has moved away from you?

No, but I see the danger. I can see your mind hearing me say, “I think X,” and jumping to conclusions, saying, “He also thinks Y and Z.”

You only know me a little. You say you’re not a Christian like I think about Christians. You’re not them, you’re you. Fine. I’m not them. I’m me. And I’m not going anywhere.

[Here, that thing in his eyes left.]

Ok. Fair enough. One day, when we have an hour or so, I’ll open my heart and my mind and let you know my mind, like friends.

That’s sounds good.

Then we finished class. After class the conversation continued a bit like this:

Thanks for tolerating my outburst of emotion.

No problem. But don’t do it again.

I shouldn’t do it again?

No. We have a saying that men shouldn’t cry.

Oh. We cry. Well, sometimes. If you cut me with a knife, I won’t cry. If you call me names, I won’t cry. But children starving in Africa make me cry. And if my friend’s mom dies, his heart breaks and mine breaks with it and I cry.

Well, of course. We all cry about that stuff. But not from loneliness.

Ah, AC, I wasn’t crying over loneliness. Well, not just that. It was a small part.

Then why were you crying?

Well, in small part because I am lonely. The second reason was this: I see you and I are on a road, and the road forked today. One way had us getting closer as friends; the other had us separating. I saw the potential of separation, and it made me sad. But the big reason was this…I love Isa. I mean I really LOVE Isa…

Ah! The feelings gave a door to your feelings!

What?

The other feelings opened the door for your feelings about Isa, and they came in force like a volcano.

Exactly! That’s it.

I see.

But I’ve learned, men don’t cry.

Right. [He smiled]

I am emotionally exhausted by this conversation and very happy it happened for several reasons.

  • God orchestrates crappy things like not getting any sleep and being force-fed tea at a job so that my insides can be so unstable that I cry.
  • Most of my life I’ve been lonely. That very human feeling provided the door to my friend’s heart, and disarmed the mechanism inside him that would otherwise have put me on the wrong side of the us/them line.
  • When I share with him again, it will be the act of friend opening his mind to a friend. That can only be received well.
  • He discovered for himself how strongly I feel about Jesus.

And best of all, I manufactured none of it. Shukur Allaha.

Your coat and your shirt

So my senpei needed a ride home the other day from Aikido. On the way home it came up that I usually take another student home from Aikido – both he and the senpei live near me. Senpei asked me if I take him to the metro station or to the stop light. I told him that, no, I take him all the way to his house.

“All the way to his house” he asked. “Why do you do that? That’s a little out of your way, isn’t it?”

“Well, yeah, but you know how I’m always thinking about Jesus and talking about Jesus?”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed,” he grinned.

Grinning right back, I said, “Well Jesus said that if someone asks for my coat, I should give him my shirt, too. So when Naz asks me to take him to the metro, I take him all the way home. My shirt and my coat.”

“Your shirt and your coat. OOOHH! Your shirt AND your coat! How beautiful is that! It’s so good when someone actually does what they say they believe. That’s what real faith is, you know, action. Believing is doing.”

“Yep.”

Ingest Jesus and his Way. Make his words your manifesto. Do what he says. Explain your course of action by referencing the things he said. In this way, make disciples of all peoples.

The Word became flesh and lived with them

Last week I went to my senpei’s new dojo. The central dojo is opening a branch closer to my home, but I’ll still have to go to the old dojo for a while because of my work schedule.

There were just a few of us – the teacher and 3 students – and after class we hung out in the tea house attached to the gym where we’re renting space. It was good. This time I said nothing about Jesus. I just was with them, doing what they did the way they did it in the spaces they do it in. We were us – not me and them. Four Aikidoka at a table laughing at each other and talking about fighting. It was good. And I didn’t feel lonely, which is a rare bonus.

I have little patience for relationship-evangelism, where you hang out with people for a year and a half and never get around to actually talking about Jesus. There is a word for that kind of witness – cowardice. If Jesus is your whole life, then open your mouth. You can see how strongly I feel about that.

I also don’t hold a really high appreciation for cramming the message into every margin and making awkward connections that make the message unwelcome and the messenger into a gospel-salesman.”Is this seat taken? Thanks. Yeah, I saw on the news that several people died in that tornado last week. Tell me, if you were to die today, do you know where you’d go?” I don’t like that. I’m not saying it’s bad. I’m just saying I don’t like it. But I think I respect it more than the let-them-see-my-life-and-never-say-a-word approach.

But still, not saying anything last week was just right. It was just right because they get plenty of word from me, as well. The Word (not the vague idea or the suspicion that something good is going on, but the Word) was becoming flesh and really dwelling with them. And I’m down with that.

Follow me – discipling friends into the kingdom

So, my sempei invited me to Sensei’s table again on Friday. He was without his car and wanted a ride and an excuse to leave early. I think he also is starting to like me. Or, at least, that’s what I’m telling myself.

When we got in there, my sempei and the Sensei immediately got into a discussion about some guy who used to train with them, but who had become one of those dojo-hopping punks that keeps saying, “I’ve studied this art, and this art, and this art with this teacher, and that teacher and this other teacher over here.” Then Sensei says to us, looking at me, “You know, there’s a difference between drawing close to a teacher and just joining a dojo – or even between drawing close to a teacher and adhering to a religion.”

Without thinking at all, I replied, “Yeah. You know, Jesus didn’t say ‘Do this religious act and say these religious words.’ He said, ‘Follow me. Come live life with me and learn to live your life like I live mine.'”

“Look! There it is,” Sensei said. “All of you, be quiet a minute and pay attention to this. Think about this. He said that Jesus didn’t say to do religious things, but to follow him and to learn how to live your life.” Then, to be sure he had the whole room in on it, he translated his statement into Russian for the Russian-only speakers in the room.

Now, this really couldn’t have gone down any better. Let me tell you why. Ten minutes before that encounter I was talking with a fellow Aikidoka in the locker room. He had asked me if I do namaz (the 5-times-daily ritual prayer), and had said to me the entire morning namaz ritual in Arabic. I had asked him if he understood what he was saying, and he said, “A few words.” I told him how I pray and how I go about it, and I asked him if he did namaz, to which he replied that he wants to, but he can’t because he’s single. I asked after that, a little confused, and he explained how, since he harbors lustful thoughts and feelings as a single guy, he can’t do namaz. You need to be clean before you approach God for grace. Sad times.

Now, in that conversation, he said that what counts is a clean heart, not so much the doing of namaz. At that, my sempei interrupted and told him not to talk about things he has no idea about. If you’re a Muslim, you must do namaz. It’s like an interior dojo where you’re training to become a good person. Even if you don’t understand the words, it works like meditation to quiet your insides. Of course namaz is necessary.

Once we were all dressed and getting our shoes on, my fellow student leaned back into this with me, telling me I shouldn’t do namaz if I’m not a Muslim, and that if I want to do namaz I can always become a muslim. He then started telling me all about Jesus and his life and what he said (none of which was accurate), and I asked him where he heard that, and if he had read it himself, which he firmly deflected. Sempei overheard again and tore into him, asking him why he keeps bringing this up…is he trying to make me a muslim? Sempei continued, explaining how all roads lead up the mountain, where God sits at the top, and that something like that is written in the Quran, and that the New Testament is really interesting. I agreed that it is really interesting, mentioning that I’ve read the Quran a few times and the New Testament hundreds of times, and that I enjoy conversations like these, and added to my fellow student that these conversations are best if the participants actually read the books before they talk, so maybe he could first go a read them, and then talk to me. That would make for a great time.

We walked away from that conversation, heading over to Sensei’s tea room, and I felt like it had gone well, but that I wished I could tell my sempei that religion won’t do it for him in a way that won’t upset the delicate power distance for which his age and rank demand respect. I was wishing that there was a way to tell him that it’s not about religion without having to say it directly to him.

And when we got to Sensei’s table, that’s exactly what happened. How cool is that?

The conversation at Sensei’s table continued around the notion of problems with other dojos or something like that, alternating between Russian and Narnyan at a speed I couldn’t track. At one point Sensei turned to me and said, “Every teacher, every prophet had problems amongst his students. Did Jesus have problems amongst his students? How many did he have?”

“Well, at one point,” I replied, “he had several thousand. They followed him because he healed the sick and raised the dead and did miracles. They thought he was a great prophet. But he would say things like, ‘One day, people will kill you for following me. Are you still ready to be faithful?’ Many left him when he said that. His steady core group was 12 men.”

“Ah, yes, he did many miracles,” my sempei added. “Sensei, have you seen that Mel Gibson movie? It’s beautiful.”

“I have,” Sensei replied. “But the 12 had problems, too?”

“Yeah. Once, they said to him, ‘We know God has chosen you to be the world’s one true king. When you are made High King of the world, can we be kings with you?’ And Jesus responded, ‘If you want to be great, you must be everyone’s slave. Those who are first will be last, and the last will be first.'”

“Aahhh. So wise,” my Sensei smiled.

And from there, everyone in the room set themselves to finding ways to apply Jesus’s teachings in the dojo. Like how someone could choose to line up in ways that honor other students over himself, teachers serving students instead of the other way around, and a few other things that I couldn’t quite understand, and which may have been total misrepresentations of Jesus’ intent. But what’s important is that in this one conversation Jesus’s invitation to follow him had been heard, it had been distinguished from invitations to religion, and my friends had spent their energy seeking to understand and apply the teachings of Jesus to their lives. I was, with little effort, discipling my friends into the kingdom. That’s like crack to me.

Reflecting on the experience, I can see in that encounter the convergence of three non-negotiables – without any one of these, this would not have happened. Years of internalizing the life and teachings of Jesus converged with supernatural help from the Spirit in a situation I was in because I moved toward people when given the opportunity.

If you would, pray for my Aikido friends, and for me, and that the message of King Jesus would run fast and be well received.

‘Connection’ and the good news to the Narnyan heart

Introduction

We were trained in cultural acquisition by Donald Smith – an anthropologist and apostle – in Portland, OR. He has described culture as an onion, with the core giving shape to each layer. By observing the outside and working our way in concentrically, we can amass observations, find connections, and draw conclusions about what makes the heart – the core – tick. And from there, we can learn to describe the gospel in terms that are understood, and in ways that answer the nagging questions resident in the heart of the culture we seek to reach.

An example

One of the core assumptions in the American worldview is that the universe is a machine which can be broken into constituent parts, studied, and eventually mastered. This assumption underlies the way we approach everything we do. Even things that are patently non-mechanical like theology are unconsciously approached this way.

For example, Systematic Theology can take God and pin him down in a pan like a frog on a dissection tray. It often takes a mystery as vast and broad as the cosmos, and reduces it to angelology, bibliology, soteriology, and a bunch of other -ologies, all driven by the assumption that the universe is a machine and should be approached as such. I don’t say this to criticize systematic theology (that’s a different essay), but to show that even when the assumption doesn’t fit, we still operate from it. That’s a sign that it’s down in our core.

Another example is our fascination with “keys”. If the universe is a machine, then life must be about the pursuit of and use of the appropriate keys. How many sermons have you heard that go, “10 keys to ___________”? The fitness industry is consistently going back and forth between which foods are “key”, which exercises are “key” – and stating that they are “key” suggests that by having this one thing, other things become less necessary or unnecessary.

Americans tend to assume that there is one answer, one central cog, one thing – a key – that, if in place, will make the whole thing “work”, and we’re constantly trying to work our way down to that one central thing. This view fits some of the time, but often situations are more complex, tapestries of cause and effect and side-effect woven together in such a way that removing any single thread undoes the whole. In situations like that, there is no key, no central cog – just the thing itself, made up of a million equally essential parts. Still, we will look for a single key, or a few “central” threads, because of this unstated and unconscious assumption on our part that the universe is a machine, and we must find the keys.

Connection

The Narnyan core also hides unconscious assumptions which drive the way they think about everything. One Narnyan core assumption that I am proposing is that the universe is a tapestry of connections, and that life is about finding, understanding, creating, and protecting those connections. I have seen this most clearly in 5 ways.

  1. Language – Each of my language nurturers have corrected grammar errors or explained preferred ways of saying things using the notion of “connection”. When I have failed to use suffixes that match, the correction goes, “No. It doesn’t pull together. It doesn’t make the connection.” It’s not that the subject and verb don’t agree, it’s that I have failed to speak in a way that demonstrates or creates the appropriate connection. Similarly, some things are said certain ways to make clearer or more pronounced the connection between two words in a sentence.
  2. “A connection emerged” – Sometimes you meet someone and you find that you have some things in common…went to the same school, knew the same people, had the same hobby, whatever. To an American, this is of passing interest. With Narnyans this seems to change outcomes (I need to triangulate this one further). One example is when a local friend of mine was pulled over by the police. The initial interaction was harsh, with words exchanged that my contact described as inappropriately rude. From there, however, things changed as they continued to talk and found that they both went to the same high school, but at different times. Further, they both knew the same person – 10 years ago. Discovery of these commonalities changed the outcome completely. When I asked my contact what had happened, he plainly stated as though it was obvious, “A connection emerged.” So, afterwards the policeman said, “If there are ever any problems with other cops, call me.” The situation went from cursing and a likely huge ticket to my friend being let go and the promise of future help because “a connection was spontaneously created and emerged”. When I pressed my friend further about how to create connections like that, he told me you don’t create those – they emerge on their own and their existence changes how things happen. Then, he looked hard at me and said, “Everywhere, at all times, connections are necessary.”
  3. Friendship – When I’ve sought Narnyan coaching about friendship and relationships, without fail my coach has used “connection” and not “relationship” to describe what’s happening. For example, when talking with me about maintaining relationships, my local friends don’t say “maintain relationships”. Rather, they refer to “guarding/keeping connections”. Each one has said that friends should be routinely called for no reason other than to keep the connection. Different individuals have suggested different frequencies of calling/texting (between once monthly and 10 times a day), but always the reason is to “maintain the connection”.
  4. Detective work – In American English, when we describe what Sherlock Holmes does, we say he investigates crimes using the process of deduction. Deduction – subtracting potential causes until there is only one left. It’s very, very interesting to me the contrast between this and the Narnyan notion of how an investigation is carried out. The word for this process is “establishment-of-connection” – the making of connections. When I asked for a description of how this works, my nurturer said the detective attempts to discover or make connections between the victim and potential perps, between perps and motives, between X and Y. It’s not a subtraction of potentials (deduction), it’s starting with the event/victim and seeking to discover the connections that are there. The contrast in thinking approaches suggests that the assumptions that drive both are different, and further suggests that the notion of “connection” goes right down to the Narnyan core.

Implications

Our cultural acquisition training happened in an authentic context: by seeking to understand the Chinese immigrant community in Portland so we could articulate the gospel compellingly to them. In our training we learned that two characteristics of the Chinese cultural core is the quest for harmony and a strong attention to the past and the future that can often push the present to the margins. Or, put another way, the present is interpreted in light of the past and the future, which get the most attention.

This being the case, we saw that presentations of the gospel that centered on the individual’s experience or their present need weren’t likely to be particularly helpful. Rather, we learned to present a Story to the Chinese that graphically demonstrated that God made the cosmos harmonious, and that harmony had been broken in the deep past. But God had acted to restore harmony through the cross and resurrection, and that in the deep future, the world would be characterized by a degree and quality of harmony which it had never known, because of the cross and resurrection, and through the People of Harmony. Now, you can become part of the People of Harmony. In other words, we learned to articulate the News such that it was obviously good news to our audience. It answered their questions in terms that fit their view of the world.

Likewise, if it is the case that “connection” is a central core idea in the Narnyan worldview, then there are some practical implications to consider. First, the incarnated gospel. We may need to consider how we use our resources (time, money, phone cards, emotional energy) for the purposes of creating and maintaining connections. This resonates with our commitment to reach, and our guiding principle of learning suggests that we focus some energy on learning how people maintain connections, and what it says when we do and when we don’t. We need to think about our weekly planners in light of this.

Second, the proclaimed gospel. Discussions of the Fall of Man could be presented as the cosmic “connections” being cut through the sin of man. And the current world situation – war, loneliness, infidelity, famine, godlessness, confused religion – being the fallout of mankind living “dis-connected”. The gospel could be presented as God’s means of restoring these integral-connections between God and man, man and man, and man and creation. Further, the Narnyan penchant for conveying important truth through story could be respected and built upon through the judicious and creative use of the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

Conclusion

An expat friend here once said to me, “I don’t think anyone has successfully asked and answered yet the question, “What is the good news for Narnyans?” I think he might be right, and that lack of fully contextualized message might be part of why the message spreads so slowly here.

Discovering core assumptions should help. More work needs to be done with this, both in triangulation and in experimentation with these means of spreading the gospel, but I think that the beginnings of an answer to my friend’s question are taking shape, and I am hopeful about what that could mean.

Fire worshippers are smart

The sun came out last week a couple times, and again this week. And it warmed up, too. Let me tell you, that makes all the difference. I’m like Superman without super powers. I’m solar powered, but I can’t fly, lift crazy stuff or shoot lasers out of my eyes. While bullets don’t bounce off me, subtle hints and emotional cues do, but I don’t think that’s a super power. Anyway, I’m solar powered.

I’ve been a little surprised over the last couple years how much the weather affects me. You’d think growing up in the wintery northern midwest that I’d be used to dismal, depressing, hopeless winters. But they’ve really taken it out of me lately.

However, the sun has provided the external metaphor my soul needed to reset my internal spiritual mojo. That’s not the entire story, but I am doing a lot better, and it is definitely related to the return of the sun.

Narnya has pre-Islamic Zoroastrian roots. I’m beginning to think the Zoroastrians had it right by celebrating New Year in the spring. It’s falsely assumed that they worshiped fire, but in fact they worshiped a single deity that was most revealed in fire. They marked new year with a holiday called Nov Rus, still the central holiday in several countries in this part of the world. Nov Rus is associated with the spring equinox. It’s preceded by four special Tuesdays, each associated with the four elements: Water Tuesday, Fire Tuesday, Wind Tuesday and Earth Tuesday. And the holiday itself is a celebration of new life, the end of winter, and new beginning.

I once had a student who told me that they celebrate new year in the spring, but we do it in the middle of winter, and nothing changes. “How,” he asked, “can you celebrate a new beginning in the middle of winter?” Three winters in, and I think he has it right. Here, in Narnya, it’s harder to insulate yourself from the winter. Winter consistently freezes your pipes and takes your water. It slows maintenance and ensures periods without gas, and therefore without heat. It downs powerlines and steals your electricity and gives no guarantee of when it will return. Winter here cannot be completely hidden from. To use Emerson’s words, it steals away your vital heat. And celebrating the death of winter and the birth of spring is something I can get behind – body, soul and spirit.

Our family and our team are slowly beginning to sanctify this holiday. Missiologically, this is called ‘engaging redemptive analogies’. Each week we celebrate how Christ is the fulfillment of that particular element’s symbology, meditating on Scriptures that say as much, and praying those Scriptures into our bones, and into the hearts of our local friends. I’m even beginning to consider marrying this holiday to Easter for as long as we live here. Nov Rus anchors people in the seasonal rhythms and raw elementality of the created world (i.e. incarnation) and in the hope for and celebration of new life (i.e. resurrection). It can, like Advent before Christmas, provide for us (and, perhaps, for local saints) four weeks to prepare our imaginations to truly celebrate Christ as “all in all”, and as the fulfillment of our hope and of all the symbols and shadows that point to him, and it can help us use our embodied vulnerability to the weather and the yearly rhythms to bring our whole, embodied personalities to bear on celebrating the end of the old world and the beginning of the new in the death and resurrection of the King.

Anyway, that’s what I’m thinking.

Last night…

I’d like to break off a little praise-Jesus-what-what. Last night was pretty good.

My TOEFL students mention corruption a lot, and they were wanting an authentic reading sample to practice with. So I took them to youtube on Tuesday and introduced them to Oscar Romero – former Archbishop of El Salvador and social justice martyr. Then I gave them a speech he made about the roots of and cure for social injustice. They read the speech and came ready to discuss it. In the speech there is an oblique reference to the woman caught in adultery, and I asked them what Romero’s rhetorical purpose was in using that (that’s a TOEFL-style question). They couldn’t make sense of it, so we googled the phrase and wound up on youtube again watching the adulterous woman scene from “The Passion of the Christ”. The man in the class wasn’t there, but that actually allowed the girls a little more freedom in the conversation. They seemed really taken by Jesus. From there we discussed Romero’s claim that the cure for social injustice is for each human being to be saved from sin, and what that might mean practically. That was my TOEFL class.

From there I went to Aikido and had a normal class. I’m getting better. But that’s not why Aikido was cool. After, I declined an invitation to Sensei’s chay with my Sempei, because I was thinking that he wanted to go home and was only asking to be polite. And he was. But he wavered a bit and after he showered he asked me again to just go drink one chay and then we’d leave (thinking my need to go would let him leave without burning 3hrs at Sense’s table). I agreed, and I drank chay and answered an English question or two, and tried to find an exit from the conversation. They were talking about opening a new branch of the dojo and were discussing potential class times. They asked me when foreigners would like to train and would 10pm be too late, and I told them that I wouldn’t know but 10 would be too late for me because I get up pretty early every day…two or three hours before I go to work, usually. Here’s how the conversation between me and four of them went from there:

“Why do you get up so early?”

Well, sometimes I train a little, and I shower and I pray every day.

“Every day you pray? Is it at a certain time, like Namaz?”

No, no. I just pray because I want to.”

â”What do you do when you pray?”

I read the Ingil for half an hour or an hour, and after that I pray…for my heart, my sins, my hopes, my family. For my friends, for you guys, for the dojo, for the City. For the world. And I just worship Allah.”

“You pray for us? For the dojo? What do you pray? Why do you pray for us?”

I pray for progress for the dojo. And for you…you guys are made in God’s image. When I look at your face, I see some of God’s dreams for you. You are my teacher, and you’re 50, and I understand that. But still, I feel that we will be friends. We must carry our friends, no?, so I carry you to God.”

“What language do you pray in? Do you understand what you’re saying?”

Yeah. Sometimes in English and sometimes in Narnyan. But what is in my heart is what I pray.”

“Are there special movements or positions?”

No. Sometimes I am sitting. Sometimes I am kneeling. With me, I use my body to communicate to Allah how my heart feels about what I am saying. For example, my friend’s wife is really, really sick. When I pray for her, sometimes I am on my knees, or on my face. But sometimes when I pray I am so happy I could dance.”

[Here they break off into a conversation about how people sometimes do Namaz in the middle of Aikido class, and how unnecessary that is. And why do they do it in Arabic? They don’t understand a word they are saying. Then they continue with me…]

“How beautiful that you do this.”

Well, for me, it’s all about grace. I don;t do this to make God happy. Here, here’s a good example. It’s written that sometimes people trust their own good deeds to make God accept them. And because of this, Jesus gave this parable [insert the parable of the Pharisee (I explain this person as an imam or mullah) and the tax collector]. So, what is necessary is not good deeds to make God happy, but to trust in his mercy.”

“That…is absolutely….true.”

For me, prayer is not my debt to God. My life is my debt to God. My sins are many. My life was empty. And he grabbed me, and he gave me hope, and he put his Spirit inside me, and he changed my life utterly. After that, I began to read the Ingil, and it’s there, from Jesus, that I began to learn how Allah loves me, and I began to love him back. I watch people every day, walking around, thinking that God is far away. But God isn’t far away. Allah is near, and he loves these people, and his heart is broken because they do not see how much he loves them. And so, my heart is broken with his for them, and so I pray. I’m sorry, I don’t speak Narnyan well. Do you understand me? Sempei, are you alright?”

“Me? Yes, yes. I’m just thinking deeply about what you’re saying. I want to ask you a few questions. Ok?”

Sure.

“So do you have enemies?”

I did. And I was their enemy. But Allah has forgiven me much, so I must forgive them. Period. And Jesus told me to love my enemies. So I do. They may be my enemy. But I am not theirs.”

“Wow. So did you begin to pray and then your life changed, or what?”

First Allah grabbed me and saved me. I could not change myself. I needed a savior and he sent one. Then, I began to pray and read the Ingil, and slowly, slowly, he is changing me completely.”

“Beautiful. Do you guys see that? Beautiful.”

Along the way, the two girls in the room were on the edges of their seats, occasionally explaining to one another what I was meaning. And, throughout, my teacher (the Sempei) was settling deeply into what I was saying, and something real was going on inside him as we talked. All this was in my halting Narnyan, but where I felt meaning might be obscured I’d negotiate it with them until it was clear. I’m less excited about what I said, and more excited about what they asked.

And along the way, two things flashed in my head crystal clearly: 1) Three times a week, when I leave at night and my wife is left to put the kids down herself, and it wears her out, this is what that is for; and 2) Every night when I just want to fall asleep, and she says, “Do you want to pray?”, and we pray for these guys – this is directly connected to that. Part of my gift set is that I can sometimes clearly intuit the connections between things. And I saw it last night – this was as much her work as it was mine.

And for those of you who pray for us – this was your work, too.

Now for the hard part of waiting for the next act, and living out love in the meanwhile. Tomorrow I’m supposed to go to a Russian bathhouse with my sempei, so we’ll see if more conversation goes on over steam, ridiculous heat, beatings with eucalyptus brooms and near-nudity.

Blot out my name

The Way of Jesus, the cruciform way, is a spiral. You keep coming back to the same lessons, but somehow larger, more, deeper, better. Like a circle, but still making progress.

Ten years ago I was in Nashvegas and I wanted to leave. I had been there a few months, newly married, and had moved from a place where I knew what I was doing and I was pretty good at it. In Nashvegas my role was unclear and consistently changing, and it wasn’t what I thought it would be. I wanted for Jesus to tell me to leave.

Instead, Jesus took me to Philippians 2, where Paul says that he has no one like Timothy, who will deeply and sincerely care about the welfare of the Philippians. He says the reason for this is that “everyone else seeks after their own interests, not the interests of Jesus Christ.” Jesus quietly rebuked me, and he asked me if I was going to be motivated by his interests, which necessarily meant accepting and cultivating a visceral concern for the welfare of the church – and, at that time, for that church – or if I was going to be motivated by my own interests. Quiet and irrefutable. And it changed me fundamentally. I became, in my bones, a servant to the Church.

Today, this morning, ten years later, I ran across Moses’s prayer in Exodus 32:32 – “But now, please forgive their sin – and if not, then blot out my name from the book you have written.” Imagine that. I tried to pray that for the Narnyan people. But I can’t seem to, yet. Part of it is because my burden is broader than this one people group, whereas Moses existed for Israel. Part of it is because I don’t want to stay here forever. I want to do other things, too – I sense some calling to a wider arena. And I’d like to train others to do what I do. Part of me fears deeply identifying with this people group – with these persons – because it may consign me to a lifelong assignment here. And, being pretty emotionally fatigued lately, part of me fears feeling deeply at all. But part of it is because I am seeking after my own interests, and not the interests of Jesus Christ. Simple and irrefutable.

I can feel it, like when someone is rubbing your back and they find the knot that is at the center of a complex network of pain, this preference for my own interests over those of Jesus is at the nexus of my recent melancholy. Sickness, winter, being snow-bound, these all play a part. But the central root is this preference for my own interests.

So, brothers and sisters in the cruciform way, now to lay the axe to the root…

Dead already

I was in a Russian coffee shop the other day with a friend of mine. He’s interning with us for a year. I really like him. I was asking him how he thought the team was. I ask this question a lot, both to hear from team mates and get their insight, and to train them to key into the welfare of the community they serve with. One of the things he had been noticing was that this winter – the worst the City has seen in over 20 years – is really wearing the families down. Along with it has been a severe, weeks-long, debilitating flu that has rolled through every family, and that hasn’t quite let go of us. He’s right.

I’ve been putting off writing the first post for this blog because I wanted the first one to be bright and inspiring. I might be waiting a while, and I think Jesus told me to get this thing up and running. So, we’re starting with this one. I’m currently in a period of melancholy – melancholy owing to seasonal affective disorder (google it if you need to), sickness, the “Anger Phase” of cultural adaptation, and I’m sure there’s something wrong inside my heart. I can feel it, but don’t quite have a finger on it, yet.

Anyway, I agreed with my friend. Winter is wearing us down, and it’s supposed to get worse. Lots of expats are leaving the City, leaving Narnya right now. For lots of reasons. I’m not judging at all. Could be they are being re-deployed. But in our conversation, I found myself talking about how freeing it is – how very good-news it is – that Jesus said, “If anyone wants to come after me, they must first deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me.”

Sometimes we act like as we follow Jesus, slowly-slowly we become the kind of people who can deny ourselves and take up our crosses. But that is not at all what Jesus said. He said that if someone wants to follow him, they must first deny themselves (one time, settled decision), and then daily choose to embrace how that works out. This is the prerequisite to discipleship. This is the entrance, not the goal. Without this settled decision, Jesus will not take you on as his student. Without this settled disposition of self-denial, you can’t really learn much from him. He was clear about this, and that clarity is a ruthless kindness.

And that’s actually really good news. When I decided to follow Jesus, when I understood this call this way, I decided that my survival is not the end goal. I decided that my story is not about what happens to me. I settled it once for all that I don’t have to make it out of this life in one piece. And every day, I get to choose to embrace the consequences of that decision. This isn’t because I’m some kind of super-commando. In fact, I’m kind of a wuss. It’s because I’m a disciple of the Man who chose the cross, and the student is not above his teacher. I can either think like this, or I can be another man’s disciple instead.

But, really, this way of living is easier than the alternative. It’s freeing. Right now, I don’t like my life. I wouldn’t mind a different one. Every day – literally – something goes wrong. Every attempt I make at intentionality is thwarted. I talk like an idiot. I make cultural mistakes constantly. I moved here in my prime – that is, I was in my prime, good at what I did, and now I am TERRIBLE at everything I try. I don’t like it here right now. And, really, I may never.

And I’m okay with that. No amount of hardship will make me leave. If I get cancer, I won’t just assume I’m supposed to go back to the States. I’ll ask Jesus. And I’ll do what he says. If things keep getting harder, if I keep getting sadder, or more numb, that has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on whether or not we stay the course here or go. That’s the freeing thing. What happens to me is significant, and I feel it (sometimes too much), but I’m perfectly free to set that aside as I make decisions about what to do day to day and week to week because Jesus saved me from my own survival when he demanded that before I ever call myself his student, I settle it once for all that what happens to me is not going to be the central plot of my story. I denied myself. That’s finished, and thank God, I don’t have to wrangle with that ever again.

I don’t have to deal with questions like how much is too much?, how long?, when is enough enough?, where’s the line? The line is miles back and years ago, and I’ve already crossed it. I’m dead already. And thank God, because if I had to make decisions in light of my feelings, my family would have the most erratic course ever, and I’d never know if I was being faithful.

I think this is what it means when Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. People say that the metaphor suggests that you and Jesus are paired up pulling a plow, but that’s just not right. That interpretation comes from the American farming world. The ancient Near Eastern interpretation of the yoke-metaphor is one of kingship. When we embrace him as King, his demands are light, and we find rest for our tired, beat-up souls in obeying him. The same guy that says, “You see that cross on that hill? That’s your future if you follow me, and you need to decide right now, before you take the first step, that you’re okay with that,” is the guy who says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” It’s easy because the questions that others have to deal with, the questions that can literally pull you in two, never need to trouble the sleep of a student of Jesus. I don’t have to accomplish the mission and come back alive. I’m already dead.

Something is wrong in my circumstances. In this City, that’s ALWAYS the case. And something is wrong these days in my heart. But, even that can be dealt with because the pre-requisite self-denial is settled and sealed. I am dead already.

Praise God, and hallelujah.