Thursday, June 22, 2017

Surprise! We Need to Learn from Christians from Other Cultures

Fairly often, Gil makes his Tanzanian Bible school students pretty uncomfortable.

For example, in March, Gil taught a class on developing a biblical worldview.  This was for his second-year students, so they already had a solid knowledge of Scripture, and Gil had a good relationship with them by that point.

Something came up about tattoos, which was met by a strong negative response by the entire class.  Gil was intrigued by this, so he posed the question, "Which would bother you more, if your pastor got a tattoo, or if your pastor committed adultery?"

Unanimously, the class agreed that a tattoo would be much more disturbing to them than adultery.

Of course, this led to a very lively conversation with a lot of Bible pages flipping around, and Gil offering them some pretty strong challenges.  Our American mission leader was visiting that day, and when he told the class that his two adult (Christian) children both had tattoos, the students were dumbfounded.  Gil and our American leader were dumbfounded that they were dumbfounded.  Some of the students were so agitated that they went home that night and spent hours searching their Bibles for proof that a tattoo was the Cardinal Sin.  Which, they sheepishly admitted, they didn't ever find.

And that's just one example of a day in the life of Reach Tanzania Bible School.  This kind of discussion happens all the time.

It might be tempting for us American missionaries to believe that we are in Tanzania to set straight the African Christians who don't know any better.  After all, we have theology degrees and conferences on doctrinal statements and We Know The Bible.

What we've learned, though, is that they need to set us straight too.  We white Americans have a thing or two that we can learn from the African Church.

When we talk about church in America with our Tanzanian friends, it's their turn to be shocked.  Your church services are only an hour and fifteen minutes long?  And that's the only service you attend all week?  And you've never, ever done an all-night prayer vigil?  Like, never?  Are there even any Christians in America?  

In America, your devotion to Christ is measured by the amount of personal time you spend in prayer and Bible study.  Am I right or am I right?  Well, in Tanzania, your devotion to Christ is measured by the amount of time you spend in prayer and worship with others.

Of course, you might protest that measuring godliness sounds like legalism.  Which is true--but we still do it, don't we?  If you are American, what would you say to a Christian who never did personal devotions, but spent many hours every week in church worship services?  Would you even know where to put that person in your spiritual hierarchy?  And would you be able to back up your conclusion with Scripture?

It's easy for us, as foreigners, to come to Tanzania and point out what they are doing wrong.  Those deficiencies pop up to us broadly and clearly.  But I wonder, what if a Tanzanian Christian came to the States and was given a voice in the white American Church?  What deficiencies would be glaringly obvious to him?

To start with, they might wonder why we get so excited and passionate while watching sports, but when in our worship services, look bored out of our minds.  Maybe they would point out the reluctance of America Christians to open their homes to others--certainly to strangers, but even extended family members.  How about our lack of being unconditionally generous with our resources?  Maybe our gluttony?  The way we waste food?  Or how we consistently serve donuts every week to congregations who are already unhealthy?  Maybe how we downplay the older people in our church and instead do everything we can to attract the young?

Maybe you don't see those things as "big" problems.  Maybe you want to defend our own church culture as not being that bad.  But let me tell you something--those things--like passionate worship and generosity and hospitality and devotion to prayer and respect for elders--the way that the Tanzanian church does those things?  Puts the American church to shame.  The contrast is stark.

The truth is that every culture--including every Christian culture--has blind spots.  We have our hierarchy of sins and our hierarchy of godliness, and we know we are right and no one can say otherwise.

But that is dangerous.

God created culture, and he loves ethnicity and diversity, even in (especially in) his Church.  I absolutely believe in the authority, inspiration, and the unchanging nature of Scripture, but we also must remember that it was written for all generations, all cultures, all peoples.  I think sometimes western Christians assume they have the trump-card on what Christian culture should look like....but why?  What if an African (or Asian, or South American) Christian holds to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, uses solid principles of interpretation...and yet comes to different conclusions and applications?  Is it possible that they could be seeing things that we've missed because of our own culture's influence?

This is why we were created to need each other.  And in a country as diverse as America, I wonder why it is so rare that white Christians grasp that truth.  Don't we realize that we are missing out when we refuse to bring other cultures, other colors, other languages into our church conversations?  Don't we realize that even in that refusal is a major blind spot that we will be held accountable for?

We also have to understand that because white Americans have usually had the upper-hand in American Christianity, that people of other ethnicities and cultures are not going to automatically come to us with their concerns about our church culture.  Their voices have been overlooked for way too long for them to try, or they are just too polite.  It's got to be our initiative, our first step, if we are really going to learn from them.

It might start with something as simple as going to a Christian friend from another race or culture and asking, Where are the blind spots in white American church culture?  How are we sinning--against you, against God, against our neighbor--and just ignoring it?  

And then swallow our pride and listen.  Listen.  That kind of humility is something that Tanzanian Christians are teaching me.  I hope I can be like them.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Your Short-Term Trips Have Not Prepared You For Long-Term Missions

My monthly post from A Life Overseas......

I can still remember the random thoughts that shot through my head during my first couple of weeks as an adult long-term missionary.  Wait, what?  There’s nothing planned for us today?  So what are we supposed to do?  Hey, when is someone going to take us souvenir shopping?  I was really looking forward to that!  Why is no one telling me what to do with the trash?  What am I supposed to do with it?  Why is no one telling me what to do about anything?

I caught myself many times.  No, Amy, you live here now.  This is not a short-term trip.  I knew that, of course, especially since I had been an MK.  But it was weird how my short-term trips had programmed my brain with certain expectations.

This is not a post about the good or the bad of short-term missions (STM), or how to do them well.  This is a post about the limits of STM trips as preparation for long-term missions.

These days, just about every long-term missionary has been on at least one STM.  Of course, many long-term missionaries choose that life because of a short-term trip—which is a wonderful thing indeed.  But what is often not discussed is how different long-term missions is compared to short-term trips.  And sometimes, those misplaced expectations can actually make a long-term missionary’s transition even harder.

So if you are headed for long-term missions after a series of short trips, what differences should you expect?  Here are four things to consider.

1.  No one is going to hold your hand. STM trips, when done well, are carefully controlled.  Your entire schedule, down to when and what you will eat, when and where you will sleep, and how you will spend all of your time, have been decided for you.  You might not even get to handle local money yourself.

So when you arrive on the ground as a long-term missionary, it might come as a shock that you will be more or less on your own.  If you’re lucky, there might be a few missionaries who will show you around and get you oriented.  But they will be busy, and you will find yourself thrown in the deep end a lot sooner than you wanted.  It might be scary and overwhelming and not nearly as fun as your short-term trip.

2.  Daily life is not all ministry; in fact, most of it isn’t. My husband remembers his first STM trip when he was in college, and the shock he experienced when he realized that his host missionaries not only watched television regularly, but they had cable.  What?  Missionaries need rest?  On STM trips, you might joyfully work 12-hour days and fall into your sleeping bag at night feeling smugly satisfied with all you accomplished.

But as a long-term missionary, you might waste 5 hours driving all over town, looking for the right-sized lightbulb.  Or you might spend all day in the immigration line.  You can go whole days where all your time is consumed by figuring out how to just live, and you think, Ministry? What’s that?  On top of that, you’ll soon discover that burn out comes really quickly if you don’t allow some downtime into your life.  Even if that means getting cable.

3.  True results take a long, long, long (long!) time. When you went on that STM trip, you may have been ecstatic to see the kids who raised their hand at the VBS.  One of the best moments of your life might have been when the poor family stepped into the new home you built for them.  And you will never forget the party that broke out in the village when they witnessed the well you paid for.  But a few days later, you got on a plane and left.  You weren’t there to notice that the VBS kids never showed up at church again.  You didn’t see the poor family get pushed out of their brand new home by an older relative.  Six months after the well was built, you weren’t there to see it broken and rusting.

But when you sign up for long-term service, those disappointments become your reality.  And if you’re expecting quick, easy, fabulous success stories, you’re not going to last very long in your new country.  You’ve got to start your new life with your teeth clenched in determination, with lots of grit, and humble, long-term perseverance.
There's here to read the rest.  

Friday, June 9, 2017

Medina Life, May 2017

Anne and I have been friends since 8th grade....that's over 25 years!

My parents took us on a wonderful vacation to Zion and Bryce National Parks in Utah.  It was truly majestic! 

Me and my mama

While in Utah, we stayed at a wonderful restored old house with quaintly creaky floors and snapdragons in the front yard.  The kids played wiffle ball in the sprinklers and we enjoyed some of small-town Americana.

Some good friends who used to live in Tanzania flew all the way from Wisconsin to visit us!  We spent a great couple of days together and the kids loved reconnecting with Ruby and Henry (and I loved being with their mom!)

The legendary cement slides at Brigadoon Park in San Jose

Ice cream in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco

Johnny's butterfly friend inside the Golden Gate Park Conservatory

Investigating carnivorous plants in the Conservatory

Of course, Grandma always insists on a trip to Disneyland!  The kids got one day there with Mom and Dad and another day with just their relatives, as Mom and Dad needed to be at a church.

Lily learning to fight the Dark Side.

Splash Mountain.  We discovered that Johnny is an adrenaline junkie who loves roller coasters.

We've experienced a lot of amazing hospitality so far in the States, but this day was particularly special.  My former professor from The Master's College (one of two who taught me almost everything I know about education) had us all over for lunch.  She set out dozens of items for the kids to make food sculptures, and they had a marvelous time playing with their food!  

Saturday, June 3, 2017

When Emotions are Untamed Horses

There was a time in my life when believing the truths of the Bible caused an earthquake in my life.  Did God really exist?  Was the Bible true?  Did Jesus really rise from the dead?  My search for truth in these questions dominated my life for several years.  And at the end of a rather obsessed season of study, I was convinced:  I could trust the Bible.

People often equate faith with blind faith--mindlessly chucking all rational thought into the wind for the sake of belief.  But when I talk about faith in God, and the Bible, and the resurrection, I don't know if I could even call it faith by that definition--because it's 100% rational for me.  And as a result, I rarely have intellectual doubts in Christianity anymore.

No, where faith comes in for me is in the area of emotion.

I must admit that I don't have a lot of patience for emotion.  I prefer rational, clear thinking based on facts.  But my emotions don't often cooperate, bucking around like untamed horses, refusing to be domesticated.

Sometimes I think that the entire Christian life consists of believing God over believing my emotions.

Anxiety tells me, You must control your life or everything will fall apart and the world will end.  But God tells me, I am in control.  Nothing can separate you from me, and that is the One Important Thing.

Resentment tells me, You deserve to be treated better.  You deserve more appreciation.  You have a right to demand it.  God tells me, This life is not about you.  You can forgive because I forgave you.  Wash their feet.

Despair tells me, The world is dark.  Things fall apart.  There's no point in fighting.  God tells me, I am the Light of the World, and there is always hope.

So who will I believe?  My emotions, or God?  Believing God--right there--that is faith.

The problem is--everyone knows--that emotions are powerful.  So powerful that they cloud the way we see the world.  When anxiety or resentment or despair or lust or anger or grief or happiness have taken over our souls--then that is reality for us.  The emotion, quite literally, defines our universe.

It doesn't help, of course, that we live in a society that glorifies emotion.  From the time we are small children, we are told to Follow our hearts and Get in touch with ourselves and Validate her feelings, which really are just other ways of saying that we should let our emotions rule us.  And, of course, I'm not suggesting that we become a society of stoics who stuff and deny and shut up everything we feel--because that's not the right path either.

But as those who have been transformed by the gospel, who are being controlled by the Holy Spirit, there's got to be a better way.  There's got to be a way where we feel deeply, and yet at the same time, learn to take those emotions by the scruff of the neck and wrangle them into submission to God's Truth.

And that's why faith is so important.  Because when I'm seeing the universe through an emotion, I must have faith that what that emotion is telling me is wrong.  I must step back and look at myself from the outside, and analyze what I am feeling from the rock-solid words of Scripture, and then preach to myself instead of listening to myself.*  

That means, sometimes, that I must loudly rebuke my despair or shame or self-pity, or, the most aggressive in my case--anxiety.  It means I must hold on by my fingertips to the things I know that are true.

And it also means that in those times when I am thinking rationally, that I do the hard mental work of knowing what God's Word says and why I know it is true.  Because if I am not absolutely convinced, then there is no way I will be able to fight that fear or resentment or frustration when they take over my brain.

Faith isn't blind--except when I am blinded by emotion.  Then, faith is believing what I already know to be true.

*from John Piper