Friday, September 29, 2006

No Easy Way

I was already in bed when the phone rang. The guy on the other end was a prior student and friend working in one of the former Soviet Union countries. He was calling to get some advice. The work is slow, the language is difficult and after 11 years in the country he said he “felt trapped.” His sending agency won’t give him permission to move to another field where he feels he would be more effective.

“I remember you saying in class,” he recounted, “that there are no more easy places left in the world to serve, only the hard fields.”

Of course there are no easy fields; everything is relative. However, there are countries that are seemingly easier. Countries where the language is manageable, receptive is high, good schools for kids, easy transportation, temperate weather, all make life easier. This guy lives in a place that has none of the above. I doubt that my advice was helpful and as I hung up the phone I was reminded once again the importance of finding one’s niche in ministry.

Evaluating ministry is tough. I recently posted a question to some pastors in the US on what type of missionaries their congregations are drawn to. Their answers were revealing. People who get support are those who have a good media presentation, are articulate, going to fields that are appealing, where there are results. Not one said their mission programs focused on a people group or unreached areas of the world. The heck with strategy …if they have cute kids they will get the support (obviously I’m being facetious, but I’m not too far off from reality).

Another relative ministry is vision casting. True, without vision the people perish, but it’s relative easier to talk about what needs to be done versus those who are doing it. My friend is just a meat and potatoes guy, daily struggling to help the national church, teaching theology and working with pastors. Last week I taught a group of twelve men who are preparing to go to the villages of their country, the backwaters where there are few, if any, believers; places where persecution is often coupled with resistance. The vision casters talk about reaching the nations for Christ, these guys are doing it.

In God’s grand design, we need the visionaries, they motivate others to be involved (primarily financially), and that’s a good thing. But, while the vision casters are staying in nice hotels, wine and dined by the American church, the guys that are really doing the work are marginalized. The vision casters will show the faces of the practioners in their media presentations but the national worker often lives a life of poverty and discouragement (sometimes the "trickle down theory in supporting nationals is just that, a trickle, at best). In spite of the hardships they rejoice in their privilege to serve their Savior.

This post isn’t about dishing anyone; it’s a reminder that we all need to keep missions in balance. Visionaries, practitioners, facilitators, coaches, evangelists, teachers are all important work. However, an attractive young couple does not a mission strategy make. Relatively speaking, getting up front of people showing a presentation, casting a vision what needs to be done, is a lot harder than actually doing it. There are no easy fields, but there are some fields that are definitely more difficult.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Narrative of Grace

What is it about Christ Jesus that draws people? Skeptics say that only the poor and uneducated people become followers of Christ. It can’t be they intellectually believe in His message, marginalized people are drawn to Christianity so they will have place in society. Marx believed religion was “an opium” for the masses, a mind altering activity so that people could cope their miserable conditions. For some, perhaps this argument is valid, but certainly not accurate for many true followers of Christ.

As I sat and listened to Nakul’s story it was truly a remarkable narrative of God’s grace on one man’s life. He told me that at birth he was so tiny (I am guessing born premature), his father, believed he would not live so he tossed him into a pit. A cousin rescued Nakul from the trenched and nursed him. When he was nearly two years old his father came to take him back to their home. Nakul’s mother died before he was three and he has no memory of her. Nakul’s father did not remarry and with five children he could not manage his household so placed Nakul into a Catholic school where he remained until he was eighteen. I asked him if he learned about Jesus while in school and he said no. He learned songs, even prayers, but they did not read the Bible or have classes on the Christian faith.

From high school he worked menial jobs -- breaking rocks, farm labor, manning a PCO station (Public Call Outlets, private run business where anyone with a telephone line can set up a booth from their house and charge people to use their phone). His existence was the typical life that millions of Indian young men live every day.

There was a pastor of a small Mennonite Church in the area who would often use Nakul’s PCO. Each time the pastor came he talked to Nakul about Christ and invited him to church. At first Nakul just argued with the pastor, not interested in the Christian religion. Out of persistence from the pastor and curiosity by Nakul, he eventually went to the church and heard how God loved him and that He gave His only Son Jesus Christ that he might have salvation.

“The one thing in my life I never had,” said Nakul, “was to know that someone loved me. I never knew my mother, cast aside by my father. My brothers and sisters tried to help me in life, but it wasn’t until I heard the Gospel that I understood what it meant to be loved by someone.”

Though Nakul grew up in difficult circumstances you can tell he has keen intellect and a ferocious reader. He eventually received a scholarship at a seminary where he earned an MTh. Nakul is still very much, what many would consider, a common man. Married at the age of thirty-five, he now has one daughter and talks often of his family, people in his life he loves.

Mother Tersa use to say that the greatest poverty in the world was not the lack of money, but the poverty of love and compassion. Whether one is born rich or poor, high caste or low caste, the one common denominator is that people long to loved, that they matter to someone. Nakul was blessed to hear the message, “While we were still in our sins, Christ loved us and gave Himself for us.” It is the love of Christ that draws people to Himself. It is the love of Christ that motivates us to love others and tell the story how God loves them.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

#5 Why I Love My Job

The fifth reason why I love my job has not always been so. In the early years of my ministry telling the story about our work was rewarding. To tell churches in the U.S. about the Pokot and Turkana people I worked with in the bush was something I felt was educational, therefore beneficial. The transformation of an animist to a believer in the One true living God was a testimony of His power and goodness. People were fascinated with my stories as well as with pictures of people right of National Geographic.

When I became a trainer, coach and consultant to missionaries the story did not seem to be as interesting, it didn’t have that ZING factor. Mission’s is an emotional enterprise. One can become emotional about a half-naked bushman becoming a follower of Christ, but it’s hard to work up much of a heart wrenching illustration about helping others create an effective strategy for cross-cultural ministry. Of course I see the exciting transformation in the lives of my students each time I teach. People, of all ages, educational background, as well as ethnic/linguistic background come into my class with ho-hum expectations and leave with a renewed vision of how they can actually become agents of transformation!

Though it is difficult to capture the passion or emotion of my work, it is a story that I still believe is worth telling people about. The transformation of a soul, from dark to light, from ignorance to understanding, is a work of God. However, it it is the presentation of His followers that is the catalyst, the bridge, from Word to faith. Unless the missionary from Korea, Ukraine, India, America, Nicaragua grasp the dynamics of cross-cultural communication the message of hope and life will lie dormant as ungerminated seed on the side of the road.

The message of Christ is more often ignored than it is rejected. Pastors and missionaries drone through their message and irrelevant theology, undergirded by stale orthodoxy. Our speech is largely Bible babble rather than compelling reasons for people to turn from their indifference to God, their consuming lusts, their superstitions, to a message of hope and meaning. The message of the Cross will always be an offense to the majority, but I see nothing in Scripture that commands His messengers be so. If they hate us, let it be for the truth that we deliver in a culturally relevant way, not because we are careless in how we present the message in their context.

For me, the zing factor happens when I receive a note, in broken English, from a former student in Nepal who is working with a tribal group in the forest,

“Until I took your class I did not truly understand how to talk to the Raute people. Now I know better how to talk to them.”

Though I will never see this man's work or be able to take pictures of the half-naked forest dwellers, his story is partly my story. It's a story, not just of people coming to know the God of heaven, but how God uses all of us -- me, people who support missions and the Nepalese missionary who serves a people that God is drawing to Himself. I've got a great job and I love it!

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Kingdom Lessons Learned On The Train

Not sure why but the day after 26 hours on a train is a lot like jetlag. No time change, obviously, but the constant motion on the tracks drains me. Eating rice with your fingers is an acquired skill, compounded with the swaying of the back and forth coach, it’s a wonder I get any thing in my mouth. It will take a couple of days to get my equilibrium. Eating supper last night at the house was odd as my plate didn’t move and I had the luxury of a fork.

The train home was empty, which is rare. 11 million people travel by train each day so riding in a coach that had just ten people was a blessing. When boarding I shared a compartment with a businessman. He was a nice guy but I jumped at the chance to switch to a side lower berth where I could be alone. He invited me to have a shot of whiskey with him, but I declined. It’s illegal to drink on the train, but many do.

Indians are very nosy people or, perhaps, just curious. The business guy asked me the standard questions, “Where are you from? What do you do? Why are you in India? What companies do you work with?” I answer most of the questions, “I live in Delhi, am a consultant, different companies, teach anthropology.” When it gets too personal or I just get tired of answering questions I smile and say, “That’s classified information, sorry.” I don’t feel obligated to satisfy all their curiosities.

Some other guys down the aisle must have been drinking as well as they were loud, laughed and played Punjabi music most of the way. I wished I had remembered my headphones to drown out the chatter.

I have been reading McLaren’s latest book, The Secret Message Of Jesus: Uncovering The Truth That Could Change Everything, which is about the real meaning of the Kingdom. His contention is that we, the church, have missed the point of our Lord’s teaching, that the Kingdom is not the future, but now. While our focus seems to be conversion, programs and building local mini-kingdom’s, he asserts that our attention should be in solving present problems such as disease, poverty and injustice. Nothing particularly new in his argument, but as my train passed through the villages I was struck again by the dismal way so many people have to live. Is my role, the role of all of us in evangelical circles, so out of whack with what the Kingdom is really all about?

As I ponder these thoughts, I get off the train and a woman, old, in rags, half-blind, stands before me with her hand out. I reach into my pocket for some money, knowing that no matter how many people I give to I haven’t solved anything. Are we missing the point? Perhaps it’s time of for a paradigm shift in how we live our lives. Status quo doesn’t quite satisfy.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Day Two on the Rajhdani Express

One really doesn’t sleep on a train; it’s more like dozing on and off the length of the journey. When the train stops at a station I am aware we’re not moving. I get up to use the toilet at 3 a.m. and it doesn’t make any difference if it’s the Indian or Western style, it all is a direct shot to the tracks below. It’s just matter if you want to squat or sit to make a deposit. Back on my bunk my head is cramped, my back is sore, but at least I don’t have to climb to the upper birth to resettle.

At 6 a.m. a guy pokes his head into my berth and ask if I want coffee or chai. “Nay,” I tell him plainly as I role over to get another twenty winks. At 7:30 breakfast is served. I ordered the night before a non-veg. breakfast meaning an omelet. As I unfurled the foil from the tiny container, along with my egg are English peas and four French fries; the allies are with me, neither of which are much help. Scraping off the peas, I place my omelet between the two dry pieces of bread that is a part of my dining pleasure. Not bad. The tea was good.

I decided to travel by train on this trip because I wanted to see the Indian countryside. I could have flown and the trip would have only been two hours instead of the nearly twenty-four by Rahjdani Express. Living in the capital city is wonderful as it is progressive and, in some places, modern. In the bubble of the city, however, I forget that most of the population still lives in the villages or smaller cities. As I look out the dirty window from my coach I am reminded of the India I met fourteen years ago.

Because it is the monsoon season the landscape is lush green with fields of rice, sugarcane, wheat and assortment of vegetables. The goat’s meander in the fields looking for grass, boys sit on top of their water buffalo’s all day long as they guide them to pasture. Women carry water in round pots on their heads or hips, but these days the vessels are more likely to be plastic than copper. Their sari’s and head coverings have the flavor of village life in the time of Jesus in Palestine rather than modern India.

Of course it’s not paradise. Trash litters the tracks. As the train passes through villages the houses by the tracks are the slum dwellers, landless people who erect any covering of stick and plastic just to have a place to sleep. Kids play near stagnate water, where the pigs and garbage are mixed. The sunrise squatters, as I call them, bear their back end, oblivious to the passengers on the train. Without latrines the best they can hope for would be a bush to conceal their morning ritual, but privacy is not a part of their worldview so an open field seems to be work just fine.

How different these villagers are to those who share my coach. Most of the men have a brief case and cell phones. I notice a lady two sectors down wearing blue jeans with a stylish top. Young people wear shorts, T-shirts that read, “Trouble Is On It’s Way,” and little kids play with their electronic games with their continuous and irritating beeps. The language around me is mostly Hindi, but there is a good mixture of English and local languages as well. I am not looked upon as odd or out of place, just another traveler from a different part of the world.

At 6:45 p.m. we slowly pull into the Secunderabad station. I gather my things and head for the door. This train will continue on another twelve hours to Bangalore so the young girl may have claimed my berth as I stepped from the coach. On the platform a man with a sign of the school I will be teaching is waiting for me. Just one more hour of traveling and I will lie down on a bed that doesn’t move.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Long Train To Hyderabad

I gazed into the night sky, watching the rain hitting the awning at H. Nizamuddin railway station while waiting for the Rajdhani Express to arrive. I was glad my train departed from this station rather than the main station in New Delhi as HN was forty-five minutes closer to our house. When it rains in this city the streets are easily flooded and traffic, always congested, becomes a snarl as auto rickshaws, buses, cars, motorbikes all try to navigate through pools of water.

I have been riding trains in this country for fifteen years and it is always an adventure. Huddled with other passengers under the canopy I watched as porters pulled hand carts loaded with freight, coolies carrying luggage on their heads for travelers, beggars pulling on my shirt asking for a handout, hawkers selling everything from chains and locks for personal luggage to fruit and bottled water. At other times I’ve watched rats darting in-between posts to find food or playing on the tracks below. No rats tonight, too much rain.

As my train arrives I look for coach A3. I get on and find that my seat is in the middle of a three-tier sleeper and I’m disappointed. My ticket reads a lower side berth so I wonder if I boarded the on the wrong coach? I have plenty of time, so I quickly lock my bags under the lower berth seat and walk down the train platform. Sure enough, I got on AS3; A3 was the second-to-last car at the end of the train.

When I finally find my proper place a young lady had parked herself on seat number five.

“Would you prefer the lower berth?” she asked, hoping it didn’t matter to me.

“Yes,” I said kindly but with firmness, “I’m getting too old to climb up and down to the upper berth.”

You could tell she wasn’t pleased and I suspected I would have to negotiate more to get my assigned seat. I have learned in this country that people are willing to inconvenience others for their convenience. As a student of culture, I’ve learned the rules of how they play the game. If it were an older woman or elderly man I would have gladly made the adjustment, but if status means anything in this society, and it surely does, my grey hair trumped her youthful aggressive gender.

She did not budge, but I was willing to wait. It would not be until the train manager came and inspected our tickets or after supper that I would need my bed, so I sat next to another man, took out a book and began to read. The train pulled out of the station on time, 8:50 p.m.

I refused supper, as I was still full from the lunch earlier in the day. Sandy and I went with some friends to Kareem’s, a Muslim restaurant in the heart of a Muslim colony not far from where we lived. The mutton gravy, dal (bean gravy), chicken and roti (bread), was still heavy on my stomach.

After everyone had finished their supper the porter came by and distributed our bedding. Two clean white sheets, a pillow, washcloth and a blanket. They all looked like army issue bedding, especially the brown coarse blanket. The young girl slipped out of the compartment to wash her hands and I took charge of my space. When she returned I was making my bed. Knowing that I had the advantage she climbed to the berth above me without a word of protest.

For the next two hours I read, a novel I picked up for the journey. I seldom read fiction, but when you know you are going to sitting in one place for twenty hours you look for anything that will engage your mind, even if it has no eternal value. I only read Indian novels and search for those that can tell a good story and that which will also give me insights into the culture.

This particular book is about a young north Indian writer with two great struggles -- writers block and, more significantly, his loss of desire for his lover of fifteen years. To read the story you’d think he’d hardly have time to think about a narrative as he is consumed with reliving, in graphic detail, the passion he once had for the slender, dark haired and fair woman. I wade through the frequent salacious scenes, but more intrigued with the settings of his apartment in Vasant Kunj, Chandi Chowk, Lajpat Nagar and the social interaction of the players in his life. To read from the mind’s eye of another with the benefit of living in this same context, having touched, smelled and seen with my physical eye the word pictures he is painting, makes for engaging distraction.

As my fellow passengers settle in for the night, I turn off my reading light and try to get comfortable on the one inch shorter than needed slab that is my bed. The rhythm of the swaying train and the tempo of metal wheels on steel tracks lull me to sleep. Just nineteen more hours and I will arrive in Hyderabad.

(to be continued)

Friday, September 01, 2006

#4 Why I Love My Job

I contend, as well as teach, that the key to success in working overseas is job satisfaction. People say they leave the field because of illness, conflict with associates, finances, persecution, culture stress and a host of other things, but almost any of those obstacles can be overcome if a person really feels they have, as is the title of my book, found their niche in their work.

My niche is teaching cross-cultural studies. Going cross-culturally has different levels. C1 is "like-culture" (mono), which is 90% of ministry activity. C2 is a different culture (better described as social environment) but similar, e.g. middle class Caucasians working with poor illiterate or Americans working in London. C3 is crossing a significant cultural boundary (middle class white American learning enough Arabic to work with Egyptians in Detroit). C4 (not plastic explosives) is anyone who moves from their country into another country, learns the host culture language, customs and social organization. This is the emic principle, becoming an insider. Having been blessed, not only having lived as a C4 worker but being educated in the discipline of how to study and different culture environments, I have a unique and fulfilling career niche.

Globalization means that our world is smaller and culture’s are merging into a collective lingua franca. Those who do not understand the dynamics of culture make the false assumption that similar equal same, believing that just a tweaking of presentation is all that is needed to effectively communicate across cultural barriers. It’s a fatal flaw. Look at any company, church, social or even government policy that is successful and you will find that someone in that organization knows how to read the culture of their market.

I recently taught a class where some MK’s from Australia was going back to the country they were raised. The director of the class warned me, that some of them didn’t feel they needed my class. They grew up in the culture; they didn’t need a cross-cultural course. I suppose it would be true, if they were going to serve exactly in the same place of their parents, among the same people they grew up with. IF, however, they dared to serve among a different geographical, ethnic, socio-economic or age group, they would need to learn the importance of cross-cultural studies. As I gave my presentation a few actually caught on and the lights of cultural understanding started to flicker.

Tomorrow I get on a train, travel 24 hours to a remote part of the country to teach nationals on how to communicate the Gospel in a culturally relevant way. My job is unique; few can do it. I truly have job satisfaction. I love my job.