Life Stories

This is a presentation that we use for Clinical Pastoral Education class. However, I it is quite relevant to missionaries. as well. It draws a bit from Narrative Counseling. “Bible Heroes,” as well as missionaries throughout history have complicated and painful lives. Part of their success was in embracing God’s perspective rather than their own. Some of that is also in my book “Theo-storying,” which is described in MY BOOKS.

Story Arcs and Ministry

Nice little article in the Atlantic Magazine,  “The Six Main Arcs in Storytelling, as Identified by an A.I.” by Adrienne Lafrance. (Click Here). It looks at some interesting research as far as how stories flow in terms of emotional arcs. That particular research can be seen HERE. There are many ways to categorize stories, but one can look at six main ones from an emotional standpoint.

Story Arcs

This is not the total limit of possibilities. For example, there can be Quadro-directional or more. In fact, many novels can look like a rollercoaster. Still many of them trend towards one of these types— or a long story with many sub-arcs.

Additionally, some stories can be seen as different depending on more specific details of the flow. For example, on, they talk about two common types of stories in the Bible: Guilt-Innocence Arc, and Shame-Honor Arc. Both of these stories are essentially variations of the “Man in a Hole” arc. In the case of Guilt-Innocence, the story restores the main character to the same condition as the start (same normal). In the case of Shame-Honor, the story brings the main character to a new, higher normal. Likewise, Kurt Vonnegut, in a youtube presentation referenced and attached to Lafrance’s article describes two types of stories: “Boy Meets Girl” and “Cinderella” stories. However, both would be described in the graph above as “Cinderella” Arcs. With “Boy Meets Girl” the main character starts out neutral and in the second movement dips below neutral. With “Cinderella” the main character starts low, and in the second movement probably does not dip below the starting condition.

Curiously, in the research referenced above, based on Project Gutenburg downloads, the three favorite arcs are:



Man in a Hole

Man in a Hole is classic because it describes the classic plot. Normal, Problem, Resolution to the Problem, Normal. We love people who get into trouble and then get out of it.

Oedipus and Icarus are harder to understand because the end is “sad.” But people do like cautionary tales, as well as people who “get what’s coming to them.”

Rags to Riches and Riches to Rags are less popular, perhaps because they lack the classic tension of a normal plot. In one the problem exists before the beginning of the story. In the second, the problem comes into the middle of the story, but without a resolution. Or perhaps the issue is that they are just too simple. They don’t resonate with real life. Good things happen to good people may seem “right” but doesn’t feel that much in touch with reality… or even if viewed as normative, is not all that interesting. The same can be said about bad things happening to bad people. Real life ebbs and flows more. A athletic event is one in which the winner appears to be in doubt until the very end.

One reason that parables in the Bible appear to be successful is that they avoid the unidirectional story— the first become the last, and the last become the first. The one who is supposed to be the hero acts like the villain– while the one we expect to be the villain, becomes the hero.

Stories that are told for purposes of ministry should take this to heart. A lot of preachers like unidirectional stories (Victory stories… essentially Rags-to-Riches). Perhaps they think the listener cannot handle more complexity or nuances than this… but they would be wrong. The story should not be unidirectional— simple and expected. The story should resonate with the interests of the hearer. This resonance doesn’t necessarily mean giving the hearer what he or she expects. After all, one thing the hearer wants is to be surprised.

Preaching is a bit of a dying art… but its death is more of an act of murder than of natural causes. Preachers remove the narrative from sermons to be replaced by propositional statements, along with a few very predictable unidirectional illustrations to “drive the point home.”

I remember a sermon/lecture in which the speaker was speaking on raising up children to follow God. It was a propositional sermon with several bits of advice. The illustrations were all built on the same story line:  I did the right thing and my children became better than they were. My only real memory of the sermon was how uninteresting and uninspiring it was.

There is a better way.

Samson Occom and Friends

A mentor of mine, Ptr. Bruce, gave me a

Samson Occom (1723-1792)

quote… and it was very much on a topic that came up in one of my classes, so I had to share it. Referring to Catholic and Protestant missionaries serving in 19th century China:

“Both Christian groups’ growth was hampered by the missionaries themselves. They could build churches and minister to communities, but they lacked either the language or the cultural credibility actually to win converts. That tended to be the work of Chinese evangelists, who could travel freely, use ties of kinship, and discuss their faith in teahouses or private conversations, rather in the formal, alienating setting of public preaching. Above all, the female evangelists known as Bible women became Protestantism’s spearhead. They were typically poor widows, often scarcely educated, sometimes blind, as likely to memorize sections of the Bible as actually to read it. Initially, they were thought of as companions and translators for women missionaries, but it soon became plain that they could work at least as well unsupervised.”

    -From “Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World” by Alec Ryrie (2017)

In a class I was facilitating with four students, from four different countries, the issue of missionaries came up— hardly surprising since the topic was on Evangelism and Missions. It was clear that missionaries were a bit of a mixed bag. They were appreciated for bringing the gospel message to their people. And yet… well… they were also problematic. One student, I won’t say the denomination or country, said that, Our churches in our denomination really did not start growing until the missionaries left. They tended to mess things up.” Others expressed concern about the tendency of some missionaries to control the agenda of ministry, and the resources. All appreciated the fact that missionaries came and they cared. But often it was intranational and intracultural missionaries/ministers who were most effective in reaching their people and their neighbors.

This is part of the reason I find it strange that some mission agencies and missiologists have established definitions for missionaries that focus on their role as evangelizers or churchplanters. Essentially, they are being defined by the role they are least suited for. While often local peoples appreciate missionaries for their work in Bible translation, and training, and care ministries, some mission agencies and missiologists devalue these, or even see them as not being essentially missional. They may point to some such as Paul and Barnabas. But these two were Hellenistic Jews living in the Roman Empire, who focused their ministry first on Hellenistic Jews in the Roman Empire, and only second on Hellenistic Gentiles in the Roman Empire. In effect, Paul and Barnabas were intracultural or at least intranational churchplanters… rather than intercultural/international.

Regardless of what one may or may not think regarding (cross-cultural, international) missionaries, the greatest successes are likely to be not the direct work of the missionaries, but the work of those they trained. It is rather too bad that mission books commonly don’t recognize the successes of these men and women to their own and neighboring peoples.

Eleazar Wheelock is a revered early Protestant missionary and innovator… but less successful than his Native American trainee (of the Mohegan tribe), Samuel Occom. The latter did not get as much recognition sadly… especially by Wheelock.

Take a wikipedia quote from the article on Samson Occom:

Occom was never paid the same salary as white preachers, although promised that he would be. The “Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge” also gave Occom a stipend, but he lived in deep poverty for much of his life. …

…Wheelock persuaded his former pupil to travel to England to raise money for the school. Occom preached his way across Britain from February 16, 1766, to July 22, 1767, delivering between three and four hundred sermons, drawing large crowds wherever he went, and raising over ₤12,000 (pounds) for Wheelock’s project. King George III donated 200 pounds, and William Legge, Earl of Dartmouth, subscribed 50 guineas. However, Occom on his return learned that Wheelock had failed to care for Occom’s wife and children while he was away. Furthermore, Wheelock moved to New Hampshire and used the funds raised to establish Dartmouth College (named after the generous aristocrat) for the education of Englishmen, rather than Native Americans as originally promised to Occom.

In Burma, foreign missionaries were commonly given higher billing than the Karen tribe evangelists that traveled with them, although the latter were commonly much more effective in sharing the good news to other tribes in the region.

I CAN’T Do All Things Through Christ

In case the title wasn’t clear enough… I must say it again. “I can’t do all things through Christ.”  And that feels really good.

Now I know some will read thisKnow-Your-Limitations-Then-Defy-Them and see a contradiction. After all, one of the most well-known Bible verses is “I CAN do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). Many of you know that this is one of the most well-known examples of misinterpreting a verse by ripping it from its context.

The verse seems straightforward enough. But the context makes it clear that “all things” refer to being abased and abounding, full and hungry, and presumably everything in between. “Do” refers to enduring or persevering. So the strength that Christ provides is to handle and endure any situation.

Sadly, the common interpretation to that verse implies that I am in control. Christ gives me strength to do whatever I want. In other words… It presumes the obedience of God TO me, rather than the benevolence of God FOR me.

I really don’t need God’s obedience, I need His benevolence? Why? Because I am a limited being.  I am limited in:

  • Knowledge. I am limited in my knowledge of the past, of the present, and (almost completely) of the future.
  • Time and Space. I am finite and thus hugely limited in perspective.
  • Wisdom. Even if I had full knowledge of all all things in the past and present, I lack the brainpower and discernment to determine the optimum utilization of these facts for a better future.

Because of my limitations, I don’t need God’s obedience… I need His benevolence. I don’t need control of what is beyond my ability to understand, I need God’s strengthening to be able to endure what is beyond my ability to understand. If I did have the ability to control what I don’t understand, I am likely to choose self-serving, foolish things— frankly the things that humans (self-serving, foolish creatures) tend to choose are… well… self-serving and foolish.  Here are some foolish things:

  • Missionaries get burned out… trying to do too much— claiming they can do all things through Christ who strengthens them. But apparently they try to do all things except establish balance (healthy balance in terms of physical, psychoemotional, social, and spiritual) in their lives.
  • Pastors do not maintain healthy ethical boundaries— claiming that as ministers they can do all things through Christ who strengthens them. But apparently they try to do all things except know what their weaknesses and temptations are. (We shouldn’t be all that surprised that pastors who do counseling are more likely to become inappropriately involved sexually with a counselee than their secular counterparts. Secular counselors make no assumptions that they can do without ethical boundaries.)
  • Pastoral Care Providers help those who are far beyond their own training— yes, claiming they can do all things through Christ. But apparently they seek to do all things except refer those to those competent and trained to handle specific problems. They sacrifice helpseekers on the alter of their own hubris.

So YES! I CAN’T do all things through Christ who strengthens me… and I am so thankful.

Missionaries, Ministers, Money, and Manure: Don’t Pile ’em Up, or So They Say | Clearing Customs

I once heard a friend (and fellow missionary at the time) say something on the order of Missionaries are like manure. Pile them all together and they stink, but spread them out and they do good thi…

Source: Missionaries, Ministers, Money, and Manure: Don’t Pile ’em Up, or So They Say | Clearing Customs

Is “Orthodox Missions’ ” an Oxymoron?

A nice article from an Orthodoxthe-what-where-when-and-why-of-orthodox-missions-3 missionary in the link below. The Orthodox church along with other groups associated with the “Eastern Faiths” were by far the most missional in the first millenium (combining in this sense the Greek Orthodox, “Nestorian,” and Coptic churches). In the 2nd millenium, the missions of the Russian orthodox involved an impressive expansion of the faith across Northern and Central Asia and into North America while Protestant churches were still experimenting with the idea of cross-cultural missions.

They were the first groups to respectfully and positively interact with the Islamic faith… and the first (particularly with the Russian orthodox again) to effectively evangelize Muslim groups. They also took seriously issues of translation of Scripture and liturgy, and indiginization of the local church long before these were in vogue in the West.

Curiously, books on Missions commonly ignore Orthodox missions. For Protestants, denominationalism is not really an adequate explanation since many of those same books take seriously Roman Catholic missions.

Anyway, this article helps to explain the omission, at least in terms of fairly recent history.

Is “Orthodox Missions” an Oxymoron? –

Good Friday is Good Enough

I love Good Friday. It seems to be the one thing we allow ourselves in Evangelical churches to be “only good.”

  • We are supposed to want Great Churches. A good church is not good enough.
  • Our churches are supposed to have Wonderful Programs. Good programs are not good enough.
  • We are supposed to have Awesome Worship…. certainly not good worship.
  • We are supposed to have Extreme, Radical Faith, in God’s Amazing Grace. Again, good is simply not good enough.

I guess it is true that we accept that it is okay to say that God is good. After all, don’t many of us in church have the responsive slogan: “God is good… all the time— and All the time… God is good”?

But then, Is God Good all the Time? Is it enough that God is good, or must He be good all the time? Arguably, it is more accurate to say, humanly speaking, “God is Good, but not all the time. Not all the time, but God is (still) Good.”

Now, I am being a bit flippant with my words. But words do mean something even when we don’t mean them too. Bill Cosby (long before his recent scandals came to light) had a wonderful riff on this in his semi-comedic exegesis of Genesis, while he was suggesting that the first three chapters of Genesis provided insight as to the cause of “brain damage” in our offspring,  We invent something and call it “Stupendous” or “Amazing,” while God makes a tree or a rabbit, and declares it “Good.” It is as if we need to hide our general mediocrity with marketing.

But good is a good term. It should not be tossed aside too quickly.

  • The term “good” suggests a moral rightness and appropriateness. It is more than simply being desirable or impressive. A “Good Christian” is right with God and Man. A “Great Christian”? I don’t know what that it… but is probably not someone to be trusted. A “Good Church” seeks to be light and salt in the world? A “Great Church”? Probably has awesome worship music, wonderful activities, and lots of parking… but may not be all that good.
  • Good suggests a certain simple integrity. Christmas is Merry, and Easter is Happy. There are a lot of cool activities that one can do— both secular and sacred. But Good Friday still exists in simplicity. Some Christians do fall into the trap of morbid fascination with torture of the crucifixion… as if divine propritiation rather than human sadism of turning a sacrificial offering into mutilation.

Good Friday is simply good— a good act of a good God, taking away our shame and sin… and leaving us an example of divine humility… for us, as good Christians, to follow in His steps.

And I would have to go with Tony Campola in saying that one thing that makes Good Friday good is that (Easter) Sunday’s Coming.  In line with that, here is a youtube video related to it (for some reason the video is twice as long as it is supposed to be… so don’t worry if the sound cuts off at the half-way point.)

Also here is the audio of Bill Cosby regarding God’s good creation (That part starts around the 3 minute 30 second point.)

7 Rules of Pastoral Conversation

Attached is a short article I posted on our Counseling Center website. Since I teach both missions classes, and a number of pastoral care topics, I love topics that overlap. I saw that the 7 rules of Interreligious Dialogue (IRD) had some interesting correspondences to good guidelines for a Pastoral Conversation, so I played around with it a bit. You are welcome to click on it and decide whether it is of value or not.

Source: 7 Rules of Pastoral Conversation