The Missionary’s Two Homes

Sometimes as Christians we talk about the idea that this world is not our real home— heaven is our real home. One of my favorite gospel songs as a youth spoke of this. The first verse said,

“This wold is not my my home, I’m a just a passin’ through.

If heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do.

The angels beckon me, from Heaven’s open door,

And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”

It is a fun song. It is not totally accurate, of course. The Bible speaks of Earth as our eternal home— Heaven on Earth. In effect, this is our one home.

But as missionaries, we typically have two homes. One is in our home country, and one is our in our country of service. For years that wasn’t really important to me. We sold our house in the US and moved into our house in the Philippines. We spent 90% of our time in the Philippines, and the plan of my wife and I was (is?) to retire in the Philippines. As such, the US was not our home, but a place we visit on occasion.

However, this has changed somewhat. Our three children are now grown up and have chosen to live in the US. Additionally, one of them has some health needs that have required us to be a bit more involved in helping her along. Our old solution of just coming over and staying with relatives and friends has not worked. Additionally, short-term and long term rentals of houses and of cars have proven to be prohibitively expensive. We were actually pretty desperate for awhile. Thankfully, do some truly divine grace, we were able to work out things to have a house (with mortgage of course), and car (with loan of course).

This did remind me of the rope metaphor used by Ryland and Carey back in 1792, where Carey expressed willingness to explore into the unknown (like as into a deep pit or cave) as long as his friends back home would “hold onto the rope.”

It is hard to serve as a missionary when the rope is cut back in one’s birth country. This can be in terms of financial support. But this can also be in terms of a “home base”— a place one can call home when “home.”

Things are a bit different, perhaps, for people who serve with a full-service mission organization. However, most of the people I know in missions are independent or semi-independent missionaries. I have known some who have been completely cut off from their home base. Several of them did eventually have to return to their sending country and start ‘from scratch.’ Another got stranded in their home country during COVID, but have been able to move in with their son. Another such family had similar things occur and they moved in with their parents. One lost contact with their home country, but another country and associated church adopted him and that helped him serve. Another married into his missionary country, and as such has set quite deep roots in his service country. However, one never knows when the lack of a second home may cause issues.

As much as we may focus on the Philippines being our new home, times change. We don’t know the future, and we cannot assume that God’s best for us aligns with what we think is best.

We now have a home in the US that is our home when we are home. Two of our adult children live there year-around. We cannot afford to be homeless when back in our sending country, so this is a great blessing. We also have a home in the Philippines… perhaps it is our home until we die. Perhaps not. Regardless, it is our home.

When we return to the US, we can say it is good to be home. When we return to the Philippines, we can say it is good to be home.

We found that we needed an anchor point in both countries— we did not for 17 years, but we do now. It was a tough decision to take preciously collected savings to put into a house in the US (especially during a time of ridiculous housing prices). However, God has been good, and we found something pretty close to the perfect place (for us). Now we can go back and forth between our two countries much easier— between our two homes.

Extra thought—- In English we have two different words— house and home. They are overlapping words. A house is a building that people live in. A home usually is a building, and it has to do with where people live. But there is an emotional side to home that is not in house. The word home has a deeply emotional sense of belongingness. In Tagalog, there is a similar equivalent. The word ‘bahay’ means house— building to live in. But there is another word as well, ‘tahanan.’ It has a similar sense as home… a place of belongingness. I wonder how many other languages have this equivalent pair of terms?

Defining “Christian Missions” and “Missionary”

It is strange that I have been involved with full-time Christian missions for 17 years and have been teaching Christian missions for 13 years and yet I have never found definitions for “Christian Missions” and “Missionary” that I like. Some are too narrow. For example, some definitions for missionary limit to those who are commissioned or ordained by a sending church or agency. For me that is a too… vocational… understanding of the term. Others think of missionary in terms of calling. That would be okay I suppose if everyone shared the same understanding of what calling means. (Hint here… there is NO common understanding of what it means to be called by God.) In terms of Christian missions, some definitions focus on churchplanting, or pioneering, or being international, or being ‘cross-cultural.’ Those definitions I think were always too narrow, but in this time of globalization, I think they have easily reached the point of being— well — pointless. Other definitions are so broad that every Christian is a missionary and everything the church does everywhere is Christian mission. I must admit that there is a part of me that likes broad definitions. However, there are distinct features of Christian missions and serving as a missionary that deserve their own labels and training and study. Watering terms down too much make them essentially meaningless. They become like what has been happening with the term “worship,” where in emphasizing that everything we say and do is worship, effectively, nothing is distinctly hallowed in terms of worship.

So I thought I would try to throw out a couple of definitions today.

Christian Missions is the intentional work of the church to go outside of its normal boundaries to join God’s work where the CHURCH IS NOT, where the CHURCH HAS NOT, or where the CHURCH CANNOT.

Yes, this definition is pretty broad still, but I think it has key elements.

  1. It is intentional work. This is service… the expenditure of time, energy, and effort.
  2. The focus of missions is on the church. In other words missions is defined in terms of the church rather than culture or national boundaries. In terms of organization, missions may be built within a sodality structure or a modality structure, but in terms of organism, it is about the church— the assembly of the faithful.
  3. It involves going outside of its normal boundaries. That means it reaches beyond its own membership, its own community, its own normal sphere of influence. It is a sending out and going out.
  4. It is joining God’s work. As the saying goes, God is at work (everywhere) and invites us (the church) to join Him in that work.
  5. It may be in terms of where the church is not— where churches don’t exist. It would involve evangelism, churchplanting, discipleship, and leader development. This is pioneering
  6. It may be in terms of where the church has not— churches may exist but are not functioning well in some ways. It involve inspiring and training churches, church organizations, and individuals. This is empowering
  7. It may be in terms of where the church cannot. Some places churches may lack the ability, long-term, to do certain types of ministry work. This may include such things medical care, missionary member care, Bible translation, or radio ministry. This is a work of specialization.

Missionaries are people who intentionally embrace their role in Christian missions and identify themselves in terms of that role.

This definition also sounds pretty vague, and is essentially meaningless if not tied to the definition for Christian missions. Additionally, the term notes:

  1. It is people. This is obvious but when we say that Christian missions is about ‘the church,’ there is a risk of it becoming abstract. Christian missions may be related to the church, but it is carried out by people… individually and corporately, joining God’s presence and efforts in the field.
  2. It is intentional. It is intentional in the sense that avoids the “everything you and I do is missions”-sense. Individuals identify that what they are doing is Christian missions as is defined earlier. As such it has the characteristics listed earlier.
  3. The individuals self-identify themselves as missionaries. In other words, if you don’t identify as a missionary, in a very key and important way you are NOT a missionary. In a broad sense this has to do with calling. I am not totally sure that every people in missions has to have received some big unambiguous Isaiah 6 sort of calling. But there should be some sort of recognition that they have joined a brotherhood and sisterhood that is unique in focus and role within the church.

Are these definitions perfect. Of course not. In fact, I am not even sure if I fit into the definition of missionary that I have written. Maybe it is better to describe myself as a “Cross-cultural Minister.” Regardless, I do think that the definitions at least establish a more real world foundation for discussion of these topics.

But I welcome suggestions for improvements.

My Strength is My Temptation– Part 2

I suppose the term “Strength” is a bit of a loaded term. Very commonly what one may consider a strength another could consider a weakness. A strong desire to lead or dominate can be seen as a strength. When we think of great leaders in history, we think of their drive to lead as part of what makes them great. However, many of those with a great desire to leader lack competence, or have an unhealthy faith in their own wisdom. On the other hand, those with a “need to lead” may be in a position that does not allow them to exercise that quality— the trait expressing itself in insubordination.

Additionally, one strength can create a weakness in another area. One of the greatest basketball players of all time was Michael Jordan. He was also very good in baseball, and solid in golf. Perhaps he could have been truly great in baseball or in golf if he had not focused on basketball. Of course to some extent work in one athletic sport can help with other sports… but such focus in one would likely prevent reaching one’s potential in another. Even further, I doubt Michael Jordan is strong in Nuclear Engineering or Missiology. It is not to suggest that he couldn’t be (he seems like a smart guy) but his intense focus on basketball and other athletic endeavors ensured he would not be great in those other areas.

So I have been undermining the idea of “Strength” as it pertains to qualities or abilities in people. But that is not really to focus of this post. The point I am working toward is that STRENGTH IS A PERSONAL PERCEPTION.

We each identify in ourselves certain qualities or abilities as strengths.

It is these perceptions that open up temptations. A person who believes that they could never cheat on their spouse is open to manipulation, and ultimately falling. The person less likely to cheat is one who knows that he or she can cheat and determines not to. That person is more likely to establish personal taboos and boundaries to prevent it. Con-men and demagogues give their message in the language that speaks to the perceptive strengths of the target population. For demagogues, commonly they say something to the effect that, “What you think about yourselves and your greatness is correct. But you are being held back by ______________ (government, class group, racial group, political group, etc.)”

It is okay to identify strengths in yourself. It is okay even to identify strengths incorrectly. What is dangerous is to identify strengths in oneself without realizing that this opens to door to temptation and manipulation.

In missions this can be a common and serious problem. Some missionaries have a “Messiah complex.” They see themselves as hyper-capable and others as hyper-needy. This can develop dependent relationships. And that is one of the ‘better’ results. More seriously, this missionary may see themselves as indispensible. Some missionaries identify themselves as great leaders. Many see others as “born followers” in turn. These missionaries may not prepare for their own retirement or mortality. They may not train others up. They set up their work for failure. Some may see themselves as great preachers or evangelizers. Yet, in most cases, locals are actually better at reaching their own people. Focusing on doing all the work themselves, missionaries can hamper their work.

I hope I have made the point. One’s strength is one’s temptation. The fix for that is not to self-deprecate— to reject the idea of personal strengths. Rather, it is to be self-aware of what one’s strengths and weaknesses actually are— and to realize the strengths in terms of potential weaknesses, limitations and the potential as a temptation or area of manipulation.

Should Missionaries be Evangelists?

So I was talking to a friend of mine named Tom (his name is NOT Tom) who is a minister in an Asian Country where Christians are a tiny minority. He was talking about mission work in his country. He noted that missionaries had brought a lot of good things to his country… such as hospitals, church buildings, and community development projects— among other things.

However, he said that one way missionaries haven’t been that helpful have been in terms of Evangelism. He noted that foreign missionaries are not all that good at evangelizing people in his country… because they are foreign. He noted, that in some rural areas, they have had some success in gifting the poor with things they need and these poor respond, converting and joining the church. Later, however, when the missionaries are gone, the gifts stop or slowly break down, and the people drift back into their community’s majority faith.

Of course I have heard this before… even here in the Philippines where many Filipinos are comfortable with English, and the there is commonly enough Bible literacy so that the American-style gospel presentations are effective. (I will not address the question of whether these presentations lead people to Christ, or bring people who are already saved to a different denomination.) It is well understood here that Filipinos are better at evangelizing than foreigners. Foreigners are not that effective even with other religions. I mean, even the American Mormon boys (and girls) sent to the Philippines to proselytize their own message are more and more often matched up with Filipinos. It is entertaining to listen to American youth stumbling through the Mormon message in Tagalog or Visayan or Ilocano, but it is simply not that compelling. The biggest mosque here in our city has worked very hard to fund local boys so that they can train them to evangelize their Tawhid to others here. There are many foreign Muslims here… but few if any have any impact in the presentation of their faith.

But if Christian Missionaries are not good Evangelists, is this a new thing? No. Apparently, Occam (a Native American) was a much better evangelist to Native Americans than Wheelock (a European) in the 1700s. In the 1800s, Karen Evangelists were more effective in sharing the gospel than their American counterparts. Of course, one may go back to 1st century missionaries, such as Philip and Paul and Barnabas in hopes of finding something different. However, in these cases, these missionaries were reaching out to people who were not that different from themselves (E-1 or at most E-2). Paul and Barnabas were Hellenistic Jews from Asia Minor and Cyprus, who reached out to Hellenistic Jews and Hellenistic Gentiles in Asia Minor and Cyprus. Philip, presumably a Proselyte to Judaism before becoming a Christian, reached out to Samaritans (who shared the language used by the Jews, and almost all of the beliefs of the Jews), and a (presumably) proselyte to Judaism from Ethiopia. Their effectiveness, outside of divine empowerment, was linked to the commonality of language and culture.

So let’s look at it a different way. Consider three settings where a Missionary can Serve.

#1 is Where the Church IS NOT. (No viable church within the region, or culture)

#2 is Where the Church HAS NOT. (The local church may be weak or young and needs help to empower them to carry out its work.)

#3 is Where the Church CANNOT. (The local church may be strong, but still lacks unique capacities such as ability to support radio transmission, publishing, medical services, and so forth.)

So what should the role of Missionary as Evangelist be in these three situations?

For #1. Of course, The missionary is an apostle in the classic sense— sent into a place where the church is not. As such, his (or her) role is to proclaim God’s message of love, and draw those who seek to follow Christ to come together as church bodies. Yes, such a missionary pioneer should evangelize, but really should focus on training new believers to evangelize and then move to new roles of discipling and leader development so that the missionary (as soon as possible) is not needed there.

For #2. Maybe. The Missionary MIGHT be needed to evangelize occasionally— especially if the local church has not embraced its role as a proclaimer of the gospel in its area. But such a role should be very temporary and cautious. After all, even a young church can have young believers who can effectively evangelize. Thus, if it is not happening, having missionaries do the job can easily maintain an unhealthy dependence on missionaries. In fact, that unsatisfactory condition may exist because missionaries as pioneers focused too much on evangelizing and not on encouraging that role to be passed on to locals.

For #3. No. Every church can evangelize. The local church may not be able to establish a publishing house, or operate a counseling center, but they can share their faith with others. Missionaries doing the evangelism in these settings is unhealthy… except as simply a fellow participant with local Christians.

Tom when noting all the good things that missionaries brought to their country noted one thing that they really did not bring. They did not establish seminaries. Mission groups come over to evangelize, and they come in to teach locals how to share their faith like a foreigner. But they did not help establish schools for locals to be trained to contextualize/localize the Christian faith… and remove their scholarly dependence on foreigners.

A few years ago, I was investigating joining a major mission agency. At the time this agency was moving away from theological education and developmental ministries, and seeking missionaries who had a strong “evangelistic spirit” and focused on rapid church multiplication.

On the surface, this seems so right… but I think it is flawed. Most countries don’t need a bunch of foreign evangelizers coming in with big dreams of saturation strategies and CPMs. Are these things wrong? Probably not. However, Big Dream Missions (DAWN, AD2000, and other such missionary-driven movements) promise much but tend to deliver little. The biggest movements come from small groups of local Christians faithfully doing small things to transform their small places.

So should Missionaries be Evangelists? Sometimes, but few if any should have it as their primary passion. The vast majority should be passionately motivated to empower local Christians and local churches to reach their Spirit-empowered potential.

Learning from a Chambered Nautilus

When I was young, the word Nautilus made me think of one of my favorite books, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” And this corresponds with one of my favorite movies (of the same name). Then when I was in the US Navy, the Nautilus made me think of the USS Nautilus (SSN-570), the first nuclear powered submarine in… well… all of history. I trained at the nuclear plant that was a copy of the one on the Nautilus. Years later, I had the opportunity to visit the actual submarine, although long-since decommissioned.

Today, I don’t think of either of those things. I think of the animal, the chambered nautilus. At our counseling center, we use the nautilus shell as a symbol of growth and transformation.

In its living form I think provides a metaphor for the church and for ministry.

How does a nautilus grow. It gets bigger…. a pretty common implication of growing. And as it grows, it outgrows its previous home. Different creatures have different ways of doing it.

Many animals shed their skins. This includes those with exoskeletons… but also animals like snakes. Hermit crabs move from borrowed lodging to a new borrowed lodging (much like humans do).

The Nautilus doesn’t do things this way. The nautilus starts very small in a small chamber shell. As it grows, it creates the shell that slowly spirals outward. As it moves out, it closes off the area in the shell it was once in.

It can seem like a bit of a waste. It is not efficient to carry those old chambers it doesn’t use, and cannot use. But in truth, it does use these chambers, but in a different way. The chambers have air in them. The air provides a couple of things. First, it provides neutral buoyancy. That actually makes it move MORE efficiently, not less. Second, it provides orientation giving it more stability. It maintains this orientation giving it better control as to where it goes in the water.

What's special about the shape of a Nautilus shell? Find out. | Human World  | EarthSky

I would argue that in the church, there is wisdom in this. Some churches seem to get stuck in a space that doesn’t fit it. Sometimes they embrace tradition a bit too much. But things go the other way as well. Some churches are so focused on being “current” that they lose their touch of history. I have been in groups where people get a bit giggly if one uses a song in worship that is more than 20 years old. I used to be a member of a church where the pastor stated publicly that he would change the decor in the church every couple of months to ensure that things would not become stuck in a long-term tradition.

This is too bad. The church I was raised in has a building that it 124 years old, and had existed as a congregation before that. Our sending church is 165 years old. As a Protestant, I am part of a movement that is at least 500 years old, and as a Christian, I am part of a movement that is almost 2000 years old.

The humans that make up the church (whether local church or universal church) are ephemeral. They are like soap bubbles… some bubbles endure for awhile, while some are barely present before they are gone… but all are relatively brief. And this thing we call the present (“The Now”) is even less enduring. It is more like a a bit of sunlight that glints off of one of those soap bubbles.

The church that rejects traditions and symbols are likely to lose identity… and can often careen off course.

While traditions, rituals, and symbols can hold back the church… shackling it to a past that has lost relevance, they can also give stability that leads to good direction. I have seen so many churches that have hired new pastors. These pastors don’t know the DNA of the church, and have no sense of the history of the church. In fact, arguably, the church members hardly know the church’s own identity themselves. When these pastors come in… they bring in their own novelties. Sometimes, these novelties are good and valuable. Often, however, they are simply bringing a tradition from a different church to replace the one that already is embedded in this church. And sometimes, it is worse than that. Sometimes the pastor saw a Youtube video, or went to some conference, that is marketing some innovation in theology or practice, and that pastor buys into it. Often the logic is, “Hey, it seems to work over there, so it must work here!”, without consideration of what differences in setting may mean to this (and often hardly considering what “works” mean in terms of the church vision and mission).

There needs to be a balance of embracing tradition and embracing change. There needs to be wisdom. Years ago, I was at a church council meeting. They were looking into searching for a new senior pastor. I suggested that we need to set up a pastoral search committee, get a list of possible candidates, and then do background checks in terms of their theology, track record, and behavior. I was told that this is not the way this church does things. Their method is this… the church council gets together and perhaps one of the members says that they know that “Ptr. A” is available and seeking to pastor a church. Then a member of the council contacts that pastor and invites him (since this was a church where the pastor would always be a ‘him’) to preach. If the preaching goes well… the church calls him. Interestingly, this is a tradition to reject tradition. It is tradition in that “this is the way we have always done things.” It is a rejection of tradition in that there is nothing in the process to ensure that the pastor is the right fit for the church. There is nothing to ensure that direction of the church is affirmed and maintained. I would argue that in this case, to honor the tradition of the church, one needs to reject some aspects of the tradition. Maybe my suggestion was not good, but if so, neither was their tradition in finding a pastor. The church could easily become like a nautilus without air in its shell and so moves more like an anemone that has broken free of its anchor point (awkwardly with little control of its final destination) than of a healthy nautilus. I have seen a lot of churches that have been DESTROYED by bringing in a new pastor with a radically different vision. I am thinking of one right now that lost most of its membership when it hired a pastor whose beliefs and practices were WAY out of line of church. After he left, members said, “Oh, we did not know what we were getting!” However, that was hardly an excuse since he had his own website that clearly articulated his views and practices that were in many ways in opposition to the church that brought him in.

Of course, this is not simply about churches. This applies to parachurch organizations as well. I worked at a Christian Summer Camp for five years. The first three years it was led by a director who had been there for many years. He was, perhaps, a bit set in his ways, but he understood how the camp worked, and kept it successfully doing its intended mission. The director retired and was replaced with a pastor who took over who had long been associated with the camp. He kept things pretty much the same. Was the camp “stuck in the past.” In some ways, probably Yes. But much of what they did was good and worked. The first year there, they hired a new director from a different camp. As we entered the camp schedule a pattern emerged. An issue would come up and one of us from the staff who had been around for awhile would give a response to the situation based on what was done before. The new director would then pipe in and say, “Oh yes… that is the way we have always done it.” He would say it in a funny voice as a sort of verbal meme. Then he would decide to do things in a different and innovative way. Eventually, I found out that what he was doing was NOT innovative. Rather it was simply what he did at the camp he used to be at. He was simply replacing traditions.

I can’t remember how many years he served there as director… but he eventually got in trouble by mocking the board of directors for making a decision that he did not agree with. Truthfully, I am not sure whether I agree with the director or with the board in the issue (that I won’t share here). However, the board decision was very much in line with the roots, traditions, and support structure of the camp. The director was removed and replaced with a friend of mine who had worked there many years, and did (I believe) a better job of innovating in a way that honors the DNA of the organization.

Innovating in ways that are in line with this DNA actually makes change happen easier, normally, than simply diving in and trying to force change. This is like the nautilus where the extra baggage it carries gives it neutral buoyancy… making it easier to move rather than harder.

I think I will stop here. If there are other things that one can learn from the nautilus, feel free to share it in the comments.

Holding Organizations Accountable

Jackson Wu recently wrote an article— “Why I Left the SBC and IMB.” It is a very interesting read. It is well-thought out, and he focused on reasons that he had direct experience with rather than the “A friend of mine told me that…”

As a member of the SBC, I feel pushed two ways in the article.

In terms of sadness, Jackson Wu is one of my favorite theologians, and so I liked the fact that he was SB. There are not many SB theologians that I am particularly drawn to. On the other hand, his reasons for leaving I find perfectly valid, and I respect acting according to conviction.

My home sending church is SB, and one of the two churches I am a member of is SB. I teach at an SB seminary… well, sort of. Technically, I teach at a seminary tied to the Southern Baptist Churches in the Philippines, and the Southern Baptist Churches in the Philippines have relationship ties to the Southern Baptist Convention… but legally are independent. I am not IMB, but my wife and I did apply with the IMB, and if that organization had not run out of money back in 2003 (and if I was a bit less chubby), we might have been part of it… at least for awhile. I have known and worked with many IMB missionaries. In almost all cases, the IMB missionaries I knew were class acts. Most of them are no longer part of the IMB— because of refusal to sign a doctrinal statement, or because of relocation, or forced retirement. I certainly have had some concerns about the organization.

The idea of moving missionaries out of theological education really seemed inane at the time. For the IMB, I still think it was ill-advised. Positively, it did force locals to take up the slack in terms of scholarship and training. The majority of professors at the school I teach in are locals now. That is a good thing. So is the policy shift bad or good? Both. But overall, I think it was bad because it crippled one of the strengths of the IMB (training world Christian leaders) and replaced it with a task that IMB missionaries are permanently less competent at (foreign missionaries are not as good at evangelizing and churchplanting as local ministers). Why hobble your strength to empower something you will always be second best at?

In Wu’s article, the one thing he mentioned that I had not heard of, was the signing of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) of missionaries leaving a few years ago. Talking about NDAs would be a violation of the NDA, perhaps? What would I have done if I was told that my pension (which, for lack of a better word, I “earned”) was contingent on me keeping my mouth shut about things inside the organization? When I was in the Navy, I was (and still am) required to not disclose (sorry but there is no actual rule against split infinitives) things that are classified (very happy to say that I don’t have any more such classified materials in my head after 30 years). However, I don’t recall having anything like an NDA to sign… tied to GI benefits and such. I am hoping there is another side to this story with the IMB. However, as one involved in Missionary Member Care, I have seen secrecy and CYA used to protect an organization. In the end, however, it tends to perpetuate problems— especially abuse.

In the end, a missionary (and a theologian) serves the Kingdom of God. To the extent such faithful service can be honestly done, and even be enhanced, within a denomination or a mission organization, it is a good thing. To the extent that the SBC and the IMB are faithful to that calling, and don’t fall into the common traps of power, money, and status, they are a blessing.

How such organizations stay on the straight and narrow are voices, both inside and outside, who challenge and hold accountable. Sadly, such people are often seen as problems not blessings.

That is exactly why we need them.

You Can Read the Article by Clicking Here

Lilias Trotter and the Will of God

I finally had a chance to watch the documentary “Many Beautiful Things.” It is on the life of Lilias Trotter. She was a missionary of the early 1900s in Algeria. I connect with the story. Like me, she was a missionary who was not sent out by a traditional mission agency or society. But I suppose the differences far outweigh the similarities. She was a missionary who had potential for great fame as an artist but chose obscurity in a very dry and barren (literally and metaphorically) mission field. Curiously, because of the documentary and the research of Miriam Huffman Rockness, Lilias Trotter has gained a considerable posthumous fame. It is possible that in the years ahead her fame may eclipse John Rushkin, the one who was trying to develop her to be a reknowned painter. While I have long been familiar with John Rushkin, today he is far from a household name. Time will tell.

I strongly recommend perusing the website, www.liliastrotter.com. It has lots of resources including the documentary.

The question in the documentary was whether she had made the right choice. Was it better to embrace her gift or embrace her sense of calling. Or maybe her gifting was evidence of her true calling. There is a bit of a similarity here with the story of Eric Liddell (“Chariots of Fire”), where his gifting as a runner appeared to be at odds with his desire to serve as a missionary.

For some people, the answer is simple. One must accept God’s Call no matter what. But recognizing God’s Calling is… challenging. I have seen people go into missions who I was pretty sure should never go into missions. On a few occasions, things seemed to work out for good (I can easily be wrong) but other times I felt that my concerns were confirmed. I don’t believe that God’s Call is only one way. That is, God’s Call is not always towards formalized mission work or ministry. God’s call could theoretically be to be a great painter, or a great runner. I was an Officer in the US Navy, and then later a Mechanical Design Engineer. I think it safe to say that I was not meant to spend my adult years in the military, but I am not so sure regarding civilian engineering. In college I talked to a missionary about my uncertainties of missions or engineering. He believed that God can call people to engineering as much as He may call people to missions. The important thing is to serve God faithfully whatever was one’s vocation. I spent the next 19 years of my life pursuing engineering, and then I went into missions. The change of path does not necessarily mean my first path was wrong. And if my first path was right, it doesn’t necessarily mean my later change was wrong. God’s calling is a path, not a destination.

I like the documentary “Many Beautiful Things” because it doesn’t really give answers. That Ms. Trotter’s desire to establish a “visible church” in Algeria did not happen (until decades after her passing) may draw into question her calling. Or maybe it doesn’t. It is for us to decide. It is like the movie Silence (2016) that asks serious questions about Christian missions, without giving trite answers. I enjoy the movie Candle in the Dark, on the life of William Carey. It spoke of his many struggles along the way. But it ended with a seeming pronouncement of victory. Carey chose the right path after all. But things are not that simple… even for William Carey.

Trite answers abound. The poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost has often been used to support the idea that one must choose the path that the crowds ignore. It suggests a certain praise of individualism, or perhaps following God. But then I heard people say that it meant the opposite. It really did not matter which path is taken. However, when I read the poem again, I felt it said neither. Each path goes in different directions. The poet later will interpret his life as being radically changed by that choice— but there is no way to verify this because it is impossible to go back and try the other path. In the end, we don’t know. We cannot know the results of paths not chosen.

Did Lilias Trotter make the right choice? What about Eric Liddell, or Fr. Rodrigues (in Silence), or John Rushkin, or myself? Did we make the right or wrong decisions? Did we follow the will of God or not?

I believe that I have. I have felt God’s sustaining grace along the way. I have seen good things happen in our work here. But is that proof? No. Lilias Trotter had at best only modest success in missions. Eric Liddell’s life was cut short, in part, because of missions. It is possible that my wife and I could have had greater impact if we stayed as engineer and nurse in the US. We don’t know.

But God is faithful in our uncertainty. We don’t know what happens on alternative paths. We are not supposed to know. We are to seek God the best we can, and follow Him as best we know how.

Faithfully following God, as uncertain and tentative that following may be is the important thing, “And,” quoting Robert Frost, “that has made all the difference.”

Inconvenience and Negativity

A few weeks ago, I was online with a meeting of team of supporters. Another missionary who we are connected with here in the Philippines was also in the online group. This meeting we were invited to join, but we were not the focus of the meeting. Nevertheless, we were asked to give a quick update of what is going on with our ministries here in the Philippines.

Afterwards, several people said how nice it was for us and the other missionary family to join. One of the comments was “It was so nice that they were so positive and not complaining.” A couple of days ago, I (and a few other missionaries) were asked to give a short video to a church and were asked to share prayer requests while “keeping it positive.”

I found that interesting. Why twice in a few weeks was positivity especially called out.

One possibility is that I (and maybe other missionaries) are so negative normally, or perhaps only contact friends and supporters when something is lacking. I know my wife and I have supported ministers and missionaries who would NEVER contact us unless there was a need they have. I can assure you that after awhile one gradually shifts from feeling like one is a partner, to feeling like one is being used. Still, I don’t know that I am negative all that often. Maybe I am, and maybe other missionaries are as well. But this is only one possibility.

Another possibility, however, is that there is a tendency “back home” toward negativity. I do know that looking at social media from back in the US, there is a lot of negativity. It seems like Evangelical Christianity there has become hypersensitized to… well… pretty much every little annoyance (except, perhaps, things that annoy others outside of themselves).

I remember talking to a pastor in the US some months ago who was so annoyed that church meetings were being limited in his state. He felt that this was a huge encroachment on his freedoms. I tried to reframe it as sacrifice… the church has the opportunity to sacrifice some of its rights TEMPORARILY as a blessing for the community. His response was, “Well, that is a pretty huge sacrifice…”

I thought about that. It really isn’t much of a sacrifice. Quoting one of my favorite Youtubers, Ryan George, it is a sacrifice that is “Super easy— barely an inconvenience.”

It seems like many Christians right now are struggling with a reversal of St. Paul’s testimony— In whatever state we are in, therein to be discontent.

But maybe I am reading into things. Maybe it is about me. Maybe I am too negative in my reports. In the end, I can’t DIRECTLY change other people, I can only change myself. So what should I take from this?

  • I probably should ask for clarification. Guessing doesn’t really help.
  • should find a balance in my newsletters home. I should be more positive, encouraging those who are feeling discouraged. However, I should also not simply send home “happy letters.” I need to tell the full story. With happy letters, I can get fans. But I don’t need fans, I need supporters, prayer warriors, and accountability partners.
  • I should model sacrifice. Sacrifice and inconvenience seem to be a challenge for many (Western Evangelical) Christians today. Telling people that they just need to “suck it up” probably won’t work. But if I make it clear that I can find contentment in all circumstances, and the peace that passes all understanding, perhaps it will rub off.
  • Avoid catastrophizing. Some mission organizations create financial or other disaster scenarios as a way to drive support. But “God is in his Heaven— All’s right with the world.” Having to change plans, adjusting to reality is not a catastrophy.

Ethical Loyalties in the Church (by looking at the same in the military and police)

I was reading an interesting article entitled, “Why the US Military Usually Punishes Misconduct but Police Often Close Ranks.”

The article promotes the idea that while both

army authority drill instructor group
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

the military and paramilitary (police) may cover-up crimes done by members, it is far more likely for the police to do this, and more likely that the military will successfully police itself.

I had to think about this for a bit. I have never served in the police, and only interact with the police rarely (ministerially or otherwise). I did, however, serve in the US Navy. My initial reflection on the US Navy is that when something disgraceful comes up, the institution first goes into cover-up mode— and if that doesn’t work, then it goes into witchhunt mode.

But as I thought about it more, I realized that my distinct memories of these occasions of corruption stick out in my memory 30 years later, in part, because of its infrequency. As I thought about it more, I do remember distinctly a cultural attitude that when someone broke the rules, it was likely that fellow sailors would normally want justice imposed on the violator. Often the harshest judges would be peers and colleagues.

Why is this? According to the author of the article above, the military (US military at least) tends to create a culture of loyalty to the organization, while the police (at least US police forces) tend to create a culture of personal loyalty.

Let me give an example— I was on shore patrol at a liberty port in the Med (as in Mediterranean Sea). While I was there a couple of enlisted shipmates were walking a fellow sailor (a gunnersmate, or GM) back to me and the ship van. He was heavily drunk. He had gotten into an argument in a bar, and that argument had gotten violent. Being heavily drunk that violence hurt himself more than anyone or anything else, so no one at the bar wanted to press charges. I felt good. I can just get him onto the ship’s van and back to the ship before he creates any more problems. Sadly, as he was getting into the van he started loudly making drunken racist statements. I thought to myself, “Oh crap… well, at least I tried to help him.” He goes back to the ship. A few days later he went to Captain’s mast (non-judicial hearing), and then from there to a process where he was “kicked out” of the Navy.

From my example, here is my point. It never occurred to me that anything different would happen. I knew that he would not get in trouble for bad behavior in the bar IF no civilians in the bar would press charges. I knew that there would be no problems. If I could get him back on the ship at this point, about the worst thing that could happen is he might be charged with drunkenness and have a minor punishment placed on him. I also knew that once he shot out with the racial slurs that there was no coming from this. I knew that no one would cover it up or try to place the blame elsewhere. Why did I know this? Because it was understood that the gunnersmate had violated the rules of the military, and had placed shame on his own shipmates. As such, his friends and other shipmates may wish him well in life, but still recognize that he must go.

According to the author, it is more likely for paramilitary (police) forces, it is more likely that things would go differently. If a police officer behaved like the gunnersmate, rather than expressing loyalty to the police force, and hold individuals accountable when they shame their organization and colleagues, they would express loyalty to the officer and lie and do other things to shield him (or her) from prosecution and just consequences.

Cultures are never that cut and dry, and as I said, I have certainly seen cover ups in the military. Still, culture includes a bunch of tacit beliefs and assumptions about what is good or bad.

What about in church or on mission teams? What is the culture of churches and mission teams? I think it varies.  Churches especially, can embrace a war metaphor— the idea that we live in an us versus them world— good versus evil. I believe that makes the personal loyalty drive stronger. You might think that this is opposite. After all, it is the military that primarily carry out war, so shouldn’t the war metaphor promote organizational loyalty? I don’t know, but historically, the military drift most into cover-up mode during wartime. Under such stress, members of an organization will commonly feel that protecting a member means protecting the organization. Under less stress, the military will see holding members accountable maintains integrity and reputation, and THIS protects the organization.

I know it seems to make sense to cover up problems. However, accountability works better long-term.

Churches and mission teams claim to serve God. If God is the standard, then the standard is not organizational culture, or community standards. How do we demonstrate that? Toxic organizations are like toxic families— they are as sick as their secrets.

The goal is to avoid cover up (because we must hold each other accountable because of loyalty to… God). However, the goal is also to avoid witchhunt. Our goal is not to kick everyone out who fails, but in accountability, work towards repentance, recompense, and restoration.

 

 

 

The Murky Waters of Ministerial Restoration

I chose not to name names here, but as the stories/charges from my former school have multiplied since I first wrote this narrow somewhat even-handed post, I invite you to read more on your own… https://rightingamerica.net/rape-sexual-harassment-and-more-the-cedarville-stories-are-multiplying/?fbclid=IwAR3w4PvmDPtu5fcnddvHU_EtiR1P534Vdd3PsOu0NVUvx5ZfJlSsFNt5CUQ

A Christian college I attended years ago has been in the news lately. It recently fired a professor (I will call him “Dr. Smith”) for sexual misbehavior. Technically speaking, it wasn’t for sexual misbehavior— there had been no documented sexual misbehavior during his time as professor. Rather, it was discovered that some of his sexual misbehavior that was known from the past had been covered up. The college had accepted Dr. Smith as having made “one mistake” when later it was discovered that he had actually had a pattern of misbehavior, at least in the past. Essentially, he was accepted “warts and all.” However, he intentionally allowed things to be kept undisclosed during the hiring process, so such a cover-up can suffice as a basis for being let go.

The professor is a married man but had videotaped one of his assistant (male) ministers taking a shower in the nude. The school had accepted this as an admitted area of struggle for Dr. Smith and something he was repentant of and seeking to grow beyond. The school gave him a list of probationary limitations, as well as disciplinary and accountability actions, towards restoration. However, when the school found out that the problem was much bigger with past actions closer to stalking and coercing over a long period of time, the school felt they could not accept this and let him go.

I can understand the school’s position. If someone (we can call him Tom) told an employer that he once stole $10 dollars from a neighbor when he was in college, that employer can accept this information and address it. But if it was later discovered that Tom had been a habitual thief for years, the employer may be perfectly justified to let him go, even if he hasn’t been found to have stolen during his employment there. The justification would not be because of theft, but because of lying/deception.

There are so many issues that come up in this tiny little story.

First… Many people have called for the resignation of the president of the school— we can call him “Pres. Jones.” I personally can’t call myself a supporter of the president. He is a Complementarian and I am not, so I must admit that I don’t like his actions that have continued to move my former school more in that Complementarian direction. However, it seems like the school was already well along moving in that direction without the help of Pres. Jones, so I am not too motivated to hold that strongly against him. I do, personally, respect a leader who supports forgiveness and restoration (with appropriate discipline and accountability measures inplace). I don’t think ministerial roles should only be given to people with zero marks against them from the past (either because of no major moral failings, or because the failings have been well-hidden). Paul and David were given second chances ministerially after sinful activities that most everyone would have trouble ignoring. Peter denied Christ (much in line with the activity decried during the Donatist controversy. Two disciples of Christ wanted to ask God to call down fire on people who refused to show them hospitality.

I like the fact that President Jones was willing to give Dr.Smith a chance. I also like the fact that there were disciplinary limitations put in place. Of course, there are still reasons for concern.

  • Concern #1 was that it sounds like the issue wasn’t well-researched. It even sounds like the school did not speak to the victim. If that is the case, it is hard to say that Dr. Jones applied due diligence to the matter. If this is true, then the situation is, indeed, partly his fault.
  • Concern #2 was that there was some suggestion that the decision of Pres. Jones to hire Dr. Smith was because of Smith’s connection to “Pres.. Johnson” the former boss of Pres. Jones. Pres. Johnson has a bit of a spotty record known by many for an attitude that could be described as “Boys will be boys, and girls should just keep quiet about it.” Was the decision to hire based on old boys network or based on genuine concern for restoration. I have no idea.
  • Concern #3. If one reads all of the things the school set in place to provide disciplinary support and accountability for Dr. Smith… well, they sound a bit fake. When I say fake, I am not saying the list was not actually drawn up. It might have existed. However, I have seen this sort of list made before, and rarely if ever are they actually carried out. Often the list is little more than a cynical way to “cover one’s own back side.” I would prefer to be wrong on this concern (as well as the others). I want to think the accountability/disciplinary structure was set up to EQUALLY protect the student body, and help the professor. But that might not be the case.

The Second issue is about whether one should hire a person who has sexually acted out in the past at all. For some, sexually acting out is a greater sin than other sins. As such, it can’t be overlooked. Others may see sexual sin as pointing to problems that simply do not go away. Recidivism is so high that one cannot take the risk on the person ever again.

I don’t really see sexual abuse as greater than other forms of abuse. Many bosses and teachers abuse emotionally, or maintain abusive power dynamics in their leadership. Or they cheat, or are unforgiving, or are corrupt. Churches and schools often give these a pass while see sexually acting out as being beyond restoration ministerially.

And you know what? I get it. I long felt that way. One of the articles I read included the comments of a sex abuse expert in Christian ministry. I will call her Dr. Wilson. Dr. Wilson seemed to hold the view that once a sexual predator, always a sexual predator. As such, there should be no restoration ever. I can understand this opinion, and can even give anecdotes that support this. I have a colleague who had done counseling with a minister who had sexually acted out (I won’t share details here for many reasons) with a number of women in his youth group. The church decided to cover it up (the usually response, frankly). The women decided to cover it up as well either due to pressure from family, or because of fear of public shaming. My colleague did counseling with him, but because of the church’s unwillingness to act, the counseling could be no more than advice listened to voluntarily. There were no teeth in the discipline. That minister went to work in a Christian school (one that did not background check). The minister, now serving as a teacher, sexually acted out. Then he left and went to another school, also with no background check done, and repeated the same behavior. I don’t know where he is now.

From stories like this and Donn Ketcham scandal (you can look that one up if you want), it is easy to see why some would say, “Never do restoration…. it traumatizes the victims and gives the minister a new opportunity to start acting out again.” Since many people who have failed sexually (or in other ways in the past) do not in fact repeat their actions, I am guessing the views is really “They could act out again, and we can’t take that risk.”

But what failings are so bad that one cannot be restored ministerially? Abuse involving Sex? Money? Power? It is hard to draw the line.

I rather like the standards in the Missions Community that have circulated in recent years. It applies a ZERO TOLERANCE policy to sexual misbehavior, and a REAL referencing policy for new work. That is, if a person applies for a new job, the former employer will give a real report of why that applicant was let go. This seems reasonable. In the end the new potential employer has the freedom to decide what to do about this. The new employer should make an informed decision… but ultimately it should be their own decision.

In the end, as to this second concern, I can respect two different views. If a Christian ministry says, “We can’t risk our membership or students by hiring this person,” I can actually respect that. If a Christian ministry says, “We have researched the applicant’s past fully, and we have decided to bring them in but under well-controlled circumstances,” I can respect that as well. I can’t respect the middle ground that ends up making decisions based on how one “feels” about the situation, based on rumors rather than on what is merciful AND just, and based on good research.

My Third concern was something that was said by Dr. Wilson. She said something to the effect that even if Dr.Smith did not act out again, it would be based on the external limitations placed upon him rather than internal controls. I am not sure one can say that definitively, but I hardly see why guilt should be the only social motivator that is found acceptable, not valuing shame or fear. Frankly, pretty much everyone has areas in their lives in which they don’t do what is wrong because of fear (of punishment) or shame (reduction of social capital). It seems to me to be bad Evangelical theology to see guilt as the only one that should be considered valid.

I have dealt with a number of ministers who have struggled with sin (sometimes sexual and sometimes not). They can be separated loosely into three broad categories.

  • Category #1. This group feels great remorse/guilt over what they have done as well as shame for what they have done. They express openly what they have done and desire to live out a full repentance. This is a very small group. It is possible that this group does not actually exist. This type of person is exactly the type of person who should be restored. Sadly, they can be hard to identify. Geneerally, however, they don’t miimize their own role. They don’t try to shift blame. They tend to accept discipline and want to have accountability. They want to change, or be changed.
  • Category #2. This group feels great shame that they have been caught. They want the situation to go away. In some cases, they do want to not return to their past sin. Ultimately, however, they don’t want to make any major changes to bring this about. In other cases, any statements on repentance are just words to get people off their backs. These people are often (but not always) easy to identify. They tend to minimize their role and shift blame. They will agree to a lot of steps for restoration but then find ways to get out of doing them.
  • Category #3. This group is like Category #1. This group feels great remores/guilt over what they have done as well as shame for what they have done. They express openly what they have done and desire to live out a full repentance. In all of this, the group sounds like Category #1. The difference is that there are seeds of destruction in them. It is like an alcoholic who really really really wants to step away from his addiction— but then a trigger comes along and the person falls again into the addictive cycle. This category of person can be restored, but needs outside help. This person needs external accountability support and rules to keep from falling back into past mistakes. This category is a large number of people. It is hard to say whether Category #2 or #3 are larger. In my experience, they are close to the same size.

So if category #2 should not be in ministry, what about #1 and #3? #1 and #3 should be treated the same. Unless the individual tells us, we cannot know for sure which one has triggers or situations in which they cannot help backslide into. In fact, the individual may not know either.

But when you think about it, everyone of us is in one of these three categories as well. We all sin in one way or another. The wall of separation between “us” and “them” is porous, separated only in terms of seriousness, scope of, or type of sin. We all need accountability and social restraints.

That is my problem with Dr. Wilson. Fallen pastors are not a unique category of person that cannot be restored. They are like us— that is a good thing and a bad thing. If they need outside social motivators to keep them doing what is right and not doing what is wrong… that is not a valid condemnation.

Ft it was a valid condemnation, pretty much all of us will have to join in being condemned.

…..

So should Dr. Smith have been fired. Well, by now it has long since shifted from being an ethical issue to being a political issue. Politically, he had to be let go. If it is true that Dr. Smith covered up and minimized much of the wrongdoing, this may well point to the fact that he is racked by public shame more than embracing his own responsibility and need to change. Those that cover up tend to repeat the same thing later. But that is a lot of guesswork on my part. Obviously, I am not privy to the what on behind closed doors… and even less what is going on in different people’s hearts and minds.