I (Lisa) have heard many things about American missionaries and visitors abroad that have made me cringe in the last few months, and I’m sure I’ve done and said a few cringe-worthy things myself. Yesterday a Ukrainian IFES staff-worker served me a glass of water from a pitcher that had been out on the counter, and asked with evident concern, “Is it okay? It is not cold.” She explained that a recent visitor, part of a mission team, had insisted on ice-cold water throughout his visit. Our hosts here in Kyiv specialize in organizing large-scale evangelistic events, including bringing Christian rock bands to countries around the world. They shared comical stories of dealing with ‘riders,’ lists of requirements from the bands for their dressing rooms and other aspects of their visit. One band, heading to a poor country, included a certain obscure American brand of gluten-free bread and a case of Dr. Pepper; various impossible demands regarding accommodations have also had to be discussed and set aside. In general the stories had happy endings—the band members got a clue and were able to think more like missionaries and less like the secular bands whose demands had inspired their riders. (I include a fun list of some famous riders at the end of this post. Van Halen’s famous brown M&M rider is a notable exception for the purpose it served.)
Imagine if Jesus had had a rider as he entered the manger: “All straw must be shredded and refined so it is soft as feathers, lowing cattle must low lullabies, the temperature of the manger must be between 68 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit at all times.” He sent his disciples out with the very opposite of a rider when he encouraged them to eat whatever was set before them. His model of incarnation, coming to earth with no demands, needs to guide our forays and our stays in foreign lands.
On one level, this blog post is just a reflection on the need for good missionary etiquette, a helpful word for short-term teams and long-term guests in other nations, whether in business or ministry. But I also think about the riders I put on God, the demands I make and expectations I have for how God will answer my prayers, how I want my life to unfold, and the things I look for as signs of success in a given day. I think about the riders I put on my husband and friends: I will give myself to you if you prove your love by these five actions. My hope is that we have not entered homes or ministries with riders attached, but no doubt we have inadvertently done so. Our friends’ stories and the extreme incidents of riders here, from Wikipedia, serve as cautionary tales for me.
I lift up my eyes to the hills--
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth. Psalm 121:1-2
We have spent the last week in Kas, Turkey on the coast of the Mediterranean. Kas (rhymes with “posh”) is the home of some friends of friends of ours, who have hosted us for a personal retreat, for us to reflect on the 9 months of travels and to prepare a bit for the remaining months. Kas, like Kotor and Bar, Montenegro (see previous post), is nestled in on the side of steep hills and yet is on the Mediterranean Sea, and also like these other places, has turned out to be a great place to lift up our eyes to God, to reflect on his goodness and work in our lives, and to reflect on all we have done, taught, received and learned during these last months.
It is not surprising that people like to retreat, to seek God’s guidance and deep presence, in places where the heavens meet the earth, in mountain settings. Moses and Elijah on Mount Horeb, Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration—people have been meeting God in high places, in places both of solitude and beauty, for millennia. While traveling in countries dominated by the Orthodox church, we have seen the landscape spotted by ancient monasteries in high places, some still active while others just a memorial to past piety.
While in Kas, we took a day trip to Greece, or at least to a tiny island off the coast of Turkey that is a Greek possession (since after WW1). Kastellorizo is a coastal town not unlike Kas, but in the thirty minutes the boat takes to traverse the few miles, we left a town with no native Christian believers and no Christian church, to a place that has a couple Orthodox churches and most of the population, being Greek, would consider themselves Orthodox, if not actual believers. We were there on Orthodox Good Friday (or “Red Friday”), and the town cemetery we walked past was filled with people laying flowers, burning incense, remembering their loved ones, and the church bell was ringing a mournful set of notes the whole time we were there.
We arrived in Kas two days after Western Easter, but we celebrated Orthodox Easter the following Sunday with a sunrise service at the home we were staying at. Nabil and Sarah, our good friends from Lebanon joined us, having arrived the day before for a retreat of their own the following week, and the four of us sang some Easter hymns that we had missed when we were in Georgia the previous week. It was a subdued and short service, but long on gratitude for the beauty of the surroundings and the warmth of friendship. (Photo credit above to Nabil, shortly before the sun's rise, that Easter morn.)
Our time in Turkey has come to an end, after a time of looking back (reflecting on our trip’s highs and lows), looking up (to hear from God and to incline our souls more deeply toward him), and looking forward to both the remainder of our trip and the open questions about life and ministry upon our return home. Our hope is not in the hills, but in the God who made them beautiful for our enjoyment and his praise and glory.
We have spent most of our time on this trip in cities, specifically university towns (which are also often capital cities, such as Minsk, Beirut, Sofia, Bucharest, Sarajevo, Chisinau), and while the architecture and civic art of these cities can be beautiful and striking, these cities are rarely tourist destinations because of their scenic beauty, and that is not why we find ourselves there.
But our time in Montenegro (March 16-22) was different. We were headed to Montenegro not to encourage the local IFES work there, but to attend a staff consultation at which we would be teaching and training. Bar, Montenegro was picked because it was on the Adriatic, a picturesque spot, and the hotel owner was supportive of the student ministry and offered a great rate for the 50 staff and family members who attended the three-day event. While we offered teaching (on leadership development, women’s leadership development, and avoiding or dealing with burnout), the consultation was meant to offer refreshment for staff, with large gaps of free time and opportunities to connect with other staff from around the Balkan region of South Eastern Europe.
But since we were coming to Bar, and had a few days between our last day in Belarus and the beginning of the conference, we did connect with people doing ministry in Montenegro, and I taught a “Situational Leadership” session for students and professionals in Podgoritca, and I led a leadership Bible study for 20 students and staff at the local IFES office near the university campus. A good gathering for a fledgling IFES group.
But along the way from our airport arrival in Podgoritca to our hotel in Bar for the staff conference, we had time to take in some of the natural beauty of Montenegro. The story our host told us as we arrived was that God said to Montenegro as he was creating the world, “You can have the most beautiful country in Europe, but you have to take all the left-over rock.” After just a few days in Montenegro, we could see why. The picture of us in front of a waterfall was taken about an hour after we entered Montenegro, at a place called “Niagara” for obvious reasons (though perhaps it should be called “Niagarita” or the Montenegran equivalent of “Little Niagara”). Then, after our day in Podgoritca, we traveled north. Along the way, we stopped by Ostrog Monastery, built into the side of the rocky mountain. This was one of dozens of monasteries built on high places we’ve seen in this part of the world, but it was unique in that it seemed, as we approached it from a distance, to be nestled between heaven and earth, as the travel blog cited above indicates. As we approached and walked around, it was clear why the 17th century monastery was built in this spot, a place where earthly concerns could give way to heavenly divine meditations.
Finally, we took the coastal route to Bar, and passed by Kotor, an ancient and beautiful coastal town with not one, not two, but three monasteries located there, one built into the rock up the mountain, and two on twin islands in the middle of the bay on the Adriatic Sea. While there, we had lunch with some folks doing church planting there, and I had a conversation with a young man who had come from Minsk to work in the new church effort. Lisa and I had come from Belarus to Montenegro, so we were telling him of our visit to Belarus. He asked us, “Did you visit Gomel?” We had to acknowledge that we visited six different university towns in Belarus, but Gomel was not one of them. He said, “Oh, Gomel is the most beautiful city! You must visit it!” It did strike me as funny, because here we were in Kotor, nestled between mountains and sea, amid old world charm and modern seaside resort hotels, and he was saying that Gomel is beautiful, in a country that has no mountains and no coastline. I said to our friend, “Would you say it is as beautiful, or more beautiful, than Kotor?” To which he acknowledged that while Gomel had neither mountains nor coastline, it was still quite beautiful. I enjoyed hearing this forlorn Belarussian wax eloquent of his home, while living in what had to be a ranking global leader for natural beauty, and has been acknowledged as such by multiple sets of monastic pilgrims (two Orthodox, one Catholic) over the centuries.
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, has been a thought-provoking read for me (Lisa). I recently heard a Russian friend describe herself as a ‘big sheep, hard to turn,’ and I immediately pictured a recalcitrant, wooly beast on a green hillside, with a tough, determined pair of shepherds in nubby berets attempting to head it back home. As a Lamb, I loved the image, though of course moments later I realized she had probably been referring to herself with the more common image of a ‘big ship.’ As an older-than-midpoint, hard-to-turn, big sheep, I am working hard to cultivate what Dweck calls a Growth Mindset. Dweck’s thesis is that our capacity to grow is hugely influenced by how we conceive of the possibilities within ourselves for growth. She strenuously questions the theory that intelligence or even talent for sport or artistic endeavors is largely innate and static. Sure, she admits, at the top and bottom few percentage points, some possess a quality we might label genius or a distinct lack thereof, but for the vast majority of us, intelligence is far more fluid than set, far more developable than fixed. The brain is much more malleable than we’ve previously understood.
Some of her research is quite sobering: researchers were able to instill a fixed mindset (i.e., a belief that success at a task came as a result of their innate ability) in children simply by praising them for their talent at solving puzzles (“Wow! You must be really good at this! You’re a natural!”). They praised another group of children for their effort, resilience, and perseverance in solving the puzzles. What came next was striking: they asked each group if they would like to try a harder puzzle or continue working the same, easy one. Those praised for innate ability chose to conserve their gains and stick to the easy puzzle, whereas those who’d been primed for a growth mindset clamored for harder puzzles. Perhaps most troubling was that when they offered the fixed mindset kids puzzles to take home and practice, they actually lied and mumbled that they already had some at home!
Dweck found that a simple test for agreement or disagreement on a series of statements (“I believe intelligence is largely innate and there is little one can do to change it”) could determine whether a person approached life’s tasks from a fixed or a growth mindset. From there, they tested for a number of other variables, and found that those with a fixed mindset had a much harder time with the following crucial life tasks: asking for help, receiving criticism, rebounding from failure, celebrating the success of others, and persevering through obstacles. Strikingly, managers with a fixed mindset were less likely to mentor others.
Since the capacity to grow strikes me as pretty darn central to becoming an effective leader, or even simply a disciple, I have been working on a seminar that integrates the best of Dweck’s insights with the teachings of Jesus and Paul about growth. I see Jesus confronting a fixed mindset in the Pharisees again and again, most strikingly in John 8:31 where he invites Jewish listeners to continue in his teaching and they reply, “We are descendants of Abraham...,” as if that negated any need for his teaching. His imagery of vines growing and plants budding in good soil give vivid, attractive pictures of growth. I see him calling Peter to receive criticism and to recover well from failure. I see Paul instilling a growth mindset in the Philippians (with his confidence that the One who began a good work in them will carry it on to completion, Phil. 1:6) and in his disciple Timothy (“Let all people see your progress,” 1 Timothy 4:15). I acknowledge that Scripture brings a twist to Dweck’s paradigm: we grow as a result of effort we make in partnership with the good work God is doing in us, and we rebound from failure as a result of the grace Christ shows us. Still, I find her insights to be profound, and relevant to a post-Soviet context which for years suppressed risk, initiative, and constructive feedback.
I have had to apply a growth mindset to my own development of Dweck’s material for college students and IFES staff. My first try at it fell a little flat. I splattered a bunch of Scripture passages out there and then tried to move inductively to build a theory of the growth mindset. It was confusing and fell short of my hopes. I reflected with Rich on what might work better, and reshaped the session with Dweck’s categories at the top, and relevant Scriptures later. I added humorous and painful stories of my own struggles to overcome a fixed mindset, and crafted a set of application questions for small group response time. On the third try, it felt like a home run. Now I just need to set that success in stone….er, stay open to new ways to further develop it. I do look forward to opportunities to teach this seminar in upcoming country visits, and I encourage you to consider where you may be stuck in a fixed mindset, or may be inadvertently instilling one in your children or those you teach and lead.
If you’d like to learn more, I recommend this TED talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pN34FNbOKXc
Rich and Lisa Lamb