I’m a big-time dog-lover, embarrassingly so to my husband as I gush over dogs that I’ve been assured are friendly on our journeys this year. As someone who cares about the poor, I do worry about what we dog-owners in the more-developed world spend on fancy pet food and end-of-life surgeries for dogs we’re unwilling to let go of. But I also think there’s something humanizing and just downright joyful about caring for dogs and receiving their loyalty in return. Jonah Goldberg’s recent piece on why dog-lovers make better parents backs me up on that. So it’s been sad for me to see mangy, neglected dogs roaming the streets of several countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. As a new friend in one place said, “Here, they’re not fenced in; they’re fenced out.” Another friend said that men in one of those countries actively use the dogs in the streets as a target for their aggressions, kicking them and yelling at them on their way home from hard work days. Where dogs are not liked, they tend to become not-very-likable creatures. And certainly in some parts of the world, dogs are also called, “Dinner.”
All along the way this year I’ve been asking the question, “What can Americans helpfully bring to the work of God’s kingdom in less-developed countries?” Specifically, what can we still bring? Shouldn’t we hand it all off to local leadership about now? Zealous western missionaries poured into former Soviet Union and Soviet Bloc countries as the USSR collapsed, and a burst of good did result. Churches were birthed, conversions happened, and many of them stuck. We’ve probably met or at least worshipped with hundreds of people who became Christians during that heyday. Some of that zeal was misplaced; some even caused real harm. Flash-in-the-pan, large-scale evangelistic crusades and concerts left American Christian rock bands and evangelists with big numbers to report but questionable lasting fruit. The dust has solidly settled and the work on the ground has been hard. The window of curiosity and openness is fairly closed, conversion rates are way down, and some congregations are aging and declining just as they are in the US. The economies have followed a similar trajectory: the burst of hope capitalism initially brought has given way to a grim, trudging hopelessness as the corruption that flourished under communism remains deeply entrenched, and the forces that crush entrepreneurial endeavors grind on.
In the face of all that, I think American Christians bring a crucial quality that is still precious here: hope. We are a hopeful bunch. We’ve tried some things, and sometimes, by golly, they’ve worked. A whole bunch of us decided we’d had enough of Europe (and later Asia and elsewhere) and packed ourselves into cramped ships to try our luck at something new. Another bunch subsequently said they’d had enough of New England winters and headed off for even more new. Once we got there we experimented again and again; some of the most innovative industries in the US are on the West Coast for a reason. (I’m admittedly telling my story as a white, Euro-descended person here. That’s partly because I’ve enjoyed learning for the first time about my direct ancestors while seeing the harbor in Falmouth that was their jumping-off place. I know that another bunch of us came from Africa involuntarily, in far crueler ships, and endured brutal treatment as slaves. The indomitable spirit and faithfulness found in that community despite ongoing injustices faced there testifies to an even deeper strain of hope.) I think that we North Americans still can bring hope, and hopefulness, as a gift to cultures that have a tenuous hold on it for all sorts of reasons.
We need to be careful that we aren’t just importing a cheerful optimism born of how well things have worked out in our case. We need a tempered, rich hope, one that has been forged and made strong by enduring suffering with faith. But we also do bless others when we bring an innocent, exuberant, child-like hope. (For all the inadvertent harm they may have caused, those crazy YWAM-er’s and Baptists went, back when living conditions were extremely challenging, and lives were changed in beautiful, gospel-good ways.)
What’s easier for me to picture, though, is a dog-like hope. My Labrador dog Luna’s tail is a force of nature. It’s heavy and huge and makes a rowdy racket when she bangs it on the kitchen cabinets while getting a rub-down from me at the end of the day. She’s just that glad to see me. Hope rises up within her that of all her favorite dreams are about to come true: “A walk! Around the whole neighborhood! Followed by a bowl of food! Then more petting! Does it get any better than this?” I think Americans are kind of the Labrador dogs of the world. We are quick to warm up to strangers, loyal and eager and friendly, and remarkably optimistic.
We’ve been in Cornwall the last four days, getting a little downtime before our last eight weeks of resourcing IFES staff and students. Aside from the stress of driving on the left side of the road with a steering wheel on the right side of the car, on roads bumpy enough to cause a flat tire in the middle of nowhere (we figured out how to uncheck ‘unpaved roads’ from our navigational app and added four miles to one recent short journey), we have loved the beautiful countryside and the friendly, open people. Whatever you’ve heard about British reserve doesn’t seem to us to apply here. People will chat on the streets with strangers at the drop of a hat, or invite you into their farmhouse for a cup of tea if you merely tell them your great-great-grandparents once farmed there, as I did the other day. Or invite you in for more tea while you’re waiting for roadside assistance for that flat tire. And they are amazingly patient with American incompetence on the roads. They just keep smiling and waving.
It strikes me as not coincidental that they really, really love dogs here. Labradors specifically. They are everywhere, even gracing the more casual restaurants and pubs. Tilly, a black lab at one farm, became my new best friend, rubbing her dirty body all over my jeans when I threw her favorite stick for ten minutes. I’ve gotten my dog fix, which will hopefully last me until my reunion with my dear old Lunatic (my nickname for our dog Luna, except for when she’s sleeping, when she becomes Lunesta…and I’ll just keep to myself what her ‘Luna Bars’ are in my nomenclature). The time here has been a gift, a restorative treat from a generous God, even down to giving me a big dose of Labrador dog while here. I will try in my turn to bring the open heart of love and the cheerful, hopeful approach to life that Lab dogs offer, even at the risk of whacking someone with my too-enthusiastic tail on occasion.
I have integrity in business on my mind today, as I absorb the sad news that Alec Hill, beloved president of InterVarsity USA, is resigning due to bone marrow cancer. I left IVCF staff in 2001, the year Alec began (Rich served as a National Field Director under Alec’s wise leadership for another five years). So I mostly knew Alec through Rich, and the few days we roamed the South together in 2004 on a bus full of Pilgrims for Reconciliation. But I was impressed with the book he wrote, Just Business, while a business professor at Seattle Pacific University. I remember the confidence it gave me to see that title with our incoming president’s name on it. “Here is a man of integrity. We can trust his leadership.” Such integrity at the highest level of leadership was a great gift under the presidency of Steve Hayner as well, of course. Both men brought stability to the organization after a tumultuous prior decade, and that gave us room to breathe. Trust in our leaders engenders freedom to risk; it creates a safe meadow where sheep may graze and explore. Within that meadow staff-workers became free to clarify strategic initiatives and re-focus on chapter (campus fellowship) growth and chapter planting. Though I’ve only observed from a distance, my sense is that IV staff under Alec’s presidency trained their sights on those two goals with an unprecedented discipline and that the organization has grown in numbers, energy, and effectiveness.
Integrity in business and politics is noteworthy in its absence in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. I had never really thought through the deep and wide implications of corruption before our time here. At bottom, it breeds a lack of trust. Rich’s back was in pain the other day and we asked a Malaysian doctor, a board member of the ministry here in Kazakhstan, what ibuprofen he would recommend we purchase at the local apteka (drugstore). “None of them,” was his firm reply. “You don’t know what worthless or even harmful substance they’ve swapped into that foil packet marked as ibuprofen.” He whipped out his doctor’s kit and handed us some ibuprofen from a source he trusted. We were grateful, but sad, thinking of what it’s like here (and in much of Africa, etc.) never to know what medicine, or lack thereof, one is really buying.
In some of the countries we’ve visited it is virtually impossible to get a college degree without paying bribes to one’s professors. Some professors are so blatant as to inform their students of the price of an A, B, or C the first day of class. Once the price is paid, attendance drops and academic work is often simply not done. The results of this are hydra-like, fanning out into every sector of society. How can motorists trust the bridges they drive on, knowing that the civil engineers who designed those bridges may have never attended class or honestly passed an exam? How can an employer possibly know whether a graduate is truly qualified to be hired? Well, no worries; there’s often another system for hiring. It’s called a bribe. The cost to become a teacher in one country we visited recently is several thousand dollars, paid upwards to various school administrators.
We listened recently as the parents of a preschooler in that country, IFES staff, lamented the side-fees they needed to pay in cash to their preschool teacher if they had any hope of their son advancing to kindergarten or being shielded from bullying. Rich, ever the entrepreneurial optimist, jumped in with, “That sounds like an opportunity—Christians could start a school that is run with integrity! No bribes-- and you’d offer instead a solid and excellent education.” They stared at him blankly and said, “Yes, and how many bribes to the city and the nation and the bank and the owner of the property we’d want to buy would we need to get that school up and running?” I watched my husband let out a long sigh as the pervasiveness of corruption sunk in one more level down. It crushes entrepreneurial initiative before it can even begin. Twice people in that country said, “I feel like I can breathe when I get to travel outside this country.” Now, these are people who live in a country with heavy police surveillance of the doings of Christians, the threat of imprisonment for a false or too bold move in the religious realm, and virtually no press freedom, so I had assumed it was getting out from under the grip of all that which caused them to say they couldn’t breathe in their own land. “No. It’s the corruption, hands down.”
So today, I’m thanking God for the ministry of Alec, as he steps away from a job well done to focus on his health. My prayers are with him and his wife Mary. I’m thanking God for leaders everywhere who seek to bring integrity to their work. And I’m praying for oxygen for my new friends who labor in countries where corruption chokes the freshness right out of the air. I’m thankful too for you who read this blog, for every time you are tempted to cut a corner, as a nurse or a teacher or a taxpayer, and you don’t. You are adding one more stitch to the fabric of a strong society every time you make that choice.
One of the passages I (Rich) have taught on more than almost any other during this year is Psalm 50:7-15. I’ve enjoyed the drama and power in this passage since my days on staff at UC Santa Cruz. When I come to a country I’ve taught in before, it is often a requested topic, as staff will often remember having gone through it years previously and be eager that others hear it. I am writing this in Kazakhstan (the pic to the left shows Astana in the background), and here I have taught it twice, to different groups. In the Psalm, we see God complaining about the people of Israel and their attitude in bringing sacrifices to God. The problem, it seems, is not that they are not bringing enough sacrifices, or with enough sincerity, but rather that they think the sacrifices they bring to God are somehow feeding him, meeting a need he has. He asks, “Do I eat the flesh of bulls? Do I drink the blood of goats?” No, of course not! He then goes on to say, “The cattle on a thousand hills are mine—the earth and all that is in it is mine.” We can bring him nothing he needs, nothing that he doesn’t have. God then becomes a bit sarcastic, to drive the point home: “If I were hungry, I would not tell you!”
When we do this study, I often ask, “In your home, who usually feeds whom?” “Parents feed kids,” is the reply. Yes, big people feed little people when they are hungry. The people of Israel, by bringing sacrifices to God in this way, are making themselves big (the ones with spare bulls and goats) and God small (the one who needs a tasty meal). So God is angry because their sacrifices are inverting the relationship he wants with his people.
But it is fair to point out that God was the one who set up the sacrificial system. God asked for the best bull and the first fruits because those were the things in their lives they’d be tempted to trust in, instead of God. The best bull would provide the best genetic material for the next generation, to ensure a healthy herd. The first grain off the field would normally be set aside for the next year’s planting. These things just make sense to a farmer. But God asked for the best bull and the first fruits to show his people what trust in him looked like. “Give me your best bull and I will provide healthy offspring for your herds. Give me your first harvest of grain and I will ensure that your whole abundant harvest is brought in.”
So the sacrificial system was set up by God not to impoverish his people, or to meet his own nutrition needs, but rather to show people how to trust him. It was a gift God was giving them, and the people of Israel, as recorded in Psalm 50, have turned it upside down and made those sacrifices into gifts they are giving God. And that makes God angry.
So God offers, in v14-15, another way of pleasing him, a simple, three-step plan: 1) “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving.” First of all, thank me. You have plenty of reasons to be grateful, so take time to thank me. 2) “Pay your vows to the most high.” Simply put, “Do what you said you would do.” 3) “Call out on me in a day of trouble. I will deliver you, and you will glorify me.” The third step seems the easiest, simply call to God when we get into trouble. Our job, it seems, is to get in trouble, while God’s job is to get us out. This makes God the hero of our story: he’s big and we are small; he’s powerful and we are needy.
Today, we don’t offer bulls and goats on altars—we don’t make these kinds of sacrifices. Instead, we have ministry. But ministry works today the same way the sacrificial system worked in the Old Testament—it is not a gift we give God but rather a gift he gives us. When students enter the ministry to lead, serve and care for other students, or when staff have chosen to do the same with their lives after they finish their university degree, they have signed up for trouble. They have signed up to care for others in a way that they will naturally run out of resources, and they will feel in over their heads. This is inevitable: when we begin to care for others in this way we will become aware of great needs in many areas: relationships, finances, health, time-management, wisdom, compassion. That may even cause us to doubt our sense of calling, but in fact it is exactly where God wants us. One way to get out of trouble is simply to say, “Wow, I didn’t know it would involve sacrifice/suffering/discomfort/frustration/difficulty. I guess I am not called to this ministry.” It is at this point step 2 of God’s three-step plan comes in, “No, my child, do what you said you’d do. Instead of getting yourself out of trouble, call out to me. That’s what I’m good at—getting my people out of trouble when they call to me.”
God calls his people into ministry to show them his love and care for them as they show God’s love and care for others. He blesses them as they bless others, and works for good in their lives. As I share this passage with staff and students around Eurasia, it rings true for them. They know what it is like to be in trouble, and have seen God work to get them out of trouble over and over again. Our hearts break to hear stories of the disappointments of the ministry in this part of the world, but the testimony of staff is repeatedly one of seeing God at work, in their own lives and in the lives of students, in the midst of and through the trouble and difficulty they face.
Lisa and I are in the same situation, as we are preparing to return to the US. We have some income guaranteed upon our return, but certainly not at this point full-time work for us, replacing salaries we left behind now over ten months ago. We felt called to take this year, but we are feeling ourselves to be a bit in trouble as we return. And yet, we are calling out to God, and believe that in the end he will be the hero of our story, and we will thank and praise him as he has provided for us, repeatedly, abundantly, over many years. Praise be to God!
One of the main ways we have served people this year, I’ve come to believe, is simply by showing interest. Many of the people we meet are working to share their faith in settings where that faith community is extremely small and conversion rates dismally low. So many things we took for granted as IVCF staff in the US, such as the ability to hold meetings on campus or to advertise one’s group at a fair as the year begins, are not possible in this part of the world. For this and a host of other reasons, numbers are not always impressive; budgets for programs are small. Given that, they pull off incredibly creative events and work hard to connect meaningfully with the students who come to them.
We sat with a staff team for a four-day meeting recently. We were the clear leaders of portions of the time: I led the team through a Sabbath day, with various journaling exercises and lectio divina-style reflection on Scripture. Rich led several Bible studies and taught Situational Leadership. But many hours were spent listening, with translation, to the team as they reviewed what has worked the last few years, what needs to be put on the back burner for a season, and what needs increased investment to thrive. We made some contributions but a lot of what we did was simply listen. At one point they worked at white boards in small teams, without slowing down to translate for us. At the break, I approached one of them and asked if she would translate what her team had come up with. She did, and as she finished said, “Thank you for your interest in what we do here.” I was touched by the sincerity in her words. In some ways what they do is not of great interest to the wider world. It won’t make headlines—in their country, Azerbaijan, we hope it won’t! It is a small ministry and, failing a miracle, that is not likely to change substantially in the coming year. But what they do is incredibly significant, and we were privileged to come alongside it, offering our listening ears and our interest. Most of the 25 students in the room on the Saturday seminar were people who had become believers in the movement, or whose parents had. (See the picture below for some of the students at the seminar, who came decked out to show their enthusiasm for the US and the UK.)
Last Sunday I managed to communicate care without even really intending to. I was tired from a late-night wedding feast on Saturday, and frankly sometimes the translation we get from a well-meaning pew-mate, delivered in hushed tones, can be a bit soporific…so let’s just say I may have missed some of the details of the post-church event as it was announced. It is the custom in Azerbaijan to gather with those who are recently bereaved and sit with them over tea and appetizers, hearing stories of their loved one and comforting them. A lovely North Korean woman who had grown up in Uzbekistan, then moved to Kazakhstan, and finally to Azerbaijan, invited us to mourn her sister, who had died suddenly in Kazakhstan at age 52. Now, I will admit that as we walked to the church office a few blocks from the church, I had completely forgotten this announcement, if indeed I’d ever really heard it, so as we entered the office my thought was, “Cool! Snacks. I’m hungry. We’ll eat then go back and I can nap before the evening event.” Only gradually did it dawn on me why we were gathered, and that this would not be a quick stop. I did not even sit near enough to hear the stories she shared. I just took up space and consumed food. But as we left she hugged me tight and said a heartfelt “Thank You” in Russian. Not knowing my cluelessness, she was thanking me for taking the time, for being present, and in a small way showing interest in her suffering and her life. While it often feels more clear to me that we have contributed to a student ministry or a church when we have taught or coached, sometimes just showing up and showing interest communicates more than we can imagine.
Where are you struggling to show up and keep showing interest these days? The neighbor or roommate whose stories you’ve already heard five times? The friend whose narration of life feels like a litany of woes? Ask God for the patience to keep listening and showing interest. You may be doing more good than you know.
When we were planning our visit to Azerbaijan, while we were still in Ukraine, our host here emailed us and asked us if we’d like to attend a wedding during our stay. Our hosts are a Canadian man, married to an Azeri woman, who serve with IFES here in Baku. They had been invited to the wedding of two friends, both believers, and they were asking if we’d like to join them to go to the wedding of a couple we (of course) didn’t know. We did not hesitate to say yes, of course, knowing that this would a great chance to enjoy Azeri music, food and people, and to note cultural differences.
The game, allowing us to grow in affection for the couple we hardly knew, served as a parable of our ten days in Azerbaijan, for it had the same effect. Our times with staff and students, whether studying scripture together, drinking tea and hearing stories of conversion and courtship, riding rented bikes along the waterfront, or attending a beautiful and joyous wedding, allowed us to grow in appreciation and affection for a country we have just met for the first time. As we leave we don’t know about our return, but we know that if we do return, we’ll find dear friends here.
Where are we this week? We’re in a country that is not too crazy about folks who do the kind of work we do, so to be safe we won’t name it, but we see no reason you can’t know it. A quick google search of these clues, from the fun to the tragic, will get you the country’s identity. Just don’t name it in a comment, here or on Facebook! Thanks.
Rich seems constitutionally designed for the traveling life. He is thriving and truly sorry to see this journey edging towards its ending. I on the other hand have moments where I just don’t want to stuff my underwear into a little bag one more time, and can’t wait to get back to my own bed/garden/kitchen/dog and most of all daughter, sister, mom and friends. But, I share that feeling of ambivalence about our journey’s nearing its end in more ways than I had imagined. Our time in Ukraine has gripped my heart in a way I would not have predicted. The country is really suffering, between the drastic devaluation of their currency and the upheaval of thousands of people who left Crimea and other regions for cities within Ukraine. They live in fear of war escalating. But their resilience shines through everywhere. I have been so moved by the stories we have heard and the people we have met her, and have been delighted to find so much openness to the gifts, care, and encouragement that we bring, even in our leaky, cracked vessels.
While Rich has come to Ukraine a few times, many of the current IFES staff are new and young, and so didn’t really know us. But they have taken risks on us with their university contacts, and with the Christian students they serve. Events on campus have gone well. They have invited us back for more visits here before we go: their English camp, which is also an opportunity to explore faith, and likely another gathering as well. We are finding ourselves surprisingly willing to contort and flip our schedule to make those return visits possible. Somehow, in the midst of all the instability here, it has struck me as I’ve sat in classrooms filled with students who’ve come voluntarily to a lecture on leadership, and lingered with eager questions, that these young people are the hope of this nation. And the courageous staff-workers who serve them—without a doubt they are, too.
So, my goals for the last twelve weeks of our journey are to stay open, to persevere through the weariness with the multiple beds and the endless repacking process, and to continue to bring encouragement and hope. We hope to have a final itinerary for the coming weeks nailed down soon. Pray for discernment as we negotiate a few changes. Please pray for the health of my sister Ruth, as she has had two hospitalizations in the last few months for low sodium levels in her blood. As our hearts have connected powerfully with Ukraine, it feels challenging for me to shift emotionally and invest in two countries with very different challenges, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, so I ask for prayers to be able to do that.
Rich and Lisa Lamb