It’s hard to believe on one level that we left for our extended journey two months ago, on August 22. On September 22 I had the idea that I would write a more personal update on how we are doing on the 22nd of each month, in contrast to the reflections on countries and on ministry that we try to do wherever we go. But today we are preparing to leave for a conference in just over an hour, and not sure what internet access we’ll have there. So let me just say for now that overall we are doing well, but we do have some prayer requests on our hearts as a new month begins. Please join us to pray for:
Ruth’s transition: As many of you know, my sister has been in the capable care of a lovely family in Pasadena for the past eight years. The time has come for a greater level of care, and we are grateful that Ruth has responded well to that news. We believe it was God’s timing that the schedule was a little lighter in Armenia so we could be available at least via Skype for my mom and sister as they processed this transition. We have found an excellent residential care facility in Glendale, and my valiant mom has just about steered the process through all the agencies and doctors to clear the way for her move. We are so thankful to the Knox Pres. Church folks and other friends who have helped and will help this week. If you know my mom or sister, this would be a great time for a phone call or visit. Please pray for this move to go well.
Our health: Overall we are doing well, but Rich is sick today, and it is a reminder that health is vulnerable with this much travel—slightly different water in each locale, different foods to adjust to, weariness from travel itself, not always sleeping well in new places.
Stamina: We got a little spoiled by a three-week stay in Armenia, but the two months ahead are filled with shorter stays, which means the need to connect with people quickly, give ourselves wholeheartedly in sprints, and engage in the spiritual disciplines that will renew us for that endeavor. Please pray for the stamina we need to do that well. For more information on our schedule, visit that page in our blog.
Thanks as always for your prayers, friends.
Mount Ararat, located just south of Armenia's border in Turkey, is an impressive dormant volcano that rises from the valley floor around 3500 feet in elevation to a peak at almost 17,000 feet. This peak, on a clear day, dominates the landscape in Yerevan as one looks south, and shows up all over Yerevan and Armenia in various brand names, restaurants, and other images of Armenia. If you are familiar with mountains in the US, you usually don't see a mountain with a rise from the plain of more than about 5000 or 6000 feet. (Mount Wilson, to the North of Pasadena, rises from 300 feet to a height of 5700 feet. Pikes Peak, near Colorado Springs, rises from 6035 to about 14,000 feet for an impressive rise of 8000 feet over about 15 or 20 miles.) But Mount Ararat rises about 13,500 feet in the same distance, and so dominates the land the way no mountain you have ever seen in person dominates it. It is tremendously impressive sight, and no wonder that it takes an outsize place in the minds of Armenians and Armenia's national pride.
Until World War 1, Ararat was in the Russian Empire (which most of Armenia had been in for a century or more) but to make peace with the new state of Turkey, Russia gave Turkey the land that had been Armenian which included the mountains of Ararat. We heard (more than once) the story of the Turkish foreign minister who asked, "Why is Ararat on your coat of arms? You don't own it." To which the Armenian foreign minister said, "Why is the moon and star on your flag? You don't own them!" [Note the mountain with the ark sitting atop it in the center of the coat of arms.]
We’ve had a longer stop in Armenia than in our last few stops—long enough to get irritated by a few things (really only a very few—smoky restaurants topping the list), and long enough to come to treasure many more things, and many people as well. Here are a few of the treasures we’ll miss as we leave:
Erebuni: The site of the original settlement that became Yerevan, discovered in the 20th century when it was dug up by Soviet construction crews. Cuneiform inscriptions dated the founding of the settlement to 782 BC. We were amazed (even perhaps a little shocked) to get a chance to walk around this archaeological site so freely. The museum is well guarded, with people in every room while you view the unearthed treasures and inscriptions. But the fort with 28-centuries old stonework was deserted when we clambered over the walls and looked out over the city.
Ever-Flowing Water Fountains: To our drought-stricken California eyes, the water fountains of Yerevan seem almost scandalous. You don’t turn them on; they are just bubbling up constantly, usually with cold, fresh water. Armenia is blessed with abundant water and with deep springs throughout the land. Traditionally, these fountains are given by families to a neighborhood in honor of a beloved relative.
Dancing Fountains: Another fun water treat in Republic Square, at the center of the city, is the near-nightly display of colored lights, classical music, and dancing water fountains. (Click on the headline for a better photo than we took...)
These Two: The IFES student ministry here is blessed with a gifted, committed team of staffworkers and volunteers. Armine ("ar-me-nay") and Knarik ("k-nar-ik") are the two we got to know the best, in part because their English is excellent and they often served as our translators, as well as our hosts. They are wholeheartedly giving their energy to reaching students here in every imaginable way, from Sports Clubs to English Clubs to Armenian Club (for international students), to leadership training and discipleship for those already following Jesus. We’ll miss them!
And These Two: Pete and Schell were more of a surprise. Almost everywhere we go, we focus on IFES, but remain open to meeting remarkable people from who teach and inspire us. We hope we can encourage them in some way as well. Though we did attend one Armenian-language church service, we chose to attend Yerevan International Church all three Sundays. Pete and Schell invited us to dinner after the first service, and we were impressed with their story of faithfully responding to the call of God to come and build a Young Life Camp in a beautiful valley outside Yerevan. We went out to the camp with them and got to see the ‘before’ picture. It is a former Young Pioneers camp—this is where youth during the Soviet Era were indoctrinated into communist principles, including atheism. What an amazing story of redemption it will be when youth from all over the former Soviet Union, not just Armenia, can come and learn about God in this gorgeous setting. If you would like to spend a week helping bring that dream to reality next summer, please let us know—we may just do that ourselves in late June!
Mikael: When we think of hosting, we usually think of someone cooking a meal. I’ve come to think of Mikael as the most amazing host who never cooked us dinner. We first met him at 3:30am when he came to pick us up at the airport, made us comfortable in his bed, and then set himself up on the living room couch, where he has insisted on sleeping for the past three weeks. As an economics professor, he doesn’t have a lot of time for cooking, but in every other possible way he has welcomed us into his home and his city. From supplying us with an in-country working phone, to calling us between his lectures to see if we were feeling better on a day we left the house a bit sick, to eagerly hearing about our days at the end of his long ones, Mikael has truly gone out of his way to welcome us. We are happy that in Kathrin he has found someone to marry who is both beautiful and a match for his brain power!
Yerevan International Church: Where else but this church does one get invited to a wedding by a couple one has met for all of two minutes? Where else have many of the Indians who’ve come here for medical school found a home, and a place where they can invite fellow Indians to an Alpha course? The Indians don’t dress this beautifully every Sunday; they are decked out here for the wedding. Rich preached at the church on our third Sunday, and we found ourselves wistful we couldn’t stay longer and jump in to join all the good things happening at this church.
We leave Armenia with hearts full of affection for the people, with awe at its long and fascinating history, and with a longing for God to bring renewal to a nation that has been inoculated by a nominally-held Christianity and by and large rejected paths to more vibrant faith.
So situational leadership, for example, helps us to choose a high relationship/high task oriented coaching strategy when people are in need of development on a particular task, and a low relationship/low task oriented delegation strategy when people are capable and know it.
Several members of the staff team here in Armenia acknowledged that their temperamental leadership preference is the "supportive" style, influencing with gentle encouragement and positive feedback. This is the ideal style when someone is newly capable at their (ministry or other) task, but is particularly unhelpful when people are not yet capable. According to the situational leadership model, when people are motivated but unable to consistently perform a particular task, they need coaching, not support, with both motivating encouragement and empowering and timely critique, enabling them to rapidly develop as they learn what they need to do to be more consistently successful in whatever task they are working on. We discussed the notion of coaches in sports teams, which do not simply offer words of encouragement but, through drills and practice, demonstrations and critical feedback, focus on skill development for the sake of the participants' ultimate success.
I acknowledged my preferred style is the "Coaching" style, which is particularly unhelpful when the need is for support. When a developing leader is capable in an area, but lacking confidence, they need the supportive leadership posture from their staff, which builds their confidence, not the coaching posture, which focuses on areas of improvement and reinforces the message that they really are not capable. So natural coaches need to learn to take a supportive style when it is appropriate, and naturally supportive staff need to engage more directly in coaching when appropriate.
When I first heard about Situational Leadership, I bristled with the notion that a "delegation" style, with its low relationship/low task focus, could be biblical. "We don't want to engage in student ministry so that we can eventually just sit at our desk in our offices reading email updates from our student leaders!" Of course, a review of the leadership posture of Jesus with his disciples at different times in his ministry convinced me that this is a very Biblical model. The goal of moving someone around the track, from invitation, to coaching, to supporting, and eventually to delegating, is not so that we remove ourselves from relationship with them, but that our development-focused relationship with them is able to be focused on higher developmental goals and tasks. So a good Bible study member is invited into ministry partnership in some way, which begins another turn in the developmental pipeline (pictured above). And, over time, that developed ministry team member is invited into small group leadership, requiring another turn in the development pipeline and a whole new round of coaching begins again. As we talked with the staff here, they stressed that students in the ministry here don't often show up as committed believers, so the levels of development look different, but they were glad to think about outlining the developmental pathways that they want their students to travel, and to grow in their own understanding of how best to help their students to do so.
We have finished more than two weeks here in Armenia, with just a few days left and a few teaching and training opportunities with staff and students. We have really come to appreciate the staff here and their commitment and dedication to the students in the ministry. The ministry here has its challenges, from the lack of support it receives from the evangelical churches whose pastors are threatened by the parachurch approach, to the downright institutional pressure applied by the Armenian Apostolic Church on any ministry that would wish to do evangelism. But students are becoming believers, growing in their faith, taking risks and paying costs because they name the name of Jesus as their Lord. Join with us in praying for the student ministry here.
I've commented before on the potential for the hegemonic established churches in Eastern Europe to use their cozy position with the government to suppress or oppose the upstart evangelical churches, which they refer to as cults.
The Armenian Apostolic Church is the historical church of the Armenian people, and views itself as the proper home for all Armenians. We visited the "mother church" of the Apostolic Church in a village near Yerevan, with buildings 15 centuries old at the heart of the village, and we saw in the gift shop this book, with a cover warning people that evangelical churches are not to be trusted, with the evocative photoshopped depiction of a wolf in sheep's clothing.
Of course, the Armenia Apostolic Church could well benefit from the energy and creativity of some of the evangelical churches in reaching a largely nominal Armenian population, as in other places (like Latin America) where the established church has experienced some renewal as evangelicals and pentecostals are also seeing their churches grow. But here in Armenia, there is little evidence that the Apostolic Church is open to learning from their brothers and sisters in Christ in this way.
This creates a problem for the evangelical student ministry in Armenia, as they are trying to bring students into Bible studies and events where the Gospel is taught and people are called to grow in their faith. Most Armenians would identify as members of the Apostolic church, and while that doesn't mean they will attend services, it does often prevent them from being open to outreach efforts by the student ministry here. This is such a sad and unnecessary constraint on the advance of the gospel in Armenia. Please join us in praying for Armenia, for the student work here, and for a deep work of God's Spirit to pour out over the Apostolic Church.
Armenians had told us before we came to Armenia that Yerevan didn't have many tourist highlights, that it was the people that would be the highlight of our visit to Armenia. While this has been true, and about which we will write much more later, I wanted to highlight one of the striking aspects of Yerevan, one we noticed our first evening in town, when we were taken to the "Cascade" area, where a huge, multi-story park has been built along a hill leading up to a monument overlooking downtown Yerevan.
It struck me that though this country is not wealthy, it had allocated a lot of prime real estate and funds for an expansive and impressive collection of public architecture, sculpture and art. The Cascade houses the Cafesjian Center for the Arts, which displays its much of its modern sculpture collection in the park and on the different levels of the Cascade, in the open air.
It is true that we did not come to Armenia to be tourists, and that seeing interesting art and architecture is neither the purpose nor the highlight of our trip. But it is also clear that people here are duly proud of their city, its Cascade and its Republic Square with its museums and fountains, and we have enjoyed walking through this beautiful and well-designed city. As Yerevan celebrates its 2796th anniversary this month (it is 29 years older than Rome), it is worth drawing attention to this city's culture and accomplishments.
We didn’t get off to a roaring start in Armenia. We checked email in the Vienna airport on the way here only to learn that the conference for which we were to be the speakers had been cancelled, or at least drastically downsized to a Saturday afternoon event. Rich was sick Saturday, so I made my way downtown alone to the event, feeling rather bold and brave as I headed out. Through a series of mishaps and misunderstandings I managed to board the wrong bus, then the right bus, exit at the wrong stop, mis-communicate about where I was to the people trying to escort me from bus stop to gathering, and basically arrive bedraggled and frustrated. The event went well, and I decided to treat myself to a very affordable taxi ride home, expecting that to go much more smoothly. This was not to be. Since the taxi driver didn’t really know the neighborhood we’re staying in as well as he’d represented when he wanted to get the fare, and since (I only later learned) several streets in a row have the same name, we roamed the area for a while in the rain and dark before I finally thanked him, paid him and just got out. I was on the verge of tears as I asked people I saw in the streets if I was on the right street. They would launch into a lengthy answer, which I now understand was them saying, “Well, technically yes, you are currently on that street, but which number of it are you trying to be on?” Finally I pulled into a bakery and called my host, who helped me to see that I was just a short walk away. Should have called him sooner, I know, but I could tell I was so close and in typical American style I thought I could figure it out myself. I ended that day weary and frustrated. Between that and the smoke-filled restaurants and a certain glumness that marks the faces of many people in the streets, I frankly found myself wondering why we’d booked ourselves for a three-week stay here. We had done so on the strength of an invitation from a person who has since moved away, so our remaining connections felt tentative.
In addition, language was a bigger barrier than we had anticipated. I did pretty well with the Russian (Cyrillic) alphabet, but the Armenian one, with its 39 letters, has me beat. Guessing at the letters does little good: notice how the two letters that look like a t here are variations on an e sound, the u is an s, and the s-looking letter…what else? A t sound.
Even when written out in English script, many Armenian phrases just frankly take more syllables than seems strictly necessary. I picture a poker game with Armenians outbidding English speakers for length of words: “Ha! We see your measly two-syllable ‘Thank You’ and raise you to ‘Schnorhakal em.’ We see your ‘Bye’ and raise you to ‘Hatchogouchon.’ ‘Nice to meet you?’ Hmph. That’s really the best you can do? We bid ‘Oorakh em kezi hanteebeloo.’” They win; I lose, as these longer phrases flit through my brain and out again at an alarming rate.
I was starting to ‘walk the red line,’ as we say in InterVarsity cross-cultural training. This phrase comes from our visual teaching tool on how we respond to cross-cultural experiences—if we take the green path, we will appreciate, inquire, extend ourselves, and persevere. The red line is a path of judging and isolating. Here is the diagram we use to show various responses to what we call “The Inevitables” of cross-cultural living:
This diagram calls me to see things from the other’s perspective, to listen and not judge. It involves the humility to admit that this language actually doesn’t owe me an S sound from an S-shaped letter. So, I’ve worked on appreciating this truly amazing nation, including the fact that its complex and beautiful alphabet allowed its leaders to spread Christian faith in their nation in ways that yielded deep devotion for centuries.
So, though the start was rocky, Armenia has steadily grown on me, and God is powerfully at work in this land. A few highlights:
Hearing Kenell Turyan, a distinguished astrophysicist and deeply committed Christian who was briefly in town, lecture on the evidence for a good Creator in our finely tuned universe. Armenia has a fairly large number of Indian medical students, and the IFES group (and the International Church in a strong partnership) has reached out really well to them. They brought many friends, and the room was packed. At dinner afterwards he regaled us with jokes and inspired us with stories of faithfulness during hard times under Soviet oppression of faith. It was truly a privilege to meet him.
We have several more sessions ahead with the Armenian and Indian students. This Saturday is the School of Servant Leadership, for new leaders. We will also lead sessions at the weekly leader’s meeting for each group next week, and will continue to meet with the gifted and deeply committed staff team to encourage them in a time of transition and some needed rebuilding. But our schedule is decidedly lighter than in some places, which has given us time to prep for some future events, and also to see museums that help us understand the proud history of this nation, as well as its painful history of genocide, an event which the US has not acknowledged nearly as well as it should, due to our political alliance with the nation that perpetrated it. Learn more here:
The sheer length of the nation’s history is an archaeologist’s dream: we saw the world’s oldest shoe yesterday! Looks a little like my tennis shoes after a recent hike in Latvia….and I’m guessing its owner had some tougher journeys than last Saturday’s misadventures described above. I’ll leave it at that.
After we left Spain, we headed to London (September 24-30), where we led a second Study Abroad retreat for US students studying abroad this year, most of whom were studying in London or Oxford.
We invited our son, Mark, to join us for the retreat, even though he is not a "study abroad" student. He came to London, not as a one-semester study abroad student, but to begin a full-time, four-year university program at Hult International Business School. Mark spent much of his first two years in college trying to build a series of startups, and after two years, his Bitcoin-related effort, Coinfloor, secured seed funding and he went full-time as an entrepreneur (and proud college dropout).
The other participants were all about the same age as Mark, but his experience in London (and as a student here) helped him contribute to the discussions during the weekend, and he led the group on the outing on Saturday afternoon to Camden Market where every possible variety of street food was available for a good price. Of course, we were glad to get time with our son on both sides of the weekend retreat and to have him join us.
During the weekend, we looked at Acts 8, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Philip was told by God to take a trip to a place he typically didn't go (a remote road south of Jerusalem) and there he met a man who had just been in Jerusalem, presumably where Philip had been. But God did not have Philip meet the eunuch in the city with the temple and the growing group of believers--he directed Philip to meet the eunuch at a time when they were both displaced from their familiar home locations, when Philip could not help but notice the eunuch and vice versa. God had obviously prepared the eunuch for Philip's approach, and when Philip spoke with him, the eunuch was ready to hear more about the scripture and the one, Jesus, of whom it spoke.
In a similar way, students on a study abroad are displaced from their usual patterns of fellowship, their daily contact with their friends, and their reliance on being at home in familiar circumstances. They can be, if they choose to be, aware of God's having prepared other people they would otherwise not know, except for their presence in this unfamiliar place. Often, the students they connect with best are fellow international students, from the US or elsewhere, who also are not complacent at home. We invited students to be like Philip, aware of the Holy Spirit's guidance and open to seeing God at work in part through their obedience to his call in this new place. Several students told encouraging stories of ways they have already begun to see God work in relationships and they spoke of wanting to start or join small groups focused on reaching out to their colleagues in their universities.
Rich and Lisa Lamb