I am on a bus to Bulgaria, where Lisa and I will be leading the staff and board of the IFES movement there through a strategic planning process. This process involves bringing the team together to consider the challenges and opportunities, the needs and the assets of the movement and to consider how best to prepare and plan for growth in the coming few years.
When we did this in Ukraine, we began with a few touchstone Bible studies. First, we looked at the passage in 2 Kings 4:1-7 where Elisha solves a widow’s problem of poverty by asking her to gather as many jars as she can from her neighbors, and then to take the jar of oil she has in her house and begin pouring oil into the many empty jars. The oil kept pouring while there were empty containers, and it stopped when they were all full. We looked at this story as a parable, as a model of how God often works, rather than as some sort of promise, but we did notice that God multiplied her oil in proportion to the number of jars she had faith and resources to borrow. If she had only borrowed a few jars, she would only have seen a small miracle.
The jars are simply containers, much like the structures and plans we make in student ministry. We don’t, at the end of the year, care about the number of Bible studies we led or conferences we planned and executed, but we care deeply about the number of students who entered the Kingdom or the measure of their growth in faith as disciples. But we know in Jesus’ stories about how the kingdom of God works, that growth is something given by God, and the farmer who sows the seed “knows not how”. So the best we can do, to prosper the ministry God has entrusted to us, is to set out jars, opportunities for God to pour out the oil of his Spirit, the work of his Spirit in the lives of students, who will find these “jars”, these Bible studies, conferences, student leaders who serve, invite, welcome and encourage, so that God can bring about miraculous growth, both in individual students and in the size and strength of the fellowships themselves.
A second passage we looked at is Mark 2:18-22, another relatively obscure little parable about containers. Jesus is asked a question about the practices of his disciples: It seems religious people in Jesus’ day fasted a lot, but Jesus’ disciples didn’t. He certainly seemed like a religious person, but why didn’t his group fast? Jesus explains that it is foolish to try to patch old practices on new movements of God’s Spirit—the new will destroy the old, whether with new patches on old cloth, or new wine in old wineskins. The Pharisees were once a reform movement within Judaism, calling people not to turn away from God, the scriptures, and the temple. But 150 years later, they were a part of the religious establishment. What had once been fresh wine of renewal put in new wineskins of faithful zeal became over time the old and crusty wineskins, empty of the Spirit of God and devoid of real faith. These, in turn, needed to be replaced by new wine of the Kingdom poured into fresh wineskins.
Unfortunately, this pattern has repeated itself many times in the history of the people of God, right up until the present. What begins as a renewal ministry, a fresh outpouring of God's spirit, becomes rigid and stale as it is multiplied through succeeding generations. This process, which might take decades in the church, can take just months or a couple years in student ministry—what was once an innovative risk into which God was pleased to pour out his Holy Spirit and work through his people becomes an old encrusted wineskin that no longer has the impact in student ministry it once did. The call of this passage is to be seeking a fresh outpouring of God’s Spirit, and to be creative enough to prepare new skins for God’s purposes with students. This passage calls us to look at the structures and strategies of the past and to honestly evaluate them based on the growth we see them bringing about through the outpouring of God's Spirit. Structures that served well in the past may no longer be fruitful, and it is then time to prepare new structures better fit for today's challenges and the work of God we desperately need.
These two passages are not so much about the goals of student ministry but the process, which involves preparing structures into which God will be pleased to bring about growth, and to trust, not in those structures or time-tested strategies, but in the God who is always eager to work in new ways to draw people to himself.
Today we left one of our “homes” to move on to another, the 88th time we have done so. As with most of those homes, the departure meant boarding public transportation, often a plane though in this case it was a bus. And, at most of these departure points, I notice something. Specifically, I notice the couples who are saying goodbye. One member of the couple is about to board a bus, a train or a plane, while the other is staying behind. Often these are young couples, but not always. I do not know the story behind each of these sweet partings, but we have heard many stories.
We have heard from people of their family members leaving their homes in Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union for economic reasons. We have heard from people whose fathers moved to Russia, usually Moscow, staying away sometimes for years in order to make enough money to support the family. We have even heard of a couple who left their young children in the care of a brother and his wife so they could get jobs in Russia to support their family. As we hear these stories, it is difficult to judge and easy to have compassion on the people who have made this most painful of decisions in order to pursue economic support for their loved ones at great personal cost.
Of course, I do not know the story of everyone I see saying their farewells at the platform or as we enter passport control or the security line. Long distance relationships for young people can be character building and can build the basis for a stable marriage relationship long term. (Both of our children are in such long-distance relationships now and experience the heartache of having to say goodbye at the airport when one returns to their home.) And during my career with IVCF, I was often the one leaving my wife and family to board a plane for some days of separation in order to pursue my ministry calling. But this year, I remain grateful that, at each point of departure, I am not saying goodbye to my sweetie, my best friend, but I am traveling with her, leaving one “home”, one set of friends, with my partner in this ministry in order to embrace the next step in the adventure, a new “home” and a new set of friends and experiences. I am grateful for this treasured companionate faith journey with Lisa.
* No, we are not in our own home and will not be until November... We are now in Bulgaria... :)
Good question! It was a surprise to us, too. Our schedule took an unexpected turn last week. We were in Vilnius, Lithuania, scheduled to fly to Norway to see friends we’d made along the way. But the travel times of our trip made our meeting our friends impossible, and we found ourselves staring at expensive hostel housing, and expensive airfare to our next ministry commitment in Sofia, Bulgaria, all for the one two-hour meeting that remained in our schedule there. Rich said aloud, the night before our flight, “I wish we weren’t going to Norway. It’s going to be so expensive.” I said, “Shall we cancel?” He mused, “What if we bussed down to Bulgaria, and just overshot it by a few hours. We’d be in Greece!” So, after a flurry of internet research and e-mails cancelling flights, at 10pm the next night we boarded a bus, and after 36 rather longish hours on buses and trains, we arrived in Northern Greece, at a savings of hundreds of dollars. We’re in a budget hotel in a budget town, surrounded by happy Russians and Serbians on holiday. We’re enjoying the beach, but also getting in some prep for the final three events in our schedule, which are as follows:
Please pray that our stamina and motivation to serve students and staff would remain strong for this final stretch. We feel so grateful for this few days in a restful town here in Greece; after recovering from the crazy bus ride we feel rested and energized for these last three stops. Pray that we would connect well with the non-Christian students at the English camps, and that they would take steps toward following Jesus.
Please pray for our transition to Southern California. We return with no cars, and you who live in LA know that it is sadly not an easy city to navigate without a car. We are grateful for the loaners that are beginning to come into place and the possibility of one longer-term. Anyone looking to sell a used car at a good price is encouraged to contact us! Our housing is another challenge, but we see God’s provision there as well. We will stay in the missionary housing of the Presbyterian Church, House of Rest, in Pasadena for our first three months back, and look forward very much to returning to our home in November.
Pray as well for our return to work: Rich will begin work right away at Tanner, and I will have one course to teach at Fuller each quarter. I will be recertified to host a person with disabilities again in our home and to tutor. I continue to hope to be in pastoral ministry, and applied to another church this morning, but search processes are slow and jobs scarce, so I will do the work that I can do in the meantime. We also are quite excited to have both our children in Pasadena with us for ten days (Mark) and three weeks (Becca) before Becca heads off for a semester abroad in Pune, India and Mark returns to London. Pray that in the midst of all the details of renewing expired driver’s licenses, renegotiating our insurance, and remembering how to cook food, we would have time to process all that we have learned and experienced this year. We continue to be so, so grateful for the gift and opportunity it has been, and so thankful to you who have given and prayed along the way!
How important is food autonomy to you? How important is it that you can eat what you want when you want it? How much does having choice about what you eat, its variety and/or consistency and quantity, matter to you? Well, until this year, I (Rich) would have said that it matters to me a lot. I like food, but I am not an omnivore—I would have said that I am a bit of a picky eater. Of course, that has mellowed over the course of my life, but I am still not a huge salad fan, for example, and I avoid salad dressings and most sauces if I can help it.
When you become a missionary, especially one that is traveling to one hundred or so homes over the course of a year, you end up letting go of food autonomy. We have been served hundreds of meals over the last 11 months, many of them in small conference facilities, but also in homes where we were being served as guests. Over the last year, we have been on our own and not serving a local student movement for just a few weeks. Other than that, we have eaten out at restaurants rarely, and then mostly local places offering local food choices.
I am not complaining about the food we have enjoyed on this trip—far from it. Actually, if anything, it has surprised me how much I have enjoyed the food and really not missed being able to make or select my own meals. We have eaten what is set before us, usually pretty happily, and really only a few times has the meal been difficult to consume.
But I notice what I think now of as my Americanness by how I notice the much reduced set of choices we have, in part because we are enjoying the hospitality of others and in part because of the post-soviet mindset of the people here.
In the US, even at relatively simple conference facilities, usually there would be some choice of food:
Again, my intent here is not to complain about the lack of variety in the food here, but simply to marvel at what people expect even nearly 25 years after the fall of the Soviet-imposed uniformity. Today, I was at a restaurant with a group of people from the church Lisa preached at this morning. One American couple was sitting across from me. They had both ordered salads for lunch, and the wife had ordered a side of French fries. Her 10-year-old son had ordered a soup, but after he finished his soup, he reached for his mom’s fries. She gently swatted his hand away, saying, “You could have ordered anything.” She was defending her (still nearly full) plate of French fries from her son. In my experience this is not a very typical mom’s response to a son’s request to share his mom’s fries. She then relented and let her son have a single French fry off her plate. I am sure she is a wonderful and loving mom, but my theory is that she had simply been craving French fries, and she was seeing that plate of fries as the pathway to satisfy her food craving. Even her love for her son was not going to get in the way of the satisfaction she sought. So perhaps this is a common occurrence when one lives as a missionary in a foreign land. I have compassion on her—I myself become territorial about food, and even about French fries specifically, especially if I am seeking to restore some lost food autonomy.
I have found a very important coping strategy. I travel, as I have for many years, with dark chocolate, and I usually eat about one ounce of dark chocolate, in small pieces, per day. It helps me not to complain about the lack of chocolate in my host-provided diet, and in general helps me to be content, as the Apostle Paul says, whether I am experiencing plenty or want. I wish I weren’t dependent on dark chocolate in this way, but as a coping strategy, it is better than taking up smoking!
So the next time you open your refrigerator and see dozens of choices of food you can happily prepare and consume, or go to a buffet at a restaurant or even a weekend church retreat, stand back, be amazed and grateful, and recognize that most of the people on the planet wouldn’t dream of the choices you have. (And, if you travel, figure out what is your affordable coping strategy that allows you to be content in all circumstances.)
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 and Lisa Lamb