As the Skype call with a wise friend neared its end and she asked how she could pray for me, I (Lisa) blurted out an answer that surprised me: “Pray for the ongoing challenge of being an outsider everywhere we go.” On one level, it’s not a new challenge. I’ve been an interim pastor for three churches in the past four years; in each place I was warmly welcomed and included in many ways, yet in each setting I was inevitably a guest, a stranger to the web of lived experiences that connected long-time members. I had to dive in as deep and as fast as I could, extending myself relationally while knowing that those relationships had meters on them that would run out before I might desire. The surprising grace in that endeavor was always the number of people who would open up to me with a level of trust I had not really earned. This year, we’ve ramped up the pace at which we dive in as outsiders into overdrive. We’re newcomers everywhere we go. Just when we’ve learned the bus systems enough to navigate a city reasonably well, or learned the basic phrases to make a transaction in a market, it’s time to go. We knew it would be true about our year, but I’m only now learning some of the ways our extreme and perpetual outsider status can be wearing, and some of the value of pressing into it. Choosing to position oneself as an outsider means signing up for a certain level of suffering and effort. But it’s a fascinating place to be. Jesus placed himself on the outside by wading into conversations with people from every level of society. Amos left Judah to preach to Israel, Jonah had a word for Nineveh that no Ninevite was about to deliver, and God had a strong word for him in that uncomfortable foreign land.
Outsiders can see things that insiders can’t, though they miss many things as well. We have all sorts of observations about crazy driving here, for example. We’ve seen more cars zip through red lights in our week here than we might in years at home. But we don’t always see the underlying strength that it reflects, namely a creativity, agility and resilience in the face of street lights only intermittently working and roadways strained beyond their limits, in part by the influx of 1.5 million refugees since the start of the Syrian civil war. One pastor joked that they do not let foreigners preach in their church before making them drive the length of the capital city to be sure they have a strong faith!
The remarkable thing about willingly entering the outsider zone is the way that the barriers can drop in an instant. One semi-thoughtful question from us and before we know it we’ve unwittingly picked a lock and slipped inside. Near strangers are sharing with us their dreams, their deepest frustrations with their country, their church, their ministry. This happened recently at a party we attended here. We’d had a lovely but full day seeing 2,000 year-old trees up in a mountain range outside the city with a couple who began the day as strangers and ended it as friends we hope to keep, albeit across the miles. The party wasn’t starting until 9pm, and we were tempted to beg off. But it was the spiritual anniversary of a young woman we were eager to meet, and it seemed rude to say no. We are trying to lean towards yes whenever we can in relationships these days. We arrived and immediately felt a strong wave of outsider status. The laughter was flowing and the conversation was loud, but alas, in Arabic. We tried to enter in, and they tried to shift to English at times, but understandably it quickly shifted back, and we sat munching our pizza in silence.
Then along came a young woman whose English was impeccable and whose passion was apparent from the moment we met here. We’ll call her Miriam for now. As Miriam described her current work among Syrian refugees and poor citizens here, training them in small business skills and offering them micro-loans, we were impressed with her zeal. But then she described her ultimate dreams of impacting her country with a unique and inspiring vision, and we were blown away. I’ll let her tell that story in her Kickstarter campaign, but suffice it to say we both felt deeply blessed to be in her presence and hear her dreams. We hope to be able to play a small part in coaching her long-distance as she formulates her strategy, and if that happens, it will be a great privilege. We’d barely finished talking with her when we met another young woman who described the work she’s doing to lead multiple Bible studies, food distribution sites, and other programs among Syrian refugees here, and the joy it has given her and her whole church to welcome them. We left the party feeling richer than Midas in stories and inspiration, and so glad we’d pressed through our outsider discomfort.
If you have a story of choosing to place yourself in a setting where you risked the discomfort of being an outsider and found it to yield good things in your life, I’d love to hear about it here.
Please pray for us to continue to have the curiosity, perseverance, and humility to be gracious outsiders, and to seize and treasure the moments when we get to glimpse the inside of countries and hearts.
Rich and Lisa Lamb