Call on me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.
Dear Praying Friends,
I think January 2022 qualifies as a day of trouble globally. For us personally, it has certainly been a confusing and challenging few days. Please read to the end for some specific ways you can join us in prayer, calling on God for his deliverance. Our frustration and disappointment pales in comparison to the discouragement our partners here in Ukraine (pictured above) have faced. We write to enjoin your prayers for them in their day of trouble more than for us.
We arrived here in L’viv on Sunday, only to learn Monday night that the conference we came here to help lead was cancelled. This was due more to the spike in COVID than to the political unrest, but as you can imagine, the threats to their border weigh heavily on every Ukrainian. The two together feel like a pair of punishing blows to a nation and a student ministry team that has endured so much this past year.
We want you to know that we feel safe to be here this week. L’viv is roughly 700 miles from active conflict. We have met with two families the last two nights here in Lviv for delightful evenings of food and warm dinner table conversation. These are some of our oldest and most beloved friends and ministry partners here in Ukraine, and we enjoyed the reunions around the meals together. But those lively conversations were shaded and the mood darkened by the very real prospect of war with Russia.
The senior staff team for IFES in Ukraine is still going to gather Thursday through Sunday for a strategic planning meeting they had already scheduled for later next month. The leader of this team has expressed eagerness for our presence at this gathering. We are honored to be invited to join them. Our hope is simply to listen, care for, and encourage them.
If all goes well, Sunday evening (Jan. 30) we will fly to Malaysia. Malaysia has opened a travel bubble for tourists, which means if we stay on a Malaysian island for a week and pass daily COVID tests, we can enter the rest of the country for 90 days. This works out about right for us, as we need to return to the US for the conference of Paraclete Mission Group at the end of April.
While it is encouraging and exciting to be able to enter Malaysia after such a long wait, a discouraging setback last week was the news that the long-term visa we had applied for was denied. We are not sure what God is up to with this turn of events. It is not our last option to pursue for living in Malaysia, but the other option we will try is a lengthy one. So, we find ourselves yet again living with quite a bit of uncertainty about the near-to-medium-term future. We’re getting good at this!
We are both teaching evening courses in Malaysia May—July, and we had been eager to teach those courses in person, so the visa news was a real disappointment. Failing that, we would love to be in SE Asia to be in a good time zone to teach via Zoom. If that does not seem feasible, the East Coast is at least a better option than the West (7 PM classes in Malaysia become 6 AM classes on the East Coast, and 3 AM ones on the West Coast.).
Our prayer requests:
Rich and Lisa
With our kids, Mark and Becca (photo credit: Avery) at Duke in early December.
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; 3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff- they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long. Psalm 23
Friends, we wish you joy and hope in this season of Advent!
I (Rich) taught my last class sessions for two different courses this past week. One course, “Fundraising”, was for a group of ten NGO leaders and Pastors, mostly from Sri Lanka, who are nearly finished with their MA in Organizational Development from Lanka Bible College. The other course, “Mission in a time of COVID: Biblical Resources and Contemporary Models in a Time of Chaotic Change,” was for a group of 11 Biblical studies students at Alpha Omega International College in Malaysia. While I knew the passage would be familiar to them, I ended the teaching for each class with the same Bible study, a look at Psalm 23 and John 10, and a meditation on the Good Shepherd and his abundant provision and selfless protection of us, his sheep. We also discussed what we must do to be good shepherds. The upshot of the reflection was that one cannot be a good shepherd if one does not have a good shepherd.
Especially when we are talking to people about funding our ministry, or when we are considering our leadership choices in a time of resource constraints and planning uncertainty, we must cultivate contentment as sheep in the flock of our Lord, the Good Shepherd, letting his wise leadership guide us in right paths, and his rod and staff protect us from harm. We were especially struck as we pondered John 10 that when we are not contented sheep in the provision of our Lord, we will be tempted to act as “a thief” who sees those they lead as sources of their own provision, as fodder or funds for their ministry, rather than as God’s sheep, precious to him and worthy of our care. If we do not know the protection of the Lord as the good shepherd, then in the chaos and scarcity of the present we will look out for ourselves first. We will flee conflict, struggle, or suffering to protect ourselves. These are tempting for anyone in ministry, indeed for all of us, the more so during a time of chaotic change and uncertainty.
We arrived back in the US a few weeks ago to have some time with our family (kids and Lisa’s mom) in North Carolina. We returned sooner than we’d planned, since an event in Ukraine was postponed due to rising COVID cases and more stringent health measures put in place. With no further in-person ministry to do in Ukraine, we (once again) changed our flight plans and flew back to the US. It has been a sweet time with family, and a good setting for us both to wrap up a few courses, and for Lisa to continue work on her book.
We have wanted to write an update detailing a retrospective on our year, especially our fall in Eastern Europe, and to tell you of our upcoming plans. But every few days those plans seem to shift, with the new Omicron variant news, and shifting government policies closing down what once was opening up. This of course reminds us that we are not really able to plan with certainty—only to consider possibilities and trust that God will open doors he wants us to walk through when the time comes. (This has been something of a refrain of our recent letters.)
We will be in California for a couple weeks, then in January we might be flying to Malaysia, or Hong Kong, or Thailand, or none of the above, depending on how things evolve in those countries and their readiness to welcome us to their shores. I have an in-person teaching invitation in Ukraine toward the end of January, to which I had hoped to fly from Malaysia, but of course even the Ukraine trip seems a little uncertain given that that country is facing war cries and threats from Putin’s Russia, and the war (that never stopped since 2014) is looking like it might enter a new hotter phase early next year. Please join us in holding Ukraine in your prayers.
As we remind ourselves often, our inconvenient closed doors and plan-shifting don’t to the real suffering of our brothers and sisters all over the world, even in the countries in which we are teaching, live or via Zoom. We are precious sheep in the flock of the Lord, and he has provided and continues to provide us green pastures, still waters, good ministry to do, partners to sustain us, and guidance via open and closed doors. Please join us in looking to the Lord, the shepherd of our souls and sustainer of our ministry.
Eager to Hear More?
If you would like to read more (and see more photos) about our recent ministry in Eastern Europe, we invite you to read what our partners are telling others about my visits:
We continue to entertain the bold hope that we might be able to enter Malaysia on a 90-day tourist visa as soon as mid-January. This lane just opened in early November, seemed to slam shut with Omicron, and has now (today) been re-opened. The news changes almost daily, so we are holding off on purchasing tickets, researching housing, etc. Our partners there are working on a longer-term visa, which could be months away, so we would gladly take this 90-day option as a start. Please pray that if the timing is (finally) right, we would be able to enter and serve alongside our partners there more effectively.
Lisa has valiantly fit her writing into the cracks of ministry and travel for several months. Please pray for Lisa as she brings it to a close and sends it to her publisher soon, in the midst of our travel and uncertainties. She hopes this book will be a gift to pastors as they rebuild after a hard season.
Thank you for your faithful friendship and partnership in the gospel. We always enjoy hearing back from you and look forward to Christmas family newsletters and photos, which of course we appreciate especially when it comes electronically, though we are set up to receive them physically as well.
With Love and gratitude,
Rich and Lisa
With staff, Ukrainian students and 3 international students in Lviv, after a weekend studying the book of Habakkuk Nov 5-6, 2021.
I (Rich) love doing what I do every day, which is study the BIble with people who are committed to allowing it to challenge them, and to applying it to their lives. In general my routine is sprinkled with a lot of non-formal teaching and training (ie, not-for-credit teaching of staff and pastors and lay leaders in non-formal settings). This year, I have met regularly with three groups of pastors and one group of lay women leaders in India, as well as campus ministry staff in Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia and Moldova all via Zoom. These weekly meetings have formed a consistent backbone to my calendar, keeping me busy roughly 10-15 hours week. On top of these regular commitments, I have taught a number of courses for institutions in Malaysia, Nepal, India, and China, which of course has required some preparation (syllabus and curriculum) as well as some grading, on top of the teaching. My teaching almost always follows the same model, using Scripture inductively to help people understand ministry and leadership principles, usually from the Sketches of Leadership materials I have developed over the years and in the last year especially.
Formal Courses I Am Teaching (Click to download a sample syllabus)
Biblical Leadership Development: This course is designed to give a general introduction the topic of leadership, in general and Christian leadership in particular, making wide use of Scriptural case studies and didactic teaching from both Old and New Testaments. The course will model the use of scripture in leadership development, specifically in skills and character training and discipleship, and in ministry vision, equipping and empowerment. (Three times in 2020-21)
Gospels Survey: Ministry Insights from Jesus: This course is designed to give a general introduction to the life and teachings of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, and to focus that study toward practical insights for evangelism and discipleship ministry today. We will read the gospels with a view to understanding: comparing and contrasting the style, structure, and purpose of each of the gospels writers. Significantly, however, we will also be focused on mining the gospels for direct applications to the preaching, teaching, training, discipleship and evangelistic strategies of leaders today. The course will model the use of scripture study as a source of insight into ministry, specifically in skills and character training and discipleship, and in ministry vision, equipping and empowerment. (Three times in 2021)
Mission Amidst the Covid-19 Crisis: Biblical Resources and Contemporary Models for a Time of Chaotic Change: This course is designed to look at Biblical stories of renewal and revival, from the time of the Kings of Israel to the post-exilic narratives, when the people of God experienced tremendous external forces imposing change, or when God’s leaders were raised up to help the people of God respond to crises with resilience and fortitude. We will draw general principles for the leadership of God’s people in times of crisis, but also specifically apply these principles to the context of the church today impacted as it is by the COVID-19 pandemic. We will look Paul’s “Plan B” ministry activity in the book of Acts, and at contemporary models that can help the church retain and advance its evangelism and discipleship mandate and mission. The course will model the use of scripture study as a source of insight into ministry, specifically in discipleship, ministry vision, equipping and empowerment, organizational development and change. (Twice in 2021)
Fundraising: This course will provide students with new skills and increase their confidence in fundraising for their ministry or organization. Using the examples of Moses, David and the Apostle Paul, provides a biblical foundation for fundraising together with a biblical view of stewardship. The course will equip students with a practical approach for developing funds from local sources, including the development of a “Case for Support”, which can be used to share funding needs in a variety of contexts. Although recognizing that funding from western charitable foundations is increasingly difficult to obtain, the course will also enable students to develop funding proposals specifically for foundations. (2021)
The New Testament in Focus (Mark): (Co-taught with Lisa). This course engages in depth with particular Mark passages, as well as to explore the themes and unique emphases of Mark as a whole. (2021)
Work, Money and MIssion: This course is designed to look at Biblical passages covering the headline topics of work, money and mission. We will build a Biblical theology of work and money using passages from Genesis to the Gospels and Paul’s letters We will build . The course will model the use of scripture study as a source of insight into ministry, specifically in discipleship, ministry vision, equipping and empowerment, organizational development and change. (January 2022)
The Ministry of Mentoring: This course approaches the art of mentoring from a leadership development perspective, and is based on biblical role models and principles. Its aim is to provide clarity around different kinds of mentoring relationships, and an opportunity to develop essential competencies and characteristics of an effective Christ-like Mentor. It also addresses the role of the Mentee in seeking to become the Christ-like leader God designed them to be. The course covers autobiographical writing, listening and questioning skills as well as ways to give effective feedback. Building on these essential competencies, the material outlines the process for a mentoring relationship and suggests both spiritual and pedagogical preparation. Finally, a framework for establishing a formal mentoring program within an organization is provided. (February 2022)
Paul’s Prison Epistles: Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, Philemon: This course is designed to give a general introduction to the life and writing of the Apostle Paul as found in the letters to the churches in Ephesus, Colosse, and Philippi, and the pastoral letter written to Philemon. We will read these texts with a view to understanding: comparing and contrasting the style, structure, and purpose of each of the these texts. Significantly, however, we will also be focused on mining these texts for direct applications to the preaching, teaching, training, discipleship and evangelistic strategies of leaders today. The course will model the use of scripture study as a source of insight into ministry, specifically in skills and character training and discipleship, and in ministry vision, equipping and empowerment. (May 2022).
A few months ago I wrote about a new course I was teaching in Malaysia, entitled, “Ministry in a time of COVID.” In that course we looked at a number of Biblical leaders to gain insights into their ministry and leadership choices during crises. One leader we looked in the course at was the apostle Paul, in a series of Bible studies I entitled “Plan B Ministry.” Plan-B Ministry is, as it sounds, the ministry choices and opportunities that emerge when Plan A, for whatever reason, is made impossible. Much of Paul’s story in Acts can be described as “Plan-B Ministry.” One short passage caught my eye:
ACTS 16:6-15: They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; 8 so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.
What are some of the elements of Plan-B Ministry in this passage?
Moldova is one of the smaller former republics of the USSR, territory that during the Ottoman Empire was for a while part of Romania. The citizens of Moldova speak Romanian and also Russian. While here, we both have had on-going teaching (Nepal, Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, China, Armenia, Ukraine, Belarus). I have taught in Bălţi (pronounced “Bults”), Comrat, Tiraspol (in the breakaway region between Ukraine and the Dniester River –hence called Transnistria), and on Saturday I will be in the town of Ungheni. These cities, and the place we’ve spent most of our time, Chisinau (the capital) are highlighted in red points on the map at the top.
Lisa has found many ways to serve the team at the St. Paul’s Theological College in Malaysia. She attends the weekly staff meetings and recently offered a mini-workshop for them as they think through transitions to online learning, considering the pros and cons of hybrid, asynchronous, synchronous, and blended in-person/zooming options. She has seen it all, in her years at Fuller, and it seems they found this quite helpful.
Lisa and I have also really enjoyed co-teaching the gospel of Mark to students in Malaysia. She brings a scholarly perspective on a theological or historical theme in the gospel in the first hour, then I take students into an inductive, close look at a passage. It's a great blend of our strengths!
I am also proud to announce that a book Lisa has been working on in the cracks of our nomadic lives has a publisher, Wipf and Stock, and is nearing completion! The tentative title is Resonate: Preaching that Reconnects Us after a Season of Distance. We hope it will be a gift of encouragement to pastors who have toughed it out through this long stretch of the road.
With Love and gratitude,
Rich and Lisa
Greetings to you, friends. This week I (Lisa) taught the last class session for a small group of gifted and dedicated leaders in Nepal and India. The vision that excites me as I give myself to groups like this is that of growing national, Nepali professors for the seminaries and Bible colleges of Nepal. Currently there are very few Nepali Christians with Ph.D’s, so almost all theological education is done by foreigners. This is in contrast to many seminaries in the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, India, and other Asian countries, where Westerners today play only small supporting roles and faculties are mostly Asian. The church in Nepal is young and poor, but the vision of a more locally grown class of theological educators is a worthy one. So, twice now I have taught for the small set of students in Nepal who are doing an advanced degree beyond their M.Div. degree, an M.Th. in preparation for Ph.D. work.
It was a challenge to teach this course from three different locations (Chiang Mai, Thailand, the Carpathian mountains of Ukraine, and L’viv), with unstable internet, time zones to juggle, and cultural differences to keep in mind. But those minor challenges pale in comparison to the challenges they overcame. One student gave birth the week before class began. One student had severe Covid and lived in her very spare church building for three weeks to quarantine herself away from her family. I can see a corrugated tin roof in one student’s home, and I worry for her family in the cold months ahead. The student who joined us from India lost good friends to Covid and other illnesses during our term. The church in Nepal and India has endured a season of great suffering. In the midst of all that, we managed to laugh together often as we worked on the craft of preaching.
I learned so much from these students! Not everything I taught was a fit. For example, I talked in one session about how to handle criticism of your sermon from your congregation only to learn that that essentially never happens in Nepal. (I’ll admit to being a bit jealous.) Fascinatingly, I learned that there is a sect of Hinduism that believes in Jesus’ life on earth and death in so much agreement with the church that they hold a joint Good Friday service. In both countries, the church wrestles a great deal with how much to participate in their surrounding culture. For example, most churches in my student’s region of India do not participate in Diwali, the festival of light, but in other regions some churches do. In Nepal, they do participate in the tradition of putting Mehendi, or henna crimson powder on the bride on her wedding day. But more than the finer points of inculturation, I learned from these students’ passionate dedication to Jesus and his church. They are selfless servants, gracious and loving leaders, and highly committed disciples. Their coordinated “Thank you, teacher” screens at our break during the final class session was a sweet moment. I am so grateful for the chance to teach and to learn from these faithful students.
This class ends as another one has begun. Rich and I are sharing the teaching of a course in the Gospel of Mark at St. Paul’s Theological College in Malaysia. That course is larger, 27 students, and so challenging in a different way, as we struggle to learn names and facilitate discussion within the limits of Zoom for a bigger group. In the first hour I teach a theme, such as Mark’s concealing and revealing of the identity of Jesus, or the theme of honor and shame throughout the book. For the second hour, Rich leads an inductive Bible study in a passage—something he has a bit of experience doing! This is actually my first time teaching the gospel of Mark in several years, and it is reminding me why we love this gospel so much, and its main character.
I will also teach one class for Fuller, starting late September, and it looks to be a delightfully diverse group, as is so often one of the joys of Fuller teaching. Rich is teaching a course in fundraising for NGO leaders and pastors in Sri Lanka (and elsewhere) through Development Associates International, https://daintl.org and continuing to teach and train in India and elsewhere.
We continue to enjoy our time in Lviv, and will be sorry to leave it. We got a tour of “the dark side” of the city last weekend, when friends took us to the Citadel, a hill outside the city which became the site for the murder of thousands of Jews during the holocaust, and then for the murder of political dissidents during Soviet occupation. We were grateful to learn that history in the midst of our appreciation of the “bright side—” the warmth of the people, the beauty of the downtown architecture, the abundant chocolate, etc. We continue to cheer on the nation as it celebrated its 30th anniversary last month and as it navigates ongoing challenges on its borders. On the 19th of this month, we will head to Moldova, at the invitation of the IFES student movement there. We will likely stay there for about six weeks, then return to Kiev, Ukraine for a conference in November, and then return to the US for several weeks. Rich will add a side trip to Armenia in October. I am a little tired of the rootlessness of our lives these days—Rich thrives on it and we often need to navigate our differing tolerance levels and appetites for change. And for dresser drawers. But we both sense the sustaining gifts of the Lord in our midst.
We are grateful to each of you for your prayers and for the gifts that make our ministry possible. As always, we love to get replies to these emails, with updates and ways we can be praying for you.
Arriving in Ukraine was a bit like coming home after three months in quite new-to-us Thailand. We met with dear friends (like Marina pictured above) and joined the Ukraine national staff team for their end of summer staff team conference, where we both taught. While of course it is not home, Ukraine is a place we have spent many weeks for the last 20 years, and many hours connecting with staff on Zoom in the last 1.5 years. We have another month here before we head to Moldova.
About three months ago the dean of a Bible college in Nepal where I have taught before asked me (Rich) if I could put together a course he titled, “Mission Amidst the Covid-19 Crisis.” The college was looking to offer timely and relevant help to people trying to keep evangelism and discipleship ministries moving forward in a changing context. I told the dean that I was not actually leading a church or ministry during the COVID crisis, and did not feel I could give out time-tested answers to this question, but I said that if I were to attack this issue, I would look for contemporary readings about leadership during change and crisis, and mainly look for Biblical examples of “leadership when you don’t know what to do.” The dean was happy with my approach, and so the first day we arrived in Ukraine I began teaching the new course for one college in Nepal. I will also teach the same course for another college in Malaysia in September.
One passage that came to my mind during that initial call is the story when King Jehoshaphat of Judah was told that a huge army of several smaller states was united and marching upon Judah, to attack it. This happens when Judah is much diminished in power from the mighty days of Kings David and Solomon, and Jehoshaphat knows he doesn’t have military power that could possibly meet the threat. The scripture commentary in this chapter puts it bluntly: “Jehoshaphat was afraid.” So he seeks the LORD and asks all Judah to join him.
The surprising part of the story is when he has everyone gathered and he has the microphone—they are all looking at him expecting kingly leadership. This would be the time battle leaders encourage the troops, a la Aragorn: “A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day!” But instead, Jehoshaphat says, “we do not know what to do,” and he both looks to the LORD and encourages the people to do so as well.
The second surprise is that he allows God to speak, not through him, but rather through the priest Jahaziel, who brings an encouraging word of promise that God will indeed fight for his people, if they trust him to. If they are willing to go out to face the enemy, God will show them his victory. This they do, but it is surprising that, in this crisis time, Jehoshaphat leads the people not by knowing what to do, but by knowing how to lead people into trusting God despite not knowing how God will work.
This is a good picture of leadership in a time of crisis and chaotic change. The pandemic is a new situation, and we really don’t really know what to do. But we can make space for God to work, for God to speak, for God and others to lead and show the way, and we can follow with courage and boldness when he opens the door and shows us. Leaders willing to acknowledge that they don’t quite know what to do would be refreshing and powerful in this age.
The Indian Women’s Jamaat Leaders Update
I have continued to lead a Bible study with Muslim-background believing women who lead jamaats, or Bible studies, for other Muslim-background women in a city in India. My friend R______ has been working with and training these leaders for several years and their ministry is really growing. My focus is really training R____ to use the Urdu translations of the Sketches of Leadership his team has produced, so he can continue using them beyond the work we do together.
Two weeks ago I was doing a Bible study on “Asking Good Questions,” looking at how Jesus asked questions of people who came to him for healing. It involved training on good questions, open-ended questions that draw other people out. At the end of the session I suggested that everyone go back to their husbands and ask “What was the best part of your day today?” After R_____ translated my suggestion to them, they all burst into laughter. I had no idea what was funny, so R_____ explained after they quieted a bit that even the notion of their asking their husbands any question was funny to them. They hadn’t ever considered doing that.
The social distance between husband and wife, in Muslim India especially, is very great. It might for us feel odd to ask such a personal question to a distinguished professor or to our medical doctor while he is examining us. It might seem impertinent. So they hesitated, but the women in this leadership training Bible study are good students of the word, and soft-hearted, and to a one they applied the study by asking their husbands about the best part of their day. When we next met, they reported their husbands’ responses.
What’s ahead for us: Well, like Jehoshaphat, we are not entirely certain of that! We know roughly what we will be doing for the fall, as we both have full plates of teaching in Malaysia, Nepal, India, and elsewhere, but our location past September is not fully decided, as we weigh a few factors, from invitations to ministry to Covid trends. We ask for your prayers as we seek God’s guidance for our next homes when our time in Lviv comes to an end in a month’s time.
Please pray for Ukraine.This prayer station, one of several at the conference, reminded us that the war is ever-present in Ukraine, and sons of Ukraine are dying at the hands of an invading force from Russia. The gold and blue streamers and flowers are from Ukraine’s flag, and the sunflower is Ukraine’s national flower.
“And with many other exhortations… he preached good news to them.” Luke 3:18
I (Lisa) had a delightful opportunity to host a seminar on Zoom the other day for students preparing for ministry at St. Paul’s Theological College (SPTC) and current pastors. I had been noticing a pattern of otherwise strong sermons fizzling out at the end, and I decided to drill down on the skill of making the final moments count. I began with a look at change more generally, first with a Bible study in the seemingly harsh words of John the Baptist which the people receive gladly. During a season of diminished control, John imparted hope by giving them them agency and concrete, doable exhortations, rooted in the promise of the coming of the Messiah. I then integrated insights into how human transformation happens that I had gained gained from picking the brains of a few therapist friends, reading Chip and Dan Heath’s excellent book Switch, and pondering my own recalcitrance to change. We then homed in on how the closing moments of the sermon catalyze change, using clips from three of my favorite sermon conclusions and two of my favorite preachers reflecting on endings. With over 60 participants in the seminar, verbal participation was limited to the breakout sessions, but the very lively Chat space indicated resonance and appreciation throughout. (See our blog to find links to these resources.)
This is just one of many opportunities that have been made more possible by our time here in Thailand. Yet, as we near its end, we have mixed feelings, and what follows is my reflection on why that is. If all goes well, we will fly to Ukraine on July 26. (This is not at all a certainty since a flight we had booked for the 24th was cancelled. There simply are not enough people in the air yet to field flights. So, as with many things in our lives, we say, “We hope to fly on the 26th.”)
As cross-cultural workers, we feel a certain dissonance because the typical model of entering a new culture to serve would be that one throws oneself in, experiences difficulties, and navigates all sorts of differences, but is sustained through that by deepened love for the people one befriends, and by a growing appreciation for the new culture. In a global pandemic, all bets on that model are off.
The classic Stages of Culture Shock paradigm describes an initial Honeymoon Phase in which, upon entering a new place, one delights in new sights, flavors, and customs. This euphoric stage cannot last, but it serves an important purpose: it gives cross-cultural workers the energy they will need for the hard work of language and other learning during the next phase, which is tellingly called Frustration and Fatigue. Not surprisingly, entering a new culture by way of a 7-day mandated quarantine in a hotel room, only leaving the room for two Covid tests, is not an ideal set-up for creating a euphoric encounter with a new culture! I entertained lofty hopes of doing some Thai language learning during our quarantine, but threw up my hands in defeat upon learning of its 70-letter alphabet, complex tonal system, etc. I settled for learning the basic words of greeting and thanking. Befriending Thai people has been essentially impossible, between the language barrier and the pandemic lockdown. And the truth is, it was not why we came here.
The black line added to the familiar depiction of culture shock is a bit of self-mocking and does not actually reflect our enjoyment of the beauty of the geography, culture and people here. At the risk of sounding like we were ‘using’ Thailand, we came here for the time zone, and what it would make possible. And it has made so much possible: staff meetings with the team at SPTC that were in the wee hours of the night are now easily doable. I attend three different weekly meetings, each of which launches side conversations on Slack or WhatsApp throughout the day. We co-taught a weekend intensive course for SPTC, a portion of the course I have taught asynchronously all term. I have begun an evening course in Nepal, two evenings a week. Rich has been teaching in China, India, Armenia, and Nepal, and begins a two-week intensive in Malaysia this Monday--all at much saner times than when we were in Pasadena. So, we are grateful for our three-month perch in Thailand, and we feel little guilt about ‘using’ it—we have contributed to its much-desired goal of reviving its tourist industry, and we have sought to be gracious visitors. But we will leave it with a certain dissonance and regret, in part because our approach to it goes against so much of what we would normally pursue and value in a cross-cultural sojourn.
And we have had our share of frustrations and fatigue. I have had a painful ear infection, and we have battled other minor but irritating physical ailments. They pale in comparison to the challenges of our partners in this region, especially in Malaysia and India, who continue to live under severe lockdown and to endure the seemingly relentless spread of Covid. But that has cast a wearisome shadow on our lives, as we carry the stories of suffering and mask up for every outing, just a tad envious of the freedom from masks in more of the US. So, I am on the lookout in these final two weeks for ways to end strong here in Thailand—ways to care for local people, enjoy Thailand’s beauty, or simply treasure the scent of Plumeria on a walk.
What’s ahead? Well, hopefully Ukraine will feel somewhat different. We both know the Cyrillic alphabet and are reviewing basic phrases. We also know several people there and Rich especially has a long history of partnership with the IFES movement there. Our first week will be at the national staff gathering, at a camp in the Carpathian Mountains. But our reason for going there is similar: we still cannot get into Malaysia. Our Thai visas near expiry, and we want to go somewhere that keeps us in a good time zone for the teaching commitments we have made for the fall. So, it will be another ‘perch,’ and we ask your prayers for stamina, cheerful hearts, and a willingness to invest wherever we can.
Summer/Fall Teaching Lisa:
Gratitude as we go:
We are so grateful for the couple who host the guest house in Bangkok and the family that opened their home to us here in Chiang Mai during their visit to the US, to our friends Leo and Sunita who made nearly every weekend in Bangkok more fun, and the three Paraclete missionaries here in Chiang Mai who have welcomed us here. We are as always grateful to each one of you for your friendship and generosity. We welcome replies to these emails, with your updates or requests for prayer.
 I recommend all of these sermons but played their final five minutes:
Dear Friends, (from Rich)
We continue to be grateful to be in Thailand, even though Covid is surging throughout the region. We mourn with our many new friends and partners here as they endure harsh lockdowns, or in some cases contract Covid or have friends or family members who are sick. It is not an easy time to be here, and our hopes that Malaysia’s borders might open up to us during the 90 days of our Thailand tourist visa are obviously not materializing. (See below for our tentative plans in light of that.) But being here has allowed us to participate in many St. Paul’s Theological College (SPTC) staff meetings and Zoom calls, and to teach in various countries at much saner hours. I am teaching in China, India, and Eastern Europe. Let me share one of the most rewarding and inspiring groups I have the privilege of teaching.
Last week I began to teach a new group, pictured above. These women are Muslim background believers who have been trained to serve almost as social workers for their communities, helping very poor people connect to social services. One hole in India’s safety net is that the poorest people are eligible for aid and assistance from the Indian government but because they are uneducated they don’t know how to access these services. These women have become believers in Issa (Jesus) and as they reach out with the good news about help from the government, they also share about the good news of Jesus. Many of the women they serve have become believers, and the women gathered in this room lead “Jamaats,” gatherings where the women gather to pray and learn about Jesus.
It has been very touching for me to have the privilege to teach them leadership principles from the scripture. The church planter who is translating for me is Ravi, whom I met on my trip to India 12 years ago. His movement of women who are doing this work is growing rapidly, and he has felt a growing need to teach Biblical leadership to these women, so that they in turn could lead other Jamaat leaders. He has been eager to use the Sketches of Leadership materials and has a team working at their translation. We began our leadership Bible study last week looking at Psalm 23 and John 10, the image of God as a shepherd. It was a very lively time, after a bit of a slow start due to technical issues, and I received this letter, lightly excerpted, from Ravi afterwards:
Dear Bro.Richard, Salaam in Jesus name.
I take this privilege to share our first experience with the Sketches studies with the women house church leaders. I am very glad to share that the women are encouraged to participate in the discussion by following the guideline from the Sketch…
It was a great excitement for all of us yesterday with you studying the first Sketch. I was experiencing how the Urdu and Hindi translation is working. Women in the beginning were a little nervous, but as time went by they enjoyed the subject and greatly appreciated connecting with you; Feeling great within, all women are interested to continue with the zoom class again. …
Yesterday, there were 12 women where 3 are Hindi and 9 are Urdu speaking church leaders.
Shalom in Isa, Ravi
We met last week on Monday, and then again on Thursday. As we discussed biblical teaching on shepherding, I asked about “wolves” that come into the group not to learn but to feed on the sheep, seeking money and abusing the trust of group members. I asked if anyone had experienced this in their groups. One woman responded, “We all have had such “wolves.” She then went on to tell the story of a woman who was seeking money, and when she heard from the leader that that wasn’t what the group was about, she stopped coming. But after a while, this leader visited her again, and invited her to come back to the group. She did come back and has been growing as a believer. I reminded them that “wolves” can also be sheep, and our shepherding extends even to them, though we must also protect the flock. It was such an encouraging story.
But the most touching story was about a woman who had been in the group for a little while until the leader found at that this woman had been borrowing money from group members. The total, she reported, was about 500 rupees. When the woman was confronted and asked to repay her debt, she left the group and was not seen again. The group decided to make those women in the group who had been cheated whole, by the others contributing to repay that debt, which she said took several weeks to do. Now, 500 rupees is a bit less than $7.
I am very moved to hear the stories of these women and to partner with Ravi in his teaching and training. My real focus, of course, is Ravi, as he teaches with me the materials he has already translated into Urdu. I will teach this course once, but it will be an investment in Ravi who hopes to use these materials again with other groups of leaders after we have gone through them together. Ravi and his wife are precious leaders, and their grown children are all involved in their wholistic evangelistic ministry to Muslims in and around Bhopal, involving dozens of women leading hundreds of women, and working with men as well who are establishing communities of Jesus followers in this largely Muslim population.
Updates on Our Plans
We have now spent about seven weeks in Thailand and have another 6 weeks on our 90-day visa. Lisa has begun teaching regularly for St. Paul’s Theological College in Kuala Lumpur, though because Malaysia in the middle of its worst ever COVID case numbers, all teaching is still being done via the internet, either through videoed lectures or via Zoom. We just ended three days of Zoom teaching where we were able to be partners for her class on preaching and teaching. She led the class in some exercises aimed to help them be more confident in impromptu speaking, such as sharing “a word” when you don’t have much time to prepare, and I led Bible studies on how to lead Bible studies. The students had fun and did very well with the short impromptu exercises, and we had lively discussions about passages that illustrate good Bible study, beginning with a look at Mark’s telling of the Parable of the Sower.
Lisa has been knit into the staff meetings, WhatsApp chats, and ad hoc meetings, let alone chapels and classes, in ways that weren’t possible before. It really does feel like she has joined the team. And yet, uncertainty remains, including questions about how long we will stay in Thailand. Our plan is to head to Chiang Mai next week, where we’ll stay in the home of a missionary on furlough through July 15. We are ready for a break from the density and bustle of Bangkok.
I have been invited to teach in person at the national gathering of IFES staff in Ukraine in early August. We could not easily go there and return to Thailand (we’d need another expensive two-week hotel quarantine), so our thought has been to simply stay in Ukraine, where we can much more easily enter for 90 days. It is a challenge to find flights since there are so many fewer flights in the SE Asia region.
So, you see that our lives are marked by some uncertainty. I had also been invited to teach in Sri Lanka in person in early September, but that is now moved online. Lisa will teach a homiletics course for students in Nepal starting mid-July, and she has changed the time for the students, on the theory we’ll be in Ukraine. As we try to say yes to invitations in the midst of uncertainty, we are inspired by the faithful women of Bhopal, who daily say yes to Jesus’ invitation to serve others, despite the much greater challenges of daily living that they face. It’s a privilege to learn alongside them what it looks like to follow Jesus in challenging times.
Specific Prayer Requests:
WIth our friend Leo, an MA student at St. Paul’s living in Bangkok.
(Photo Credit to Sunitha, Leo’s wife and fellow student in the program.)
Dear Friends, (from Lisa)
I have always loved the rings on the sand by the Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles. At some point between dips in the ocean and strolls on the pier, my kids and I would gingerly say, “Shall we give the rings a try?” Athletic locals alternated with nervous tourists in line at the rings. I was somewhere in the middle, mentally urging my body to remember its days on the uneven parallel bars in high school and summon the strength to grab the first two rings, then swing and swing and swing to get momentum, let go of the back one, and reach with all my might for the next. If by glorious miracle that worked, it was time to summon all my strength, swing and swing and swing, let go, and reach for the next. On a good day I could get about five rings down the row before landing in a happy puddle on the sand, exhausted but exhilarated.
Much about our last year has felt like that long moment where one is holding the first two rings, trying to get momentum, to get the sense that the timing was right to let go of one and reach for the next. A ring got added when we let go of our home, dog, mom, etc. only to find ourselves still in Pasadena for many months. We were suspended—not home, but not yet where we hoped to be. We couldn’t quite relax, but we couldn’t reach for the next ring, either.
Now, we have more fully let go of the familiar homeland of the US. We have caught the next ring, though again, it is an added one we had not foreseen. We are learning from the many sojourners in Scripture who spent seasons that felt like detours, such as the Israelites in the wilderness, the family of Jesus in Egypt, Paul and Timothy in Troas, and Elijah in the Wadi Cherith. The Lord has much to teach his people and good gifts to give them when they are between home and hoped-for destinations. I have come to love the many promises in Scripture for travelers, such as this one: “You'll travel safely, you'll neither tire nor trip… Because God will be right there with you; he'll keep you safe and sound.” (Proverbs 23:26, The Message)
Many of you are also persevering through a suspended feeling in some aspect of life, restless, frustrated perhaps, and seeking discernment about the right time to let go of something and strain to reach the next ring. What shape does that take for you, and what do you need to thrive there? Part of what I love about the metaphor of the rings on the beach is that they are fun! The cheering folks in line bring a spirit of camaraderie, and the soft sand brings freedom to fail. We are embracing those values of joy, freedom, and grace, a lot these days, and I wish them for each of you who read this as well.
For us, Malaysia remains at least one ring away, but given where the world remains regarding Covid, it feels like a glorious miracle that we made it here, vaccinated and in a place where, despite a spike, case rates remain very low. We are still suspended, still in between, but we are in general enjoying our days and not exhausted. We are tired at times--Bangkok is challenging to navigate. We face a steep learning curve on everything from gauging when to do the wash so it can line-dry before the next downpour to figuring out how and where to buy groceries when we can’t read a single label. (We recently bought some spices on spec--the only word we could read was, “Spices.”) But the Lord has provided a peaceful home for us here. Though it is just a block away from a bustling, noisy thoroughfare filled with motorbikes and street vendors, our little apartment is tranquil. In normal years it is part of a lively retreat center, sadly now empty except for us and the Canadian couple who arrived last March hoping to host those cancelled retreats.
What are we doing? Well, in many ways we are doing just what we’ve been doing all year. I continue to teach one course for Fuller. A course at St. Paul’s Theological College in Malaysia began two weeks ago, and I am in conversation with a dean about a course in Nepal this summer. I am finding a few hours each week to make progress on a book project. Rich continues to teach for church planters, leaders, and campus ministers in India, China, and Moldova, coach leaders in Russia and Ukraine, oversee translation projects for his Sketches of Leadership in six languages, and build a website that will make them much more accessible. His teaching has shifted from the 4 am—6 am time slot to evenings, which is more sustainable long-term. Check out a draft of his website and his video explaining how to use Sketches here: https://www.sketchesofleadership.com/
What’s different? Well, we are needier, which has made us more prayerful and more grateful for help from a few amazing locals. Julie, a lovely woman we knew some from our campus ministry days in Boston, heard that we were here and has walked us through various challenges such as getting phones enabled. A young married couple who are both taking my course at St. Paul’s from here, took us out to dinner last weekend and yesterday on an amazing bike ride adventure all over a little island in the middle of the river here in Bangkok. (Check out the 2 minute video at our blog.) They seem to tolerate our advanced years and claim to be eager to introduce us to other hidden gems of Bangkok. Seasoned missionaries, in Bangkok for a few days last week, were willing to let us teach them Codenames for a fun game night. We receive these as gifts, lifting and propelling us to the next ring.
We are deeply sorrowful for the suffering of many in South Asia—Rich hears heartbreaking updates regularly from pastors who have become dear to him. And sorry for many reasons to see case numbers rising in Malaysia.
I pray God’s blessing of the gifts of patience, peace, stamina, and hope as you navigate these challenging times along with us.
Give Thanks with Us:
Lisa and Rich Lamb (see us below with (former) King Bumibol of Thailand)
Rich and Lisa Lamb