Waking Up To My Calling

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I have told this story over the years in different venues from churches, to chapel at my alma mater to the class I teach at LPC—Multicultural Evangelism. But now, might be the time to share the story here, a little background on where I came from, and how I got to where I am. Oh, and to add in a missing piece to this story that has haunted me for a couple of decades–who was that speaker at camp?

I love sharing the crazy way that God worked with me or in spite of me to get me where he wanted me, the mission field. I still get chills thinking of how incredible God is at getting us to the places he wants us to be. I am blown away when I reflect backwards on the pathway God used to place me in the middle of where he wanted me—his calling.

The story of calling is an interesting thing. We don’t often define calling well, that mysterious thing that grips our heart and compels us onward in God’s mission. Calling is that thing we return to again and again when questions, doubts, and concerns assail us. We come back to a confidence that God has a purpose in what he is doing in and through us. Yep, “Calling” keeps us going.

My calling came to a distinct point of grabbing my heart 20 years ago, the summer before my senior year in high school. And I remember it vividly to this day. Sometimes, there are moments that simply burn themselves into your mind, memory burn. The distant memories surrounding my calling stick with me like it was yesterday.

At 17-years-old, I went to summer camp for the first time with my new church, the Foursquare church in Woodstock, IL.

You might ask, Why did I go? The same reason many teenage boys go to camp, because a cute girl invited me. This was reason enough to approach my football coach and ask out of two-a-day practice ahead of my senior year, ahead of my time to shine as a varsity starter. I gulped, gathered myself, and asked coach if I could get out of practice. It was not his favorite idea of the year, but he relented and allowed me 24 hours.

Yeah buddy!! I was on a solo mission as I drove my beater of a car the three hour drive into the middle of nowhere in Wisconsin to arrive at Spencer Lake Campgrounds. Tired, frazzled, worn out, but excited, I made it to camp. No matter, I had energy reserves ready to kick in. Quickly, I found the kids from my youth group at the line for dinner. That cute girl, however, was strangely difficult to locate. No worries, the dudes were around, and we were able to pass the time by being stupid guys.

Fast forward to the evening service. Worship was awesome. I sang, danced and praised my heart out during a hot August night in 1994. Anticipating a great message for missions.  That is when the disappointment set in.

The speaker was a guy that I had heard the previous Sunday at my church, twice. As I retold this story over the years, beginning with a graduation brunch with the then President of our movement, all I remember is that an old guy was speaking at our camp, an old guy who spoke twice at my church. I had no excitement for what he was going to say. Don’t get me wrong, I like the stories our elders have to share, but I was not looking forward to story time. I wanted passion, fun, and something that connected with where I lived as a teenager.

Now, my tired body, pushed to the limit by football practices, had nothing left. The adrenaline high of seeing my friends, of jumping around in a worship service, of being in the presence of God drained out of me. Quickly, I went from being alert, tuned in, and full of life to a drowsy boy. As soon as the speaker started, I knew he was giving the same message he gave at my church, a good message, a solid message on missions, but the same message. I was ready for something new, but had little ability to stay awake for the same message again.

The next thing I knew, I was jerking my head up, yanking myself awake. I couldn’t sleep through the only night of camp I went to, could I? The answer: Yes. I gave up the battle of trying to stay awake. My head stopped bobbing up and down, stopped pulling back awake, and gave in to the battle of sleep as I folded my arms over my lap and drooped my head down. And I was oblivious to the world around me for I don’t know how long, maybe 45-60 minutes.

When I started coming to, dragging my sleepy head back into the world of the living, I heard the speaker beginning to call people to a response. He was wrapping up his message and concluding it with a call to mission. The speaker was calling people into two categories. One were going to be like ducks and another like beavers. The ducks would be those that would fly, would travel, would brave long distances to take the gospel to other peoples. At the same time, the beavers would stay back home, building, gathering, and compiling resources to support the ducks in mission. Both were needed. We needed those that would go, and those that would send.

But I was still catching up to the story. I wasn’t sure what this related to. In fact, I was still quite groggy and felt super confused. I was not from Oregon and did not know my zoology super-duper well. I wanted to ask what does this have to do with mission and evangelism. I was lost  in the middle of the analogy when suddenly the middle became the end.

The speaker began to call people forward in response to what God was doing in their hearts. He called those who felt the burden to go, to be like a duck to one side of the platform. Meanwhile, he called those committed to support, to resource, like the beavers to another side of the platform.

I couldn’t help myself as I was drawn out of my seat toward the front. I couldn’t say emotion of a great service grabbed me, no, this was bigger than that. I felt compelled to go forward and stand with the ducks, the group committed to go, to be on mission with God. There was no doubt in my mind where I should stand, although the cobwebs were still in my head keeping me from fully grasping what was happening. But I was there. I responded to the call for missions with my friends.

However, I completely rearranged what God was saying. I didn’t want to accept the going as the call and wanted to be a missionary to my people, to my city.

Long story short, I avoided the mission’s call to the best of my ability. I avoided the girls in Bible College with a call to missions. I ducked my calling without even knowing it. In my mind, I was staying on track to be a pastor, a church planter to Chicago, a missionary to my city. My plans made such good sense to me.

But all of this changed when I met my wife shortly after graduating Bible College.

When things started to get serious, she informed me of her calling to missions. Immediately, my heart dropped. I thought, how could this be. I worked so hard to get by without getting in a relationship with a missionary. She wanted to lay out the framework for how things were going, make sure her calling didn’t get derailed.

She gave me three options:

  • We could continue dating, and if things progressed, we could date while she served overseas for a year and get married when she comes back.
  • We could continue dating and if things led to marriage, go overseas together for a year.
  • Or, we could break up.

And the story ended happily ever after as we ended up going together as a married couple.

Soon I discovered this was my calling. Soon I came around to understand that I fulfilled what God spoke into me that night when I slept through the message. I became the missionary, the duck who would fly far to take the gospel to distant places. I ended up on God’s path all along even though I worked hard to get around it, to juke Him. He would not be juked or jived. God took me where he wanted me to be.

I found that it doesn’t matter if we forget our calling, as long as we stay close to God we will get where he wants us to be.

Now, for years, one thing plagued me. Who was the speaker? I usually remembered the different camp speakers who impacted my walk. I was good with names, but not this one. As a punk high school student who knew nothing about anything, I totally missed the significance of who this was. I went on my way never giving a second thought to who it was that spoke into my life. I could not tell you who that divine contact was for the life of me.

I told the story again and again merely calling him some old dude. But now, after years of serving overseas and now teaching on the subject, I wanted to know who it was. Who was this man that gave me a passion for missions?

Where could I turn to find the answer? I asked around to those from my church, to others who might know with no results. Finally, I sought the answer from the former camp director’s wife. I messaged her on Facebook and after several attempts, she sent me the answer. When I heard who the speaker was, I was floored. I could not believe it.

Don McGregor.

Yes, the one and only, Don McGregor. I was clueless at 17 who he was, but as a student at Bible College, I found him fascinating when he spoke in one of my classes on leadership. I still remember things he said there.  To this day, I have stored away some of the nuggets on leadership I learned from this giant in missions. But our interaction was short-lived. It was not for a much longer time later that I met him again.

In our last year as missionaries, we met the then, 84-year-old missionary statesman at a conference. He quickly became one of my heroes. As one of the pillars of Foursquare Missions, he blazed a path that still has fruit throughout Asia. Oh, and in his mid-60s, he spoke at my little camp, the night I awoke to my calling.

Tell me this. What was your calling like?

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Short Term Teams

Mission-TripsRecently, I was talking to a missionary friend who echoed my sentiment with a little more force.

He said, I don’t really like 90% of what teams do. Now, missions is awesome. I love missions, and I teach missions, and I am leading a team to Russia in the summer of 2015.

So why would I say, I don’t like a lot of what teams do. Why, indeed?

Let me preface by saying, I still see a valuable place for teams, just (and that should be read with a long drawn out pause), just as not as much place as they have been given.

Some say, Mission trips help us a lot more than they help the people we are going to help. Granted. And that is okay. That doesn’t say it helps the local people not at all. And why would we expect anything else. Why would we think we could go through with a mission, even a short mission and think we won’t be changed as we serve God. To think we will stay the same and loads of other people will be dynamically changed makes us more the savior and Jesus more the instrument of our saving work.

Of course we will be changed. Why not?

We are saving our pennies, nickels and dimes and praying for months. We are getting on a plane and leaving the mundane for the otherworld. We are stepping out of our comfort zone into a spiritual warzone. If we are not changed, and maybe changed for a lifetime, I don’t know what else could change us.

Note: To the jaded person who doesn’t get changed through this, or forgot how impacted you were, peel back some of the layers covering over your heart to let the light shine in a little.

But we should be doing some good for the people we are coming to serve. Here are some questions that help us assess the good of a short trip.

  • Are they feeling served?
  • Is there more prework by the local ministry than worth the good in the trip?
  • Is there more follow-up/cleanup after the trip that distracts from the daily and weekly rhythms of the local ministry?
  • Do we make the local ministry look boring when we are gone?
  • Are there strong relationships with the people we connect with and the local ministry that can lead to fruitful ongoing relationships?

There are more questions, but the ability to do some good, some invaluable good is possible. It just takes balance and thoughtfulness beyond what we are thinking about from our vantage point as the team.

Now, I often hear people over react and say that we are going too little for the purpose of the trip. To this, I say, slow down. Hold up a moment. Maybe we get our expectations out of whack a little too easy as Americans who feel we can change the world by simply showing up. We did in WWI and WWII, we did in a lot of things. We landed on the moon for crying out loud. But we are only human, and only so much can happen in a two-week trip in which we don’t know the language, our cultural understanding is limited at best, and our relational equity is minimal.

I guess, I will lean on a life axiom: Happiness is when reality and expectations meet.

All we can really aim to do is plant a few seeds. Isn’t that what Paul said his ministry was. And that turned out pretty powerful. Oh, but that is because he worked in partnership with the local people and other missionaries like Apollo’s. And he knew that God did the real work. If we think we are the ones who do it, then we are sadly mistaken.

There can be a value to short term teams. Teams can help supplement what is already happening. Teams can add encouragement. Teams can be a short in the arm at the right time. Teams can illustrate what serving means as Americans come to serve on the other end of the world where hierarchy matters, and the rich Americans are getting down and dirty. Teams can play a role in mission as long as it is the right role. Short term teams have their place, but we must know what that place is–partnership.

Partnership tends to be an easier word said than done. As mission trips have grown in popularity and possibility the world grows smaller, and the mission to reach the world seems closer.

The past 20 years or so has seen an emergence, no a revolution in how we pursue mission and being involved with mission. IT is as though with the advent of technology, we think we can do anything and everything including save the world with a short term trip somewhere. Many times we end up leaving a wake of disaster as the local leaders have to clean up the mess and apologize for the arrogant, self-absorbed Americans who came on a Jesus vacation and not an opportunity to serve and learn. Why spend the big money if we are not going to do the hard pre-work to make partnerships that last.

I don’t know why, but way too many teams just go. Sometimes, they do not even call ahead. They just show up. Other times, they think they are working in partnership when really they have worked out a plan that works for them. A lot more strategy, planning and talking was done when a lot more listening and praying needed to be done.

An African saying says working with teams from the West, mostly American, is like dancing with an elephant. Everything gets stomped in the process. We are big, we are bold, and sometimes we don’t even realize what we are doing.

However, many teams do a good thing. Many teams do the hard work of listening, investigating and matching skill, talent, calling and local need of the host people. They do this through relationship which leads to partnership. This can happen and happen well. This is what should happen. But way too often in this revolution of Short term teams, we feel like doing a trip is doing missions. A trip is such a small slice of missions.

The big deal is the follow up. This is why it is important to find people who know how to do this part of ministry and partner with them.

This is why I am excited for the trip to Russia we are doing. We get to partner with some super cool people who love Jesus and know how to disciple. We get to impact young people, and see lives changed for a life time. We get to make long-term impact even if it is only a glimpse of what we see from our limited time and effort. We can have confidence that we are simply one piece in a larger puzzle of Great Commission ministry. We can see our work as simply one of the threads in the gospel tapestry God is putting together. We can be a paragraph in the incredible story God is writing. We just need to find where and how we fit in as we come alongside local ministry in true partnership.

If more teams could put in the pre-work, the ground work, and build long-lasting relationships, we could see the revolution of short term m
ission trips turn this world upside down. Yet how do we get there?

Maybe you can help answer that in the comments.

Language Is The Key To Understanding Culture

Recently, I was teaching my class on multi-cultural evangelism when we came to the section on Contextualization.

I could get into this murky, and yet fascinating topic of contextualization for days and days, but here we were taking a helicopter level overview as we scanned the topic.

Now, how does language factor into understanding the culture. Can’t you just read all the best books out there to know the culture, what not to do to easily offend the host culture? Can’t you just talk to people to find out what all the new things and customs you are observing mean? Surely, there are plenty of English speakers in most countries to let you get by at this.

And yes, you can skate by with a basic knowledge of the culture. But language matters so much. Language matters for communication. We know it is important to speak to people at a heart level. We can’t do that even if they learn English really well. Language communicates love. As we attempt to learn the language of the host culture, we demonstrate great love to want to know their language. But these are issues of cross-cultural communication.

How does language matter for contextualization?

It should be self-evident that we need to know the culture to the best of our ability if we are going to contextualize the faith into a new place, shouldn’t it. But still, so many missionaries resist language learning.

Again, language is the key to unlocking the mystery of cultural differences.

If we want to establish Christianity as a natural, indigenous practice within a given culture, we first must learn the culture. And learning the language provides a pathway to deeper understandings of the culture. So I am giving yet another reason to go for it. Language pays off with great dividends even as it slows one down in the beginning.

Let me give an example, which comes from the most simple of devices used every day…the clock.

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The clock, What? … wait a minute, you need to know language to know what the clock says? Isn’t that universal.

Wait, wait. That is what I am trying to say. We must leave all assumptions behind as we learn language and culture. They go hand-in-hand.

In Thailand, they tell time very differently than we do. And we did not understand this immediately, because telling time comes a few lessons after learning the alphabet and basic survival words like where is the bathroom.

As we talked to our friends who had nominal English skills, we began learning about their life, their routines and their patterns. Often, our conversations were quite basic, like when did you go to bed last night, when did you wake up, and what did you do today?

We were always shocked when we frequently heard young people telling us they went to bed so late at 5 o’clock. We thought, whaaaaat? This cannot be. That is late indeed, but why are so many people getting so little sleep.

We racked our brains for weeks, thinking something is off. Maybe Thai people really only need three hours of sleep and when they only get two, they struggle. We just did not see what we did not see until we knew more about the language.

And sometimes, you just don’t see what you don’t see until it smacks you in the face. And that just takes time as you learn a culture, a people, a language.

The light bulb went off when we came to the lesson on telling time a couple of months into Thai lessons. Without getting too technical, the way Thai people tell time is completely different than the West tells time. Rather than the military clock or the 12-hour am and pm clock, Thai people break their day into six hour increments—essentially: morning, afternoon, evening and early morning. 5  o’clock really meant 11 o’clock at night. Hmmm, their clock is very different than ours, we thought. But things started falling into place when we understood how they talked about the day, which was quite different than how we understood the day but similar enough. The gears turned rapidly as language began to unlock some of the mysteries we had.

Now, things started clicking. And it took many language lessons to get to an easy answer, but without language lessons, we would be dependent on others giving the answers.

Another issue for language being the key is illustrated in this post about grain jai which is the basis of much of Thai culture. This word is untranslatable into English. One must learn the concept which can only come through learning the language.

Are there times that not knowing the language matters, what if it is only youth language?

His Hands Extended

hands reaching

The church I grew up in used the motto ‘His Hands Extended’. That meant they aimed to be an extension of God’s grace and blessing to the community we lived in.

I recently heard a story that embodied this ethos as good as any church could. To be his hands extended is a big part of the mission of God, and as missionaries, we aim to bring people into contact with God. When we look with the eyes of Jesus, we often see the hurting and pain of his people. As his hands extended, we desire to fill the void and bring a piece of heaven—healing or love–to the broken hearted.

Some of our Foursquare Missionaries have done just that as they work in Baja California. Don and Sandy Godwin have found a niche serving deported Mexicans. They found that when some illegal immigrants get deported to Mexico, the US government does not stop to ask if the Mexican can speak Spanish. In some cases, these people have grown up in the US only learning English. The immigrants made a life in the US, but now they are sent to what is supposedly their home with no connections and barely enough Spanish to survive. The Godwins have started a church that specializes in offering compassion to English speaking Mexicans.

One pastor told me last week at the Southwest District Conference of one story related to this compassion. One of the people in his church did not have their papers in order when Immigration came through. The pastor told his people he could contact someone he knew in Mexico that might be able to help. He hoped to offer a glimmer of hope to a family about to be uprooted and shipped back “home”. Baja Mexico was many things, but home was not one of them for this family. The pastor sent a Facebook message to the Godwins hoping they could find this deported family.

My pastor friend said he waited around anxious that his Hispanic friends were lost and without help back in Mexico. He hoped his message made it to the Godwins. After no response, he decided to call them that afternoon. He hoped to hear a plan of how they could contact the newly deported family. When he got on the phone with them, he immediately asked if they got his message. The urgency was palpable in his voice.

The answer the Godwins gave instantly cut the tension building in this pastor’s heart. They told him, don’t worry, we have the family sitting in our living room as we speak. Not only did they have a plan on how to help them, the missionaries or agents of God’s mission were already in the process of expressing God’s heart to these people.

I don’t know a better living metaphor of being Gods’ hands extended, but I am sure there are millions of them around the world.

What is your favorite example of being God’s hands extended?

Public Worship: Worship as Mission 2

The edict went out via courier with great haste. The riders carried the new law to all corners of the empire. Soon everyone would be clued into the king’s grand new aim for worship.

See the king of this vast land set up a 90-foot image of gold on the plain of Shiner. The edict now decreed that all inhabitants of the empire would bow down to this idol when the music began to play. The king even offered strong incentives to insure all the people would participate in his new ritual.

The incentive was that the people got to keep their life if they worshipped in the way the king now prescribed. That is if they didn’t, they would be thrown into a fiery furnace.

We know this famous story from Daniel 3 as the one in which three young Hebrew leaders in scripted into the service of a pagan, conquering king of Babylon stood up to the king. Shadrach, Meshac, and Abednego refused to bow down to any god other than the almighty God, the one with a capitol G.

It is not just in this story that people worship in broad view, in the public eye. No matter whether we are talking about traditional religions at a tribal level, or modern day faiths, I do not see the people of the world being as private as we have become. I think of walking through the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, aka the temple of the emerald Buddha, only to watch person after person show honor and worship to the image of the Buddha. They aren’t being showy with their faith, well, most of them aren’t. But they aren’t worrying about others as they come forward to burn incense, offer coins in the donation box, or place food in front of their spirit house.

Should worship be a private matter?

Communication Learning from a Toddler

Often, we find communicating across cultural barriers crippling. Fear, hesitation, or simple uncomfortability paralyzes us. Most of us have the desire but lack the boldness to communicate the story of God’s love to strangers, especially strangers who are different than us. Will they understand, will I be clear, will they think I am weird, or will I even make sense to them are simple questions we have that prevent us from stepping out and sharing Jesus with someone. This someone can live across the world in another culture altogether like what we experienced by living in Thailand for six years. Or this person can live across the street as an increasing immigration population moves into the US. How do we help people draw near to Jesus?

My observations come from parenting a toddler. As a blind father, I worry how she will communicate with me her wants and desires. Her words are few at two-years-old. She uses nonverbal communication to the best of her ability to let us know what she needs or to explain what happened.

My daughter learned that gestures don’t work the same with me. When she was younger, she tried to show me she was hungry and point to the food she wanted. Now, she takes me by the hand to the refrigerator. Then I ask her if she wants milk. She says, no. I point to another food, she says no. I point to the Goldfish. She says, yeah!! With pure excitement. She is thrilled that her daddy figured out what she was saying.

When she gets a new toy, she loves to come and take my hand, so she can lead me to the toy. She puts my hand on the toy. She loves when I get to enjoy her toys in my own way.

Still another example comes when she hears one of her favorite songs come onto the Itunes playlist. She grabs me by the hand and runs to the middle of the room. She starts moving my hand to say she wants to dance.

When she really wants to get her point across, she knows exactly what to do. As she is held in my arms, she will put both hands on my cheeks to turn my face to hers. She wants me to look her in the eye, so to speak. This way, she knows I am listening straight to her plea for ice cream, playing games, watching a movie, going to Nana’s house, or whatever she determinedly lets me know she wants.

When we want to communicate God’s love across cultural lines, our best approach is to be humble and find people where they are. Come to them, ask about their story, and start to learn their culture. We can show them Jesus better when we approach them in humble love, than if we expect them to come to where we are. My daughter doesn’t keep using nonverbal gestures to me hoping one day I will figure it out. No, she finds what way best communicates to me as quickly and naturally as possible. This is what we must do with our neighbors. What speaks to them? What can we do to build friendships, and thus create space for us to share about Jesus?

What do you find difficult in communicating with people from another culture?

Worship as Mission

I remember a time when our church went to a park for Sunday service. I felt like there was something freeing and missional about being outside. We did what we normally do inside of the church building, but this time we were outside, in the local park. We were not weird, or fanatical. We were regular, everyday people singing songs to our maker as we gathered in his cathedral, the great outdoors. Yet to many gathered, worship in the park felt unnatural. Still others stayed home thinking it was not real church.

Today, we think of worship as something for believers to offer God. Worship becomes a private act between Christians and the Almighty. Sometimes we even bring it down to a personal, personal level as we turn on our favorite worship music in the privacy of our car or bedroom. Do we ever consider that worship was intended for something different? Could worship be more public?

We have heard the common mantra in mission circles, “Mission exists where worship does not” as an oversimplification as to the necessity of mission.

I want to begin a short series over the next weeks in which we flip that statement upside down. I will unpack the idea of worship as mission with its implications as seen through the whole of scripture. .

As I reflect on some of my favorite innovations in church, they often are hinged on worship. The reformation was deeply rooted in music and hymnaty. Luther wrote songs to the tunes of popular bar melodies. The singing of the Anabaptists and others pushed their movement forward. Jack Hayford and Roy Hicks Jr. pressed the edges with choruses in the 1970s as church moved from traditional forms of worship to newer ways of connecting with God. I remember one time at the Cornerstone Music Festival Martin Smith from Delirious told stories of how their music (keep in mind this was the late 90s) drove revivals in the UK.

As I consider motifs of mission that weave through scripture threading together a tapestry of God’s action with God’s people to draw all nations to know him, I think of worship as a picture we have narrowly left as something inside the church with little thought to missiological implications. In this series I will show how worship reflects God and our relationship with him to outside observers. I will look at three case studies from scripture with modern illustrations. These case studies will draw from the life of Abraham, Paul and Jesus to illustrate how worship plays a role in revealing God to all nations. For the purpose of this series I will confine worship to the acts of worship seen in the life of God’s people without wading through the broad definitions of worship in the Old Testament and New Testament, nor the understanding of worship as a lifestyle.