July 2012

One Way to Look at It: The Kingdom

Jesus likes parables.  He used them to illustrate lessons in a variety of settings and circumstances.  He understood that in order for us to try and wrap our minds around intangible, deep spiritual truths, we must equate them to something familiar, something we can grasp.  

We still benefit from this approach.  Images of lesser things can give us new perspective on God and His work, bringing us to a fuller understanding.  I know it helps me.  When I push myself to dig deeper into a concept or question, clarifying pictures often come to mind.  And as one whose job is to teach others truth in understandable ways, this has proved to be invaluable.

One concept that Jesus explained by image time and again is that of the kingdom of heaven.  He likened it to a mustard seed, yeast, net, treasure, and more.  It was an idea too broad to be captured by one simple view, but is a multi-faceted, rich presentation of all that God is doing.  It is central in what we do and teach here in Arequipa.

But why does it matter here and now?  If it is what God will deliver ready-made at the end of time, why don’t we just keep our noses clean and wait patiently for His timing?  Lots of parables talk about readiness, so let’s just focus on being ready ourselves and sit tight.  Right?

Consider it this way:

I like my house clean.  My family knows this and pitches in, but when it comes down to it, I’m the only one who can tweak and polish the last little details to my satisfaction.  I value completion.  For now, I am teaching my kids how to clean up, giving tips, instructions, developing their ability.

Let’s keep it real; we live in this house and it gets trashed just like everyone else’s.  It’s a constant work in progress. But let’s say I am leaving the house for the day and I ask my kids to get started cleaning up while I’m gone.  I tell them that when I get back, we’ll finish up together.  They know that at the end of the day, the house will be clean and that the final product will not have depended on them.  I told them I would help and I’m the real polisher in this situation.  I’m not truly demanding any particular performance or perfect results delivered at an exact time.

But I am expecting participation.  They have time and enough know-how and understanding to head in the right direction.  The only wrong action is lack thereof.  Their progress will directly affect the result; I won’t undo what they have done.  There is value in each minute that they choose to spend completing what I have requested of them.  It is an active, honoring, obedient love that contributes to what I value seeing completed at the end of the day.  

Shift back to the kingdom of heaven.  Everywhere Jesus went, things were put right.  Bodies healed, spirits encouraged, sins forgiven, arrogance condemned.  The balance shifted, if only for that moment, and things were as they should be.  This was the teaching by example, showing us how things can and should be when the King’s influence shows up.  He was demonstrating to us how to “clean up”.

Then He left.  He told us to keep cleaning up until He returns to finish the job.  We all know the world is trashed.  But rather than throwing up our hands in despair or simply withdrawing to a safe, quiet corner to wait for Him to come to all the work, we are to roll up our sleeves and dive in.  He teaches us how, gives little instructions, tips and strength.  The final product doesn’t really depend on us.  He is the real power in this situation.  He is not demanding anything in particular.  

But He is expecting participation.  The only wrong action is lack thereof.  He won’t undo what we do, but will use every bit of kindness, hope, service and love in constructing the finished, beautiful, restored world that He knows can be achieved.  There is value in each moment that we choose to do what He has asked of us, when we live out an active, honoring, obedient love.
It can be discouraging, when we tire and feel like our efforts have been wasted.  It can be overwhelming, when we look up and see all the brokenness still unaddressed.  We can feel beyond inadequate, understanding Moses’ plea for God to send someone else.  

But the faithfulness He asks is just that to do the work He puts before us.  That person who needs encouragement.  That class that needs a leader.  That family that needs a financial boost.  That single mom who needs a babysitter and a night out.  That lonely person who needs a kind word and invitation to friendship.  That broken person who needs to be reminded that Jesus is head over heels for broken people.  

It’s hard.  It’s needed.  It’s our job.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
— Paul, 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Taking Sabbath

Something I love about my personal walk with God is when I am struggling in an area or trying to learn something new he just has a way of putting the right words of encouragement or teaching in my path to guide me in the way I should go.  This happened just recently for me.

Every year we meet with the other mission teams in Peru for a retreat.  Greg and I were super stoked about this “get-away” because the last time we took a family vacation was our last furlough (almost a year and a half ago).  You may think that sounds crazy, but in reality, when you look at visitors coming in, interns staying for extended periods, the time when the other missionary family is away for furlough, conferences or campaigns happening, time goes by quickly.  I will admit, my ministry partner sometimes struggles with work-aholicism.  We do have our day-off in the week for rest, no Spanish, and time with our kids as a family, but I miss taking that weekend trip to see family of friends just to “get out of town.”  In my heart and mind, I have been back-and-forth in what is biblical for taking vacation.

I realize there is a side to maintaning a healthy well-being, and sometimes a vacation is how we rejuvenate ourselves.  I realize that we are in charge of taking care of our family, and that might mean taking a vacation in order to get away from everything and make them feel important and loved.  But on the flip side of that, something that doesn't sit well with me is when I hear people from the states telling missionaries, “Take a break.  Do something American.  You deserve it.  We know how hard it is for you there.  It is fine to enjoy the luxuries of your home.  Take some time off.”  Let me explain...

I am convinced that Jesus fulfilled the law.  One of those laws was in keeping with the Sabbath.  There are multiple examples of Jesus pointing out that the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath.  So what does “taking the Sabbath” look like for me in my ministry right now?  I have been thinking about this a lot.  So I look at Paul- a fellow missionary.  Do I ever hear him say, “Take a vacation.  Take a break.  You deserve it.”  No.  What do I hear him say?  “Persevere.  Take courage.  Persevere.  Die to yourselves.  Persevere.  Run the race.  Fight the good fight.  Persevere.”  Hmm.  That sounds a bit different.  So then I look at the ultimate example- Jesus.  What does he say?  “Disciples, let's take a break from this world.  I mean, look at me.  I grew up in Heaven for pities sake.  Let's find a resort somewhere and reenergize ourselves.  I can't take these cultural differences for much longer.”  I don't think so!  

How did Jesus take Sabbath?  

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.
— Mark 1:35

Jesus took Sabbath in resting in the arms of his Father.  That was rejuvenation for him.  That is what kept him going.  That is what prevented burnout.  

So we took this retreat last week with the other mission teams (which can I just tell you was an absolute blast!).  I was so relieved to get out of Arequipa, but something tugged at me in my thinking about “needing a retreat.”  I live among people that have never been outside of the city where they were born.  I live among people that work solid days from sun-up to sun-down Monday through Saturday.  I live among people that can't afford “vacation” and would look at you like you were crazy if you asked about their “vacation days” in their work schedule.  I felt a bit guilty.

Shortly before leaving for the retreat, I read a blog post from a missionary mom in Thailand.  She wrote about living radically and what that means.  “Radical” has become a pop-Christianity culture word lately.  Many would say that moving to a foreign country is living radically, but that isn't what this girl's message was.  She said something I needed to hear.  Living radically is about living in the presence of the Lord.  Living radically is basking in the presence of our Father and laying it all at his feet.  She quoted from Psalm 27:4  “One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.”

During our retreat, different missionaries shared at various times.  One of these times, Greg led some thoughts about reflecting over the year.  He shared that he has learned a lot in the book of Acts regarding Paul's life and example.  As much as we want to idolize Paul as THE missionary example, he is just like one of us.  At one point in his story, he writes to the Christians to say, “Look at what the Lord has done through my ministry.”  It isn't about Paul.  It isn't about what he has done.  It is about what the Lord has done THROUGH Paul's ministry.

The next day, another missionary shared about “Sabbath” specifically.  This is the point in my course of thoughts where something just seemed to click.  Our brother pointed out that God rested on the seventh day.  We have the Sabbath because God made that day holy.  It wasn't just because God needed a rest.  It was because “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good...Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” (Genesis 1:31;2:3)  Sabbath has everything to do with stopping to rest, and looking at what the Lord has done.  Stopping, and realizing that we are not in control.  God is.  Stopping, and thanking God not for what we have done, but for what he has done, and knowing that it is good.

Sometimes, I need a week-long retreat to step away, stop, and look at what the Lord is doing.  It isn't me.  He wants me.  He wants to work through me, but I am totally dependent on him.  And living radically isn't pouring myself out day after day until I reach burn-out.  Living radically is living in him.  Living radically is pouring myself out day after day, but taking the time to go to that solitary place and basking in the presence of the only one that can fill me up.

I am so thankful for the time of Sabbath we were able to share with our fellow workers in Peru.  Greg and I will come home with our family for furlough the end of next month.  You can count on us living it up on Tex-Mex and doing some fun “vacation-like” things as a family.  But what I am most excited about is sharing what the Lord has been doing through our ministry.  I can truly look back over the last two years and tell you, “It is good!”

Time Is on My Mind

Sherwood Lingenfelter and Marvin Mayers published a little book called Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships in 1986 that is now in its second edition.  It is a worthy introduction to both the concrete application of an incarnational missionary approach and the use of anthropological paradigms in mission work.  I’ve adapted some of it this year for the internship.  The book features a simple questionnaire, the responses to which allow one to plot several of the respondent’s basic cultural orientations.  This exercise, in the first place, allows the missionary to know his- or herself better.  But I’ve also set the inters to the task of translating the questionnaire (in language class) and surveying random Peruvians.  This gives us the opportunity to compare our orientations as Americans with our Peruvian neighbors’.

There are all kinds of reasons that this exercise is of limited value empirically.  We have not ensured that the translations communicate as well in Spanish as they do in English.  We have not attempted to understand the cultural biases that might be affecting the survey methodology itself.  And we certainly have not surveyed a statistically significant sample size.  But the results have stimulated profitable discussion nonetheless.  I will share an observation gleaned from one of our conversations.  

Each cultural value surveyed is coupled with a corollary value and plotted on an X–Y axis.  In other words, for each value there is another value in tension with it, but Lingenfelter and Mayers do not construe this tension as polar.  For example, there is time orientation and event orientation.  The graph on which they are plotted looks like this:

Thus, one can be high or low on either orientation, in many different combinations.  The book provides the following summary explanation of these two values: 

So how do Americans usually test?  You might easily guess: higher on time than on event.  Between myself and the interns, the average scores were about 4 on event and 5 on time.  These scores, I suspect, reflect the interns’ stage of life (incidentally, this is and example of why statistical validity matters).  The authors hypothesize that the average American is at about 2 on event and 6 on time.  The point is, Americans generally value time (“time is money”) markedly more than event.  

We also have expectations for Peruvian results.  We expect Latin Americans typically to be less time conscious than North Americans.  For example, Lingenfelter and Mayers characterize the difference in terms of tolerance for lateness: 

While we have definitely struggled with this difference, my study of Peruvian culture has often been a process of overcoming generalizations about Latin America when they do not apply to Peru.  One point of confusion for an American trying to interpret the behavior of Peruvians is actually not their concept of lateness but their inconsistency regarding time orientation.  (Note: I am not referring here to variance in individual personality, for which Lingenfelter and Mayers allow in a given culture.)  I think it would be easier (for me) to adapt and experience church life accordingly if the apparent Peruvian time orientation were uniform.  

There are major facets of Peruvian life that are clearly time conscious, such as work and school.  Even here there are notable differences from American modes of operation, but generally speaking, employees in the business sector are expected to be at work on time and are penalized if they are not.  Formal businesses open and close when they are supposed to and movies show on time.  Children are expected to be at school on time (I’ve been reprimanded for dropping off the kids late because of traffic).

Yet, there are other aspects of life that are radically event oriented.  I was just invited to a party scheduled for 7:00 pm, with the caveat that people won’t show up until 8:00 or 8:30.  Compare that with the Latin American concept of lateness above.  For parties, excused lateness is an hour to an hour and a half.  Family gatherings, which are frequent, function similarly.

So how did Peruvians score on our questionnaire?  Admittedly not how I expected—but just how I might have expected had I thought more about the above dynamics.  


I have to reiterate that we can’t possibly take these survey results as statistically valid—there may be some factors skewing the respondents’ answers (such as their understanding of the Likert scale), and we are not working with a representative sample.  But after considering the results, there is something at least intuitively right about them.  Peruvians feel compelled to affirm strongly both time and event.  There appears to be a pressure within the culture to hold these two values in significant tension.  

I speculate that, were we to conduct the same exercise in rural Peru, we would find event to outweigh time greatly.  The stereotypical portrayal of Latin American countries like Peru, I believe, reflects traditional cultures.  In a city like Arequipa, where globalized modern paradigms such as those of business and education demand conformity far more than they adapt to local culture, there is a powerful compulsion to value time in the same way those paradigms’ countries of origin do.  This comes as part of a very aggressive narrative about the meaning of progress, development, accomplishment, capacity, and power as a country.  The narrative’s implicit claim from grade school on is that success in the global marketplace is contingent upon valuing time, for example, in the same way one’s competitors do.  This is a prerequisite to success in education (Peru adopted the American education model) and in business.  I believe this is a possible explanation for why Peruvians, who traditionally value event, would respond to our survey in a way that equally values time.

Though we might critique this phenomenon extensively, that is not the aim of the present article.  Whether good, bad, or both, the contextual reality is what concerns me—how do we locate our experience as church within this value system?  As missionaries, what tendencies do we affirm or reject, what values do we incarnate, and how do we interpret our Peruvian neighbors’ interaction with us and each other? 

Because our value system is truly time oriented, our tendency has been to ask, “If they can be punctual to work and school, why not to church meetings?”  We interpret Peruvians’ behavior quite literally in terms of value: they must think church is less important than work or school, if they cannot accord it the same effort.  After all, it is evident they can come on time if the want to.  You can see how our values function to shape our reasoning.  But this is not the only reasonable interpretation.  

In fact, some of our explicit intentions as a team should lead us to a very different conclusion.  We are working to establish a non-institutional ecclesiology.  If it is institutions such as work and school that demand punctuality, Peruvians showing up late to our meetings should be a kind of affirmation that we are succeeding.  Moreover, their treatment of church in terms of event orientation suggests that they view it more as a family gathering, which should be positive for us, since our fundamental paradigm for church is family.  Similarly, we might compare this event orientation with their disposition toward parties.  Scholar Justo González has postulated that culturally attuned Hispanic worship is essentially experienced as fiesta (party) (Justo L. González in Justo L. González, ed., ¡Alabadle!: Hispanic Christian Worship [Nashville: Abingdon, 1996], 9-28).  If Peruvian Christians are experiencing assembly as family, fiesta, or both, we should be thankful to God; and we should also expect them to show up late!  

These conclusions might have been obvious to others, but it was in fact the process of talking through the survey results that, after four years in the field and a significant amount of previous study, finally helped me to see the reality of our cross-cultural struggle differently.  My deeply instilled values still dominate.  I am not one of those missionaries who finds acculturation easy.  Appreciating the differences cognitively is one thing; really seeing the world differently is another.  But I do feel less frustration when I manage to grasp little insights such as these.  I’m grateful to the interns for participating in the survey process.