Sunday, May 30, 2010

One Man's Sabbatical Year

Did you catch this article in the paper this weekend? Looks like it is adapted from a whole book telling his story. 
It's Never Too Late To Right Your Wrongs, Big or Small
By Lee Kravitz

After I lost my job in October 2007, I took stock of my life and didn't like what I saw. Working as hard as I had over the years, I had become disconnected from the people who mattered most to me.

My wife and three young children were afraid to approach me. My daughter told people, “Daddy never smiles.” I hadn't talked to some of my closest friends in more than a decade.

Instead of rushing back into the job market, I decided to spend a year reconnecting with my friends and relatives and making amends. I devoted myself to tending to what I called “my unfinished business.”

>> Keep reading.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Writing, Sleep


No deep and exciting blog posts from me, lately - but I'll probably be back before long. Meanwhile, trying to give myself more to journaling. Which has been very helpful, especially the "letter to God" sort of journaling. When I'm sharing everything with him I seem to have less "need" to spill with other people. Or when I do, what I have to say is richer and truer. So I'll go with that.


I sort of expected that being on sabbatical - with so few cares and worries, most of the time - would bring a sweet and restful sleep. But either because I'm getting older, or that my mind and body aren't getting enough use to wear them out during the day... it's hard to get eight hours.

Perhaps I'm getting what sleep I need though. Seldom irritable or reactionary these days. Oh sometimes, but not very much. I just don't seem to have a lot of anger in me.

But I am surprised that, angry or worried or not, I don't sleep very well. Wonder if there are some practical changes that would make a difference, e.g., a new pillow. Maybe earplugs.

Any advice?

You know, being single has its advantages, and one of them is physical autonomy. Whole bed to myself. Nobody snoring in my house. Eat how I want, and when. Nobody touching me when I want to be left alone. Of course there's a flip side to all that, but it doesn't hurt to count one's blessing!

Yesterday the sound of my cell phone, downstairs, threatening to turn itself off, was enough to wake me at 12:30 a.m. I got up, had some water, took an aspirin, straightened up my blankets, but nothing doing. Finally I picked up a novel and read until I heard the paper guy come at 4:00 a.m.

Eventually fell back asleep for another 2-3 hours. (Not an option most people have, that.) I have a phone-meeting-ish thing at noon, so am skipping my plans to head to a state park for a few hours... staying indoors and whipping up a batch of scones. Maybe finish that book (The Lacemakers of Glenmara), do a bit of housework.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Garden Report from the Denver Suburbs

In spite of the late snow, our lilacs made it to full bloom in time for Deb's birthday. Still have a good wait for the roses I think. But I'm delighted to report that dandelions are no longer ruling the lawn.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Do You Believe?

In a recent conversation with members of the small group Bible study I'm part of, talk turned to film. One of the guys is a real movie buff. His eyes lit up as he told us about one film he though had a great premise:
"A young couple moves into a new house and hear a lot of strange noises. The guy decides to set up a movie camera at night to see what's going on when they are asleep..."
That's all he had to tell us before we started to get goosebumpy.

Later that night the roommate and I speculated about how the story would unfold under the pen of various novelists or screenwriters... might make a good writing exercise!

Yet your typical American does not believe in the supernatural, or doesn't think they do, and even those in my small group haven't thought about these things all that much. We typically proceed on the assumption that what you see is what you get, that life and the world more or less make sense without reference to spiritual powers, except, perhaps for the goodness of God and/or some notion of luck. That's how I was raised anyway (minus the God bit). Took a long time to get to the point where I could seriously entertain any other world view.

It's different in most other parts of the world. If we want to relate to people in many other cultures we'll have to learn to recognize and respond to the needs, fears, concerns, priorities. etc. that arise from worldviews that explain things in terms of supernatural phenomena. For example, I've spent time in at least half a dozen countries where many people would consider it unthinkable to live alone, and some would not ever want to be alone at all, for fear of ghosts and evil spirits.

This weekend I picked up a book at the library which does a pretty good job showing what happens when a rationalistic Westerner moves to North Africa and tries to make a life for himself and his family in a place that - all the people he meets assure him - is already inhabited by powerful jinn. It's called The Caliph's House, by Tahir Shah.

The story below - published in Atlantic Magazine - comes from a little further south, the Central African Republic:
"Snaking around the outer wall of the courthouse in Mbaiki, Central African Republic, is a long line of citizens, all in human form and waiting to face judgment. It’s easy to imagine them as the usual mix of drunks, reckless drivers, and check-bouncers in the dock of a small American town. But here most are witches, and they are facing criminal punishment for hexing their enemies or assuming the shape of animals.

"[In Mbaiki]—where Pygmies, who are known for bewitching each other, make up about a tenth of the population—witchcraft prosecutions exceed 50 percent of the case load, meaning that most alleged criminals there are suspected of doing things that Westerners generally regard as impossible."

>> Keep reading.
What do you think?

Do I believe? Yes and no. Of some things I'm not sure. I'm not one of those people who feels the need to nail down a black-and-white opinion on everything... 

Labeled cultures.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Work and Rest in Heaven

Here's something else from Mark Buchanan, who wrote The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath. This is from an earlier book, Things Unseen: Living in Light of Forever. I'm finding much of what he says really helpful. And, in general, I'm finding that lifting my eyes toward eternal things is essential for finding perspective and lasting peace for the here and now.

Here's an idea that fits in the overlap between these two books:

Heaven, says Buchanan, is both a place of rest and work. Here on earth, we look to work to fulfill us, rest to renew us, and both fall short. Our rest isn't that restful. Our work isn't that fruitful. We were made to enjoy both, but we only get glimpses of each at their best.
"But heaven is utterly restorative in both work and rest. The Bible depicts the reward of heaven as both a granting of work and a bestowal of rest: The faithful servant is simultaneously given more jobs to do and yet invited to enjoy the perfect Sabbath (see Hebrews 4, Luke 19:11-26).

"I said that heavenly things like this are hard to render in earth's grammar, but maybe not impossible. Imagine a time when you did a good work. You were exhilarated, had a euphoric sense of breakthrough and accomplishment. You felt an honest pride in a task well done. You were thankful and humble all at once. You experienced community. Others gave heart and soul to the work. You needed one another. You told each other so.

"And imagine a time of good rest. You felt completely relaxed and restored. No worries troubled your waking or your sleeping. You had nothing you had to do and were free for anything you chose. You could fish or sleep or rest or garden. The tenseness and tiredness in you vanished. You began to think clearly, pray freely, play joyfully. You entered deeply into fellowship and worship, into silence and laughter, and found a healing rhythm for all of it. You experienced shalom, the flourishing re-creative vitality of God's breath moving through you. Imagine now those two things joined seamlessly together, every flaw in them removed, and the whole never fading.

Mark Buchanan, Things Unseen, pp. 82-83.

More bits of Buchanan at previous posts Those Who Will Not Stop and The Drug Called Busyness.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Three Months on Sabbatical

Wordle: Sabbatical, first three months

Some of the things I've done these last three months. Click to see it full-size.

From Donald Miller, on Asking Good Questions

"After writing Million Miles, I realized every person has a story. And I started asking different questions when I met strangers. And I was amazed at the result. Recently, on a trip to Los Angeles, I got to hear two amazing stories of the first two people I interacted with, the driver of the car that picked me up and the lady who put makeup on me (I know, strange but it happened) before an interview. And I was shocked. It made me wonder if nearly everybody around me had an amazing story, and I was simply asking them where they worked..."  (Keep reading).

> See other posts from Telling Secrets on listening.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Craft Properly Practiced

Revisiting a book I was reading five years ago and included in a 2005 newsletter...

Knitting Without Tears

“Most people have an obsession; mine is knitting,” writes Elizabeth Zimmerman in her 1970's book Knitting Without Tears. “Your hobby may be pie-baking, playing the piano, or potbelly-stove collecting, and you can sympathize with my enthusiasm, having an obsession of your own. Will you forgive my single-mindedness, and my tendency to see knitting in everything?”

My mom gave me the book as a present a few years back when I decided to learn how to knit. Although I am not yet a knitter and maybe never will be, I like Elizabeth’s attitude:

“[I often hear] the infuriating remark, ‘I’ve always wanted to knit, but I just can’t.’ Pish, my good woman, you can plan meals, can’t you? You can put your hair up? You can type, write fairly legibly, shuffle cards? All of these are more difficult than knitting. You just don’t want to knit, so why pretend that you do? It’s not compulsory; take up something else.’

“If you hate to knit, why, bless you, don’t; follow your secret heart and take up something else. But if you start out knitting with enjoyment, you will probably continue in this pleasant path.”

“Properly practiced, knitting soothes the troubled spirit, and it doesn’t hurt the untroubled spirit either ... When I say properly practiced, I mean executed in a relaxed manner, without anxiety, strain, or tension, but with confidence, inventiveness, pleasure, and ultimately, pride.”

Ask yourself: Do you have a craft? Are you "following your secret heart"? Have you found a way to leave anxiety, strain, and tension behind, making room for confidence, pleasure, and pride?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Trouble with Compound Interest

Are you a procrastinator? If you're like me you'd probably say yes, in some situations, but no, in others. I do know people who procrastinate a lot of things - and others who almost never do. But most of us are somewhere in the middle.

So I don't see myself as a procrastinator, but I don't see any reason to do things in advance unless I have to.
If I learn on Monday that something needs to be done "by Friday,"  the two mostly likely days I'll do it are Monday (responding to it immediately - come to think of it, this is what I like this best) or Friday. I'll write a paper or plan a teaching session the week before, not the month before. If I need to go someplace, I'll calculate when I need to be there and leave that many hours or minutes before, adding in some margin for getting lost or caught in traffic, etc.

Mostly this works better for me and causes less stress than another strategy.
If I start a project way in advance I end up flailing around trying to figure out how to approach it, or letting it expand too much - or circumstances change and my work is wasted. Even deciding in advance what to wear or eat or do often increases mental pressure rather than relieving it; one more thing to remember, and then I will still feel I have to reconsider my decision when the time comes.

What about you? Do you "do it now," "start it soon," or "do it when it needs to be done"? Probably psychologists have other terms for those things.

But there are certain situations, where, yes, I do not do things when they need to be done: I push them off as far as I can. I procrastinate about making phone calls. I wait until the last minute to buy plane tickets. I have a hard time picking up big, messy projects that won't offer immediate satisfaction and that I may not have time to get my head around, much less finish. I procrastinate facing conflicts or conversations I think will be unpleasant, even if they are just conversations with myself.

What happens when we procrastinate? Why do we do it? I think it's largely a strategy for avoiding pain, though not a very effective one - delayed pain usually means more pain, doesn't it? We add on worry, dread, guilt, embarrassment, and regret. "Deal with it now, or deal with more later," might be the message we need to hear. Putting difficult stuff off is like buying on credit. You may end up paying so much in "interest" you are stuck with the burden much longer than you have to be and may not even touch the "principle."

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Missionaries and Stress

1. Fellowship in Print

It's true, I've been reading a lot. Forty books, I realized, these last three months - including the last two-thirds of the Bible. Most of the books were shorter, though - one-day reads.

I think a big reason I read is to know I'm not alone. Of course, I still like people better than books and imagine I always will. But without as much people time, the books have been great.

Last time I was on sabbatical I was overseas and had quite limited access to things written in English. The up-side of that was that it created pressure to really work on the language learning. After a few months of Uzbek I could tell stories and make people laugh. That was a huge turning point in feeling at home. I never got to the point where I could sit and talk to people without their willingness to work at understanding what I was saying, but God in his grace gave me people who would make that commitment for my sake. And maybe for their own too.

This time it's different; I'm surrounded by English speakers. Yet choosing to live a quieter, simpler life has been good for me. I'm hopeful it will make a difference when I get back into the working world again.

2. Reading Marjory Foyle
"Everyone is made differently, especially in personality structure and physique. Everyone has different gifts, and these differences create broad spectrum of Christian usefulness. As a general rule, God plans to put square pegs in square holes." (p. 44)
I just finished reading Overcoming Missionary Stress, by Marjory Foyle. Somehow I ended up with a first edition (1987). Poking around I see it's been updated several times since then, under the title Honorably Wounded. The latest version came out just a few months ago. That may explain how my copy ended up on someone's giveaway pile. I rather like the quaint, old-fashioned feeling of this copy and will not go out of my way to get the new one, though since the field of member care in missions has grown a great deal the newer editions would no doubt cover useful additional material.

The author served as a medical missionary for more than 30 years, retired shortly before writing this book and began an itinerant consulting ministry, based out of London. As the cover copy has it, "In this eminently practical book, Dr. Marjory Foyle, an experienced psychiatrist with a worldwide practice, explains what stress is, why Christian workers can be particularly prone to it, and how they can both copy with and prevent it."

When I pack off a short-term team to go overseas I usually make sure they have a paper or electronic copy of Where There Is No Doctor - handy even where there is one, as it can help you figure out what is wrong, how serious it is, and what might be done about it. This book might be titled "Where There Is No Psychiatrist." Even though member care and mental health care are more available for missionaries than once they were, many workers still find themselves overextended and isolated. They may not have the resources to see what is wrong or find a healthy way to respond.

A woman I once interviewed told me how inconsolable she was after her father suddenly passed away, half a world away. She was able to go back for his funeral, but on returning to the field she felt quite alone in her stifled grief and wondered if she was going crazy; there was nobody who could tell her if she wasn't.

Foyle does a great job covering a wide range of struggles and stresses common in cross-cultural service and suggesting ways to respond. I appreciate her positive, encouraging approach. She emphasizes that most of the problems we have are normal and can be explained and treated. She's also quick to point out the advantages of the missionary life, and also the advantages of having struggles. My copy has chapters on stresses related to selection and preparation, culture shock, interpersonal relationships, and reentry,  as well as singleness, marriage, raising children, and raising adolescents. Click through on the Amazon link above to see the TOC and introduction to the latest edition.

3. Add Sugar, Stir Vigorously

This passage from the chapter on stress in marriage made me smile:
"Suppose the husband has had a bad day at work, and  by the end of it is fuming. It is very easy for him to go home and blow-off the irritation on the first person he meets, usually his wife...

"This is called 'displacement' - letting off anger on a substitute rather than dealing with the real cause. It is actually difficult to deal with the real cause while one is still angry, so anger should first be safely released...

"In this case, the husband would have been wiser not to go straight home. In many Asian countries there are tea shops where people gather to drink tea, read the paper, and often enter a political argument. The angry husband should stop at the tea shop, and whether or not he takes sugar in tea should add a spoonful and stir it hard. The sugar raises his depleted blood sugar, in itself a good thing to do if angry, and the act of stirring vigorously is a physical way of displacing anger. Then he should read the paper and discuss the content with the others in the shop, if it is suitable to do so. By these means he will displace his anger harmlessly, and be able to go home in a calmer frame of mind." (p. 46)

Monday, May 10, 2010

Stress and Transparency

She told me she'd like to pray for me, then leaned across the table and asked,

     "Marti, what is your heart's desire?"

The question didn't come out of the blue, not entirely, but I'd met this woman five minutes before and would most likely never see her again. Being put on the spot like that freaked me out. I'm sure she meant well. I didn't get up and leave; I gave her an answer. Whether it was true or not I cannot say. It felt like those "why" questions we avoid in ethnography: they force someone to be analytical or make up an answer or explanation for something when they may not really have one. I train ethnographers to approach such questions but ask them less directly, to use words that are more open-ended and less likely to come across as a threat.

But here I was, asked what was to me a hard question, squirming.
Later, I wondered if there was something I could learn about myself and how I like to be approached, and maybe about how to approach others. Or certain others.

First, I had to ask, is it just me? Could it be that there's something lacking or immature or wrong with me that I'm not that in touch with my emotions, that I don't have that kind of self-knowledge at my fingertips? or that I didn't want to answer such an intimate question, at least not then and there?

It's not just that she was a stranger.
I talk to strangers all the time. I love to meet new people. And while I have a big streak of shyness, I am just as likely to blurt out things that are deep or personal without being prompted, as I am to hold back or withdraw. I usually enjoy a good, deep conversation about things that matter.

But even under the best of circumstances I am not consistently transparent, especially when I'm dealing with stuff I'd just rather not put out on the table for one reason or another. I have had a bit of counseling and found it helpful, but dread counseling appointments; even meeting with L., my sabbatical adviser, or the little "sabbatical support group" I assembled: they all say they look forward to talking those evenings, but not me. But I find myself fantasizing about things that could come up that would give me an excuse to cancel. (Never happens, so I go ahead. Though the sabbatical group is falling apart and I'm not sure what to do about it.) 

Pressure to Be Transparent

I think it's a matter of pressure - pressure to be transparent.
I want, instead, to be invited. I want to go second. I want to choose how much to say or what kind of words to use. I want the motivation to come from within. If I were an athlete, I'd want to participate in events where they start the clock when you begin, not when they ring the bell or blow the whistle and that's how you know when to start.

Life doesn't always give you that kind of freedom, though, does it?
It doesn't give you safe environments or wait until you are ready. And that can be okay; some people need to or want to be pushed. Are you one of them? Or does it depend on the topic or context?

Often I find a push can be helpful. I like deadlines, as long as they are real ones: Getting the ezine lined up for Tuesday night publication. Preparing a Perspectives lecture or training session, and stepping up to deliver it. Knowing I have to give a quarterly report or write an annual review. I've often wished life offered more finals weeks, exams, and yes, grades. Pressures. But those are pressures you know about up front - they don't appear suddenly and unexpectedly. Is that the difference?

One thing I've been noticing, in my current life largely without those kind of pressures, is the power of choice, of ownership:
Self-directed learning, personalized growth planning, and the intuitive - not scripted - dance of personal revelation can take you some places better than being pushed or enrolled in a program or following a plan somebody else made for you.

How much of this is a personality thing - not right or wrong, just different?

Another Way to Ask Questions

A recent gathering I attended included the following list of "ice breaker" questions. Some of them might seem just as "hard" as the "heart's desire" question, but they didn't create that kind of pressure. I think some of the reasons for that are that we were:

1. Responding to an invitation:  Since they were labeled as "ice breakers" the questions were presented as invitations to start a conversation. Not a requirement that you define who you are, take a stand, or submit your life or character for some kind of evaluation. 

2. Given an opportunity to prepare:
Instead of just being unfolded one by one, orally, the questions were printed out and given to participants in advance - put on the tables. This gave people unpressured time to ponder their answers. I try to do this when I teach, too: let people know what the questions are, write them down and let people see them. It reduces stress and usually results in more thoughtful answers or fruitful conversations.

3. Choosing how to participate:
Most facilitators gave participants a choice of whether they wanted to ask one question or another, or invited everybody to answer the same question. So there was some level of choice for everyone.

4. Hearing from others:
It was a (small) group activity. So, that might cause people to compare themselves to one another and feel pressured by that, but it relieved the pressure of expressing themselves in isolation.

Ice-Breaker Questions
What do you love doing more than anything in the world?
If you could make a good living doing anything at all, what would that be?
What is the nicest thing a stranger ever did for you?
What is the weirdest thing you've ever eaten?
What was your favorite book growing up?
Name a hidden talent you have.
Name your favorite movie.
If you could visit any place in the world, where would you choose to go and why?
What is one goal you’d like to accomplish during your lifetime?

I can think of lots of other "ice breaker" questions, some of which might be more fun to answer, or elicit more stories, or might do more to find common ground. But it's hard to do all three of those things at once, and this is a pretty good list. 


Friday, May 07, 2010

Peace to Those Far Away, Peace to Those Near

With all this time for thinking "consecutive deep thoughts" I've been reflecting on Ephesians 2, especially 2:17 - God's compassion and offer of peace to us who were far off (e.g., Gentiles) as well as to those who were near (Israel).

Biology, psychology, sociology, and personal experience all suggest that we, as human beings, have limited capacity to "care" about those far off. Anyone outside our tribe - people who aren't like us. We're wired to care deeply about people like our own children, and considerably less (if at all) about the children of strangers or enemies. Yet these days we hear a lot about those "far away." And I can't believe (as some Buddhists do) that pulling out and not letting the sufferings of others touch us is a noble path.

So as a mission mobilizer, I've been wondering how to respond to this limitation/tension. To just say "bloom where you are planted" and "just take care of your own" are not an adequate response, not with our current level of global connectedness. Nor in terms of embracing Christ's command to love one's neighbor. Obviously you can't love more than six billion people the same, but we've got a world with a lot of people being "under-loved" in all kinds of ways. So, I'm not going to give up. Will keep calling people to care, to pray, to give, to go.

Peace to Those Near

My roommate had jury duty this week. It was a domestic violence case. The state was bringing misdemeanor charges against a woman, S., on behalf of her ex-husband. It was D.'s job, I guess, to sit in for the 750,000 of us in district 18 and hear the story of this broken family, and, with the other five "ladies of the jury" (yes, all women) to judge whether S. was guilty of harassment and criminal mischief (vandalism).

After the case was over D. was able to tell me about it. A pretty sad story. The guy and his new ladylove - both of them, it seemed to D., utter jerks - did something that really angered S. After going to her ex's place for an unsatisfactory verbal confrontation with him about that matter, S. "lost it,"  and (the jury convicted her on this count) threw a large rock at his SUV, breaking the window.

D. thinks S. still cares about this guy, and what really frustrated her was that she lost him, that he wronged her (e.g., the affair with the girlfriend), that he continues to wrong her (being very inconsiderate in a matter considering their teenaged daughter), and is never going to admit it and/or apologize for doing anything wrong.

What the poor woman needs is a clear-sighted and loving counselor and some anger management lessons, for starters. What the man needs - well, I might have suggested a really big rock through the window of his SUV. But I guess that's not right. At any rate, it didn't work, did it?
Peace to Those Far Away

Here's an opportunity to respond to "those far away." There are, I admit, a few "hooks" in this one for me. First, that it came from a wonderful family I know who serve in Tajikistan (see map), and, second, that my mother nearly died of polio when she was a baby and still suffers the effects of it:
"We are currently in the middle of a polio outbreak in Tajikistan. At the end of April more than 170 kids had been hospitalized with paralysis and 12 had already died. According to WHO statistics approximately 50% of polio survivors are left with a permanent disability. Factors like malnutrition can make the percentage higher. It is quite horrible to think about the implications of this for Tajikistan. UNICEF has donated large quantities of polio vaccine and the government has started a huge vaccination campaign among children aged under 5. Please pray that this will work and the polio epidemic will be brought under control quickly."
So much sadness in the world. So much contention. Nearby, and far away. I'm glad there is someone we can talk to about this for whom nearby and faraway are the same thing - yeah, the one who calls the stars each by name and has numbered the very hairs of our heads.

Will you pray? Thanks.

Map source: Wikipedia

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Essence of Sabbath

I finally had to return my copy of Mark Buchanan's The Rest of God: Restoring your Soul by Restoring Sabbath. I copied down huge chunks of it into my journal. I may still have to buy a copy for myself... and maybe a few more to pass on to friends and supporters. It's a great book. Here's a taste:
“The root idea of Sabbath is simple as rain falling, basic as breathing. It’s that all living things – and many nonliving things too – thrive only by an ample measure of stillness.” (p. 60)

“There are two main things that make Sabbath an invented country, a place we read about but never get to. One is busyness. The other is legalism.” (p. 106).

“Sabbath-keeping is more art than science. It is more poetry than arithmetic. It is something we get a knack for more than memorize procedures about. It is like a painting: done by numbers, it comes off stiff and blotchy. But done with discipline and imagination, it both captures and enhances life.” (p. 111)

“I submit this as Sabbath’s golden rule: cease from what is necessary. Embrace that which gives life.” (p. 129)

“If there’s one god of the age that Christians especially pay homage to, it’s the god of utility…. Everything we do we seek to justify on the grounds of its usefulness....What’s missing is a theology of play. There are many things – eating ice cream, diving off cliffs, sleeping in Saturday mornings, learning bird calls, watching movies – that can’t be shoehorned into a utilitarian scheme… but they might make us feel more alive, more ourselves, and that’s useful enough.” (pp. 138-139)

“Jesus’ Sabbath-keeping always looked, to his enemies, like Sabbath breaking… he was simply fulfilling the day’s true intent.

“'The Sabbath,’ Jesus said, ‘was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.’ (Mark 2:27)

“And that, actually, is all we need to know to keep the Sabbath holy. This day was made for us. God gave it to you and me for our sake, for our benefit, for our strengthening and our replenishment.” (p. 219)

> Listen to Dale Flanders' sermon Restless, largely based on this book.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Art Appreciation Week

Tuesday was a play-day for me. It was predicted to be the most beautiful day of the week, and I thought I'd take advantage of the opportunity to do some wandering.

The theme: art appreciation. I mapped out a course that included a trip to another city for a pottery show, browsing through an artsy neighborhood, and stopping by Denver's best coffee shop - as roasting and brewing are an art form too!

Along the way I stumbled across this row of row-houses (if that's not redundant), all meticulously gardened. Wouldn't you like to have a front yard like this?

Later I went to visit my young friend Rachel, aged 9. She and I have been meeting about once a week to read aloud, and lately our book is The Secret Garden. Almost enough to make me seek out "a piece of earth," too.

Well, I guess I have one, if a dozen years of paying rent count for something. I'll wait until Mother's Day - per local protocol - then go get some pansies to join our tulips and lilacs!

There are roses in our yard, too, but they will come to life in their own sweet time.

Percy Mather: Pioneer Missionary to the Mongolians

Percy Mather: Pioneer Missionary to the Mongolians

After reading the D.E. Hoste book, I also read The Making of a Pioneer: Percy Mather of Central Asia, by Francesca French and Mildred Cable. Mather, a Scotsman, arrived on the field in 1910, almost a decade after Hoste became general director.

Sometime in his early years there he picked up a book written by another worker in China, Roland Allen’s Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? Roland Allen has had a significant influence on missions in more recent years as well. He sure made an impact on Mather, who after reading it committed himself to living by those principles, making strategic decisions to further the establishment of locally led churches across China. He also refused to be known as a pastor or leader, asking others to call him simply “Mr. Ma” and deferring to Chinese colleagues to lead.

At the same time he was eagerly reading the reports of a solitary old missionary, George Hunter, working away by himself in faraway Turkestan, in a city called Urumchi. Then, as now, Urumchi was home to quite a diversity of peoples: Chinese, Tibetans, Uyghurs, Hui, Tatars, Manchu, and Russians. But Mather had a special place in his heart for the Mongolians.
“Percy Mather had lost his heart, and had lost it to the Mongols. Ever since his first contact in Urumchi he had an impulse of friendship towards them. He loved their spontaneity, their hospitality, their simplicity… They loved him as he loved them and soon became fast friends. He instinctively knew the best way of approach to primitive folk and when he walked into an encampment, fiddle under arm, there was an immediate response and mutual understanding. Among the Mongols he became as a Mongol.

“He was unaffectedly interested in all their affairs, and the erection of a tent, the management of a restive horse, the training of a dog or the building of a camp fire were things which he delighted to learn. His letters are full of notes and of pen-and-ink sketches showing how these things were done. To the Mongols, Percy Mather always showed himself the friendly man, helpful, capable, approachable, eminently understandable and obviously without guile. If, in the country, he was their guest, in town he became their helper.” (pp. 154-155)
One day he wrote in a letter:
“The Mongols have been bringing me a number of presents late – milk, butter, eggs, a pet lamb, and last of all, a young golden eagle. It only just has its feathers, but is very big already and its claws are as sharp as needles. One has to be very careful handling it. Unfortunately it eats as much flesh in a week as I do in a year, so I cannot afford to rear it and have passed it on to a friend who is better off than I am.” (p. 178)
The book is mostly made up of excerpts from his letters, with minimal commentary in between. The contents do more to paint a picture of what his life was like than to describe his ministry or teach the reader anything in particular. It wasn’t an easy life: sometimes he walked 25 miles in a single day, in cloth shoes; often he and George (whom he always refers to as “Mr. Hunter”) went on long treks, taking little with them and camping out. Mather did most of the cooking for both of them and often seems to have been busy doing laundry, making bread, shoveling snow, etc. He knew when he went that it would be a lonely life without creature comforts, and so it was. When, on his one furlough, friends suggested he take a wife, he told his mother, “I would never do any woman the wrong of taking her as wife into such conditions as exist in Central Asia.”

Was the life Hunter and Mather lived unsuitable for women? Well, missionary women did end up coming into the area before very long. The volume I hold in my hands was composed by two middle-aged women who, with a sister and a young girl they adopted, traveled up and down the Silk Road and sometimes stayed in Urumchi. Known as “the Trio,” Francesca and Evangeline French and Mildred Cable (and Topsy) were a bit unusual. They went places few others did. Apparently, though, serving as a single woman or single man was altogether different from bringing along a wife. Maybe because marriage inevitably implied pregnancy and parenting, two challenges that severely limited where the CIM workers thought they could bring families in those years.

Even today there are still a lot of places like that today, places being “pioneered” by singles (male or female, but mostly female since single men form such a small part of the mission force). Families don’t go there, or don’t tend to last. At one point the agency I work with had 20 single women serving (pretty effectively, I understand) in Afghanistan.

Well, Percy Mather may have been lonely and without many comforts but he seems a cheerful sort who was a great help to his partner and quick to make friends with the people around him. The two men preached and taught, printed and distributed scripture booklets into the languages of the people around them, traveled around visiting isolated Christians and building bridges of trust with community leaders, and generally making the way for those who would come after them. They really were ambassadors. Mather’s struggles to master the many dialects without books and teachers led him to prepare grammar books and dictionaries for those who would follow. He worked so hard his health was weakened and he died when he was about 50, not even outliving Mr. Hunter.

Something that stood out to me was that Mather had all kinds of ideas about things that could be done, things he'd like to do, and didn't achieve half of them. The authors say:
“Percy Mather was a dreamer of dreams… he dreamed of a life spent among the Mongols – of one spent in bringing the knowledge of Christ to the Manchus – of saving the logical Tatar from threatening atheism – of reaching  the wild Qazaqs [Kazakhs] of the Steppes – enough to occupy him for six times the fifty years that was his allotted span.
“He dreamed other dreams – of becoming an accomplished scholar in all the tongues of Central Asia – of acquiring the skill of the surgeon that he might go to all these people with healing in his hands.

"He dreamed yet one more dream – to have done it all, and at last come home to the quiet fireside in Fleetwood, sit near the window which looked out to sea, watch the ships come and go, and have his loved ones around him.” (p. 287)
Do you know people who have that many dreams, and are at peace with the fact that they will not achieve them all? Or people who have that willingness to suffer and ability to pioneer? There still are so many places and situations where that pioneering spirit - and ability to dream - is needed. What bothers me is that in many cases, the pioneering sorts don’t seem to find the places that require them. Instead of pioneering in new situations, they pioneer where others are already at work.

You know what I mean. There’s a great work going on, but they don’t want to work with those people, want to start their own thing – or maybe they don’t even realize someone else is already carrying out what they see as “their vision.” The Apostle Paul talked about wanting to go to Spain where he wouldn’t be building on anyone else’s foundation. But how often do people go to, say, Rome, and neglect solid foundations that have already been laid… pioneer in a time or place when it would be better to partner?

Learn about some of those who came later, in this story: Church Growth in Mongolia (Pioneers)

Monday, May 03, 2010

More Stories from the China Inland Mission

The mission agency OMF International, founded in 1865 by Hudson Taylor as the China Inland Mission, must be one of the most well-documented mission organizations around – though as I mentioned previously their policy and culture of “not saying anything if they couldn’t say anything nice” makes some of those early chronicles and biographies a bit unbalanced. Still, with access to a whole library of them, I’ve enjoyed reading a few more this spring.

D.E. Hoste, the Man Who Took the Baton

(See also a previous post, Heroism and Humility)

D.E. Hoste: A Prince with God
, by Phyllis Thompson, is a biography of the first man to step into the shoes of the illustrious founder in the General Director position now held by Patrick Fung. What an intimidating thing it can be to follow the one who started the whole thing. Dixon Hoste, 39 years old, did not think he was the man for the job and initially refused it. But Taylor was too sick to carry on, his most logical successor was killed, and Taylor chose Hoste over his right-hand man, who, though older, was best in the position he currently held. So over several months Hoste came to terms with taking on Taylor’s mantle and accepted it.

One of the first challenges through which is navigated the mission was in how to respond to the enormous losses incurred in the Boxer Rebellion. Hundreds of missionaries and their families had been killed, and an vast amount of property destroyed. As the Chinese government righted itself it was attempting to rebuild its relationships with other nations and offered compensation for the losses the missionaries and Chinese Christians had suffered.

Hoste thought the matter through very carefully and recognized an opportunity in it. After much prayer and discussion with colleagues, he met with the government officials and presented a careful estimate of the mission’s losses. He then announced that no payment would be accepted, for the debt was wiped out and forgiveness full and free. The response of the governor was like that of Darius in the book of Daniel (6:6); he had proclamations posted to recognize the mission’s forbearance, which was, as Thompson explains, “proof of the sincerity of the motives the missionaries had in coming to China… that one action was probably more effective in breaking down prejudice than years of zealous preaching would have been.” (p. 99).

Even from the start, Hoste didn’t mind working in the shadows. As a booklet published a few years ago said he “lived to be forgotten that Christ might be remembered.” (Not a bad motto, eh?) He had begun his own work in China as perhaps the least-impressive member of a famous club (“The Cambridge Seven”); quickly placed himself under the leadership of a rather overbearing Chinese pastor, rather than trying to pull rank as a foreigner; and although he married the founder’s niece, never seemed presumptuous about that, either.

He was committed to praying with and for men and women, rather than striving for their good opinion. He didn’t mind being misjudged without defending himself and was willing to accept blame in order to shield others.  A cautious, respectful man, he was careful not to gossip, betray confidences, or speak carelessly. One of the keys to his character seems to be that he trusted God rather than himself. It’s a very sensible choice, isn’t it? Why do so many of us prefer to trust ourselves over trusting God?

Thompson says,
“It was his sincere appreciation of the qualities and gifts of others which won him the confidence and respect of men of other nations whose traditions and temperaments were often entirely different from his own… He had a wonderful insight into character. On an amazingly short acquaintance he could form an accurate estimate of a person’s character, ability, and qualifications.
“But perhaps his outstanding gift was his statesmanship. He viewed things as from a mountain-top, never being confused by immediate issues, but seeing right through to their ultimate conclusion. It was this faculty more than any other that won for him a reputation that spread far beyond the region of his own jurisdiction.”  (p. 120, 121)
Hoste led the mission for some 35 years (1900 to 1935), doing more to send out missionaries and see the mission grounded and mature than Hudson Taylor ever had. Even just a statistically glance suggests things were going well: The mission went from 780 missionaries to 1,360, from 364 churches to more than 1,200, from 400 stations to more than 2,200, and from 1,700 baptisms a year to 7,500.

There’s a lot to be said for joining a movement and helping it be all it can be rather than starting something new and setting it up just like you like it. I know there’s a time to pioneer, but how we need people who are willing to pick up the baton from someone else, to come alongside others God has raised up.

See also: Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy (UTube)
Tomorrow: Percy Mathers: Pioneer Missionary to the Mongolians