September 7, 2019 + Blog
“Retirement… counting the days!” How often have you heard those words from people who are looking forward to leaving their work place and enjoying more leisure to travel and play and spend more time with family and friends? But what if your vocation has been so fulfilling and rewarding over many years that the thought of retiring brings more anxiety than anticipation, more dread than delight?
I’ve had a long and varied vocation as a missiological anthropologist, stretching over nearly five decades. With laser-like focus my passion has been attempting to understand, and perhaps share with others, the relationship between the gospel and culture. “Connecting God’s Eternal Word with a Changing World” has been one of the dominant themes of my life. My “career” has not always been smooth sailing, but God has sustained me through the low points and difficult times.
As early as my days in high school, I sensed God inviting me to join God’s mission in the world and so I began to pursue becoming a medical missionary. I took all the courses in college I needed to enter medical school, but near the end of my collegiate life I “stumbled” into anthropology. I had never heard of this academic field of study but when I discovered it I realized that here was a discipline that fit me as a person, like hand-in-glove, and I took as many courses as I could.
It was during two years right out of college as a young missionary volunteer in Central Africa that I asked God to guide me in making a vocational decision. Should I become a medical doctor or an anthropologist? Both would take about 10 more years of study and preparation. My missionary colleagues were not happy when I announced to them one day that I was going to return to the United States and enter graduate school to study anthropology instead of going to medical school. They told me I would probably lose my faith if I studied anthropology, and that even if my faith survived the secular onslaught there was nothing in the field of anthropology that would be of value to mission work. So with that kind of “encouragement” off I went, and indeed it was challenging to my Christian faith and very lonely at times because I had little encouragement from anyone, but I felt certain that this was God’s call on my life.
With nine years of cross-cultural ministry, mostly in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, as professor of anthropology and later dean of the E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary for 21 years, and then as resident missiologist and vice-president for training at The Mission Society (now TMS-Global) for nine years, I have now entered “retirement.” From 1985 to the present I’ve been an active and enthusiastic member of the American Society of Missiology, serving for many years as editor of Missiology, president in 2006-2007, and now publisher. I lovingly refer to the ASM as “my tribe,” for over the years I have built some deep and endearing friendships.
Sociologists tell us that the crisis of retirement is not so much a financial crisis as much as it is an identity crisis. I have found this to be true in my situation. I’ve observed that when Americans meet other Americans anywhere in the world they immediately ask two questions of each other: “What do you do?” and “Where are you from?” Why would those two questions surface immediately? In many other cultures the first question would be “To whom are you related?” not “What do you do?”
The answer to “What do you do?” places one in a social location with a defined status and accompanying role, which we then quickly rank as being more or less important than ourselves. Anthropological studies of social organization and structure focus on the two major building blocks of status (a position in society) and rôle (the accompanying behavior). Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances and one man [sic]in his time plays many parts.” The part the person plays, to follow Shakespeare’s analogy, is the status. And of course we all occupy several different statuses in a society. A given status, a position in the society, is what provides a person with a social identity, a place in social interaction. But what happens when our personal identity becomes too closely aligned with our social identity? We’re in for an emotional roller coaster with highs and lows in our career. We measure our self-worth on what we do, on what we accomplish, more than on who we be. “Doing” takes precedent over “Being.”
And this is where I have found myself as I have entered retirement, and it hasn’t been easy. In fact, there are days when it is really difficult and challenging and I wonder, “What am I going to do with my life?” But then when I reflect on who I am in Christ, I’m reminded that my true, lasting, and eternal identity is that I am a child of the kingdom of God, created in the image of God, loved and treasured for who I am, not for what I do or for what I have done. This shifting of my personal identity away from my social identity takes intentionality. It requires that I become more centered and grounded in Christ, to slow down, be more reflective and not just active. It means working more on a “To Be” list, instead of trying to manage a busy “To Do” list. I resonate with the words of Dag Hammarskjold from his diary Markings (1964:93) “If only I may grow: firmer, simpler-quieter, warmer.”
Ironically, I am writing this blog from somewhere in Asia where for security reasons my location must not be disclosed for I have been training a large group of national pastors and missionaries on how insights from missiological anthropology can help them in their cross-cultural ministry to better connect the gospel to the deepest parts of their worldview and culture. As I share from many years of experience and perhaps some wisdom, I plan to keep going, teaching and training around the world for as long as God gives me abundant passion, good health, and a sound mind. But I can now rest assured that my identity in this phase of semi-retirement is in who I am in Christ, not in what I do as a missiological anthropologist.
November 21, 2018 + Blog
I am presently halfway through my flight from Amsterdam to Seattle, returning home after a very rewarding and Spirit-led trip to India the past 2 ½ weeks. I’m confident you must have been praying for me on this trip because I felt so empowered in my teaching and training, and there were so many “divine appointments” along the way. I was in four different places in India with a variety of audiences and venues, and it felt like the Lord gave me just the right words and topics on which to teach and speak at each of these places. I received so many invitations to return that it would take a couple months to fulfill them all, but I will begin to make plans for 2019 and 2020.
A couple things stand out from the trip. I spent most of my time in the northeast in Nagaland that borders China and Myanmar, famous for the Naga people who were head-hunters in the 19th century and became Christians in a remarkable people movement following the initial mission work of an American Baptist missionary beginning in 1872. By the early decades of the 20th century Nagaland was “Christian” and incorporated into the British Empire. Today, unfortunately, there is a lot of nominal Christianity and very little interest in mission and almost a complete lack of discipleship. My teaching seemed to “scratch them where they itched” and so I’ll go back and do some significant in-depth teaching and training on connecting the Gospel to the deepest part of their worldview. I met with a group of young people who want to stir up a passion for mission in the churches and they have a goal to send 10,000 missionaries from Nagaland to other parts of India and beyond. But of course those who they send must have adequate cross-cultural training or they’ll repeat many of the same mistakes we made in mission history from the West. So I will begin working with them in training and preparing people to hopefully help them light a fire in a church that has grown cold.
To reach the town of Mokokchung at 7,000 feet in the foot hills of the Himalayas, required a 14 hour bus ride from the nearest airport in Guwahati, Assam through the night over mostly bumpy, winding, narrow roads and at times through the jungle. I was in my element and felt right at home for the Naga tribes are culturally and linguistically closer to the people in the South Pacific among whom Laurie and I lived than they are to Indians in South Asia. There were many times on this trip when I thought, “I was made for this.”
Following my time in Nagaland and another all-night ride, I went to Delhi where I gave two days of lectures/teaching/interaction at TRACI—Theological Research and Communication Institute—on issues of how the Gospel relates to and connects with Indian cultures The group this time was made up primarily of university students, Indian intellectuals, and mission and church leaders. It was from this group that I learned how pervasive is caste discrimination inside and outside of the church in India today, despite being outlawed by the Indian Constitution in 1947. Unfortunately, the church and many Christians are contributing to discrimination on the basis of caste. They received my strong teaching on Acts 10 which reminds us that God has no favorites and we are all equal children of God, and asked me to return for more.
It was such a fruitful trip that I thought I wanted to write you on the way home and thank you for your prayers and financial support that is making it possible for me to continue to do this kind of teaching and training in “retirement.” I was reminded of E. Stanley Jones, the great missionary to India and beyond, who when he turned 75 asked the Lord for 10 more years of fruitful ministry. When he turned 85 he said, “Why didn’t I ask the Lord for 20?” He died at 89 but his wife Mabel Lossing Jones made it to 101. I’m asking the Lord for another 15-20 years of fruitful ministry in this season of “semi-retirement.”
Thanks again for your prayers and support. Blessings on you.
In June, I sent out an exciting announcement about the launch of Global Development, Inc. Global Development is a non-profit ministry that will provide critically important teaching and training to prepare missionaries and pastors around the world for cross-cultural ministry.
Our training programs help ensure that these Christian workers will be more resilient in the face of cross-cultural differences and challenges, while also ensuring that they are more relevant, skillful, and culturally sensitive toward the people groups among whom they live and serve. Additionally, our teaching and training provides an essential element for the spiritual and emotional health of the intercultural Christian worker.
In this blog I wish to discuss the refugee crisis and suggest how we, as followers of Jesus, might develop a missional response.
The front pages of the New York Times over the past year, and even the cover story of the March 2016 Christianity Today, remind us that we are facing the worst humanitarian crisis since WW II. 60 million people are affected, and if we added them up they would represent the 23rd largest country in the world. It’s unbelievable, but it’s reality.
Amidst the clamor, noise, nonsense, and fear about refugees, migrants, and other strangers in our midst, I have been thinking a lot about how Jesus would respond to and treat the Strangers in our nation, in our community, and in our personal lives. Would he build a wall to keep them out? Would he send police into neighborhoods where Muslims predominantly live? Read More