Life among the pagodas
“How do you define success in what you’re doing over there?” This has been a frequently asked question in the last year. Every time I hear it, I’m a bit lost for an eloquent reply. I see the value in encouraging or challenging missionaries to be evaluative of how they use their time and resources. I’ve worked with Christian non-profits and I see a very real need for increased transparency when it comes to funds and outcomes. (Hence why we want you to know our budget, as in our last newsletter.)
But this question of “success” is the fenceline between two dangerous ways of living and working in ministry. The first: “Money is unspiritual and since God is infinitely rich, don’t waste time on organizational matters! Can’t care about people if you’re managing money.” The second: “The efficacy of our ministry is based on how many people show up. If we can’t start a church in two years, let’s try some other place. We ought to be reporting converts!”
My business-inclined soul beats with happiness when I read the book of Nehemiah, or peruse Exodus, Leviticus, or parts of Acts. If you believe God doesn’t care about organization, good leadership, or efficient, excellent work, you haven’t read enough of the Bible. God was concerned with legal matters, safety of people, quality of materials, leadership structure, the list goes on.
Yet, in reading the Bible, I see a pattern. God does not prescribe these same strategies for interaction with other human beings. I have yet to find an example where people are asked to foster relationships in the same way they’re instructed to form an army or build a city. Cities and management structures don’t have free will. You apply a pattern and run with it; you can project a time frame to completion and predict financial outcomes.
People, on the other hand, are not machines subject to formula. It’s difficult for us to gauge the heart condition or attitude of another human being. It seems God meant it that way (Prov. 16:2, 17:3, Jer. 11:20). We are called to something so simple: faithfulness. We can live among people who haven’t heard of Christ, we can be proactive about sharing the gospel with them, and we can be accountable to those who support us. But we aren’t going to Myanmar to save people. When it comes to people’s hearts, it’s no longer our business, it’s God’s.
Someone recently took pains to point out that with the time Jim has already invested in Myanmar (seven years), and the “limited fruit” of his labor, won’t it be a terrible waste to go live in such a place? What if no church starts in our time there? What would be the point of spending all that time and money in a remote corner of Myanmar, for four Christians?
Our destination is a conflicted, semi-destroyed city divided by two people groups who loathe each other. From an external perspective, it’s not even a profitable place to start a business. What fuels us to go? What is our definition of “success”? Success for us means wholehearted obedience. We don’t mean the dutiful sort of thing that has us longingly gazing at more comfortable lifestyles whilst sweating in a mud hut. Instead, it’s a sort of wholeheartedness akin to inviting everyone you can to your Thanksgiving Dinner, because the food is just that good. It means we’re married to nursing these people in their pain, that we might introduce them to the ultimate Healer.
“Why would you go to such a hard place, with such low odds of a positive outcome?” Because God is trustworthy and I’d rather be right where he wants me than anywhere else. If you don’t believe me, I dare you to find out for yourself.
“Our pleasure and our duty
though opposite before,
since we have seen his beauty
are joined to part no more.”
– John Newton