Simple

We started driving up a road that was as smooth as craters on the moon’s surface.  Our van’s shocks didn’t exist anymore.  Neither did our kidneys.

“Mzungu!  Mzungu!…” (“White skin!  White skin!…)  Kids started running after the van.  The closer we got to the feeding center in the small village, the larger the crowd of curious kids got.  Finally the parade stopped and eleven mzungu got out of the van.  “Jambo.”  (“Hi.”)  That was pretty much the extent of our Swahili abilities, which just brought giggles, a few handshakes from the braver kids, and a couple of shrieks of terror from one or two of the smaller ones, which makes sense if you’ve never seen eleven grownup mzungu before.

And then we stood there.  Waiting for the rice and beans to finish cooking.  The feeding center gives three meals a week to undernourished kids who stood waiting with their cups.  But right now, everybody just stared.  Unblinking stares.  Holding their cups ready for the rice.  And the crowd grew bigger.  Our translator was talking to one person, so the rest of us – eleven mzungu, fifty kids, and a growing crowd of adults –  were just staring at each other.  Without a translator, there’s not much else you could do. 

dirt drawExcept draw.  I squatted down and kids started spreading out in a circle jostling for closer position.  I cleared some dirt and drew a simple smiley face.  One brave kid squatted next to me, the mzungu with a stick drawing circles.  I gave him the stick and he took it, but wasn’t sure what to do.  “You draw…”  He tried.  His circle looked like a bug splattered on a windshield.  So I drew a new circle, picked up some bits of wood, rocks, grass, and started putting them in the circle.  Eyes, nose, ears.  The last to go was a smile.  I had him put it on.  He did.  The kids who could see started laughing.  The boy looked at me and grinned.  Other kids started picking up sticks and drawing bug splatter shaped smiley faces.  Amazing how something as simple as making a face in the dirt can bring joy.

Our trip to Congo had several moments like this, reminding me of the power of simple things.  Handing out rice and beans.  Sizing up children to fit into dresses and shorts made by a group of women in the US.  Giving a new pair of underwear to kids who had worn the same pair for a few years.  Sitting with women who have been victims of brutalities that have left them socially outcast and watching them make baskets that they sell.  Buying the baskets they made to help restore their self-dignity instead of just giving them money.  Bringing a suitcase of maxipads and hearing their loud joyful high-pitched “la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la…” African cry when they understood what they were for.  Being comfortable being stared at.  Simple things.

I think Jesus really liked simplicity.  Share a story. Eat a meal. Sit with people. Cry with them.  Laugh with them.  Walk beside them.  Teach them.  Take them one step closer to understanding His Father. 

No, I’m not avoiding telling you about the story training we did.  It went well.  There were fifty believers from different communities we were able to train.  This month they are going to villages, including this small village, and will let me know next  month how it has gone and who else they are teaching storying to.

Each trip I’m more convinced that storying is a simple universal language that God uses.  Almost as simple and universal as a mzungu and a Congolese village boy drawing smiley faces in a dirt road and smiling at each other.

Basics

(Highlights From the Past Year series)

My oldest son and I are coaching a fourth grade basketball team this year.  Some of the kids have never touched a basketball.  We had three practices before our first game.  The first one I was happy that most of the balls hit the backboard.  Layups looked like klutzy ballet moves.  So Brady and I had them work on footwork.  Then passing.  Then defense.  “Coach, when are we going to shoot the ball?”  Learn to dribble first.  “Coach, when are we going to scrimmage?”  Learn to pass first.  “Coach, when are we…”

At the third practice, we had them work on two things only.  When you’re on defense, keep your hands up!  When you’re on offense, spread out!  (There’s a herd effect in games, where the basketball has this sudden mysterious magnetism that pulls on the eyelets of basketball shoes and draws ten kids into a five foot square area and then causes everybody to yell, “Pass it to me!” even though they’re only six inches apart.) 

The guys didn’t like that practice.

In our first game, guess what?  We led at halftime 28-0.  It wasn’t that we were better.  It was that the guys were doing the simple things well.  All our points came because guys were spread out and passed on offense and we stole the ball on defense.

Recently I was thinking back over the past year and all the trips and training that took place.  (Hence this Highlights Of The Year series of catch up blogs!) There’s a human urge in almost anything we do to do more, better, faster, and with a bigger splash.  But I really am a believer in simple things done well.  This past year, we’ve been praying and going off the beaten path to difficult places to teach believers who are persecuted for their faith how to…tell stories?  There’s a human desire to say, “Coach God, when can we do something bigger and cooler and sounds more spiritually deep than telling stories?”  Learn the basics first.  They are important…

336In an Asian country, seven people we trained last summer went to a remote jungle village.  For two days they shared stories in the village.  Twenty-eight Buddhists accepted Christ.

In a west African country, a group from a church that went through a one day training shared parts of the Gospel of Luke through stories.  Twenty-six Muslim men stood up to say they believed what they were hearing to be true about Jesus.

From a group in Asia along a closed border that we visited, I got an email.  “The brothers are seeing more fruit than we have seen in a long time.  When can you return and teach somewhere else?”

One friend asked me last month, “How do you make the ministry better this next year?”  There are plenty of things that can be improved, but we won’t lose this perspective – do the simple things well.

OT stories with Muslims

Recently I got this email after a seminar.  I cleaned up my reply and post, hoping  it helps others see some of the thinking that goes into choosing stories to share with our friends.

Hi Tim, I was following up with you on my question I had for you at Perspectives. I’m sorry I could not stay and hear the answer that evening. I had asked what five stories would you pick to share, starting with the old testament to the new to share the gospel. The reason I ask about bringing in the Old Testament is because i think it would be more effective to Muslim’s. I would love to know your thoughts. Thank you for your time and ministry.

 In Him,

Amanda

Hey Amanda.  Thanks for writing me about this.  Here’s my quick thoughts.  Would be more than glad to talk more if you want.

I completely agree in many situations with bringing in OT stories with Muslims, for a few reasons.

1.  Common names and background (even if details are different) builds trust with Muslims as we talk about the stories.  We’re not combating them.  It also as builds credibility for God as you walk through stories about Him.

Semere Training2.  Many Muslims haven’t ever talked about OT people that Christians believe with Christians and think we only want to
talk about Jesus with them.

3.  The Koran says that the Book (Bible) is to be known.  While they believe that we have corrupted the Bible, by finding a more comfortable ground to talk with them on (OT) we invite them into some “softer” areas of discussion before we talk about Christ, which can be more tense.

4.  A friend once told me after he shared the Jesus Film with dozens of villages that he felt he was “giving them dessert before giving them a meal”.  How can you understand the gospel without understanding why the gospel had to be?

But what 5 stories would I share?  That’s a tough one b/c of all the variables.  Not to make it too analytical, but you have to consider how devout and how cultural Muslim are they, what are their views of Christians, of the Bible, how do they view Jesus, what is your relationship with them, and others probably.

But I’d think of using a story set along the theme of promise.

God’s promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-9, 17:1-8).

God’s promise to David (2 Samuel 7).

Isaiah 52-53.

Then a story about Jesus having authority to forgive sins and heal such as the paralytic lowered through the roof (Mark 2) or maybe Zacchaeus (Luke 19) b/c Jesus says this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham, tying it to the earlier story.

Then I’d condense the arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection (a lot to put together) into one longer story.  This ties all three OT stories together.

Then end with Jesus time with the disciples before his ascension, which gives you the reason you are sharing this story with your friend in the first place, because the prophet Jesus who was the Son of God said to obey him is to tell others about him.

Street ViewThese could sound a bit dry since the first three are all prophesy sections, but you could add some context around the promises to make it more living.

Or take 2 or 3 stories from David’s life instead of Abraham and Isaiah.  The theme of promise still fits, but you frontload the stories with some non-conflict ones about a common person, David.  Maybe 1) David as King, 2) David and Bathsheba, 3) Nathan confronting David.  Shows that even great king David was a sinner like all of us and needed God’s grace, which leads to Jesus.

These are just thoughts.  I would hesitate to give you a prescribed list because the goal isn’t to just share stories that are redemptive, but to have the person engage in these stories.

Having said all that, I also would recommend Carl Medearis book “Muslims, Christians, and Jesus: Gaining Understanding and Building Relationships”.  I agree with a lot of what he says about when talking to Muslims, keep it on Jesus rather than trying to use a lot of OT, for example.  You can share five stories about Jesus very effectively, breaching the barrier they have to his deity and sonship.  In some ways it can be much more natural because you are talking about a common figure both religions and discovering truth and differences.  This isn’t confrontation, it’s journeying together.

Cairo WomenSo, before I confuse you any further, I hope you’re seeing that there is no one prescribed good way to share stories with Muslims.  It totally depends on the person you’re friending.  Some will feel more comfortable beginning with a common footing in the OT and you can approach areas of redemption progressively.  Others you’ll feel more comfortable talking about solely Jesus and making a loving case for your friend to think about.

 

 

Why are we afraid of the simple?

As a culture, we are afraid of the simple.

Maybe that’s an overstatement, but we tend to say we like simple more than we really do.  Think about it.  Our initial thought when something seems simple is that it can’t really be that way.  When something – an item, an idea, a project – seems simple, what do we usually end up doing?  We end up making it more difficult, adding to layers of complexity to it, as if that makes it better, more acceptable, or more effective.  Sometimes this is because we like a challenge and the simple wasn’t good enough.  Sometimes the more complex something is, the more “needed” it makes me feel.  Sometimes it’s because we just can’t accept something in its simplest form so it can’t be “right”.

Getting my girls to do 7th grade algebra has been a nightly tissue-fest.  One opens her math notebook with a melodramatic sigh, resigning herself to the inevitable torture chamber she is about to enter.  The other sets the notebook on the table and starts crying as if it she were getting ready to read her own obituary.  “I CAN’T DO THIS!  It’s too hard!  I didn’t understand what the teacher said!  It’s all her fault! (of course)”

But once we sit down and I can get them to shut their mouths long enough to show them a couple lines, they kind of eek out a whimpy, “Oh, that’s all you do?”

I was speaking at a church and somebody came up afterwards and said, “Storying isn’t really all the difficult, is it?”  Nope.  There are many great ways to communicate about God, teach from the Word, and help people see God, but something that is very common to all of us has been forgotten to be an incredibly effective way of helping people connect with God.  Or to put it another way, sometimes we forget that the simple way that Jesus modeled doing ministry and try to make it more complicated.

Here are a few simple reasons why storying, whether it’s done cross-culturally or within a community or even with our own families, is a good skill to be familiar with.

  1. Stories are natural.  There’s something that just seems normal about telling a story, not needing a high iq or a title or a high theological education to tell something that is very powerful.
  2. Stories are easy to reproduce.  They have images, characters, emotions, action, resolution.  If something leaves an impression on us, it’s easier to recall.  Can you give the three points from the last sermon you heard, or can you tell somebody the three stories used to illustrate those points?
  3. Stories are simple.  How many stories have bullet points, lists, and subsets to remember?  They just flow.
  4. Stories are done in community.  Unless you like telling a story in front of a mirror, when stories are shared it tends to deepen relationships.
  5. Stories are journeying together.  So instead of arguing over theological points, we are discovering things together, walking through the story and it’s take-aways.
  6. Stories lower the barriers that initially opening a Bible could bring with a person who isn’t a follower of Christ.  In some cultures or settings, this is a huge benefit to keeping doors open.
  7. Stories can be shared anytime.  You can be at a dinner table, in a coffee shop, on a plane, in a small group, on the phone, driving, or sitting around a roasting goat.
  8. For many people, the story you share might be the only Bible they ever encounter.  Maybe because there is no alphabet for their language, or maybe because it’s a risk in their context, or maybe because of past experiences have burned them on religion.
  9. Stories can be told by anybody.  We all tell stories.  Some better than others, but we all can tell a story.  People with no reading ability can tell a story!
  10. People like stories.  Simple enough.

I think when we look at Jesus’ ministry we see each of these.  Like I said before, there are a lot of great ways to help people connect with God.  Stories are one simple and powerful way.

I guess I could teach algebra with stories, but my girls hate word problems.

Advice vs News

OK, so it’s been too long since we wrote a blog entry.  Much has happened, but much has not been communicated through here either.  I could make excuses and justifications, but it would be like my kids telling me why they didn’t get their rooms cleaned up – believable reasons, good reasons, even legit reasons, but the fact is the room still resembles a chemistry lab experiment gone bad.

Buddist TempleRecently I’ve been reading Timothy Keller’s book King’s Cross and have several sections underlined. Very good stuff as the author walks through Mark’s account of Jesus’ life.  In chapter 2, Keller talks about what a gospel was in the times of the Romans, giving examples of it being “news of some event that changed things in a meaningful way…something that’s been done for you that  changes your status forever (p. 15).”

He then says,”Right there you see the difference between Christianity and all other religions…The essence of other religions is advice; Christianity is essentially news.”

When I read that, I immediately thought of the people we’ve been with this year.  A few months ago, I was in a part of India
that has much persecution for believers.  One of my best friends and I were able to spend two weeks with different groups of men and women who have committed their lives to seeing the gospel known among their people.  As we shared with them the natural  way that stories communicate, one man said to me that hehad been trained in many methods of ministry, but stories were simple enough that he could see people telling others once they hear it themselves.  I believe there’s at least one simple reason why.

Advice is something that you feel you have to have a degree of proficiency achieved before you are able to give it to others; why would anybody listen to you otherwise.  News is something that is shared because it has an immediate impression on us.  What do we text, tweet, and FaceBook?  News.  Why?  We want to leave an impression.

Semere RetellingThe gospel – the whole Bible! – is news, but many people in the world either don’t know it, or have reduced it to advice. By telling other people the stories of this news, they are seeing it leave an impression on those around them.  A friend in West Africa recently took some of the training we did together and shared it with twenty-five other believers living in an almost all Muslim region.  They have since started many groups in remote villages who gather to listen to stories underneath trees and by wells.  It is news that is leaving an impression and spreading.

Looking forward to doing a better job at communicating more news to you in the coming months.