Missionary Stories and Hymn Stories: Saying “Amen” to “Depth and Complication” [—at A Life Overseas]

“British missionary William Carey is often called the father of modern missions,” writes Rebecca Hopkins in Christianity Today. “Adoniram Judson has been titled the first American missionary to travel overseas.”

And for many of us, that pretty much sums up the origin of missions in the West. But Rebecca has more to tell us in “How Black Missionaries Are Being Written Back into the Story,” as she adds in Rebecca Protten and George Liele. Why are they notable? Because both left America and planted churches before Carey or Judson went out—Protten to St. Thomas and later present-day Ghana, and Liele to Jamaica—and both were former slaves.

If Protten’s and Liele’s names are new to you, grab the January/February issue of CT to read their stories, stories that, as Rebecca writes, “add depth and complication to the sometimes too-simple narrative of missions history.” Depth, because of the inclusion of Black Christians that sit outside the traditional narrative of the White American church. Complication, because Protten and Liele were not “commissioned” and “sent out” in the traditional sense, and because questions remain as to how complicit they were in the evils of their day—Protten in regards to “cultural genocide” and Liele in regards to slavery.

I like the phrase “depth and complication.” Too often we Christians find comfort in our “too-simple narratives,” leaving out difficult details, and leaving out people, as well.

Rebecca’s article and that phrase were in the back of my mind a few weeks ago (pardon me while I go on a stream-of-consciousness trek here) when I heard on the radio the end of an interview with the African-American composer Thomas Dorsey. I looked up more on Dorsey, known as the “Father of Soul Music,” and here’s what I found.

The son of a Baptist preacher and church organist, Dorsey started his musical career as a blues piano player, often performing in bars and brothels, and later toured with the “Mother of the Blues,” Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. Then in 1921, after attending the National Baptist Convention, he committed himself to writing gospel music. But it wasn’t a full commitment, as he didn’t completely turn his back on the blues culture of the time, which included “dirty blues,” risqué songs filled with double entendres. It was in this genre that he cowrote his most popular blues piece, the hit “It’s Tight like That.” As Dorsey tried to introduce his bluesy gospel songs in churches, his mixing of the secular and holy rankled many preachers. And as Dorsey tells Steven Kaplan in Horizon, he believed preachers felt upstaged by his music. “I got kicked out of some of the best churches in town,” he says.

He found a better welcome in Ebenezer Baptist Church, where, in 1931, he helped establish the first gospel choir. But it was the next year when his life truly changed, resulting in his writing the classic gospel song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Following is the story, told by Dorsey in the documentary, Say Amen, Somebody. It takes place after he had travelled to St. Louis, while his wife remained in South Chicago. . . .

Continue reading, for more about Thomas Dorsey, Horatio and Anna Spafford, and Lilias Trotter, at A Life Overseas.

(Rebecca Hopkins, “How Black Missionaries Are Being Written Back into the Story,” Christianity Today, December 13, 2021)

[photo: “Sand Dune Patterns and Shapes,” by Jeff Sullian, used under a Creative Commons license]

We Are Mars Hill [—at A Life Overseas]

I’ve listened to the entirety of Christianity Today’s Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast with great interest, eagerly waiting for each episode to be released. But I’ve held off recommending it too enthusiastically until the final segment aired, to be sure it didn’t go off the rails, or at least my set of rails.

Well, the twelfth*, and last, episode came out on December 4, and after listening to it, I encourage you to do the same. Even if you don’t take in the whole series, I think you should still listen to the ending segment, titled “Aftermath.” Why? Because I’ve come to the conclusion that We Are Mars Hill, and it is the closing episode that makes that clear to me.

Like many, I first heard of Mark Driscoll, co-founder and lead pastor of the Seattle-based Mars Hill Church, when Donald Miller introduced him in his 2003 book, Blue like Jazz (though at the time he was simply “Mark the Cussing Pastor”). And later, he caught my attention by infamously stating,

There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus and by God’s grace it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done. You either get on the bus or you get run over by the bus. Those are the options. But the bus ain’t gonna stop. . . . There’s a few kind of people. There’s people who get in the way of the bus. They gotta get run over. There are people who want to take turns driving the bus. They gotta get thrown off, cuz they want to go somewhere else.

In time, Mars Hill grew to, at its largest, around 13,000 attending at 15 sites in multiple states. Over the years I kept up with news coming from the church as Driscoll became more of a celebrity and accusations against him became more newsworthy, culminating in his departure from the church in 2014, followed by the dissolution of the church network. This came after Driscoll’s fellow elders declared him guilty of having a quick temper, using harsh words, displaying arrogance, and leading with a domineering manner, characteristics that had spread through church teaching and relationships.

One thing that makes the Mars Hill saga relevant is that there seems to be something of Mars Hill in so many of us—the desire to find something big and powerful that removes ambiguity and tells us how to to do things the right way, the desire to have confident leaders who aren’t afraid to brawl with easily identified enemies, the desire, especially for men, to regain significance in our culture and in our churches and in our families.

And if we’re not careful, very, very careful, we’ll climb aboard the bus and travel confidently down the same road. Yes, We Are Mars Hill. . . .

Finish reading at A Life Overseas

(Mark Driscoll, clip at Joyful Exiles, October 1, 2007)

[photo: “one-sixty-six/three-sixty-five,” by Laura LaRose, used under a Creative Commons license]

God’s Speed: Slowing Down, Listening, and Learning

Matt Canlis, an Anglican pastor, has some good friends who appear with him in the video Godspeed. Some are rather famous: Eugene Peterson and N. T. Wright (whom he calls “Tom”). Others are not so well known, at least not outside Aberdeenshire, Scotland: Alan Torrance (with whom he started a “wee kinda group of men” to read the Bible together), Mr. and Mrs. French, and Colin Presly (who’s head elder of the church in his village). All of them have been Canlis’s teachers.

While Canlis was finishing up seminary, Peterson, one of his professors, gave him advice on becoming a pastor. “Go find a fishbowl,” he said, “where you can’t escape being known.”

Peterson knew, says Canlis in Godspeed,

if I really wanted to walk like Jesus, I had to slow down. I was like, “Eugene, I’m in. I’m sold, Where do I go to learn to become this kind of person, this pastor?” He smiled and he said, “You might have to go further than you think. You might have to leave America.” And I thought, “That’ll never happen.”

Of course, happen it did, and Canlis relocated to Scotland, where the people of St. Andrews, Pitlochry, and Methlick taught him how to be their pastor. You can watch the 35-minute film Godspeed, at Vimeo or at the Godspeed website, and hear for yourself the simple, soft-spoken lessons of the locals. For instance, there’s the kilt-wearing Torrance, whose wisdom comes from a first-hand understanding of the small-community environment that Jesus lived in and from reading the Bible with fresh eyes.

Of course, Peterson and Wright share their wisdom along the way, too, with Wright mentioning another resource for understanding the value of living a slower, village-paced life: Koduke Koyama’s Three Mile an Hour God. In his collection of essays, Koyama writes that when we allow God to lead us through the wilderness, “our speed is slowed down until gradually we come to the speed on which we walk—three miles an hour“:

I find that God goes ‘slowly’ in his educational process of man. ‘Forty years in the wilderness’ points to his basic educational philosophy. Forty years of national migration through the wilderness, three generations of the united monarchy (Saul, David, Solomon), nineteen kings of Israel (up to 722 BC) and twenty kings of Judah (up to 587 BC), the hosts of the prophets and priests, the experience of exile and restoration—isn’t this rather a slow and costly way for God to let his people know the covenant relationship between God and man?

Jesus Christ came. He walked towards the ‘full stop’. He lost his mobility. He was nailed down! He is not even at three miles an hour as we walk. He is not moving. ‘Full stop’! What can be slower than ‘full stop’—’nailed down’? At this point of ‘full stop’, the apostolic church proclaims that the love of God to man is ultimately and fully revealed. God walks ‘slowly’ because he is love. If he is not love he would have gone much faster. Love has its speed. It is an inner speed. It is a spiritual speed. It is a different kind of speed from the technological speed to which we are accustomed. It is ‘slow’ yet is is lord over all other speeds since it is the speed of love. It goes on in the depth of our life, whether we notice or not, whether we are currently hit by storm or not, at three miles an hour. It is the speed we walk and therefore it is the speed the love of God walks.

(Kosuke Koyama, Three Mile an Hour God, SCM, 1979)

[photo: “Forested Path 2,” by aetherspoon, used under a Creative Commons license]

Sing to the Lord, All the Earth

Sing to the Lord a new song;
    sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, praise his name;
    proclaim his salvation day after day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
    his marvelous deeds among all peoples. (Psalm 96:1-3 NIV)

[photo: “Vedere i campi di lavanda,” by Adamo George, used under a Creative Commons license]

Embracing the Struggle

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I’ll take inspiration where I find it, even if it’s from a book’s back cover . . . quoted at Amazon.com.

The book is Bo M. White’s A Time to Question Everything: Embracing Good News and Bad Days. White is the director of study abroad at Baylor University and has traveled to over 40 countries in his work with NGOs, international non-profits, and international education. The bio at his website says,

Married with two children, Bo has lived near Chicago, St. Louis, Phoenix, and Kansas City, but a little street in Central London remains a significant place because it’s where he explored the power of story with great intensity, studying at the University of London within walking distance of the former residences of Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and T. S. Eliot. It’s where he first explored in any serious way the idea of grace attending an RML group at St. Helen’s Church at Bishopsgate. And it’s where culture was explored through a law internship that took him inside London prisons, a University class that took him inside many of London’s incredible theatres, and a chance to see himself and his life outside America for the first time.

The book-cover blurb goes like this:

Bookstores and blogs display stories of people who go from bad days to good days, encouraging people to break out of their slump, pick themselves up, and make something awesome happen. Readers are supposed to get inspired and fix themselves. A Time to Question Everything, instead, offers space to bring personal demons, doubts, and disappointments to the table, daring people to believe that embracing the daily struggle of faith is indeed the good life. Unlike any other world religion, the Christian faith celebrates grace, not self-improvement. The heart of A Time to Question Everything is this sincere question: can grace hold the weight of this messy life?

The part here that struck me is that “embracing the daily struggle of faith is indeed the good life.” That’s the kind of thing I was trying to say nearly two years ago in my post “Surviving? Thriving? How about Striving?” at A Life Overseas. In it I express that when we’re in a situation where thriving seems out of reach, we shouldn’t give up but should see striving as a worthy alternative. Striving—or “struggling”—is a natural part, a positive part, of living, whether that’s at home or abroad.

In a comment following my post, Erika Loftis wrote,

I understand what you mean by striving. But striving also sounds like “trying” and it’s the trying that seems to be the weight dragging us all under water. Trying to keep our neighbors impressed with us, trying to learn language, trying to keep people from thinking we are too rich or too poor. Trying trying trying . . . I wonder if striving, in the holy sense, comes from some semblance of settled and embracing our life and surroundings. . . . If I’m honest, I had a strong reaction, a sense of hope seeping away, that I or anyone around me, has any chance off this well beaten path towards burn out (which is sort of the modern day martyr . . . except for anyone who knows the burnt out/burning out missionary). If striving is the best we will ever achieve, we will stay on this path of strive/trying and ultimately end up at the bottom of Burn Out Canyon. Strive/Trying to still be a Christian. Or not trying anymore. . . .

I responded,

I certainly don’t mean to add to anyone’s burden by saying “strive more” or “try harder.” Instead, my hope is to say that striving is not less acceptable than thriving—it’s just where we often find ourselves.

“I wonder if striving, in the holy sense . . .” Yes, “holy” striving is what I want to practice, and I guess I’m still figuring out what that looks like. Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light, but I’m not always able to take hold of that truth. The burdens we pick up can sure feel hard and heavy. I hope that we will all keep trying (and ultimately I’m talking about our walk with Christ, not about a particular ministry or situation), while trusting that God’s grace will meet us more than halfway.

I wish that at the time I’d been able to make my point more clearly by crafting a phrase as good as “embracing the daily struggle of faith is indeed the good life.” Embracing . . . that’s even better than simply accepting. Struggle of faith . . . that’s a good way to sum up striving. The good life . . . that’s what we all want, and we need to know that that good life is defined by grace, not by more and more effort.

I haven’t read A Time to Question Everything yet, but I’m not above judging a book by its back cover, so I’ve added it to my Amazon Wishlist—which really should be renamed my Amazon wish-everything-here-was-free-and-I-had-three-extra-hours-a-day-to-read-all-these-books list.

I actually don’t think I’ll ever get to all the titles in the depths of my collection, but I am making some progress. And at least for now, this one’s at the top.

(Bo M. White, “About Me,” Bo M. White; Bo M. White, A Time to Question Everything: Embracing Good News and Bad Days, Wipf and Stock, 2018)

[photo: “Bristlecone 2,” by David Wood, used under a Creative Commons license]

Christmas, 2, 3, 4

“This Airport’s Christmas Tree Was So Offensively Ugly They Had to Take It Down”

[T]he people of Beirut, Lebanon were far from pleased with the Christmas tree that was standing in Rafic Hariri International Airport this season.

It wasn’t just ugly—it wasn’t really a tree. The structure was actually made of metal, fire extinguishers, life vests, and other recycled airplane parts.

The tree was actually commissioned as part of an environmental initiative from Middle East Airlines in order “to raise awareness about environmental protection and to prevent logging and awareness on the recycling process.” However, most people traveling through the airport couldn’t really get past the idea that they were looking at what was basically a Christmas tree made of garbage.

. . . . .

After many complaints, the tree was removed from the airport.

Andrea Romano, Travel and Leisure, December 15, 2017

For Those in Authority, Let us Pray [—at a Life Overseas]

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One summer when I was in college, I worked at a Salvation Army day camp. We kept the kids busy with lots of activities, lots of playing, lots of singing, lots of eating, and lots of Bible lessons. During one of the teaching times on the lawn, one of the campers, a boy of about 10, got up and walked away. I caught up to him down the block, and we sat down together on the curb. When I asked him what was wrong, he said he was tired of hearing the same stories over and over again. I told him I feel that way sometimes, too. But, I said, so much of following Jesus is not learning new things but being reminded of things we already know.

So here’s one of those reminders—if not for you, then certainly for me.

“I urge, then, first of all,” writes Paul of Tarsus, “that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority.”

Now the readers at A Life Overseas cover a lot of territory, so “kings and all those in authority” is a wide-ranging group. But are we supposed to pray for all of them?

Head over to A Life Overseas to finish reading.

[photo: “Crown,” by Sarah, used under a Creative Commons license]

Missionaries, Ministers, Money, and Manure: Don’t Pile ’em Up, or So They Say

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I once heard a friend (and fellow missionary at the time) say something on the order of

Missionaries are like manure. Pile them all together and they stink, but spread them out and they do good things.

He isn’t the only one who’s used fertilizer imagery to point out that missionaries tend to cause each other problems when they’re in close proximity to each other. But where did the missionary-manure comparison originally come from?

Well, one blogger cites a quotation from Luis Palau, in which the evangelist credits a Wycliffe missionary in Mexico for coming up with the phrase, after watching a cow walk by. But that doesn’t quite jibe with the testimonies of others (including Philip Yancey, in Church: Why Bother? [Zondervan, 1998]) who claim that Palau applied the simile to the church:

The church is like manure. Pile it together and it stinks up the neighborhood; spread it out and it enriches the world.

Comparisons of manure with types of people aren’t limited to only “missionaries” and “the church,” though all the ones I’ve been able to find do concern people who have an involvement with religion. Consider these examples:

The reference to “ministers” above is from a sermon by William Sloane Coffin, given in 1978, in which he says he heard the correlation to manure from a “distinguished theologian” twenty years earlier. That version is

Ministers are like manure: spread out in the field they have a certain usefulness. But when brought together in a heap, well, the odor gets pretty strong.

But a more precise earlier dating comes from the Proceedings of the Nineteenth Annual Meeting of the State Bar of California, volume 19, published in 1950. In it, the speaker refers to his “dear friend Lord MacMillan,” who tells about a Scottish minister who couldn’t bring himself to attend synod meetings, saying,

Ministers are like manure; when they are spread out over the land, they are very beneficial to the community.

But people aren’t the only things that are like manure. Nope, not just people. There’s

This last one is significant, because it deals with money, which leads us closer to the great-great-grandfather of the “is like manure” idea. But first lets take a look at a great aunt . . . from the mouth of Dolly Gallagher Levi.

In 1953, Thornton Wilder wrote the play The Matchmaker, a revision of his earlier work The Merchant of Yonkers, from 1938. In it, Dolly quotes her late husband, Ephraim:

Money, I’ve always felt, money—pardon my expression—is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread about encouraging young things to grow.

In 1964, The Matchmaker was made into the musical Hello, Dolly! which then became a movie in 1969. (The about in the above line becomes around in the musical versions.) This is probably where “money is like manure” gained the most attention in modern times, but it certainly didn’t originate there. Over a hundred years earlier (August 20, 1836, to be exact), Horace Greeley’s The New-Yorker included this “adage”:

Money is like manure, of no use until it be spread.

And now we get back to the oldest relative of the phrase—at least the oldest one that’s been found in print. It’s from Francis Bacon’s Of Seditions and Troubles, way back in 1625:

Above all things, good policy is to be used, that the treasure and monies in a state be not gathered into few hands; for, otherwise, a state may have a great stock, and yet starve: and money is like muck, not good except it be spread. This is done chiefly by suppressing, or, at the least, keeping a strait hand upon the devouring trades of usury, engrossing, great pasturages, and the like.

Where did Bacon come up with this? Well, in the same year, he also published Apophthegmes New and Old. Collected by the Right Honourable, Francis Lo. Verulam, Viscount St. Alban. One of these apothegms (wow, I just looked that word up and found out I’ve been mispronouncing it) he ascribes to a Mr. Bettenham:

Mr. Bettenham used to say; That Riches were like Mucke: When it lay, upon an heape, it gave but a stench, and ill odour; but when it was spread upon the ground, then it was cause of much fruit.

In a letter written to Thomas Hobby, Bacon references the death of his friend “Mr. Bettenham” (The Letters and the Life of Francis Bacon [collected by James Spedding, 1868]). Assuming this is the same person from Apophthegmes, the saying would have to predate 1606, when Bacon penned the letter.

So all told, that’s a more-than-400-year history, which means my friend didn’t come up with the idea on his own. And neither did J. Paul Getty or Will Rogers or J. I. Packer or an acquaintance of  Francis Chan. No, the complete line of succession is not nearly so straightforward . . . or recent. Rather, to quote another quotable source, the venerable REO Speedwagon, it instead hews closer to (sing along with me)

Heard it from a friend

who heard it from a friend

who heard it from another. . . .”

And so it—usually—goes.

(for more research on the money-manure connection, see The Quote Investigator and The Big Apple)

[photo: “Cow Manure,” by Ian Barbour, used under a Creative Commons license]