Why We Eat Dessert First. Thailand ’16 #1.

Why We Eat Dessert First: Hope breeding Intent at the crossroads of The Arts and Mission

Megan and I are invited to attend a conference for a week as members of the arts team, providing music and visual art for a group of missionaries in February. We now have tickets for Thailand, and my assignment (as I understand it today) is to write about my observations as missionaries encounter artists and their arts, and as the artists encounter missionaries and interact with their lives.

The first question that naturally comes to my mind is “what do artists and missionaries have in common?”

The writer of the first letter to the church at Corinth famously noted that, of the three great spiritual gifts (I call them this because the writer of this letter does not differentiate them from gifts in the previous chapter), or what theologians have termed “graces” or “fruits” from God – faith, hope and love – love remains as the greatest (1 Cor. 13:13).

I find the silver medalist, Hope (anticipation of good outcomes), to be more accessible than its companions. Each of the three strike a sort of musical chord. We have strong emotional connections at a heart level, yet we recognize both an intellectual harmonic or overtone and a mystical bass note which throbs through our soul and transcends even our emotion. The word ‘throb’ implies a rhythm as well. In other words, at the top of the chord we can think about these things, and in the center we feel them, but at the bottom they explore things in nature beyond expression, a bass note and a driving rhythm.

Like a chord, they all have potential to move us when they’re well-tuned. A dance is created, and this means we’ve been spurred to action.

As I mentioned, I find the chord struck by Hope to be the most accessible in terms of how easy they are to discuss or understand. I don’t say that this means the mystical bass note of Hope is any less complex, because it isn’t. That brings me to a different metaphor. If faith, hope and love were wines, we might say that Hope is the dessert wine, adding a sweetness, faith the more complex wine which pairs with the main course (the works), and love, well, even “outside the Work” (hors d’oeuvre) love is essential. We must have love from the very beginning, love is the hors d’oeuvre; and love is the alpha and omega. We must have faith, without which our works are dead, but Hope satisfies our sweet tooth. I may want chili one day and salmon the next, (my works change as life is lived) but I always like to have a bit of chocolate around to finish with.

And yet we have a rather popular saying: “eat dessert first, life is uncertain.”

In the face of uncertainty, indeed, we do need some hope to bring us to the main course of faith. In this sense, I believe that hope is the breeding ground for intent. “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief” is not a statement of faith, it’s a statement of hope: I hope (anticipate) that I can have faith, that you can help me. Where hope gives intent, faith gives action, and love produces fruit. I will say this several times so that we don’t forget the gold medalist in all of this.

For both the artist and the missionary, the uncertainty of life brings us to a decision to eat dessert first. One might say that the concept of retirement is a bit like eating dessert last: you have an assumption that you’ll be around to do the things you enjoy after completing the stuff that’s expected. You clean your plate, then you get a treat.

The artists and missionaries who I know never seem to live that way. They follow the passion of their hearts first. They pass through some financial difficulties that others don’t experience because of this passion (sometimes necessarily and other times unnecessarily) because they’ve chosen to pursue something delicious first.

They break a bottle of embalming perfume before death has taken their Lord. “Responsible” people criticize them, but their hope brings them to intent, their intent drives them to action (work), and they make something of the moment they have.

The reason hope is so easy to understand (in comparison to the other two) is that it’s perhaps easiest to connect with hope’s opposite: Despair.

Few things are as powerfully carnal (even to our souls) as Despair is. The problems generated by lack of faith, fear, and apathy can be turned aside by hope. The problems missionaries encounter, and artists as well, is that in their work environments, isolation and the very difficult and real challenge of communicating complex ideas across cultural barriers leads one very easily to lack of faith and even apathy. “If people don’t even want to hear what I’m trying to tell them, well, who cares, anyway? So what?” This leads to burnout, which is a function of despair. If hope breeds intent and faith and work, despair breeds burnout.

Artists and missionaries both, therefore, need regular injections of hope. They’ve chosen a lifestyle that goes after the sweetest thing they can imagine first, eschewing stability in the process, and hope drives everything. For a missionary or an artist, hope is the gasoline, faith is the pistons and the drive shaft, love is the wheels.

Ask a missionary who’s kept a beater running for ten years. Last year I drove around Chiang Mai with a guy whose car was so old it was like … it was old. It defied metaphor; it defined clichés about oldness. He’d bought it for $600 or so from another missionary who was leaving town. It’s amazing how many missionaries can keep their cars moving forward, a spare part here, duct tape there, as long as they have gasoline.

I think a missionary’s life is like that. Give them hope, and they’ll patch together the faith to work and love to bear fruit as they go. It may not be pretty, but without hope, they’re standing on the side of the road like the blind man in the song, singing “show me the way to go home” and that statement in itself is a final statement of hope.

Artists have similar dreams for society. They hope that people will see the world differently. They wonder at times (or often) whether their work will make a difference. They grapple with faith in what God has given them. Consider the prophetic art of Elijah, who had a great big installation project entered into an important competition (The First Book of Kings, Chapter 18) and his results stunned everyone. Afterwards, he had faith enough for rain, but when a small portion of his audience (Jezebel) was displeased with his art, (not even fair to say she’s part of the audience because she didn’t attend, like a critic who talks about an installation they didn’t bother to see) he spun into a tailspin of despair (chapter 19) and was ready to end his own life. Biggest success to date, followed by suicidal thoughts, a sense of complete isolation. What’s going on here? Despair. Finally God reminds him there are plenty of connections left and sends him back to work (at least long enough to anoint his replacement, because, God knows, he’s burned out for good; Elijah has fought the good fight, and given everything he has). Had Elijah used up all his hope? Or did he operate primarily on faith and miss large chunks of both hope and love? Possibly. After all, he was human.

When we function with hope, it breeds intent. The question of “what is art” is a deeply involved philosophical question which I don’t intend to address in full here (or perhaps ever) but one critical aspect of artwork is that it is a product of some sort of intentional working out of a problem or puzzle that often times the artist has created for themselves.

It means finding a way to say something, to address an issue in society, in a fresh way, and that takes intent.

Much of writer’s block can be said to stem, then, from a lack of hope. Intent-crushing despair. Such despairing statements as “nobody will publish this book anyway” or “nobody reads this blog anyway” or “nobody understands me” will kill hope. These will frustrate the working out of the puzzle; while the statement “I will make myself understood” is a statement of not only of faith, but primarily of hope, for we feel that if we are understood, someone may also come to a life-changing conclusion. Once we’ve made that statement, we have voiced an intent to do it. What we speak with intent is what we do. And this is the crux of the work of a missionary as well, the attempt to communicate something to people who’ve never seen life a certain way before, with intent born of hope to faithfully work towards world-change.

Hope breeds intent. Intent breeds work, which breeds faith. Or, faith breeds work, these two are symbiotic. Love, a fruit of the Spirit, transcends the others, and produces the fruit from the others.





Congo: recent trip brings me full circle

I didn’t set out on this journey to become a life coach with a specific direction of coaching missionaries or impoverished pastors in Africa, or training coaches for cross-cultural work. It would have been around this time of year, in 2007, that I took my first short training course in coaching. Eight years ago (I was 33 years old) I don’t know that I had any solid concept of target market. Maybe I still don’t. Along the way I’ve coached entrepreneurs in the arts in the USA. I consider myself one of those (as a novelist). I’ve coached some business people who were working on figuring out or honing their life purpose. I’ve worked with people from quite a few different walks of life in the USA and now I’ve worked with clients or trainees in well over a dozen other nations, too; I’ve worked with people on every continent except Australia. I’ve even coached some penguins. (That’s not true, but if you know any professional hockey players in Pittsburgh who need a life coach have them give me a call.)

That’s not to brag about my cross-cultural exploits; in fact, the point is that it wasn’t really where I saw this whole thing heading at all. I hoped that I would coach some business people in North America at rates that would provide a lifestyle of beyond-adequate means, and that it might mean I could also afford time and energy for pro bono work; I hoped for a nice mix. That hasn’t happened, and at this point I don’t particularly anticipate that it will. It appears that I have come full circle so that the most formative part of my youth leads into the most impacting part of my life as an adult. Which makes complete, logical sense.

Showing up at MPH Guesthouse in September of 2015 was really not so much different than showing up there in June of 1987. I mean that in the physical details of the place much was the same. The open, central dining room with balcony looking over it from all four sides, from the second floor where most of the guest rooms are, the walled-in garden sprawling out behind the building with fruit trees (the mango trees probably a bit bigger than they were) and a tennis/basketball court (much more dilapidated). Everything still in the same place, comfortable in the way a church campground often is in the States. A world unto itself, a place for rest and retreat. A bubble. A place to put outgoing mail for friends in the USA, where strangers might take it by plane and deliver it to a mailbox leading to a functional postal system.

But more telling is the condition of my heart. When I arrived in Kinshasa, Zaire in 87, everything smelled foreign. Back then, it was still quite common for US Americans to embark upon missions as a lifestyle with intent to give decades of service to learning a local language and enmeshing their lives within the context of a village somewhere. We called it living a life of service, we called it living for the sake of the Gospel, we called it becoming a career missionary. But that whole idea was foreign to me, as was Zaire itself, because by the age of 13 one does not think one’s parents are career missionaries. One thinks one’s parents are exactly whatever they have been in the past; with any stability at all from one’s parental experience, one expects the stability to stay just as it is: stable. I wanted stability, not foreignness; but lapped up the experiences like a drunken boxer: slightly off kilter, just ready enough for the punches that they’d only spin me around again, rather than knock me down. A dizzying time, heady. Perhaps one might say I’ve never been completely stable since that moment we got off the plane in Kinshasa, 1987. The bubble that was MPH Guesthouse was our first stopping point, and while still a bubble, it was a bubble floating upon a foreign liquid, and when it popped, it was the last vestige of life I’d known.

As adults we learn that life is not at all static. We see places go through transformation, we see people, as well, who’ve transformed. I have a friend who kicked his alcohol habit and became a pastor. I know people who have gone through nasty divorces; some are the better for it, others still reel with the pain and devastation. Nations change too. In the USA we had the formative moment for our generation 14 years ago this month, on September 11, 2001; so formative, even, that in many ways we think of events during the span of our lives as either before or after 9/11. In Kinshasa they had their moments too — on several occasions Congo’s unpaid soldiers went on looting sprees, the first one was on 9/23/91, 24 years ago this week. Kinois, (as the residents of Kinshasa are known) still remember those days; they lived through several lootings and none of them are remembered fondly. Luckily or by the grace of God, MPH Guesthouse was not looted and remains a place of stability in the midst of relative chaos. By the grace of God, I, too, was not devastated by people or events and still stand to take on what comes next.

Now it seems that our most formative experience in our youth is often the most valuable in our calling, as we discover many years later. To be able to stand in that place where cultures collide and create, even if for an hour, some sort of bubble where people can find refreshment, is to consider my life as a cross-cultural coach is to think of myself in some ways as a living embodiment of the MPH Guesthouse itself: I create space where people who work cross-culturally can come for a moment of reflection, retreat and can prepare to go back out and take on what comes next for them. The reality is that we still have people going to live cross-culturally. Maybe we’re not sending people in the same way we did in the 1980’s, but it still happens. I have close friends about to leave for Central America. Long term. They are rarer birds, perhaps, in a jungle increasingly cut down as the world gets smaller and as people increasingly find reasons to stay where they are, but … these rare birds will need a sanctuary.

And then, too, more people are going into cross-cultural missions from homes outside the USA. The church I visited 8 days ago in Kinshasa was preparing to send a missionary to a country in northern Africa. We haven’t stopped working cross-culturally. In fact, with the advent of the Internet, we’re more able now than ever to work in cross-cultural contexts. The bigger danger is the temptation to retreat to the Internet when we wish we were at home (something I could not have dreamed of in 1987). But the Internet is not a Guesthouse; at least, not unless it is the vehicle taking you to an intentional conversation with somebody who works within your support community.

As for me, I’m making my peace with the idea that I’m a cross-cultural coach, that my calling is to work in primarily pro bono settings and that this is effectively exactly what I was designed to do, from the moment I set foot in MPH Guesthouse in 1987 until now. Coming full circle includes a recognition that the need is there, that indeed I’m already busy with it, and that it is worthy of support in its own right.