Why We Have to Say Yes (and No)

I imagine that yes is the only living thing. — ee cummings

On a towering rocky precipice high above the sea at the end of the African continent, we looked out over the cacophonous watery expanse, eighteen foot waves marching across the swirling abyss of green and grey.

From that stormy, swell washed height, Katie and I were acutely aware that together we had arrived at another precipice, an interior cliff edge of not knowing which direction to take.

Did the obedient way forward, one in which we would honor our vocations—both together as a married couple and as individuals—mean staying in this rural village on the Indian Ocean coastline of South Africa?

Or did it mean saying goodbye, leaving and possibly never coming back?

Would obedience come by saying yes or by saying no to the opportunity to stay and move beyond the season of discernment we’d been in and begin the next steps of pursuing our vision of a rural community development initiative in this place?

The first time I stood in this village nearly a decade earlier, the rocky precipice was there, but the interior one was absent. Back then in this very spot, I had an inner vision in which I saw the Kingdom of God fully manifest in this place. The tension of “the already” and “the not yet” of the Kingdom had given way to an unrestricted, complete in-breaking of shalom.

I was captive to that vision of God’s shalomic harmony; for eight years it haunted me, seduced me, and eventually lured me back.

I returned there with Katie on two occasions in 2011 and 2012 for several months each time to explore the possibility of moving there following graduation from seminary. Together with the community, Katie and I discerned the creation of a missional project rooted in an asset based approach to community development.

Over the course of those months spent getting to know the land and the sea, the people, and the community as a whole, Katie and I also came to get to know ourselves in new ways. A few weeks after we stood together on that rocky precipice above the tempestuous winter ocean, a mirror of our own unsettled souls, we had realized that saying yes would mean capitulating to obedience to something other than our deepest selves, God, and the shalomic vision I had been given.

In that South African village, together Katie and I discerned that to be faithful to our depths, to our lives, to our God, saying no was required. Despite the shalomic vision and hope, obedience, paradoxically and painfully, meant saying no.

Perhaps yes is the only living thing, as the great American poet ee cummings wrote, because no is also alive in its own distinctive ways. We can only say yes if we also say no. If yes is the via positiva, the way of affirmation, no is the via negativa, the way of negation. If yes is kataphasis, affirmation, no is apophasis, literally “to say no” in Greek.

Yes is the only living thing since yes only exists at all because of no. Yes lives alongside no as night does day. Yes and no are not opposites, but rather they create a whole, a dialectical embrace. Saying yes and saying no are two complementary dimensions of a single contiguous process of obedience. The path of obedience comes through discerning to what we will say yes and to what we will say no.

Articulated thus far has been a rather circuitous way of connecting my and Katie’s past to the present, the then to the now—where we stand atop another cliff edge: in the midst of a major transition to Medellin, Colombia in partnership with Word Made Flesh, an international advocacy organization that accompanies marginalized people around the globe.

I imagine that yes is the only living thing. And I imagine that saying no is an integral aspect of what has brought us to this new cliff edge. We aren’t in South Africa as we had thought we would be five short years ago. Instead, we are poised to begin something new in Colombia, something which, of course, exists in a future that hasn’t yet been written, in a narrative yet to be told, with cliff edges of interiority yet to be navigated.

To all of which we say yes.

[this post originally appeared in The Cry, an advocacy journal published by Word Made Flesh]

A Different Sort of Christmas Anxiety

It’s two days after Christmas. A week ago, Katie and I moved to Colombia.

We’ve had a few days of rest and relaxation on the gorgeous Caribbean beaches of Cartagena before moving on to Medellin where we are living.

Despite many moments of joy and gratitude, laughter and enjoyment, I have found myself anxious. A persistent sense that the future is terrifyingly uncertain has been stalking me since we arrived.

Despite having lived in 14 cities in 9 different countries, this particular transition overseas has brought me into a heightened encounter with a basic existential reality: the future is uncertain, uncontrollable, unknowable. And encountering that here outside my normal context, without the usual securities of home and familiarity that act as a kind of soothing balm to the psyche, has been ratcheting up my anxiety.

This brings to mind the Christmas story.

It must have been terrifying for God to take on flesh and be born as a human, one like us. Limited. Afraid. With a propensity to feel deep anger and grief. Prone to physical illness and hard to control impulses.

For God to incarnate as a human, God underwent the same uncertainty we do.

I imagine the anxiety in God when God chose to be vulnerable to the point of taking on skin, bone, blood, and breath. God chose to do this as a reflection of the vulnerability at the heart of the Trinity.

God voluntarily moves from eternity into the field of time, entering into the world of fragmentation, suffering, and mortality.

God risked life in the messy, violent, broken world that God created, taking the ultimate risk in loving humanity and all of creation as intimately as possible–in the flesh.

To be human is to be uncertain. To be human is to feel fear, because to be human is to be vulnerable, no matter what defenses we use to shield ourselves, regardless of what mechanisms we use to gain a sense of security.

Knowing that God struggled with the exact same things we struggle with, including the anxiety of uncertainty, doesn’t make it go away. It’s not a palliative for existential or circumstantial woes. But it does something: it places us inside the Christmas narrative, not only as a historical event that happened back then 2,000 years ago, but in a way that we can sense that God isn’t immune to uncertainty. That God feels what we feel, knows the very uncomfortability we know.

This allows us to release judgment toward ourselves and take a posture of radical acceptance of our anxiety and uncertainty as part and parcel of the grand story of incarnation. We recognize God’s anxiety inside of our own uncertainty and fear.

From this place, we not only celebrate Christmas and the birth of Christ, but move to a deeper level, to a knowing that we are undergoing Christmas, being transformed into the Nativity of God here and now, as we accept and see God in the heart of our anxiety.

May you take the time and space you need, whatever your circumstances in this season of your life, to attend to the places inside where deep uncertainty dwells and behold Christ being born there.


Modern Mary: What a Pregnant Refugee Minority Teenager Would Sing Today

[Guest Post at Missio Alliance]

Find any nativity set, and we all know the familiar characters: Mary, Joseph, the little baby Jesus, and the various barnyard animals. Mary’s story is central to the Christmas narrative in the Gospel of Luke. Yet beyond the endearing Hallmark Christmas card representations of her and the paintings and statues that usually depict her with either a docile, youthful innocence or a regal kind of majesty, who was the woman of Nazareth who bore Jesus in her womb?

And how does her life have any relevance to us today, especially during the Advent season?

Mary’s Subversive Song

The Gospel of Luke is a good place to begin looking for insight into Mary because it offers us a very distinctive portrayal of the Messiah who she would give birth to.

Luke presents Jesus as a prophet who sides with the poor and oppressed, exemplified in the words, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”(Luke 4:18-19). The idea of reversal, that God came for the poor, is the essence of the book of Luke.

In the first chapter, we find the Magnificat, also known as Mary’s song, a hymn of praise sung by a young teen girl in response to hearing the news that she would be the parent of the long awaited Messiah:

Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One is holy,
and he has done great things for me.
He shows mercy from generation to generation
to all who fear him.
His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
He has brought down princes from their thrones
and exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away with empty hands.
He has helped his servant Israel
and remembered to be merciful.
For he made this promise to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children forever. (Luke 1:46-55, NLT)

A Woman’s Untamed Praise

Mary, a socially and politically marginalized Jew in a region occupied by the Roman Empire, lived at the lowest strata of Ancient Near Eastern society, which was also deeply patriarchal. Women were not considered to be full citizens or even fully human. In this context of living at the margins with regard to social location, gender, and economic status, Mary announces that the unjust structures that have fashioned her and her people into a subaltern state of existence were being reversed. She breaks out in song, praising the God of the Israelites who had freed her people from the slavery of Egypt and Babylon.

The crux of salvation history, according to Jewish consciousness, was liberation from enslavement to Pharaoh and the oppressive rule they were made to endure for generations. In the Jewish understanding, salvation was understood to be synonymous with liberation. Political and social emancipation, intimately tied to psychological and spiritual autonomy, was salvific truth embodied together in community.

The crux of salvation history, according to Jewish consciousness, was liberation from enslavement.CLICK TO TWEET

Mary’s words recapitulate the Jewish prophetic tradition of interrogating religio-political systems that oppress society’s outsiders and impoverished. Her song of praise, then, isn’t a submissive canticle of compliance to God’s will as is told from pulpits nationwide every December. Her canticle isn’t lyrically docile. It is praise at its most raw, untamed, and status-quo disrupting.

Let there be no mistake—Marian doxology invites revolution.

Her words have been seen as a threat to dictators, power brokers, and autocrats for two millennia. They were banned from being read or sung in India during the British colonial administration and in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980’s. Argentina outlawed them during the Dirty War years— the mothers of disappeared children put Mary’s song on public display and in response, the government forbade the words in public places.

A song of salvation whose social, political, and economic dimensions cannot be underestimated, Mary’s words portending the end of oppression intimidate the leaders of the domination systems of this world—a threat even more potent coming from a woman.

Neither a peaceful dove nor a gentle mother as so many of our cultural hymns would have it, Mary’s feminine power was raw, wild, and courageous. Mary of Nazareth is Christianity’s original subversive woman. In tenor with her song, we can enter Advent with a posture of resistance, subversion, the hope of injustice being overturned, and a joyful faith that expects the reversal of inequity.

Neither a peaceful dove nor a gentle mother, Mary’s power was raw, wild, & courageous.CLICK TO TWEET

Subversive Praise in 2017 America

Though ever incendiary, Mary’s subversive worship of offers more than prophetic witness against. Her words also narrate hopeful anticipation for, especially on behalf of the economically poor and socially outcast, those who exist within the underbelly of the global village. “The battered woman, the single parent without resources, those without food on the table or without even a table, the homeless family, the young abandoned to their own devices, the old who are discarded: all are encompassed in the hope Mary proclaims.” (Elizabeth Johnson)

If Mary lived in our country today, she’d be a 14-year-old black girl struggling to get by in Flint or an adolescent Latina eking out an existence with her immigrant parents in gentrifying El Paso.  And her song of praise to the anti-racist and anti-nationalist, pro-poor, and pro-human rights God she worships might read something like this:

I can’t contain my excitement about this!
Out of all people, he noticed me, a poor, pregnant teenager!
Everyone will call me blessed from now on.
God’s love is so much greater than I can even imagine.
He showed his love for everyone, even those society despises,
the LGBTQIA community, immigrants, refugees, the addicted and shamed.
God knows black lives matter; refugees and immigrants are his beloved.
All the people who are seen as less than human, he knows and loves.
He lifts up those who are preyed upon by corrupt politicians,
the hungry, the ones brutalized by the police and ICE, and families without healthcare.
He invites each of us to the table to speak and tell our story, to be heard and known.
The power-hungry perpetrators who care only about their agendas don’t have the last word!
I can sense his presence, holding me and all his children close, faithfully liberating us.
Just as he promised he would.

Mary’s subversive words are timeless. They crescendo across time and sociopolitical context to speak into the particular landscape in which we have found ourselves situated. Entering into Advent through Mary’s prophetic praise challenges us to imagine the new social order of which she spoke, to reject practices of individual, institutional, and governmental oppression and exploitation, and to refashion our shared life together around the politics of God’s Kingdom of compassion.

This Advent may we reimagine Mary’s vision, not as something lost to the past, but as a vehicle for a newly ordered present.

[This post appeared today at Missio Alliance]

Shaming Self-Contempt

For the Romans, the cross was not simply a means of execution for criminals. It was meant to saturate in shame the one being hung on it. In the Roman mind, crucifixion was meant to defile and dehumanize and was reserved for the most profane and vile of criminals. It was a method of torture and death designed to humiliate.

We often imagine the cross really tall, way up above our heads. In reality, the crucified were at eye level. Passersby would gaze into the eyes of the agonized and bleeding. The cross stripped humanity from a person. The cross stripped the very dignity and humanity of Jesus away from him. And during this cosmic event of the death of the Messiah, we are told in Hebrews 12:2 that Jesus scorned the shame of the cross.

This cross, meant to scorn him— he scorned it. The Greek word for scorn translates to English as “to shame.”  So another way of saying it is Jesus shamed shame.

The Biblical text speaks of shame for the first time way back in Genesis. It was shame that caused Adam and Eve to cover themselves up with fig leaves, to hide who they were, and to hide from their Creator. And we, following in their footsteps, do the same. We also often aren’t okay with who we are. We think we aren’t enough. Shame and its insidious messages drivea us to hide from God, others, and even from ourselves.

Shame shows up in a myriad of ways. It is the voice in the head that taunts and screams “You are worthless! You aren’t enough!” And worst of all, “You are not lovable!”

It drives us to strive to achieve, to seek approval and respect as a way to mitigate shame. Performance, we’re duped into believing, will save us from the feelings of inadequacy we feel. Our feelings of self-hatred, we think, will be allayed if only we just fix ourselves, palliated if we could just pull it all together and arrive at the place we think we are supposed to be.

But whatever happened to Jesus shaming shame? According to the passage from Hebrews, it seems like shame should have been wiped away with the crucifixion of Jesus. So why does it exert such potency in the hearts and minds of people today? Why do we all, myself included, battle it endlessly?

I don’t know if those questions are answerable, but there is a psychospiritual approach that is alternative to either avoiding shame or fighting a losing batter with it, the two main strategies we tend to utilize. My former teacher Dr. Dan Allender believes that a major crux in engaging shame is to use it as a gateway into our grief, to enter the ways we have internalized the messages of “I am not okay. I am not worthy. I do not deserve love and belonging” that drive self-contempt. When we look at shame this way, it becomes like someone knocking on the door of the soul saying “Hey, pay attention. Look at me. Look here. This is important.”

To break through the contemptuous messages and dive into our shame is scary and risky and not something we’d normally choose to do. But a significant part of the spiritual journey is about learning to become more aware of these voices that judge and condemn us, and rather than battling and resisting them, go deeper in and listen, to be curious about what exists beneath those troubling thoughts and feelings.

What wounds are they covering over?

What traumatic experiences might they be masking?

What hurts are they obscuring?


It may seem easier to ignore them, to stay busy, to remain in performance mode, focusing outside of ourselves. But in the long run, this tactic is far more costly than it seems; it is neither effective nor does it get to the heart of the matter, psychologically and spiritually.

To have the courage to go into oneself, to enter the grief that lies below the shame, is a major part of the human journey. This process can be an entryway into the acceptance of ourselves as we are, allowing us to embrace our shadow side, our pain and grief, our sadness and confusion.

Going inside, exploring the inner landscape of the soul, either on our own, with a trusted friend, spiritual director or therapist, we can shame shame, not directly, but through the back door of kindness to ourselves.

This is the place we go to do what Jesus did while being crucified. Henri Nouwen writes that hanging on the cross, Jesus was tempted to hate himself for what was happening to him. He was lured toward the cusp of self-contempt. But instead, he scorned the shame of the cross.

Instead, Jesus shamed shame. He shamed self-contempt.

May he be our model. May the same response be our path forward.


How Jesus Did Cross-Cultural Mission and What We Can Learn From It

Discipleship was very common in the ancient world, so when Jesus began his ministry around the age of thirty with a dozen pupils at his side, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. His twelve students left their jobs and families, dedicating their lives to following him and learning his ways.

Jesus intentionally, like all Rabbis did, brought them into a process of theological and spiritual formation. He used real life moments throughout his ministry to teach his students about themselves, their worldview, the people they interacted with, as well as their future ministry.

Jesus was training them for mission.

 The Gospel of Matthew tells a story of when Jesus and his disciples encounter a woman outside Jewish territory in the land of Canaan, Refusing to interact with Canaanites was the norm for Jews. It highlighted the bias that Canaanites were impure, defiled, less than fully human. The disciples ask Jesus to send her away because she was different from them.

But he does something else instead, something completely contrary to what their expectations were in terms of social norms: at the woman’s request, Jesus heals her daughter.

I imagine how incredulous they were when Jesus, instead of turning away, Jesus continued conversing with her and, even more shockingly, healed her daughter. Doing this would have been earth shattering for the twelve because it completely breached the norms of how Jews were to relate with Canaanites. It was downright taboo to engage with a Canaanite in such a manner, let alone a Canaanite woman!

I imagine some of them thinking: What are you doing, Jesus?  Why are you treating her like one of us? Stop wasting our time!

This was a powerful teaching moment for the disciples, witnessing Jesus subvert age old cultural expectations. It would have disrupted their worldview and planted seeds for how they would come to understand the Other. It was a definitive moment in their life of discipleship, a formational experience that shaped their own approach to mission in the following years, as they embarked on their own ministries, revealing to people the radical inclusivity of the Kingdom of God.

Many of them would soon go on to cross ethnic, racial, and cultural boundaries to carry the message of good news beyond Israel’s borders. Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman was an important moment in which those who the disciples had viewed to be on the outside, to be lost, and in need of rescuing from their odd ways were actually worthy to receive all Jesus had to give. In was a harbinger of the Kingdom as a reality in which every dividing line would be torn down, every notion of inferior/superior revealed for the illusion that it ultimately is.

If we find ourselves in our cross-cultural service work asking questions like who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong, who has the truth and who doesn’t, we are asking the wrong questions.

If we think we are showing up somewhere to change the Other, may we remember this story and how Jesus did cross-cultural mission being asking ourselves how God is changing us through our encounter with difference.

As disciples, we are being invited to allow the Other to change us.

Doing Mission Well Means Facing the Reality of Colonization of Bodies and Consciousness

In his iconic book Walking with the Poor, Bryant Myers, professor of transformational development at Fuller Theological Seminary, tells a story of a time when he was sitting around a campfire in the Kalahari Desert. In response to hearing the news that the Son of God had died for her sins, he heard an indigenous San woman say that she could believe God would let his Son die for a white person and that perhaps she could believe that God may even let his Son die for a black person. But she could never accept that God would let his Son die for a San.

She is convinced Jesus would die for a white Westerner and even a black African, but not for an indigenous San. In essence, she is articulating a belief that white people are most worthy of salvation, blacks somewhere below that, and San utterly unworthy. Her words show how she understands her core identity: less than human.

Why is this?

How does this deepest level of poverty that penetrates into the core of a person’s identity get lodged there?

We know that colonization causes systemic ruptures in indigenous societies. The settling of the southern tip of Africa by the Dutch, followed by the British, and later governed by the apartheid system, colonized millions of people.

But colonization doesn’t end at the level of physicality.

Its control goes beyond the body. The final frontier of the colonial project is the colonization of consciousness. Its aim is to convince people to no longer believe that they’re people anymore (check out this short clip from the late theologian Richard Twiss)

This final stage of colonization happens when oppression is internalized. That is precisely what we hear in the San woman’s words at the campfire, her and her people having internalized the message of being subhuman, one that originally came from the European colonialists and carried forward by the apartheid government, year after year, decade after decade, century after century.

The legacy of white, Western supremacy is alive, in South Africa, in the United States, everywhere the shadow of colonialism has made its way into body and psyche, robbing dignity and crushing the image of God.

And this has everything to do with us, mission-minded North Americans who cross boundaries of geography and culture to in the hope of doing good. It is essential, if we are to engage in ways that smell of the gospel, that we become aware of the colonial forces that have shaped the people we serve, wherever that is, down the street or across the ocean, and intentionally engage in ways that restore dignity.

In the next post, we’ll look more at these themes of shame, colonization, and how we can respond today.

What Thomas Merton and Karl Rahner Can Teach Us About Being Missional Mystics


Karl Rahner once said in the future we will be mystics or we will be nothing at all. The mystic is one who has experienced God for real, one who knows God—not just information about God.

Authentic mysticism isn’t about bliss. Contemplation is not about self-centered detachment. Contemplative spirituality is deeply challenging because it always has something to do with the death, the ego dying: “For you have died and your life is how hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3).

For you have died to your false self and your real life, your true self is alive, hidden with Christ in God. An interior process is undergone as we transform into the new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).

Encountering the new means first dying to the old. It is the mystic whose ego has been transformed through dying. His self-importance and need for power and control has been surrendered. She has taken the risky plunge of release into divine love.

Thomas Merton, one of our nation’s great mystics, far from being a hermetically sealed off from the real world of toil and suffering, was engaged in the realm of politics, including the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Merton so fully engaged in activism work that he was criticized sharply for his outspoken form of spirituality that put flesh to his words and footsteps to his prayers.

“What is the relation of [contemplation] to action?” Merton asked.

“Simply this. He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity, and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas. There is nothing more tragic in the modern world than the misuse of power and action.”

The mystic is one who continually faces and accepts the small self and falsity and shadow on the journey toward prophetic action against injustice. In tending to brokenness in the world, the mystic tends to the brokenness in himself.

Deep spirituality compels us to action and action compels us to deep spirituality through a continuous circle.

It is through that continuous circle that both our action and contemplation are deepened, a process through which we are formed into missional mystics.

With a nod to Rahner: In the future, missionaries will be mystics or nothing at all.

Your Calling to Mission and Justice Work Might Be Much Bigger Than You Ever Knew


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There is a Hebrew word, qara (pronounced kaw-raw), that is similar to the English word calling, but its definition is a bit more capacious. It means to be called, to be invited and to be named. This ancient Jewish understanding of calling, the one with which Jesus was familiar, was like an invitation into a certain way of living, being, and acting in the world.

In ancient Israel, to be called wasn’t only a summons to a task, but an invitation for everything to change: relationships, spiritual life, core identity, and work in the world. The modern understanding of calling in our society tends to focus on career, jobs, and work in the world, which are certainly important and have their place. But in addition to outward forms of engagement, calling is also an inner process, something that is undergone.

To be called is to be invited within as well as without.

In addition to an invitation to an inner and outer way of being in the world, qara also relates to being named. Jesus’ own calling into ministry officially began with his baptism by John in the Jordan River. The text in Luke reads, “Immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; and a voice came out of the heavens: ‘You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.’” (Luke 3: 21-22).

This was the moment when God publicly called Jesus and his kingship was officially announced. Before beginning his three year ministry of healing, preaching, and teaching about the Kingdom of God, Jesus was named the beloved. God said, “I love you. I am pleased with you. You are my beloved child.”

It is easy to forget that Jesus, fully human like each of us, had the deep need to hear and accept that he was loved, to know his Father approved of him. He needed to hear these words that named the core truth of who he was, his deepest identity.

So much of our identity rests on the particular ways we have been named.

Who we know ourselves to be is largely based on what others have told us about who we are. That is the single biggest factor in how we form identity. Being named beloved was a significant part of Jesus’ identity formation.

In calling Jesus to his life’s work and destiny as Messiah, God could have said, “You are my Son. Do the work you are here to do faithfully” or “You will be tested greatly and suffer immensely in the task set before you” or “Persevere when you are tempted to turn from my will.”

But God didn’t say those things to Jesus. God didn’t tell him what to do or how to live out his calling. Instead, God named him.

Calling always involves being named.

An accurate identity rooted in being loved and accepted was crucial for Jesus—like it is for each of us. It is what every person needs to hear in their identity formation, which is what underlies all the choices we make and how we choose to live and participate in the world—what a person chooses to do is an outpouring of their identity.

When we hear the Voice say, “This is who you are, my son, my daughter who I love, my child who I am pleased with,” assures us of our primary identity as the beloved of God. From that identity, we enter into ministry and mission.

Qara leads us into a journey, both inward and outward, that is meant to be a catalyst for mutual transformation of the self and the other. The call to ministry, mission and justice work is the call to allow something to be birthed not only through us, but within us.


What is your experience of being called, of being named? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Are you wrestling with calling, with what mission and justice work mean for you and your life? As a spiritual director, I walk with people who are asking hard questions and exploring their souls, their hearts, their role in ministry. I’d love to connect with you on a personal level about working together. You can contact me at ryankuja@gmail.com or visit ryankuja.com/spiritual-direction


You’re Not Called To Short Term Mission Work Overseas. Here’s Why.

Imagine a Christian couple in their late twenties from Nicaragua who dream of coming to the United States to do pastoral training ministry. They’ve heard about the many lonely, overworked people, including pastors, whose lives they hope to make a difference in. They want to serve those who are lost in the competition and poverty of consumeristic society. And though they’ve received no formal theological education and only speak basic English, their desire to go to the United States is strong. So they begin fundraising through friends, family, and their local church. They follow their dream and show up in Houston to network with church leaders and meet people. Soon, they begin offering training to pastors and people who want to become pastors.

A highly motivated but unprepared couple from a Majority World nation comes to the United States to help. It sounds a bit ludicrous, right?

Here is a second scenario, a real one, involving an acquaintance, Mike, who grew up in Houston. He does pastoral training work in various Latin American countries. Though he isn’t a pastor and hasn’t been to seminary or received any theological education, this is the work he feels called to do. So that’s what he does. He fundraises and takes trips to Mexico and Central America to train pastors. No one questions his lack of preparation and formation.

Why is it seen as God’s work for Mike to engage in the sacred work of pastoral formation in the Majority World and absolutely absurd for the opposite to happen?

Is Mike’s work in alignment with missio Dei, the mission of God in the world?

Does it empower marginalized people?

Does it square with God’s dream for human flourishing?

Does it prophetically interrogate the sins of neocolonialism and ethnocentrism?

In many ways, those are questions for Mike to discern in the accountability of community. But they are also relevant to each of us.

The intention to do good in the world is an essential part of calling. When we look at many helping occupations, they all start with a person’s intentions toward that particular type of work in the world. But is someone’s good intentions sufficient for them to put on scrubs, pick up a scalpel, and perform surgery on a sick person?

Is someone’s deep longing to fight for just laws and policies enough for them to show up in the courtroom as legal counsel and argue a case?

Is a person’s desire to teach consent for them to begin their tenure track position at a university?

Is someone’s deep passion for urban design clearance for them to begin building majestic skyscrapers based on their beautiful vision?

These examples sound silly— because they are.

You don’t just show up to your calling.

It takes years of preparation, education, training, and formation. So why is it that if we are called to serving people across cultures that desire and good intentions are license to raise support, buy a plane ticket, and show up? Why is it so different when the conversation turns to “helping the poor” and all sorts of mission work overseas? Why can we just show up to that calling?

Wrestling with how we assign less value to the poor in terms of excellence in preparation, education, and formation is an important part of an authentic call to serve.

The call to serve in places of poverty is real. The divine draw we feel to compassionately engage issues of justice is authentic. But the calling isn’t about the going away to “try to help the poor.” It’s deeper than that. It’s more capacious and complex than that. The call to mission (to participate in God’s mission of shalom and the restoration of all things) is first a call to formation, education, and training. Only secondarily is it an invitation into the world.

Some valid questions may emerge from readers at this point: But what of my church trip each year to Haiti? What about trips when we go help people, when our group goes to paint a church or build house for someone in need? To that I’d say: short term mission (STM) is not a calling. STM is something people do. It is an American cultural phenomenon, a four billion dollar yearly industry. The service learning trips aren’t “mission” in the classic sense of of the word, participating in God’s mission toward reconciliation, the restoration of all things, the coming of shalom. Most mission trips are more accurately service learning trips or voluntourism, which means that there isn’t necessarily a calling involved. It’s just something churches do, again, as a cultural expression of American Christianity.

Mission trips can be great for the people going. They can offer amazing experiences for North Americans through exposing youth and adults to the inhuman conditions of poverty. But being exposed to poverty in order to have a certain type of experience isn’t mission. It’s a kind of consumer experience. There isn’t necessarily anything inherently wrong with it (except when it disempowers marginalized people and perpetuates the shame-poverty cycle). But no one is called to short term mission in the way it is popularly carried out—unless voluntourism or service learning is an aspect of someone’s calling. Even then, we still have to engage the need for robusr education, preparation, and formation.

Each one of us has been called into God’s mission for repairing the world. That vocation, whatever particular form it takes, is sacred and holy indeed, and much larger than we can imagine, certainly way bigger than a ten day trip where we show up to try to help.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts about calling and mission.

The Zoo

Comuna 13, Medellin, Colombia

The hometown of Pablo Escobar, Medellin, Colombia, once held the distinction of “World’s Most Dangerous City.” In 2013, it was crowned “Innovative City of the Year,” just edging out New York to grab the top honor. The Mail & Globe called the shift that happened in the period between being a pariah city, singularly known for cocaine and violence, to poster child for innovation “the most remarkable urban redemption project in modern history.” Clearly, Medellin is a city wrought in superlatives.A few months ago, I visited for the first time. The areas frequented by travelers—El Poblado and Laureles— put on display the wealthier side of the city. Hip bars, eateries and shops dot the tree lined streets. Well-heeled, designer clad youth go about their business, mixed with sorts of people you’d likely see in any other city.  I spent a few days sipping lattes under the perfect hot-but-not-too-hot sun characteristic of the City of Eternal Spring.A few days into my trip, I got off the beaten path and headed to Comuna 13, a place that used to be known as the most violent neighborhood in the most dangerous city in the world.  There is still gang violence and FARC guerillas are said to still have ties to the area along with some other paramilitary groups. It isn’t exactly a safe place to wander around, especially after dark, but tourists have started coming to get a taste of the other side of Medellin, an area that used to be strictly off limits even to most locals. Built into a steep hillside, a series of huge escalators were installed within the neighborhood a few years ago to improve resident access to the main part of the city. This project is part of the broader “social urbanism” underway in the region.I rode the escalator up to the top of the neighborhood as Medellin proper spread out in a wide expanse below. The view was stunning. The escalator carried me past women washing clothes and men sitting in plastic chairs having beers in the afternoon sun.

By the time I reached the top of the series of escalators, there were about fifteen foreigners gathered,  all of us looking around. Gawking. Staring. Taking photos.  The proximity to the residents’ lives made it feel like we were at a zoo, observing from a standpoint of our privilege people in the cage of an urban ghetto. The inhuman grind of severe economic poverty is a reality here. The daily struggle to eek out an existence with an ounce of dignity is dehumanizing enough, let alone adding relatively wealthy white people to the mix, looking at you as you go about your day.

The objectification of the poor, which I wrote about recently over at The Good Men Project is a widespread issue worsened by the media and well-intentioned non-profit organizations trying to raise funds for the important work they do. Sending out photos of people living in the indignity of poverty to try to raise money for a cause, what has been dubbed ‘poverty porn,’ is one thing. Being a few meters away from a person in their neighborhood, entering the space in which they survive day to day on the price of a Starbucks Latte, is another thing altogether. Instead of looking at the porn mag it’s getting up close to the actors and staring. It’s worse than a zoo.

Feeling reviled by the whole thing, I decided to head back down. On my way, one of the escalator attendants—an unarmed security guard employed by the city—offered a greeting.
“Bienvenidos a Medellin.”
“Hola. Como esta?” I replied.

This would be the perfect opportunity, I thought, to get a local’s take on “the zoo” and hear his thoughts on this dynamic.

With my fledgling Spanish skills, I questioned him about it.
“Could you tell me about Comuna 13 and how the people who live here feel about the tourists coming, getting so close to their homes and their lives and taking photos?”

He went on to tell me a story about his friend—an artist and former gang member—who had painted a stunning mural on the concrete wall that we were standing adjacent to. It depicted the a colorful face of an androgynous being, human-like but with an undefinable sense of otherworldliness.

“My friend painted this. Isn’t it beautiful?” He asked as his eyes scanned the dramatic behind him.
“Yes,” I agreed.
“For many years my friend was in a gang. Then he began using art to help our community. Now tourists like to come see these murals.”
“That is great. But don’t the residents get tired of people coming here and taking photos?” I said, pushing my point a bit deeper.
“Some might. But most people living here like having tourists come. For them it means there is less shooting. For them it means this place is safer now than it was. All anybody here wants is peace.”

Though my critique still stood, it was much more wobbly. Listening to him speak, I realized I was importing my own assumptions about a place I knew barely anything about.  Objectification of people struggling to survive may be happening in Comuna 13, yet my critical view of what I presumed to be reality blinded me to the other half of the story, the actual experience of people living in the community. This is what we constantly do as Westerners entering contexts not our own, whether as travelers, missionaries, or volunteers. We are continually levying our own assumptions and worldviews, both conscious and unconscious, onto others.

Perhaps having camera-wielding visitors is a small price to pay for less gun shots and less blood on the streets. It’s not exactly a superlative—Comuna 13 hasn’t won an award for “Most Transformed Neighborhood in South America.” But sometimes I suppose transformation is measured in peculiar ways, like by tourists gawking as if they’re at the zoo; in some aberrant way, that, too, might just be innovative.