Our driver picked us up in a safari truck without doors. It didn’t really have a roof either. We first drove around the biggest city in East Africa as skyscrapers were visible to my left, right, and even up—through the roof.
After passing through downtown we came to a nearby game park to observe wild animals in their natural habitat. We saw plenty of prey and some of their predators. Sometimes I wish we had doors to our truck, like when our driver pulled right beside a lion on the road. My kids weren’t too scared, but I was. Perhaps they had more confidence than I did that everything would be okay.
These past three weeks I’ve also been observing veteran missionaries in their natural habitat. Three weeks is much more longer than the average visit to any game park, but it’s still not enough time to grasp fully what’s going on. However, were I to distill forty years of being on the mission field into just one word, it’s relationships.
My in-laws are beloved by Kenyans who are in their eighties as well as toddlers, along with all the ages in between. They know Kenyans in their home city of Eldoret, in surrounding towns and villages, and have even invested in churches, pastors, and Bible schools in nearby Uganda.
This would be impossible without the following: moving to Kenya, learning the Kenyans’ language, spending quality time with Kenyans—having them feel comfortable at your home and vice versa—and, of course, having a network of people back in the States to pray for them and financially support them.
Seeing my in-laws in action after being here forty years also gives me confidence as I prepare to embark on cross-cultural living, that I too can rebuild my “autopilot.” This is a term a friend of Marci’s used when describing the first years of living cross-culturally. In the States it’s so easy to know where to go, how to get there, what to get, how much to pay, and so on. When moving to a foreign culture, all of that becomes exponentially difficult, especially when there is a language barrier at every turn.
But my in-laws have rebuilt their autopilot. They function at a rather high capacity in Kenya. Perhaps not 100% of what it would be had they stayed in America for decades, but rather high, nonetheless. This leads to the most important piece in the cross-cultural ministry puzzle, handed down to us from the Apostle Paul himself: Switching confidence.
Our native culture, especially the family in which we grew up, largely forms our understanding of what is normal, natural, right, and good. Other factors shape such things too. Think of school, work, religion, friends, and so on. But the autopilot part is that we don’t even think about all the confidence we’ve built up in navigating life in our native land as part of our native families. We just think of it as life.
The missionary task is a more focused version of the greater Christian task: A painful surgery that removes much of what we put our confidence in and replaces it with something foreign. We don’t have to go it alone, though. God has spoken to us through the missionary Paul, who reflects on how he had to switch his confidence from his family, his schooling, and his status, and instead place it in the gospel of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit:
“If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 3:4b-14
I used to think Paul had in mind guilt and regret for persecuting Christ and Christ’s body, the church, when he spoke of forgetting what has behind him. But as I await to go to Brazil I wonder if there is another layer to Paul’s statement. That is, if the forgetting what was behind included Paul's autopilot. He spent so much of his life putting his confidence in a particular track, of being a respected rabbi, and in a moment that was all gone. He’d have to rebuild it. And he did because he was confident that what lied ahead of him was better.
When my in-laws retire from Kenya they will once again have to switch confidences. In some ways it will be easier than when they first arrived in Kenya. They already know English. They’re familiar with the town they will move to. They already have built some relationships there. But in other ways it will be harder. They’re older now. They’ve built up much more of a life in Kenya than they ever did in the States before they first came to the mission field. They’re autopilot today is much more Kenyan than American.
I pray God will remind them that they still have much more to look forward to. After all, Christ’s resurrection offers us confidence no matter where we live or how old we are.
And may I be a willing candidate for surgery as what I once put my confidence in is about to be removed. But what lies ahead is better.
And what about you? What have you put your confidence in? Is it keeping you back from what God has called you to do…from who he has called you to be? Press on, brothers and sisters. Press on!