The Sexiest Missionary Wins

Dear Missions Pastor/Church Leader/Generous Supporter,

You know that thing we talked about the other day? Where sometimes missionaries use misleading language in their newsletters and updates to sound more productive then, perhaps, they actually are? Remember that?

Ok. Well. Sometimes, you're the problem.

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In 2006, U2 frontman, Bono, (literally wearing rose-colored glasses) called the Church to action in Africa during an interview for the Willow Creek Leadership Summit. I was there. It was kinda awesome. It was a bold and honest interview and it created a fervor for justice and aid for Africa's poor and marginalized nations. It lit a fire. And that fire launched Africa Missions to the top of the missionary food chain.

Africa became a rockstar. Everybody wanted in.

Six months later, El Chupacabra and I found ourselves sitting across the table from a pastor as he explained that he wouldn't support our effort to get to Costa Rica because, “You guys are great. You're good communicators, you've got vision, and I really believe in what you're doing... but... I just can't sell Costa Rica... Are you sure you're not called to Africa? Our people want Africa.”

As we left, reality sunk in; Our mission wasn't sexy enough.

Honestly, we could totally understand why. I mean, really, sending a family to a largely Christian, tropical, vacation destination to do missions should be a tough sell. But, we were going to help launch Latino missionaries into the world, and “the world” includes Africa - so we hitched our wagon to the “Save Africa” train and had all of our support raised in 7 months. The end.

Just kidding. That wasn't the end.

Sometimes, the message from church leaders and individual supporters is that a paycheck is directly linked to a missionary's ability to come up with a good story. That's how the “Missionary Code” is unwittingly pushed on hard-working missionaries with boring but important jobs... like, I dunno... maintenance. (It's hard to write home about plunging the same toilet twenty six times in three days for Jesus. It's not sexy, but I know missionaries who do it.)

Sexy enough? 
Everybody knows that “building relationships” is a Sunday bulletin snooze-fest, but the people in the pews go wild over Wham-Bam-Raise-Your-Hand evangelism. (Oh, sexy street-evangelism, you sly dog.) So “building relationships” morphs into something more palatable, like “planting seeds of Faith” (nobody ever argues with “planting seeds”- it's, like, Holy Spirit approved). Then, five hours of office filing becomes “praying over every detail of our ministry”, and having a beer with another missionary to engage in the messy but necessary act of commiseration, makes the newsletter cut as “fellowship, planning, and development”.

The point is that, while, yes, there are crappy missionaries who take advantage of this creative language to get by doing little or nothing – and we cannot ignore that problem – there are others, invested, engaged, hard-working men and women in the field, who sometimes feel roped in to this word play because the Church insists on overly spiritualized reports from missionaries whose work they don't entirely understand.

A good missionary needs more than your money. They need your sincere interest in what they are doing and how they are doing it. They need you to cheer them on through the rare exciting moments in missions, and also, the dragging, boring, everyday, “why the hell am I here?!” times. They need your f-r-i-e-n-d-ship. They need your prayers to stave off the very drama that so many crave hearing about.

Sadly, when sex sells, crime and illness become a missionary's bread and butter. When your house is burglarized, or your car is stolen, or you blow out your knee, or you give your kid a concussion by accidentally hitting him in the brain with a surfboard... *ahem* I mean, like, for example... that's when supporters perk up. They want to know more, they connect with your 'suffering', they feel bad and they want to help – and all of that is sweet, and kind, and caring (and, truly, missionaries need extra $$ during those times!) -  but, ironically, when a missionary is dealing with junk like that, they are the least engaged in their work. Drama steals a missionary away from the good and important things they ought to be doing. But drama is sexy, and the sexiest missionary wins the prize.

Sexy missions doesn't equal healthy missions. We are remiss when we simply assume that, because a missionary's reports are filled with spiritual fireworks, they must be thriving. Every missionary's well-being depends on a trustworthy relationship with their supporters, and the ability to express their struggles, defeats, and failures without fear of losing their resources. (Oh, and here's a tip: A missionary who never seems to have struggles, defeats, or failures should raise some red-flags.)

Healthy, real, legit missional work begins with a heavily invested church and a fully understood missionary. Pastors, leaders, and supporters need to make the time to connect with and be available to the missionaries they're in bed with. Only through loads of regular two-way communication will a missionary be able to share the true ways God is working in and through them. In the same way, by taking a keen interest in what our missionaries are really up to, the Church will be able to wisely discern the truth about a missionary's effectiveness and/or appropriate fit in the field.

We'll have to take off our rose-colored glasses and bring our expectations of missionaries down to Earth, but when we finally throw off that trendy neglige, we'll be left with the actual body of Christ, doing good work in the world. 

And that is just...um... titillating?

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Deciphering Missions

We arrived in Costa Rica on a Thursday, and on our very first Sunday in the country El Chupacabra was standing in a pool helping baptize some guy we'd never met before.

The Baptism just happened to be occurring on the property where we were staying for a couple of weeks before we started language school. When our family (still wide-eyed in shock after leaving the U.S.) stumbled into the celebration by accident, someone invited El Chupacabra to join right in with the dunking. It seemed like the missionaryish thing to do, so he did.

Our first ever newsletter went out with a picture of my husband up to his chest in pool water with his arm around that guy. Big smiles everywhere. In the letter, we proudly declared that God was already using us in amazing and unexpected ways. We didn't lie, of course - the newsletter was carefully worded so as not to mislead anyone into thinking we had done more than just arrive, but it was vague enough to still spark interest for would-be investors, and assure supporters that “The Wrights in Costa Rica” were a wise choice. As for the guy? We never saw him again, never knew his name, and, obviously, had nothing at all to do with his journey toward Baptism. But he sure did make great fodder for our newsletter.

That was when I learned that we would actually spend our first year in Costa Rica learning two languages – Spanish was native to our new home, and Missionary Code was native to our new role.

It's kinda scary when you think about it, but Christian Missions is a billion (that's BILLION, like, with a B!) dollar industry – with virtually no oversight, no standards of practice, and no hiring requirements. To top it off, it's shrouded in a cloud of overly spiritualized language, easily manipulated to allow people to believe that more good is coming from their missions dollars than is necessarily true.

I know this because I learned the formula for missions language early on, and I used it often to mask my own failure, laziness, and lack of desire to engage in the field.

While I was virtually paralyzed by depression and anxiety, I used Missionary Code to turn every innocuous coffee date with a friend into “discipleship time”. Hours spent circling Facebook were important to “support development”, and everyday interactions with grocery store clerks and bank tellers suddenly became meaningful when referred to as “intentional relationships”. Oh, and the things your supporters do in their time off (like running, or taking classes, or hanging out with their kids) are things you get to claim, according to Missionary Code, as work.

Applied liberally, this vague and mysterious language can make even the most worthless missionary seem as though they were plucked by God, himself, from their homeland and delivered to the mission field on the back of Balaam's ass for the betterment of the world. (What. You don't believe there are worthless missionaries out there? I know missionaries working all over the planet and every last one of them can give you an example of someone living in the field, today, who's not doing jack shit for Jesus. Some could tell you horror stories of how missionaries are mishandling their time.)

Missionary Code is like Christianese on steroids.

The thing about Missionary Code is that it magically falls under the protection of the Missionary Code. When you give it the side-eye, it automatically creates an unbreakable loop of vague and mysterious language that cannot be broken without making the inquisitive skeptic feel like a faithless douche who hates the Bible. This almost never happens, because most of the time the “I'm a missionary” statement is followed by outlandish heaps of praise and encouragement, but let me give you an example:

Random guy: “Wow, you're a missionary? That's cool. What do you do?”

Shady missionary: “Well, I partner with the local church to make disciples.”

Random guy: “Oh. How do you do that?”

Shady missionary: “I create inroads through intentional relationships.”

Random guy: “Soooo, you invite... people... to church... in another country?”

Shady missionary: “That. Plus, I initiate interest by engaging in Christ-centered dialog with locals.”

Guy: “... *blink blink*... Wait. What does that even mean?”

Shady: “It's hard to understand from a limited North American perspective, but the Holy Spirit is hard at work in Peru/Italy/Cambodia/PickACountry, and I'm merely there to be a vessel. My job is really to just stay available to the call.”

Guy: “...Aaaand you get paid for that?”

Shady: “The Lord says a worker is worth his wages.”

Guy: “Of course He does.”

Random Guy walks aways with a super unclear idea about what the missionary actually does, but has heard, in no uncertain terms, that the missionary has been “called” by God to this mysterious but important job. That's the Code at work.

Crazy, right?!

I'm telling you all of this because there is blatant fraud going on in the world of missions and in the name of Jesus. And that bothers me. If you support a missionary, if you're a church that supports missionaries, if you're interested in becoming a missionary, you should be pushing for clarity and transparency from the Missions world. Most missionaries will be able to answer your questions without resorting to evasive language and obscure ideas. But if they can't? That should be a serious red flag and you should feel emboldened to push back until you clearly understand what they're doing with their time.

This will probably get me killed by the Knights Templar or something, but I want to decipher a little bit of the Missionary Code for you. I hope this will encourage you to ask good questions when you're contemplating partnership with a missionary or missions org.

~ If a missionary says they're “partnering with the local church” or they say they “work alongside a local church”, ask them what that means exactly. It could be anything from “I attend a local church” to “I occasionally drive past a local church on my way to the pharmacy” to “I regularly admonish the pastor of a local church for preaching too long”. Or it could mean they have a real, legit partnership, like, one that's mutual and beneficial. But I would definitely ask. (I would also ask, “If there's a local church, why do they need missionaries?” - but that's a post for another day.)

~ “I do discipleship.” is also one of those super broad statements that could mean anything from “I teach about the life of Jesus 4 times a day, 6 days a week”, to “I just live my life in an exotic locale on the church dime, hopeful that someday someone will ask me about my faith, so, technically, every person I interact with is a potential disciple.” Find out more!

~ Another one to watch out for? “I host short-term teams.” Yikes!... Just kidding. Some ministries make great use of short-term teams, while others are literally STM mills. So listen carefully, in case “I host short-term teams” really means “I go around looking for [what is oftentimes meaningless] work to let suburbanites get grimy and feel blessed.” Not good. Any time a missionary's primary role caters to short-term missions, get the low down. Find out how many other churches they're partnering with and ask what they do with each team. You might be shocked to find out that the poor little kids your church excitedly runs a Vacation Bible School for every summer actually has to sit through a half dozen VBS programs within a couple months. Trust me, it happens.

A lot of missionaries are self-motivated, innovative, disciplined, and hard-working – but, too many others are passing off purposeless days overseas as necessary and beneficial to the Kingdom of God. If you support a mission or missionaries, you have a right and a responsibility to know if they're actually engaging with the community in ways that make sense and reflect a heart for God's mission. You should know what they do, and why, and you should be able to get a pretty clear understanding of how they do it. 

Sadly, not all missionaries are good missionaries. This is a hard reality for the Church because we are absolutely terrified of hurting anyone's feelings, and we're easily held at bay by spiritual double-talk.  But, I'm telling you, this is a BIG problem and it shouldn't be ignored. Deciphering the code is the first step in helping our missionaries stay functional and accountable. 

Missions should not be a mystery. 

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Or, tell us about a missionary who's doing it well! 

I'm giving my shout out to Troy and Tara Livesay. A better example of hard working, local loving, kick ass missionaries cannot be found! Their work takes my breath away - 
Jesus is present with them. 


Flabby Thighs and Flappable Confidence

I'm not fat.

Really, I'm not. At 5' 6” and about 134 pounds (yes, I just told the Internet my weight), I'm pretty much average. I'm not tiny, but my doctor says I'm pretty healthy and my husband says I'm pretty sexy, so I should be pleased.

I'm not fat.

But still... when I look in the mirror, I see a fat chick. 

It's not my fault.

When I was like 14? I walked into a room just as Pamela Anderson was making a mad dash down the beach on Baywatch (For those who don't know, Baywatch was a 90's TV show where hot people rescued ugly people from the ocean or something). As she ran through the sand - hair whipping, bronze flesh glimmering in the sun – a man in the room hissed, “That girl needs to tone up if she's gonna run in a skimpy bathing suit.” His voice was dripping with disgust.

Pamela Anderson, you guys. Pamela Anderson needed to “tone up”.

If Pamela freaking Anderson was a flabby cow in 1990, what was I to make of my own newly rounded hips and curving thighs; my freshly minted female form? If I ran on the beach, would the flapping of my soft arms and jiggling of my spongy butt make men of all ages throw up in their mouths?
Was I... gross?

All I knew was that I was no Pamela Anderson, and if she needed to “tone up”? Then I needed a Fairy God Mother and a Genie to fall in love and have a baby because it would take a Fairy God Genie to make me beautiful.

And so began the battle that rages within me still; A war between genuine health and perceived beauty. Which, for the most part, has been a losing battle.

It's funny, because I'm a pretty confident person. I don't get intimidated easily. I'm not scared of people who are smarter, richer, or more powerful than I am. I'm not afraid to speak up because there aren't very many people who make me feel insignificant. But I can crush my own spirit to a fine powder by comparing myself to other women. I can kill my own confidence in a heartbeat by coveting the smooth legs and tiny ankles of the girl next to me. I can convince myself of my own low worth in the blink of an eye, especially if that eye happens to fall on the perky boobs and glowing skin of that beeyatch I always see running so fast at the corner of Blue Ravine and East Bidwell. (I mean, seriously Lady? Why can't you go home and run slowly on a treadmill in the dark while you sip a frappuccino with whip like the rest of us?!) It's that easy for me to tear down what God has built up. I swear, the most dangerous place in the world for my body is my mind.

If self-loathing were an art form, I would be the Grand Master. Truly, I can tell you something ugly about every last inch of me ... But I won't. Not any more. At least, I'll try not to.

I've been listening to myself, lately, and I've been listening to the women around me. I've been watching this awkward balancing act we all seem so caught up in; carefully walking the tightrope between announcing our every last flaw, while simultaneously pretending not to care. (Why do we do that?)

This last year, I hit my highest weight ever, barring pregnancy. I hated what I saw in the mirror, but the horrible things I said to/about myself were, in all honesty, no different than the things I said to myself at my lowest weight ever - when my spine poked through my flesh like a dragon and clothes hung off my shoulders like wire a hanger. I know, I know.... Pamela Anderson, eat your heart out.

Now I have some kind of skin condition on my face that leaves white spots, kind of like scars, on my jaw and cheeks. It sucks. And there's nothing you can do about it. But a few months ago, when I was mad googling in hopes of a solution, I came across a pic of Victoria Beckham with the same thing going on. Later, talking to El Chupacabra about it, I was like, “There's no fix! I will be hideous forever... just like Victoria Beckham.” ...*blink blink*...

What a shame, right?

Then I got super chapped lips. They were so cracked and puffy, and when I was, again, complaining to El Chupacabra, I blurted out, “Ugh! My lips are so busted... I look like Angelina Jolie.”

Awww. Poor me.

My teeth are a wonky, like Kirsten Dunst.

My legs are built like stubby tree trunks. Feel me, Olivia Wilde?

My weight is untamable. I'm practically Tyra Banks/Jessica Simpson/Oprah Winfrey/Mariah Carey.

How will I ever survive in this lonely wilderness?!

Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

And I believe he was right. I've spent too many hours comparing myself to a false sense of perfection. I've wasted too many days wishing I were someone I'm not. I've lost too many moments standing back to back against the women (both real and imagined) I thought were built better than me.

But when I stop comparing and start keeping company, I quickly find that not one of us is near perfect - and none of us is far from it. It just depends on how you look at it. If even the most elite beauties of our culture come in all shapes, colors, and (bra) sizes, then don't you and I also get to hold a place of physical beauty among women? Are we not favored, too?

I don't think God wants me to hate my container - or anybody else's, for that matter - and I don't think He wants me to love it too much. It is, after all, just the wrapping paper for the gift that lies inside. But I believe God wants me to be gentle with myself. He wants me to be kind. He wants me to respect His miraculous creation.

And I haven't been doing any of that.

Comparison stole my Joy. And now I'm taking it back.

I've found myself in such good company, it's almost easy... 

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Whose beautiful company do you keep?

Got a booty like Jennifer Lopez? Racked like a Kardashian? Round like Rebel Wilson? Stick skinny ala Kiera Knightly? Horse teeth like a Hathaway? All beautiful...

... just like YOU.