Posts Tagged ‘Life in Christ’

James, Sam. Servant on the Edge of History. Garland, Texas: Hannibal Books, 2005. 174 pp.

Sam James has been serving in missions since 1962, in Hong Kong, Vietnam, Taiwan, Europe, the Middle East and the United States. He has served as a church planter, seminary director, regional leader and senior leader of a large mission organization. He has directed leadership development for that organization and been in involved in crisis intervention for other missionaries. After retiring from the staff of his organization, he went back to his first place of long-term ministry, Vietnam.

Servant on the Edge of History, Sam’s first book, is about his missionary service in Vietnam, from 1962 to 1975. Even a casual student of American history will recognize these years as the height of American involvement in the Vietnamese civil war, and can imagine some of the trials Sam and his family faced. Sam writes with a special focus on some of those trials and the intimate, personal lessons he learned – and that others can learn vicariously. He includes some thoughts on methodology, but he really focuses on spiritual, heart lessons from his experiences.

The first and last chapters are set in 1989, when Sam returns to Vietnam to visit. He meets some of the students he left in 1975, and is able to see how God has used them over the fourteen very difficult years under Communist authorities after the Americans fled, and Saigon fell. The other sixteen chapters tell about Sam and his family in Vietnam, from their arrival to their last frightening flight out of Saigon, as it fell to the Viet Cong.

There are stories that show how Sam must wrestle with his call – to be a church planter and trainer, while faced with human suffering all around. At one point, he decides to go back to the United States to get a medical degree, so he can help alleviate the physical suffering. However, he quickly realizes that God has a unique role for him, as a spiritual leader and teacher who could help alleviate spiritual suffering, as well.

Other stories deal with ethical struggles Sam has to face – from the expectation to pay a bribe to the dilemma over whether to have a gun in the house while the Viet Cong were raiding his village during the Tet offensive.  Sam also openly talks of his feelings of failure, when someone he was witnessing to for quite a while died in a fire before he could know whether she accepted Christ. He also discusses his patriotism, having served in the Navy during the Korean War, and how this sometimes caused dilemmas for a missionary in Vietnam. The desire to represent the Kingdom of Heaven and the Prince of Peace was most important, but the temptation to help the American soldiers, even the CIA, to help prevent more deaths of American servicemen was very strong.

One of the stories that spoke most deeply to me occurred early in the book, in chapter 3. Sam, after having his house broken into, the seminary robbed, and multiple other struggles, is asked by a taxi driver, “What do you love about the Vietnamese people?” Sam is forced to confess to God his lack of love, and after struggling through the night, God spoke. Sam writes, “I have noticed that sometimes only when our backs are completely against the wall and our strength is completely gone, that this is when God steps in and intervenes.” (25)

Frequently, Sam’s dilemmas and subsequent learning experiences take place when his back is against the wall, and his strength is completely gone. Not only does God intervene, but Sam grows and learns. For aspiring missionaries who read this book, that lesson alone is worth the price of the book.

At the end of each chapter, Sam includes discussion questions about the lessons he learned, or dilemma he faced. The questions are less than a page, but they require a significant amount of reflection, based on what Sam has shared. However, the questions turn the book from a memoir into a learning exercise. The questions could be well used for team-building, or for a missionary couple to discuss their potential responses, before a situation arises that calls for an unprepared response.

I did not reflect through all of the questions – some I have faced already in ministry, and some probably will never be an issue. However, I definitely see the value of writing a memoir in this fashion. By including the questions, Sam shows his heart as a trainer, and developer of missionaries. The questions do sometimes read as an afterthought, however. The best example of this point is that nearly every reflection begins with the word “dilemma.” Perhaps it’s a nit-picky point, but Sam could have found some other synonyms.

The stories are amazing to read. I grew up on stories of Vietnam told by men my dad’s age who served there, and for the first time it occurred to me that there were also missionaries – American – who shared the gospel, and even suffered for Christ during the war. Instead of hearing my Ranger friend talk about killing Viet Cong, I was able to read about Sam and his miraculous escape from a Viet Cong ambush, or how he was able to see a committed Communist political officer come to Christ, and become a new creature. My dad, who thankfully spent his military service in Germany, but lost half his classmates to the war, would probably enjoy reading Sam’s book – but so would my teenage sons.

It was an interesting exercise to think about why Sam included the stories he did, and especially why he included the questions he did. The choices may say less about Sam, and more about his intended audience. One example is when he asks if a missionary should appeal to more wealthy people in America and other countries to help provide funds for a house church. Another example occurs when he asks if there is a circumstance in which loyalty to one’s country commands an equal priority with loyalty to Christ. To some readers, those questions may seem almost rhetorical (No), but perhaps they are real dilemmas for the majority of people who join the organization where Sam spent so many years as a leader and trainer.

Sam mentions this organization very frequently – maybe a little too much, although that’s a hard judgment to make. If I worked for the same organization, I probably wouldn’t think Sam had written too much. Sam’s conservative theological perspective is evident, but he doesn’t spend much time talking about theology, or even that much methodology, so it isn’t an issue.

Sam does discuss methodology some, but he is involved both in an established church and seminary, and also in a couple of house churches. In chapter thirteen he talks more about a house church methodology, but his focus is more on the sacrifice that a couple of families make in order to have a fellowship in their homes.

It’s evident throughout the book that Sam’s primary goal is to teach new missionaries, or those interested in missions. His stories are personal, transparent, and alive. The reflection questions are appropriate and helpful. Perhaps the biggest drawback of the book is that most of the stories take place up until 1975, but Sam didn’t write his book until 2005. Unfortunately, the thirty-year gap makes the events seem like history, rather than contemporary, and may make the book less attractive for current readers.

Servant on the Edge of History at Amazon

It’s so much easier to preach about serving others than it is to actually do it! Even if I spend 30 hours or so preparing a message on serving others, it doesn’t compare with the stress of standing between a wife-beater and his victim for an hour while he yells and curses, or helping her deal with the police.

This story begins in Liberia, where Peter (Polish man – and not his real name) was working for a company involved in smuggling weapons for Charles Taylor during the latest civil war. Peter is a helicopter pilot, and for a few months served as one of Taylor’s personal pilots. He met Susie (also not her real name), a young Liberian woman, and they began a relationship. From the very beginning, however, he would go crazy angry at times, beating her and choking her. She would run away, but her family and the Liberian police would usually tell her to go back to him. In part because of his standing with Taylor, in part because of the general chaos in Monrovia then, and in part because of cultural misunderstandings of the place of a woman, Susie didn’t receive much help during the times Peter would beat her.

As is frequently the case, Peter would come to Susie, crying and begging her to return, and she usually did. As the rebel army drew closer to Monrovia, Peter and Susie were able to leave for Cote d’Ivoire. Susie was pregnant by then, and Peter came on to Poland to “prepare his house for them.” Susie arrived in Poland in 2003, pregnant, knowing no Polish, and having no friends. When we asked her why she came, she says because of the situation in Liberia, and because she thought that having a child would change Peter. What she didn’t know was that Peter had already driven one wife (with children) away by beating her.

One of the nurses who met Susie during her pregnancy told a friend about her, who then told Kaye. Kaye was able to give Susie some English books on pregnancy, and visit her after she had her baby. For a while Peter stopped hitting Susie. However, the home where they lived was only partially finished, and Peter did all he could to avoid paying any bills.

Kaye and Susie became close friends, but Susie never told Kaye that he was beating her, and had begun again. Sometimes Peter had work, usually he didn’t, though. When Susie tried to get work, he followed her, and would yell at her and beat her, because he was sure that she was selling her body. He grew insanely jealous and suspicious of her every time she left the house. By this time, Susie had a handful of Polish friends, although she still was unable to speak much Polish, in large part because Peter would do all he could to make sure she stayed at home.

In 2009, shortly after we went to the U.S. for a year, Peter lost another job, and began beating her worse than ever. He would choke her, and force himself upon her. By then, there was no electricity or heat, and over the winter, Susie went to live in the dorms with some friends, just so she and her daughter wouldn’t freeze. Peter allowed this, but sometimes at night he would stand outside the dorm and yell and curse at her. He also became convinced that she had a boyfriend. After the winter was over, Susie went back home – and Peter started beating and choking her more and more frequently. Susie called the police a handful of times, but every time they asked her if she wanted him arrested, she would say no. (A common response from victims of domestic violence). Sometimes, though, the police wouldn’t even ask – at first, since she spoke no Polish, they would just ask him what was going on, and then tell her to go back to him. Once, they even laughed at her, and her attempts to try to tell them what he had been doing.

In the spring of 2010, Susie fled to Germany with her daughter. At first she stayed with an aunt, then she lived in a refugee home. But Peter was able to find her, and convinced her once again to return to him. Susie and her daughter came back to Poland, and she finally told Kaye what had been happening. We intervened once after he had tried to choke her, and listened as he yelled at her for 90 minutes. Our intervention, and the shame it brought him, worked for a while, but he began again after a few weeks.  Early one Sunday morning in February, she called Kaye from her bathroom, and asked us to come quickly. We hurried over, in time to see – through their bedroom window – him throwing her around and hitting her. We called the police, and this time J did not back down. She filed a complaint, the police began their investigation, and a few weeks later, after he sent a text message threatening to kill her, she moved out.

After a few days of living with a friend of ours, she moved in to a spare room at our church. Peter was arrested and sent to jail for almost three months, and Susie was able to begin learning how to live on her own in Poland. She has made some amazing progress, although in some cases she has made some poor decisions – part of the learning process, of course. Peter is out of jail, and comes nearly every day to their daughter’s school, cursing and insulting Susie (in English, thinking that way no one else will know what he is doing) and walks them the 300 yards or so back to our church. Thankfully, though, once there, Susie feels safe, is able to go in and lock the door, leaving him outside.

Although he has a restraining order against him, in Poland that has little weight. According to the police, no one can keep him from meeting her on the street. We continue to intervene at times, but Susie is getting more and more courageous. Peter tries everything he can to manipulate her, and at first tried everything he could to force the police and family court to make her come back to him, or give their daughter back to him. He knows that if he can force the child to return, Susie will most likely follow. But, we’ve weathered those storms with her, and every thing he tries seems to backfire. We attribute that first and foremost to God working, protecting her, and also to Peter’s crazy, sometimes very stupid choices.

Although Susie has had help along the way from a number of Polish people, lately, the more Peter does against her, the more support she seems to gain – from the police, from the school director and workers, and from other parents. As well, the administrator of our building – who also lives at the church – and his family have been a huge help, especially in relating to the police. We’ve paid her legal fees – knowing as we do, that this exactly the kind of stewardship of our resources that God expects of us.

Although at times it has been tempting to back away, overwhelmed by dealing with Peter, the police and prosecuting attorney, family court, etc., we know that this is exactly the kind of service that God expects from us. Of course, the more people that are involved helping Susie, the less of a burden we have to carry – and much more importantly – the less of a burden she has to carry.

So – preaching a sermon is easy. This year, more than any other, I think, I’m learning that living it, getting involved in people’s messy lives, is so much harder – but so much closer to what God wants from us.

You can find the next installment of this story here.

At the beginning of March, I started a fellowship with international students in Lublin. There are several hundred students, from the U.S., Taiwan, China, Africa and other European countries. The American students, usually of Indian descent, are mostly Muslim and Hindu. Our fellowship has a core group of 8, mostly men, and they are excited about moving forward in Christ.

Just as the group was beginning, one of the HIndu students (V.) had an accident that resulted in a severe head injury. He was operated on, and placed in a drug-induced coma. His parents flew in from Texas, and everyone was concerned that he might not make it. The Christian students organized a prayer vigil, and asked the parents if I could come pray for him that Friday. They agreed, and then on Saturday, the doctors woke V. Over the next two days he improved rapidly, so that by Monday he was walking and talking, recognizing people and after two weeks, the doctors released him, saying he was completely healed. The Hindu parents attributed it to the Christians praying! Praise the Lord, and what a great way to kick off our international fellowship.
The students originally planned a prayer meeting on Wednesday, but the doctors said he would be awakened on Wednesday. So, V’s parents said they didn’t want a prayer meeting. About an hour after their decision, the doctors returned to say that V wasn’t improved enough to awaken him, and it would have to be put off until the following week. So, when the students returned to ask if I could pray for him, they were much more receptive.
This kind of experience is rare for me – and, by human standards, I messed it up. I didn’t touch him while I prayed – and the parents expected me to, I think. I totally drew a blank on his name – not a good thing to do when you are praying for someone, either. But. God is the Healer, He knew V’s name before anyone else did, and God touched V. I’m so glad that God’s power and healing have nothing in common with formulas, rituals or even our ability to remember someone’s name.
The whole experience, though, gave a great base for our international fellowship, but also preparation for me to be more cognizant of the ways God works.


Posted: December 14, 2010 in Guilt
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I hate guilt. I mean it’s one thing when it comes when I sin – that’s fine, it serves a good purpose then – drives me to confession and God. But when it comes because of my pride, perfectionism, comparing myself with others, from my desire to meet what I think might be other people’s expectations – and fail, then that guilt just binds me, completely unnecessarily. And it’s stupid. And then I feel guilty for feeling guilty. What a load of trash!! A few unmet goals – and I’m messing my pants.

I had a goal of writing 20,000 words for a book by mid-November. Well, I only wrote 8,000 (ONLY). So, guilt set in. Sure, I could tell myself – hey, you spent 40+ hours dealing with immigration and customs. Or, writing isn’t your full-time job, you do have other stuff to do. So? Did myself listen to myself? (Now I sound like Jim Carrey, I think) Nope. Or other things that I/we/our church do just good enough to get by. I’m not good with excellence, and in Poland, just getting by is usually good enough.

My fundamentalist upbringing strongly affects how I feel about guilt, of course. Sometimes guilt was used to manipulate or even abuse other followers of Christ. In reaction, I would deny all forms of guilt – even when it was healthy, useful, and could have helped me grow. In Poland, I ran into manipulation by guilt again – in fact, Polish culture in the church and in the world seems to thrive on it.

But. I am thankful for the times when my feeling guilty over the way I treated someone leads me to apologize, or try to resolve an issue. I am thankful for the guilt that pushes me to do things better, to be a better husband/father. No, it isn’t the best motivation. No, I still haven’t fully grasped the amazing nature of grace – and I probably never will fully understand the length, breadth, height and depth of God’s love. But you know what? I refuse to feel guilty about it!