I've spent most of my adult life - 20 years - working and living in slums, inner cities and marginalized communities.
Turns out I'm a slow learner.
It's taken me almost this long just to figure out how to survive. Let alone thrive and create something significant.
So, let me save you some trouble, and share some things I've picked up along the way... I call them Hustle, Muscle and Grit. HMG for short.
These are the skills I DIDN'T get taught in seminary - I had to learn HMG the hard way. In the trenches. With my big boy pants on.
1. Hustle - the art of persuasion
For some reason, we never had a class on "How to Hustle" at Bible School. And that's a real shame.
I'm talking about the ability to convince an immigration officer that you really need that one year visa extension - even though you've run out of pages in your passport. I'm talking about convincing people to support something beautiful for the poor even though you barely know if the project will come together. I'm talking about the ability to get a diverse bunch of people around a table to hatch plans for Holy mischief - even when they hate each other's guts. These things take Holy Spirit-inspired Hustle.
In my early days, I used to get a bit confused, thinking that if I was in God's will, everything would just fall into place without any effort. The doors would fling wide open and everyone would welcome me with open arms and blissful smiles. Ahhh ministry. It's soooooo easy when you're a spiritual giant. Right? Well, wake up and smell the coffee. Ministry is NOTHING like that.
One of my favourite Bible hustlers is the apostle Paul. This guy was constantly skirting the edges of what was legally and socially acceptable. And he often paid the price (with beatings and angry mobs). But he wasn't afraid to use a little "leverage" when necessary - for the Kingdom of God.
Remember when Paul's big mouth led to being arrested AGAIN in Acts 22? A burly centurion was sizing up Paul's buttocks for a good flogging, when Paul pulled a fast one. I can almost imagine his wry smile as he turned and cornered the soldier, saying, “Hang on a minute! Is it actually legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?” Immediately, the commander backed right off. Paul had hustled his way out of another dicey corner.
So, this year I'm working on my hustle.
The biggest challenge for me is to constantly tune in to the gentle whisper of the Holy Spirit and not just my own drivenness. So that when God leads me into a situation that requires some divine hustling...
I'll be ready to dance.
2. Muscle - banging heads together (with love)
We don't learn enough at Bible School about the hoary (and hairy) Prophets of Old. But these guys were masters of street theatre and straight talk. They could tell a story that would make you fall on the ground weeping and snotty with repentance. If they pointed their bony finger at you, watch out - the hammer is about to fall!
Frankly, sometimes in ministry, we're just too damn scared of conflict and angry faces. We run away from confrontation instead of facing it with love and courage.
I came into missions straight from the corporate world and it was a bitter shock. I went from being screamed at with F-bombs in a hard-nosed tech start-up, to being cuddled to death by passive agressive missionaries.
Now, I'll be the first to admit, God has been working on me in the direction of being more pastoral and compassionate. But can we all just admit that there is definitely a time when we're called to overturn tables. There is definitely a time when we must speak out angrily against injustice and oppression.
The apostle Paul got seriously pissed off when some missionaries tried to force their own cultural forms of religion on the Galatians. He saw it as a MAJOR injustice. In fact, he was so incensed he wrote a long rant, calling for their castration (Gal 5:12). Ouch!
Just remember this rule of thumb - you may need to punch up, but never, ever punch down. The prophets afflicted the comfortable, and comforted the afflicted. They spoke hard truths to power, and grace to the poor and broken-hearted. Never the other way around.
In 2018, I'm working on developing more "God-guided muscle". I'm asking for that gentle strength and boldness that comes with wisdom and courage (and just a little bit of edge).
3. Grit - holding on till the bitter end
When I think back 20 years ago to my language learning phase, the one word that comes to mind is grit - perseverance, dogged persistance or pertinacity. I had to be like a dog with a bone, (or at least a grimy notebook) and a drivenness to learn and never, ever, EVER give up.
People said I must be a natural linguist - to speak so well. But they didn't see the hours I put in day after day, year after year, trudging the streets and back alleys to practice my latest vocabulary. In later years, God led me to turn that doggedness towards establishing a movement that is now impacting kids' lives in 16 countries.
It takes grit to get to this point. Ministry isn't something you clock out of at 5pm. It takes grit to rouse yourself out of bed again at 2am to sit with a suicidal neighbour. It takes grit to work all night on a long-shot proposal that you hope will bring the funding you need. It takes grit to put up with hours and hours of drunken karaoke from neighbours. Well grit, and earplugs.
Take another look at the Apostle Paul - probably one of the grittiest, grizzliest missionaries this earth has ever seen...
"I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches." (2 Cor 11:23-28)
Puts life in perspective doesn't it? Makes my reaction to those tangled Christmas lights seem a little....embarassing.
So, in 2018, I'm asking God for that "Apostle Paul-kind-of-grit". The strength to keep going, and keep trying, even when everything seems to be against me. (Even excruciating language learning, ugly traffic jams, or tangled Christmas lights.)
HMG. These vital skills are often overlooked, and they're certainly not taught enough in our Bible Schools. But I'm convinced they are more needed than ever in ministry, especially amongst the poor.
So, which of these resonates with you for 2018?
Do you need a bit more hustle, a little more muscle, or a lot more grit?