The Cheerleader and the Curmudgeon: Fostering Both Excitement and Sobriety in Potential Sent Ones
Choosing the right road trip companions can mean the difference between life and death. Maybe I just say that because I recently spent four days in a van with my seven-, five-, and three-year-old children. As one friend says, “Only call it a vacation if the kids don’t go. Otherwise, call it a mission trip!”
Imagine spending four days on the road stuffed onto the bench seat of a pickup truck. On one side is a young cheerleader, on the other side is an old curmudgeon, and in the middle is a befuddled you. Let the stereotypes fly just long enough to think about the strange conversations, the opposing worldviews, the awkward silences. Ok, that’s long enough—I’m already starting to feel like the hitchhiker from Dumb and Dumber.
When I think about preparing people to be sent cross-culturally, I think about the pickup truck. I think about the need for candidates to be filled with both excitement and sobriety. I think about being both a pessimistic and optimistic mobilizer. Yes, it sounds quite schizophrenic.
I think my desire to maintain these opposing attitudes comes from my own experience as a Sent One. Growing up in a rural community and church, I desperately needed missions awareness. In college it came by way of Passion conferences and guest speakers at our campus ministries. When the Traveling Team showed up my junior year, I experienced my first deep desire to serve the nations. The hype was necessary, and it had worked.
But no one communicated quite how hard it would be. When I suffered a mental and physical breakdown only eighteen months into being overseas, it was compounded by the fact that it came as such a surprise. I wish someone had tried to tell me that there would be days I would want to punch my teammates, or that I would be bored with stretches of not really having much tangible work to do. I’m sure someone did try to tell me—but did they grab me by the shoulders, look me in the eyes, and try to shake out some of my idealism? As awkward as that would’ve been, I wish they had.
Later, as a missions pastor, it was natural to embrace the role of the cheerleader. I got out my pom-poms and hyped people to go to the nations. After all, God’s global mission is exciting, and mobilizing God’s people is exciting. But as I watched people go and suffer, and sometimes implode, and sometimes come home, I thought back to my own journey, and I started to get jaded. The family that I walked with most closely also became the family who suffered most severely. They faced toxic leadership, a violent mugging, and eventually even the loss of a child. I felt guilty for having encouraged them to go in the first place. So, when other candidates came around dripping with idealism, I laid down my pom-poms and picked up my cane. The curmudgeon was ready to sober them up.
I hope you can see that I’m not advocating for one approach over the other. When I find myself being a cheerleader, the curmudgeon gripes. And when I find myself being a curmudgeon, the cheerleader huffs. Perhaps solely for the sake of not being constantly at odds with myself, I have looked to God to help me become something more than either of these. You see, when you redeem and combine the qualities of the cheerleader and the curmudgeon, something new emerges. I describe it as “the sage.”
A sage is generally understood as a profoundly wise person. Zack Eswine, pastor, author, and founder of Sage Christianity, describes the work of a sage as constructing an integrated view of reality as though he is putting together a puzzle. In his book Preaching to a Post-Everything World, he presents the sage as one who “looks over all reality without closing his eyes to its madness and folly (Ecclesiastes 2:12).” Although we may not have much familiarity with the sage in American culture, we do greet him often throughout the Scriptures. In fact, one of the Bible’s major genres is wisdom literature, in which the sage assembles his puzzles for all to see. When we allow ourselves to abide in these Scriptures, we start to experience that truth is multi-dimensional. Wisdom has a way of taking two seemingly opposite things and showing how both can be true at the same time. As Ephesians 3:10 puts it, God’s wisdom is “manifold.”
In 1 Corinthians 1:24, Paul presents the sage who is even greater than “lady wisdom” in Proverbs. He is the source of the most profound wisdom in all of Scripture. Who is he? He is “Christ . . . the wisdom of God.” Let this multi-dimensional truth bend your brain for a moment: the cross was the setting for the very worst thing that could have ever happened and the very best thing that could have ever happened at the same time! We can only understand this reality if God grants us the wisdom to connect the puzzle pieces of our sinful need and his gracious provision. Truly Jesus is the Sage of sages.
And though I may live between the cheerleader and the curmudgeon, the Sage lives in me.
So how do we minister in light of the reality that the Sage lives in us as we mobilize God’s people on mission? I think it centers on one word: honesty—the wise expression of truth, which is unapologetically multi-dimensional. In other words, we tell both sides of the story. We don’t lead with our optimism or our pessimism, but, as much as possible, with realism. Years ago, when I first learned how to write and deliver liturgy, we aimed at writing it with raw honesty about life’s bitter realities while also delivering it with “strength and joy.” The goal was to point people to the anchor of God’s self-revelation in all the highs, lows, and monotony of life. Not just hype. Not just gripe. But wisdom.
The image that comes to mind is described in a recent podcast series on the 20th anniversary of the film Band of Brothers. Over and over, the actors tell their stories of encountering the World War II veterans whom they were seeking to portray. The most impactful moments always seemed to be when the veterans gathered together and told their war stories. Grown men, some of the toughest warriors of our time, were brought to both laughter and tears as they recounted their wins and losses. The young actors were enthralled. Idealists were encountering wisdom.
And that’s why I think the best sages for fostering both excitement and sobriety in potential Sent Ones are other Sent Ones. So many times I have watched the Spirit of wisdom fill the room as Sent Ones (including those who have imploded and come home) tell their stories with raw honesty. One particularly successful Sent One captivated everyone when he told a story of how his daughter got choked and nearly died simply because there was no medical care nearby. Then he cried out in obvious unresolved pain, “Are you ready to lose a child over this?!” You could hear the sound of idealism thudding onto the floor.
I believe it’s the same thudding we hear after we read about Jesus in John 13–17. Jesus spends the last hours before his crucifixion with his friends, laughing and soaking up their presence, remembering parts of their journey, and talking about the glories to come. But he’s also cringingly honest about the hell that is about to be paid. It’s not all pom-poms, and it’s not all cane, but it is all sage. And as such, its effect is even more compelling.
That is the approach I want to bring into all my mobilizing—raw honesty paired with strength and joy. I want to tell my own war stories with honesty—the wins, the losses, and even the monotony. I want to hold out a gospel and a mission that makes room for the very best and the very worst, at the same time. I want to lock arms with the cheerleader and curmudgeon within and say to them, “I know you don’t like each other very much, but I need you both, so let’s keep trucking.”
Let’s keep trucking.
This article was originally featured at The Upstream Collective.