Monday, July 31, 2017

Gena Thomas & A Smoldering Wick

Gena Thomas served as a missionary in northern Mexico for over four years with her husband, Andrew. While there, the couple founded and managed El Buho, a coffee shop ministry that still serves the town of Hidalgo. Gena holds a Masters Degree in International Development. Her book, A Smoldering Wick, published in June 2016, aims to teach three things: a theory of biblical justice rather than American charity; a theory of humility learned from past mistakes; and a practice of development principles adapted for Short Term Missions (STMs.).

Gena, you write that charity doesn't equal empowerment. "Justice requires relationship. Charity doesn't." Can you expand on that thought?

Charity, as we know it, is a top-down approach to poverty. Essentially, those who ‘have’ give tangible items to those who don’t have. There is an automatic power-play in the process. The dominance of the giver is automated, while the subordination of the receiver is inherent in the process. Justice, on the other hand, equals out the power transfer. Justice, from the two Hebrew words Tzedakah and Mishpat, are defined by a life of right relationship & giving someone what (s)he is due. Therefore, biblically speaking, relationship is a crucial piece of administering justice. In the framework of approaching poverty through justice, we see that the label ‘giver’ and ‘receiver’ must be applied to both sides of the exchange. Empowerment comes from both seeing our own strengths and leaning on our brothers and sisters in Christ for our weaknesses. This must start happening from Christian Westerners doing “mission” on foreign soil. In most cases, Westerners are automatically seen as the haves while the non-Westerners are seen as the have-nots. The reality is that each person is rich and poor.

You observe that, in terms of Short Term Mission trips, from a spiritual perspective, salvation equals relief But sanctification equals development, which requires deeper relationships. Can you talk about this?

When referring to development principles, there is a spectrum: relief, rehabilitation, and development. Relief is what happens right after a major catastrophe. This would include making sure that people can survive. Immediate needs–water, food, shelter–are met. Then comes rehabilitation which would be meeting short-term needs (though the definition of “short” is relative to the disaster). This may include a monthly shelter or even a refugee camp. Development happens when those who were affected by the disaster can rebuild their lives prior to the disaster. That is, development happens when people are back to being self-sufficient. One of the easiest way to do damage is to give relief to a community when they need rehabilitation or development. Relief always has an expiration date. The longer it is in place, the more likely negative dependency affects the community.

From a spiritual perspective, I see relief is what happened to us when we were wrecked with the depravity of human nature and we accept Christ as our Redeemer. Sanctification is something that happens over a longer period of time, where we learn to trust Christ and fully embrace His upside-down kingdom. I guess we could add that development is more like discipleship than it is praying the salvation prayer. Discipleship/sanctification requires relationship with other believers for us to more fully understand the gospel and how it affects our lives and our world. I think most of the time, short-term mission trips are marketed as if they are doing discipleship or ‘development’ when in actuality, they are, at most, doing ‘spiritual relief’ in places that don’t need said relief.

You examine the phrase “THERE BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD, GO I.” That it actually “implies we are somehow superior because a particular crisis passed us by.” Ultimately leading to thinking if you’re sick or poor, it’s your own fault. And the irony of “PULLING YOURSELF UP BY YOUR OWN BOOTSTRAPS.” Leading to a belief that “GOD HELPS THOSE WHO HELP THEMSELVES.” You ask a great question: “Really, did you do that spiritually? Did you save yourself?” Would you further explain or offer additional insight?

This is a phrase I heard so often working in crisis ministry. It always made me sad to think the person saying that really felt like God’s grace worked that way. I realize that it’s just a saying that most people don’t think about, but words are powerful, and the phrase leads us to believe that crisis equates to people being outside of God’s will or God’s grace. Clearly, that is not what the Bible says when we think about the book of Job, or the trials and tribulations that every person of faith goes through. Jesus doesn’t promise we won’t have suffering, in fact, he tells us the opposite. So, if Jesus says that suffering will be part of our lives, we cannot allow such phrases to dismantle that truth. In my opinion, this type of phrase gives way to the prosperity gospel that says life is grand and anyone who suffers is outside of God’s desire to make them prosperous. This false gospel is running rampant in American culture, and sadly, is being exported to the world. It is not biblical. God’s grace is bigger than our circumstances. If we don’t believe that, our faith will crumble when we walk one of life’s many low valleys. I believe the gospel walks with us through those valleys and speaks to us there. I believe the gospel has much to say to those who suffer, to those who are in pain; and I believe those of us who ‘have’ much have much to learn from those who suffer and maintain a strong relationship with Jesus Christ.

You mention “numbers lust,” as in “we fed 1,000 people today.” In contrast to “we hung out with and developed relationships with a dozen people today.” Would you care to comment further on the dynamic between numbers lust vs. developing relationships on STM trips?

As Westerners, we are very quantitative by culture. We use numbers and data for EVERYTHING. So much so that most of us don’t know what qualitative analysis is. We love to measure effectiveness, but usually success is measured by higher numbers, not deeper relationships. In their book, When Helping Hurts, where the quote comes from, Corbett & Fikkert discuss how difficult it would be for us to return to our American church and measure our successful mission trip by saying “We hung out with and developed relationships with a dozen people today.” We lust after big numbers: numbers that tell us we are effective; numbers that prove our ministry works; numbers that allow our stakeholders to sign off on another project. It’s a cultural sin that most of us are blind to. Unfortunately, it’s a sin that often harms receiving communities we ‘serve’ as we do our best to check things off our list so we can tell our congregations what all we did.

Early on in your book, you mention that salvation is a holistic completeness, not a one-time event. Can you explain further?

This is tough to explain. In Q2, I talk about ‘salvation’ in the way most people think of it: praying the sinner’s prayer. Without trying to confuse anyone, I must first admit that I lack the right words to describe this issue, and may have used the word ‘salvation’ interchangeably throughout the book. I do believe that we often diminish salvation to a one-time event, rather than seeing it as something that happens over time. A more holistic look at salvation would encompass spiritual relief, rehabilitation, and development. In so many ways, we look for finite methods of measuring concepts that are immeasurable. I understand why people say ‘salvation’ as a way to define the first step of repentance and acceptance of God’s kingdom. But the Greek word Soteria involves a present salvation as well as a future inheritance within the eternal kingdom. Therefore, salvation is present and future; here and not yet.

I thought the way you defined how Jesus looked at success (as loving your neighbor and loving God) was interesting. How did you reach that conclusion?

In Matthew 22:37, Jesus answers the question about what is the greatest commandment. He says, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” When Jesus was tempted in the desert by Satan (Matthew 4), Satan was trying to convince Jesus to define success differently. He was trying to persuade Jesus that the ultimate success is accomplished by possessing all the kingdoms of the world (v. 8-9). But Jesus knew better. He knew that that is the ultimate temptation of success, but that earthly glory and power do not define success. Over and over again in Jesus’ life he is proving that there is a higher metric of success than our earthly one. Throughout the biblical narrative, it is clear that when human beings learn to really love God and really love others the Gospel comes alive on the earth. We must be about loving God and loving neighbor, and do our best to live grounded in the good news that those two are inseparable. And that on those two all the Law and the Prophets hang -- which means that the fulfillment of the laws, the way to become a peculiar and set-apart people happens when we follow these two commands. In today’s jargon, this ‘fulfillment of the law’ is the definition of success. 

You write, “Wisdom doesn’t even start until we fear God.” And until that happens we can wind up spreading the wrong kind of knowledge, coming from our own wisdom. Can you elaborate on that?

In the book, I discuss the concept of the Leviathan, which is found in several passages of the Bible, but I discuss Job’s take on it. This has always been such a compelling, mystical section of the story to me. Whether one believes this beast to be real or to be imaginary, the narrative seems to clearly point to the idea that if there were such a giant sea beast, a Loch Ness monster, Kraken, or any other mystical creature, that can ‘whip the sea like you’d whip an egg into batter’ that God is EVEN bigger and stronger (Job 41, MSG). “If you can’t hold your own against his glowering visage, how, then, do you expect to stand up to me? Who could confront me and get by with it? I’m in charge of all this—I run this universe!” In the context of Job’s very challenging life story, this is a crucial piece: it’s only when Job awakens to this reality that he says, “I’ve uttered things too wonderful for me.” Not until he acknowledges God’s bigness can he see his own mistaken theology that said God is bad because I am suffering. In my own life, especially in the midst of family poverty, I feel as though I did the same thing. I believed God to be wrong/bad/unjust because I was suffering. The story of the Leviathan reminds me not to think that way.

In our American culture where we are encouraged to reach for independence and individualism, we cannot forget as Christians that there is still a God that sits on the throne. There is still an Almighty God who will challenge our individual beliefs and our individual successes and our individualized way of looking at scripture. I don’t think that all fear is unhealthy. I will advocate till I die that we cannot go around living in 100% total fear of God, because that is no way to have a relationship. But there is a balance that should be found in this concept. God is our friend, he is our lover, he is our brother, but he is also our King. I think too often we elevate our own education, experience, and platforms as our counterfeit kings – as our reasoning behind why we get to have a microphone and tell the world what we think. But in the end, opinions are not the Word. They are not the Gospel.

You include a quote from Doug Birdsall “Does the church in America have the humility to learn from us (native peoples)? Or do they consider themselves to be the world’s teacher?” Why is that question so important?

This question is raw. It took a lot of trust building and relationship building for Doug to get to a place where a native pastor would ask him such a bold question. Most Western church leaders who go on mission trips do not have this type of relationship with the native church leaders. I think that most native church leaders have this question, they just don’t voice it. This is so important because unfortunately what we often do in missions is take the stance of a colonizer. We act as though we are the world’s teacher, often unconsciously. We think that our Westernized version of the gospel is the purest form of the gospel. We assume we know more than natives do on theology, on culture, and on the best way to be a Christian. Without humility in these circumstances, we will continue to spread a false gospel that says, ‘We Westerners know it all, and without us you won’t get very far.’ Our pride often precedes us before we step foot in another culture. We must recognize this, and do all we can to humbly learn from our global brothers and sisters. Short-term missions will never be effective when pride is the M.O. (whether conscious or not).

You also quote Laurel Fiorelli on creating community. She says, “If we mistake a worldly community for God’s true kingdom come, we miss out on the beautiful opportunity to walk closer to God and hear Him speak to us through true community.” You go on to mention Dietrich Bonhoeffer warning us not to mistake short term bliss for real life’s everyday struggle. And then you say that “real Shalom community can only exist if it is built on the love of Christ.” How do we get there?

Laurel’s full quote is: “Easy-to-make friends and easy-to-talk-to neighbors and easy-to-click-the-donate-button gifts to our worldwide ‘community’ are a cheaper version of God’s true vision for community. If we mistake a worldly community for God’s true kingdom come, we miss out on the beautiful opportunity to walk closer to God and hear Him speak to us through true community.”

Wow. This is a great question. One that I think I’ll spend my whole life trying to figure out. I think the first step is recognizing that there is a counterfeit community. In The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape tells Wormwood, his demon nephew, that there will be both benevolence and malice in his patient’s soul. “The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbors whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary.
There is a counterfeit community, a community that is out there that we can pretend is our real community. I would say that those who travel to orphanages a lot on missions trips but are never involved in serving the vulnerable children in their own community are unaware that what they are often doing is spreading their benevolence to the remote circumference. I am not saying people should never go on short term mission trips to orphanages, but I do firmly believe that a good majority of those trips do much more harm than they do good.

Step two is to start to form authentic community where you do live. I don’t think this always has to be a small group, but I think church small groups are a good start in this direction. Real community must be built on the messy, justice-minded love of Christ. The love of Christ is not clean and clear. It’s messy and beautiful and involves vulnerability, authenticity, and speaking truth to each other. 
Being accountable to friends and/or a community is another step in the right direction. In chapter 5 of my book, I have specific questions that accountability partners can ask each other in order to go deeper in their relationship.

I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on ways we can build up authentic community. While I think the biblical idea of church was meant to do this, I unfortunately don’t think we see that much in Western churches that are set up for once-a-week entertaining ‘experiences’ rather than being in-depth community-building gatherings.

Gena, you mention “We need to encourage our missionaries to be honest,” getting beyond telling only “salvation stories.” And you say, “Charity pats us on the back. Justice sometimes kicks us in the knees.” Can you explain the importance of justice in mission work?

Unfortunately, many missionaries feel like they have to hide certain aspects of their lives. For example, if they speak out politically against where their supporters stand politically, they could lose their support. If they tell their supporters they went on vacation, they often get flack from them rather than supporters rejoicing in the missionary’s chance to Sabbath. I remember one point where we were concerned we’d get funding revoked because it took longer for us to reach certain milestones that we had told our supporters we were going to reach by a certain time. There are so many variables on the field, and having flexible supporters who want to know the truth not as authoritative elders, but as supportive friends is crucial to a missionary’s support system. Charity is a framework in which missionaries have to prove to supporters through numeric metrics that they are accomplishing what the supporters expect them to accomplish. Justice, a life of right relationship, is a completely different set of metrics.

A justice framework allows missionaries to build relationships and go deeper with their local community. That would be the whole foundation on which any ministry was built. Justice within the supporters’ framework would give the missionary room to say: hey this is working really well, and this is working horribly. Rather than having to tell only the good or only the bad (I talk about telling the whole story in chapter 7) in order to gain more support, the missionary could simple tell the balanced truth and their honesty wouldn’t frighten their supporters. Accountability would be so much stronger between missionaries and their sending churches if this were the case. So that when it’s time for supporters or a missions pastor from the sending church to hold the missionary truly accountable, that accountability will be received well.

You quote Muhammad Yunus: “When the poor have the ability to control their own destinies, they can achieve a lot more a lot faster.” Can you explain what Yunus was getting at?

In chapter 9, you can find a typology of participation chart. That chart can explain how self-mobilization is the ultimate goal for participation. When the economic poor are self-mobilized to participate in more economic opportunities, the change that happens in their lives is much more likely to be sustainable. This is called participatory development. In general, as human beings, when we participate in our development: whether intellectual, spiritual, or economic, we will sustain our development and achieve a lot more, a lot faster.

After offering a few templates for guiding group development of mission work, you mention “We must actively align ourselves with justice and remind ourselves that every tool we use for the sake of the gospel must somehow lead us to a deeper relationship with people, otherwise it is futile.” Can you elaborate?

The Hebrew word for justice is defined as a life of right relationship. I think if we look at short-term missions as means to the end of a built school, a compassionate reputation, a finished project, a resume full of numbers of things we’ve done, it will never go beyond a smoldering wick. But, if we look at short-term missions as a means to the end of forming deep and meaningful relationships with our global brothers and sisters, then I believe STMs can be a strong fire that brings light and warmth to this world. So any tools we use for more ‘effective’ STMs have to be used with the end goal of justice in mind, not the end goal of charity. Tools can build up or they can tear down. How we use them is critical to bringing justice to the earth.


Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

I’d love to connect with people on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @genaLthomas and I’d be stoked for others to join the monthly Twitter chat on missions under the hashtag #JustMissions that happens the first Thursday of every month at 1 p.m. ET. We talk deeply about missions and love to sharpen each other there.

My website is

I often write for Missio Alliance at

You can find my book at Amazon

No comments:

Post a Comment

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!

Pinocchio: Art Credit, Disney If ever there were a time for a national "Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire" award, it's now. And certai...