Our 2019 Children’s Books of the Year stand out from an increasingly troubling crowd
Here’s something I’ve learned as a journalist over the course of my many interactions with missionaries: Don’t entrust your schedule to the hands of missionaries, unless you’re prepared to spend the whole day with them visiting all sorts of people and places.
You see, their ideas of time management and efficiency may differ from yours. For them, spending a three-hour lunch with someone, traveling long distances to visit a family in the middle of nowhere—all those long periods of seemingly doing “nothing” aren’t nothing, but mission work.
I experienced this sort of “missionary time” in Denver when I followed a missionary on his 12 home visits to Burmese refugees. In Thailand, I trailed various missionaries to minister to Pakistani refugees, visits that turned into whole-day affairs with lots of chai-sipping. In Burma, I trekked with a missionary family to visit persecuted ethnic minorities, hiking through a rural jungle mountain for four hours just to visit one woman. In Malaysia, I called a missionary to ask a question, expecting the conversation to last 15 minutes tops, but it dragged into a three-hour phone call.
And of course, I experienced this as a missionary’s kid—how many hours have I spent accompanying my father on his cultural expeditions and impromptu evangelism to random strangers? I still remember the night my family spent almost two hours waiting in the car, windows rolled down, while my father preached the gospel to a cashier at a grocery store in Singapore (she professed Christ, so we all rejoiced—a happy ending to a long night).
Last week I was once again reminded of how missionaries operate on a different time than us ordinary, earthly folks when I met a missionary in Tijuana for a story I’m reporting on the border crisis.
It was my third visit to Tijuana, and I gotta be honest, I didn’t look forward to it much. It’s a long, trafficky drive from Los Angeles. Crossing the border can be cumbersome, and the city is close enough that there’s little of that sense of novelty of visiting a foreign country. Tijuana also doesn’t have much landscaping, which means there aren’t planted trees to provide relief from the biting Mexico sun, and the streets smell funky. The last time I was in Tijuana, I had spent three hours loitering in a hilly neighborhood 7 miles south of the border, waiting for a local pastor who never showed up for a meeting. So on this third trip down to Mexico, I went with little enthusiasm, praying I wouldn’t get stood up again.
Thankfully, a church leader in Tijuana named Maggie picked me up at the border right around noon, as we had scheduled. Maggie is a Korean immigrant who doesn’t speak much English but speaks fluent Spanish thanks to her college years in Guadalajara. She and another Korean missionary, Stan, helped interpret for me that day. Before we went around town, Stan asked if I was in a time crunch to get back home. As soon as I said “No” and saw his smile broaden, I knew I was going to be in Tijuana for a long time. “We’ll try to get you back across the border before the sun sets,” Maggie said, but I knew that wasn’t going to happen.
It didn’t happen. I was in Tijuana for eight hours, driving from one colonia (neighborhood) to the next, spending more time than I wanted on the road. One trip, we spent 100 minutes jolting inch by inch in traffic to cross 14 miles. Another trip, Maggie got lost while tailing another pastor’s car, and it took us half an hour to find each other again. The next trip, officials manning the shelter for Central American migrants wouldn’t let us in, so we spent the next half-hour trying to convince them and listening to their reasons why we couldn’t enter. By our last trip, the sky was already pitch-black with nary a star, and we were woefully lost, wandering around the dusty hills, following GPS directions that were just as lost as we were.
I have a weak stomach, so I was quite miserable in the car. I was hot, but everyone else was cold, so they kept the windows up and blasted the heat. The hot dog I ate from a gas station lurched in my stomach with acidic juices while I silently groaned from the back seat. I could tell even Maggie was tired. But Stan the missionary? He was whistling and humming all throughout the drive, pausing only to talk about so-and-so’s spiritual progress and so-and-so’s resistance to the gospel. Twice our car sunk into a pothole so big that it knocked the wind out of us. Maggie let out a scream—but Stan? He laughed and exclaimed the Korean version of “Whoopsie Daisy!” and then continued driving and whistling.
Though I was still nauseous and heat-exhausted in the back seat, I felt a wash of appreciation for the cheerful missionary. Here he was, dedicating a whole day to help a journalist he’d just met, yet I didn’t hear a single complaint or disgruntled expression. Instead, he seemed to be at rest throughout the entire journey, even during the tedious moments and roadblocks.
Stan takes longer to leave a place because he gives all his attention to the people he meets and asks more questions than I do. He expresses genuine concern for the migrants stranded in Tijuana, but he’s no passive hand-wringer or angry activist—he simply goes out there and investigates the situation, whether through a random taxi driver or a local pastor, and figures out what God’s next step is for him with strategic thinking, collaboration, and infectious cheer.
That night, as I drove back home to LA, I thought of the Apostle Paul, the great first-century missionary who proclaimed the gospel to more than 50 cities around Asia Minor and the Mediterranean coasts. I imagine the logistics of Paul’s travels were a lot more challenging then our pothole-ridden drive through Tijuana with Google Maps. We learn about Paul’s love and ministry to the early churches through Acts and his letters, and we also learn that he got shipwrecked three times, spending a night and a day adrift at sea. He went on frequent journeys in danger of thrashing rivers, street robbers, the wilderness, storm, and starvation (2 Corinthians 11:24-27).
And yet this is the same guy who exhorted his fellow brothers in Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). I’m confident Paul’s journeys weren’t just about getting from point A to point B to meet person X. I’ll bet Paul had three-hour meals with strangers he met while on the boat, on the ship, on donkeys, and on foot. I’ll bet he sometimes got lost but somehow found someone to bless or extra time to rest while wandering. And I’ll bet he whistled and hummed along the way.
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A while ago, I was visiting a homeless couple in Los Angeles for an interview when the man—let’s call him “Bill”—began to mock another man for being “feminine.” I didn’t know this other man well, so I couldn’t judge his apparent femininity, but I knew Bill.
Bill is 40-something years old and likes to wear hats, A-shirts, low-riding baggy pants, and tattoos down his arms. He knows all the street lingo, lights his joint with an experienced whiff, and walks with the swagger of a rapper, which he fancies himself to be. By all appearances, he’s the definition of a “manly man” or a “lady’s man,” according to certain pop culture, and he’s got eight kids with eight different women to prove it.
Other facts about Bill that people might not see through his swagger: He had been sleeping on the streets with his girlfriend for months before someone helped them find temporary sober housing, which the couple lost within five months because they were caught drinking and smoking pot in their room. Bill later found housing again when his girlfriend got pregnant and was bumped up the priority list for subsidized housing. He has been with this girlfriend for years but hasn’t made any attempts to marry her. He’s also unemployed: He landed minimum-wage jobs and lost them soon after because, according to him, his co-workers didn’t respect him. The last time I saw him, he was selling hard drugs on the streets while his girlfriend waited with their newborn baby in the car she bought.
So that afternoon, when I heard Bill make fun of another man for not being “manly enough,” I wanted to smack him. “Grow up,” I wanted to shout. “You think you’re a real man? You’re over 40 but you’re still a wannabe gangster who can barely provide for your own girlfriend.” It took some effort to keep my mouth shut.
I thought of Bill again last week as I read more headlines about “toxic masculinity.” Recently, the American Psychological Association (APA) issued new clinical guidelines warning that some aspects of “traditional masculinity” can be “harmful.” The organization defines traditional masculinity as “a particular constellation of standards that have held sway over large segments of the population, including: anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence.” It warned that pressures to adhere to traditional masculine ideals lead to higher rates of suicide, substance abuse, violence, and premature death.
Around the same time, a Gillette commercial went viral: In that video, the razor company challenges men to be “The Best Men Can Be” and to “hold other men accountable”—and it showed men stopping other males from fighting each other, teasing other boys, and sexually objectifying women.
Let’s point out the good stuff first: Sure, it seems disingenuous that a for-profit company selling razors would dabble at social commentary, but the things it champions in men—accountability, kindness, respect for women—are good. Meanwhile, the APA report highlights some real challenges that men disproportionately face, such as suicide and violence. It also stresses the importance of healthy father involvement and encourages men to seek self-care and friendships. Those highlights are also good.
Many people, however, howled. They said APA and Gillette are warring against American men. “Toxic masculinity,” a controversial buzz phrase based on a concept debated since the 1990s, has become more popular during this age of mass shootings, anonymous web forums, and rising allegations of sexual misconduct. Some people say the constant discussion over “toxic masculinity” unintentionally pathologizes masculinity in ways that harm rather than benefit men, while others say the term isn’t meant to describe masculinity itself but a rigid stereotype of manliness. And though the terminology “toxic masculinity” has its issues, I think of Bill’s cultural ideal of manliness, and I don’t mind that brand of masculinity dying off.
But there are also major issues with the APA guidelines. They encourage boys and men to “create their own concepts of what it means to be male.” They blame “White, Eurocentric masculine ideals of restrictive emotionality and self-reliance” for racial discrimination and depression. They mourn that “transgender women may be perceived as men who are ‘pretending’ or ‘dressing up,’ while transgender men may be seen as ‘not real men.’” One psychologist who helped draft the APA guidelines asked, “What is gender in the 2010s? It’s no longer just this male-female binary.” When psychologists believe a person can create his or her own gender, what’s the point of even creating guidelines for antiquated concepts such as “boys and men,” or even addressing the unique needs of men?
Ultimately, here’s the sad truth: Culture has always warred against God-designed masculinity and femininity. This talk about “harmful” traditional masculinity is our culture once again trying to refresh itself. Our world’s cultures are always changing, but their aim has always been the same: to disrupt the natural order and design of God. Ever since Adam and Eve broke the perfect relationship between God and humanity, man’s culture has always set its own standards apart from God’s design. Even so-called “traditional” masculinity can emphasize self-glory and self-honor, power and prestige, and reliance on self rather than reliance on God.
Now culture is rebelling again, trying to obliterate the very ideas of natural masculinity and femininity. And it’s not just in America. The most popular male band in South Korea, BTS, has more than 11 million fans worldwide. These young celebrities have baby-smooth shaved legs, a five-step skin care routine, and pink-glossed lips. That’s pretty shocking if you understand traditional Korean culture, which had always preferred tough-guy looks. I think about all the teenage girls (and grown-up women) who go gaga over these pretty flower boys, and I wonder how that’s going to affect what they expect from their future husbands and sons. I also worry about the boys: When they perceive that masculinity is under threat, some try to overcompensate with non-Biblical ideas of masculinity.
Biblical masculinity has always been under attack, whether by cultural standards or personal sin. I think about the great men in the Bible, and I see a diversity of personalities and flaws. There’s the wily, domesticated, henpecked Jacob, who wrestled with God and won the name “Israel.” There’s the brave, lustful, sensitive David, who plucked on harps, committed adultery, and cried often into his pillow, yet God called him a man after His own heart. There’s the consistent, faithful Daniel, most likely castrated as a eunuch, who prayed fervently and saw great visions. There’s the tempestuous, uneducated, once-cowardly Peter, who loved Jesus so much that he leaped into the sea to greet him.
And ultimately, there’s Jesus, whose gentleness, meekness, and low-class background might have drawn scorn from others, but who lived as the perfect man with His self-sacrificing love, humility, and obedience to God. Biblical manhood is more challenging than mere human men can perfectly attain, and Jesus set the model through His life on earth: He loves His bride (the church) so wholly that He protects, provides, and lays down His life for her. He proclaimed and did whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy in the eyes of God. He was gracious and compassionate to women and children, exercised self-control and humility and courage, and cared for the spiritual and physical well-being of others. He cried when He was sad, overturned tables when He saw evil, and spoke harsh words when He saw hypocrisy and injustice.
Masculinity doesn’t need saving by false cultural definitions of what a man should look or act like. It needs to be stripped of all its cultural impositions and measured against the perfect man, Jesus Christ. Everything else, left unchecked by Scripture, can be toxic.
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Here’s a New Year’s resolution for you: If you don’t already have a missionary for a friend, find one. I have the incredible blessing of being born into a missionary family, but I can never have enough missionary friends who remind me of God’s mission for us on earth: to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.
One of my missionary friends, Sarah, lives in an impoverished Inupiat village of 150 people in rural Alaska. I first met Sarah online—she’s a longtime WORLD reader who wrote me once, and we’ve been sending each other essay-length emails ever since. Three years ago I met her in person in Alaska while reporting on Alaska Natives, then she and her husband and five kids visited me in Los Angeles a year later.
Most parents would not want their little kids to experience the infamous homeless community of Los Angeles, but Sarah and her husband Luke intentionally joined me in LA’s Venice neighborhood to serve the homeless there. They wanted their kids to see the spiritual and material poverty of this world, wanted them to develop a burden and prayer for human souls who so desperately need healing and redemption. So instead of taking the kids to Disneyland, they walked streets of Venice, passing out hot burritos to people who hadn’t washed in days. On the drive back, Sarah texted me, gushing, “That was one of the best experiences the kids have ever had!”
This Christmas, Sarah sent me an email saying she had invited four people in her village to spend the holidays with her family. She chose these four individuals with care—all of them had no family, nowhere to go for Christmas, and no genuine understanding of what Christmas really means.
On Christmas day, Sarah waited, and none of them showed up. One said “no” at the last minute because he was afraid she would try to convert him. Another woman had said she’d come, but never did. When Sarah later walked by her house, she saw that woman sitting alone in her house drinking and staring at the TV. “It is so sad,” Sarah wrote me. “People just love their own destruction, and yet hate it as well.”
On New Year’s Day, Sarah wrote to me again. I had asked about her prayers for the new year, and she said one of her prayers is for her husband’s family. “I long to share Christ more with them,” she wrote. Then she added an observation that struck me: “People without Christ are dying. No, I don’t mean getting in their coffins, though that will happen too, but they are settling into their death, becoming more dead, and more OK with it. Living death is just life to them, they don’t even seem to mind it so much anymore.”
What Sarah said pierced my conscience before God. How true, how devastatingly, horrifyingly true her statement is! And how devastating is it that we who call ourselves Christians—followers of Christ, people who belong to Christ—so easily forget this reality? Too often I see Christians seeking first the comforts of this world—or do so myself.
Even our Christian-coated interests can be so self-contained: Among fellow believers, we rage about abortion and LGBT activism and infringement on our religious freedoms, but avoid hanging out with those “sinners” and turn quiet when speaking out might cost us our job and friendships. Our church life revolves around fun activities with other Christian families. Our study of God’s Word can become focused on self and gaining whatever encouragement and comfort we can get for ourselves—a good thing, but when that pursuit isn’t channeled toward our mission as messengers of Christ, we miss out on the fullness and richness of our Christian life.
I felt this conviction a while ago during a weekend trip to Santa Cruz with several girlfriends. Out of this group of eight, I was the only professing Christian. We gathered because our dear friend was going through an extremely hard time after a breakup with her fiancé, and we wanted to surround her with love and sisterhood. Again, a noble goal, but I joined the trip completely forgetting I would be the only Christian witness in the group.
One evening we were having dinner at an Italian restaurant when one of the girls began talking about her frequent drug use. She couldn’t enjoy a music festival without being high on psychedelics, she proclaimed. Then the conversation progressed to sex. I won’t disclose the explicit details, but I learned things I didn’t ever need to know. I also learned that experimenting with an “open relationship”—an intimate relationship in which both partners agree to have sexual relationships with other people—is quickly becoming a popular trend, particularly in wealthy, highly educated areas such as Silicon Valley.
At the time, all I did was listen, half horrified and half curious. But the next morning on my drive back to the airport, I thought about the conversation again and a deep sadness and regret weighed on my heart.
Half of the women in our group were CEOs of successful tech companies in Silicon Valley. They earn more money than they know how to use, their resumés gleam with achievements, and they’re young and beautiful. By any objective standard, they are society’s elites, with a bright future before them. Yet I sensed in them the same condition Sarah had described: a living deadness. Something is deeply unsatisfying in their seemingly full lives. They scream their unmet yearnings in silence and try to liven the deadness by overstimulating their senses with drugs and sex. And I, a Christian with the Good News, had failed to speak into those sacred longings at that opportune moment.
The problem was that I had gone into that scenario wholly unprepared. I had not even prayed for them before meeting them. At some point during my many years of friendship with these women, I had given up on their salvation. I had invited them to church and shared my faith with them numerous times, but after constantly meeting passive disinterest from them, I let discouragement take over. I just couldn’t imagine such dull hearts ever opening up to the Spirit of God.
Sometimes, Sarah too expresses such discouragement in her emails. Out in the Alaska bush, her ministry to Alaska Natives is long and hard and sometimes seemingly unfruitful. Kids who once eagerly lapped up Bible studies in her kitchen gradually get sucked into unhealthy relationships and the alcoholism that runs in their families. Her hours of conversations with her neighbors seem to barely make a dent on their hardened hearts. Sometimes she weeps from heartbreak and exhaustion. But somehow she always comes back refreshed, ready to keep preaching, praying, loving. And I think it has to do with the fact that for Sarah, her mission to proclaim Christ is not just a job or one aspect of her life, but the very rhythm of her lifestyle. It is incorporated into her daily worship and enjoyment of God.
Evangelism is supposed to be the easiest thing for a Christian to do, because the Spirit does all the heavy work: All we need to do is proclaim in word and deed the truth we daily enjoy. So what excuse do we have? Oh Lord, I repent of my lack of faith and worship of You. May our daily worship of You define and fuel our action, thoughts, and speech.