Joel and Lizzie are two of our young Tranzsend staff, recently re-commissioned to the field as a married couple. They currently serve in a freedom business in South Asia.
While they were in New Zealand, I sat down with Joel & Lizzie and had a chat about why they made the decision to pursue deeper theological study, despite having already completed some theological training prior to going to the field.
Here’s how the conversation went.
Why are you making a commitment to pursue further study?
Joel - It’s been really important for us to do some critical reflection around what it’s like to be involved in full-time mission. Having been overseas for a few years now, we’re able to look back at what we’ve done and reflect and critique, and learn some postures and attitudes and ways of doing things that we can take back.
What is the importance of studying theology for Missions?
Joel - Life over there is so intense and so many things get thrown your way that if you don’t have a really good grounding in what you believe and how to process some of the things you experience, you can find yourself on very shaky ground. I think a theological framework is an important one to process things through. A business degree teaches you skills, but a theological degree teaches you how to interpret culture and the Bible through a particular lens – and how you can apply it to a particular situation. Even though you can’t learn everything about the Bible in a year or two, studying Theology gives you the ‘soft skills’ to process things.
Why are you doing more study?
Lizzie – I had a lot of questions about faith in action and faith in the face of suffering. I didn’t necessarily want to get a whole lot of answers for them, in the end I came out of my degree with a whole lot more questions than answers. Studying theology is really formational in terms of teaching me to look for answers myself when I’m in an isolated community. It has given me a different lense to look at life and faith through.
For me studying theology is not just about my personal faith and the outworking of that, but thinking within the context of the community I live in South Asia and visioning for that place too. Not only dealing with some of the suffering that we encounter there, but also actually looking at what does it mean for a place like this to have ‘hope in their future’. Studying theology is a mechanism of hope for me, as well as a mechanism of being able to outwork questions.
What benefit do you think studying theology brings to those going to serve in overseas mission?
Lizzie – For me, studying theology has a very practical foundation. I don’t want to come in and impose what I think scripture means for the lives of the women I’m working with who have experienced trafficking and trauma, rather I genuinely want to know what the Holy Spirit is doing in that context, and how they relate to the person of Jesus – without that being adulterated by me. How they understand scripture and how they relate to who Jesus is and what the Spirit is doing in their community, and the reciprocal nature of what they can teach me about Jesus. A genuine exchange.
Joel – for both of us there’s a personal aspect of wanting to study theology for our own faith and understanding but also because we want to be able to understand others in the context we’re called to. We’re doing this not just for ourselves but for our community in South Asia, in the hope that our greater faith and understanding will in some way usher in God’s Kingdom in that place.
Has your theology been challenged by the things you’ve seen serving in South Asia? Has your understanding of God and the way He works grown or changed?
Lizzie - Yes, it has. I expect it to continue to do so. My faith has become a lot more embodied and ‘fleshed out’. To see how the gospel takes on flesh in the lives of the women that we’re privileged to call friends and family. Especially when it comes to sharing in the sufferings of Christ. Not to glorify suffering – but how much through their suffering these women have an ability to know Jesus so much more intimately because of the way that He shows solidarity with them in their suffering. So we’re engaging with that, just by nature of having friends in these women who’ve grappled a lot with suffering. My faith has been challenged to become a lot more embodied and I’ve been challenged in the areas of responding to suffering and how you actually do that.
A lot of things were just theoretical to me before life in South Asia. Before moving to South Asia I’d still resonate with passages like Luke 25, but that wasn’t really fleshed out or ‘made real’ to me until life in this red-light district.
It has shown me that as westerners we need to have a theology that isn’t afraid to embrace and face suffering. What do you do when there’s seemingly unending rampant suffering in someone’s life?
I have a tendency and I suspect people who are quite justice-oriented have a tendency to making faith personal to me and my relationship with Jesus being quite individual to me. Yes Jesus does delight in me and I have that personal relationship with him. For a justice-oriented person when there’s all these things happening in the world and it’s chaos everywhere and you want to do something about it, that element of my relationship with Jesus was really challenged. Being challenged to actually retreat when I felt overwhelmed. Retreat back into that place of delighting in Jesus’ delight for me.
It has been quite prominent this year being back in New Zealand, a number of people said to me originally, before leaving for South Asia: “God’s called you to South Asia to get to know Him more.” Whereas before I kind of brushed that off a little bit, now for all the joys and all the perceived failures and hardships of the last three years, that’s the thing that has remained. Wherever I am, not least of all South Asia, Jesus wants to get to know me more. So that aspect of faith has definitely been challenged.
What has your community in South Asia taught you? What have you learned from them?
Joel – One thing the women in our Freedom business have been teaching me is that when they encounter Jesus it’s very real for them and the language they put to that is so real as well. We had one lady who shared with us, saying “I sit on my bed where you’re sitting right now Joel, and I cry there every day. My life has been so hard and I’ve had so much suffering, but often when I’m crying I feel this peaceful thing come and it comforts me. I’m not afraid of it but I’m just wondering what’s that?” We were able to explain that that is the Holy Spirit, and that God identifies with your suffering and not only does He identify, but He also wants to offer you peace and hope. She didn’t have the language for it but it’s just a very real, very honest expression of what God’s doing.
The women will tell me all the time “Jesus did this for me, Jesus did that for me” and for us we’ve got all this baggage behind it and we’re trying to justify it theologically. These women don’t have any of that – they’re just very real and very trusting of Jesus and very faithful. It goes deep with them. I think sometimes we compartmentalize our lives too much, and we miss that. Whereas for these women, He is their everything.
Lizzie – One thing that never ceases to amaze me is their gratitude towards God for His provision, in things that sometimes seem a little bit perplexing at times to me, but their deep thankfulness is so evident. “Thank-you a thousand times a thousand” is their expression when they give thanks to God in prayer. I don’t think I thank God enough for His provision to me.
What would be your advice to someone who is feeling the call to go?
Joel – Do some theology study. I think that’s really important. My business degree was obviously useful as well, having a skill to contribute is important, but I think sometimes the skill is put ahead of character or theology. It’s vital to develop your character, who you are is really important. Spend some time thinking about mission and your call.
Lizzie – Constantly having a posture of learning. Learning the language, bringing skills to the table, theological study - but also an attitude of humility, coming as a learner. Be curious to learn more - don’t have all the answers, come in humility with the posture of a learner. It will open up the most beautiful opportunities to sit at someone’s feet and learn from them. Anything you share with them is then a mutual exchange.
What is the importance of studying theology?
Lizzie – Critically informing how we choose to live in that context and how we choose to express our faith in general. Inevitably, people do ask questions within our community because faith is an open conversation. Also in response to suffering, when events provoke questions. Making sense of those questions that come in the most despairing moments, such as what am I doing here? Is it really making a difference? This is all work in seeing God’s Kingdom come.
What are your dreams for South Asia, what do you want to see God do?
Joel – For us personally, to be able to recognise what God is doing in the neighbourhood, and partner with that. Who knows what that could look like? I hope that it means that human trafficking and sex slavery exists no more – that would be amazing. What we are beginning to see is pockets of hope represented by the women that have found freedom in Jesus by coming and working with us. They go back to their building, and it may just be in one room, but there’s hope there – a little light on a hill. And maybe if enough momentum builds, the light will invade and God’s Kingdom will come. That’s the hope. But who knows what form that will take. But we hope that it’s liberating for those that are involved now and that they will share that with their neighbours and that future generations will experience that freedom.
Lizzie – That places like the notorious red light areas of the city we live in are places of trafficking and trauma no longer. That’s the ultimate dream. That God’s Kingdom comes more and more in those places, every day. That people might one day speak of this place as somewhere that once was a place of darkness but actually through these pockets of light, through the homes of these women, they would be a light in the darkness in a way that the darkness cannot snuff it out.
Joel – God’s Kingdom is pretty upside-down from the way that we would expect it to be. Often the responses of these women to the Good News actually offend us and the powers that be. It’s the foolish things shaming the wise, the weak things of this world shaming the strong. The ladies we work with are the most marginalized and the weakest voices in that society – but God is using them. I think they’ll be a prophetic voice to the rest of the society.
Lizzie – We see the change that has happened not only physically in their shift of employment but relationally, emotionally and spiritually in their lives as well.
Another dream would be to see the community that we’ve committed to embrace Jesus in a way that is reflective of their culture. I would love to see more Bengali expressions of faith expressed. To see indigenous expressions of worship arise with songs of freedom as well as songs of Jesus, out of a place in history that has not known either of those things.
We will die off one day – but the dream is for freedom to multiply and continue with locals, with people who know that place much better than us.