Giants Like Bob: Everyone needs a mentor

Candy

Seattle, WA – Circa October 1998

Some experiences evade the threat of failing memory through sheer sureality.

The first time I visited a Muslim household was to celebrate the holiday called Eid al-Fitr, which concludes the fasting month of Ramadan. By custom, the children of the family offered me candy from a bowl, as if I had come to the door trick-or-treating. Sitting in the living room of their modest apartment, my head swam as the men of the house spoke to each other in Kurdish.

A Ham At A Bar-Mitzvah

I felt incredibly out of place, but that wasn’t the bizarre moment that I remember so well. It was in the car on the way to visit the next Kurdish home that I suddenly wondered how my life had brought me to this moment.

My new friend was driving. Bob was a giant of a man. I’m not extremely tall, but most men aren’t a full head taller than me. The little car he drove made him look even bigger after he squeezed himself in behind the steering wheel.

He navigated the roads of Seatac and belted out hymns from memory in a deep singing voice that could have won him a role in an opera.

That was the moment I remember. Had I really chosen this situation?

The Key People We Meet In Our Lives

Someone introduced me to Bob while I lived on Vashon Island. I told him of my plans to move to Lebanon, and asked him how I should prepare to live there.

“How many Muslims friends do you have?” He asked.

“Uh. None,” I confessed.

“Come with me and I’ll introduce you to some.”

He had helped to resettle Kurds into refugee camps from the mountains in northern Iraq after the first Gulf War. Many in the Kurdish community in Seattle had followed him there after Sadamm Hussein regained control.

Bob mentored me without my realizing or fully appreciating it at the time – and I wasn’t alone. I met others in his home, where he and his wife Jan gathered and fed us. The encouragement I found around that table gave me the courage to step into unusual, uncomfortable moments. He challenged me be courageous when I didn’t know what to expect.

Seeking Out People To Influence Us

When was the last time you experienced something bizarre enough to be memorable?

Sometimes it only takes talking about our dreams with people who have already lived them out, and saying, “okay,” when they offer a suggestion. Otherwise, it seems too hard to get started on your own, and you wind up having to live with the itch, like a burr in your saddle, or a raspberry seed stuck in-between your teeth.

There you have it – in a nutshell. Everyone should be mentored by giants like Bob.

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Discontentment As Incentive

CrownThe car was still running. I enjoyed the heat being blown out at me for the last couple minutes before stepping out to run a couple miles on the Centennial Trail. The last few swallows from my coffee mug went down as I read three pages of N.T. Wright’s How God Became King to supply a starting place for a conversation with God. I extracted the thought that the Kingdom of God has already started, even as it is being built.

I switched off the ignition and slid the key into my pocket as I jumped out and headed down the trail – slowly at first due to a twinge of pain in my back. There weren’t many others on the path this morning. A few bicyclists. Another runner. I greeted them in passing with, “Good morning.”

Absentmindedly, I asked the woman walking her dog, “How’s it going?”

“Okay,” she said, as I clipped past her.

The way she said it lodged in my mind. It became the new topic of my runtime prayers, or rather, a practical extension of the idea of kingdom building.

Bothered by my own lack of compassion

My prayer dialog is perhaps unusual and a little hard to describe. A conversation runs through my thoughts, with my own voice taking both parts. It’s not like I’m asking questions and God is answering – more like I’m asking and answering, but God is moving freely in both.

“That woman needs to be encouraged. Go back and pray for her.”

“Hunh? Based on what – that she said, ‘okay,’ and not, ‘fine?'” I’d had these compulsive ideas before. I’ve come to recognize them not as tests, but more as opportunities to follow Jesus that are given as gifts. Without exception, they always require an action that most people would consider foolish. The feeling of regret I’ve faced from ignoring these calls to action in the past far outweighs the risk of injured pride. Still, it always takes some convincing.

“I can’t just turn around now and go back to her. I’d look like some maniac. And what would I say?” I had passed her, running in the same direction that she was walking. The space between us grew with every jogged step.

“You definitely need to go and talk with her. Say, ‘Excuse me ma’am, but you seem to be carrying a burden. Is there some way that I can pray for you?'”

“Okay, but I don’t want to interrupt my run. I’ll wait for her back at the parking lot. Then it won’t be so awkward that I’m going back to talk to her.”

“Don’t miss it! Remember how rotten the lost opportunity feels. She could turn around and head the other direction at any time.”

A Decision is Made

“I’ll cool down after my run by walking back that way. If I meet her on the path, then I’ll know that I’m really supposed to talk to her.” There are always negotiations and deal making in these dialogs. I was a mile away from where I’d passed her when I turned around and started to retrace my steps.

“What should I say when she calls me a weirdo, frowns at me, and tells me she doesn’t believe in God?”

“I don’t want her to feel endangered because a strange man stopped to talk to her.”

“Doesn’t matter. Gotta do it. Take it as it comes.” After 5 or 10 more minutes of internal debate, I rounded a corner and there she was – still headed my direction. There was no turning back now.

She eased the awkwardness by looking up and smiling. She said, “Going for another round of road punishment?”

I smiled back and stopped. “Actually,” I said. “I was hoping that I’d run into you again. There was something in the way you said, ‘Okay’ that made me think you had a burden that I could pray for.” I stopped talking. What would happen next?

Bricks and Mortar in The Kingdom

Janet was her name. She had arrived from Colorado in time to hold her granddaughter before she died. As believers, the newborn’s parents had time to baptize the tiny girl – prematurely born before her lungs had developed enough to support her breathing alone.

Standing there on the path in the woods, we prayed together. God’s compassion to engineer this moment built faith in both of us. The dog waited patiently.

Now, I’m not bragging about how I obeyed God’s call on that path. You can probably tell from my feeble thinking process that I’ve experienced more failures than successes in this battle. But discontentment in my irrelevant, safe life drives me more and more to be willing to consider foolish actions for the chance of creating relationships. I believe that’s what its like to live in a kingdom that isn’t finished being built yet.

The Value of Discontentment

Building a kingdom worthy of King Jesus is the adventure that satisfies. The paradox? The incentive to build is found in embracing the feeling of discontented hunger.

Have you been struggling with identifying the source of your own discontentment? What do you think of the idea that staying hungry is a good incentive to guide a life of obedience?

From Joppa to Caesarea: The Conversion of Simon Peter

Caesarea88 miles south of Tyre, Lebanon, circa 35 AD

Peter relaxed on the rooftop and offered a prayer of thanks. He had let a servant know that he was hungry and looked out over the surrounding buildings along the sea as the meal was being prepared.

This Jewish town of Joppa buzzed with the news of how he’d raised the woman Tabitha from the dead. So many Jews had become disciples of Jesus in the wake of his travels – first Jerusalem, then Lydda, now Joppa. Peter felt sure that Jesus would be pleased with the feeding of his sheep.

He still felt the sting of shame from how he had denied knowing Jesus. Despite his unfaithfulness, he’d been forgiven and even empowered. He planned to make the most of this second chance.

The sky was blocked from view by a descending sheet, and Peter grew dimly aware that he was experiencing a supernatural vision. The bulging center of the sheet landed first, followed by the corners, to reveal an assortment of animals, reptiles, and birds.

A voice in his ear told him to kill and eat, but he thought it was a test. All the animals were forbidden for Jews to eat in the Mosaic Law. He said, “no way!” three times, despite the voice telling him not to question God’s ability to purify anything, before the offending menagerie was finally taken back up into heaven.

What a strange vision. What could it mean? Peter was just beginning to ponder deeply when he heard a knock at the door to the house below.

No one answered the door to the three Roman Gentiles out there. Jews didn’t mix with the enemy occupier of their land. Undeterred, the visitors called out, asking if the man known as Simon Peter was staying there.

At that moment, Peter heard the Spirit tell him, “I sent the three men who are looking for you. Go with them.”

Do you think the number three was significant to Peter?

I think Peter heard the number three in the Spirit’s voice and broke into a cold sweat. Three men. Three invitations to eat forbidden meat. Three times Jesus asked if Peter loved him. Three charges to feed Jesus’ sheep. And most memorable of all – the predicted three times he denied knowing Jesus before the rooster crowed.

Were all those threes setting him up for this key moment in which so much rode on Peter’s obedience? Would he go with the men?

The visitors told of the request of his presence in the home of a centurion, the military commander of a hundred soldiers. No stranger to a jail cell, this must have smelled like a trap to Peter. But he was determined not to deny his Lord again. He invited them in to the house to stay the night.

Ten men embarked the next day, for a two-day, forty mile journey to Caesarea.

Peter went despite his abhorrence for Romans and Gentiles. The prospect of traveling with them carried the same aversion as eating roasted lizard meat. He took six Jews with him – three times the number required to testify in a Jewish trial.

What will people think?

Imagine the reaction of Peter’s fans as they strode along in broad daylight. What on earth is Peter doing with those guys? I thought he was a holy man?! The Romans must have felt the disapproving glares and may have wondered if they were going to get out of the situation alive.

What do you suppose they talked about as they walked? Did the Jews ask about Cornelius – how he had come to fear God? Maybe Peter was in the act of explaining that Cornelius’ good works weren’t enough to be accepted into the faith before he remembered his vision about purification.

Somewhere around the middle of their journey they crossed over into Gentile territory and the hateful stares shifted toward the Jews in the party.  Cornelius met them at his house, together with a crowd of his family, friends, and neighbors.

The pregnant moment of decision

As Peter described his change of heart toward them, and explained the good news of Jesus, they were overcome by the Holy Spirit in a way that the Jews believed should have been impossible.

Who was converted? Certainly Cornelius’ faith was ratified by the Holy Spirit, but it could have happened without Peter being there, right?

I think the point of the story is the heavenly effort put into getting Peter to Caesarea to experience the event. Somewhere on the road, it was Peter who was converted to God’s kingdom plan to include all nations – not just Israel.

The power of a stroll and a conversation?

Remember, Peter wasn’t told by the Spirit to convert Cornelius. He was told to go on a journey with three men, to start a conversation.

What if the Spirit told you to you take a walk with a Muslim? Would you do it? What might happen as you talk on your journey together?

Jihad and The Green Cabinet: Perfectionism vs. Community

PerfectionistTyre, Lebanon – circa March 2000

My Sunni Muslims landlord, Jihad, was frowning when I stepped into his candy shop for a visit. He regularly helped me practice my new Arabic vocabulary, if I came before the daily rush of kids on their way home from school. That particular day, the green bathroom cabinet sitting in front of him on the sales counter distracted him.

“What’s wrong, Jihad?” I asked, after the customary exchange of greetings.

He pointed with his open right hand at the piece of furniture, and gave it a sidelong glance. “I just picked this up from the painter down the street.”

“What’s the problem? It looks like he did a good job to me.”

“But I told him to paint it white!” Jihad exploded. “When I complained, he told me that he thought it looked better green and tried to convince me to agree with him.”

I joined Jihad’s outrage. “You didn’t pay him, did you?”

“What else could I do?”

The Need of The Many Outweigh The Preferences of The Few

The painter was likely a relative of his. His business probably suffered in the bad economy, and he may have only had green paint on hand, without money to buy white. Jihad had resigned himself to accept the wrong color in order to recover his property from its overdue captivity in the paint shop. A green cabinet was better than no cabinet at all.

I couldn’t imagine this situation ending in any way other than a lawsuit back home in the States (maybe a fistfight and then a lawsuit).

It wasn’t that Jihad didn’t have personal preferences. His outburst demonstrated that clearly. But community-centered values allowed him to give up the right to have things the way he wanted them.

The Struggle Within

I think Jihad was aptly named. Most westerners learn from the news that the word Jihad means “holy war.” Of course, it can mean that, but the simple meaning is “to exert influence.” My friend had indeed won out in his internal struggle to keep the peace.

For myself, I probably wouldn’t have minded making enemies if it wasn’t quite the right shade of white that I had expected.

Some people would call that perfectionism. I’m a perfectionist. It sounds like a positive trait, as if I’m always working toward the betterment of things. Truly, perfectionism is a term spoiled brats like me use to make ourselves feel better about our selfishness.

Things in my life are the way I want them to be, most of the time. I wonder what quality of community I could be enjoying if I preferred other people’s preferences more often.

What about you? Do you choose lonely perfection or compromised community by the actions you take in everyday life? Are there other options?

The Night I Experienced Shiite Street Justice

StreetJustice

South Lebanon, 2001

I was returning home to Tyre after an evening of visiting friends in another town called Nabatieh, which is not known for its friendly feelings toward the West. I drove my early nineties model Honda Accord hatchback.

I crested a hill, winding through streets hemmed in tightly by concrete structures. Suddenly, another car shot out from a narrow alley on the left that had been concealed from my view by the darkness. I stomped on my brakes and veered to the right, but our front ends met and the two cars abruptly came to rest in the middle of the street.

Almost instantly there was a crowd of men where a moment before there had been no one. In the darkness an assembly convened. Five young Shia men got out of the other car and at least seven more emerged from nearby homes to participate in the impending tribunal. I fearfully tried to prepare myself for the beating that my imagination told me was coming next.

Vigilante Justice

Nobody was hurt, but the other driver was understandably upset about the damage to his car. “Why didn’t you swerve more? You could have kept from hitting me!” He shouted amidst hand motions demonstrating the path I should have taken.

I got out and looked at the damage. I had a small dent and part of my rubber bumper out of place slightly; purely cosmetic. The other car’s radiator had been crushed into a 45 degree angle and had already emptied its contents into the street in a puddle. It wouldn’t be moving from that spot under its own power.

Then something amazing happened. A few of the gathered crowd pulled the other driver aside and calmed him down, asking his side of the story. A few others came to talk to me, the scared-eyed westerner who barely knew enough Arabic to communicate. A judicial process kicked in and members of the spontaneous community assumed roles as if they had rehearsed in advance.

After their interviews, the negotiators and witnesses met in the neutral ground, barring physical contact between the drivers while they sorted out the details. I was mesmerized by the flurry of activity.

The Verdict

They reasoned with the other driver. “Look, you have no insurance and the foreigner does. The damage to your car is a lot worse, but he won’t have to pay because it looks like it was your fault.”

I offered to call the insurance agent to make a claim, but he was in a tight spot because he was driving with no insurance, which would have gotten him in trouble if the accident was reported.

The counsellors continued “If the foreigner agrees to accept his own damages, it will go better for you.”

He didn’t like it. He argued that I should pay him for the damages. One of the bystanders asked me if I wanted him to pay to have my car fixed. When I said, “No.” he told me to get in my car and go. I got in and went.

Case dismissed.

A powerless American, acquitted by a God-fearing, Shiite justice mob.

If you like this story, you should read my book, Coffee & Orange Blossoms: 7 Years & 15 Days in Tyre, Lebanon.

Two Effective Mentoring Techniques

MentorConsider the verb: to mentor.

The word mentor is being used more often as we realize that leadership is best passed on through apprenticeship. But does everybody agree on what mentoring is?

At a national conference, I learned that perhaps we don’t all agree after a conversation with a twenty-something-aged friend. He had just returned from a large group discussion with leaders of national organizations over dinner. It hadn’t gone well from his perspective.

Unfulfilled Expectations

“So how did your emerging leadership session go?” I asked.

Bryan rolled his eyes, “Can you believe it? While the rest of you were eating roast beef they served us pizza – like we’re some high school youth group or something.”

“Ha! That’s hilarious. But what did they want to talk to you about?”

“It’s always the same thing. They ask what we want from them to help equip us for future leadership.”

“What did you all say to them?”

“We say the same thing every time: ‘We want mentoring.’ But they never follow through and mentor us.”

He walked away discouraged.

The Disconnect

I’ll bet that the leaders who hosted the session were equally discouraged. Here’s what I imagine they were saying to each other as they debriefed the meeting: “We ask them what they want from us, and they say the same thing every time. Mentoring. But that’s all we ever do is mentor them, and they’re never satisfied.”

The core of the problem is that each generation has a different perception of what mentoring means.

Clarified Definitions

The mentoring that the over 40 crowd are offering sounds like, “Those of us who are seasoned veterans go out to Starbucks with the brightest young people we can find, and tell them stories about what we used to do when we were younger. We’ll probably also have some accountability discussions.”

The mentor that the under 30 crowd are hoping for could be described as, “Someone who’s actively innovating who invites me to come alongside and join them in their work – with the expectation that they’re going to help launch me far beyond what they can accomplish.”

The mentoring that’s needed will be practical and relevant. Stories about what worked ten years ago aren’t going to cut it.

How To Mentor Well

If we want to mentor emerging leaders we must continue to engage in trends, keep our own stories fresh, and not do anything without taking someone younger with us. The problem is that there’s a limit to the number of new leaders that we can realistically impact this way because of  limitations in time and energy.

A more reproducible solution is to introduce emerging leaders to each other and catalyze them into cohorts that can peer mentor themselves in community. Today’s social media has revitalized interest in real life, face-to-face community. We should not underestimate the power of small groups of like-minded innovators who sharpen their skills together and become loyal companions.

The saying used to be, “Those who can’t, teach.” We should revise that to, “Those who can’t, network.” In my own experience, I’ve found that being a part of such a peer-mentoring community results in my gaining much more than I have to offer them.

Do you have a different insight into the modern understanding of mentoring that I’ve missed? How would you prefer to get wisdom?

Reputation In A Community Oriented Culture

mKhaledTyre, Lebanon – circa August 2000

“You owe me $60.” My landlady stopped me on the street, less than a block away from the apartment I rented from her.

“Excuse me? I don’t understand,” I said. “I paid you yesterday.”

She’d come to the flat with her son, while I was there with my friend, Hassan. We all stood inside the front door as I counted out $900 USD in twenty-dollar bills – three months’ rent. She’d smiled and placed the money back in the envelope without counting it herself before going on her way.

This morning she wasn’t smiling. She explained, “This morning when I went to the bank to deposit the money, there was only $840 in the envelope you gave me.”

I looked around. She was speaking passionately, and we were attracting the attention of the neighbors. I lowered the volume of my own voice. “I counted the money out in front of you. You saw it was all there.”

“Then where’s the other sixty dollars?” She persisted. When I told her I shouldn’t have to pay, she started shouting. I was relieved when her son calmed her down and we postponed the confrontation.

What Will People Think?

As a Jesus-following American living in mostly Muslim Tyre I had to work at overcoming a lot of misconceptions about westerners. Now it appeared my reputation was in jeopardy over a misunderstanding. This woman’s normal neighborly conversations would brand me as a thief if I didn’t respond carefully.

Since I was worried about the perspective of the community, I decided to involve the community in solving the dilemma. I dropped in on my jeweler friend, Khaled, who had originally arranged the rental agreement. My landlady was a cousin of his.

Deferring the Responsibility of Saving Face to a Respected Third Party

Rather than being annoyed by my troubles, he was honored by being asked to mediate. He listened patiently over a glass of tea in his shop.

“I know I paid the full amount, and I have two witnesses that saw me count the money. But now it doesn’t seem that I can win in this situation. If I pay her, I lose sixty dollars, and that’s not right. If I refuse to pay her, then she will talk about me behind my back in the neighborhood. She’ll say that I cheated her.”

I paused to take a sip of tea and then continued. “It’s already hard for me to fit in around here as a foreigner, and I don’t want my reputation to be ruined.  Will you talk to her? If you say I should pay her, I will. I’ll do whatever you say is right.

“Don’t worry about this, Hadi,” he said, using my Arabic nickname. “I’ll talk to her.”

The very next day, he called me back into his shop as I was passing by. He assured me that I didn’t need to pay her anything more, and she promised not to say anything bad about me to anyone.

Wow. Just like that [sound of fingers snapping], the problem was eliminated.

Which Cultural Perspective is Better? Who is Right?

In western countries, using an intermediary to resolve disputes seems cowardly and evasive. It’s honorable to be direct in confrontation. Is that truly the better way to be?

I wonder if our communities would be stronger if we cared more about preserving honor and reputation, both for others and ourselves.

What do you think? Does the thought of deferring to the judgment of the community offend your sense of independence? Are you already fed up with worrying about what other people think?