THE JUST CHURCH
Becoming a risk-taking, justice-seeking, disciple-making congregation
By Jim Martin
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2012 International Justice Mission
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Failure Point
ONE OF THE BEST things about my job is getting to work with people like Blair. For more than three years, Blair directed the work of IJM in one of our South Asia offices. Much of what IJM knows about freeing slaves from the rice mills, brick kilns, farms, and rock quarries that become the scenes of their violent and prolonged captivity comes from the hard-won, operation-by-operation learning curve that Blair and his team laboriously climbed during his years in the field. By freeing hundreds of slaves through the patient, professional, and steady application of hard work, Blair now occupies some of the most rarefied air of the human rights community, along with legendary figures such as William Wilberforce and Harriet Tubman—though in his humility, he will almost certainly be embarrassed when he reads this comparison.
Blair is now based out of Washington, DC, where he serves as the regional director for all of IJM's offices in South Asia. I take advantage of having lunch with him about every chance I get. I enjoy these conversations for several reasons, not the least of which is that Blair is one of the funniest people I know. His considerable intelligence and quick wit make him a lot of fun to share a meal with. But more than that, as a pastor, I find myself both mystified and fascinated by one question in particular: Where do people like Blair come from?
There is little mystery as to what produces a well-qualified and very capable lawyer, and Blair, a graduate of Wake Forest with a professional background in corporate law, is a classic example of the breed. But among lawyers, even good lawyers, the ability to manage and lead teams of people is a surprisingly rare gift. Blair has this gift. Beyond this, more perplexing to me are the questions that have to do with faith development and discipleship for someone like Blair. What produces people like Blair, who consistently make the kinds of Kingdom-oriented choices he has made and continue to take the kinds of risks he has taken? Certainly he could be working for some high-powered law firm. Both the prestige and the financial rewards would make possible for him a kind of life that is likely out of his reach now. So what is it that makes him different?
When you ask him, Blair talks about his journey as a collection of circumstances, surprises, and "accidents" that most of us would identify as familiar to our own experiences of life. He's one of the many people who, when looking back over their past, often exclaim in surprise, "How in God's name (literally) did I get here?"
But just the other day, Blair related a story that helped me understand how people like him are formed. It wasn't a story of great discernment or courage. In fact, it was a story of failure—in particular, it was a poignant story of the failure of Blair's faith. This story unlocks a bit of the mystery of how an ordinary disciple like Blair ends up doing extraordinary things in God's name.
In his work supervising IJM's offices in South Asia, Blair travels frequently to work alongside our colleagues there. Several weeks ago, he was working with one of the offices that had carefully planned an operation on a local brick kiln where the owner held several individuals as slaves. A careful investigation had been conducted and six victims identified—three who had escaped and sought protection from the violent kiln owner, and three more who were still trapped inside. The victims' stories were documented in painstaking detail. Relevant sections of the law were cited to remove any question as to whether the victims were slaves fully deserving emancipation and restitution. Local authorities were approached and made aware of the situation. An agreement was reached and a date was set for an operation on the establishment to remove the victims from the kiln and to arrest the perpetrators. A veteran of at least fifty such operations, Blair was riding along to lend advice, help, and support to the team, some of whose members were new IJM staff.
The first part of the operation seemed to go well. As the local magistrate and IJM team entered the brick kiln, the victims were easily identified. And almost immediately, the magistrate questioned them in order to confirm their status as bonded labor slaves—a good sign. Over the years, Blair had learned to move this early stage of the operation along as quickly as possible. The longer it takes, the greater the chance the perpetrators can get word to their friends, sometimes resulting in crowds gathering around the facility. Crowds can quickly become mobs, and IJM staff have been beaten and threatened in the midst of such throngs in the past. But so far, no crowd gathered at the brick kiln.
The team encountered its first operational snag, however, when another government official arrived at the kiln. This official was known to Blair's team. On a previous operation, this man had been hostile both to IJM staff and the victims they sought to rescue. This same official aggressively inserted himself into the questioning already underway, bogging down the entire process.
What followed was a confusing and bizarre turf battle as the two officials seemed to fight for control of the investigation. An inspection of the kiln was called for, as well as a demonstration of the brick-making process. The frightened victims complied with the officials' commands, while all along Blair and the IJM team watched more and more time go by.
Eventually the six victims were all removed to the office of the local magistrate, the government official with the authority and responsibility to determine the slaves' right to be set free. It is the magistrate who issues each victim's release certificate—a personal Emancipation Proclamation—declaring that person's legal freedom and right to restitution under a government program. This new freedom and release also signals the survivor's enrollment into IJM's two-year aftercare program.
It was at the office of the magistrate that a crowd began to gather. Before the inquiry could be completed, almost fifty people howed up. Most appeared to be in league with the brick kiln owner. As is usually the case, there was a lot of yelling and some pushing. There are two things that happen in these situations. First there is an electric sense of insecurity and fear that radiates through the crowd, turning an already chaotic situation into a potentially explosive one. Second, there is an almost imperceptible pendulum that swings back and forth as the powerful brick kiln owners and their friends try to influence the magistrate's decision. The simple goal of such a mob is to create enough of a tug-of-war between rule of law and rule of power that the slave owner can convince the magistrate to disregard the clear standard of the law and order all the victims back into captivity.
Standing in the middle of the chaos, Blair experienced a flood of different feelings. As the veteran, he was there to instill confidence in both the IJM employees and the government officials, all of whom had significantly less experience with these operations. As the veteran, it was his job to give clear direction to the IJM staff and determined advocacy on the victims' behalf to encourage the magistrate to do the right thing. And as the veteran—and one of just a few obviously foreign faces—Blair found himself the lightning rod for the crowd's anger. Blair was all too aware of the power of a crowd. The outcome of such operations is never secure, and often the scales of justice hang on the thinnest of threads.
As the futures of the six children and adults removed from the facility teetered back and forth, Blair felt he should pray. Clearly God cared about each of the victims. Clearly God was concerned about the safety of the staff under Blair's care. But in this moment, pushed to the limit as he was, Blair's faith reached a failure point: he found himself incapable of the faith such prayer would require. The faith muscle he needed so desperately was exhausted at the very instant he needed it most. In his paralysis, Blair sent an e-mail to his IJM colleagues in Washington, DC— an urgent call for prayer.
I remember this message being relayed to us during our daily staff prayer meeting. We prayed for the safety of Blair and his team. We prayed for the safety of those who had been removed from the kiln. We prayed that the magistrate would have the courage to do the right thing and release the slaves.
As I grow older, one of the things I find hard to live with is the inevitable loss of physical strength. I am by no means feeble (yet), but for much of my life I've taken for granted my healthy, strong back and the ability it affords me to lift heavy things. As I work my way through my forties, there is a perceptible loss of muscle mass that seems inversely proportional to the weight gain I've experienced during the same period. The result is a slow, seemingly inexorable settling of the body into middle age.
Recently I decided to try to begin counteracting this process. My ten-year-old son, Aidan, and I began a fitness program that includes both aerobic exercise and weight lifting. Doing this together has been a delight. At the beginning especially, there was painful stiffness and soreness, but the discomfort was soon overcome by the surprising joy of doing this crazy program together.
I was particularly interested in the weight lifting aspect of our program. The literature I'd read promised that while loss of muscle mass was inevitable, it could be counteracted with hard work. New to me was the idea that the goal in strength training is to push your muscles to the failure point. It is a simple process. You start an exercise with a comfortable level of weight at a higher number of repetitions, then progressively increase the weight and decrease the repetitions until essentially the muscle group you are exercising fails.
It's fascinating. One minute you can lift the weight; the next minute you can't. You can watch it happen. Your brain tells your muscles to lift, and a weight that under normal circumstances would be no problem at all goes up slowly, stops about halfway, hovers for a moment, then floats back down and you are spent.
What was new for me about this process was the idea that this "failure point" is the very thing that induces muscle growth. In the days following the exertion, the muscles actually grow—they recover and are more ready for the next challenge. In fact, if we don't push to the point of failure, we will find our results significantly decreased.
I believe the same thing is true of faith.
One perspective on what happened for Blair that day at the magistrate's office in South Asia was that he failed. In a moment when he was called on to offer leadership and support to younger and less experienced staff, he fell short. And perhaps there is some truth to this perspective. But I think there is a much deeper story, one that helps explain who Blair has become as a courageous follower of Jesus. What happened that day for Blair is something that has undoubtedly happened for him many times before: his faith muscle simply reached the failure point. At the very point when he needed to exercise faith, he found himself incapable. God's power to act remained unaffected by Blair's faith, but Blair's ability to trust in God was simply depleted, exhausted.
If faith can be compared to a muscle, then Blair is someone who exercises it more than most of us. The very nature of the work he's chosen dictates that he is likely to hit failure points like these with some regularity. And if faith, like a muscle, grows best when it's been pushed to the failure point, then perhaps this offers some meaningful explanation for how Blair has become who he is today. Perhaps the steady exercise and growth of Blair's faith offers some perspective on why a challenging call to leave a life of safety and security to step out into a world of risk and uncertainty is something that Blair has wholeheartedly accepted. Blair came to IJM already familiar with what it looks and feels like to push one's faith to the failure point. He is a testimony to the truth that when faith is tested and pushed—especially to the failure point—it can recover stronger and more ready for the next challenge.
The resolution to Blair's story was not simple or quick. Eventually the crowd around his team dispersed. In DC we continued to pray, but resolution was slow to come. In the end, however, the magistrate did the right thing. All six slaves were given official certificates of freedom and enrolled in IJM's aftercare program.
Looking back, of course, it's much easier to see that God was the one in control. God was "on the hook" for the success or failure of this operation. When we look into the Scriptures, we see that God was and is much more deeply concerned about each of these men and women than Blair or the rest of our IJM staff could have ever been. Blair reaching his failure point had no impact on God's willingness to act. Blair finding himself unable to muster the strength to pray did not limit God's willingness to rescue. Blair gave it his all. He left it all out on the field. The miracle was God's responsibility.
Discipleship at the Failure Point of Faith
For most of us, learning to do anything requires the willingness to fail. An unwillingness to fail can be a significant barrier to learning. Gifted students are seldom limited by intellect; what undoes them most often is fear of failure. Why should it be any surprise that the same is true of faith? Any significant growth in faith will require risk and even failure. Understandably, this is uncomfortable. Especially as we get older, we become used to being successful and in control. Over time our comfort zone shrinks to encompass little more than the things we are good at and endeavors at which we can reasonably expect success.
God's gracious call to us is an invitation to pursue him out of our comfort zones and into a place where failure is a real possibility— perhaps even an inevitability. It's a call to follow God to places where dependence on him is a necessity. Because he loves us, God invites us into his work in the world. And if we accept, we will face problems so big, situations so complex, suffering so profound, evil so real and palpable that our faith in God will hit its failure point on a regular basis. But to shrink back from this invitation is to accept a lesser, weaker version of faith. To accept this invitation is to discover that the work of justice is significantly about our own discipleship.
Questions to Consider
What do you think of the concept of the failure point?
As you look back over your faith journey, when have you experienced significant periods of growth? How are these periods of growth related to risk?
Have you ever experienced a failure point in your faith? If so, what was that like?
What are the kinds of challenges that are most likely to lead you to the failure point?
Excerpted from THE JUST CHURCH by Jim Martin Copyright © 2012 by International Justice Mission. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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