Tag Archives: life transformation

We Were Created To Split Mountains

A tree growing in the desert.

I remember as a teenager, there was a book in our school library titled, “Nuclear War, What’s In It For Me?” Clearly it was satire, but the title made me think. My blog is usually geared toward a western audience and all of the Western pre-conceptions and paradigms about the way we think the world is and what life should be. We think the title I mentioned is ridiculous, but with how many other things can we replace “Nuclear War” and it makes perfect sense to us?  “Marriage, What’s in it for Me?”  “Faith, What’s in it for Me?”  Most of what we do and think about comes back to, “What’s in it for me?”.  It seeps into the way we think about everything. Life is about money, and comfort, and prosperity.  Life is about……..me. Even the verses we like to quote are about us. Jeremiah 29:11 is one of our favorite verses to quote. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

The context and the preceding verse is conveniently omitted. This was the situation when Jeremiah prophesied those words; Israel had been carried into exile in Babylon. Their kingdom was gone, and their freedom gone along with it. They were aliens in a land not their own, and subjects of a pagan king. They longed to go back home, and false prophets were telling people that they would go home soon. Jeremiah had something entirely different to say, and it was something that came straight from God.

“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

Israel was complaining and asking “Why has this happened to us? When will God deliver us?” This sounds a lot like us whenever we face adversity, or when our life doesn’t look the way we want it to. We quote the verse about God wanting to prosper us, and fail to realize that He didn’t place us here for ourselves; that it’s not about us. I especially like the last part. “Seek peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”  They weren’t to pray for judgement out of spite for carrying them into exile. They were to be agents of positive change where God had put them, even thought they didn’t want to be there.

Have you ever seen a tree growing on bare rock in the desert? Often it will grow where a seed found a small crack, and will start putting down a tap root that eventually splits the rock. Here’s the thing about that tree. It doesn’t complain that it was planted in such a bad place. It doesn’t envy other trees that were planted closer to water, or in a better climate. It quietly takes in sunlight and whatever water God gives it, and uses those resources in the fullest possible way for where it lives. As it splits that rock, more soil gets trapped in the crack allowing other small plants to grow there. Sometimes it reaches water that was hidden or trapped beneath the rock, and it’s able to flourish and provides shade for animals and less heat tolerant plants. Eventually, over centuries, the entire landscape can change, and if enough plants grow, even the climate changes and the desert can disappear. If a tree growing on a rock can do this, how much more are we called to as beings created in the image of God?

We were not placed here for us. We were placed here to make a difference in others, and consequently a difference in the world around us. Don’t moan about your situation and ask that God immediately remove you from the situation you’re in. Pray for the people and places around you, because if those around you prosper, so will you.

 

From There To Here.

In October 2014 I was in the living room of an Ethiopian pastor in a very remote region of the Ethiopian highlands. He had three or four other pastors staying with him from out of town. We were having a prayer meeting, and I was kneeling at a chair. If you every get a chance to join Ethiopian Christians in prayer, do it. They will show you how to pray. A normally stoic people suddenly become animated and full of emotion as they come before the one on whom they can lay their burdens and thank for their triumphs. As we prayed, one of the pastors started speaking over me. Through another person who could speak English fairly well, he said that God would give me new skills that I would wear like ear rings, and that God would use me not only in Ethiopia and South Sudan and Kenya, but throughout the world.

What he didn’t know was that just months before, I was unsure I would even be involved in missions anymore. I had come out of an unhealthy relationship with another organization, and I could see no clear path ahead. It was one of the most discouraging times of my life. I felt as if the work I had done had been for nothing, especially since each time I went to South Sudan things continued to get worse. It’s one thing to not see results from your work, but it’s another thing entirely to see entropy overtake your efforts. Now my relationship with that organization was done. To top it off, civil war started back up almost as soon as I left South Sudan for the last time. The town I had been visiting had been burned to the ground, and one of our good friends there had been killed, and the rest of our friends had either fled or were suffering.

I began to praying regularly that I would see God move. Now I realize that God was under no obligation to answer this prayer. I can’t remember where it says it, but there’s something written in the Bible to the effect that many of the prophets never lived to see the results of their work. I’m part of a Kingdom that’s greater than myself and lasts longer than myself (eternity is always greater than finite time). Consequently, though I may see God move, He’s under no obligation to show me that movement.

Then I went to Ethiopia, and it was like I was standing in the book of acts. God was moving in such powerful ways. He was moving in miracles and healings, in events that I hesitate to even write about because the reader who hasn’t seen these things would likely dismiss them. But as a pastor I was interviewing recently said, “To us the healing and miracles are common. What is amazing to us is what God does in a man when he is saved from the life he was in.”  The long and the short of it is, I got to see God move. I got my prayer answered.

Now back to what the Ethiopian pastor spoke over me. When I first got involved in missions, I saw my only purpose as photography and documentation. Although I still do that, and I will likely have that as a large part of my ministry for a long time, those other skills have been developing. I have been getting better at writing. I have been getting better at teaching and being an advocate for what I’m passionate about. I know how to lead a missions team now. Some friends and I have started a non profit organization called Bright Wings for the purpose of spreading the gospel and allowing others to fulfill their callings. Next year I will likely go to a country to which I haven’t been, that unfortunately I probably will not be able to write about, at least not directly.

Sometimes it seems like life is standing still and that nothing is moving. But then when I look back, I see how much ground has been covered, and it’s truly staggering. My prayer to see God move was not answered in a one-time event, but in a lifestyle. That is how I got from there to here.

Packed and ready to go to new places and use new skills.

What Did You Come Out Here To See?

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve now been back from Ethiopia for about three weeks. I’ve had time to go through the pictures, and more importantly, I’ve been able to go through some of the hours of interviews I took of Ethiopians who are going out into the villages and towns in some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable. They are telling others about their faith and are suffering alienation from their families, physical violence against them, and some are paying the ultimate sacrifice. And yet they continue, because they know that God is worth it. They are seeing people freed from addictions and all kinds of things that destroy lives, and they’re seeing their communities changed because of it.

It’s very hard for me to convey what the gospel means to these people when I come back to the United States. We often have a very different view of what the gospel is in the United States. Just as in many areas where Christianity has been introduced, they have combined Christianity with their traditional beliefs, so we in the United States have largely combined Christianity with other beliefs. We combine our faith with politics, or with hedonism, or with capitalism, or any number of other beliefs. If we’re honest about it, these other beliefs often take precedence over our faith, and we end up changing our faith to fit these other beliefs rather than the other way around.

There’s a scripture that’s puzzled me since I first read it, and only since this last trip to Ethiopia am I beginning to understand it. It’s from Matthew 11, and in it, Jesus is looking at the crowds who had come out to see John The Baptist, and now that John was in prison, Jesus was addressing them. You have to understand that there was a large crowd of people out in the desert. He asks them, “What did you come out here to see?” He goes on to speak about John’s ministry that had started only about a year before. The verse that puzzled me was this one; “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.”  What did Jesus mean by “the violent take it by force?”  Were John’s disciples violent? The answer is no. What Jesus was talking about was a descriptive picture of the crowds that had come out to the desert. They resembled an army besieging a city. They pressed in on all sides and would let nothing stand between themselves and John’s message, which was that the Kingdom of God is at hand. They were hungry for God’s Kingdom, as if they had been waiting since the beginning of the world for the message that was now before them. Truthfully, they had been waiting that long. They were taking hold of that message of salvation and repentance and the coming of God’s Kingdom as if, if they lessened their grip just a little, it would be gone.

It was only as I interviewed these Ethiopian pastors that I began to understand this scripture. The Kingdom of God belongs to people who turn their whole hearts toward it, who are willing to completely give up their old lives and take hold of it with a fervor that nothing can break. To reiterate his point, Jesus goes on to say,

“But to what shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their companions,  and saying:

‘We played the flute for you,
    And you did not dance;
We mourned to you,
    And you did not lament.’

 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her children.”

Jesus was referring to the current religious generation, who heard the voice of the prophets, but were untouched by the message. They were so sure of themselves that when God and the prophets finally came, they saw only something to criticize. It is also what is referred to in 2 Timothy 3 “always learning, but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

As I go through hours of video, I am planning to put together a longer video of the testimonies of several people. Their stories are unique, but remarkably similar in that each of them has given all for God.

 

 

75 Cent Shiro And Priceless Conversation.

Coffee doesn’t come any blacker than this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been back from Ethiopia for a week and a half now. I’ve finally recovered from jet lag. My work on the photos is largely done, and now I’m going through hours of video. I spent the better part of a week with 150 people who live their faith in the same way the early church lived their faith. These men and women are living in some of the most dangerous places and are literally putting their lives on the line for their faith. I met people who have been beaten and stabbed, lost their jobs and families, and still find Jesus to be who he said he was and consequently worth everything they’ve gone through.

I shot video of some of the most incredible interviews you could imagine, some of which had to be shot in silhouette to hide their identity. I thought the stories of the early church were good, but some of what I heard was better. You’d think then that the interviews would be the highlight of my week, but they weren’t.

During lunch each day the team I was with would walk back to our hotel and have lunch at the hotel restaurant. One day I decided to instead go across the street to a vendor who had been cooking a pot full of something that at the time I could not identify. Generally I would go across to her spot (there was no stall,) and have buna, or really strong coffee served in a small cup. As I sipped my buna earlier that morning and watched her cook, I decided to have lunch there instead. Now before you tell me that it’s foolish to eat street food in Ethiopia, I’m just going to say that just because the kitchen is in a hotel doesn’t mean it’s any cleaner than the street food. Plus, I’d been able to actually watch her cook, and I was comfortable with it.

As I walked over with a couple friends I’d traveled with, I realized that the place I would be having lunch was where the indigenous church planters we’d been ministering to were also having lunch. There were probably about thirty people all sitting together on plastic stools at low tables having what turned out to be shiro with either injera bread or baguette. Shiro is boiled bean flour mixed with water, berbere spice, garlic, and rosemary and boiled until it’s the consistency of thick soup. You then sop it up with the bread. Flavor wise, it was one of the better meals I had in Ethiopia. But flavor isn’t all there is to lunch.

The church planters made room for us at a very small table and through our translator, we began to get to know each other in a way that hadn’t been possible in the more formal setting we’d generally seen them in.

Before I left for Ethiopia, a friend of mine had told me that God felt he had a message for us as we were going. That message was that a lot of these men and women were having such difficulty that they were thinking of giving up. He said our presence would be very important, because it would help the Ethiopians know that they are not alone.

As I sat telling and listening to stories, they conveyed to us how incredibly important our presence was to them. They let us know just how much it meant to them that we’d come all this way to teach and encourage them. They said that because we had come, they would go and do even more. By having lunch with them, we were able to connect on a deeper level. No longer just teachers and pastors and students, we prayed for each other and become brothers and sisters bearing each others’ burdens. Lunch cost about $2 for the three of us, including tea, but I can’t put a price on the connection we all made that day.

We had lunch there the next day as well. When I go back to Ethiopia again, I will make a point to eat with the church planters again. The hotel restaurant may have more than one thing on the menu, but it can never match the company.

Lunch with the church planters.

Leaving Home.

In four days I leave for Ethiopia. This will be my third trip to Ethiopia. I’ve also been to South Sudan four times, and I’m not even sure how many times I’ve been to Kenya. Every country I’ve been to, and every city, and every village has been different in some way or another. Cultures are different. Tribes are different. Nations that border each other have vastly different characters and cultures. I’m only talking about East Africa. I haven’t even been to central or West Africa, and only passed through South Africa.

I sincerely wish everyone could do what I do, at least once. I wish everyone could uproot and leave home, truly leave home and go somewhere so far out of their comfort zone that you couldn’t stand on a stool and see where your comfort zone is.

I hear so many people say, “We are so blessed here. We have so much we take for granted.”  Having traveled to the places I’ve been, I know how true that statement is. I also realize how little the people saying it realize what they’re saying. If you take something for granted, then by definition you do not understand what it is that you either have or do not have. It’s easy to say, “We have so much,” because that’s the more obvious observation one can make, but it doesn’t mean you understand poverty. There is so much depth to what we don’t understand that I can’t describe it without taking someone with me and letting them experience it for themselves. There is so much more than, “We have so much.” There are cultural things we have so engrained within us that we have no understanding of how other cultures think. Each time I go, I understand a little more, and I realize more how much I don’t understand.

The observation of “We have so much” also belies our idea that our culture is somehow superior to other cultures, because we see them as having so little, while having little understanding of what we lack within our own culture. What are the divorce rates within American culture? How much of this “We have so much” is actually things we don’t need that get in the way of family relationships and friendships? How many families have been broken up because we had a choice of either building a legacy with our spouse or children, but we chose instead that a career was important and having a nicer car than our neighbor? How many of us have heart disease, cancer, gout, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity because we are “rich”? While most Africans would be considered poor in our eyes, it’s not always because they lack basic necessities. Rather it’s because our idea of “richness” is so monetarily based that we fail to see our own poverty. I know many Africans that have a legacy that I can only dream of.

There are so many other things we take for granted that I could get into, but I fear that it would only evoke a deer-in-the-headlights look in many readers. I say this not to be demeaning or to look down on people. It’s because I’ve been there.  It’s fairly easy to describe some ways of doing things that are different, but it’s virtually impossible to describe the different ways people think. Which brings me back to the beginning. If you ever have the chance to do missions, by all means go. Get to know the people one on one. Build relationships. You’ll find you learn just as much what you didn’t know about yourself as you do about them.

People walking along an open sewer in a slum in Africa

Killing The Wolf That Was Sent To Save You.

There is an Inuit legend that says, in the beginning there was only a man and a woman. Nothing else lived on the earth. So the woman made a hole in the ice and began fishing, and one by one she pulled out all the animals. The last animal she pulled out was the caribou, the animal that feeds the Inuit, and she ordered them to multiply. But as the herd multiplied, sickness came to the herd. As the herd got weaker, the people began to starve. So the woman made another hole in the ice and pulled out the wolf. And the wolf hunted the caribou and began to eat the weak and the sick ones, and the herd grew stronger. And the people realized that the caribou and the wolf were inseparable, because even though the wolf eats the caribou, it is also the wolf that makes the caribou strong.

The first verses of the book of James say, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”  Many people read these verses and either don’t comprehend them or uncomfortably skip past them. After all, God just wants us to be happy, right? I heard the televangelist say so. Wrong. God wants us to have joy, but joy is something that comes outside of circumstance, and it comes through faithfulness and maturity. Happiness, on the other hand, is situation dependent. Happiness is external and fleeting, joy comes from the state of one’s spirit and is much harder to destroy.

How many times have we heard someone say, “why would God let this happen?” or “if God loves me, why am I going through this?”  Well, sometimes trials are self-inflicted, but often they are not, and it’s not because God doesn’t love you. It’s exactly the opposite. You see, the human nature is to focus on self. When trials come, they can have one of two effects. They can turn one’s focus even more inward, in which case people become bitter, regressive and self-destructive. The other effect they can have is to cause growth. Trials can build patience, and character, and wisdom in people. They can turn a person’s focus outward. They can teach empathy toward the suffering. They can build understanding of situations. Trials can teach a person to stop listening to Self, and start listening to God. They can teach a person all of those “foolish” practices like dying to yourself and not always seeking pleasure, but becoming the person who seeks the needs of others over your own needs and wants. Why else would some of the wisest, selfless, and most effective ministers be the people in countries where persecution and trials are constant?

We often have the option in the west to avoid trials. We set ourselves up to avoid failure through insurance, 401k, working two jobs so we can invest more money, and most of all, avoiding the Great Commission. When Jesus told his followers to go to Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth, making disciples, it was not a suggestion for those who felt like it. It was a commissioning of purpose for everyone who follows Him. If we choose to avoid this commission to avoid trouble and protect our security, then we are content to accept God’s grace that is new every morning, but not to do what He asked us to do. We have traded our Purpose (capital P intentional) for a self-built security that is an illusion anyway. We are content to not grow.

Jesus said “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves.” Sheep among what? Wolves. The people Jesus was speaking to didn’t know what caribou were, but he just as easily could have said “caribou among wolves”. Being sent out as sheep among wolves sounds crazy, but it wasn’t until after imprisonment and beating that the timid Peter who denied his Lord three times became the fearless lion he was to become. Legend says that Peter was crucified upside down because he said he was not worthy to die the same way as his Lord. I know this is a hard thing to grasp, and some might say it’s crazy, but this is the kind of people God is looking for, and this is what trials, hardship, and persecution produce. So when the wolf comes, let us not kill it, but be aware that it might be there to make us stronger, to produce people of supernatural faithfulness and character and wisdom. To create people that fulfill the verse in 1 Corinthians 1:27, “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;”

What do trials produce in us?
What do trials produce in us?

The Church And The Water Tank

What is a missionary? This is a question that my wife and I pose when we teach a class on missions. We get a variety of answers. Everything from teaching to building churches to giving food to the poor; the list goes on for a while. I think the answers we come up with come from both the roles we’ve seen others take, but also from how we see our relationship between those who are going and those we are going to see. I’d like to relay a story from a good friend of mine that I believe sums up the latter very effectively.

I have a friend that moved a long way from her family. She rarely saw them because of the distance, just once a year or so. She was bothered by the fact that her kids were not growing up knowing their grandparents very well. With the limited time available each year for them to see each other, she considered the time very valuable for her parents and kids to spend quality time together.

Her parents, on the other hand, would come to visit and were always concerned with what projects they could do. Despite her effort to get them to spend time with their grandchildren, they always somehow diverted to working on some project around the house. After a while, she finally gave up trying to get them to stop, and instead found herself focusing on trying to find them projects to do. Her parents never seemed to believe that she was content with the way things were, so to bide their time she sometimes found herself coming up with projects that were neither important to her nor actually needed to be done. Her parents were acting out of love, but they were also acting out of paternalism, which had traditionally been their role, but was one that never changed when their daughter got married and moved out. She appreciated their effort, but wished that they would take some of that time to strengthen the family bonds.

Now let’s travel to South Sudan and see how similar the story is. We went to visit a church plant we were supporting. I showed up a day before the other missionaries, so I had some time to talk to the local indigenous pastor. He told me about how important it would be for us to go visit one of the new churches they’d planted in a more remote area. In fact, he made this point several times over the next day or two.

The next day the other missionaries showed up, and noticed that the gravity shower we had built on a previous trip was broken. The water tank was cracked.  Fixing this became the first item of attention, and a significant amount of time and money were spent doing this. In fact, so much money was spent that we didn’t have enough left to be able to visit the church plant that was so important to the pastor there. The fact was, that the water tank had cracked because it rarely had water in it, and as the broiling South Sudan sun would bare down on the empty tank, it cracked. It simply wasn’t that important to them when it was built, and it wasn’t that important to them when we fixed it. They wanted to build relationships, we wanted to build STUFF. This relationship also had more than a sprinkling of paternalism. A paternalistic relationship says, “I’m from the rich country and I know what’s good for you better than you do.”

I learned a lot from that trip. Thinking about it made me think of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys, as well as those of the other Apostles. What was the purpose of those journeys? There are so many answers to that question found in the New Testament that I’m not even going to narrow it down to any particular verses. They include evangelism, teaching, encouraging the body of Christ, dealing with problems within the churches, discipleship, raising up new leadership, and in one case taking up a collection to help another church that was in a region dealing with famine. Not once was the purpose to do projects. I understand that there are times when this is necessary, but if we go in with the attitude of “what can we build?” we frequently and completely miss out on the more important purpose of being there. That purpose is to expand the kingdom of God and to promote unity within the Church. There is no Western Church and developing world church, there is only the Church. We need to be aware that a Church is people, and not buildings and stuff. As it says in Acts 7,  “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says: “ ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me?”

This is hard for Western missionaries, particularly Americans, to grasp. We are a very task oriented culture. We know that when we go somewhere, particularly if it’s a short-term missions trip, we have a limited time and we feel like we need to have something tangible to show for it. Most of the rest of the world though, considers relationships to be far more important. We need to keep this in the forefront of our mind when we go to see our brothers and sisters overseas. That project may be really important to you, but if it’s not important to them, you’re really not doing any good.

Missions is about building relationships.
Missions is about building relationships.

Littering For Jesus

A while ago, I spoke with someone who was a missionary to China. For those that don’t know, China is a country largely closed to the gospel, and Christians frequently face persecution and often spend time in prison for their faith. Despite that fact, there is a thriving church there.  This person lived there for a couple years, actually learning the language and living with the people, and was a witness through personal contact with the people.

He relayed a story to me about a particular Western missionary group who would periodically come to China. They based their method of ministry on John 6:35. ” Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  They would do what they called “crumbing”, or dropping crumbs of the bread of life. This involved dropping tracts and literature from the windows of moving vehicles, hoping someone would pick them up and read them and therefore learn about the gospel.

The local authorities would find the literature, and the first ones they would blame (of course) was the local illegal church. This would then invite persecution on the indigenous Christians who had to live there every day and couldn’t go back to North America where it was “safe”.

The last words of Jesus in the book of Matthew are as follows.  “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  Usually the last words someone gives you can be considered pretty important, and in fact, those words are what this blog is all about. We have all been commissioned as Christians to either do or help someone else do what Jesus said, that being to make disciples of all nations and baptize them. We need no special commission because Jesus was very specific. 

There is a place for mass media in missions, but we also need to be wise in how we go about it. When we go to a place where persecution exists, (which is most of the world, by the way), we need to be very aware of how our actions affect the local church. If they are going to do something that invites persecution, that should be their own choice, and not ours. We have no skin in the game if we can just go home afterward and tell people stories of how wonderful it was that we could proclaim the gospel by littering out bus windows. Jesus said to make disciples and baptize them. The “crumbing” if you will, was actually hindering this effort. As an addition to that story, that missions organization was contacted and told what was happening, and they refused to stop.

Discipleship can’t happen out the windows of a bus. It requires more of you. It requires spending time, and building relationships. It requires love and friendship, and it requires you becoming vulnerable yourself. This is also why it is hard to disciple people with short term missions, though there are ways to do it. I have a friend in Kenya. We have only met on three occasions in person, but we keep in touch several times a week either by email, text, phone, or Facebook messenger. We disciple each other, pray for each other, and keep each other accountable.

In either case, we must consider not only what it costs us to go and disciple, but also what it costs those we are going to minister to. In Matthew 10, Jesus is sending out his disciples. He tells them, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” It is not enough to have good hearts, our heads must also be on straight. Being innocent is not enough, we must also be wise. There are so many situations where this applies in missions. There are some countries where if people even suspect that someone is a Christian, their own family will kill them. So let’s consider this before we decide to litter for Jesus.

Consider who has to clean up our mess.
Consider who has to clean up our mess.

A Shield Only Works When Facing the Enemy

As this year comes to a close and I assess all that has happened with missions and travel, I am reminded of the spiritual warfare that has happened throughout the year. I realize that all things work out for the good of those who love the Lord, but that doesn’t mean that the trials are any easier. Only as I learn more and experience more, I worry about it less and less. I am no longer blind-sided by it as much. I am still continually surprised by the ways in which it shows up, but it’s timing can be almost always timed down to the day shortly before something big is supposed to be happening. As I start counting down the days before I go to Ethiopia again, I can expect more warfare.

Lately I have been reading The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. It’s been decades since I last picked this up, and I am enjoying it if nothing more than for the word pictures it contains that give clarity to a lot of abstract concepts. During my pondering about this book, the subject of the armor of God came up. We find the subject of the armor of God in Ephesians 6:10-18.

 “Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might.  Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.  Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.   Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness,  and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace;  above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one.  And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God;  praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints.”

The thing that occurred to me when I read it this time that I had never noticed before was the choice of armor; helmet, shield, sword, breastplate, etc, and specifically what they have in common. The thing they all have in common is that they are only effective when you are facing and engaging with the enemy. A Christian who either has his back to the enemy or has not engaged the enemy has lost. God gives us the tools with which to fight, but we have to decide whether to fight or not. I wanted to talk specifically about the shield. When the apostle Paul wrote this, he modeled the armor after the Roman legion, which used a large curved shield called a scutum. Our faith is that shield. It is what allows us to stand up to what the devil and the world throw at us and allows our faith not to be shaken. But it does more than that. The scutum not only protected from the flaming arrows of the enemy, but when the combat got close, its size allowed its bearer to knock the enemy back. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this metaphor was chosen, because it’s only in the thick of spiritual warfare that we get close enough to knock the enemy back on his heels. James 4:7 completes the thought. “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

This of course runs counter to our culture. We call ourselves Christians, but we refuse to engage the enemy. The evidence of this is in where we spend our missions dollars. 24% of the world has never heard the gospel. Yet those areas receive 1/2 of one percent of our missions dollars, whereas 94.5% goes to areas that are already filled with professing Christians. This makes absolutely no sense. Jesus said “Look, the fields are ripe for harvest, but the workers are few.”  We keep going to the same fields that have already been harvested looking for a speck of grain that someone dropped, while the field next door, though harder to get to, has been completely ignored.  Parents with children in the military are proud that their children are serving in conflict zones in Afghanistan or Iraq or elsewhere, but how many would send their children or go themselves to share the saving grace of God in those same areas? We somehow think it’s less important, when nothing could be further from the truth.   Someday the sun and moon will fall from the sky, and we’ll all be long gone. At that point the only thing that will matter is whether and how we engaged the enemy. Is it a harder way? Yes. But as we see the world falling apart around us, don’t think the destruction that has fallen over Syria or Afghanistan or Yemen or Libya will fail to come to us simply because we failed to recognize that the enemy was not political factions but rather the prince of this world, the devil. We MUST engage the enemy, or we too are lost.

I want to make one final point about the shield of faith. If faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen, then we are taking something that cannot be seen and has no substance and turning it into substance and evidence, both of which are tangible things. It is only when we use faith, and faith becomes action, that action turns into something of substance. As James said, “show me your faith without action, and I will show you my faith by what I do.”  The opportunities are there. We must have the courage to engage the enemy.

You can only throw the enemy down when he gets close enough to touch.
You can only throw the enemy down when he gets close enough to touch.

Distraction.

Running the race set before us.
Running the race set before us.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Hebrews 12:1

It’s now been over a year since I have been to Africa. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, but as with Paul in 1 Thessalonians, “For we wanted to come to you–certainly I, Paul, did, again and again–but Satan blocked our way.” This is the longest gap in my travels since 2012. It’s easy to lose focus during a time like this. It’s easy to forget what the race is, what the goal is, and just give up, or move onto something else. This is why I go back to Hebrews. “Let us run with perseverance.”  The fact that it needed to be written is evidence that others have gone through the same thing. I’d like to focus on the rest of that verse though as well.

With Christmas coming, the opportunities to give and to serve multiply. Go through the checkout at a store, and they will inevitably ask you, “Would you like to give to the International Fund to Teach Origami to the Poor?” or any number of other less fictitious charities. Go outside and the Salvation Army is ringing the bell and asking for donations. Churches and charities of all kinds give people opportunities to serve in one capacity or another. These of course are good things, because they give people who don’t normally give or serve an opportunity to do so. But for people who are running the race marked out for us, they are also an opportunity for distraction.

I’ve heard it said before that the good is the enemy of the best. In fact, even good things can be “the sin that so easily entangles.”  How is that even possible, one might ask. How can something that is good not be good? Something that is good becomes sin when it distracts you from what you are supposed to be doing, from the course marked out for you. My wife used to have a mug that said, “Stop volunteering for stuff”. If you have been given a vision to see something run to completion, and other projects, noble or not, are getting in the way of that vision, that is when good things become something that entangles.

Now before someone asks you to volunteer and you say, “Well, I would, except that some missionary on the internet told me I shouldn’t,” understand that’s not what I’m saying. I’m only saying that if you are following the Vision that God has given you, and other opportunities come up as they always will, it’s ok to say no if it will be a distraction. The Church and the mission field are full of burned out people who not only fulfill their Vision, but any of the other projects they’ve taken on. Studies have shown that in the workplace, after a certain number of hours worked, people become not only less productive per hour, but less productive overall than someone working less. It is the same concept in ministry and missions. People carry a lot of guilt over feeling like they should always be doing more, but this should not be received. I’ve seen a sign that said, “Jesus is coming back. Look busy.” How many people live that way? We are not called to busyness, we’re called to obedience. Often busyness is the opposite of obedience, as we chase after every squirrel that comes along in the form of volunteer opportunities.

In March, God willing, I will go back to Ethiopia. Other opportunities within the same vision are also possibly opening up. But in either case, I must not become distracted, or take on additional weight as I seek to run that race. I will do my best to live a life that is an act of worship, and not an act of busyness.