As you might have noticed, I don’t have a catchy title for this article. The fact is, I’m just too tired to bother thinking of one. I’m coming to the end of my time in eastern Ethiopia. Tomorrow I’m off to the south.
One of the things that’s always great about coming here is that I meet people that are bigger and better than me in so many ways, and it really allows me to center both my perspectives and my priorities for the coming time.
I met, photographed, and interviewed people this week who have been brought down to nothing and then miraculously restored. I’m met many people who have been beaten for their faith, and two who were attacked with swords. I met a man who was blind from birth until the age of 13, at which point someone prayed for him and he got his sight. I met a man who was freed from addiction issues and now sings to God with a beautiful voice about the ways he’s been saved.
Many of these stories I will write about in the future, while some I may not? But what is the common thread that runs through all of these stories? Grace and restoration run through them all, and a desire to continually become more and more like the one in who’s image they have been created.
I’m not going to say who’s story goes with which picture, at least for now, and some of these pictures don’t have a story that I know about yet. But these are some of the people I have met here in eastern Ethiopia, and one shot of some of our team. Until next time…
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.
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;”
In the early 90’s cartoon, Ren and Stimpy, the cat and the dog are saying their prayers before bed. As a very early aside, finding spiritual lessons in Ren and Stimpy proves that God can speak to you through virtually anything if you’re listening. Anyway, Stimpy prays first, “and please bless Grandma, and Grandpa”. After this, we hear Ren praying “and please give me a million dollars, and huge pectoral muscles.” Ridiculous? More true to life I’d say.
Though the roles were reversed in the characters between the before mentioned cat and dog, there is a book called “Cat and Dog Theology”, by Bob Sjogren and Gerald Robison. No it’s nothing to do with actual cats and dogs or pet spiritism. The basic gist of the teaching is this;
A dog looks at his master and says to himself, “He feeds me, takes care of me, plays with me, grooms me, and spends time with me. Wow! You’re amazing! You must be God.” The cat, on the other hand, looks at his “owner” and says, “He feeds me, takes care of me, plays with me, grooms me, and spends time with me. Wow! I must be God!” It sounds ridiculous until we realize that the second version is frequently our own theology. Though I find that the simple concept lying at the heart of cat and dog theology is spot on, the lessons themselves get a bit drawn out and overreaching. As King Arthur said to Sir Bedevere in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “Tell me again how one may utilize sheep’s bladders to prevent earthquakes.” When you only know sheep’s bladders, you try to make them apply to everything. I found this with cat and dog theology. However, there were some fantastic points made, and so I still recommend either reading the book or listening to the lessons.
Cat people (people who think like cats, as opposed to people who like cats) read the Bible as if it’s a self-help book. Cat people don’t so much run toward God as run away from Hell. Cat people pray for blessing for the sake of their own blessing. They think that the Bible is written about us, and not about God. Cat theologians think that the Bible is written to bring glory to us. Cat people go to church for a social gospel. They go because it’s the proper social thing to do. They listen to sermons about what God can do for them, about how God wants to bless you. While this last statement is true, half of it is missing. God blesses us so that we will pass on his glory to others, not so that we can accumulate those blessings in a stagnant cesspool of self-glorification.
Dog people, on the other hand, read the Bible and recognize that the book is about God, and that we are His servants, not the other way around. It is about less of us, and more of God. Dog people pray that God would use them to bless others. They run toward God because they love Him. They don’t run away from Hell, because they don’t fear it. They trust their God so much that they don’t need to fear Hell. Consequently they are effective missionaries. They pray that the lost would be saved. They believe in the great commission, which requires by design that we put ourselves aside to go to the uttermost parts of the earth and preach the gospel, facing hardship and possible persecution and even death because they know that no matter what happens, God will take care of them, whether it be in this life or the next.
Hebrews 11 sums up very well what it is that our faith is about.
“32 And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets: 33 who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. 35 Women received their dead raised to life again.
Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. 36 Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted,[f] were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented— 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.”
They usually don’t preach the second part of these verses in church. Sawn in two? Really? Look in Iraq right now. The persecuted in Mosul are showing us what real Christianity is about. They would give up everything, whether it’s all their possessions to flee so as not to have to deny their God, or life itself as they are killed, and yes, sawn in two for not giving up their faith.
So I have to ask? “What is wrong with the American church.” What has brought us so far as to think that faith is about us? I listened recently to a sickening sermon by Keith Moore as he went on for an hour about how Jesus died so that we can be rich. How can someone read the scripture and so utterly miss the point? He actually says that Jesus would wear a Rolex if he were here in the flesh today. I read a news article a while back about how people who live according to this doctrine were now heavily in debt, because when the recession came, they didn’t want to look like they weren’t being blessed, and consequently had a crisis of faith when the recession hit. They went into debt to appear as if they were still blessed. They could have avoided the guilt had they realized that following Christ has nothing to do with having money, and has everything to do with following with a willing heart no matter what the external circumstances.
Let’s see what Luke 10 says. “After these things the Lord appointed seventy others also,[a] and sent them two by two before His face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go. 2 Then He said to them, “The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few; therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.3 Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs among wolves.4 Carry neither money bag, knapsack, nor sandals; and greet no one along the road.5 But whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’6 And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest on it; if not, it will return to you.7 And remain in the same house, eating and drinking such things as they give, for the laborer is worthy of his wages. Do not go from house to house.8 Whatever city you enter, and they receive you, eat such things as are set before you.9 And heal the sick there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.”
He does not say, “Accumulate riches to the point that when you go out, you will not lack for anything.” He only says to obey, and leaves us to trust God. Trust is easier when we take the focus off of ourselves and place it where it belongs- on God. Missions is not part of what the church does. Missions is the whole reason the church exists. It’s time we started living like it.