Tag Archives: Religion and Spirituality

Multiplying What Is Possible

Over the past several years, my role in missions has changed. I have been to a lot of places I could never have imagined being, and formed relationships with people that from first glance I would have thought couldn’t be more different from myself. The latter part I of course couldn’t be more wrong about. My tasks have changed drastically as well. I am now in leadership in a missions organization. As such, I have been taking time lately to assess how I see things progressing or not progressing. I’ve been asking myself what the initial task was that God gave us, and asking whether we are still on that path or if we’ve strayed from it. As things begin moving, it’s easy to start looking out the side windows of the car and say, “Ooh, look at that!”. Pretty soon you find yourself off in a field looking at a replica of Stonehenge made out of junk cars. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to look at, but it’s definitely not what you were sent to do. As the quote goes, “The good is the enemy of the best.”

The good thing about having been involved with so many people and missions is that I’ve been able to see what works and what doesn’t. Which is what brought me to Luke 10 this week. It’s the chapter of the Bible where Jesus sends out 72 disciples in pairs as a kind of advanced party to everywhere he will shortly be going. It’s the only chapter where they’re mentioned, and until this past week I had never really though about who or what they were.

In reading, I’ve come up with a theory that is tied to Jesus’ leadership style. Some of the key points of how Jesus led, and consequently what we should emulate as leaders, are leading by example, leading through servanthood, and by delegating tasks to his disciples and allowing them to either succeed or fail. The last one is particularly key, because it’s clear that the disciples, and probably everyone, learned far more from failures than from instant success. Also key is that Jesus did not do everything himself, but delegated tasks, knowing that in order for success to continue past today or next week or next year, he had to raise up people who could and would do “greater things than these.”

So who were these 72 he sent out? I think we need to back up a chapter to Luke 9 where Jesus sends out his 12 disciples, his inner circle to do the following.

“When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. 3 He told them: “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt. 4 Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town. 5 If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” 6 So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere.”

In chapter 10 Jesus gives virtually identical instructions to the 72, and the reports when they get back from their journey are also almost identical to that given by the 12. So what does this mean? I think the key is in the number of disciples. How many times does 12 divide into 72? The answer is 6, with no remainder. I believe that as Jesus was a good delegator, he gave each of his inner 12 the task of training 6 others. Often the best way to make what you’ve learned stick is to teach someone else as you’re learning. Consequently Jesus sent out the 12 first, and what they learned they were then able to pass on each to 6 more. Why else would Jesus last instructions to his disciples before he was taken up to heaven be, “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, teaching them all I have instructed you?”

There are two things I can take from this. The first is that missions will never be successful unless we are investing in people and raising up disciples. The second, and I think where missionaries and church leadership often makes the biggest mistake, is that Jesus didn’t try to do it all himself. He raised up leaders. He allowed people to fail, and in doing so he raised up more competent, passionate leaders. And if Jesus didn’t try to do it all himself, what makes us think we can? It’s something to think about.

Raising up leaders in the most remote parts of the world.

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The Settlers, Part Two.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about settlers, and I implied that there would be a second part. Well, after more thinking on the subject, here is the second part.

The word “settlers” has a couple of possible meanings. It could mean someone who follows in the footsteps of the pioneers and sets up camp when everything is safe. This was the angle I took in the first part if this blog. But there’s another possible meaning to the word settlers, that being the name given to people who settle for second best, or third best, or settle for the worst for that matter.

I wish I could say it wasn’t true, but when I look around myself, and when I look inward, I see an awful lot of settling, an awful lot of “that’ll do.”

Before we were saved, the enemy used tactics like lust, greed, hate, envy, and lots of other seemingly obvious ways to tempt us. After Jesus saved us, we (hopefully) stopped falling for those things so easily, though we will still often struggle. So the enemy changed his tactics to a more subtle line of offense, that being to get us involved in all sorts of good things, so long as those good things were not the best things that God had planned for us. This allows us to feel good about ourselves while still being disobedient. It allows us to continue to put ourselves first, and our faith atrophies like an unused muscle because we ignored the call to the best things God had for us.

Before someone starts thinking that I’m suggesting something that is too hard, I want to point out one truth that has been proven to me over and over again. God almost always wants better for us than we want for ourselves. Our recurring problem is that we’re unable to see it, because being Americans we associate blessings with money and power and things. Well I would go so far to say that the person that God chooses to give nothing but material wealth is truly cursed beyond all men.

God is not looking for our good, he’s looking for our best. He’s not looking for sacrifice, he’s looking for obedience. God is not looking for perfection, otherwise he wouldn’t have chosen us to do his work. Rather he’s looking for excellence, and a willing heart. God is looking for people that see that even though we live in temporary bodies, we are eternal beings, and our decisions should reflect that fact. He is looking for people who are not willing to settle for second best.

I don’t know what God has called any one person to except myself. What I do know is that it’s a question I have to continually ask, because each time I take a step, the decision about the next step is brand new. Each man and woman needs to ask that question, and then have the faith to take that next step.

I’d like to finish with some verses from Hebrews 11, which sums up what I’m talking about. The chapter is talking about many people who lived by faith, and it’s summed up with the following verses.

Hebrews 11:13-16. “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.”

Just as the people spoken of in these verses had the opportunity to turn back, so we have the opportunity to do the same. But just as they were pilgrims and strangers on this earth, so are we, whether we recognize it or not. We have eternity written in our bones, and we were built for far more excellent things.

Making excellence from imperfect things.

Bringing about excellence from imperfect things.

Repairing The Old Ripped Nets.

I’d like to start this post a little differently than usual. I’d like to start by just listing some recent observations I’ve made. They may seem disjointed at first, but hopefully I can bring them all together.

Yesterday I was in the gym. As I looked around the room, everyone in my line of sight was staring at their phones.

Sunday was the Superbowl. Today someone declared to me “We did it!”

A friend of mine from my childhood was furious yesterday because Donald Trump bragged about the great economy but was silent when the market did badly. He proceeded to verbally abuse someone about it on Facebook.

These observations might seem like they have little or nothing to do with each other, but I would argue that they do. I love the line from the movie, The Princess Bride. You don’t even have to know the context to understand it. “Come now, we are men of action. Lies do not become us.”

The very first thing that God tells Adam in the garden is to subdue the earth. Subduing the earth is a really big job, a job for men of action. All throughout history, God has been looking for men of action. “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” “Be not only hearers of the word, but doers.” “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” There are so many examples that I could not list them all. But at some point, we decided to discontinue being men of action and go with the lie. Which lie was that? That security and living life vicariously through the doers was preferable to taking a risk and being the doer firsthand.

What are people looking at on their phones? They’re seeing what kind of exciting lives people on Instagram are living. They’re seeing what celebrities are doing. They’re checking the sports scores. They’re watching people who are doing or are making the appearance of doing what they wish they were doing.

To the man who watched football and declared, “We did it!” I’m sorry, but you didn’t do anything. You weren’t on the field.

To the man who was so upset about the president bragging about something; why on earth should that bother you? If you’re looking to control something, start with self and don’t abuse other people because you’re upset about what someone you’ve never met is doing.

People are frustrated and fearful because they’ve given up significance. There is no significance in staring at your phone, or any social media. There is no significance in living life as if we’re somehow immortal in our current body if we can just avoid risk. We are supposed to be influencers and subduers. But if we don’t subdue the earth, the earth will subdue us. That’s just the way it works. The decision not to make a decision is still a decision. We are more than conquerors through Christ, unless we just give up. And that is what I fear we have done and just given up.

Jesus told Peter and James, and by transitive property, us, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At some point, we left the nets on the beach. They became weathered and dry rotted and ripped. It’s time to go back and pull those nets back out of the mud. It’s time to repair them, and fix the holes, and start catching men again. Don’t be fooled. You are an influence. It’s just a question of what type of influence you decide to be.

I’d like to finish with a parable out of Matthew. Matthew 5:13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.

You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.

Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Satan casting out Satan.

This blog is a bit different than what I usually write. Usually I’m considering ideas or thoughts having something to do with a recent or upcoming trip to Africa. Although I do leave again for Ethiopia in less than three weeks (yes, I was just there), my thoughts this week have come from an entirely different source. It also means that this post is going to be wordier than usual, because I’m writing for a specific purpose to a specific person, but I thought it might be worth sharing.

Several days ago, I was speaking with a Christian brother in the middle-east. He is an evangelist in a very difficult area, and he wanted to know my thoughts on resisting the devil. You see, he had just been to an area where people were supposedly proud to be Christians, and that there was not a mosque in the village. In talking though, it became more apparent to me that the people in the village were not so much proud that they were Christians as they were proud that they were not Muslims. They did not know the word of God, and many of them were living self-destructive lives. Many were trying to keep this fact hidden from the communities around them so as to not look bad.

Over the last few days, I’ve been praying and pondering on the subject of resisting the devil. I thought about all the methods mentioned in the Bible, and all the verses mentioned about resisting the devil. What I kept coming back to in my thoughts is this; You have to want to resist the devil before you can resist him.

Not resisting the devil is easy. All it requires is that you live the way you want to live, to consider yourself first, and that whatever you see as right in your own eyes, you do. It requires no humility, no accountability, and when all that causes problems in your life and the lives of those around you, you blame others.

What are the devil’s tactics? Well, on the obvious end, his intentions are to “steal, kill, and destroy”. John 10:10.

So why would anyone not resist that? If it was obvious that were the devil’s intentions, then everyone would resist. So his intentions must not be obvious, or people simply refuse to see it.

There is an interesting passage in Mark 3: 22-26. Jesus has been casting out demons, and learned men (the scribes) come against him, accusing him of casting out demons by the power of demons.

And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebub,” and, “By the ruler of the demons He casts out demons.”   So He called them to Himself and said to them in parables: “How can Satan cast out Satan?  If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  And if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.  And if Satan has risen up against himself, and is divided, he cannot stand, but has an end.”

So why would such supposedly learned men suggest something so seemingly preposterous? It’s because there is some precedent to the claim. You see, the devil has no kingdom of his own, and no creative power. He has only the power to usurp the Kingdom of God for his own purposes. If we carry “steal, kill, and destroy” to its final end, we have not only the complete destruction of God’s kingdom, we have, by transitive property, the destruction of Satan’s kingdom as well. The solution to this is a periodical reduction in the destruction the devil brings in order to put things into balance again, hence extending the reign of the devil as the prince of this world.

There is a fine line in this. If there is too much destruction, people begin to wake up and resist the devil. Take what is happening right now in Iraq and Syria. There is cruelty, destruction, and killing the likes of which the world has not seen in a long time. As a consequence, despite the threat of death, multitudes of people from those cultures are coming to Christ. This will ultimately be a massive failure for the devil, because by carrying things too far, he has undercut himself.

Being a parasite on the Kingdom of God is a precarious place to be, because there is not a winning position. If you do too much, people begin to resist you. Do too little, and the world begins to revert back to the way it was when God created it. That fine line in the middle is where the devil would like to be. Cause just enough strife that man takes it for granted. When he gets used to that, cause a little more, and so on. It’s amazing how much evil men will tolerate if it’s brought on slowly enough. It’s the tipping point that’s hard to gauge. The objective is to keep man in a place where he will not resist, because when he resists, it’s over. James 4 is very clear.

Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?  You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask.  You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.  Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.  Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, “The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously”?

 But He gives more grace. Therefore He says:

“God resists the proud,
But gives grace to the humble.”

 Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.  Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.  Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.”

It doesn’t say, “resist the devil and he might flee from you.” It says, “resist the devil and he WILL flee from you.” If we do not resist the devil, it is because we have made an agreement with him that things are fine the way they are. Essentially, I won’t resist you so long as things are relatively easy and I can put myself first. It starts with an agreement, and agreements with the devil are never a good idea. (See the post called The Hyena Gate.) I’ve heard the phrase so many times, “I chose the lesser of two evils.” Choosing the lesser of two evils, over time, always leads to choices becoming more and more evil. And so the cycle repeats itself, where Satan must cast himself out again to bring order to his usurped kingdom, and therefore extend his reign.

So what would it look like if we stopped making these agreements?  If we put ease, and convenience, and most of all Self aside and started resisting the devil? What would it look like if the Church resisted the devil? What would it look like if we woke up each morning and prayed, “Lord, not I, but you?” What would it look like if we stopped constantly trying to lift ourselves up and let God do it instead?  I’ll just finish by allowing us all to ponder those thoughts, and I will be thinking about them as well.

Resistance.

The New Wallpaper.

A widow looks past the new wallpaper towards the window in Ethiopia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The widow was ready for our arrival. She smiled warmly as she greeted us with “Akum Nagoma”. Her simple mud walled house had been cleaned and was in order. She was dressed in her best. New magazine pages had been plastered to the walls, as is the custom to beautify homes in this part of Ethiopia. A television sat under a plastic cover in the main room. She seemed to be doing well…if you chose not to really look.

The rows of dots tattooed on her shrunken neck were too close together; in fact she looked skeletal. When we complimented her on the new wallpaper, she said, “oh, that’s old,” even though we could see that it had just been put up. The television sat there conspicuously, but what good is a television when you don’t have electricity?

We knew something was up. The house had been beautified for our arrival. The wallpaper was obviously new. The television and many of the items in the home were likely borrowed from friends or neighbors. Though she tried to look happy, she was obviously either sick or starving or both. As we asked her questions about how she was doing, her smile and warmness changed. She at first said that she wasn’t able to express how she is doing, and finally broke into tears. It was likely that she knew we were there to help, but the thing about poverty that most people who are not financially poor don’t understand is that Poverty and its ugly siblings Shame and Isolation usually walk hand in hand. Though she knew she needed help, she also didn’t want anyone to know that she needed help, particularly not these strange foreigners coming into her home. She didn’t want anyone judging her ability to take care of her children or herself. Being poor is bad, but everyone knowing you’re poor is so much worse.

This situation cuts to the core of why Christ calls us not only into relationship with Him, but also into relationship with those around us, who are made in Christ’s image. The scriptures are numerous in this area, but I’ll just highlight one. Galatians 6:2 says, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”  It is because of this principal that the enemy seeks so much to divide us. If we remain in relationship with each other, we are less likely to fall into sin, less likely to fall into not only financial poverty, but poverty of spirit. Studies show that married people live longer than single people. It’s nothing magical, it’s just that it’s not good for people to be alone. Its why the writer of the book of Hebrews thought it important enough to write, “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” The enemy knows that we are stronger together, that is why one of the most worn out tools in his box is Shame. How many times has someone disappeared from church when trouble hits? “Iron sharpens iron” is the saying, but we can’t sharpen each other if we isolate ourselves.

There is no shame if we realize that we are all broken people. We are all broken in different ways, but when we gather together as one body in Christ, my strength helps you in your weakness, and your strength helps me in my weakness. But we have to go in with the humility of knowing that “while we were yet enemies of God, Christ died for us.”

The great thing about having indigenous staff in Ethiopia is that there are people who can check on this widow and see how she is doing. It’s also why short-term missions is so hard. It’s hard to build relationships from afar, but if you have people on the ground it’s that much easier. Hopefully this widow will realize that no one is there to judge her, only help. Starting is the hardest part, but if she goes the path of many of the other widows in this community, she will soon be sustainably feeding her own family and herself. In so doing, she will lift the community as a whole.

Social Systems Are Like Tofu.

I was having a phone conversation recently with one of our partners overseas. He has been doing some evangelistic work with a very poor tribe of people. He has not been working with this particular group of people for very long, and he was conveying to me the conditions they are living under, and the social structures they’re forced (for now) to live under. It essentially boils down to medieval serfdom. A family will work the fields for the landowner. After they’ve harvested 80 kilograms of cotton, they are paid about $2.50. In addition to the meager wages, they are also in debt to the landowner. They are living in legalized slavery.

Throughout the world, this is not an uncommon thing, much as we’d like to tell ourselves that the world has advanced and moved on from such things. There’s a lot of talk lately about social justice, and particularly about evil governments, and evil corporations, and evil politicians. In all cases we are talking about social systems, from small local systems to national governments.  All are social systems, but the evil part is where people get hung up.

Social systems are not evil in themselves, nor are they good. Social systems are amoral, meaning they have no morality in themselves. Social systems are like tofu. Just as tofu takes on the flavor of whatever you cook it in, so social systems take on the character of whoever is running them. If you have evil people running the social system, the social system will be evil. If you have good people running the social system, you will likely have a good social system, unless the good people lack knowledge or wisdom, or are incompetent, which happens.

Social justice activists are spending an awful lot of time trying to dismantle evil systems, and in many cases this is a good thing. However, if you dismantle an evil system but the hearts of the people are still evil, you are wasting your time.

I have spent a good amount of time this week pouring over video footage I shot last time I was in Africa. (I finally have the time to do so.) We interviewed several pastors, many of whom came from a background where in their younger years, they were part of the evil systems we are talking about in their respective societies. They were persecutors, drug addicts, witch doctors, people who were cruel to their wives and families. The common thread between them was when they had an encounter with the living God, and he changed everything. Now these people are out risking their own lives in a dangerous land to tell others about what changed them and their families, and gave them hope. I hear people say sometimes that their faith is a personal thing. That’s hogwash. If your faith doesn’t make a tangible difference in yourself and the world around you, what good is it? As James says, “Show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You say you believe in God. Good! Even the demons believe, and shudder!”

My conversation with our overseas partner was informative for me, but also really got me thinking about how we are to handle these situations. In regards to the social systems already in place, the bible is very clear about it in many places. 1 Timothy 2 says, “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—  for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” First we need to pray for a turning of the landowner’s heart. If his heart is turned toward God, and it’s genuine, his attitude toward the people working his land will change. The second part of this is what praying for unjust leaders does in us. Jesus talks about this in Luke 6. “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

You see, everyone is running around trying to change everyone else, but change starts with us, and with the attitude of our own hearts. We pray for our enemies both because the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective, but also because when we pray for our enemies, we cannot simultaneously hate them.

There may be other strategies we need to take to alleviate the slavery these people are living under, but to start them prematurely or to do them in lieu of praying for their enemies undermines the reason Christ came, that being “to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;” (Isaiah 61). Many are under the assumption that if people are oppressed, they are somehow angelic. I can tell you from personal experience from some of the places I’ve worked in that if you release a slave from his oppressor without taking the spirit of the slave out of the man, he will do worse atrocities to both his oppressor and the people around him than his oppressor ever did to him.

In closing, I’d like to relay a story from one of the interviews I did in Africa this year. The man I was interviewing hated Christians when he was younger. He would attack them and throw stones at them. One day, he came across a Christian and started beating him. The man he was beating continued to tell him about Jesus even while he was beating him. It’s this kind of self-sacrifice that changes the world. Not and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but praying for our enemies and telling them the good news even while they are beating us.

Two Bullets From A Filipino Policeman’s Rifle.

In October 1972, Private Kinshichi Akatsu of the Imperial Japanese Army emerged from the jungle of  Lubang Island in the Philippines and burned the rice collected by Filipino farmers. Shortly afterward, he was killed by two shots from Filipino police. He was probably the last casualty of World War Two. Twenty nine years after the war ended, he was still engaging in guerrilla activity for an empire that no longer existed. Kinshichi had seen the information that the war ended August 15, 1945, but refused to believe that it was true. He and four other soldiers continued to fight, and at the time of his death, only one other holdout survived with him.

Kinshichi was living the epitome of a lost cause. The empire from where he drew his authority no longer existed. Consequently, even if he were to take the entire island hostage, there would be no victory for him. There was no Empire of Japan to hand the island of Lubang over to. He was wasting his life doing nothing more than being a thorn in the side of the islanders.

Now let’s change gears a bit. Romans 8:37-39 says the following. “Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.  For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I’ve always wondered what exactly it means to be “more than a conqueror.” It seems to me that you are either a conqueror or you are not, but what does it mean to be more than a conqueror? The contrast of Kinshichi Akatsu’s story helps me to understand. You see, no matter how successful Kinshichi was in his activities, he was still a conquered man, whether he knew it or not.

In contrast, Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus also says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” So it stands to reason, that if Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth, then by his authority we are conquerors through him also.

This causes a conundrum for Satan. He is already defeated and holds no authority over those who have been redeemed. He does not have the power to create his own kingdom, and holds no authority in the Kingdom of God. His situation is explained beautifully in the book “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning” by Rene Girard. Girard says, “Satan does not create by his own means. Rather he sustains himself as a parasite on what God creates by imitating God in a manner that is jealous, grotesque, perverse, and as contrary as possible to the upright and obedient imitation of Jesus. To repeat, Satan is an imitator in the rivalistic sense of the word. His kingdom is  a caricature of the kingdom of God.”

So what does one do if your enemy has already conquered you and you hold no authority? You try to convince your enemy that he is not in fact a conqueror. If it is impossible for you to create victory, you attempt to limit the damage your enemy does to you by convincing them that they are not conquerors. How many churches refuse to walk in the gifts of the Spirit? How many Christians walk around like they are under the thumb of the enemy? How many Christians refuse to pray for God’s healing for themselves or others? How many refuse to fulfill the Great Commission out of fear? How many let the things of the world distract from eternal things?

We are more than conquerors because there is no doubt who the Winner is. Satan can never pull victory out of a hat. He can only delay his demise, and the longer we are convinced that we are not conquerors, the longer he will last. All he can do right now, metaphorically speaking, is burn the crops of the farmers. Make no mistake though. Just as two bullets from a Filipino policeman dispatched private Akatsu, so will Satan be dispatched in the end. Let’s start living like that.

Your Safety Is Not Assured.

It’s been a while since I’ve written. It’s not because I haven’t had something to write, but rather I’ve been a bit stumped as to how to write it.

Sometimes when you’ve been doing something for a while, it’s hard to think back to the way you thought about those things when you were still new. But recent events have brought me back to some underlying assumptions I had about missions when I was growing up and even as an adult.

Before I was a missionary, I always assumed that if my church was involved in missions somewhere and was sending people, it must be safe. I know from the statements that people say to me, and from observing what goes on, that this is still a very prevalent assumption that people make. Why is that?  Well, as a general rule, in most churches I’ve been a part of , that is the case. We only send people to “safe” places. But what makes a place safe?

The philosopher Jürgen Habermas deals with this in what is probably an unnecessarily wordy way. He says, “Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an antonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in the light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage.”  Dumbing it down, the ideas of love and justice in society are a direct result of the Judeo-Christian heritage which we draw from, even if our societies have moved away from that underlying paradigm.

If we look around the world, most places follow that general rule. The most dangerous places are those places that do not have a current or recent Christian presence. So if that is the case, then why are we going to the “safe” places? Is it because we are afraid to go the the places that God is really calling us to go? If a place is considered safe, there’s a good chance that a lot of missionaries have already been there. Do we go to the places that have already been evangelized because we feel that doing something is better than nothing? Is it our ersatz way of fulfilling the Great Commission?

It is said that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. I would like to amend that statement. I think what is even more dangerous than good men doing nothing is good men doing something that is neither good nor bad, but leaves them feeling as if they did something good. Rather than go to the places where God would actually call us to go, we give in to fear. We still go, but we go somewhere else.

Decisions that are made based on fear are almost universally the wrong choice. When we choose to do missionary work only in places where we feel safe and comfortable, we are not only disobedient to the Lord’s calling, but we carry that spirit of fear with us wherever we go. I read a quote this week from an indigenous Christian overseas. He was asked what his church learns from the Western missionaries. His answer was very telling. He said, “the Western missionaries teach us to be afraid.”

Why do we fear so much? I believe it is because many of us are building a kingdom, but it isn’t God’s Kingdom, it is our own kingdom. We seek to be gods of an empty universe of our own creation; kings of a kingdom with no subjects. We do what we want to do first and ask God to bless what we’ve already decided to do. As our towers grow taller and taller, they become harder and harder to maintain, and we fear they will topple. This is why Jesus says, “whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will save it.” This isn’t some trite conundrum. When we literally give our life, and our plans, and our finances, and our spouses and children, and our present and future over to Christ, all fear is taken away, because you can’t fear the loss of what you’ve already given away.

Most of Romans 8 deals with this, and so in closing I am going to sum up with the words of the Apostle Paul, who wrote,

There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus,[a]who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. 10 And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.

12 Therefore, brethren, we are debtors—not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? 33 Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shalltribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written:

“For Your sake we are killed all day long;
We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”

37 Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. 38 For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, 39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

It’s time to give up fear and go to the hard places.

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.