“A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” That statement is attributed to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who knew something about engineering death on a mass scale. He understood that most people can’t fully comprehend events affecting great multitudes — especially if those events are happening far away.
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Listen to an audio version of this post at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/195/19559/19559-107657.mp3
Did you see the picture of Marwan, the 4-year-old Syrian boy recently found wandering in the desert near the Syria-Jordan border?
A news photo of the refugee child went viral on social media. It attracted far more attention than the hundreds of Syrian refugees who cross the same border every day and night to escape the murderous war in their country. Turns out Marwan wasn’t alone; he had temporarily fallen behind his family members, who were among about 1,000 Syrians making the chaotic border crossing that particular day. Relief workers reunited the child with his parents about 10 minutes after the photo was taken.
People around the world responded to the photo because it depicted a lost child, dragging a plastic bag with his few belongings, seemingly alone in the world. Who wouldn’t feel compassion for this little boy? His personal, heartbreaking plight is easier to understand than the struggle of millions of refugees experiencing the same thing.
Media have radically changed the global landscape since Stalin’s time, however. News travels instantaneously. Digital devices bring us images of tragedies, wars and disasters 24/7, if we choose to watch. But that poses a new problem. The constant onslaught of events and information dulls our senses. We have our own daily problems. We turn away. Americans in particular, living far from many of the world’s conflict zones, tend to turn inward.
“It’s not that Americans are disinterested in foreign affairs, it’s that their interest is finely calibrated,” observes geopolitical analyst George Friedman. “The issues must matter to Americans, so most issues must carry with them a potential threat. The outcome must be uncertain, and the issues must have a sufficient degree of clarity so that they can be understood and dealt with.”
There aren’t that many global crises that neatly fit such criteria in these confusing times. The outcome of the war in Syria is uncertain, but its multiple causes and combatants are anything but clear to us. Does its eventual outcome, regardless of who wins, threaten us directly? Hard to say. One could say the same of the current troubles in Ukraine, Venezuela, Egypt, Thailand, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and other places. Trouble is always brewing somewhere. Let them sort it out, we say. We’re tired of being the world’s policeman.
“Whether this sentiment is good or bad is debatable,” says Friedman. “I would argue that it is a luxury, albeit a temporary one, conferred on Americans by geography.”
Weary of years of war and overseas entanglements, many Americans are ready to withdraw behind our spacious borders — physically or psychologically — until something so big happens that we can’t ignore it.
That’s a national choice. But God calls His followers to greater things. If we serve Him, we are citizens of the world, no matter how chaotic the world may seem. In my last column, I asked how we can continue to go into the world and make disciples as a new age of upheaval dawns. Withdrawal is not an option for world-hearted Christians, because it implies one of two things: fear or indifference.
God is not indifferent about the world. He is passionately concerned about every people, every culture. The more suffering and turmoil a nation is experiencing, the more intensively He is working to bring His grace and mercy.
“This past month we have seen an amazing outpouring of God's Spirit,” said IMB worker Brady Sample,* who lives in violence-torn Kiev, Ukraine, a nation on the edge of cracking apart. “God is moving. This event is causing people to pray, and while they are praying for peace in the land, God is trying to bring peace into people’s hearts.”
No matter how difficult the destination or the situation, He will go with us. In fact, He’s already there, waiting for us to meet Him.
Don’t miss the appointment.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
2014 will mark a grim anniversary: 100 years since the beginning of World War I.
It was to be the “war to end all wars.” If only.
World War I is rapidly disappearing from modern memory. At the current pace of events, we often forget what happened last week, much less a century ago. We are twice as far removed from 1914 as Americans in that year were removed from the Civil War era. Another world war and scores of smaller ones have occurred in the generations since. Revolutions have shaken and reshaped entire chunks of the globe. Technology has transformed almost everything.
But we should never forget the consequences of “the Great War.” Aside from its staggering bloodshed and suffering (more than 30 million killed or wounded), it brought the end of the old order in Europe and laid the groundwork for a new one. It swept away monarchies and empires, set the stage for revolutions and years of global economic struggle — and ultimately led to an even more devastating global conflict.
Some historians believe we are entering a similar era of endings and beginnings. If Christians intend to make an impact on the world, we must strive to understand the times. We also must deal with the world as it is, not as we want it to be. If you’re waiting for general stability and peace before you launch out to the nations or lead your church to go, you’ve got a long wait ahead.
“[T]he coming conflicts and challenges are pretty clear,” writes Gordon Adams, professor of international relations at American University, in Foreign Policy magazine. “We will hear a lot about the Syrian civil war, the fate of the Iranian nuclear program, conflict in Iraq, the departure of U.S. forces from Afghanistan — not to speak of what applecart Vladimir Putin plans to upset next, whether the North Korean regime will implode, and whether China and its neighbors intensify their conflict over the rocky outcroppings they all want to own. …
“As we reflect on this [World War I] anniversary year, however, there are deeper rumblings afoot, rumblings that will color and shape many of these conflicts. The same was true 100 years ago. … At the start of that new century, the shape of world politics was about to transform, while class conflict rose and shook the very foundations of the monarchies of continental Europe. Between these two forces, they would wipe out the Austro-Hungarian Empire, remove royalty from power in Germany, bring revolutionary turmoil to Russia, undermine the colonial systems established by France and Germany, and bring a new power — the United States — to the center of the world stage.”
Now the United States and its allies seem to be receding as global power players, by circumstance or by choice, while economic, political and military conflicts simmer around the globe. If that withdrawal or decline continues, other forces will fill the power vacuum.
In some cases, the vacuum itself will bring chaos. It’s an old historical pattern, repeated many times through the ages.
“Why so much anarchy?” asks Robert Kaplan in a new piece for Stratfor, the global intelligence analysis service. Twenty years ago, Kaplan warned in an influential Atlantic Monthly article (“The Coming Anarchy”) of “unprecedented upheaval, brought on by scarce resources, overpopulation, uncontrollable disease, brutal warfare and the widespread collapse of nation-states and indeed, of any semblance of government. ... Welcome to the 21st century.”
Some of those predictions came true; some didn’t. But “what is not in dispute is that significant portions of the earth … are simply harder and harder to govern,” Kaplan reports. He identifies five major causes for the persistent upheaval of recent decades:
n The end of imperialism: Empires and spheres of influence built by international powers often oppress and exploit the peoples they absorb. But they provide (or enforce) order. When they crumble, freedom may follow. Or chaos and blood.
n The end of post-colonial strongmen: National dictators replaced departing colonial authorities in many places during the post-colonial era in the 20th century and again after the Cold War. Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gadhafi, Hosni Mubarak and many other strongmen are gone. But who — or what — will replace them?
n No national institutions and feeble national identities: Post-colonial dictators typically ruled by fear and secret police, not strong social and political institutions. “It is institutions that fill the gap between the ruler at the top and the extended family or tribe at the bottom,” Kaplan explains. Without such institutions, “the chances for either [more] dictatorship or anarchy proliferate.” States with such weak national identities become particularly vulnerable to “non-state identities that fill the subsequent void.” Think al-Qaida, organized criminal cartels and other bad actors.
n Doctrinal battles: Religious struggles have sparked many wars in the past. It’s happening again in the Muslim world “as state identities weaken and sectarian and other differences within Islam come to the fore, often violently,” Kaplan notes. Americans tend to focus on radical Islam versus the West. But the great ideological battle now tearing apart the Middle East — from Syria and Iraq to Iran and Saudi Arabia — is the blood feud between Sunni and Shiite Islam.
n Information Technology: Smartphones “can empower the crowd against a hated regime, as protesters who do not know each other personally can find each other through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media,” Kaplan acknowledges. But they “cannot provide [or] maintain political stability afterwards. This is how technology encourages anarchy. The Industrial Age was about bigness: big tanks, aircraft carriers, railway networks and so forth. … But the post-industrial age is about smallness, which can empower small and oppressed groups, allowing them to challenge the state — with anarchy sometimes the result.”
What comes next?
“The real question marks are Russia and China. The possible weakening of authoritarian rule in those sprawling states may usher in less democracy than chronic instability and ethnic separatism that would dwarf in scale the current instability in the Middle East,” Kaplan warns. “The future of world politics will be about which societies can develop responsive institutions to govern vast geographical space and which cannot. That is the question toward which the present season of anarchy leads.”
That might be the political question. The spiritual question for Christians: How do we continue to go into the world, declare the Gospel and make disciples among all nations as yet another era of upheaval unfolds? There are as many answers as there are nations, cultures and peoples.
But retreat is not one of them.
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Listen to an audio version of this column at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/194/19402/19402-106979.mp3
Having no faith in the existence of heaven, postmodern secularists dream of a paradise on earth.
This paradise — to be created and ruled by secularists themselves, since there is no God — will ensure freedom for all, eliminate oppression, eradicate poverty and guarantee equality. Perhaps most important, it will bury old religious superstitions once and for all and usher in a new era of universal “tolerance.” Cue global group hug.
“Society will outgrow doctrinaire [religious] belief systems accepted on traditional ‘faith’ and inculcated by authoritarian intimidation,” confidently predicts one futurist. His forecast is echoed by many others.
Since this brave new world didn’t work out so well during the disastrous experiment on humanity called communism, secularists hold up post-religious, democratic Western Europe as a model. There, old cathedrals stand empty and traditional Christianity appears to be dying, but many Western Europeans still enjoy relative political and personal freedom — at least for now. In the new, post-religious world promoted by secularists, that’s enough. For them, freedom is an entirely material phenomenon, a new stage in the historical evolution of human beings striving to shake off the chains of oppressive institutions, especially religious ones.
Such a view is not only bigoted but reveals historical ignorance verging on amnesia.
Even a cursory study of the West locates the roots of the modern idea of human freedom in the radical Gospel liberation offered by the God of the New Testament. The spiritual revolution begun by the first Christian Apostles and missionaries, while Rome still ruled, was rekindled and powerfully amplified in the emerging modern world by the Protestant Reformation, the printing press and the spread of the Bible to the masses in their own languages. Freed from their spiritual and mental chains, Europeans eventually embraced democracy and the ideals of political liberty.
And what about the rest of the world?
A fascinating cover story in Christianity Today reaffirms a historical reality that will make the secular fundamentalists gnash their teeth: Missionaries have spread freedom and education, aided the poor, worked for the empowerment of women and advanced general human progress almost everywhere they have gone. Not just any missionaries, mind you, but “conversionary” Protestant missionaries — evangelical Christians who have gone into the world to spread the Gospel and make disciples.
“The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries” (Jan./Feb. 2014, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/january-february/world-missionaries-made.html), by Andrea Palpant Dilley, highlights the groundbreaking research of sociologist Robert Woodberry, associate professor and director of the Project on Religion and Economic Change at the National University of Singapore. As a young grad student in sociology 14 years ago at the University of North Carolina, Woodberry became intrigued with the connection between the spread of Protestant Christianity across the globe and the spread of freedom and democracy. He has made it his life’s work.
“In essence, Woodberry was digging into one of the great enigmas of modern history: why some nations develop stable representative democracies — in which citizens enjoy the rights to vote, speak, and assemble freely — while neighboring countries suffer authoritarian rulers and internal conflict,” Dilley writes. “Public health and economic growth can also differ dramatically from one country to another, even among countries that share similar geography, cultural background, and natural resources.”
What he found in country after country was a direct correlation between the historical presence and mission activity of “conversionary Protestants” and the advance of freedom and social progress.
“I was shocked,” Woodberry told Dilley. “It was like an atomic bomb. The impact of missions on global democracy was huge. I kept adding variables to the model — factors that people had been studying and writing about for the past 40 years — and they all got wiped out. It was amazing. I knew, then, I was on to something really important.”
Woodberry “already had historical proof that missionaries had educated women and the poor, promoted widespread printing, led nationalist movements that empowered ordinary citizens, and fueled other key elements of democracy,” Dilley reports. “Now the statistics were backing it up: Missionaries weren't just part of the picture. They were central to it.”
In 2005, a $500,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation enabled Woodberry to hire a platoon of research assistants and launch a major database to gather more information. Armed with those results, he was able to assert:
“Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.”
Woodberry’s findings explode the popular modern myth that most 19th- and early 20th-century missionaries were little more than agents or unwitting tools of Western colonialism. Yes, some fell into that tragic pattern. But many others sided with the people they served in the face of any form of exploitation, local or foreign. They fought the opium trade in China, defended Africans and Pacific islanders from encroaching white settlers, worked for the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean, struggled against temple prostitution and the burning of widows in India. And nearly everywhere they went, they began schools and hospitals, taught people to read and helped the poor to better their lot.
“Pull out a map, says Woodberry, point to any place where ‘conversionary Protestants’ were active in the past, and you’ll typically find more printed books and more schools per capita,” Dilley writes. “You’ll find, too, that in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia, most of the early nationalists who led their countries to independence graduated from Protestant mission schools.”
In most cases, Protestant missionaries of the past did these things not because they were radical social reformers or political revolutionaries, but because their Gospel ministry brought them close to the common people, the poor and the oppressed, whom they sought to serve in the love of Christ.
What is the message for evangelicals in a postmodern age that relentlessly strives to sneer the Gospel out of the public square? Stop apologizing for your missionary roots. Be proud of your spiritual ancestors. Many of them were gutsy heroes who braved all sorts of dangers to take the Gospel far beyond its traditional centers to the ends of the earth.
They changed the world of their day and ours — and they are worth following.
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
(Listen to an audio version of this column at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/193/19330/19330-106637.mp3)
The new year has barely begun and you’ve already failed to keep your New Year’s resolutions.
You have a lot of company. Nine out of 10 people who make New Year’s resolutions give up on them — typically after a week or so, according to the latest surveys.
Don’t take it too hard. New Year’s resolutions tend to be unrealistic, poorly thought out, too general to measure. They can even be counterproductive, cautions Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, who writes about the self-help industry. You fail to meet a self-imposed goal or deadline and feel like a failure. Or, you tie your hopes and dreams to an arbitrary date on a calendar.
“If you believe that you can only change on the New Year — the inherent message of New Year’s resolutions — you will have to wait a whole year before you get another shot,” Lamb-Shapiro explains.
New beginnings are fine, but real progress doesn’t always run on a calendar. Especially spiritual progress.
Sure, we experience mountaintop moments and make life-changing decisions in our spiritual lives: the day we decide to follow Christ as Lord, the first time we lead someone to faith in Him, the day we respond to a call from God to missions or a particular ministry. But daily growth in Christ usually happens quietly, behind the scenes, as we seek Him, love Him and obey Him.
“[T]he transforming work of grace is more of a mundane process than it is a series of a few dramatic events,” writes pastor and author Paul David Tripp. “Most of us only make three or four momentous decisions in our lives, and several decades after we die, the people we leave behind will struggle to remember our lives at all. You and I live in little moments, and if God doesn’t rule our little moments and doesn’t work to recreate us in the middle of them, then there is no hope for us, because that is where you and I live. … This is where I think ‘Big Drama Christianity’ gets us into trouble. It can cause us to devalue the significance of the little moments of life and the ‘small-change’ grace that meets us there.”
Thousands of such moments come to us day by day. How we respond to them determines the course of our lives. Do we choose to seek the Lord in the quiet before dawn, or sleep another hour? Do we choose to meditate upon His Word, or ignore it? Do we choose to notice the lonely person in need of a kind word, or hurry on our way? Do we choose to speak up for Christ when the opportunity arises, or remain silent? Do we choose to pray for the lost, or curse them with indifference?
Most spiritual battles are won or lost in the unseen regions of the heart.
In the 1800s, Scottish missionary Mary Slessor went to West Africa, then a notorious graveyard of missionaries. She braved many hazards and spread the Gospel for nearly four decades. But Slessor wrote a simple truth to her supporters back home: “Praying is harder work than doing.”
Many believe the historic Shantung Revival in China began with the prayers of one person: Norwegian missionary Marie Monsen. Monsen was a missionary second, an intercessor first. No one except God “saw” her prayers. Their impact, however, changed the world.
“You see, Jesus is Immanuel [‘God with us’], not just because He came to earth, but because He makes you the place where He dwells,” Tripp observes. “This means He is present and active in all the mundane moments of your daily life.”
Silent moments of prayer may seem mundane in this world. Eternity will reveal otherwise.
(Want to change history through prayer? Visit imb.org/main/pray)
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
I’m way late getting ready for Christmas this year.
I haven’t started shopping for gifts. Guys typically don’t start until the last minute, anyhow, but I haven’t even made a list. Can’t seem to get motivated.
Maybe it’s because our kids are more or less grown up — and, therefore, too cool to act excited about the big day — but have yet to produce grandchildren we can shower with gifts and hugs.
Maybe it was the spectacle of predatory bargain hunters pummeling each other to claim the latest gizmos before Thanksgiving Day even ended — a symbol of the pagan orgy of consumption the “holiday season” has become.
Maybe I’ve just become my father. After I reached the approximate age my kids are now, he used to grumble, “Can we just cancel Christmas this year?” At the time, I chided him for being such a Scrooge. Now I understand his weariness with the whole giving-getting business, if all it means is a boost for retail sales.
Or … maybe I have yet to prepare a place in the “guest room” of my life for Jesus, the promised Messiah.
“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn,” reads the Christmas story in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 2:7, KJV). However, as Ben Witherington III noted in Christianity Today several years ago, the Greek word for “inn” Luke used in his account of Jesus’ birth, kataluma, also can be translated “guest room.”
Bethlehem was a “one-stoplight town,” Witherington wrote, and might not have had a separate inn for travelers — even during the time of Caesar Augustus’ great census. “Archeology shows that houses in Bethlehem and its vicinity often had caves [at] the back of the house where they kept their prized ox or beast of burden, lest it be stolen,” he reported. “The guest room was in the front of the house, the animal shelter in the back, and Joseph and Mary had come too late to get the guest room, so the [residents] did the best they could by putting them in the back of the house.”
Is that the best we can do today? Giving a quick nod toward the “true meaning of Christmas” while gorging ourselves on holiday diversions doesn’t even rise to the level of putting Jesus in the back room with the livestock, spiritually speaking.
Nothing brings me back to the truth of the first Christmas like reading the Gospel accounts of that silent, holy night, when the Lord entered space and time via the portal of a “one-stoplight town.” And nothing reminds me of the living truth of Christmas like accounts from missionaries and followers of Christ about ways Jesus is revealing Himself around the world today.
n “Last year on December 25, my friend told me she was going to church for Christmas,” writes a new believer in Vietnam. “I didn’t really understand and thought it was a bit strange. I’d heard of the holiday before but thought it foreign. Why didn’t my friend just go to the temple like everyone else? But now I know the truth. Now I know that Jesus was born for me. Jesus was born for everyone. Last summer someone shared a Bible with me. I read it and knew in my heart that I needed God. Now I can’t wait to celebrate my first Christmas as a believer in Jesus Christ. I’m excited to tell everyone around me about Jesus, born as their Savior.”
n “Christmas is a time of giving, sharing and remembering the Christ Child who came to give the greatest gift of all: His life as a sacrifice so that we might live,” reflects a missionary in Africa. “When I look at the pastors in Zimbabwe, I see this same kind of sacrifice. Many don’t receive a steady monthly salary. They have difficulty paying their rent and putting enough food on the table so their families won’t go hungry. Yet they spend their days out among their people, witnessing to the lost, praying for them, visiting the sick and helping to bury the dead. Often people come to the house of a pastor, looking for help with money or food. Our pastors give to those in need, even though they themselves could be classified as the needy ones! These dear, faithful ones aren’t giving out of the overflow of their wealth, but out of great poverty.”
n Another missionary in Africa writes: “The truth is … life on the field isn’t as glamorous as one might imagine when first stepping off the plane. We aren’t camped under a mango tree every day, bringing the Gospel to masses who’ve never heard it before or distributing food to starving people on a daily basis. There are plenty of mountaintop experiences like that when we just look at each other in awe because we get to do this for a living. But the truth is … life happens, and ministry sometimes takes a back seat when it does. Sometimes we find ourselves broken down on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. On our way to the capital to collect a volunteer team one month, the engine of our SUV exploded. Lottie Moon Christmas Offering dollars rebuilt our engine and provided a loaner car in the meantime. Sometimes we find ourselves scooping rainwater off the kitchen floor. Our recently renovated roof cracked in two during a rainstorm one night, flooding our house. Lottie Moon dollars paid for our rent and for the necessary repairs. The truth is … we need you and ask you to pray that people will give sacrificially to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering this year so we can stay on the field, doing what we came to do — glamorous or not.”
OK, that last one was a plug for Lottie Moon giving. But what better Christmas gift can there be than one that helps deliver the Good News of Christ to every “one-stoplight town” on the planet that has yet to hear of Him?
(Visit www.imb.org/offering to discover ways you can participate in the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions.)
Monday, December 9, 2013
Revenge. Retribution. Rivers of blood.
That nightmare scenario was feared by many South Africans as the 1994 national elections unfolded. Generations of harsh white control were finally ending, decades of violent racial apartheid had been overturned and multiracial, democratic rule had arrived. But would the long-oppressed black majority demand a terrible day of reckoning?
“I was in South Africa in the days leading up to the election,” recalls a Southern Baptist missionary. “There was near-certainty that the country would explode in violence and descend into civil war. Those horrors were averted because one man who was intimate with injustice had the wisdom to realize that retribution was fatally poisonous and redemption a healing balm.”
That man was Nelson Mandela.
The former political prisoner, elected president that fateful year, prevented a descent into violence by the moral force of his call for reconciliation. His words could not be ignored, because Mandela had lived them during 27 years of isolation and hard labor as an inmate in the windswept prison at Robben Island. Years before he was released, he had begun negotiating a gradual end to apartheid with the South African regime.
His 1990 release sparked national euphoria and worldwide celebration, but peace in South Africa was anything but assured.
“Great anxiety existed in the sub-Saharan African region as the first multiracial elections were approaching in South Africa,” says Gordon Fort, a veteran missionary to Africa who now serves as IMB’s senior vice president for prayer mobilization and training. “President F.W. de Klerk, in conjunction with Nelson Mandela, had led in a courageous movement to abolish apartheid. [But] great fear existed that after the elections, a bloodbath of revenge would ensue. When it became clear that Nelson Mandela and the ANC [African National Congress] party had won the election, in the midst of the celebrations the clear, calm voice of the new president set a new tone calling for forgiveness and reconciliation.
“While tackling the daunting task of dismantling institutionalized racism, poverty and inequality, [Mandela] gave a clarion call to national unity and religious freedom. This atmosphere led to a season of opportunity for the church and its missionary representatives to advance the Gospel, engage new people groups and play a part in the healing of the deep rifts within the nation. President Mandela was among the first to invite and welcome the role of the church in the new nation he was seeking to build. After retirement from the presidency, he continued to provide leadership and an example of statesmanship that allowed the church to flourish.”
What happened to the young firebrand who, decades before, had embraced armed struggle to change South Africa when civil disobedience failed?
He never renounced the use of violence to overthrow apartheid, but he sought to avoid it. Suffering, solitude and study tempered and deepened Mandela during his long years in prison. Meanwhile, international pressure — and the tide of history — eventually forced the white regime to negotiate. When the moment came, Mandela the savvy politician was ready. He knew times were turning in favor of his cause, but he also knew the nation had to put anger behind, as he had worked to do in his own life behind bars.
“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison,” he said upon his release in 1990.
And after serving one historic term as president, he voluntarily stepped down in 1999 — a rarity in a continent of strongmen — and spent his remaining years fighting against AIDS and advocating for freedom and international reconciliation.
“He led a country in transition with grace, forgiveness, humility and dignity,” recalls Kim Davis, a Southern Baptist author and former Africa missionary who witnessed those historic days close up. “I feel privileged and grateful to have lived there, and President Mandela was an inspiration to our family.”
The influence of faith on Mandela’s post-prison philosophy of reconciliation is open to debate. His mother was a strong Christian believer. He was baptized as a Methodist in his teens. Like many African political leaders of the post-colonial era, his early life and education were strongly influenced by the impact of missionary work. “The Church was as concerned with this world as the next: I saw that virtually all of the achievements of Africans seemed to have come about through the missionary work of the Church,” he wrote in his memoir, Long Walk to Freedom.
There’s no need to idealize Mandela, as many have done, to appreciate his greatness. The smiling grandfather of later years was once the angry young revolutionary. He helped found the ANC’s military wing, which carried out many bombing attacks against the regime. He once was regarded as a dangerous enemy of the United States. The South African struggle, like many national conflicts, became a proxy in the larger Cold War struggle between East and West. The Soviet Union supported Mandela’s ANC. Like other world leaders, he sometimes made questionable decisions. He unapologetically supported several notorious international tyrants. He failed to solve some of South Africa’s deepest problems, including violence and widespread poverty, which continue to afflict the nation.
Mandela himself was keenly aware of his own humanity. He resisted the secular sainthood many tried to impose upon him.
“We are told that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying to be clean,” he wrote. “One may be a villain for three-quarters of his life and be canonized because he lived a holy life for the remaining quarter of that life. In real life we deal, not with gods, but with ordinary humans like ourselves: men and women who are full of contradictions, who are stable and fickle, strong and weak, famous and infamous, people in whose bloodstream the muckworm battles daily with potent pesticides.”
He was human, but he changed the world through perseverance, forgiveness and a resolute refusal to harbor hatred in his heart.
“People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite,” he said.
That is a truth the world desperately needs. The church needs it, too, especially in Africa and other places where the fires of persecution are burning.
“The death of Mandela may be the axis for predicting the racial futures for many African countries, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, [which] is a deeply defined racial and tribal-based region,” observes Nik Ripken, a longtime missionary in Africa who has interviewed persecuted Christians in many countries. “Many churches are asking, in relation to [attacks on Christians by Islamic militants in] Nigeria and the Somali fundamentalist bombing of the mall in Kenya, if they will continue to ‘turn the other cheek.’ Pastors and religious leaders have said to me that perhaps it is time to only turn one’s cheek ‘seven times.’ After that it is time that if one bombs a church then a mosque goes, if one kills a Christian then a Muslim life is taken.
“Will African believers follow Jesus, and the example of Mandela, and turn the other cheek ‘77 times’ — or align themselves racially? Will they slaughter pigs and toss them into mosques, or be willing to love their enemies as commanded by Jesus? Mandela chose the high road of forgiving one’s enemies. May his example not be forgotten in all the noise.”
Monday, November 25, 2013
On a recent visit to India, I met a father of two sons. One son has been dutiful and loyal through the years. The other? Well, let’s just say the police were familiar with his activities.
The wild child was a big, hard-punching brawler. He picked fights all over town. When he grew up, he got involved in criminal gangs, bringing shame on the family name.
“Do something about your son, or we will!” angry neighbors demanded.
“Please, give him a little more time,” pleaded the heartbroken father, a Christian leader in the community. “I am praying for him.”
The father wept many tears and prayed many prayers, refusing to give up on his wayward son. One day, the son came home, seeking forgiveness. Today, he joyfully works alongside his father and brother to spread the Gospel in Hindu villages. When asked about his son’s formerly evil ways, the father waves his hand, as if sweeping the painful memories away. Those days are past, he says. My son has come home.
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” wrote the poet Robert Frost.
But here’s the thing: They don’t have to take you in. They probably will, if they love you. But they don’t have to.
Nor does the Lord have to take you back when you come stumbling home — hungry, ashamed, afraid even to ask for restoration as His child — after abandoning Him yet again. But He will, if you ask with a repentant heart, because of who He is.
What makes the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) one of the Bible’s most moving descriptions of God’s grace is the way the rejected father responded before his returning son even opened his mouth: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20b, NASB).
I heard a preacher put it this way: God’s mercy is not giving us the punishment we deserve. God’s grace is giving us the love we don’t deserve.
That’s what I’ll be thinking about during Thanksgiving this year.
Another Scripture passage I’ve rediscovered is Isaiah 30:15 (KJV): “For thus saith the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel; In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength: and ye would not.”
“And ye would not.” How sad is that?
Instead of returning to the Lord and quietly trusting Him to defeat an invading enemy (mighty Assyria), Jerusalem panicked. God’s people sought help from Egypt, Israel’s old slave master, without even consulting the Lord. It was a political, military — and above all spiritual — mistake doomed to failure. But His offer of salvation stood, and as Isaiah later prophesied, it would be extended to all nations with the coming of the Messiah.
It stands today, as an invitation both to wandering souls and to wandering nations (peoples). America seems very far from God at the moment. Other nations and peoples are even farther from Him — so far that they don’t even know He is Lord of all. But He is standing at the doorway of His kingdom, scanning the distance for any sign of His children coming home.
“Come, let us return to the Lord. For He has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bandage us,” appealed Hosea, Isaiah’s contemporary and the prophet of a God heartbroken over the unfaithfulness of His people. “He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day, that we may live before Him. So let us know, let us press on to know the Lord. His going forth is as certain as the dawn; and He will come to us like the rain, like the spring rain watering the earth” (Hosea 6:1-3, NASB).
Saint Augustine knew all about wandering from God. He was an enthusiastic sinner in a pagan age. But he yearned to return to his true and eternal home.
“Life with You is the good life indeed,” Augustine prayed in his Confessions. “When we live apart from You, our life is a twisted life. Let us come home to You, Lord, lest we be lost. Life with You is a life in which nothing is lacking, because You are life. We do not fear that there is no home to turn to. We may have turned away from it. But it remains. It did not fall because we fell away. Our home is Your eternal life.”
Make that your prayer this Thanksgiving. Come home to the One who is waiting for you.