Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Inspiration and perspiration


                                               
                                                  (Bill Koehn at Jibla Baptist Hospital)

Inspiration only gets you so far.

It’s great for starting a major task. As for finishing one — not so much. That’s where commitment comes in.

Winston Churchill, one of the greatest inspirational speakers of the modern age, understood this truth: There’s a time for words and a time for action.

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat,” Churchill told the British people 75 years ago in May. It was his first address to the House of Commons as prime minister. A fight to the death with the mighty Nazi war machine loomed. Years of suffering lay ahead. America’s entrance into World War II was in doubt, as was the continued existence of Great Britain itself. Many who heard Churchill’s stark words wouldn’t survive the struggle.

He knew what was coming, had no illusions about it. He’d been issuing warnings about it for years from the back benches of Parliament. So he didn’t try to sugarcoat it. His speech, less than four minutes from start to finish, is a stern call to victory at any cost (listen for a bracing lesson in leadership). He knew that solemn day was not a time for soaring rhetoric. It was a time for getting on with the task at hand.

The same applies to servants of a greater cause: God’s global mission.

Don’t get me wrong: As followers of Christ, we need His inspiration every day, every hour, every moment. We need the constant nourishment of His Word and the power of His Spirit to accomplish anything worth doing. We need to encourage and challenge one another.

But then we need to act. Obedience is the truest sign of faith.

Sometimes obedience is hard — especially after the glorious music fades away and the exciting speakers move on. Sometimes the people who raised their hands with you in those high moments of worship and inspiration change their minds when things got hard. They were willing to go anywhere, do anything, until they weren’t. What about you? That’s when you find out if you are serious.

Paul, the first great Christian missionary, didn’t sugarcoat the task for his young friend Timothy:  “You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. … Suffer hardship with me as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1,3 NASB). And Timothy knew Paul was enduring great hardship.

Many centuries later, another great missionary had similar words. Writing to her friend Annie Armstrong in 1889, Lottie Moon had this to say about daily life in North China:

“Please say to the new missionaries that they are coming to a life of hardship, responsibility and constant self-denial. ... They will be alone in the interior and will need to be strong and courageous. If ‘the joy of the Lord’ be ‘their strength,’ the blessedness of the work will more than compensate for its hardships. Let them come ‘rejoicing to suffer’ for the sake of that Lord and Master who freely gave His life for them.”

Sometimes serving Jesus isn’t particularly hard or dangerous. Sometimes it’s just mundane. Boring, even. Blessed are the plodders who do boring stuff faithfully.

One of the most faithful plodders in Southern Baptist mission history was Bill Koehn. He died in 2002 after being shot point-blank, along with medical missionary colleagues Martha Myers and Kathy Gariety, by a Muslim militant in Yemen. Until then, Koehn, age 60, had spent 28 uneventful years running the Jibla Baptist Hospital as administrator. Relatively uneventful, that is.

The hospital faced the daily challenge of ministering to an endless stream of patients from all over the impoverished Middle Eastern nation. At its peak, the 77-bed mission facility employed several hundred workers, treated some 40,000 people a year, performed more than 400 surgeries a month and operated a busy outpatient clinic. Koehn and his staff also endured extended civil war in Yemen, occasional kidnappings, a disastrous fire, numerous financial crises, ongoing personnel shortages, political pressures and legal battles that threatened to shut down the hospital.

Other than that, it was pretty normal.

How did Koehn cope? The former supermarket manager from Kansas was quiet, predictable, a creature of habit. He operated on a strict daily schedule, starting with prayer and Bible study before dawn and proceeding with clockwork precision until nightfall. Unfinished projects, whether at the hospital or in his woodworking shop, irked him.

“You never called Bill after 9, because he was in bed,” said a longtime colleague.

Koehn’s highly structured style enabled him to handle the countless details and headaches involved in running the hospital. Yet he somehow found the time to make wooden toys for the orphanage he loved to visit, to assist needy widows in the community, to drink tea with Yemenis and listen to their struggles and needs.

Plodders get things done, even on the mission field.

The Apostle James said our lives are but a mist that will soon disappear (James 4:14), IMB President David Platt reminded listeners June 17 during a “Sending Celebration” to recognize 59 new missionaries and their sending churches at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Columbus, Ohio. None of us is guaranteed tomorrow, so we should make our lives count for God now — even in seemingly small things.

“May the urgency of this mission mark us,” Platt said. “May our light shine amidst the darkness, and may our mist count while we’ve still got time.”

Roger Cohen of The New York Times warns about using that precious time to “follow your passion,” as the cliché goes.

“Life is a succession of tasks rather than a cascade of inspiration, an experience that is more repetitive than revelatory, at least on a day-to-day basis,” Cohen writes. “The thing is to perform the task well and find reward even in the mundane. … I’ve grown suspicious of the inspirational. It’s overrated. I suspect duty — that half-forgotten word — may be more related to happiness than we think. Want to be happy? Mow the lawn. Collect the dead leaves. Paint the room. Do the dishes. Get a job. Labor until fatigue is in your very bones. Persist day after day.”

Following your passion is great, as long as your passion is following God. Day by day. One foot in front of another, faithfully. God will multiply every step you give to Him.


(Explore ways to follow God in His global mission.)

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Hope, by the numbers


                                                    


Hope is one of the most powerful forces in the world. The absence of hope is like death.

I’ve written in the past about my friend George. He was sincere, thoughtful, funny — and deeply depressed. He eventually hanged himself.

On the last morning of his life, George lay motionless. According to his father (who later found his body), the only words George managed to force through gritted teeth that day were: “No hope. No hope. No hope.”

Hopelessness afflicts many more people than the clinically depressed. It torments millions who think that they have nothing to live for, that the miseries of the present will never go away, that the future holds nothing but more despair.

Hope, on the other hand, leads people in even the most difficult conditions to reach up, to believe in possibilities.

That may seem obvious, but there’s new statistical support for it. A major trial study, involving more than 20,000 people in six countries, has demonstrated that targeted aid aimed at getting extremely poor families out of poverty produces big results with small investments — maybe as small as a single cow or a few goats.

“Why would a cow have such an impact?” asks Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, who wrote recently about the trial. “There’s some indication that one mechanism is hope. Whether in America or India, families that are stressed and impoverished — trapped in cycles of poverty — can feel a hopelessness that becomes self-fulfilling. Give people reason to hope that they can achieve a better life, and that, too, can be self-fulfilling.”

The aid, minimal as it was, motivated recipients to work harder, save more and show more optimism.

“Could hopelessness and stress create a ‘poverty trap’ — abroad or here in the U.S. — in which people surrender to a kind of whirlpool of despair?” Kristof asks. “Some economists and psychologists are finding evidence to support that theory, and experiments are underway to see if raising spirits can lift economic outcomes. Researchers are now studying whether exposure to religion might have a similar effect, improving economic outcomes. If so, Marx had the wrong drug in mind: Religion would not be an opiate of the masses but an amphetamine.”

Kristof, a widely traveled journalist who has praised evangelical humanitarian work in the past, notes the similarity between the program studied in the trial and the models used by Christian development organizations overseas. He adds, “Much of the news about global poverty is depressing, but this is fabulous: a large-scale experiment showing, with rigorous evidence, what works to lift people out of the most extreme poverty. And it’s exhilarating that one of the lessons may be so simple and human: the power of hope.”

These findings also complement the groundbreaking research of sociologist Robert Woodberry, director of the Project on Religion and Economic Change at the National University of Singapore. In country after country, Woodberry began to find a direct correlation between the historical presence and mission activity of “conversionary Protestants” and the advance of freedom, social progress and economic well-being.

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.”

By and large, those earlier missionaries weren’t radical social reformers or political revolutionaries. They were bringers of hope. Their gospel ministry connected them to the common people and the poor, whom they sought to serve in the love of Christ. Yes, they started schools, hospitals and various engines of social progress. But most of all, they preached the hope of Christ, started churches and made disciples who carried on the work in subsequent generations.

That work goes on today, as missionaries and their partners find new ways to heal bodies, educate minds, transform cultures and bring the good news to starving souls. One example among many: South Asian women often despair of finding a decent life. Many face domestic abuse. Many more are abandoned to care for their children alone but have no skills to find good work.

With an investment of $3,550 provided by IMB’s Global Hunger Relief, 15 women were trained to create quality jewelry that met market demands better than other jewelry produced by local artisans. An export license was obtained to ship the products out of the country to “fair trade” sales partners.

A year later, the new micro-business is generating enough revenue to stand on its own and even expand to help more at-risk women in rural areas.

“We have employed many ladies who were left by their husbands or divorced,” the project director reported. “[One] lady was abused by her husband and went back to her parents and is going through a divorce. She had a desire to go back to school in order to support herself, but her parents didn’t have the money to send her. Our micro-enterprise provides her with an income that can fund her school ambition. We are gaining a reputation in the community for caring for those who cannot care for themselves and have had many opportunities to share.”

Hope. People need it, crave it, search for it. They will risk their lives to find it, and having found it, will risk their lives to share it with others. That’s why the gospel of Jesus Christ is so powerful and why it is spreading so rapidly outside the secularized West.


By comparison, all the substitutes offered in its place grow strangely dim. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

World War II, 70 years after

                                                    


The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe came and went in May with relatively little fanfare.

Perhaps the milestone passed quietly because fewer people personally remember the largest armed conflict in human history. The last U.S. president to serve in the military during World War II, George H.W. Bush, now 90, left office more than 20 years ago. Barack Obama wasn’t born until 16 years after the war ended. Of the 16 million veterans who helped win the war — and lift America out of the Great Depression and into global leadership — fewer than 1 million are still alive. They are dying at a rate of nearly 500 per day.

But we all live with the consequences of World War II, whether we realize it or not. It forged the modern world in fire and blood along with its horrific predecessor, World War I. The “Great War” of 1914-18 destroyed old orders and empires, set the stage for revolutions and economic upheaval and led to far greater devastation two decades later. Before World War II ended in 1945, more than 60 million people had died, an average of 27,000 per day. Many of them were civilians caught up in the fighting — or deliberately massacred.

“Within the vast compass of the struggle, some individuals scaled summits of courage and nobility, while others plumbed depths of evil, in a fashion that compels the awe of posterity,” writes World War II historian Max Hastings. “Among citizens of modern democracies to whom serious hardship and collective peril are unknown, the tribulations that hundreds of millions endured between 1939 and 1945 are almost beyond comprehension.”

For all its suffering, however, World War II unleashed economic energies that would lift entire nations from poverty to prosperity in the postwar era. It ushered in a new age of technological and scientific progress. It hastened the end of European colonialism. It sparked a Cold War with Soviet communism that the West ultimately would win, spreading political freedom far and wide.

And it opened vast areas of the globe — especially in Asia — to the Christian gospel. Western missionaries streamed into ravaged countries after the war, bringing help and hope. The disciples they made helped turn Christianity into a truly global movement. Its expansion has continued in the generations since, bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to new areas of Africa and Asia, to the post-communist world, to previously unreached peoples.

Postwar chaos eventually gave way to order and development in many parts of the world. But it’s become increasingly clear that the era of relative global stability that followed the war — albeit guaranteed for long periods by the weapons of superpowers  — has come to an end.

“To put it simply, a vast swath of the Eurasian landmass (understood to be Europe and Asia together) is in political, military and economic disarray,” says George Friedman, chairman of the Stratfor global intelligence analysis agency. “Europe and China are struggling with the consequences of the 2008 [global economic] crisis, which left not only economic but institutional challenges. Russia is undergoing a geopolitical crisis in Ukraine and an economic problem at home. The Arab world, from the Levant to Iran, from the Turkish border through the Arabian Peninsula, is embroiled in politically destabilizing warfare. The Western Hemisphere is relatively stable, as is the Asian Archipelago. But Eurasia is destabilizing in multiple dimensions.”

In Friedman’s view, forces have re-emerged that the old postwar order cannot control.

“After every systemic war, there is an illusion that the victorious coalition will continue to be cohesive and govern as effectively as it fought,” he observes. “After World War I, the Allies (absent the United States) created the League of Nations. After World War II, it was the United Nations. After the Cold War ended, it was assumed that the United Nations, NATO, IMF, World Bank and other multinational institutions could manage the global system. In each case, the victorious powers sought to use wartime alliance structures to manage the postwar world. In each case, they failed, because the thing that bound them together — the enemy — no longer existed. Therefore, the institutions became powerless and the illusion of unity dissolved. This is what has happened here.”

The only thing that seems certain is uncertainty. Will Europe collapse as an economic and social entity? Will the Middle East descend into all-out regional war? Will a new Cold War break out between East and West?

History has shown that such times are risky for the church, but productive for God’s mission. Risky, because Christians will face increasing persecution as societies crumble, and increasing danger as they take the gospel worldwide. Productive, because people seek truth when everything else they have relied upon falls away.

The chaotic period during and after World War II, when the world Christian movement truly went global, is a case in point.


(Explore ways to lead your church into God’s global mission.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Kathmandu and the challenge of Asian cities

                                                       

(Note: A powerful new earthquake shook Nepal May 12, killing at least 36 people and sending thousands rushing to the streets as more buildings collapsed. The 7.3-magnitude earthquake came 17 days after the 7.8-magnitude quake that struck April 25, killing more than 8,000 people and destroying hundreds of thousands of homes. The new quake will add to the dismal statistics as rescue workers, including Southern Baptist relief teams, once again begin digging out.)

Nepalis have begun the long struggle to dig out of the rubble left by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 8,000 people and destroyed parts of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city.

It’s becoming clear that the quake did even greater damage in rural areas, where Southern Baptist disaster relief workers and their Nepali Christian partners are focusing aid efforts.

But the death and destruction in Kathmandu highlight the enormous physical challenges confronting many Asian cities.

“With an annual population growth rate of 6.5 percent and one of the highest urban densities in the world, the 1.5 million people living in the Kathmandu Valley [another estimate puts the population at 2.5 million] were clearly facing a serious and growing earthquake risk,” said a report issued by a group of seismologists who visited Kathmandu a week before the April 25 temblor. “It was also clear that the next large earthquake to strike near the Valley would cause significantly greater loss of life, structural damage, and economic hardship than past earthquakes had inflicted.”

Why? Too many people crowded into too little space — in this case, a quake-prone urban area — living in old, crumbling buildings or in flimsy structures thrown together to house people arriving daily in search of jobs and a better life.

“Earthquakes don’t kill people; buildings kill people” is a common saying among seismologists. The more people living in inadequate housing, the more potential casualties. “You’re up against a Himalayan-scale problem with Third-World resources,” geologist Susan Hough told the Washington Post.

But the rapidly expanding megacities of South Asia face even greater challenges than earthquakes. The region already counts 12 of the world’s 50 largest urban centers. They need more food, water, jobs, housing and infrastructure for the millions streaming in from rural areas. Most of all, they need the hope found only in Jesus Christ.

“By 2020, India alone will have a shortage of 30 million housing units in big cities,” says Daren Cantwell,* IMB strategy leader for South Asian Peoples. “By 2030 they’re expecting 350 million more Indians to move to cities. By 2050, they expect 700 million to move to cities. The challenge for these cities to provide water, food and sanitation is huge. With this many people coming in, a city can’t assimilate fast enough. So you have these huge slums grow up — like in Mumbai, where you have 10 million people living in slums.”

Yet Mumbai, with a metro population of more than 20 million, also boasts legions of middle-class workers and the most billionaires in India. It’s the pulsating heart of India’s financial, cultural and entertainment worlds.   

“Our focus on cities will be at multiple levels of society, from the slum dwellers to the people living in high-rises to doctors, lawyers, Bollywood [India’s film industry], the whole gamut,” Cantwell says. “Finding the best places to work, the best ways to work and to multiply yourself through your national partners across a city are all things we’re dealing with as we seek strategies to reach these places.”

They’re looking for U.S. partners, too, as IMB focuses more intensively on extending the gospel in and through the world’s cities. On a global scale, urban dwellers will double to 6.4 billion by the middle of this century — 70 percent of the projected human population — according to a United Nations forecast.

“There are massive needs in cities around the world,” says IMB President David Platt. “How do we take this God-ordained movement of people toward cities, leverage what God is doing and intentionally go to cities, so we’ve got relationships when people get there? They’ve come in search of economic help or prosperity. We hope they’ll find what they need for daily life, but find in a greater way what they need for eternal life. We want to be there, ready with the gospel.”

*Name changed.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Irritating people

                                                    

Some people really get on my nerves.

People who disagree with me, for instance, because I’m always right. People who agree with me all the time are even more aggravating. How boring is that? People who have no opinion one way or the other are the worst.

Yep, I like to argue, debate, raise objections. If you take a position I support, I might contradict you — just so you don’t go unchallenged. Psychologists say people like me have problems with authority. I prefer to think of it as offering alternatives.

God demonstrates His love and patience by tolerating people like me. And He regularly sends irritating people to challenge my insistence on seeing and doing things my way, which usually leads to disaster. Maybe He is sending some of them your way, too.

Here are a few examples of especially irritating folks. If they rub you the wrong way, too, maybe God is trying to tell you something:

n  People who are more interested in doing God’s will than arguing about it. They challenge those of us who waste time dissecting, analyzing and rationalizing what God has clearly told us to do.

n  People who love God so much that they glorify Him with their words and their lives. Young believers who do this with extra freshness and enthusiasm are doubly irritating. They take away our excuses for coasting and complacency in the spiritual life.

n  People who serve others with love. Not just because they’re supposed to. Not just so they can check “ministry” off their to-do list. They serve others from a sincere love of Christ that naturally overflows to all they meet. Does that mean we ought to do the same?

n  People who have a heart for the world. They make it their business to be aware of what’s happening beyond their little circle. They see the suffering and need in places of poverty and turmoil. More than that, they see the pain of billions who wander in darkness without Christ, like sheep without a shepherd. And as Christ wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41,42), they also weep. Then they do something about it. They remind us how much we need to get beyond our own safe, familiar zones and out into the world.  

n  People who listen first, with teachable hearts, and talk later — or maybe don’t talk at all. These folks drive me crazy, since words are my specialty. They painfully remind me that words aren’t enough. God speaks in the silence of our hearts as we listen to His Word and His Spirit. Usually, the only response required is obedience.

n  People who pray. They might be the most irritating people of all, because they convict the rest of us of our prayerlessness, indifference and lack of hunger for being with God, seeking His face and responding to His Spirit.

I could go on. There are lots of other exasperating people who believe the command to make disciples among all peoples still stands, who are willing to go anywhere God leads, who aren’t willing to settle for less than all that He desires.

Thank God for them. They show me — all of us — what is possible in a life truly given to Christ.

(Want to be “irritating” on a global scale? Here are some ways.)



Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The world in 2050

                                                  

The number of Muslims in the world will nearly match the number of Christians by 2050.

That’s the main headline from “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050,” a study released in April by the Pew Research Center. If current population trends continue, the report says, Muslim ranks will increase by 73 percent (to 2.8 billion) — more than twice the growth rate of Christians, who will expand by 35 percent, to 2.9 billion. Total world population is projected to reach 9.3 billion by mid-century.

Other projections for 2050:

-- Hindus will increase by 34 percent to nearly 1.4 billion.
-- Four of every 10 Christians will live in sub-Saharan Africa.
-- While remaining majority Hindu, India will become home to more Muslims than any other       country, topping Indonesia.
-- Atheists, agnostics and others who affiliate with no particular religion will decline as a share of the world population, even as they increase in numbers and influence in North America and Europe.

It’s important to keep two things in mind about this study (and others like it). First, it’s more a demographic survey than a religious one. Muslims are increasing primarily because of fertility rates and young populations in regions where they predominate, not because non-Muslims are converting to Islam. Second, terms such as “Muslim” and “Christian” are broadly defined.

“The projections are based on the number of people who self-identify with each religious group, regardless of their level of observance,” the report emphasizes. “What it means to be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish or a member of any other faith may vary from person to person, country to country and decade to decade.”

Still, the projections highlight the global church’s challenge for the next generation.

“The chief contenders for the hearts and souls of those living in the 21st century will be Muslims, evangelical Christians and secularists,” predicted Patrick Johnstone, British mission leader and former editor of “Operation World,” in an interview I conducted with him in 2012.

“Who is going to be the most successful?” Johnstone asked. “Islam is growing, largely by biological growth, not by conversion. Evangelicals are growing massively by conversion. Secularists are adding to their number every year, but are dying as a breed, because they are not having enough children to replace themselves.”

Evangelical Christian faith, once based largely in the United States and Europe, spread far beyond its traditional strongholds in the second half of the 20th century. The expansion was fueled by the post-World War II missionary movement — which made Christian disciples among a myriad of peoples, who are now taking the gospel to others — along with the spread of education and communication. The end of Western colonial power in many countries, initially a challenge to churches born of missionary efforts, actually spurred the global Christian movement by forcing national Christian groups to depend on God and themselves — not outsiders.

“One day in eternity, I think we will look back and see God’s hand in so many things,” Johnstone observed. “[M]any people thought, with the missionaries and the colonial regimes gone, Christianity would be pushed out. It did the exact opposite. It became indigenous and exploded. In many countries that are now broken politically, the churches became the source of stability and hope for the future.”

To continue to advance, however, the evangelical movement must avoid pride and complacency, Johnstone warned.

“Are the very successes of evangelicalism sowing the seeds of its spiritual demise by grieving the Spirit of God through pride, division, disobedience, carnality, moral laxity, theological error or prayerlessness?” he asked. “Nominalism is not the preserve of more traditional churches — it is increasingly a problem for third- and fourth-generation evangelicals.”

He also urged U.S. and other Western churches and mission agencies to pursue “multi-polar global leadership” with their Asian, African and Latin American brothers and sisters. “Wherever you look in the Christian world in the 21st century, mission teams and strategies that remain mono-ethnic are not going to survive,” Johnstone said. “I sometimes jokingly say that the perfect multicultural team would have a Brazilian evangelist, a Korean church planter, a Chinese to manage the accounts, an Australian to mend anything that's broken and an American to handle planning and goals.”

Good advice. The church also needs to put away its fear of Muslims and share the gospel with them in the love of Christ. In some places that will require life-and-death risk.

In other places, notably America, it requires only a willingness to be a friend.

(Explore ways to lead your church into God’s global mission.)

  

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Looking for home


                                                     
               

Maya, age 7, loves bananas, cartoons and her pink teddy bear.

She had to leave the teddy bear back in Syria when her family fled to Lebanon to escape the worsening civil war. “It’s probably riddled with bullets now,” Maya says. She’s probably right: Homs, the city they left, is now essentially a pile of rubble.

At least she has a stuffed blue Smurf to keep her company. But she doesn’t have many human friends her age in the “home” she occupies with her parents and her teenage brother, Hammoudeh. For more than 1,000 days, they have lived with other Syrian refugees in the crumbling Gaza Hospital in Beirut. It ceased to be a medical facility during Lebanon’s own civil war decades ago, but has played host to generations of refugees from the region’s conflicts.

It’s more comfortable than the tents, sheds and hovels many Syrian refugees endure in Lebanon. But Maya — a goofy, giggly girl with tons of energy — feels like she’s growing up in a prison.

“I’m a kid! I want to have fun,” Maya complains. “Who am I supposed to play with? I’m surrounded by 10 walls. … When I get bored, I go outside. I don’t find anyone so I come back in. I keep going in, out, in, out. I drive Mum crazy!”

Syria’s civil war bled into a fifth year in March, so Maya has little chance of going home anytime soon. She doesn’t understand the larger forces that are destroying her homeland, or why she and her brother can’t go to school, or why her mother seems sad most of the time. She laughs and dreams and makes the best of an awful situation. But she knows something is wrong with a world that snatches a home and a teddy bear from a little girl. You can see it in her eyes.

Let Maya tell you her own story here. It’s one of five brief, quietly powerful video portraits of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, part of the Al Jazeera series “Life on Hold.” Watch them all if you want a glimpse of what it means to live in exile. You can even post a message to Maya.

You will also meet young Omar, who misses his assistant chef’s job and his sweetheart back in Damascus. He cares for a leg shattered by an exploding shell before he fled Syria, reads the Quran, prays, checks out the latest songs and videos online, and waits. Haifa, a widow who closed the hotel she owned in Damascus to seek safety for her three children, misses home so desperately that she wants to go back — even though conditions are far worse now than when she departed. “At least if I die, I die in Syria,” she says. Hajj, an older man who cares for his sick wife, wonders if his 200 olive trees have withered and died. He has lost 38 family members in the conflict.

Al Furati, an award-winning poet and former government worker, cries for lost friends, co-workers and simple pleasures back home. He worries about his children missing years of school, part of an entire lost generation of young Syrians. He sits in a tent with his wife and children, writing mournful verses late into the night: “Why is my country draped in the black of night? And why are Syria’s hands hennaed with blood? … Your children are now crying and your women are wailing, your precious soil is awash with the blood of your men. I feel your heart is breaking like the valley of lament, I know that your wound is too deep to heal.”

Those words reminded me of the lament of another refugee poet: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1 NASB). Carried away into forced exile 26 centuries ago, the psalmist and his Israelite brothers and sisters could only remember their beloved land and hope one day to return.

I’ve become acquainted with many refugees over the years, whether in dusty camps and border towns or after they resettled in other places such as the city where I live. They include Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Cubans, Afghanis, Iraqis, Kurds, Palestinians, Burmese, Nepalis, Syrians. I’m proud to count some of them as dear friends. Before our own children came along, my wife and I were foster parents to two Vietnamese refugee kids for a time.

I don’t pretend to understand the refugee experience, however, or the trauma, despair, isolation and loss that come with it. It is impossible to fathom unless you have gone through it.

But God understands. He loves. And He gives hope. He commands again and again in His Word that we welcome and shelter the alien, the stranger and the outcast. Jesus Christ, who experienced rejection by His own that we can only imagine, calls us to befriend the wanderers of this world and there are more of them than ever.

Millions of Syrians have been driven from their homes since the civil war began. If you want to help them, or any refugees, here are 10 practical ways to do so. And here are a few more: Listen to their stories. Cry with them. Be a friend. Offer the hope only God can give.


Love transcends all borders.