Monday, July 7, 2014

Retreat and return

No matter how long the school year dragged on, I knew that once summer came, I’d get to go to my grandmother’s beach house.

Once there, I could count on her good cooking and unconditional love. We fished in the surf or from the boardwalk. We watched the sun go down beyond the horizon as the ocean wind cooled our faces. We talked, but silence was just as good. Being together sufficed.

I think about those summers as the July heat begins to bake. Grandma is long gone, and I miss her. But my spirit still yearns for beaches, rivers, mountains and other places that offer respite from the daily routine.

It’s a desire common to humanity. It predates by millennia the idea of vacation, which is a modern phenomenon. We long for a break — however brief — from the day to day, a pause from the familiar. We crave rest and renewal. A “separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power and a life-enhancing return,” the folklorist Arnold van Gennep described it. 

Church folks call it retreat. Modern-day retreats have become scheduled events with programs, speakers, themes and such. But the older concept of Christian spiritual retreat harks back to the holy men and women of the early church who went into the desert to seek the Lord. They followed the example of Christ, who sought out the wilderness to pray and be alone with His Father before returning to minister to the needy crowds.

The craving for retreat is never stronger than when the world seems to be falling apart. Wars that were supposed to be over aren’t. Old enemies remain and new ones emerge. Political and cultural disputes become more hateful by the day. People refuse to make peace with God — or each other — and hold onto their evil ways. Those closest to us let us down. We let them down. We disappoint the Lord. It’s time for a rest and a fresh start.  

These are times for a retreat in the old sense. Jesus beckons us to come away with Him to a quiet place, there to rest with Him and renew our spirits. Vacation is OK, but it’s a poor imitation of walking with Jesus in the wilderness.

The other great thing about true retreat is returning to the world. Vacations these days tend to be rushed, expensive, over-planned, more tiring than the demands they’re supposed to relieve. When you get home, you’re ready for a vacation from your vacation. But you return from a retreat with the Lord refreshed, renewed and ready to follow Him back into the fray.  

And that’s the real point of retreat: being with God, then returning to the world. He needs servants who have met with Him before they enter the global struggle for souls. If we try to serve Him in our own puny power, we’ll make no impact.

Seek Him in the wilderness and quiet, and renew yourself in His Spirit. Return to the world to shine His light into its darkness.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

‘Pray for my friends,’ 8-year-old asks


Jacob,* age 8, probably isn’t up to speed on the cultural and spiritual struggles going on in America.

He’s a kid, for one thing. He doesn’t live in the United States most of the time, for another. His parents are Southern Baptist workers in North Africa and the Middle East.

He doesn’t understand why far more violent conflicts are exploding around him and his family, either. He just knows that he misses his friends.

See, Jacob is sort of a refugee. His family had to leave the country where they were serving because of potential threats. They’re serving in another place for now, but leaving the home and people they love has been hard on all of them — especially Jacob.

“This past year I have had to move around a lot,” Jacob wrote in a recent prayer message to American kids. “I love playing sports and meet lots of friends by playing sports at clubs. I have lived in three different countries in [North Africa and the Middle East]. In each of those countries I have friends that I have made by playing sports. 

 “These friends are just like me,” Jacob said. “But they don’t know about Jesus. Please pray that these friends of mine would come to know Jesus. Also pray for them to be safe, as they all live in very unsafe countries where there are wars and bombs and really bad people. Pray that these bad people would come to know Jesus, too. Pray that it would be safer in these countries, so I can go back to them and see my friends.”

I could leave it there, since Jacob’s words are more powerful than anything I might add. But I read his simple plea for prayer as Southern Baptists, at their 2014 annual meeting in Baltimore June 10-11, were doing some soul-searching about struggling churches, declining baptism rates and the lack of evangelism in an increasingly secular culture.

 “God, please forgive us for not being obedient and sharing the Good News of the Gospel with those in our community,” outgoing Southern Baptist Convention President Fred Luter prayed during the meeting, after noting that 80 percent of Southern Baptist churches baptize only one person per year between the ages of 18 and 29.

“America is rapidly … turning into a pagan nation,” Luter said, and the cure — the only cure — is the name of Jesus.

But do we really believe that? Do we really believe that Jesus is the only way to reconciliation and personal relationship with God? Beyond all the debate about the best evangelism tools and strategies and approaches to employ in a rapidly changing culture, that is the fundamental question: Do we still believe it ourselves?

In an aggressively “inclusive” environment, perhaps the most countercultural words in the Bible come from Jesus Himself, shortly before His death and resurrection:

“Thomas said to Him, ‘Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.  If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him’” (John 14:5-7, NASB).

This is the heart of the Gospel of Christ, according to the New Testament. There are any number of ways to communicate it and demonstrate it effectively, lovingly and redemptively. You can accept it, reject it or ignore it. But there is no way around it. Jesus is the way to the Father.

Several years ago, R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, observed that the American evangelical church was “losing its voice” just as the opportunity to declare the Gospel worldwide is greater than ever. The issue, he said, is a “failure of theological nerve — a devastating loss of biblical and doctrinal conviction. Put bluntly, many who claim to be Christians simply do not believe that anyone is actually lost.”

The death of missions inevitably follows such a loss of nerve and conviction, since there is no reason to preach the Gospel among all nations if preaching it and hearing it aren’t life-or-death matters.

That brings me back to young Jacob in North Africa and the Middle East. He might not have all the theological arguments and explanations worked out, but he loves his friends. He’s also concerned about the “bad people” setting off bombs and hurting others, even though he’s been forced to move because of the havoc they are causing in the region. He knows they are lost, friends and enemies alike, and that it is indeed a life-or-death matter.

He knows Jesus is Lord and wants them to know it, too. That’s all the theology Jacob needs to obey Christ’s command.

*(Name changed)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Break the rules, grads

Graduation season is a time for pithy quotations. Here are three of my favorites:

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” — Mark Twain

 “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” — Winston Churchill

“If at first you don’t succeed, do it like your mother told you.” — author unknown

 I especially like that last one. But doing it your way is better no matter what, say many commencement speakers.
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life,” the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, told the 2005 graduating class at Stanford University. “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

Be your own person, in other words. Blaze your own trail. Break all the rules.

Ironic, since “a graduation ceremony is an event where the commencement speaker tells thousands of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that ‘individuality’ is the key to success,” humorist Robert Orben once observed.

If you really want to break the rules in our culture of hyper-individualism, surrender your future to the will of another — God’s will, to be specific.

“What is the Lord’s invitation?” IMB President Tom Elliff asked a group of recent “graduates” – 59 new missionaries appointed in May to serve around the world. “We read in Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 11, beginning in verse 28, ‘Come to Me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.’”

Of the three commands in the passage — come, take and learn — the second one might be the hardest for us, because it involves voluntary submission. For folks unfamiliar with farm life, a yoke is a wooden crosspiece laid over the necks of oxen or other work animals to haul a heavy load. God’s yoke is light, but it is still a yoke, and we must willingly submit to wearing it.

As modern free agents, we like options, choices, negotiating the best deal, haggling for the best salary or price. There is no negotiation with God. He is gentle, but He is Lord. You obey Him or reject Him.

Jesus’ offer is “an invitation to surrender,” Elliff explained. “Sometimes we talk about the importance of the fear of God. It doesn’t mean to cower before Him as a slave would cower before a master. What does it mean? It means to have such a big idea of God that you just surrender. … Jesus is saying, ‘Surrender. Give up. My way is best. Just surrender to Me.’”

And it’s not a one-time thing. You must surrender daily to follow Him.

But joy comes in obedience. One of the new missionaries appointed in May, a physician, could barely contain his exuberance.

“When I was in high school, God instilled in me two desires: to preach His Word where it has never been heard and to pursue a career in medicine,” he said. “After many years of training and preparation, now is the time! I’m excited to be ‘His hands,’ bringing physical healing and spreading seeds of the Gospel.”

When you surrender to God, others see Jesus in you. They begin to surrender to Him, too. Lives change. Communities change. The world changes.

Graduates, that’s an infinitely better way to live your life than doing it your way.

(Explore the possibilities for surrendering to God in missions at

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

New Americans


The scene unfolded in the seventh-floor courtroom of the United States District Court, Eastern District of Virginia, imposing and a little intimidating in its dark-paneled solemnity.

But the mood was anything but solemn on a beautiful spring day as 72 immigrants crowded into the chamber to take the oath of U.S. citizenship, accompanied by throngs of family members, friends and assorted crying babies. “Cries of freedom,” the judge wryly observed later in the ceremony.

The citizens-to-be filled the jury box and one entire side of the courtroom. The rest of us packed every remaining seat. “Are you sufficiently uncomfortable?” asked the court official who heroically attempted to arrange us. Yes, ma’am.

I was there to cheer Helen, 20, a member of my church who emigrated from Nepal with her family nine years ago (her younger brother would become a citizen two days later). Now a rising junior in college, she’s majoring in social work and wants to serve God by serving the poor and needy. She’s already been doing that for years by helping her mother, who ministers to Nepali refugees resettling in our area.

This being a government function, paperwork and plenty of hurry-up-and-wait came first. This being Virginia — and one of the original court districts established by the Judiciary Act of 1789 — volunteers from the Daughters of the American Revolution assisted. But in the fullness of time, the moment arrived. All rose as Judge David J. Novak entered the court to welcome America’s newest citizens and administer the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. 

 “It’s a fine day to become an American. Whaddaya think?” said Novak, the grandson of Czech immigrants, as he strode to the bench.

“We’re a nation of immigrants,” he added, highlighting some of the great Americans who came from other places. New waves of immigration add vitality to our culture. What makes America different? You can go to other countries but never really become one of their own, Novak said, “but anyone can come here from any corner of the world, and you can be an American.” He outlined the rights and duties of citizenship, and then asked the group of 72 to stand and lift their right hands for the oath.

Following the 140-word pledge, Novak declared, “It is an honor to be the first to welcome you to the United States — my fellow citizens!” Applause. Smiles. Tears and hugs. Novak led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and came down from the bench to shake hands with each new citizen as their names and countries of origin were read aloud. 

Despite the racial and linguistic diversity of the group, I had assumed they came from eight or 10 different countries. After all, Richmond isn’t New York, Washington or Los Angeles. I was wrong. These 72 new Americans, in this single ceremony, came from Italy, India, the Philippines, Egypt, Mexico, Iran, Ghana, Kenya, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Brazil, the Netherlands, Honduras, Ethiopia, Canada, El Salvador, Pakistan, Ecuador, China, Guyana, Bangladesh, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Belize, Japan, Trinidad and Tobago, Vietnam, New Zealand, Venezuela, Guatemala, Senegal, Bosnia, Croatia, South Korea, Nepal, Morocco and Jamaica.

That’s 38 countries. Count ‘em, 38. E pluribus unum, reads the Great Seal of the United States: “Out of many, one.”

The scene powerfully reminded me that the nations have come to us. Has any land ever been such a powerful magnet to people yearning for freedom and opportunity as America?

Some folks believe American society is being fragmented by the constant inflow of outsiders and that “out of many, one” is becoming “out of many, chaos.” But I’m with Judge Novak: I believe new Americans bring new energy, creativity and productivity to our culture, as they always have.

The more important question: What are God’s purposes in this historic movement of people from everywhere to a single nation?

“We are living in an unprecedented time in the history of our world,” writes IMB urban strategist Terry Sharp. “More people are living outside their country of birth than any other time; many of them are coming to America. In fact, more than 1 million immigrants come to America each year. That’s not counting more than 750,000 international students who will come to study, nor does it include the 75,000 refugees that are resettled in our country each year. Add the business travelers and tourists who are visiting. When you start adding up the numbers, it doesn’t take long to realize that God desires His people groups to hear the Gospel so much that He’s sending them to us.

“As we ponder the opportunities that God has brought to the shores of North America, it’s important to realize that the vast majority of immigrants, international students and refugees are coming from [areas unreached by the Gospel]. Wow! What an opportunity we have to share the Good News with the nations right here at home. That doesn’t mean we don’t go overseas, but it does mean we shouldn’t miss the wonderful opportunities the Father is giving His church. The nations are literally living next door.”

 What can you do?

 Start small. Smile at the woman at the grocery store who came from somewhere else. Help her find the items she needs from the bewildering array of choices. Invite that new family on your street or in your apartment complex over for a meal. Ask about their lives and experiences.

 Listen. Offer assistance with English practice. Help their kids with homework. Offer advice on starting a bank account, finding a doctor, getting a driver’s license.

 Be a friend. Many immigrants and refugees from community-oriented cultures struggle with the hyper-individualism and isolation of American culture. (Find many more ideas and resources here:

The newcomer you welcome might be a high-flying business executive, or a struggling refugee. Either way, they need a friend.

And chances are, they need Jesus. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

More than bread alone

What is the meaning of life?
That’s a question only rich people have time to ponder, some folks say. The world’s poor are too busy struggling for survival to concern themselves with something as nebulous as the “meaning of life” — unless it helps put food on the table.

Not true, according to a recent study published in the academic journal Psychological Science.
The study analyzed Gallup World Poll data from more than 130 countries, including the bottom 50 in terms of gross domestic product. Citizens of poorer countries actually ranked the importance of meaning in their lives higher than residents of more prosperous nations. The study looked at multiple factors contributing to this phenomenon, but in country after country, a common element emerged: faith.

“In part, meaning in life was higher in poor nations because people in those nations were more religious,” reported the study’s authors. “The mediating role of religiosity remained significant after we controlled for potential third variables, such as education, fertility rate, and individualism. As Frankl stated in Man’s Search for Meaning, it appears that meaning can be attained even under objectively dire living conditions, and religiosity plays an important role in this search.”

They meant Viktor Frankl, the renowned psychiatrist and author, who said, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” As a survivor of Nazi death camps, he had authority to speak personally on the subject. Echoing Nietzsche, Frankl wrote, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’”

The “why” for many people who responded to the Gallup World Poll is faith.

I can hear the skeptics now: Faith is a rickety crutch the poor lean on — and an opiate the powerful use to lull the weak into accepting their lot. That might apply to certain lives or particular moments in history, but it can’t explain the power of faith in the human heart through the ages.

Even in affluent societies where secularism and materialism appear to be prevailing, people want something more, something deeper, so they look for God substitutes. “Instead of relying on religion to give life meaning, people in wealthy societies today try to create their own meaning via their identity and self-knowledge,” the study reported. Materialism and self-worship have become the “religions” of the rich, but they’re obscene counterfeits of the worship of God.

When Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness, the devil challenged Him to prove He was the Son of God by changing stones to bread. Jesus answered from the Scriptures: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God”’ (Matthew 4:4, NASB).

Humanity needs bread to sustain life. But bread isn’t enough. People crave the Bread of Life: Jesus Christ. That’s why the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ and the making of disciples among all peoples are the primary mission of God for His church in the world.

There are many ways to carry out that mission including feeding the poor, ministering to the sick and needy and seeking justice for the oppressed. Fair-minded observers who put aside stereotypes of evangelical Christians long enough to examine evangelical activities in the world quickly discover that they are doing all of those things (see some examples here: The love of Christ compels them. Above all, however, the Great Commission command of Christ and the mission of God compel them. There is no artificial division between the Word of Christ and the love of Christ in authentic ministry.
“Every time Jesus sent out His disciples and apostles, He always told them to heal the sick and preach the Gospel,” said a missionary doctor some years ago. “It’s not that we heal so that we can preach. We’re not ‘bait.’ We heal and preach together in obedience to the commands of Jesus. It’s like a two-handled plow: You heal, you preach and you push forward and God cuts the path so He can plant the seeds of the Gospel through His power.”

The Gospel gives ultimate meaning.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

God’s call is not a destination


She wants to return to the hurting people she loves. Desperately.

Laura Miles* is a missionary on hold. At least, she feels that way sometimes. She spent two terms overseas with her husband, in places where the people she served are experiencing hard times and the threat of worse. It tears her up inside to watch them suffer from a distance. But for now she’s back home, where she and her husband minister to young adults in a local church.

“We really felt like it was a lifetime calling,” Miles says of the first stint abroad. “We went over and just loved the people, loved the ministry. We have a definite heart for Muslims. We felt like we really connected, but about halfway through the Lord was telling us we needed to go back and [prepare] for long-term career ministry.”

They thought God would lead them back to the same place, “but it wasn’t long after leaving that we felt that door kind of shut,” Miles says. “We prayed and prayed. We were very impatient with the Lord. We wanted to know where and what was next. We realized we weren’t trusting in Him, so we committed to resting in serving where we were until He revealed the next location.”

When the time was right, they went to a different country and ministered there for three years. “We left everything, sold everything, and we thought it was going to be long-term,” she recalls.

Once again, however, they sensed the Lord drawing them home — this time to reach out to American Millennials searching for God’s purpose for their lives. Young women who look to Miles for guidance and inspiration confirm that she’s doing a pretty good job.

Still, a hurting world in darkness calls to her.

“Honestly, my heart is on the field somewhere,” she admits. “So I’m trying to seek out, ‘Lord, who do You want me to be right now while I’m here? Whenever You want to send me back somewhere, I’m ready.’ But until then, it’s about trying to be faithful where you’re at, with whom you’re given.”

The missionary call of God is as clear as glass. He called Abraham to leave his home for a place yet to be revealed (Genesis 12). Abraham obeyed, setting in motion a divine plan that would bless all nations. Jesus called His followers to make disciples among all peoples (Matthew 28:19-20), a command to His church that still stands. The New Testament refers to “calling” 195 times.

But His specific calling to individuals is more mysterious. It arrives in His time, not ours. It might be dramatic or quiet. It might come gradually or in a single, powerful moment. It is personal, tailored to one’s gifts and experiences. It might involve traditional avenues of mission service, or using your professional skills to share the Gospel in the secular marketplace. (Explore God’s call in your life at Learn more about being a marketplace professional for Christ at  

“God’s call involves a personal response to the witness of the Holy Spirit within us,” says “Exploring your Personal Call,” an IMB document shared with potential missionary candidates. “In this sense, the call of God is inward, personal and even secret. People accurately say, ‘God has laid this on my heart.’ There is a sense of ‘oughtness’ or divine compulsion toward a task or occupation. This kind of conviction led Isaiah to utter the memorable words, ‘Here am I. Send me!’ (Isaiah 6:8).

“This inward call can come in a variety of ways: through reading Scripture, through concentrated prayer, through special events or a special person, or through life’s experiences. However this personal call comes, it must be followed by a commitment to do that which God intends.”

Obedience, then, is the key. God calls us first to Him, not to a place or a people. Location comes later, and it may change. Abraham didn’t know where he was going; he only knew the One who was calling.

“No one, in other words, has a call to a particular place,” writes author and speaker Joan Chittister. “The call of God is to the will of God.”

Day by day, Laura Miles is learning that truth. What about you?

* Name changed

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The death of darkness

I saw my friend James at a church supper after being out of touch for several years. It was like we’d never been apart.

We talked, laughed, hugged, sang and prayed together. I met his wife for the first time and celebrated with them over the way God had healed wounds in their marriage and family. It was a great evening; we didn’t want it to end. We said goodnight, promising each other we’d meet again soon.

A few weeks later, James was dead. Chronic illness caught up with him. He hung on for days in the hospital, but his body was worn out.

This life seems so strong and sure for a season — and then it’s over. We try to escape death, delay it, appease it, fight it, deny it. “Do not go gentle into that good night,” the poet Dylan Thomas advised. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Rage all you want; death will come for you one day. But darkness, its close companion, is a choice.

“There was the true Light, which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. … But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name,” the Apostle John declared of Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh who dwelt among us (John 1:9-12, NASB).

Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus Himself said, “This is the judgment, that the Light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil” (John 3:19, NASB).

Men love the darkness, but God sent His Son, the Light of the world, to rescue us from eternal darkness. By His resurrection, Christ put darkness to death. Two millennia later, however, not everyone knows it. That’s why missionaries and other servants of God go to places of darkness, no matter the potential cost. They bring the Light of the Gospel not only through their words and actions, but by their presence.

“There have been several attacks recently,” wrote a worker who lives in one such place. “Often the gunfire and explosions would cease, and I would think it must be over, but it would start again. I was sharply reminded that we are here to pray.” To pray, to be, to love, to speak, to lift up the flaming torch of Christ amid great darkness.

On a recent plane trip, IMB President Tom Elliff struck up a conversation with a fellow passenger who asked him, “What do you do [for a living]?”

 “I chase darkness,” Elliff replied.

 Bewildered, the passenger inquired, “Are you in lighting?”

“In a way,” Elliff told the man.

Reflecting on the encounter, the IMB leader said: “We are indeed ‘chasers after darkness,’ looking for the black holes of sin in our world and thrusting into that darkness the Light of the glorious Gospel of Christ.

My friend James experienced darkness in his life, but when Christ filled his soul with light and salvation, he became one of the most joyful witnesses I’ve ever known. This Easter, I know James is celebrating the resurrection in the presence of the Risen One.