Thursday, December 9, 2010

What Christmas is all about

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As night follows day, the annual blitzkrieg of Christmas advertising is followed by lots of hand-wringing about how we’ve lost the “true meaning of Christmas.”

This year even the hand-wringers are probably praying (quietly) for huge holiday sales to jump-start the economy. Still, we hear Charlie Brown’s poignant cry cutting through the commercialization: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

Sure, Charlie Brown. They may be getting harder to find in America, but you can locate people all over the world who know what Christmas is all about. They’re in some surprising places, as these recent reports from missionaries illustrate:

-- A young woman in a communist country began tutoring the children of Christian workers. When the mother of the children presented her with a Bible, she expressed tearful thanks. As the tutor left their home and started down the road, the mother watched her from a window. She saw the tutor pull out the Bible, hold it to her heart and kiss it.

-- A woman in Taiwan joined 90 people participating in a Thanksgiving meal at a local church. But she wasn’t there primarily for the turkey and trimmings. Rather, she had a pressing question: “Why has no one ever told me about God before?” Stunned by the question, a missionary led her to salvation in Christ on the spot.

-- A Christian worker among Muslims in Eastern Europe sent this request: “Please be in prayer for our Christmas outreach. We will be assembling Christmas gift bags and distributing them to all the students of a local school. Thank God with us that the school administrator, once very skeptical of us and our work, has once again given us the ‘green light’ to present these gift bags any way we choose and to put on a program that includes Christmas hymns and other evangelism. Pray [that] the whole village will be radically transformed by the Lord.”

-- Many Tibetans live in high-altitude areas where snow has been falling since November. In December, people come down to the cities to stay with friends and extended family members until the snow clears in March — enabling Christ followers to talk to Tibetan Buddhists about Christmas and the Gospel. Pray they will have opportunities to share with Tibetans who have come from distant and hard-to-reach places.

-- Believers are partnering in a Christmas distribution project that has the potential to reach tens of thousands of people in a major Asian city. Pray that each person who receives a Gospel packet will read the literature and watch the corresponding video. Ask the Holy Spirit to open hearts, and pray that many will make decisions this year to follow Jesus.

And in South Asia, a Muslim-background follower of Jesus recently posed this question to a Christian worker who serves as his spiritual mentor: “If a brother or sister is having a problem with something in their lives, would this be a good time to fast and pray?”

“Definitely!” the mentor answered quickly, a little impatient with the simplicity of the question.

“Should fasting always be done individually or can it be done in a group?” the believer asked.

Either way, the mentor responded, as long as it is a time of humble submission and drawing close to God.

The believer — who leads a fast-growing, house-based movement of Muslim-background Christ followers — became excited.

“We have already been talking about fasting and praying on Dec. 24th, especially for the [evangelistic] outreach this year,” he announced. “Then we will break the fast on the 25th and have a celebration and meal together.”

No Christmas tree, no candlelight service, no presents or lights, the mentor thought to himself. Just brothers and sisters coming together to fast and pray for the lost — and then to rejoice together on Christmas Day, confident that their prayers will be heard by their Savior, Jesus Christ.

That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Still answering "the call"

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A friend from high school days contacted me last week with some exciting news — and a question.

“My 14-year-old daughter believes God is calling her to be a missionary,” he said. “Where does she need to go to learn about what she needs to do to prepare for this calling?”

This young woman doesn’t just have some vague sense of leading toward mission work. She feels specifically called to go to a large country in Asia where millions of people have yet to hear the Gospel of Christ.

With all the ways churches, volunteers and Christian groups can now do international missions in a globalized world, you might think the old-fashioned, individual “call” to missionary service has gone out of style. Some folks have even said as much.

Maybe God didn’t get that e-mail. He still seems to call certain people to follow Him into the world — not for a week, a month or a year, but for life.

“A 13-year-old called me earlier this week” with that kind of aspiration, says Joye Russell, who counsels potential future missionaries contacting the International Mission Board for the first time. She hears from three or four teens a month, sometimes more. You can call her or her colleague, Pat Thorpe, toll free at (888) 422-6461.

“We talk to people from ages 8 to 80,” adds Russell, herself a former missionary to Africa. But guiding young people, she says, “is especially close to my heart because I felt the call to missions at age 12 and my pastor didn’t help me at all.” She loves helping kids, teens and young adults seek their place in God’s purpose. The IMB Student Mobilization Team helps many more (visit

Missionary calling is a mysterious thing. Some people can tell you about a single, life-changing moment when God spoke to them clearly. Others talk about a growing sense of leading and purpose over many years. Despite the subjective nature of “the call,” few evangelical mission agencies will send someone as a long-term missionary who lacks a clear sense that God is telling them to go. And when the going gets tough overseas, few missionaries will make it without such a sense of call.

An IMB guide for prospective missionaries describes it this way:

“Those who are called to a special task [have] a specific sense of God’s leadership in their lives. That may come in a dramatic spiritual experience or in reflecting on how God has led you through a series of circumstances. Many experience this personal leadership to overseas missions service when they are involved in a short-term missions project. God may affirm that they are doing exactly what He has called them to do. Everyone experiences this call in a different way. How has God spoken to your heart?”

Regarding preparation for a young person sensing “the call” to eventual missionary service, here are some suggestions I gave to my friend’s daughter:

-- Pray. Love the Lord. Worship Him. Spend time alone with Him just as Jesus did. Seek Him, not for any of His gifts, but for Himself alone. Learn His Word. Worship is the purpose of missions because God wants all peoples to worship Him.

-- Pray for the area of the world toward which you feel called. Learn about the peoples, history and current events there, as well as other places in the world where God is working.

-- Read the biographies of great missionaries through the ages. And learn about some of today’s mission heroes.

-- Become a pen pal or Facebook friend with a young missionary on the field. Learn about how his or her life is being used for God, about the victories, defeats and realities of living in another culture.

-- Get to know the world at your doorstep. Make friends with and minister to immigrants, international students and refugees. Learn a second language and use it in ministry.

-- Go on a mission trip overseas. This is the great opportunity today’s Christians have that previous generations didn’t. Most current long-term missionaries started as volunteers or short-term workers.

-- Pray about a gap year between high school and college when you could serve in missions in the United States or abroad. Serving after college is great, too. But in the meantime, don’t become so committed to a relationship, a career, a mortgage or other obligations that they make you less available to God.

Russell also shares these essentials with young people she counsels:

-- Develop your God-given gifts and skills through vital involvement in your church and your community.

-- Become an active Gospel sharer (if you aren’t one already). Get evangelism training if you need it.

-- Stay healthy. Take care of yourself.

-- Stay as debt-free as possible. Debt keeps people off the mission field.

I’m praying for my friend’s daughter — and for all the other young people still being called by God to missionary service.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Thank it forward

(Volunteer Tim Dortch, center, carries relief supplies to survivors of the devastating January earthquake in Haiti.)

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Gratitude is the memory of the heart, says a proverb.

If that is true, my heart will gratefully remember some of God’s servants as Thanksgiving 2010 approaches:

-- The Christian workers and volunteers who ministered — and continue to minister — to the survivors of the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, the flooding in Pakistan and other disasters this year. Volunteers like Tim Dortch, a bivocational pastor from Mississippi. He contacted the International Mission Board the morning after the devastating Haiti quake and offered his help. He was on the ground there within days, helping distribute water, food and medicine. “God’s given me a heart for Haiti,” Dortch said.

-- The Southern Baptists who dug deep in tough economic times to give nearly $149 million to the 2009 Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions — and who will faithfully give again this year.

-- Student missionary Jeremiah Johnson, 21, and mission volunteer Bob Finck, 51, who gave their lives in God’s service this year. Johnson, from Arizona, was killed April 12 in a motorcycle accident in Mozambique while devoting a college semester to work in the African nation. “We’re very proud of Jeremiah,” said his pastor. “He was serving the Lord to reach people who were unreached with the Gospel.” Finck, from Virginia, died Aug. 9 in a car accident during his third trip to Zambia, where he was working with other volunteers to lead a Bible conference and minister to young people. “He was very passionate about Zambia,” said the director of missions at Finck’s church.

-- The 60 retiring IMB missionaries honored in May for 1,730 combined years of mission service. Don and Edith Kennedy, for example, worked among university students in Mexico for 31 years. Hundreds of young Christians they mentored now serve as church leaders in Mexico and missionaries around the world. “Change the university and you change the world,” Don said.

-- The more than 200 new IMB missionaries appointed this year, including Michael Kim,* who grew up in South Korea. As the eldest son, he held the role of family priest, responsible for leading ancestor worship rituals. But he became a Christian believer at age 16, the first in 38 generations of his family. His enraged parents beat him, threatened to disown him and threw his Bibles into the fire. Kim eventually smuggled a Bible into his bedroom and read it while hiding under the sheets. Now an American, he plans to return to Asia to tell other hungry souls about Christ. “In order for me to hear the Gospel, there was a long flow of blood, sweat and tears of Western missionaries to Korea,” Kim said when he was appointed earlier this year. “As a debtor of the Gospel, I am … heading to Southeast Asia to share the Good News of Jesus.”

-- Doris Kelley, colleague, friend and substitute mom to IMB communication staff members for the past 48 — count ’em, 48 — years. In the days before personal computers and e-mail, she typed our edited news and feature stories into a hulking teletype machine to send to Baptist Press in Nashville. Many reporters got to know her during her more than 25 years of service in the newsrooms of annual Southern Baptist Convention meetings. She rarely missed a day of work, always greeted people with a smile, watched over her co-workers with love and took care of business without complaint. She retires in December. Without servants like Doris, many churches and ministries would quickly collapse. I hope we can make it without her; I’m not looking forward to trying.

Someone reminded me recently that God’s grace is His unmerited favor toward us. We sinners deserve judgment, but we receive the riches of His goodness and mercy at Christ’s expense. We also receive the great gift of people who model for us what it means to live in gratitude to God by loving and serving Him. Examples are all around us.

We, too, can live in gratitude to Him — by modeling that kind of love for others.

* (Name changed)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Tyranny of the "to do" list

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I love “to do” lists.

I’ve got a pocket calendar for home and personal reminders, a desk calendar for work-related tasks and several notebooks for longer-range stuff. I employ the prehistoric pen-to-paper variety, but I’m sure all the digital gizmos on the market help their forgetful users, too.

To be honest, I’d get little accomplished without “to do” lists. My brain no longer seems to retain or organize practical information, although I can recite the roster of the 1982-83 Los Angeles Lakers on command. They had the greatest fast break ever, by the way: Magic Johnson racing down the middle, whipping no-look passes to James Worthy or Michael Cooper, who levitated to the hoop for vicious dunks over the hated Celtics. If the break wasn’t available, Magic tossed the ball to the big guy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who casually launched his unblockable “skyhook” from almost anywhere on the court.

Wait … I’m getting off task again. Got to focus. That’s why I need “to do” lists. They bring order to the chaos of life — or at least create the illusion of doing so.

But “to do” lists have a dark side. Getting things done doesn’t mean you are living a productive life. Marking items off the list feels great. Failing to mark them off, however, induces frustration, guilt, a sense of failure — almost as if you are still living under the law.

The list grants no grace, no mercy. If you allow it to take over, it becomes a little tyrant, taking the joy and spontaneity out of your life. It can even become an idol, taking the place of God’s daily direction.

I imagine the priest who hurried by the wounded man on the side of the road (Luke 10:30-37) had an early version of the “to do” list. The Good Samaritan might have had one, too, but he didn’t let it keep him from stopping to minister to an injured stranger.

The digital zombies who walk down the street these days, slavishly reading their text messages, wouldn’t notice the stranger if they tripped over him.

The challenge of daily life for a follower of Christ is balancing the legitimate demands of your “to do” list — written or mental — with His divine “to do” list. If you don’t pay spiritual attention, you won’t even notice His list, much less make yourself available to respond to it.

I find it comforting that a wiser servant encounters the same struggle I do with conflicting lists.

“The past two weeks have been frustrating,” writes Guy Muse, a Southern Baptist missionary to Ecuador for more than 20 years, in his Oct. 17 blog post (see

“For every item I am able to cross off on my ‘to do’ list, two or three more are added. Calls needing to be made, reports overdue, projects waiting attention, documents needing translation, individuals needing counseling … . Why am I getting so little accomplished these days? One word. Interruptions! People dropping by the house, calls, meetings, requests from individuals … . Night and day, it never lets up. …

“But what if God also has ‘to do’ lists? What if God has on His list for Juan to call me and see about our getting together for coffee at 2:15 today and talk about his problems? When I seriously pray, ‘Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done ...’ am I not in effect saying, ‘Lord, your list has priority. Your agenda is more important than my own’? …

“(P)eople often hide behind the excuse of thinking, ‘I am too busy with real ministry. I simply do not have time for unplanned, spontaneous ministry from people interrupting my busy schedule.’ … Was that Christ’s attitude, who left the crowds and made time to go eat at Zacchaeus’ house (Luke 19:1-10)? To heal blind beggar Bartimaeus (Luke 18:35-43)? Stopping in His tracks … when an unknown woman touched the hem of His robe (Luke 8:43-48)? Taking time for children while leaving the crowds to wait?

“Ninety percent of ministry happens when we seize those spontaneous opportunities that come disguised as detours or interruptions.”

Missionary surgeon Martha Myers, who died at the hands of a disturbed gunman in Yemen in 2002, had a similar perspective. Her motto: “Things don't matter, people do.”

For Myers, “things” included not only possessions but schedules — the stuff, in other words, on her “to do” list (if she had one). She alternated marathon days and nights treating patients with unscheduled “house calls,” extended excursions into far-flung mountain villages to visit Yemeni families no one else cared about. The long talks around teacups, the love she expressed, were even more important than the medical care she provided or the new surgical procedures she pioneered.

If Jesus had the time, we have the time. Don’t submit to the tyranny of your “to do” list. He has a more important one.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Miriam's story

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“Leave!” her father shouted.

Just like that. Thrown out of her house, out of her family, out of her world as she had known it. She had nowhere to go, nowhere to find shelter, no immediate way to survive.

Miriam* is 20, but that’s more like 17 in the Muslim country of her birth, where most girls and women depend on their fathers or husbands for everything — even their identity.

What angered her father enough to cast his own daughter out?
Miriam had always been intrigued by stories about Jesus Christ. A certain TV channel occasionally featured programs about Jesus’ life. She would sit and watch for hours as a young girl. Her father noticed her fascination with the programs and canceled the channel.

Sometimes Miriam would wonder, “Could I be a Christian? No, no, of course not. I’m a Muslim. But maybe ... .”

She tried to put the idea out of her mind. But she couldn’t forget about Jesus. There was something about Him, something pure and loving, something she wanted.

About two years ago, Miriam’s mother met an American woman where she worked. The American visited their home for a few meals and soon became a family friend. Miriam asked the woman if she believed in Christ. Yes, she replied. Miriam was doubtful; she had heard a lot about Americans who claim to be Christians but live immoral lives. With time, however, she saw the woman was a true follower of Christ. One day, the woman gave Miriam a Bible in her own language.

Miriam drank in the Word like a parched wanderer in the desert. About a year ago, she befriended another believer from her own country. Under her guidance, Miriam decided to follow Christ as her Lord.

Eager to share the truth she had discovered, she began to tell her classmates about what she had read in the Bible. One day she received a letter threatening her because of her new beliefs and her connection with Christians. Scared, she hid at home for a time — and started doubting her faith.

The doubts lasted for a few months. Then Miriam’s mother was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. Her Christian friends heard little from Miriam during her mother’s illness. They began to wonder if she had abandoned her faith. When they arrived at her home to join other mourners the day her mother died, Miriam calmly told them, “God is with me. I’ll be OK.”

Her mother’s death marked a major turning point for Miriam.

“I’m not sure what was going on inside of her, but after her mom passed, she got very serious about studying the Word, serious about wanting her family to know and serious about being in fellowship with other national believers,” says a Christian friend.

Miriam pored over the New Testament Book of Acts, which recounts the rapid growth of the early church in a hostile environment.

“She was interested and eager about the idea of multiplication,” says her friend. “She noted one of the major themes of Acts is that the people didn’t just hear God’s Word; they did it. She wanted to do it.”

That’s when her father discovered the many hours she spent reading the Bible. He demanded to know if she had become a Christian. She told him the truth, almost relieved she no longer had to hide her faith from him.
“Leave!” he said. It could have been worse; at least he didn’t kill her for the “shame” she had brought upon the family.

Homeless and alone, Miriam sought out local believers who had lived through similar circumstances. She moved in with another female friend.
“As far as I know, she’s still living with her,” says her Christian friend. “Apparently, her father now lets her back into his house so she can have contact with her younger sister. They are the only two children, so you can guess how incredibly traumatic this last year has been for her.

“It has been difficult for me to get in touch with her recently. I think she is afraid to show me when she’s not doing well. Perhaps she’s doubting things as she counts the cost in a new way and she’s ashamed. I’m not sure.”

Miriam’s story doesn’t necessarily have a “happy” ending. It’s still unfolding. Will she stay faithful to Christ, no matter the cost? Will her father relent and allow her to come home? Will she renounce Jesus in order to win back her father’s approval and protection?

These wrenching choices are common for young Muslims who decide to follow Christ. Pray for Miriam — and many others facing similar challenges — to be strong in faith. Pray that the reality that they are blessed when they are “persecuted for the sake of righteousness” (Matthew 5:10, NASB) will lift their hearts and comfort them in difficulties.

Pray for the many Muslims who, like Miriam, want to know more about Jesus but fear the consequences if they act on their desire. They need to know that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5: 6) are also blessed — and will be satisfied.

* (Name changed)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The 'jobless recovery' and missions

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News flash: The Great Recession ended more than a year ago.

That cheery announcement came Sept. 20 from the National Bureau of Economic Research. The 18-month downturn, longest since World War II, ended in June 2009, according to the bureau.

You could’ve fooled me. You could’ve fooled a lot of folks who have lost their jobs (or can’t find one), lost their savings and lost their homes. For them, the economic crisis continues with no end in sight.

The economic recovery, if you want to call it that, has been weak. Hiring — the overwhelming concern of millions looking for work — remains stalled. Businesses won’t take on new workers until they’re convinced a growing economy will return their investment, economists say. So, nearly 15 million workers are unemployed — not counting those who have given up looking.

Many people who do have jobs fear losing them. Many older workers who have lost jobs fear they might never work again at anywhere near the salary they once commanded. Many young adults entering the job market face a long search.

Meanwhile, 4 million people fell below the poverty line in 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That brings the total count of those in poverty to 44 million — or one of every seven Americans (the poverty line as defined by the government for 2009 was $10,830 in pretax income for a single adult and $22,050 for a family of four).

These realities pose many challenges for Christians. How can we most effectively help the hurting, inside and outside the church? Food pantries and soup kitchens? Job counseling and training? Partnering with Christian and secular charities and social agencies? All of the above?

Many churches are asking those questions at the same time they deal with the painful process of cutting their own local ministry budgets. A LifeWay Research survey of 1,002 Protestant pastors conducted last November revealed some trends that probably continue today:

* Two-thirds of the pastors surveyed said giving in their churches was flat or down compared to the same period in 2008. Nearly half reported they had frozen staff salaries for 2009.

* More than half the pastors reported higher unemployment in their churches. Seventy percent reported receiving more requests for financial assistance from people outside the congregation; 38 percent said they were receiving more requests for assistance from church members.

* Despite tough economic times, more than 40 percent said their churches had responded by increasing spending on behalf of needy families. One in four said their churches had launched new ministries to help needy people. Nearly half said more church members had become involved in volunteer service to their communities.

“The economic downturn is forcing many churches to become more volunteer-driven organizations focused on helping the hurting in times of need,” said Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, when the survey results were released early this year.

That’s a good thing. But if the “jobless recovery” drags on, how will church support for national and international mission work beyond local communities be affected?

“In a tough economy we have to make some hard decisions, and it’s easier to cut the ministries and people we’re not looking at eyeball to eyeball every day,” admits Southern Baptist minister Richard Mark Lee, lead pastor of Sugar Hill (Ga.) Church.

Sugar Hill, northeast of Atlanta, is home to about 15,500 people. Up to 1,600 of them attend Lee’s church weekly. The town — and the church — took a major hit when the economy stalled.

“A lot of our folks are in the construction industry, so when that bubble burst, it certainly affected us,” Lee reports. “About 18 percent of our church members are either unemployed or significantly underemployed.”
But the church has no intention of backing away from active involvement in international missions. Sugar Hill is featured in Get Connected: Mobilizing Your Church for God’s Mission (, the new book by Lee’s ministry mentor, Johnny Hunt, former Southern Baptist Convention president.

“If we cut off the lost of the world because of economics, woe to us for being disobedient to Christ’s command,” Lee says. “I can’t stand before God or my people with integrity and say, ‘We need to ignore these and take care of our own.’”

Sugar Hill Church takes care of its own. But it also intends to continue reaching beyond U.S. borders with its dollars and its people — regardless of the ups and downs of the economy.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Five myths Christians believe

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I used to believe that as long as I was “doing the Lord’s work,” God would protect me from physical harm with some kind of magic force field whenever I visited overseas mission fields.

Historical ignoramus that I was, it didn’t dawn on me until years later that countless faithful believers have died through the ages from sickness, accidents, attacks or persecution while serving the Lord. Was I supposed to get a special exemption when they didn’t?

I still occasionally rely on the magic force field idea to help me get through turbulent plane flights. It’s not faith; it’s a mental trick to keep me from running up and down the aisle screaming, “We’re all gonna die!”

Lots of otherwise reasonable Christians depend on various shortcuts, myths and spiritual distortions to get through the day. Often we buy into such counterfeits to avoid trusting God and obeying Him. California pastor/author Larry Osborne addresses some of them in his book, “10 Dumb Things Smart Christians Believe” (Multnomah, 2009).

At least five of the myths Osborne identifies affect how we respond to God’s call to take the Gospel to the world:

* “Faith can fix anything.”

Faith in an ever-faithful God sustains us moment by moment as we follow Him. But it doesn’t “fix” everything the way we want it fixed. Nor does God. He is concerned with accomplishing His will, not ours.

Faith is not “an impenetrable shield that protects us from life’s hardships and trials,” Osborne writes. “It’s not a magic potion that removes every mess. It’s a map we follow. … It’s designed to guide us on a path called righteousness. Along the way, it doesn’t promise to fix every flat tire.”

That applies to daily life — and to missions. Missionaries get a lot of flat tires. Cross-cultural ministry entails endless frustrations, hassles, confusion, misunderstanding and discouragement. The payoff might not come for years, even generations. But it will come. The Word of God does not return void.

* “God has a blueprint for my life.”

A blueprint contains detailed instructions for building an entire structure (i.e., life). God gives us guidance for today and asks us to trust Him for tomorrow. Thinking too far beyond that brings little but anxiety.

“The starting place for finding God’s will is obeying the commands and instructions we already know” from His Word, Osborne reminds his readers. “The pathway of obedience always leads to further light.”

If God tells you to go to a strange, possibly hostile place or culture with no guarantee of success or safe return — no blueprint, in other words — how will you respond?

* “Christians shouldn’t judge.”

How convenient. If we redefine Christ’s command not to condemn sinners (when we are sinners ourselves) to mean that we cannot call good and evil what they are, we have surrendered to evil.

Osborne: “Underlying the idea that we have no right to judge the beliefs and moral standards of others is another widely held belief. It’s the dogma that truth and morality are relative. … If we refuse to label the behaviors Jesus called sin, sin, we’re disagreeing with Jesus, not following Jesus.”

We’re also undermining His mandate to make disciples among all peoples. If the world isn’t lost in sin, what’s the point of preaching the Gospel of salvation?

* “A valley means a wrong turn.”

“Most of us understand that hardships (even long-term hardships) are a natural part of life,” Osborne acknowledges. “But something fundamentally changes when the deep and lengthy valley is our valley. The truths we so easily accept in theory and so quickly apply to others become difficult to fathom in our own life.”

Valleys, especially ones that pass through the shadow of death, force us to trust God or despair. In missions, deep valleys often come before mountaintop breakthroughs.

* “Dead people go to a better place.”

Really? All of them? Jesus spoke of the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth for those who reject God. He spoke of the narrow path to heaven and the wide highway to hell.

“To our modern-day sensibilities, the exclusivity of Christ, the reality of hell, and the need for salvation that includes personal piety have all become passé, if not downright offensive,” Osborne says. “And it’s not just our culture that rejects these ideas; so do many Christians. …

“The cross and salvation are central to the Gospel. Once we lose any real concept of hell, the natural consequence is more than just putting us at odds with Scripture; it eventually devalues the cross, redefines salvation, and turns obedience into an extra-credit spiritual add-on.”

The Bible is a hard book to read in our day. It contains judgments, absolutes and non-negotiable commands — as well as the words of the Lord’s abounding grace, love and mercy.

It’s not the message we want to hear. It’s what we need to hear.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Meeting Jesus for coffee

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A young guy rushes into a coffee shop and joins Jesus Christ at a table. Jesus has been waiting for Him — apparently for quite a while.

Jesus breaks into a smile, but as He rises to offer a greeting, the young man says, “Hey, Jesus, sorry I’m late. Work was crazy today. No, don’t get up. I just got a little behind.”

“That’s no problem, Chuck,” Jesus replies. “I’m just glad that …”
“I’m glad I made it, too,” Chuck interjects, pulling a legal pad from his briefcase. “Listen, let’s get down to business. I have a lot of work here, lotta requests, OK?”

Jesus, used to the drill, hides His disappointment. He dutifully listens as His distracted friend races through page after page of petitions, peeves and random thoughts. When Chuck finally finishes, Jesus leans forward to respond. Before He can speak, Chuck looks at his watch and blurts, “Hey, look at the time! Gotta get going, Jesus. I’m just gonna wrap this up and say amen. It’s been a pleasure praying with You. I’ll be in touch. Have a good day!” He grabs his stuff and takes off, leaving Jesus alone at the table, sipping coffee.

That’s the storyline of “Coffee with Jesus,” a funny video produced by Church Fuel that you can find at ( Funny, but sad.

In an age of continuous, pointless distraction, we approach the Lord the way Chuck does more than we want to admit — to ourselves or to Him. Would you treat your friends this way? Not if you want to keep them. We rely on God’s patience, but how must His heart hurt over each little (and large) rejection?

At His last meal with the disciples, Jesus said, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15b, NASB). The King James Version translates the first part of the verse this way: “With desire I have desired … .” We’ll never understand the magnitude of His yearning at that moment, but it was deeper than tears. During His lonely agony in Gethsemane later that night, when He needed Peter and John the most, they fell asleep. He asked them, “What, could ye not watch with me one hour?” (Matthew 26:40b, KJV).

It’s a mystery to think that God, the Creator of all things, intensely desires the love of such as us. Yet it is why He created us. Every once in a while, we need to remember why we are here.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5, NASB) is God’s great commandment, repeated again and again in Scripture. All the rest of the Law and the prophets depend upon it, Jesus said, along with loving our neighbor (Matthew 23:40).

When Israel chased after idols, it not only angered the Lord, it broke His heart. The Book of Hosea recounts the tragic story of a prophet who marries a harlot. He briefly feels the ongoing pain God experiences over the unfaithfulness of His people.

Returning to God means seeking Him alone — and no other. “When You said, ‘Seek My face,’ my heart said to You, ‘Your face, O Lord, I shall seek,’” David prayed (Psalm 27:8, NASB). When we seek Him, He confronts the selfishness that permeates even our faith. We are not here just to enjoy His blessings, but to bless Him with our thoughts, words and actions.

“Do you love Me?” Jesus asks us daily, repeatedly, just as He asked Peter after His resurrection. Love of God in action is obedience. Love of God expressed is worship. And God wants worship to rise toward Him from every nation and people.

No one has explained the relationship of worship to missions for the contemporary church better than pastor/writer John Piper:

“Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever. Worship, therefore, is the fuel and goal of mission … . The goal of missions is the gladness of the peoples in the greatness of God … . ‘Let the people praise thee, O God; let all the people praise thee. O let the nations be glad and sing for joy’” (Psalm 67:3-4a, KJV).

What about evangelism, sending missionaries, preaching the Gospel to the ends of the earth, making disciples, starting churches? These are all means to an end. The end is that His name shall be exalted, that every tongue shall confess Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father.

Some folks like to think about the heavenly mansions and the streets of gold. But the true joy of eternity with God will be seeing Him face to face and singing praises to Him forever.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Messing with our minds

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Suppose you could plant an idea in someone else’s mind — and make them think it was their own.

That’s the premise of Inception, one of the most interesting summer blockbusters of recent years. The sci-fi movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb, a mental thief-for-hire who specializes in “extraction” of ideas from people’s brains via their dreams. When a high-powered corporate chief offers him an irresistible payoff to do the reverse — to sneak an idea into a competitor’s mind — Cobb organizes an elite team of dream commandos and springs into action. Lots of cool special effects ensue.

But the film isn’t just another collection of digital gimmicks. It raises serious questions about the nature of reality. Are there different levels of reality, or different realities altogether, in our minds? Are they so “real” that we can become trapped in them? If consciousness and reality are malleable, what about truth? These questions have been asked for ages by mystics, theologians and philosophers — not to mention computer gamers.

Postmodernism questions the existence of all absolutes. So Inception plays to popular culture’s ambivalent relationship with truth. My beef with the movie, however, is its suggestion that planting an idea in someone’s mind is more difficult than removing one. In the real world, the opposite is true.

Getting an idea, especially a false one, out of some folks’ minds is almost impossible. Ignorance often plays a role. But plenty of well-informed people don’t let facts interfere with their views, as several recent studies confirm. One such study, by University of California researcher Jonas Kaplan, analyzed the centers of the brain that stimulate emotion. He found that people tend to form political opinions first, then invest all their mental and emotional energy “making themselves feel good about their decision” — regardless of the conflicting data presented to them.

Two Stony Brook (N.Y.) University scholars discovered that highly educated people are even less open than others to new facts that challenge their existing perceptions. Their factual knowledge in some areas “makes it nearly impossible to correct [other areas] on which they’re totally wrong,” according to an article on the findings in The Boston Globe.

You can see this phenomenon demonstrated daily (and loudly) by TV talking heads, political bloggers and the like. You probably see it around your kitchen table or the office water cooler.

Planting an idea in someone’s mind, on the other hand, is relatively easy — for good or ill. Good parents and teachers use methods as old as Socrates to encourage young people to “discover” the right answers for themselves. Advertisers convince people every day that they can’t live without things they don’t even need. Propagandists and gossips entice people into believing lies by constant repetition.

The unsurpassed master of mental manipulation has been at it for a very long time. He convinced Adam and Eve that they didn’t need to heed God’s tiresome commands, that they could become “… like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5, NASB). Humankind’s long history of self-deception and self-destruction began with an insidious idea planted in our minds: If we can be like God, we can be God. Then we don’t need to obey or worship Him. As a practical matter, He no longer exists.

The devil plants plenty of bad ideas, but this might be the worst: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1a, NASB). A lot of really smart people believe that one. If there is no God, the saying goes, all things are permissible — murder, genocide, you name it. Recent history gives many blood-soaked examples of godlessness as state policy.

Sin, the process of rebellion against God and worship of self, is an act of the will. But it begins in the mind. Only one idea is more powerful: the Gospel.

That an all-powerful God would enter our reality, live among us, die at our hands and rise again — all to express His love and mercy to those who rejected Him — is the most revolutionary idea in history. If it is believed, if it is accepted and acted upon, it changes everything. God uses it to renew our darkened minds so we can worship Him in spirit and truth. Then we can transmit this great idea to others, which is the mission of the church in the world.

Plant the Gospel idea in a few minds — and see what happens.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Three 'evangelical lies' about reaching Muslims

Karim* grew up in an Arab Christian family in a Middle Eastern country — part of the “1 percent of Christians among the 99 percent Muslims,” as he describes it.

When you’re part of a tiny, historically persecuted minority, you tend to keep your head down and your mouth closed. You also tend to believe what your elders tell you about the majority, whether it’s true or not. Karim did — for a time.

Now an evangelical pastor in the Middle East, Karim fervently believes the Christians of the region “are responsible for reaching the 99 percent.” But too many still accept three “evangelical lies” that prevent them from sharing Jesus with their Muslim neighbors:

* A spirit of fear. “Most Christians are afraid to go and reach Muslims because of fear,” Karim declares. “We [Christians] say, ‘They will kill us. They will kill our family, our children.’”

* Muslims won’t believe. “Many, many Christians say that Muslims will not follow Christ” — ever. End of story.

* Christians lack the resources to evangelize Muslims. “We say we don’t have the money,” Karim says. “This is another lie, because if I have the heart to reach Muslims, I can go out and reach 1,000 people and share Christ with them. Maybe I need $5 to put gas in my car. If I go walking, I don’t need any money at all.”

But it took Karim a long time to reject the lies.

As a young man he wandered in the spiritual wilderness. He worked in a nightclub (“I was a big sinner,” he confesses). Weary of cultural Christianity, he even converted to Islam for several years. When he returned to Christ with his whole heart, a Muslim friend quickly noticed the change in his life.

“I was so excited about what happened to me, so the first thing I did was to share it with one of my best friends,” Karim recounts. “He said, ‘Karim, if Jesus did that in your life, I want to follow Him.’ I said, ‘No, no, no.’ You see, the fear is there inside us. He said, ‘But I want to follow Christ as you did because it is very good.’ I said, ‘OK, think about it, and we can talk tomorrow.’ The next morning at 8:30 he came to me and said, ‘I decided to give my life to Jesus and to follow Him with no conditions.’”

A second friend believed, and a third, and a fourth. All were Muslims. Not all decided to follow Christ as quickly as the first, but Karim could no longer deny Muslims wanted the priceless gift he had to share.

He began to sense what a Saudi friend later put into words: “We Muslims are beloved people, but we are cheated” — cheated out of knowing about the One who loves them because other followers of Christ are too timid or indifferent to tell them about Him.

“You know the difference between leading a Christian-background person to Christ or a Muslim?” Karim asks. “The first is like a tree planted in your backyard, and in six months you start to get fruit. But to lead a Muslim to Christ, you are digging in a mine. You may spend years, but what you find there is not fruit. It is diamonds!”

What keeps him digging? Every day he hears about — or personally witnesses — a Muslim coming to Christ.

“This is the fuel I’m getting from the Lord.”

*(Name changed)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Cheap liberty and costly grace

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With Independence Day come and gone, I recommend two recently published books for your summer reading list. Both will challenge your ideas about freedom and how you use it:

-- Radical by David Platt (Multnomah, 2010)

Platt, the popular young pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala., is using his expanding national platform to urge Christians to rethink the “American dream,” their faith — and whether the two can co-exist.

A gifted Bible scholar and preacher, Platt quickly achieved the mega-church leadership many ambitious pastors seek. But his heart longed for something more. He realized he was “on a collision course with an American church culture where success is defined by bigger crowds, bigger budgets and bigger buildings.”

His visits to underground house churches in East Asia, where persecuted believers meet for fervent worship, drove him to reexamine the Jesus of the Gospels. The encounter convinced him that Jesus still demands what He demanded of His earliest disciples: that we take up our crosses and follow Him in radical obedience.

Such obedience requires daily self-sacrifice, surrender of our “rights,” suffering of one form or another, poverty (at least in comparison to the riches many of us enjoy), perhaps death.

The Jesus who told prospective disciples to leave their homes and families, to sell their possessions in order to follow Him into a lost and hurting world has not changed. “But we don’t want to believe it,” Platt writes. “We are afraid of what it might mean for our lives. So we rationalize those passages away. … And this is where we need to pause. Because we are starting to redefine Christianity. We are giving in to the dangerous temptation to take the Jesus of the Bible and twist Him into a version of Jesus we are more comfortable with.

“A nice, middle-class, American Jesus. A Jesus who doesn’t mind materialism and who would never call us to give away everything we have. A Jesus who would not expect us to forsake our closest relationships so that He receives all our affection. A Jesus who is fine with nominal devotion that does not infringe on our comforts because, after all, He loves us just the way we are. A Jesus who wants us to be balanced, who wants us to avoid dangerous extremes, and who, for that matter, wants us to avoid danger altogether. A Jesus who brings us comfort and prosperity as we live out our Christian spin on the American dream.”

Such a Jesus, Platt contends, is not Jesus at all, but an idol molded in our own image. It’s high time we take “an honest look at the Jesus of the Bible and dare to ask what the consequences might be if we really believed Him and really obeyed Him.”

Platt cites one Christian who dared: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The German pastor and theologian was hanged by the Nazis 65 years ago, at age 39, for publicly resisting their criminal rule. He bravely denounced Nazi usurpation of the German church — and even participated in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler — while many fellow believers stayed silent and did nothing. Platt quotes a famous line from Bonhoeffer’s classic, The Cost of Discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”

My second recommendation for summer reading:

-- Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas (Thomas Nelson, 2010)

This powerful biography shines new light on one of the giants of the 20th century. A bespectacled intellectual, Bonhoeffer was no revolutionary early on. But he rejected passive religion separated from action. And he despised what he called “cheap grace” — the grace we accept with our minds but not with our hearts or our wills, the grace that demands nothing from us. He considered it the “deadly enemy” of the church.

“Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate,” Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship. “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth which has a place for the Fatherhood of God, but omits Christ as the living Son.”

“Costly grace,” on the other hand, “is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of His Son … and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. … Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

Bonhoeffer not only believed in costly grace, he lived and died by it.

On July 4, a missionary who serves in one of the least-free nations on earth preached at my church. The people in the land where he works are oppressed by poverty, superstition, tyranny and terrorism, but they are seeking freedom. Not just political and social freedom — spiritual freedom.

“It’s great to be here in America on ‘Freedom Day,’” he said. “As kingdom people first and Americans second, we rejoice in liberty.”

But he reminded his listeners that followers of Christ have been given liberty for a purpose: to bless all nations with the news of salvation. If we don’t use it for that purpose, we don’t deserve it.

Bonhoeffer probably would call it “cheap liberty.” God help us to trade it for costly grace.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Countering the 'jerks among us'

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I almost got flattened by crazy drivers the other day — not once but twice.

The first near-miss occurred in the parking lot of a burger joint, where I dodged an SUV barreling toward the exit. Less than an hour later, at a gas station, I was walking toward my car when a pickup truck speeding through the station missed me by about a foot. Before I could recover from the shock of the moment and think about reacting, the pickup was gone.

You have your own nightmare stories about bad drivers, I’m sure. My larger point is this: Many folks no longer seem to care enough about others to observe the basic rules and courtesies that separate civil society from anarchy. From highways to law and order, from politics to media slugfests, from online flamers to breaking in line at the supermarket, examples are endless. And they range from the mundane to the deadly.

In Chicago, 54 people were shot — count ’em, 54 — over a single weekend in June. Ten of the victims died. Some of the shootings were gang-related, but others reportedly were caused by minor arguments or somebody “disrespecting” somebody.

Perhaps the saddest manifestation of the antisocial disease that now permeates our culture is not rudeness or violence, but the indifference that leads so many neighbors to ignore each other’s existence. Is this the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he wrote about our God-given rights in the Declaration of Independence? I don’t think so.

It isn’t just a matter of the cultural coarseness and “incivility” many have decried. The center cannot hold in a society where people don’t even pretend to care about each other. Sooner or later, things fall apart.

Heading into what promises to be another summer of discontent and division, 72 percent of Americans “think that poor behavior has gotten worse in recent years,” according to a national poll conducted in April. Solid majorities of the adults responding to the poll were turned off by what they see and hear in public, in government and politics, on the roads, in schools, in Hollywood, on television, in sports, on the Web.

“We, as a people, pay a price for the jerks among us,” writes Roger Simon of Politico, a multimedia news outlet. “Nearly half of all Americans say they are ‘tuning out’ of government and politics, 46 percent are tuning out of opinion pieces and editorials in the media and 38 percent are tuning out of news coverage and reporting.”

But let’s be honest. Too often, the “jerks among us” … are us. I’m preaching to myself, but you are welcome to join me at the altar of confession if you feel so inclined.

If Christians succumb to the culture, if we hurl (or murmur) insults and disdain rather than loving the unlovable and practicing kindness to strangers, what distinguishes us from anyone else? We have become useless for God’s work, even destructive to it. Scripture calls us not to be conformed to the world but transformed by God’s Spirit.

“It is clear that America needs a spiritual awakening. Our country is awash in all kinds of lostness, including mean-spiritedness in conduct and speech,” wrote former Southern Baptist Convention President Johnny Hunt last year. “The fruit of the Spirit works in the life of the believer to create, among other things, long-suffering, gentleness and self-control. The word long-suffering is more than mere patience; it is a long-fused patience with people. The Apostle Paul urged us, as believers in Jesus Christ, to let our speech ‘always be with grace, seasoned with salt’ (Colossians 4:6). …

“[N]ever underestimate the power and influence of one voice. When we exercise civility in our public and private rhetoric, we bring glory to our Lord, enhance our credibility as men and women whose lives have been transformed by God's grace and create opportunities to share the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ with our lost and dying world.”

An effective missionary deeply studies the culture he wants to reach and searches for ways to communicate Christ within it. Eventually, however, he challenges that culture to transform itself through the power of the Gospel.

In our culture, one of the most countercultural things you can do is to yield the right of way, whether on the roads or in relationships. A soft answer to wrath is downright subversive. Turning the other cheek? It’s as revolutionary as it was in Jesus’ day — and just as powerful to change minds and hearts.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Father's Day blues

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Hey dads, another Father’s Day is coming up.

We can hardly wait, right?

If the kids remember Father’s Day at all, they’ll probably give us cards humorously noting our physical and mental decline. Maybe they’ll take us to lunch when we’d just as soon hit the couch for a nap (due to the aforementioned physical decline) or watch a ballgame on TV. But we’ll go along with a smile, pretending we feel special while the kids pretend they’re making us feel special.

“That's why Dad always responded so positively back when you used to givehim — and I hope you no longer do this, although I understand it still happens, even in 21st century America — a tie,” observed writer Dave Barry a few years ago. “In my entire life, I have met two men who were genuinely interested in ties.Both of these men were in the tie industry.

“Dads are so good at feigning appreciation that they even were able, years ago, to pretend they were happy to receive cologne. This was back in the dark days of cologne-giving, which mercifully came to an end after the horrible 1986 tragedy in Cincinnati wherein a 72-year-old man's house collapsed under the weight of the estimated 2,000 unopened bottles of Old Spice that he had stored in his attic.”

Let’s face it, guys. Father’s Day is the Rodney Dangerfield of holidays, the get-no-respect little brother of Mother’s Day. Interestingly, the American version of Father’s Day was first proposed in 1909 by a grateful daughter, Sonora Smart Dodd. Her father, a Civil War veteran, singlehandedly raised six children after his wife died in childbirth. But the observance was mocked for years and written off as a promotional gimmick cooked up by the greeting card and men’s clothing businesses. It wasn’t formalized until 1966, when Lyndon Johnson proclaimed the third Sunday of June as Father’s Day. Richard Nixon signed the law six years later making it an official holiday.

Dads, our special day probably won’t ever achieve the popularity or social significance of Mother’s Day (cue violins). But that’s OK. We’re not sensitive Moms; we’re macho Dads. We don’t need a lot of recognition. That’s our story, at least, and we’re sticking to it.

Still, Father’s Day is a great opportunity to remember, before we fall asleep on the couch, what being a good father is about.

“A good father is one of the most unsung, unpraised, unnoticed, and yet one of the most valuable assets in our society,” Billy Graham once said.

A good father takes care of business. He provides food, shelter and physical and emotional security for his family. But that’s just the beginning. Within the context of marriage, he loves his wife and the mother of his children — and he makes sure that he regularly expresses that love in front of the children.

A good father loves his children unconditionally. If he’s at home, he hugs them — every day. He says the words “I love you” — every day, several times if possible. That’s not touchy-feely; it’s what your children need, even when they become obnoxious teens and pretend they don’t. Read 1 Corinthians 13 to see what God’s love looks like in action.

A good father teaches his children right from wrong. He disciplines them firmly but not abusively. “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord,” the Apostle Paul counsels in Ephesians 6:4 (NASB). Your temporary, God-given authority over your children doesn’t give you the right to dominate or manipulate them.

A good father leads and encourages his children. He is available 24/7, regardless of the hour or circumstance, regardless of how far his “child” has advanced into adulthood. He spends time. He pays attention. He listens to his children, and he expects his children to listen to him. He offers constructive criticism, sometimes strongly worded, but never in the form of condemnation. He issues orders, but is open to appeal.

Most of all, a good father models what it is to be a man, a husband, a father and a child of God. “My father didn’t tell me how to live,” recalled one thankful son. “He lived — and let me watch him do it.”

After messing up, my Dad used to say, half-seriously, “Don’t do as I do; do as I say.” Sorry, but that won’t work. If you claim to follow Christ, follow Him. Worship Him. Serve Him. Serve His church. Do the things He said to do in this life in plain sight of your children — not for show but because you mean it.

Do your kids see you loving your neighbor? Do they see you making friends with hurting sinners and loving them into the kingdom of God? Do they see you praying for the nations and taking action to get the Gospel to the lost of the world? Do they see you shedding a tear for the things that break the heart of God? If you don’t, odds are they won’t.

A good father frequently fails to live up to these standards. But he doesn’t give up. He asks for forgiveness from God and his family and presses ahead with the help of the Holy Spirit.

That’s my meditation for Father’s Day. Now I’m going to take a nap before the big game.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

They came. They saw. They left ....

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At least 40 years into the “age of the volunteer” in world missions, debate still rages about whether short termers are a blessing or a curse.

Peruse mission journals or blogs, and you will find articles celebrating or questioning the ongoing volunteer phenomenon, which has seen tens of thousands of lay church members travel abroad to preach the Gospel.

At one end of the philosophical spectrum are those who believe volunteers have transformed and revitalized missions, returned the global mission task to its proper owner — the local church — and mobilized several generations of believers to take the Gospel to the nations. At the other extreme are critics who warn that “amateur missionaries” on vacation with good intentions and poor preparation make little positive impact for the kingdom of God abroad — and do actual harm in some instances.

I don’t pretend to be objective in the debate: I’m pro-volunteer. I’ve been making the case for mission volunteerism since the late 1970s. A week after finishing college, I signed on with Southern Baptists’ new Mission Service Corps program for long-term volunteers and started writing feature stories about other volunteers working throughout America. A few years later I joined the Foreign (now International) Mission Board news staff and began to see volunteers in action overseas.

In those days, some missionaries grumbled about having to take time from their ministries to “baby-sit” visiting volunteers, find something productive for them to do, keep them from causing an international incident, etc. Time passed, however, and more and more lay volunteers came to serve. Open-minded missionaries — and even some of the grouches — began to discover how valuable volunteers could be in evangelism, relief work, launching new ministries, even penetrating new regions and people groups with the Gospel. When they went home, excited volunteers told about their spiritual adventures and got their churches involved in supporting and participating in missions.

Today, most new missionaries point back to experiences they had as volunteers or shorter-term workers as key moments in their journey to a life commitment to missions.

Still, the critics make some valid points about volunteering. There’s a right way — and many wrong ways — to do volunteer missions. Church teams that “parachute” into an overseas location, make no attempt to work with or even contact missionaries and local believers and proceed to do their own thing seldom produce real results. They often claim hundreds or thousands of “converts,” few of whom can be found a week after the volunteer team goes home.

A missionary friend in Southeast Asia has worked for many years in a land that gets many such visitors. They come. They look around. They leave. Few return.

“People come and go by the planeload with great intentions to ‘save’” the nation, he says. “Nearly every plane that lands has one or two mission teams on it. Many mission trips are little more than ‘Christian tourism,’ where you hit a few key sites and bypass thousands of less-prominent locations.”

He calls it “hit-and-run evangelism.”
“I know there are tons of great people who love [this country] and are doing all they can to see change,” he stresses. However, “to see change in culture, to see change in community, requires one very important element. It is not church permits, national strategies, education, money, buildings, infrastructure, good governance, electricity, high-speed Internet, systematic training, dedicated locals, training materials, pioneering missionaries, more mission teams, more preachers, more Bible schools, more NGOs, more parachurch organizations, more churches, more pastors. Nope. All those are good and eventually will be developed, but what is needed is far more mundane: time to exert influence.

“To really see [this nation] changed, we need people who are called of God and willing to commit their lives here. To gain the trust of the people requires time. To build relationships requires time. To learn a language requires time. To develop key strategies requires time. To have influence requires time.”

Besides the love of Christ, time is the most important thing missionaries can give to the people they serve. Day after day, month after month, year after year — but, ideally, not one hour longer than it takes to prepare local believers to take over the work.

Volunteers who want to make a difference are wise if they seek such servants.

“The local church is waking up to its role in the Great Commission, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need God-called, culturally trained, long-term missionaries who passionately love and deeply understand the people groups they are assigned to,” writes Southern Baptist Convention President Johnny Hunt in his new book, Get Connected: Mobilizing Your Church for God’s Mission (order at

Hunt, pastor since 1987 at First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Ga., led a church that hadn’t produced a missionary in 150 years to be one of the most strategic mission mobilization centers in America. It sends out hundreds of volunteers each year and partners with missionaries in some of the most challenging places on earth. But Woodstock never does “Lone Ranger” missions, if Hunt has anything to do with it.

“I see a lot of churches led by enthusiastic young pastors who ride off to the mission field with no vision, no strategic relationship, no plan,” he observes. “They ‘fire a shot’ here and there and come home with some great stories, but it often ends there. Don’t try to be Indiana Jones, the solo hero who barely makes it back alive. Be a team player, a coach and a mobilizer. … Work with a knowledgeable mission partner who knows his field. You’ll make a much more lasting impact.”

Amen to that.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Faithful is as faithful does

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Every Christian, declared the great preacher C.H. Spurgeon, is either a missionary or an imposter.

Or both. Even the Apostle Paul had his days of discouragement, despair and failure. Just read his letters. A sign of growth for a believer is living like a missionary more days than you live like an imposter.

One of the great things about being around Christian mission work — or a good church, for that matter — is associating with people who are more faithful, more committed and more passionate about serving God than you are. They are a “cloud of witnesses,” as Hebrews 12:1 describes the saints of old, who motivate the rest of us to pursue a higher calling.

Anna, a 98-year-old lady in my church, participates in multiple ministries during a typical week. Recently she spoke at a women’s detention facility and 14 inmates gave their lives to Christ. Anna has a great sense of humor, too. No one can top that! But we can listen to her wisdom, learn from her life and follow her example with God’s help.

To paraphrase Forrest Gump, faithful is as faithful does.

Sometimes being faithful to God means being too stubborn to quit in the face of indifference, inertia, bureaucracy and human nature. Medical missionary Jennifer Myhre calls it “push.” Anyone working outside the developed world will instantly recognize what she’s talking about. “Cope vs. Hope,” an excerpt from Myhre’s blog, appeared in the April 24 issue of WORLD magazine (

“Much of life as a missionary and a physician in a rural, poor, marginal and probably corrupt place involves push,” writes Myhre, who serves with an evangelical mission at a hospital in Uganda. “By this I mean the extra effort required to make the system work the way it should. One could simply go to the hospital, do what one can do and throw up one’s hands about the rest. Which is, after many years of stress and defeat, the passive way that many of our colleagues cope. And me too, some days.

“But not today. As soon as I walked on the ward, I found out that my newest admission had died at 2 a.m. This was an extremely ill child with sickle cell disease and severe acute malnutrition, who had come on death’s doorstep. Worrisome, but we’ve seen many similar kids revive. Only this time, the person who promised to bring the blood needed for transfusion never showed up, and no one noticed or did anything about it. I called him today, and he said the district had refused to pay for his transport, because all its funds were frozen due to failure of our entire district to pay taxes for who-knows-how-many years (and who-knows-where that money went).”

She could have cried, yelled at the people who let the child die, or raged against the machine in general. Maybe she did all of those. But she didn’t quit. She got on the phone to cajole, beg and plead with various officials (already overwhelmed with other issues) to fix the blood transport system — at least for the next delivery.

Meanwhile, another child arrived mid-morning with severe malaria and sickle cell disease, needing a blood transfusion. But the child survived the day and even sat up after receiving a liter of IV fluid. Another kid in the ward, a 5-year-old with tuberculosis, smiled and chased a ball after a week of therapy. Twins, and an abandoned 1-year-old girl whose mother was convinced to return for her, went home healthy.

“Very little of my effort today involved specific medical knowledge,” Myhre admits. It involved a few basic resources — and a lot of determination. “People who work in settings like this need prayer support, to not give up, to believe that a little more push is worth it. I know I do.”

Reminds me of Tom Thurman, perhaps the greatest missionary I have known. He carried other people’s suitcases and called himself a “barefoot boy from Mississippi.” But Tom and his wife, Gloria, spent more than 30 years loving and serving the people of Bangladesh — years that included massive cyclones, famine, civil war, the bloody birth of a nation, more human suffering than most can imagine.

“One of the beautiful things is the resilience of the people here,” Tom once said, looking out over the Ganges at dusk. “They just keep trying, against all kinds of odds — winds, storms, cyclones, floods. A farmer will lose everything he has and say, ‘Well, maybe it will be better next year,’ and plant again. … We’ve just walked along the road with them and helped them carry their burdens.”

A close Bangladeshi friend once walked with Tom for many hours on a ministry errand. Looking down, he noticed the missionary’s shoes were bloody. Tom just kept walking.

That, friend, is push.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Word and the word

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Words are so last-millennium, dude.

Children of the digital age are growing up with a different kind of literacy, we are told. They learn to understand the world not through complete sentences, paragraphs and books, but through ever-changing sounds, images and micro-bursts of text delivered via their digital devices and social media of choice.

“Zits,” a comic strip that should be required reading for parents, captured the ambivalence of this new reality in a recent panel. Clueless Mom, who never quits trying to connect with her monosyllabic teen son, approaches him at the fridge:

“And how was your day?” Mom asks.

“Joyous,” son Jeremy replies while downloading an armful of snacks. “Tragic. Intense. Deadly boring. There was victory, defeat, suspense, pathos, gluttony, conflict and passion.”

“Wow,” says Mom, stunned by his sudden eloquence.

“And that was just the text messages,” Jeremy adds. LOL (that’s textspeak for “laugh out loud”).

Yes, the digital revolution seems to be moving many people toward non-print communication — or in the case of texters, forms of print that few readers of past generations would recognize.

It’s a place where much of the world already lives. Four billion people, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population, are oral learners, according to mission researchers. They communicate, learn, perceive reality and embrace core beliefs through orally expressed stories, narratives, songs and proverbs, not through books, magazines, newspapers and other forms of print communication traditionally preferred by literate cultures.

Some oral learners are non-literate because of lack of education. Many others, however, belong to the thousands of oral cultures of the globe. Even if they have a formal, written language (many don’t), it isn’t the way they prefer to interact with the world. Millions of Americans belong to that group.

Bible “storying” — accurately communicating the Word of God and the stories of the Bible to oral people through oral means — has revolutionized missions in recent years. It’s not really a new mission strategy, however. Rather, it’s the rediscovery of a very old one.

“Stories about Jesus and His teachings circulated widely by oral means for decades before they were written in the Gospels,” says Grant Lovejoy, director of Orality Strategies at the International Mission Board. “Those who believed what they heard were genuinely saved and they formed authentic Christian churches without the benefit of reading a copy of the New Testament. Churches were well-established around the Mediterranean basin before the books of the New Testament were written.”

The Israelites before them, likewise, learned the Word of God primarily through oral means: public reading, passing on stories within families from generation to generation. Yet “God was able to raise up a distinctive and holy people for His own, despite their very limited literacy and infrequent (or nonexistent) opportunity to read His written revelation,” Lovejoy observes. “We need creative strategies to communicate God’s message in non-print methods such as face-to-face witness, Bible storytelling, radio broadcasts and distribution of audio and video.”

None of this undermines the primacy of the written Word of God. It is alive and active, the source and fountainhead of our faith. The challenge in an oral world is communicating Bible truth to people who are unable or unwilling to read it.

Nor should we underestimate the power of words themselves in communicating the Gospel. Words don’t get a lot of respect in the age of multimedia, but they are the building blocks of stories, sermons, songs, drama — and of personal evangelism, the most powerful form of Christian witness. Yes, you have to “walk the talk.” Yes, actions speak louder than words. But words speak.

“Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words,” said St. Francis of Assisi. In a time of massive ignorance about the basics of the Gospel, even in churches, words are necessary.

The country preacher’s recipe for a good three-point sermon still works: “I tell ‘em what I’m gonna tell ‘em. Then I tell ‘em. Then I tell ‘em what I done told ‘em.”

So does Newsweek editor Jon Meacham’s advice to politicians, which also applies to anyone interested in leading others to follow Christ: “First, explain relentlessly. Second, tell us how what you are explaining will lead us to a better place, and describe that place. Assume nothing; repeat yourself until you are numb. Only then will the message begin to sink in.”
If your words match your walk, the message will find its mark. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (Proverbs 25:11, KJV).

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Dangerous Winds

Sorry to rain on your spring parade, but the world faces some dangerous challenges that threaten already-fragile global stability.

Putting aside the overheated debate about climate change — whether it is caused by human activity, what can be done about it, etc. — more immediate threats demand attention. Here are a few:

AGE OF SCARCITY — After an “age of abundance” marked by rapid economic growth in the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium, an “age of scarcity” is emerging, according to some forecasters. It will persist even if the major economies overcome the recent global downturn.

“The main problems of scarcity are water and food shortages, demographic change and state failure,” reports The Economist magazine. The competition for precious resources among shaky governments with even shakier economies could spark tensions among nations that once considered each other allies.

UNSEEN ATTACKERS — Who would have thought we’d miss the days of MAD (“Mutual Assured Destruction”), when a few superpowers kept the peace, more or less, by targeting each other with nuclear weapons they hoped never to use?

Today, untraceable enemies can bring down national computer networks via cyber-attack. If you can’t confirm the source of such attacks, you can’t retaliate — which increases the likelihood they will occur.

The possibility of attacks by shadowy groups with far more devastating weapons is no less real.

“As I view the threat, we have a perfect storm,” warned former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) in a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Nunn, a longtime defense expert, leads a group working to decrease the global threat of weapons of mass destruction.

“We have weapons of mass destruction-type material spread in at least 40 countries around the globe,” Nunn said. “We have technological know-how that is spread very wide now. It was formerly thought that only a state could make a bomb. Nobody that’s informed on the subject believes that anymore. We’ve got an increased number of terrorists who would not hesitate to use a nuclear weapon if they were able to get one.”

The use of even a small weapon of mass destruction in a major urban center would have a “devastating impact” not only on the victims of the attack itself but on the global economic system, Nunn warned. “You’d have people dumping out of cities all over the world like nothing we’ve ever seen.”

The challenges governments increasingly face “will be much less predictable than those associated with old great-power rivalries,” says The Economist. Rather, they confront “a new kind of threat: the sort that comes not from other states but [from] networks of states and non-state actors, or from the unintended consequences of global flows of finance, technology and so on.”

DECLINE OF FREEDOM — For the fourth year in a row, more countries experienced declines in political freedom than advances, according to “Freedom in the World 2010,” the latest annual report from the watchdog organization Freedom House. Eighty-nine countries, home to about half of the world’s people, are classified as “free.” The rest, even those nations that hold democratic elections, govern their populations with varying levels of repression.

A report released in December by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that nearly seven of every 10 people live in countries that significantly restrict religious faith and practice. Of 198 nations studied, 75 put official limits on religious evangelization.

If you think such forces are beyond the ability of ordinary Christians to influence, think again. Evangelical groups — including Baptist Global Response, Southern Baptists’ international relief and development arm — are doing some of the most effective work to end human suffering and promote sustainable development, even as they share the love of Jesus.

Followers of Christ also are defending the rights of people in many places to basic human freedoms, including the freedom to worship as they please. The Gospel itself, once it spreads and takes root, has shown its power to transform whole societies as it transforms hearts.

Finally, believers possess the most powerful weapon of all: prayer. You can pray for peace. And where there is no peace, you can pray that God will use turmoil to turn the eyes of searching humanity toward Him.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Little Easters

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The resurrection of Christ is the central event of human history.

Because He lives, everything has changed for those who believe and follow Him. We have salvation and hope — and we share them with others. We celebrate His victory over sin and death. We look toward eternity with joyful expectation, not fear or despair.

So where is He? Everywhere — even in dark places. Especially in dark places. If you watch and listen, you will witness some of the countless, quiet epiphanies that reveal His risen presence. Here are a few:

-- Because of government restrictions in a country hostile to Christians, a church meets on a patch of land 6 feet wide and 30 feet long — no roof, no floor — jammed into a narrow space between a believer’s house and a neighbor’s wall. The preacher stands under a tree at one end. The congregation stretches back for the length of the house and spills into the front yard.

“When it rains everyone gets wet. When the sun shines they all get tanned. But when they praise the Lord, they are all blessed,” says a missionary. “And so were we the night we worshipped with them.”

-- A former missionary struggles with an aggressive form of cancer. He already has lost a leg to a malignant tumor. More treatment looms. He admits that his life seems very fragile at the moment. Yet God continues to use him to bless others.

Recently he visited the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for medical tests. That afternoon, “I sat down at the grand piano in the main lobby and played for an hour,” he writes. “It was therapy for my soul. I played improvisations on various hymns including Fairest Lord Jesus, It is Well with My Soul and What a Friend We Have in Jesus. I shed a few tears as I thought back on memories of my past … of holidays when our children were small and would dance around the living room to my music.”

Later, as he waited in the lobby, a woman in a volunteer uniform sat down in a chair next to him. “Excuse me, but I wanted to let you know that God used your gifts today to touch someone in a deep way,” she said. “I recognized every song you played, and I must say I have never had a worship experience like I did today. Thank you.”

-- A staunch Buddhist woman in East Asia faithfully burned incense for her deceased parents. Many Christians had tried to share the Good News of Easter with her, but she had rejected it — and even cursed the messengers. One day a massive earthquake destroyed her village, taking her home and family. During one of the long nights of despair that followed, she dreamed of a wordless book of colors falling from heaven.

Early the next morning, some strangers visited the refugee camp where she was living. When one of them took out a book of colored pages, she quickly invited them into her tent. As they shared the Gospel, using colors to explain the way to salvation, she knew that God had sent them. She immediately repented of her sins and received Christ into her heart. Now she too serves in a disaster relief zone, telling others about the love of God.

-- Two dozen volunteers from Kingsland Baptist Church in Katy, Texas, helped a single mother make repairs around her home. A neighbor saw the activity and walked across the street to ask what they were doing. A volunteer explained that the single mom was experiencing tough times and didn’t have the money to pay for house repairs.

“We’re here to demonstrate God’s love to this woman by meeting some of her needs,” the volunteer said.

The neighbor scratched his head and replied, “I’m not a Christian, and I’ve never had a desire to go to any church. I never realized Christianity was about stuff like this — helping those in need. If that’s what it’s about, I’m interested in learning more about Jesus.”

-- On my own street, a young man dropped out of high school a few years ago to drink, take drugs and hang out with gang members. But recently he changed his ways. He has a new friend: Jesus. Through counseling, reading the Word of God and prayer, he’s realizing that he doesn’t need alcohol to make it through the day, doesn’t need pills to calm down, doesn’t need to break the law to be “accepted” by others. Christ is all he needs now, and all he wants. His eyes light up when he talks about his newfound freedom from fear, anxiety and anger.

Small moments. Little Easters, you might say. They seldom make the news — except in heaven.

He is risen.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Loving the enemy

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Love your enemies, Jesus said.

We nod in easy agreement with the theory. It’s the application that gets sticky. Which enemies, exactly, are you prepared to love? The guy who tailgates you on the road? The “friend” who spreads lies about you?

What about Osama bin Laden?

The latest issue of Mission Frontiers magazine poses that question in a cover article titled “Loving Bin Laden: What does Jesus expect us to do?” ( Christian peacemaker Carl Medearis recounts the evolution of his friendship with one of the top operatives in Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based (and Iran-backed) Islamic militant movement that fought Israel during the cross-border war of 2006. Medearis and co-author Ted Dekker tell the same story at greater length in their new book, Tea with Hezbollah: Sitting at the Enemies’ Table (Doubleday, 2010).

“(B)y most definitions he was the enemy of my people, Americans. Maybe even the enemy of Christians. And for sure the enemy of the Israelis. But how could I follow the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth to love my enemies if I never met any?” Medearis writes of his first nervous encounter with the Hezbollah leader.

“That day a friendship began. It was a cautious friendship — on both sides. We were equally skeptical of the other’s agenda. But over the years we have become friends. He’s still a Muslim, still the leader of the Hezbollah in all of south Lebanon, still at war with Israel. But he has now received prayer a thousand times, often by the laying on of hands by my Christian pastor friends I take to see him. He has now read the New Testament. We talk often and deeply about the Gospel, about big international issues, about the small hidden things of our hearts.”

Medearis challenges his friend to make peace with a loving God — and with Israel, Hezbollah’s bitter enemy. He knows some people consider him foolish, naïve, a “useful idiot” being manipulated by terrorists for political or public relations purposes. Yet Christ’s words about loving enemies remain. Could the steady application of love and God’s Word to his friend’s war-hardened heart change the course of history in the Middle East?

When Medearis talks about loving enemies as a method of transmitting the love of Jesus across boundaries, the most common response he gets from Christians goes something like this: “Yeah, I know that Jesus said to love our enemies, but … I mean, you’re not suggesting that, well, you know, we should, like, love Osama bin Laden, are you?”

What Medearis (or anyone else) suggests is irrelevant. What matters is the command of Christ, who committed the ultimate act of love on behalf of those who opposed, rejected, betrayed, hated and killed Him. That act, that supernatural life, transcends politics, cultures, nations — and all past, present and future animosities. Forgive as you have been forgiven, He says. No exceptions.

The command doesn’t apply just to individual relationships. The global progress of the Gospel depends on loving and blessing enemies. Every day, hundreds of mission workers and thousands of local believers are forming the kinds of friendships Medearis describes. As often as not, the families, clans or tribes awaiting the Gospel in the next village or across the border are enemies. You fear them; they fear you. How to bridge the gap? Unconditional mercy.

And we must go first, if we claim to follow Christ. We can’t ask new disciples across the world to share the Good News with enemies if we aren’t willing to model the practice.

If all this sounds hyper-spiritual, here’s a real-world model: Steve Hyde.

Steve’s no otherworldly mystic. He’s a big ol’ guy with a big smile and a huge heart — just like his dad, Southern Baptist missionary Bill Hyde. Bill was killed in a 2003 terror bombing carried out by an Islamic rebel group in the Philippines. It was an abrupt end to a life lived passionately for Christ. During 25 years in the Philippines, Bill planted (and trained Filipino Christians to plant) hundreds of churches.

Steve was already doing full-time mission work elsewhere in Southeast Asia when his father was killed. He’s still there, spreading the Good News and equipping believers to multiply churches — just like his dad. On the seventh anniversary of Bill’s death March 4, Steve recalled the words he spoke at his father’s funeral:

“I will avenge my father’s death, but not like the plans of the evil one. To kill and destroy is easy, but to love your enemy is God’s command. The plans of Jesus are peace and love through the forgiveness of sins. I will go and bring Jesus throughout this evil world and take the light of Jesus into the darkness.

“Please, all of you whose lives were touched by my father, who were motivated and encouraged by him in church planting, evangelism and the kingdom of God, join me in avenging my father’s death. Let us together go into every dark area, those hard-to-go places, those places that bring fear just by mention of their name. Go, as my father went. My dad will not be the last martyr, but in the end the Lord Jesus Christ will have the victory. Take the Light into the darkness with me.”

If loving enemies into heaven is good enough for Steve Hyde, it’s good enough for you and me.