Thursday, September 22, 2011

Crossing the line

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Years ago, a missionary sat in the dirt with some pastors in post-revolution Zimbabwe.

The newly independent African nation was a dangerous place at the time. Chaos ruled in some areas. The missionary, Tom Elliff (now International Mission Board president), had found a spiritually responsive group of people in one such place.

“Who will pastor those people?” Elliff asked the church leaders. They looked at each other. Eyes clouded. Heads shook.

“We’re not going,” one pastor finally replied, speaking for the group. “People get shot down there. Just last week, someone was shot off the top of a bus.”

Another pastor reported that a missionary had been killed in the area recently.

“Well, at least we can pray,” Elliff said. So they prayed to the Lord of the harvest to send someone.

The meeting dismissed. Everyone left — except one young pastor, barely out of his teens. He limped slowly over to Elliff and said, “I’ll go.”

“Wait a minute,” Elliff cautioned, stealing a glance at the pastor’s thin legs. “You heard what they said about the danger, didn’t you?”

“I’ll go,” the young man repeated firmly. “But you’ve got to promise to bring me a bicycle. I had polio and I can’t walk very well. I’m about eight miles away, so walking out there is going to be tough.”

Elliff promised to bring the bicycle as soon as possible. He returned a few weeks later with a two-wheeler in tow.

“Where have you been?” the pastor demanded. “I’ve been walking out there and back on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Several people are awaiting baptism.”

Dumbfounded, Elliff stammered, “What about those stories of people getting shot?”

The young man smiled. “Brother,” he said, “if God could stop the mouths of the lions for Daniel, he can stop the muzzles of the guns for me.”

Elliff told that story at a recent appointment service for new missionaries. It illustrated the Apostle Paul’s case for missions:

“For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for ‘Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!’” (Romans 10:12-15, NASB)

Even hobbled feet are beautiful when they bring good news. The young pastor answered the mission call when other “stronger” men refused. He also embodied Paul’s other point: In the age of Christ, all distinctions between Jews and Greeks, differing people groups, friends and enemies, family and strangers must fall. The Gospel invitation to God’s kingdom is for all. Paul himself learned that truth as he read the Scriptures with new spiritual eyes following his encounter with Christ. Once he grasped God’s mission, the one-time Jewish zealot and persecutor of believers became the missionary to the Gentiles, launching the Christian church as a global enterprise.

Missions, in contrast to sharing your faith with someone who looks, talks and thinks like you, involves crossing lines, some of which aren’t visible. They might be national borders, cultural and language barriers, racial and ethnic differences, religious divisions, sometimes physical danger zones like the one crossed by that young African pastor. Even in the barrier-blasting age of broadcast and social media, transmitting the Gospel to a previously untouched people usually requires personal, face-to-face, potentially risky contact.

But not everyone, even in evangelical circles, buys into that concept.

“People have different views of missions, religious people,” Elliff observed during the missionary appointment service. “Not everybody is for it. Well, they’re ‘for it,’ but they’re not for it. … When it comes down to saying it involves your being His hands, being His heart, being His voice, that’s a little costly.” Especially if it costs you your home, your culture, possibly your life.

He reminded listeners of William Carey, another young man who nervously stood up during a meeting of older, wiser pastors in England in 1789. When Carey asked whether Christ’s command to make disciples among all nations still applied — and whether they were, in fact, obligated to follow it — one leading minister replied: “Sit down, young man. … When God wants to convert the world, he can do it without your help.”

Undaunted, Carey persisted. His revolutionary 1792 call to obedience, “An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens,” laid the foundation for the evangelical mission movement. Words like “conversion” and “heathens” might sound uncomfortable to our contemporary ears, but this document is as fresh and relevant today as it was then (read it at Remember, also, that Carey personally obeyed his own call to “use means” to extend the Gospel where it was unknown. He lived, taught and preached the Good News among the Bengali people of India for four decades, serving in countless practical ways where others sought to exploit.

I was bemused recently by a journalist who cautioned his readers about folks who embrace a “literal reading” of Matthew 28:19-20, Christ’s call to make disciples among all nations. Please. What other coherent reading is there for this passage? Either Jesus said it or He didn’t. If He said it, He clearly intended it as an action plan for the spread of His church among all peoples. It flows seamlessly from God’s promise — 2,000 years before Christ — to bless “all the families of the earth” through Abraham’s seed (Genesis 12:3b).

The Gospel’s most powerful foes, however, aren’t skeptical journalists, hostile cultures or persecution. They are believers who don’t take the message seriously enough to share it across any and every barrier. The Good News isn’t good news if it never arrives.

I don’t know about you. But if someone hadn’t “used means” to share Jesus with a wretch like me, I’d still be lost — and probably dead. God help me not to ignore others in similar circumstances.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Genessa Wells: a brief, passionate life for God

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Everybody remembers where they were on Sept. 11, 2001.

Stan Aaron* remembers even more clearly where he was one day before the 9/11 attacks — awakened with the news that his 24-year-old friend, Genessa Wells, had died in a bus accident in the Egyptian desert. “I wept deeply,” he says, “And I still get overwhelmed with emotion thinking about her.”

Remembering Wells, a Southern Baptist teacher and musician who served in Egypt for nearly two years, has that effect on the people who knew her. Tears, then joy.

“Everyone wanted to be around her,” recalls another of her many American and Arab friends. They couldn’t get enough of her laugh, her goofy comedy routines, the trademark shuffle in her step folks kidded her about.

And her voice. The voice of an angel.

“She sang all the time,” recounts another friend. “Not always praise songs, but most of the time.”
It wasn’t really about music for Wells, though she was a gifted musician. It was about worship. “One of the last times I saw her, we went on a retreat to the beach,” says the friend. “She gave me voice lessons on the beach and made me practice letting my voice go — just allowing myself to praise God and not be timid about it. She pushed me to do it.”

Another colleague learned a lot about worship just by watching and listening to Wells sing: “The Graham Kendrick song, Knowing You, came alive for me as Genessa led us in singing it — beautiful voice, tears streaming down her face, as she sang those lyrics to the Lord.”

Wells, a Houston native and graduate of East Texas Baptist University in Marshall, planned to pursue her study of music in seminary after she came home from Egypt in October 2001. She never made it back. But she packed enough passion for several lifetimes into her brief life. Shortly before she moved to the Middle East in 1999, she wrote:

“I could give up (on overseas service) and get married and become a music teacher. All of this is very noble and to be quite honest, sounds good to me! But in my heart, I want to change my world — more than I want a husband and more than I want comfort. I need this opportunity to grow and to tell others about Jesus. One of my favorite praise songs says, ‘I will never be the same again, I can never return, I’ve closed the door.’”

Two years later, in her last email home, she quoted another praise song:

“‘Open the eyes of my heart, Lord, open the eyes of my heart, I want to see you … shining in the light of your glory …’ It seems that everything we do comes down to one thing: His glory,” she said. “I pray that all our lives reflect that. … It seems like a floodgate has been opened in my heart [to share God’s love]. I have a passion for it I never knew God had given me. He’s given it to me for His glory.”

She struggled with doubts, fears and anxieties like everyone else. But she found God even more real in the depths of her despair, and her strength was renewed: “If we never step on the rock in front of us, we go through life at the same shallow level where we started,” she said.

She shared her passion for God with Egyptians, with Palestinians in refugee camps in Jordan, with Muslims in France, with Bedouin in the desert.

“The desert is becoming one of my favorite places,” she wrote six months before her death. One night under the stars, “the Bedouin prepared a meal for us, even made bread for us over a fire. We ate with our hands and washed the stickiness off by rubbing them in the sand. We told riddles in Arabic and English. … I honestly would not want to be anywhere else but here, where God has put me. He gives me more than I can imagine.”

The world-shaking horror of 9/11 overwhelmed the news of a young woman’s solitary death in the desert, at least at first. Yet the story of Wells’ short, luminous life began to be told again and again. The following year, at a camp in Michigan, Southern Baptist “Acteen” girls studying Wells’ life decided to hold a memorial service for her. They included quotes from her letters and emails, words from her favorite songs, sand and camel cutouts to represent her beloved desert.

It was “the most moving presentation ever shared in our times at camp,” said camp leader Karen Villalpando. “The girls will never forget Genessa. I will never forget their simple service and the young woman who inspired it.”

Tom Hovies, who was tutoring middle schoolers at the time, shared Wells’ story with them and asked them to respond. One of them wrote: “Not many people nowadays are willing to give their life to serving God. I think it was incredible for that girl to use her life for the Lord our God.”

More recently, pastor/author David Platt profiled Wells in his bestselling book, Radical.

“Most people in our culture look upon this story as a tragedy,” he wrote. “A young woman spending the last days of her life in the remote Egyptian desert, only to die in a bus accident. Think of all the potential she had. Think of all she could have accomplished. Think of all she could have done if she had not gone there.”

Yet from the perspective of Christ, it is a story of reward.

“Rest assured, Genessa does not regret missing one moment of the American dream in light of the reward she now experiences,” Platt declared. “This, we remember, is the great reward of the Gospel: God Himself. When we risk our lives to run after Christ, we discover the safety that is found only in His sovereignty, the security that is found only in His love, and the satisfaction that is found only in His presence. … [W]e would be foolish to settle for anything less.”

When Genessa Wells’ belongings were returned to her family in Texas, her grieving older sister, June, found a Scripture passage folded into Genessa’s Bible: Philippians 1:3-12. The Apostle Paul wrote that letter under difficult circumstances, to say the least —imprisonment in Rome for the sake of Christ, to be followed by eventual execution.

The last verse in the passage immediately grabbed June: “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the Gospel” (Philippians 1:12).

“I knew [then] that she was where she was supposed to be,” June said. “I strive to be the person my sister was at only 24 years of age. To have that legacy, to know that you did what God placed you on earth to do, to serve Him. I miss my sister, but I have no doubt in my mind, heart and soul that we will be rejoicing when we reunite. And when I see her again, she will shuffle toward me, smile that silly grin and squeal, ‘Yay! You’ve come home!’”

*(Name changed)