Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thankful for small things

(Listen to an audio version of this post at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/143/14360/14360-79973.mp3)

God works through big events that shake the world. He also works through little, life-changing moments that transform individual lives.

There’s been plenty of big stuff this year: global economic turmoil, revolutions reshaping the Arab world, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and fires. It’s some of the “small” stories that return to my mind, though, as Thanksgiving approaches. Here are a few from my annual thankful list, as told by International Mission Board writers around the world:

* Kiyoshi Sugioka entered a busy Tokyo train station with a single purpose in mind — to end his life by jumping in front of a train. The former high-powered investment manager had lost his job, his money, his family, his home and his honor in a financial scandal. “It wasn’t that I wanted to die,” Sugioka recalled. “It was that I didn’t want to live anymore. I wanted to erase my existence.”

He stood at the edge of the platform, looking left and right for approaching trains. Then he remembered a man he had met a year before — IMB missionary Josh Park. He fished Park’s phone number out of his pocket and called him. They met. “I just listened to him talk,” Park said. “I remembered that he wasn’t interested in hearing the Gospel. Then he said, ‘Tell me about God.’” After Park shared the message of salvation, Sugioka prayed to receive Christ.

Today, he works as an accountant, a job he found through a church friend. But he has higher priorities than money. “The people of Japan are very affluent, but their hearts are in poverty,” he says. “The people of Japan need restructuring of their hearts.” (See his story in this video: http://media1.imbresources.org/files/137/13728/13728-77173.mpg.)

* April marked a time of annual remembrance in Rwanda as the nation reflected on the 1994 Hutu-led genocide, when more than 800,000 mostly Tutsi people were slaughtered. While unity is slowly returning, genuine forgiveness is difficult. Many still suffer from the emotional trauma of seeing their families killed.

Georgina Nkubito lost several relatives during the genocide and often sees the Hutu extremists who killed her family. “During April it is hard because of what we have experienced,” she said. “However, we try to be patient when we meet those who wanted to kill us. We remember that the Bible says if you don’t forgive, you won’t be forgiven.” (See the story of Nkubito and her husband at http://www.africastories.org/unthinkable-forgiveness/video-surviving-genocide/.)

* On a night like so many others in this South Asian country, multiple sirens blared — ambulances taking the ill and the injured to local hospitals. But no siren sounded for Solomon.

A frail bundle of infected wounds, Solomon lay covered by a white tarp, left on the street next to a trash heap to die. Few noticed him. Such bundles are a common sight in a place where dying on the street is a way of life. But a missionary passing by saw Solomon and wept. She called her husband, who discovered the young man was still alive. He called a missionary doctor friend who spent the afternoon trying to convince a local hospital to admit the broken, emaciated man.
Solomon, perhaps 18, still had the strength to raise his head and look at the strangers. He smiled as he gripped a missionary’s hand. Probably for the first time, he heard the name of Isa (Jesus). He heard that Isa loves him, that he could call upon Isa. He died the next day in the hospital. “Though Solomon has passed from this life, we can praise the Lord that he heard His name before death,” the missionary said. “We hope that Solomon called upon Isa, the One who cares for every overlooked bundle in this world.”

* IMB missionaries Abbey Hammond and Jessica Burke sat on the floor of the Roma grandmother’s house in Macedonia, sipping juice while their hostess explained to relatives on a Skype video call why Americans were in the background.

It’s intriguing to them. Puzzling, even. Roma gypsies — about 200,000 strong in Macedonia — tend to be a cast-off people in Europe. They’re known in Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, for driving horse or pedal carts in traffic and rummaging through trash bins for plastic, metal and cardboard to sell.

But several times a week, Hammond and Burke walk the dirt roads of Roma neighborhoods in Skopje, greeting people by name, drinking coffee in their homes, talking about life and about Jesus Christ.

It’s not easy; Roma in Macedonia are, for the most part, nominally Muslim. They may not know much about their religion, but they know Jesus isn’t part of it. Still, a Bible study begun by missionaries has slowly grown into a church of Roma believers. It surprises Roma when they meet other Roma who are Christians — it doesn’t add up with what they know.

God is surprising like that, Hammond said. Recently, while visiting a Roma family in their home, she gave them a Bible. The father made the women of the family give it back to her. But when a family member was sick soon after, Hammond wrote a card to the wife saying she was praying for them and penned Scripture verses on the card.

“She was so touched she cried — she said it meant a lot to her, and she kept it,” Hammond said. “God got His Word into their home anyway, in a different way than I expected.”

What am I most thankful for? A surprising, unexpected, creative Lord, who brings hope to those in despair, who brings mercy in the midst of unthinkable evil, who reaches out to touch the forgotten, who seeks the cast-offs. And I’m thankful for the people He uses to deliver His love.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Being and doing

At the ripe old age of 18, I was already a total failure — in my own mind, at least.

Lingering insecurities of youth mingled with anxiety about the future. College was hard. The Christian life was harder. And as a relatively new believer, I wasn’t leading crowds of people to Christ — my results-based definition of spiritual success. The more I prayed through my lists of “prospects,” the fewer believed. I couldn’t make a sale, so to speak.

I remember sitting on my bed near tears one night, telling my visiting grandmother that I didn’t really love anyone. If I did, why wouldn’t they give their lives to Christ? She hugged me first, then tried to talk some spiritual sense into me. But I was convinced I had failed God.

What I had actually failed was one of the first lessons of the Gospel: Christ draws people unto Himself as He is lifted up. Salvation is His gift, accomplished by His power and grace, not by our paltry efforts. Our first and highest calling is to love Him, to worship Him, to serve Him — as He reminded frazzled Martha long ago. Martha was angry that her sister, Mary, sat at Jesus’ feet while Martha rushed around preparing to serve the crowd gathered in her home to listen to the Master. “But the Lord answered and said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her’” (Luke 10:38-42, NASB).

The natural result of a close relationship with Christ is to love others, to joyfully obey His command to tell the world about Him, to make disciples. Teacher and preacher Ron Dunn called evangelism the “overflow” of our walk with the Lord.

Eventually I got those priorities in order, though I still need regular reminders from God’s Word and some of His wiser servants. A spiritual classic I discovered in that first year of college helped greatly: “No Man is an Island” by Thomas Merton, the former skeptic who became a renowned Christian mystic. A single chapter in that book, titled “Being and Doing,” revolutionized my spiritual life.

“We are warmed by the fire, not the smoke of the fire. We are carried over the sea by a ship, not by the wake of a ship. So too, what we are is to be sought in the invisible depths of our own being, not in outward reflection in our own acts,” Merton wrote. “Our soul only finds itself when it acts. We must act. Stagnation brings death. … [B]ut I must not plunge my whole self into what I think and do, or seek always to find myself in the work I have done. …When we constantly look in the mirror of our own acts, our spiritual double-vision splits us into two people. We strain to see and we forget which image is real. … We can never be real enough or active enough. The less we are able to be the more we must do. … In order to find God in ourselves, we must stop looking at ourselves, stop checking and verifying ourselves in the mirror of our own futility, and be content to be in God and to do whatever God wills, according to our limitations, judging our acts not in the light of our own illusions, but in the light of God’s reality. …”

If that didn’t quite make sense the first time through, read it again. Read it a hundred times if necessary. It might change your life, too.

Be warned, however: Being before doing is extremely difficult in a culture (perhaps even a church or mission ministry?) that puts a premium on ceaseless movement and activity. It has become nearly impossible to be still in our day. Yet if I understand Psalm 46:10 correctly, stillness is a prerequisite for fulfilling the mission of God: “He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’”

An alternate translation for “be still” is “cease striving.” Try putting this in your next monthly report: “I ceased striving and was still.” It might not go over too well. But if you’re reporting to God, it ought to come at the top of the list.

“If being precedes doing, then isn’t it true that being with Jesus should precede doing for Jesus?” International Mission Board President Tom Elliff asked a gathering several years ago. “The essence of lordship is intimacy with Him. A person who does not walk intimately with Christ cannot expect God’s blessing … leadership or protection. How arrogant it is for us to believe that we can be and do anything empowered by the Spirit, unless we develop intimacy with Jesus.”

New missionaries sometimes rush into different cultures and places of spiritual darkness with that kind of arrogance, whether they admit it or not. They inevitably crash and burn. Some never recover from the experience. Others learn the wisdom of building deep intimacy with God before attempting to make an impact on others.

Randy Rains, IMB’s leader for spiritual life and formation, calls that process the “two journeys.”

“Jesus constantly reminds us to pay attention to the relationship, to the inner journey of the soul,” Rains observes. “We certainly need to attempt great things in Jesus’ name and exercise the authority and power He has given us in sharing the Gospel of the kingdom. Yet we must be ever mindful of our inner journey, of who we are becoming in our relationship with God in Christ. What is happening in the inner journey of our soul is of eternal consequence. The question is how and to what extent are we being transformed by God’s Spirit into the image of Christ for the sake of others to God’s glory? We must let the words of our Lord be a constant reminder: ‘Apart from me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5, ESV).”

Missionaries need that reminder. So do the rest of us.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Immigration reshaping U.S. cities

Immigrants flowing into urban America live mostly in the inner cities of huge metro areas, form tight ethnic enclaves and stick together, right?

Wrong, wrong and wrong.

Yesterday, cities were in the nations. Today, the nations are in the cities, urban ministry pioneer Ray Bakke has observed. But to reach those nations, or peoples, for Christ, we need to understand who they are, where they are and how they are moving and changing.

“The epicenter of the urban wave in North America is ethnic minorities,” Troy Bush told pastors, lay church leaders and others during a session of “ethnéCITY: Reaching the Unreached in the Urban Center,” held Oct. 20-22 at Park Slope Community Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. “How are we going to tap into this, not only to reach them with the Gospel, but to mobilize them so that they will be the ones reaching people groups? … We must recognize what God is doing in our cities and seize the day.”

Bush, a former missionary to Moscow, leads the Dehoney Center for Urban Ministry Training at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He also directs The Rebuild Initiative, a national urban leadership and church-planting network based in Atlanta, one of the most ethnically diverse communities in America. While working with the North American Mission Board, he directed church planting in Baltimore, another city undergoing major ethnic change.

Using new data about urban immigrants in America from the Brookings Institution, Bush examined some key changes in the decade between 2000 and 2010. The number of foreign-born people in the United States reached 40 million in 2010, a 28 percent increase since 2000 — and about 13 percent of the nation’s total population. More than a third of new immigrants during the decade came from Asia, while the fastest-growing group came from Africa.

Immigrants living in the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas increased 27 percent during the period. The five cities with the largest foreign-born populations: New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and Houston. But the top five’s share of the total immigrant population dipped from 43 percent to 38 percent during the decade. The fastest growth came in smaller and mid-sized cities.

The Brookings study reports: “A swath of metro areas from Scranton (Pa.) stretching southwest to Indianapolis and Little Rock and sweeping east to encompass most of the Southeast and lower mid-Atlantic — including states and localities that have been flashpoints in the immigration debate — saw growth rates on the order of three times that of the 100-largest-metro-areas rate. These include Charlotte, Raleigh, Nashville and Indianapolis, all of which passed the 100,000 mark for total foreign-born population by 2010.”

“These aren’t your Chicagos, L.A.’s, New Yorks, your normal gateway cities for immigrants,” Bush said. “These are medium-size cities. … Many [immigrants and refugees] coming from places like Somalia are only passing through LaGuardia or JFK [airports in New York] as they go straight to Louisville, straight to Kansas City, straight to Memphis. They’re bypassing these large cities right from the start.”

Similarly, the state with the fastest-growing immigrant population isn’t California or New York, but North Carolina. Number two: Georgia — followed by Arkansas, Nevada and Tennessee.

“So when we think strategically about where we’re going to engage unreached people groups, it’s OK to think about coming to Atlanta,” Bush said. “It really is. Why? Because they’re coming there! The largest Hindu temple in the entire U.S. is in Atlanta, in Gwinnett County.”

Another key trend: New immigrants are increasingly settling in the suburbs of metro areas rather than traditional inner-city ethnic enclaves as they seek better neighborhoods, jobs and schools. By 2010, slightly more than half of all immigrants could be found in suburbs.

“The younger generations that are moving in today, almost regardless of where they are coming from, are skipping completely over the center city. They’re actually starting in the suburbs,” said Bush. “They’re not going into ethnic enclaves that once made up the cores of those cities.”

Perhaps even more significant is the increase of second-generation immigrants in the cities and the nation at large. More than half of the children in Los Angeles, Miami and San Francisco are second-generation — i.e., U.S.-born but with at least one foreign-born parent. They now account for more than 11 percent of the national population.

“This is a wave that we’ve really, really got to get on the radar,” Bush urged. “But here’s the thing to watch: Second-generation immigrant children represent 25 percent of all of the children under 18 in the United States. It is an enormous wave that is beginning to crash down on us.”

Second-gens often leave their parents’ homes, neighborhoods and ethnic communities. They move around (a trait that also typifies many new immigrants). They change. Their worldviews change. They create new patterns and cultures. In some cases, they actually form new people groups. “New American ethnic groups are forming more quickly than ever before [and they are] the children and grandchildren of today’s immigrants,” write Alejandro Portes and Ruben G. Rumbaut, authors of Legacies: The Story of the Immigrant Second Generation.

Bottom line: There’s no simple formula for reaching the “nations in the cities.” But any number of creative ministries can meet specific needs. Bush cited 11 different church-planting models that work effectively in different contexts. There surely are more.

“No one church can get its arms completely around any metro, especially a larger metro,” Bush said. “So what I encourage churches to do is begin in their own neighborhoods, geographically and relationally. Because in many cases, through their work and their play, they’re encountering many of the different ethnic groups that are coming into their communities. The census is certainly a good starting point, but relief agencies and especially immigration agencies are actively looking for church partners who will come alongside as they’re bringing in peoples — many of whom are coming from closed countries and unreached people groups.”

What ultimately works, regardless of location or context, is Jesus Christ’s model of disciple-making.

“There are no two cities that are exactly the same, but when it comes down to it, the heart of everything we need to do comes back to proclaiming the Gospel, displaying the Gospel and making disciples that congregate into reproducing, multiplying churches. That core is central whether we’re in Moscow or we’re in Mumbai,” Bush said.

“We need to model how to live as believers with immigrants. We need to share meals with them. We need to share life together. Our homes need to be places where we invite them not to come for a meal but to come for a month. … They see how you cling to Christ when there’s nothing else to cling to. It’s not just something you talk about in a Bible study. It’s who you are as a disciple.”

(ethnéCITY, co-sponsored by IMB and the North American Mission Board, reflects the reality that national borders no longer define the task of missions in a globalized world. Two more ethnéCITY conferences are set for Nov. 17-19 in Houston and May 3-5 in Vancouver. To find out more or register, visit www.ethnecity.com.)