Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The ‘Crews missile’ and Christmas

(Listen to an audio version at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/165/16575/16575-91862.mp3)

Have you heard about the “Crews missile”?

It was launched by Nick Crews, 67, a retired British Royal Navy submarine commander. But it wasn’t a torpedo aimed at the empire’s enemies; it was an email aimed at his three adult children. It blew up family relations — and created a furor in England and beyond after his eldest daughter, 40-year-old Emily, released the message to the media.

Fed up with his children’s career failures, divorces and other assorted dysfunctions, angry at the toll their constant crises had taken on his wife and anxious about the future for his grandchildren, Crews let ’em have it. Here’s an excerpt from his “Dear all three” email:

“Mum and I have been used to taking our own misfortunes on the chin, and making our own effort to bash our little paths through life without being a burden to others. Having done our best — probably misguidedly — to provide for our children, we naturally hoped to see them in turn take up their own banners and provide happy and stable homes for their own children. … [Y]et each of you has contrived to avoid even moderate achievement. Far from your children being able to rely on your provision, they are faced with needing to survive their introduction to life with you as parents. … none of [whom has] the maturity and sound judgment to make [wise] decisions.”

He closed with this:

“I can now tell you that I for one … have had enough of being forced to live through the never-ending bad dream of our children’s underachievement and domestic ineptitudes. I want to hear no more from any of you until, if you feel inclined, you have a success or an achievement or a realistic plan for the support and happiness of your children to tell me about. I don’t want to see your mother burdened anymore with your miserable woes. … I am bitterly, bitterly disappointed. Dad.”

Tough love? Crews has become both a hero and a villain in England since his blunt message became public, setting off a media storm and provoking thousands of responses. Many Britons admire his hard-hitting candor in an age of endless excuse making for personal irresponsibility. Others condemn him as unfeeling and cruel.

“My parents just don’t do tea and sympathy and never have,” reported daughter Emily, who said she was devastated by her father’s words but admitted they contain a lot of truth. Her two younger siblings insist on an apology; 35-year-old brother Fred refuses to speak to Dad until he gets one.

In a subsequent interview with the London Daily Mail, Crews said he “hated having to send [the email] and I have examined my conscience. … I still mean every word.”

Navy commanders aren’t known for giving gentle feedback. My maternal grandfather was a ship captain, and I’ve heard lots of stories about the rough justice he delivered when his kids went astray. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it backfired. As an occasionally exasperated father, I can sympathize with Crews. As a son who inspired similar fury and despair in the hearts of my own parents more than once, I also sympathize with his children.

But angry tirades about the failings of others don’t work, contends New York Times writer David Brooks in a column about Crews. “People don’t behave badly because they lack information about their shortcomings. They behave badly because they’ve fallen into patterns of destructive behavior from which they’re unable to escape,” Brooks writes. True enough, but he proceeds to serve up warmed-over recommendations about rewarding good behaviors and ignoring bad ones. That doesn’t work in the long run, either, if the darkness inside our hearts doesn’t change.

Why do I bring up this painful family episode so close to Christmas? When I first read about Nick Crews and his anguish over his children, I thought about God, our Father. In many Bible passages, the Lord speaks of His despair and wrath caused by the sins of His people. The Old Testament prophets record a long litany of His bitter disappointments (as Crews might describe them) in His wayward children.

“I have spread out My hands all day long to a rebellious people,” the Lord cried, “who walk in the way which is not good, following their own thoughts, a people who continually provoke Me to My face …” (Isaiah 65:2-3, NASB). But God also promised a sign in that same great book of prophecy: “Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14b, NASB).

Some 600 years before the birth of Christ, a Father whose heart had already been broken countless times was planning an act of love that would go far beyond the imagination of any earthly mind. What if He had washed His hands of us altogether? What if He had told us never to seek Him again until we could redeem our own hopelessly evil selves?

Instead, He came to live among us as a servant and went to the cross to make a way for us to return to Him.

Yes, there will be consequences — eternal ones — for every soul that rejects the amazing grace of God offered through His Son. But for now, the offer stands.

Here’s the message of Christmas: A loving Father is still waiting for us to come home.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A meditation on ingratitude

We hear plenty of platitudes at Thanksgiving time about expressing gratitude. Let’s talk instead about what might be on your mind: ingratitude.

Maybe it’s the “friend” who now ignores you for reasons you can’t fathom. Or the colleague who stabbed you in the back. Or the relative who repaid your kindness with insults.

You’ve done the same or worse; so have I. But let’s not dwell on that. It’s more satisfying to stew about what others have done to us — and how much they’ll regret it one of these days. Not that we would personally seek retribution, mind you, but we wouldn’t protest if the Lord corrected them with a little extra gusto.

Most painful of all is the hurt sometimes inflicted on us by our own children. Shakespeare understood: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” lamented King Lear after being deceived and humiliated by one of his two no-good daughters. Of course, Lear foolishly rejected his third daughter, who was faithful and true, so ingratitude flows both ways.

A few other quotations on the subject:

* “Do you know what is more hard to bear than the reverses of fortune? It is the baseness, the hideous ingratitude, of man.” — Napoleon Bonaparte

* “Most people return small favors, acknowledge medium ones and repay greater ones with ingratitude.” — Benjamin Franklin

And from the great poet John Milton, a vivid observation that applies to the way many people observe Thanksgiving these days:

* “Swinish gluttony ne’er looks to heaven amid his gorgeous feast, but with besotted, base ingratitude, crams and blasphemes his feeder.”

Ouch. That last one hits close to home. The worst ingratitude is not what we express toward one another, but what we express toward God. Indifference. Greed. Rebellion. Prayerlessness. Bitterness. They all have their roots in ingratitude toward the One who owes us nothing but gives us everything — including Himself.

The familiar story in Luke’s Gospel of Jesus healing the 10 lepers comes to mind:

“While He was on the way to Jerusalem, He was passing between Samaria and Galilee. As He entered a village, ten leprous men who stood at a distance met Him; and they raised their voices, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When He saw them, He said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they were going, they were cleansed. Now one of them, when he saw that he had been healed, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice, and he fell on his face at His feet, giving thanks to Him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered and said, ‘Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine — where are they? Was no one found who returned to give glory to God, except this foreigner?’ And He said to him, ‘Stand up and go; your faith has made you well’” (Luke 17:11-19, NASB).

All 10 were healed. Only one turned back to glorify and thank the Lord. You can hear the hurt in the Master’s voice: “But the nine — where are they?”

They were enjoying the blessing, without blessing the One who gave it. Many of today’s fashionable worldviews — whether secularism, atheism or some other -ism — are explicitly based on cutting God out of the picture. Even worse, however, is paying lip service to Him while your heart is ungrateful.

This Thanksgiving, don’t be among the nine. Be the one who turns back to fall at the feet of Christ in gratitude for the ultimate gift: Himself.

Friday, November 16, 2012

For Middle East, harvest time is now

There’s a question that keeps Jack Logan* awake at night: Who is praying for the people of Syria?

Not just because a murderous civil war is tearing Syria apart, though that tragedy is unfolding. Not just because millions of Syrians are suffering and need help, though they do.

Who is praying for the Syrians God is drawing to Himself in the midst of great struggle? (See stories about ministry response among Syrian Muslim refugees at http://www.imb.org/main/news/details.asp?StoryID=11287&LanguageID=1709.) They aren’t embracing Christ because Christians are helping them survive tough times. Like so many others in the region, they are seeking truth because all else is collapsing around them.

Logan, a Christian worker and strategist based in the Middle East, has seen it before.

“Whenever there’s a war and people are affected, the Lord opens up doors to give us access to people that we really never had before,” Logan says. “It happened in 2006 during the war between Hezbollah [the Lebanon-based Shiite Muslim group] and Israel, which opened up unprecedented opportunities for us in an area that we had not had access to before.”

The same thing is going on now, as Syrians stream out of their embattled homeland — and as the peoples of the Middle East continue to cope with the changes unleashed by “Arab Spring” political/social movements across the region.

“My job is developing strategy for engaging the lost, the unreached and unengaged peoples for this part of the world,” Logan reflects. “But when we’re presented with these opportunities, it’s pretty reactionary. It’s humbling, but at the same time it’s incredibly exciting, because we see the Lord moving in ways that we never expected. I don’t know how to explain it. I just know that in times like these, we have to have our senses tuned to what the Lord is doing. Hundreds of thousands of people that we had no access to inside of their country, we now do. It takes giving up our own agenda and saying, ‘What do we need to sacrifice in order to get to these people that God has put on our back door?’

“During these crises, this Arab Spring, this stirring of peoples across the Arab world, God is creating opportunities like we’ve never had before to reach people at a point of need, to embody and proclaim the Gospel.”

Yes, the wider region is experiencing unpredictable turmoil. Yes, violence and persecution have increased. Yes, it’s dangerous to be a follower of Christ in certain places. Yet amid the ongoing crisis, the Arab world has become a harvest field for the Gospel. But after generations of sowing seeds in rock-hard ground, how many Christians believe it?

“The harvest is now,” Logan insists. “A few years ago I’m not sure I would have believed that myself. But it’s not only believable right now, it is a reality. We’re not preparing the harvest; we are working in a harvest field. This has to be ingrained in our expectations. People look at the Middle East and they see a barren land. They see sand and desert and dry land, not just physically but spiritually, and they look at it as an unreachable place. But our expectations are most often defined by past experience and present realities, when they should be based on what we believe God is going to do.

“If we believe we’re working in a harvest field, then we’ll give up anything to make Christ known and worshipped in the darkest of places. I want the church in the United States to believe that. I want us [workers in the region] to believe that.”

Sounds a little like Hebrews 11. Earlier followers of the Lord experienced some very tough sledding in the Middle East — before and after the birth of the Christian church — and they turned the known world upside down by faith. Today, some of the most faithful and courageous heirs of that tradition are Muslim-background followers of Christ. Many have come to Him after experiencing dreams and visions, after counting the cost of obedience, after paying a steep price. I sat in a church with one such believer in Egypt earlier this year and listened to him gently challenge Christian-background brothers to overcome their fear and timidity in the face of opposition.

“Christians have a problem with understanding their own religion, because if they understand their faith they’re going to make real change,” he told listeners. “The church has to move; it is not moving toward those from other backgrounds.”

A veteran Egyptian pastor leaned over and confided: “He is the future of the church in Egypt.”

Opposition is a given. Always has been. Followers of Christ who understand that recognize the signs of the times and keep moving.

“These are people who are walking in darkness, who are blinded by the god of this world,” Logan says. “We have the light of the Gospel inside of us. Do we perceive ourselves as Gospel bearers in a dark world? If so, then we have a responsibility to take the Gospel to the darkest places. Jesus told us to take the Gospel to all nations and make disciples. We know there will be people from every tribe, language, people and nation before the throne, so we know that there will be people from the Middle East. There will be Syrians, there will be Sunni, there will be Alawites, there will be Kurds, there will be Druze, there will be Palestinians, there will be Salafists, there will be activists, there will be secularists, there will be all these people who will worship Jesus.

“I hope the church will consider what it’s going to take for that to happen. We cannot get to the unreached and unengaged doing things the way that we have done. It’s going to take a higher tolerance of risk. It’s going to take a greater resolve to sacrifice, to give up and to follow Christ with abandon. What we really have to come to grips with is: Do we really love Jesus that much? People ask me all the time when I’m in the States, ‘Isn’t it dangerous?’ I’m not sure that’s the right question. Ultimately, there’s nowhere safe these days. The real question is: Is Jesus worth it? If it’s about ourselves, our safety, our future, or even doing it for the sake of the nations, that’s not enough.

“It’s got to be about Jesus.”

*(Name changed)

Monday, October 8, 2012

The face of joy

I’m thinking about two faces: one belonging to an elderly woman, the other to a little girl.

Both radiate pure joy.

The woman’s face appeared in a photograph taken during a fall concert tour of Ukraine by the Singing Men of Texas, a gifted ensemble of Texas Baptist music ministers, pastors and laymen. Their mission: “to glorify God and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus” — and they do it all over the world. In recent years they’ve frequently visited the former Soviet republic of Ukraine, where a rich tradition of men’s choral music draws large crowds to their performances.

Many Ukrainians have decided to follow Christ — or deepened their faith in Him — through the concerts. But the woman’s face captured me. It was framed by her arms, reaching for heaven, palms raised upward in expectation of God. Her eyes shone from deeply lined cheeks. Her toothless smile was more beautiful than anything Hollywood can produce. Who knows what hardships she might have suffered during communist times, or since? All that faded as she lifted her face in worship.

The little girl’s face appeared in a missionary’s story. The missionary teaches women who offer palliative care to dying people in a part of Africa wracked by AIDS. One day, the missionary asked one of the women how her patients were doing.

“I need to go visit a little girl,” the woman responded. “Would you like to go with me?”

The missionary describes the visit:

“She grabbed a baby doll that someone had given their palliative care group, and we started off. She told me this little 9-year-old girl had cancer, and she had promised to bring her a baby doll. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? We walked through the dirty compound a distance until we reached her small home.

“I’m not sure I was truly prepared for what I was to see. As soon as we walked in the home, this sweet little girl broke into a huge smile, even though her cheeks were shallow and her eyes dark. Her small frame was wrapped in a blanket except for the thin little arms, which sat motionless on top of the blanket. She was also paralyzed in both arms and legs.

“The lady I was with asked me to give the doll to the little girl. So I showed it to her, took it out of the package and laid it on her stomach, propped up against her little arm. She kept grinning. She said, ‘I love you!’

“The woman taking care of the sick little girl [was] her aunt … since both her parents had died; they probably were HIV-positive. As the aunt shared about the little girl’s blood cancer and her chemo treatments, the girl just sat there, limp, staring down at her new doll.”

But she was filled with joy. Her face showed it.

“I prayed for the little girl and her family, and we left,” the missionary writes. “I thanked my friend for allowing me to go with her. She said, ‘No need to thank me; it was all part of God’s plan.’ She is one woman, along with a few other palliative caregivers, who are trying to reach out to their community and help those who are sick. She is making a difference, one by one. …

“Sometimes I get so overwhelmed when I go into the homes of these patients — seeing how they live, how little they have, the health care they are provided with, and yet they still manage to have a smile on their face. I get overwhelmed because I feel so helpless sometimes. I can’t possibly help everyone I come into contact with. But I like what my friend said to me — that what we had done was all part of God’s plan. I had no idea this morning what my afternoon would look like, but God certainly did!”

Less than two weeks later, the little girl died. But the joy on her face — and the face of the elderly Ukrainian woman — came from a love more powerful than sickness, age, suffering and death.

Would they ever have known that love if faithful followers of Christ hadn’t pointed the way?

“I pray that God will let me be His light wherever I go and that I will influence the world around me, one day at a time,” says the missionary. “Please pray for my friend and the other palliative caregivers. They work in a huge area with a lot of hurting people. Pray that these men and women will be the light of Jesus to their community.”

And pray that you will be the light of Jesus in your own community. There’s nothing better than seeing the joy on the faces His light illuminates.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

For adventure seekers only

A magazine headline recently caught my eye: “What adventures are actually left?”

Summits reached for the first time. Deserts crossed. Daring journeys never before attempted — or survived, as the case may be.

It’s a subject worth considering in memory of one of the greatest adventurers of them all: Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon. Armstrong, who died Aug. 25, made no secret of his disappointment in America’s flagging commitment to human space exploration. How long will it take us to get back to the moon, he wondered aloud in his later years, much less Mars? The cosmos awaits.

Back here on earth, though, “are there many meaningful challenges left for intrepid explorers?” asked an article in the BBC News Magazine. “[G]enuine firsts in exploration are getting hard to find. The world’s greatest peaks have all been climbed. The earth has been circumnavigated many times by plane, foot, bicycle and balloon, among other means of conveyance. Many of the major rivers, lakes and seas have been swum or canoed. There are few genuine unknowns. Satellite navigation technology allows mankind to see almost every river, copse and hill.”

It’s a far cry from the great ages of discovery, when wanderers trekked and sailed across vast, unknown expanses in search of new lands and peoples, trade routes, knowledge, gold.

“In the late 19th century a ragbag of missionaries, gentlemen explorers and speculators began the scramble for Africa with little knowledge of what awaited them,” the article observed of the last such age. “Exploration today is a dying art. The new feats are often about endurance as much as discovery. Firsts are ever more specialist and technically defined — first successful dive at the North Pole … first person to jetpack across the English Channel … oldest woman to climb Everest. …”

There are plenty of such specialized challenges for adventurers with the time, money and guts to pursue them. Want to ski the fearsome heights of K2 in the Himalayas? Go for it, if you have your will in order. Want to swim the Pacific? Someone is planning to, but if you hurry you might beat him. Or take a dive: The world’s ocean floors remain a greater mystery than the surface of Mars, according to the BBC.

The spirit of adventure also burns brightly beyond the arenas of extreme sports and scientific exploration, however. There are people willing and eager to do whatever it takes to speak the name of Jesus where it has never been heard.

Aaron Juergens,* for instance. He’s a 20-something guy who grew up climbing mountains in Colorado for fun.

“[A]fter high school I started climbing ‘fourteeners,’” Juergens says of Colorado’s 54 peaks that soar above 14,000 feet. “I would climb three mountains a week.”

Today, as a Christian worker, he hikes the Himalayas, the “roof of the world,” adapting inadequate maps and using GPS units to find people who have never heard the Gospel. Read more of his story, or watch a video about his amazing mountain adventures.

“Not all people live in the cities where you can take a taxi to their front door,” Juergens says. “People live in places that we would never dream of living in but the fact is they live there. That’s where they’re put and they’re not coming to us. We have to go to them.”

That’s exactly what he and his teammates do. The people groups in the remote regions he visits aren’t just hard to reach geographically. Juergens also must cross mountains of superstition, tradition and spiritual resistance. But that isn’t a reason to quit, Juergens says, even when you’re freezing and sick on top of a mountain.

“I’m up there, wearing six jackets and three gloves and five socks and I really just kind of want to sit in a bed,” he says. “But then you think about those people [who haven’t yet heard about Jesus]. If we turn around, who is going to come next? I mean, how many people have turned around? The world is getting smaller. The day is coming when everybody is going to have no excuse whatsoever for not hearing. There’s no excuse for turning back. We keep going.”

That’s the kind of determination that moves the Gospel across mountains, physical or spiritual. Think about that the next time someone tells you the age of adventure is dead. Many mountains remain unclimbed. Are you up for it?

*(Name changed)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A greater dream


With the national political conventions over, the frenzy of a seemingly never-ending presidential campaign shifts into even higher gear as Election Day approaches.

Only two more months of 24/7 political ads — at least for those of us living in battleground states. I can’t wait.

I don’t mean to sound cynical. I’m thankful. Democracy is messy and often dirty, but it sure beats the alternatives. And I’m proud that my kids — I mean, the young adults I still claim as dependents on my tax return — will both be voting for the first time. It’s an interesting election season for them to begin full participation in the privilege of democratic decision making as citizens. Sure, politicians across the spectrum are delivering lots of low blows and half-truths, as usual. But amid the mudslinging, they’re debating key issues such as the proper role of government, how best to serve the public in difficult economic times and America’s role in the world.

They also are jousting over who is the better custodian of “the American dream.” Speakers mentioned America’s “dream” or “story” more than 150 times at the Republican and Democratic conventions, according to the Associated Press. It’s a timely topic, as fears increase that Americans now entering adulthood will comprise the first generation to experience less prosperity over the course of their working lives than their parents did.

What is “the American dream,” anyway? Everyone has his or her own spin on it. My pastor reminded me that the term itself was coined in 1931 by historian and author James Truslow Adams (1878-1949). Adams described it as the “dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. … It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

The second part of that description, written as the nation was descending into severe economic depression, is instructive. Adams saw the dream as more than just “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” (one of the promises of the 1928 presidential election) — or two garages with luxury SUVs attached to every McMansion, which has typified the dream for some folks in more recent years. Rather, Adams dreamed of a society where every member could freely go as far as his or her striving could take them, unfettered by an oppressive state or the old class system of Europe.

Many people, particularly the immigrants entering America every day, still dream that dream. Noble as it may seem, however, it’s not enough. And as prophetic voices such as David Platt have reminded us, it inevitably conflicts with God’s dream. God did not create us primarily to chase self-realization, prosperity or even “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” as Thomas Jefferson put it in the Declaration of Independence. He created us to love Him and to glorify Him among the nations.

“Radical obedience to Christ is not easy. … It’s not comfort, not health, not wealth, and not prosperity in this world. Radical obedience to Christ risks losing all these things. But in the end, such risk finds its reward in Christ. And He is more than enough for us,” Platt wrote in his 2010 book, “Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream.”

If believers continue to opt for the typical American version of Christianity rather than the biblical one, Platt warned, the price will be “high for people who don’t know Christ and who live in a world where Christians shrink back from self-denying faith and settle into self-indulging faith. While Christians choose to spend their lives fulfilling the American dream instead of giving their lives to proclaiming the kingdom of God, literally billions in need of the Gospel remain in the dark.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. And for a new breed of Christ followers responding to the timeless biblical vision — as opposed to a limited American one — it isn’t that way. Their dream: to proclaim the kingdom of God to their own generation.

Despite the aging of the populations of many developed nations, the world population “quietly hit a tipping point in 2010: Over 50 percent of the people around the globe are now under the age of 25,” reported Mindy Belz in WORLD magazine earlier this year. They’re increasingly part of an “emerging global youth culture in which youth around the world have more in common with each other than they do with the adults in their own culture.”

They’re looking for more than jobs, material things or even freedom. They’re looking for God.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Counting the cost

Listen to an audio version o f this post at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/160/16043/16043-88568.mp3

Harry* has a decision to make. A big one. The direction he takes might change history, at least in his town.

It will definitely change his own life forever.

Harry’s town lies in one of the most rigidly traditional parts of the Muslim world. He’s a prosperous and respected businessman, 50ish, his hair and thick mustache mostly gray. He deserves the respect he commands. Unlike some businessmen in his town, Harry doesn’t cheat his customers or gouge the tenants he serves as a landlord.

“Landlords say, ‘Yeah, you fix up the place, you pour your money into it, and I’ll raise the rent on you,’” says an American Christian worker who lives in a house Harry owns. “But he’s not that kind of guy. He’s kept the rent the same for four years. He’s just a good guy.”

With his children growing up and his family well-established, Harry has reached a stage of life when men in his culture grow more introspective and serious about religion. For several years he has talked about going on the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

In the meantime, however, he has developed a friendship with his American tenant. They’ve talked a lot about spiritual things — from the Islamic festival of sacrifice to the supreme sacrifice Jesus Christ made as atonement for humanity’s sin.

“He started asking some things about our Scriptures, and I just took a shot and brought them out to him one day, the full Scriptures in the local language,” the worker recalls. “He took them home. Two months later he was in 1 Samuel. I asked him why, and he said he’d read from the beginning to 1 Samuel. The next time I saw him he was in Jeremiah, and the next time I saw him he was in the Gospels.

“He’s asked all the [common Muslim] questions of me, like: Why do you call Him the Son of God? How do you get your Scriptures? Did Jesus really die on the cross? I told him at least two or three times the crux of the Gospel, about what it takes to get into heaven, that it is repentance toward God and faith in God’s sacrifice. I didn’t try to ‘close the sale,’ but he knows everything I could say about Jesus, who He is and what He has done. I’ve just got to believe he’s counting the cost because he’s listened to me. He’s been very intent. He’s got to make a decision about who Jesus is.”

What does counting the cost mean for Harry? If he makes a decision to follow Christ — and makes it public — he would likely lose his standing in the community very quickly. His children would lose their opportunities for higher education and good jobs. If a Muslim mullah decided to preach against him during Friday prayers, he could lose his life.

His decision could go either way.

“Actually, the last time I saw him, he didn’t look very good,” his American friend says. “He’d been in a life-threatening car accident and had his arm all bandaged up and in a cast. He looked kind of scared. … I’ve seen a man of this age and stature come into the kingdom and then turn back because there was so much pressure [from the community]. Harry’s saying to himself, ‘Could this really be true? How could I ever become a follower of Jesus?’”

If he follows Christ, he won’t make it alone. Nor should he have to. And as an influential man in his town, he could bring others with him if he shares his faith wisely — perhaps starting with his own family.

“We’re looking for a movement,” says the worker. “We’re not looking for one man of peace who has to weather the whole storm. It’s very hard for one person to do that. But if 12 or 15 or 20 pop up, he has some fellowship. We’ve got to have movements. In places like this, when one guy comes to Christ it’s just hard to stand against a raging flood. You’re trying to go upstream.

“So pray that he will listen to what God is saying and count the cost.”
And pray for all the other Harrys now counting the cost in the Muslim world. There are many of them.

* (Name changed)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The 'disease of Me'

Listen to an audio version at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/158/15884/15884-87522.mp3

Legendary NBA basketball coach Pat Riley has led multiple teams stocked with superstars, so he knows something about dealing with egos.

He also knows about winning and losing. What prevents potentially great teams from winning championships, in his view? Not lack of size, speed or talent. Rather, they are sabotaged by what Riley calls the “disease of Me.” Selfish stars focus on themselves. They resent others getting any glory. They’re frustrated, even when the team is winning, if things aren’t going their way.

“The most difficult thing for individuals to do when they become part of a team is to sacrifice,” Riley says. “It is much easier to be selfish.”

That pretty much describes the central challenge of the spiritual life. Following Christ requires sacrificing your own agenda. To do that, you have to get your eyes off yourself — and onto Him. You don’t have to be a superstar to struggle with that. As human beings, our natural tendency is to focus on ourselves, our wants and our needs. Others, including the Lord, get the leftovers.

“I start many sentences both out loud and in my heart with the words, ‘I feel like … ,’” admits a missionary in her most recent blog post. “That’s such a dangerous place for me. I’m a feeler and a discerner and many times that gets me in trouble, spiritually speaking. It causes me to presume that things are a certain way and that people think certain things about me. It makes me focus on myself. The enemy loves to use this in my life — to make me forget that it’s not about me at all.”

Why is it so hard to keep our eyes on Jesus? Sometimes it’s because we don’t believe He is enough. We want Him, but we want other things, too. Comfort. Perks. Recognition. Guarantees. Safety and security. Roadmaps. Faith doesn’t work that way.

Brad Bessent, a missions-hearted pastor who has taught me a lot, gets to the heart of the matter in a reflection on the Gospel of Luke, chapter 5: “Jesus calls Levi, a tax collector, to follow Him. The thing is, tax collectors were the scum of the earth. They were extortionists and hated by everyone. But Jesus says to Levi, ‘I want you.’ He had already assembled a pretty motley crew, a mosaic of people. Fishermen, a leper, a paralytic, all in the same chapter, and now Levi (also called Matthew).

“When Jesus calls, Levi gives up everything to follow Jesus. He was a wealthy man and he left all of that behind him. When you follow Jesus, there is only one guarantee. You are not guaranteed security; you are not guaranteed safety; you are not even guaranteed shelter. All you are absolutely guaranteed is if you follow Jesus, you will get Jesus. So everyone considering becoming a believer has to decide: Is Jesus enough?”

For Levi, Jesus was enough. And he believed Jesus was enough for everyone else. Before leaving all he had to follow the Master, he threw a big party at his house, gathered all his lowlife friends and invited Jesus as the honored guest and center of attention. Levi didn’t say, “Look at me and what I’m doing,” although his friends surely noticed the radical change in his life. Instead, he pointed his friends toward Christ.

Levi has something crucial to teach us today, whether we are reaching out to our own fallen culture or to an unreached people group far away: Jesus is enough, and we must point searching people toward Him alone.

Missionaries learned that truth in a particularly resistant area of Asia that had long been known as a “graveyard of missions.” Christian workers tried again and again to confront the evil practices accepted in the culture, to no avail. They tried to introduce their own customs and values — and failed miserably. At the edge of despair, they remembered Christ’s words: “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:32, NASB). They stopped cursing the darkness and began lifting up the Light that shines in the darkness. At last, seekers became followers, and a Christian church movement was born.

“Missions exists because worship doesn’t,” John Piper declares. But the most effective form of missions is worship — lifting Christ over all things. “Worship, therefore, is the fuel and goal of missions. … 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).

Culture warriors and social justice seekers, take note. You can battle the encroachments of secularism, humanism, greed and injustice all you want, and you might succeed — for a while. But pasting Christian values onto fallen cultures is like putting makeup on a corpse. Without the transforming power of Christ Himself, Christian social and political movements inevitably falter.

It is a matter of focus. Are your eyes focused on the world, on yourself or on Jesus? Jesus says, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how do you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9b, NASB).
A great old hymn puts it this way: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The power of influence

He didn’t have time to encourage a confused kid, but he did anyway.

He was Hoffman Harris, the busy pastor of fast-growing Briarlake Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga. The confused kid was me.

I was a new member of his church back in the ’70s. I was finishing college and struggling with a call to serve God. Pastor Harris had sermons to write and things to do. He had hundreds of other people and priorities clamoring for his attention. But he made time on a regular basis to talk to me, patiently answer countless dumb questions and connect me to key people he knew from his many years in ministry.

When I became a Mission Service Corps volunteer with the Home (now North American) Mission Board, he persuaded an understandably doubtful mission committee at Briarlake to provide partial support for an untested, untried young man. After I left the Atlanta area to join the International Mission Board staff in Richmond, Va., he kept in touch with me — more faithfully than I kept in touch with him.

There was something about “Hoff.” When he preached or talked to you, he wasn’t just saying words. He was giving you his heart. You felt you were the sole focus of his attention. Jesus’ disciples must have felt that way during His earthly ministry.

If not for Hoffman Harris, I probably never would have gotten involved in mission communication. If not for Bill and Joyce Dillard, I probably would have quit after the first few years. Bill was pastor of Parham Road Baptist Church, the congregation I joined after moving to Richmond. The Dillards not only welcomed me as a member, but fed me countless meals (the sure way to a single guy’s heart) and let me sleep on their couch when I was feeling lonely and discouraged. No advance notice was required: The door was open, the place at the table was set. They had their own sons, but happily “adopted” many guys like me through the years.

I could name other friends, relatives, mentors and missionaries who have freely given me their time and wisdom, with no agenda beyond love and no expectation of return beyond the joy they received in giving. If you look back, you will find people in your life who have done the same for you. They are the people you will remember with gratitude when the finish line comes into sight.

I am amazed at the number of books, articles, speeches, sermons, seminars and videos about “leadership” flooding the market these days when so little real leadership is on display. Never has so much been said about something so rarely practiced. Why are so many institutions, businesses, churches, families and relationships crumbling? There are many reasons, but one of them is lack of authentic leadership at every level of society.

“Leadership is about influence,” writes Jeremie Kubicek. “Influence is power. And how you use that power will affect your world and those around you. Will you choose to empower or overpower? To liberate or dominate?”

Kubicek, who runs a company that coaches and develops leaders, is author of Leadership is Dead: How Influence is Reviving it, published in 2011. Yet another book about leadership, you groan. But Kubicek is on to something. He thinks leadership is dead because many so-called “leaders” have abandoned their real responsibility in pursuit of self-aggrandizement, which devalues others, or self-preservation, which defines mediocrity.

“You don’t need massive power or a prominent position to lead positive change in an organization,” he says. “You need only influence: the most potent and underutilized professional resource on the planet. … Great leaders with true influence build relationships by serving the needs of those within their spheres of influence, even as they serve the needs of their businesses. This isn’t just a business tactic; it is a lifestyle.”

And it applies to every area of life. Influence comes from trust, according to Kubicek. No one trusts — or willingly follows — a leader who looks out only for No.1. But people will follow a generous influencer almost anywhere. “To have influence, you have to reach beyond your walls and give yourself for the benefit of others.”

That takes time, commitment and humility.

Maybe this sounds familiar: “For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed — God is witness — nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority. But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:5-8, NASB).

That’s the Apostle Paul, who knew something about leadership, and he didn’t need a fancy seminar to learn it. He mastered the art of true leadership under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit — and the guidance of faithful believers who prepared him to be the great missionary and disciple-maker he was.

Above all, Paul loved and served the disciples he made. His words were powerful, his example more so.

I learned that truth from Hoffman Harris and Bill and Joyce Dillard, who understood what real leadership is all about.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fear itself

Listen to an audio version of this post at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/156/15646/15646-86331.mp3

Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was known as “the republic of fear” among opponents — those who were still alive, that is.

The deposed dictator, who was hanged in 2006, so effectively instilled dread among Iraqis during his decades in power that the mere rumor of a visit from his henchmen was enough to make most citizens tremble and submit.

It’s an old tactic in the tyrant playbook: Rule by fear. Spill plenty of blood early on. Pit various social, ethnic and religious groups against each other. Crush any hint of resistance. Later, you can make a bloody example of the odd rebel here and there — or even a random victim plucked off the street — to keep the rest of your subjects anxious. They must believe that you have eyes, ears and knives everywhere. If you’re a good tyrant, you probably do.

Arab strongmen who have fallen from power more recently used the same methods to greater or lesser degrees, until their populations had enough.

“[T]he Arab awakenings happened because the Arab peoples stopped fearing their leaders,” writes New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman of the Arab Spring revolutions. “But they stalled because the Arab peoples have not stopped fearing each other.”

The dictators carefully nurtured the culture of fear and ran their countries like Mafia dons, Friedman observes, “doling out patronage and protection, while ruling with an iron fist. But it will take more than just decapitating these regimes to overcome that legacy. It will take a culture of pluralism and citizenship. Until then, tribes will still fear tribes in Libya and Yemen, sects will still fear sects in Syria and Bahrain, the secular and the Christians will still fear the Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia and the philosophy of ‘rule or die’ will remain a potent competitor to ‘one man, one vote.’”

Fear runs deep in human hearts and minds — and not just in tough neighborhoods like the Middle East.

A few years ago I wrote about the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina’s glittering capital, economic hub, cultural center and home to a third of the nation’s 40 million people. If you look beneath Buenos Aires’ frenetic pace, wide avenues, trendy bars, tango cafes and European atmosphere, you find deep undercurrents of isolation and fear.

“In a big city, the spiritual strongholds are loneliness and fear,” said a missionary based there. “People live their lives scared. They’re afraid to go out at night. They’re afraid someone is going to take something from them. People who don’t have anything are afraid they’re not going to eat the next day. Fear drives people to do irrational and immoral things. It makes the wealthy become reclusive. It makes the poor get involved in crime or drugs to find an escape.”

The crime rate in Buenos Aires is no higher than in other major world cities. The metal bars guarding doors and windows there represent something deeper than simple fear of crime. Waves of political violence, economic chaos and social turmoil experienced by Argentines since the 1970s have left a legacy of suspicion, disillusionment and cynicism.

“People just don’t trust anyone anymore,” explained the missionary. “They don’t trust their government. They don’t trust the police. They don’t trust the mechanic they take their car to. … It’s a huge barrier to the Gospel, because it makes it very difficult to approach people and share. You’ve got this priceless gift you’d like to give everybody, but fear keeps them from being open to even talking about it.”

What if fear paralyzes not the person you want to tell about Christ, but you? Another missionary believes that’s one reason many Christians don’t reach out to the spiritually hungry immigrants and refugees who come to America.

“God is … bringing the nations to us,” he says. “But the thing that is driving the church is fear. Until we get over our fear, we will not welcome the lost in our midst. We’re afraid of Muslims and we’re afraid of foreigners. … We’re in a free country, and yet we’re not exercising our freedom to witness to the nations in our midst.”

Fear poisons relationships, or prevents them from ever beginning. It sabotages families and nations, motivates murders and sparks wars. It infects whole cultures. Believers should be immune, but we are not.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt told a nation mired in the Great Depression that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he put his finger on a spiritual reality rarely acknowledged by political leaders. Roosevelt urged Americans not to succumb to the “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” He challenged the country to keep its face turned outward, meeting the needs of others also caught in the global economic crisis: “These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.”

The devil loves fear. He is a master at using it to manipulate, hurt and destroy. But he cannot succeed unless you submit. That’s why the Lord tells His children again and again throughout Scripture to “fear not,” to trust Him, to be strong and of good courage. It’s not simply a reassurance; it’s an order.

“Jesus said, ‘Let not your heart be troubled,’” Oswald Chambers writes, referring to Christ’s words in John 14:1. But it’s up to you. “God will not keep your heart from being troubled. It is a command — ‘Let not …’ Haul yourself up a hundred and one times a day in order to do it, until you get into the habit of putting God first and calculating with Him in view.”

Fearing not is a crucial part of obeying God, which means loving Him. And love casts out fear.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

It's the size of your heart, not your church

Listen to an audio version of this post at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/156/15602/15602-86086.mp3

Watch a video about Unity Baptist Church and its embrace of a people group in the Sahara:

Chris Jenkins wants fellow pastors to know something up front: It’s not easy to get your church strategically involved in global missions.

In fact, it might be the hardest thing you ever do.

“I hear the International Mission Board giving us these steps, you do this and you do that, and it sounds easy,” says Jenkins, pastor of Unity Baptist Church, a congregation of about 200 people in semi-rural Prince George, Va. Four years ago, the church called IMB’s prayer office and committed to pray for a nomadic group in the Sahara Desert with more than 300,000 people and only one known Christian.

“We wanted somebody that nobody else wanted,” Jenkins told messengers to the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting in New Orleans during IMB’s convention presentation June 19. “Of course, we just wanted to pray for them and didn’t have a clue what we were getting into.”

They were getting into something that is revolutionizing their church — and might just revolutionize the people group they began visiting in 2010. But that’s getting ahead of the story. Jenkins insists he’s like most pastors: so busy he can barely carve out enough time to handle garden-variety ministry and family life — much less a major commitment to an unknown group thousands of miles away.

“When you’re dealing with a couple hundred people in your congregation and they all have a different idea of what you’re supposed to be doing, it’s hard to put rubber to the road,” he admits. “You’re dealing with hospital visits and marriages falling apart and teenagers getting in trouble at school. You’ve got single moms trying to pay the bills and they need help with their kids. Then you’re trying to have a family of your own. [Jenkins and his wife have three foster children in addition to their own two children.]

“You want the church to be missional, but it’s overwhelming.”

Yet Jenkins and his flock couldn’t ignore God’s call to the nations. Unity has become one of hundreds of churches and entities to act on their commitment to embrace an unengaged, unreached people group.

Before, “We liked to talk like we were a church on mission, but we really knew it was just a show,” he told listeners during the IMB program. “We were more concerned with what was going on inside the four walls [of the church] instead of out.” After Unity’s first trip to the Sahara in 2010, their whole outlook began to change — beginning with Jenkins himself.

“God kind of slapped me around a little bit” on that trip, he reflects. “I was getting comfortable as a pastor. I was getting comfortable doing American ministry. … I saw people, thousands of miles away, that are going through things I could never imagine going through, and they have no one in their life sharing with them that God cares. … How in the world are they going to know it unless we’re out there with our hearts, pouring ’em out, with our hands, getting ’em dirty, and with our voices telling people about the Good News of Jesus Christ?”

That first journey — and three more since — have changed priorities at Unity. Some members are selling cars and taking second jobs, even planning for early retirement, to get involved in the Sahara mission, according to Jenkins. “And what we’ve learned on the global side certainly has helped us on the local side” — whether it’s reaching out to public schools in Prince George or other ministries.

During his time at the SBC meeting, Jenkins had the chance to share his experience with other pastors, both as a participant in the IMB presentation and in one-on-one conversations around IMB’s “prayer tent” exhibit.

“To be mobilizing others when we’re just getting mobilized, it helps you see the work that God is doing,” he says. “But I feel like a cat in water, too. I dove in and here I am trying to help other people. Sure, we’ve sent four teams, but I’m not ignorant enough to think that we’re an engaging church just because we’ve sent four teams. We’re still learning about our people, what our platform is and how we’re going to raise money for the next 10 or 20 years to do this thing.

“But I want to help churches see that this is not just for mega-churches. You don’t have to have a thousand people in your sanctuary on Sunday morning to be able to adopt an unengaged, unreached people group. If you’ve got 80 people in your church, adopt that people group, be as loud about ’em as you can, find other churches of 80 members to team up with, and you might have a thousand people reaching out to that group one day. It’s for all of us. It doesn’t matter our size; it doesn’t matter our race. … That’s who God has called — the local church.”

The first step, he adds, is to take a first step:

“Start praying for a people group. Start researching and learning about them. It’s amazing what God does in your heart as a pastor and the heart of your congregation as they start to literally embrace a people group, not just on paper. Their heart starts to get wrapped around these people and they start seeing a God-sized call and a God-sized task in reaching them. I came [to the SBC meeting] to talk to pastors and see churches get fired up.”

As IMB President Tom Elliff says, it’s not the size of a church that matters in embracing lost peoples; it’s the size of the heart of a church.

And its pastor’s heart.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Be there

Listen to an audio version of this post at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/154/15420/15420-84831.mp3

Don’t just do something; stand there.

Better yet, kneel there. Be there.

It’s easy to switch the verbs in the old, accusatory challenge to do something — anything — rather than stand around. Lots of preachers, speakers and writers invert the familiar phrase to encourage us to slow down and be still. But it’s hard for us action-oriented Americans to stop and just be. Inaction, even for a moment, seems lazy, unproductive, even weird. We should be multitasking.

Stillness? It’s a little scary.

Yet stillness is where we meet God. To be His heart, His hands and His voice — the International Mission Board’s overarching theme for 2012 — we must lay aside the sound and fury of our ceaseless activities, our personal priorities and our very selves to encounter Him. We need His heart to make a difference in the world; not our divided, selfish hearts. His hands do the healing, not our powerless hands. His voice cuts to the core of searching souls, not our meaningless chatter.

“… If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me,” Jesus says. “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it” (Matthew 16:24, 25, HCSB).

There’s plenty of positive action cited in that statement: come, take up, follow, save. Before any of that can happen, however, first there’s a negative action, an “inaction,” so to speak: deny self.

If you’re planning to attend the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting in New Orleans June 19-20, I recommend a visit to the IMB exhibit. This year it won’t be a media extravaganza or a place to socialize and pick up lots of free stuff. It will be, in essence, a tent — a place of prayer. There, you will find four stations where you will have the opportunity to deny yourself, to take up your cross, to follow Jesus and to lose your life for Him.

When you emerge, you’ll find visual representations of the thousands of people groups throughout the world who have yet to hear the name of Jesus, much less His loving offer of salvation. They wait for someone with God’s heart, hands and voice to come to them with the joyful news. He longs to send someone. Maybe you are that someone.

But you need to spend time in the tent first — whether it be a physical place or an inner one — to become one with God.

Psalm 46:10 is my favorite mission verse: “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”

Stop. Listen. Know. Be. Only then can you act in obedience — no matter the cost. Only then will you know His power.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Shut up, they explained

Listen to an audio version of this post at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/151/15180/15180-83963.mp3

A letter recently published on my local newspaper’s editorial page helpfully summarized the view of many secular folks when it comes to religious expression in public.

We “stand for separation of church and state,” the letter writer declared. “Pick your religion, believe what you want, pursue greater knowledge toward that end. Do it for yourself — and keep it out of public discourse. That’s where the [secular] left stands.”

I appreciate his honesty, if not his all-too-common misunderstanding of church-state separation. Open hostility toward freedom of speech is better than paying lip service to it while working behind the scenes to silence it. Either approach, however, is wrong.

“Keep your views about God and His commandments to yourself,” society increasingly tells believers — particularly conservative evangelicals, traditional Roman Catholics and Orthodox Jews. “Socially accepted truths and morals have progressed beyond your antiquated theologies. If you can’t embrace the new normal, just keep your mouth shut. If you don’t, we’ll shame you, shout you down, call you a bigot. We might even take you to court and charge you with ‘hate speech.’”

Such responses to religious speech undercut the spirit of the First Amendment. You have every right under the law and the Constitution to express almost any religious belief in public. If those views happen to be unpopular or minority positions, you still have the right to express them. That’s why the First Amendment exists.

Free religious expression in the United States didn’t come easily, as I wrote in a 2008 column, and it won’t endure without vigorous exercise and defense. State church tyranny was the main opponent in the nation’s infancy. Baptists, who experienced persecution by state-controlled churches in Europe and early America, played a key role in helping forge religious freedom in the new nation. Today the threats to religious speech are coming primarily from secular extremists who see biblical Christianity as “intolerant” and evangelism as “hate speech.”

By far the greatest threat to religious expression, however, is the self-censorship practiced by believers. We fear offending someone more than we care about telling him or her the truth. We don’t want to be thought intolerant. We don’t want to go against the pluralist grain.

Let’s find some inspiration — and backbone — from followers of Christ in tougher places who put everything on the line to share truth.

Recently I met several Muslim-background believers in North Africa and the Middle East. They are taking full advantage of the new freedoms they’re experiencing following the “Arab Spring” revolutions last year to spread the Gospel and make disciples. After generations of enforced silence, people in a number of Arab countries feel freer to express their opinions and seek their own answers — for now, at least.

“Sometimes I even get calls from [militant Islamists],” one believer told me. “They just want to know who is the right God. … So I think God is really working after the revolution.”

Another believer was arrested multiple times for telling people about Jesus before the revolution in his country. He just could not stay silent about the wonderful truth he had found. He’s wiser now about when to speak and when to be quiet, but he’s just as bold.

“Before, I was controlled by the government,” he explains. “I had to go and sign in every three months and tell them everything — what I did, where I moved. If I was having any guest [in my home], I had to go and ask permission. I really hated that. I feel more free now in doing God’s work.”

Even if the new freedoms disappear, however, these believers will keep telling others that Jesus is the only way to God. If they aren’t afraid to talk about the truth in places where the hammer could come down at any moment, why should we be?

Don’t squander your freedom in the land of the free. It’s not guaranteed.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Speak, memory

Listen to an audio version of this post at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/150/15063/15063-83366.mp3

Don’t look back.

That is one of the worst pieces of advice you’ll ever hear. Naturally, you hear it all the time. “Positive thinkers” and pop psychologists love it. Forget the past, they say. You can’t change it, so why dwell on it? Move on. Sunshine will follow the rain. Tomorrow will bring a new you. The next shot will fall. Insert your own cliché here.

“Waste not fresh tears over old griefs,” recommended Euripides, the great Greek dramatist, more than 2,400 years ago. Now that’s good advice. But regret is a response to memory, not memory itself. To forget our past is to forget who we are — individually and collectively.

Yes, the Apostle Paul urged believers to lay aside the past in their pursuit of knowing God: “(F)orgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13b-14, NASB). And he’s right. We should not obsess about past sins and failures, but look to God, rejoice in His patient mercy and relentlessly follow Him toward glory.

But Paul never forgot where he came from, what he had thought as a Pharisee and what he had done as a one-time enemy of the Gospel. He never forgot the long, dangerous, often discouraging road he had walked as an early apostle of Christ. And he never forgot the many ways God’s grace had pulled him from the pit to the mountaintop. Those experiences forged Paul into the man he eventually became. They stayed with him, informing his future attitudes, decisions and actions.

“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner wrote. “It’s not even past.”

Nor should it be. The Lord gave us memories for a reason. Even the painful ones. The Divine Physician has a way of healing us without removing our memories entirely. If we forget the pain, how can we minister to the hurting? If we forget the darkness, how can we lead others toward light?

Memories are precious things. As Saul Bellow observed, “They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.” Who are you without the memory of who you have been, what you have thought and done, the people you have known? That’s why memory-killing afflictions such as Alzheimer’s are so heartbreaking, both for the people who experience them and their loved ones. Alzheimer’s is a thief that steals whole chunks of who we are.

A recent movie you should see is a meditation on memory. “The Iron Lady,” about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, won actress Meryl Streep her third Academy Award. It might be Streep’s greatest performance in a long line of them. The film itself, however, has been criticized for focusing not on Thatcher the world-changing political leader of the 1970s and ’80s but on Thatcher the lioness in winter, elderly and infirm, confused, engaging in imaginary conversations with her late husband, Denis.

I found it deeply moving. Streep as Thatcher reflects on past events large and small: a girlhood working for her grocer father, meeting her future husband, challenging a male-dominated political world as a young member of Parliament, motherhood, triumphs and defeats, war and terrorism, national turmoil and progress, doubts, questions, resolution.

Looking back is an inward journey we all must take as our earthly lives approach the farther shore. Memory helps us along the way.

Memory is a gift from God. More than that, it is a command and a sacrament. “Do this in remembrance of Me,” Christ told His disciples as He introduced the Lord’s Supper on the last night He spent with them (Luke 22:19-20).

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits,” David sang (Psalm 103:2, NASB). Remembering who God is and the glorious things He has done is part and parcel of worshipping Him.

In his great farewell address to the children of Israel as they prepared to enter the Promised Land, Moses thundered: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, NASB).

Why go to such lengths? To remember — from one day to the next, from parent to child, from generation to generation and age to age — who God is and what He has done. Review the tragic history of the ancient Israelites to see what happened when they forgot. Remembering God is as important as obeying Him; indeed, it is part of obedience.

Look back. Remember. Praise God for His marvelous grace and mercy. Then look ahead without fear or regret.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Uncool? Deal with it

Listen to an audio version at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/148/14842/14842-82233.mp3

I had to sympathize with rock singer Bono when he discovered he was uncool.

Uncool? The frontman for supergroup U2, one of the biggest bands in the world? The activist who travels the globe and meets with kings and presidents? The guy so hip he probably wears his trademark designer shades in the shower?

Yep. Uncool. He learned the hard truth a few years ago from his teenage daughters. First off, to teenage daughters a dad is uncool by definition, especially if he’s pushing 50 (Bono was 48 at the time). But they were particularly mortified when he droned on and on about global issues while some other celebs were visiting their home. He overheard one daughter telling the other, “He’s probably boring their [pants] off talking about Africa.” Actually, he admitted, “I probably was.”

The horror. I can relate.

In truth, I’ve been uncool so long that I no longer know (or care) what is cool. I haven’t even heard the bands that were topping the charts 10 year ago, much less the ones with the most iTunes downloads now. On the plus side, there’s liberation in being terminally uncool. You don’t have to watch trends anxiously and waste a lot of time and money trying to keep up with fads. That’s for teens. There’s something sad about a middle-aged man or woman trying to look and act like their kids — or grandkids.

Too often, however, churches try to do that.

Tullian Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., has a “You may be too fashionable if …” list for Christians.

You may be too fashionable, he warns, if:

-- You look around at church and notice that everybody is the same age and looks and dresses pretty much like you do.

-- You can’t stand singing a worship song that was “in” five years ago — much less singing a hymn from another century.

-- You believe social justice is more important than evangelism, or that evangelism is more important than social justice.

-- Your goal in spending time with non-Christians is to demonstrate that you’re really no different than they are. To prove this, you curse like a sailor, drink like a fish and smoke like a chimney.

-- You’ve concluded that everything new is better than anything old, or that everything old is better than anything new.

-- The church you’ve chosen is defined more by its reaction to “boring” churches than by its response to a needy world.

-- You’ve decided that everything done by the church you grew up in was way wrong and you’re now, thankfully, part of a missional “community” that does everything right.

-- The one verse you wish wasn’t in the Bible is John 14:6, where Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” That’s way too narrow!

Way back when I was cool (like, 35 years ago), I played drums in a Christian rock band. We took old-time hymns and turned them into 15-minute jams. “Jesus freaks” with long hair and tie-dyed T-shirts were coming into traditional churches in those days, and it caused a commotion. I remember when we played at our church and cranked up the amps. Our pastor’s wife, who had really big hair and played solos on a grand piano like Liberace, stood up and walked out on us. We needed a spirit of unity. We — some of us, at least — found it in the words of one of our favorite songs, “Little Country Church” by Chuck Girard:

“They’re talkin’ ’bout revival and the need for love

That little church has come alive

Workin’ with each other for the common good

Puttin’ all the past aside

Long hair, short hair, some coats and ties

People finally comin’ around

Lookin’ past the hair and straight into the eyes

People finally comin’ around. …

God’s house can accommodate many styles. He doesn’t have security at the door deciding which sinners are trendy enough to enter.

There’s nothing wrong with seeking relevance and connections to the world beyond the church. Effective missionaries are passionate and respectful students of the cultures they’re trying to reach with the Gospel. They seek to learn which aspects of culture are bridges they can use to share Truth, which aspects oppose Truth and which are neutral. As the Apostle Paul, the greatest missionary of all time, said, “I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22b, NASB).

But Paul never hesitated to deliver Truth straight up, unvarnished and in your face when the situation called for it, regardless of the consequences.

“Christians make a difference in this world by being different from this world; they don’t make a difference by being the same,” Tchividjian writes. “To be truly relevant, you have to say things that are unfashionably eternal, not trendy. It’s the timeless things that are most relevant to most people. … When the relevance of God's Word reigns supreme among God’s set-apart people, we influence the wider culture by expressing His revealed truth with both our lives and our lips.”

A global faith

Patrick Johnstone discusses evangelical Christianity’s global “awakening” (VIDEO) --

Evangelical Christianity, once marginalized geographically and philosophically in the modern world, has become a truly global faith over the past half century — with two main competitors.

“The chief contenders for the hearts and souls of those living in the 21st century [will be] Muslims, evangelical Christians and secularists,” says renowned British mission leader Patrick Johnstone, former editor of Operation World, the bestselling guide that has helped millions of believers learn about and pray for the peoples of the world.

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

But you won’t hear much about that phenomenon from Western media, since they are largely controlled by secularists. Nor will you hear much from them about the staggering growth of the church in China, which is on track to have the largest evangelical Christian population in the world by 2050.

You will, however, find information about these trends — and much more — in Johnstone’s new book, The Future of the Global Church. It contains a trove of data and insights about the state of the church and the world today and in the years ahead — not to mention a fascinating summary of the past 20 centuries (find out more about the book and accompanying media resources at http://www.thefutureoftheglobalchurch.org/). Johnstone, European regional director for the WEC International mission agency, recently visited the United States to speak about his new book and meet with various mission groups, including IMB mission strategists.

What caused evangelical faith, once based largely in the United States and Europe, to spread so far beyond its traditional strongholds in the second half of the 20th century? The post-World War II missionary movement had a lot to do with it, along with the major expansion of local church involvement in missions, the spread of education and communication and, paradoxically, the end of Western colonial power in many countries.

The year 1960 marked a turning point, from Johnstone’s perspective.

“One day in eternity, I think we will look back and see God’s hand in so many things,” he says. “1960 was the great year of independence in Africa and many people thought, with the missionaries and the colonial regimes gone, Christianity would be pushed out. It did the exact opposite. It became indigenous and exploded. In many countries that are now broken politically, the churches became the source of stability and hope for the future.”

Unknown to most Western Christians at the time, the same phenomenon — the growth of truly indigenous churches, often amid persecution — was quietly unfolding in many parts of the communist world.

Johnstone also credits the “extraordinary work” of Billy Graham in encouraging a globe-spanning movement.

“The influence of Billy Graham has been quite dramatic,” he says. “Of course, he’s known for his evangelism and giving back credibility to evangelicals who preach the Gospel. The respect that he’s had around the world is amazing. But in the light of eternity, what Billy Graham did in pulling Christians together to focus on world evangelization brought evangelicals together globally for the first time ever. I think it gave a cohesion and a focus that had never been there before.”

Johnstone calls the period since 1960 the “Sixth Awakening” in church history (read the book to learn about the first five). The new, indigenous Christian movements around the world and the new focus of missionaries on reaching unreached peoples culminated in the 1990s.

“That was the decade in which more people became evangelical Christians than in any decade of history,” he observes. “I don’t believe it will happen again unless there’s a mighty work of the Spirit of God in a country like India. … I believe there are going to be breakthroughs amongst Muslims, and we are seeing some, but because of history those are going to be harder to see happen because of the long interaction between Muslims and Christians that has been very bitter and painful on both sides. Nevertheless … let’s trust God for it.”

Now that their faith has become mainstream, Johnstone warns evangelicals to avoid pride and complacency.

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

He also urges U.S. and other Western churches and mission agencies to pursue “multi-polar global leadership” with their Asian, African and Latin American brothers and sisters. The United States still leads the world in the sending of missionaries; it supported 127,000 of the world’s estimated 400,000 Christian missionaries in 2010, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. Are they willing to share leadership — and turn it over when the time comes?

“Wherever you look in the Christian world in the 21st century, [mission teams and strategies] that remain mono-ethnic are not going to survive,” Johnstone predicts. “I sometimes jokingly say that the perfect multicultural team would have a Brazilian evangelist, a Korean church planter, a Chinese to manage the accounts, an Australian to mend anything that’s broken and an American to handle planning and goals.”

Thursday, March 22, 2012

More little Easters

Listen to an audio version at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/148/14841/14841-82226.mp3

Easter is coming. It’s the day we mark the biggest moment in history: the moment the resurrected Christ conquered sin and death.

A few years ago I shared some “little Easters,” the quiet epiphanies that continue to reveal His risen presence on the move around the world. Here are a few more.

STEPPING UP—“This is what we’ve been waiting for, praying for: Zambian people telling Zambian people about Jesus!” reports an IMB mission team in Africa. “Recently an 18-year-old, blossoming preacher-in-the-making traveled more than three hours by public transportation and his own two feet to encourage the new Litoma Baptist Church.”

The small congregation, only 6 months old, had barely begun when the missionary couple who helped them get started returned to the United States for a time. The fledgling church’s members needed support and reassurance. The young “Timothy” taught the older members, and during a revival weekend, 18 new people came Sunday morning.

“Thank you, Lord, for making this young man missions-minded for his own people!” the IMB team prays. “Thank you that he refused to let anyone look down on him because of his youth (see 1 Timothy 4:12). Continue to bless him and provide peace in his unstable home life. May Your wonderful words of life go down deep into the hearts and minds of the 18 men and women who expressed an interest in the church.”

RESISTING THE DARKNESS—“A man came last night to ask my husband to go and pray for his daughter who was sick,” another missionary in Africa writes. “When my husband arrived, there were several people waiting outside the hut — eerily silent. As he entered the hut, the girl was acting very strangely and it soon became apparent that this girl was more than likely demon-possessed. He began to pray for her, laying hands on her and calling out the demons in Jesus’ name. After some time, he walked around outside with the girl’s father, praying for protection on the whole family.”

After an hour, the girl began to act normally. She came outside to sit by the fire.

“Witchcraft is very real here,” says the missionary. “Many people can become demon-possessed. The girl’s father had asked for my husband to come and pray for his daughter [instead of seeking out a witchdoctor]. Praise the Lord for the belief of this man, a relatively new believer. Pray for renewed spiritual strength that will glorify the Lord in all things. Pray that this girl will be delivered from the powers of darkness and accept Jesus as her Savior.”

HOPING IN CHILDREN—“How do you know He likes flowers?” the child demanded, challenging the missionary who claimed God created flowers because He likes them.

“Because I know God. I talk with Him,” the missionary responded. The other little girls looked at her skeptically.

“You know God?”

“Yes. I meet with Him.”

The girls looked at each other, then began laughing and repeating, “She said she meets with God!” The missionary felt her face burn, but went on to explain how she meets with God every morning at home.

One girl rolled her eyes and said sarcastically, “Oh, you mean you pray.”

“More laughter and mockery. From 7- and 8-year-olds,” the missionary writes. “This is supposed to be the age of innocence. What happened to faith like a child? My heart aches. They’re already so hard, so cynical and skeptical, and it’s a painful reminder that things are not the way they should be. The world is bent. … When I look at the whole, I’m overwhelmed with despair. We’re hurtling further and further away from the Truth, toward the blackness of hatred, pain, evil — toward nothingness.

“But when I look at the moments, I see the hope. Sometimes only like a flash from a firefly in the dark of night, but still, it’s light. Like these small conversations. I pray they’re steps, inching these little ones closer to Love. One little flash at a time.”

WEEPING FOR JOY—A mission volunteer recently crossed a river with a ministry team, leaving behind a busy city for a rural area dotted with palm trees and bamboo houses on stilts. They walked through a village, crossed a rice field and found a one-room schoolhouse with a tin roof and chicken wire covering the windows. Inside were two rows of wooden pews on a dusty cement floor.

“From my seat at the front of the room, I looked out the windows to view lines of fat banana trees all around us,” the volunteer recalls.

“It felt almost like a dream, and I felt so thankful to be in this place with these people. The people of this village were filled with love and humor. I couldn’t get over the words from their leader declaring that they had nearly 75 believers … with many more waiting to be discipled and baptized.”

A man came forward with a guitar, strumming the tune to a song the volunteer team had never heard. But they knew what the song was about by the way the people closed their eyes and raised their hands toward heaven.

“They were singing with as much volume and passion as they could muster out of their thin bodies, and I began to cry,” the volunteer says. “I couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down my cheeks, dirty from the dust of traveling there. The sight of these like-minded believers giving their whole heart in praise of Him who had saved them was more beautiful than any landscape or artist’s rendering I had ever seen. … Like dry land thirsting for rain, the people were desperate for Good Book teachings, and you could see them being watered spirit and soul.

“These people risk everything to come to this gathering. They could lose their homes, be imprisoned, possibly even killed, for standing in their newfound faith. Yet, here they were with hands raised high and smiles on their faces. Despite circumstances and hardships, sacrifices and sufferings, triumphs and blessings, life with purpose is a life worth living, and He is worth it all. That day, for that moment, they got it. They lived it, and so did I.”

Easter is coming.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Cross the street, reach the nations

Listen to an audio version of this post at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/147/14761/14761-81899.mp3

A missionary with years of experience in the Muslim world was visiting back home in the United States when he struck up a friendly conversation with an immigrant shop owner.

“I said, ‘Thanks for coming to America,’” the missionary recalls. The shop owner was moved almost to tears. “He put his arms around me and said, ‘You’re the first person who has ever welcomed me to this country.’”

During the same U.S. stay, the missionary spoke at a church in a Southern town. Before he arrived there, a member of the church surveyed the community’s 20 or so Muslim families. Some of them had lived in the area as long as 10 years. The church member asked them if anyone in town had ever visited to tell them about Christ. No, they answered. Had anyone ever mentioned the name of Jesus to them? No. What was their chief emotion about living in America?

“We’re so lonely,” they responded. “No one ever talks to us. No one wants to hear our story. No one wants to have a meal with us.”

The immigrants arriving in America these days include people who are very hard to reach with the Gospel in their home countries. Here, they can be reached by crossing the street.

But you have to cross the street.

“God is giving us a second chance. He is bringing the nations to us,” the missionary says. “But we’re running from the nations in our midst. Having Muslims in our homes is not brain surgery. But the thing that is driving the church is fear. Until we get over our fear, we will not welcome the lost in our midst. We’re afraid of Muslims and we’re afraid of foreigners. These people are so lonely and isolated. Get out of your church. Go to their homes. Invite them to your home. Shop where they shop.

“We’re in a free country, and yet we’re not exercising our freedom to witness to the nations in our midst.”

What are we afraid of? Lots of things. Fear or suspicion of the stranger, the foreigner, the “other” is part of human nature. The United States has alternately welcomed and shunned immigrants over the past century, opening and closing its borders depending upon events, political-economic forces and social attitudes. More recently, the flood of illegal immigration, the competition for jobs in a recession-ravaged economy and the ongoing reverberations of 9/11 have played into the mix. And racism, even in our supposedly enlightened era, still poisons minds and hearts.

Within the church, there’s another dynamic worse than fear or resentment: indifference. If we’re not sharing the Good News with neighbors we’ve known for years or a lifetime, we’re not going to share it with newcomers who don’t act and talk like we do.

We need God’s perspective. He told the children of Israel again and again to welcome the “stranger and the alien in your midst,” reminding them that they once were aliens and refugees in Egypt.

Throughout history, observed the late, great missiologist Ralph Winter, God has been “kicking people out of one culture into a new one” — from Abraham’s move to Canaan, to Christian slaves carried off by pagan conquerors, to the present day.

God often uses such migrations, forced or otherwise, to place believers in cultures that haven’t yet heard He is Lord. Alternately, He moves nonbelievers into cultures where they can hear the Good News, then sends them back to their own people groups to spread the Word.

The United States leads all nations of the world as a destination for migrants, according to new findings from the Pew Research Center. No surprise there. With 43 million foreign-born residents, our country counts more than three times as many migrants as Russia, the second-place destination. America is home to one of every five migrants worldwide.

“The United States has been the leading destination for many, though not all, religious groups,” Pew reports. “The U.S. also has been the top destination for Buddhist migrants … and for people with no particular religion (including many from China). The U.S. has been the world’s second-leading destination for Hindu migrants, after India, and for Jewish migrants, after Israel.” More than 2 million Muslim immigrants were living here in 2010.

According to mission research, nearly 600 unengaged, unreached people groups can be found in North America — many of them in urban areas. They haven’t heard the Gospel in ways they can understand it and respond to it, and no evangelical group currently has a viable plan to reach them. Up to eight of every 10 refugees resettled in the United States come from unreached areas of the world.

As participants in the recent “ethnéCITY: Reaching the Unreached in the Urban Center”* conferences have learned, many of those new arrivals are moving to medium-sized urban areas and suburbs, rather than the traditional ethnic enclaves of big cities. By 2010, slightly more than half of all immigrants could be found in suburbs.

According to The Brookings Institution, the number of foreign-born people in the United States topped 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.

The five cities with the largest foreign-born populations are New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and Houston. But the fastest growth is happening in smaller and midsize cities. Brookings 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 … 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.” Similarly, the states with the fastest-growing foreign-born populations are North Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, Nevada and Tennessee.

That’s essentially the Bible Belt, folks. How will we respond?

As a mission worker in a Muslim country used to tell me: “These people haven’t rejected the Gospel. They haven’t heard the Gospel.”

*(Co-sponsored by IMB and the North American Mission Board, ethnéCITY is the first tangible expression of a new partnership between the two mission entities, reflecting the reality that national borders no longer define the task of missions in a globalized world. The next ethnéCITY conference is scheduled for May 3-5 in Vancouver, one of Canada’s major urban centers. To find out more or register, visit www.ethnecity.com).