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)