Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Late for Christmas

I’m way late getting ready for Christmas this year.

 I haven’t started shopping for gifts. Guys typically don’t start until the last minute, anyhow, but I haven’t even made a list. Can’t seem to get motivated.

 Maybe it’s because our kids are more or less grown up — and, therefore, too cool to act excited about the big day — but have yet to produce grandchildren we can shower with gifts and hugs.  

Maybe it was the spectacle of predatory bargain hunters pummeling each other to claim the latest gizmos before Thanksgiving Day even ended — a symbol of the pagan orgy of consumption the “holiday season” has become.

 Maybe I’ve just become my father. After I reached the approximate age my kids are now, he used to grumble, “Can we just cancel Christmas this year?” At the time, I chided him for being such a Scrooge. Now I understand his weariness with the whole giving-getting business, if all it means is a boost for retail sales.

 Or … maybe I have yet to prepare a place in the “guest room” of my life for Jesus, the promised Messiah. 

 “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn,” reads the Christmas story in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 2:7, KJV). However, as Ben Witherington III noted in Christianity Today several years ago, the Greek word for “inn” Luke used in his account of Jesus’ birth, kataluma, also can be translated “guest room.”

 Bethlehem was a “one-stoplight town,” Witherington wrote, and might not have had a separate inn for travelers — even during the time of Caesar Augustus’ great census. “Archeology shows that houses in Bethlehem and its vicinity often had caves [at] the back of the house where they kept their prized ox or beast of burden, lest it be stolen,” he reported. “The guest room was in the front of the house, the animal shelter in the back, and Joseph and Mary had come too late to get the guest room, so the [residents] did the best they could by putting them in the back of the house.”

 Is that the best we can do today? Giving a quick nod toward the “true meaning of Christmas” while gorging ourselves on holiday diversions doesn’t even rise to the level of putting Jesus in the back room with the livestock, spiritually speaking. 

 Nothing brings me back to the truth of the first Christmas like reading the Gospel accounts of that silent, holy night, when the Lord entered space and time via the portal of a “one-stoplight town.” And nothing reminds me of the living truth of Christmas like accounts from missionaries and followers of Christ about ways Jesus is revealing Himself around the world today.

n   “Last year on December 25, my friend told me she was going to church for Christmas,” writes a new believer in Vietnam. “I didn’t really understand and thought it was a bit strange. I’d heard of the holiday before but thought it foreign. Why didn’t my friend just go to the temple like everyone else? But now I know the truth. Now I know that Jesus was born for me. Jesus was born for everyone. Last summer someone shared a Bible with me. I read it and knew in my heart that I needed God. Now I can’t wait to celebrate my first Christmas as a believer in Jesus Christ. I’m excited to tell everyone around me about Jesus, born as their Savior.”

n  “Christmas is a time of giving, sharing and remembering the Christ Child who came to give the greatest gift of all: His life as a sacrifice so that we might live,” reflects a missionary in Africa. “When I look at the pastors in Zimbabwe, I see this same kind of sacrifice. Many don’t receive a steady monthly salary. They have difficulty paying their rent and putting enough food on the table so their families won’t go hungry. Yet they spend their days out among their people, witnessing to the lost, praying for them, visiting the sick and helping to bury the dead. Often people come to the house of a pastor, looking for help with money or food. Our pastors give to those in need, even though they themselves could be classified as the needy ones! These dear, faithful ones aren’t giving out of the overflow of their wealth, but out of great poverty.”

n  Another missionary in Africa writes: “The truth is … life on the field isn’t as glamorous as one might imagine when first stepping off the plane. We aren’t camped under a mango tree every day, bringing the Gospel to masses who’ve never heard it before or distributing food to starving people on a daily basis. There are plenty of mountaintop experiences like that when we just look at each other in awe because we get to do this for a living. But the truth is … life happens, and ministry sometimes takes a back seat when it does. Sometimes we find ourselves broken down on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. On our way to the capital to collect a volunteer team one month, the engine of our SUV exploded. Lottie Moon Christmas Offering dollars rebuilt our engine and provided a loaner car in the meantime. Sometimes we find ourselves scooping rainwater off the kitchen floor. Our recently renovated roof cracked in two during a rainstorm one night, flooding our house. Lottie Moon dollars paid for our rent and for the necessary repairs. The truth is … we need you and ask you to pray that people will give sacrificially to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering this year so we can stay on the field, doing what we came to do — glamorous or not.”

OK, that last one was a plug for Lottie Moon giving. But what better Christmas gift can there be than one that helps deliver the Good News of Christ to every “one-stoplight town” on the planet that has yet to hear of Him?

(Visit www.imb.org/offering to discover ways you can participate in the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions.)




Monday, December 9, 2013

Mandela and the power of forgiveness


Revenge. Retribution. Rivers of blood.

That nightmare scenario was feared by many South Africans as the 1994 national elections unfolded. Generations of harsh white control were finally ending, decades of violent racial apartheid had been overturned and multiracial, democratic rule had arrived. But would the long-oppressed black majority demand a terrible day of reckoning? 

“I was in South Africa in the days leading up to the election,” recalls a Southern Baptist missionary. “There was near-certainty that the country would explode in violence and descend into civil war. Those horrors were averted because one man who was intimate with injustice had the wisdom to realize that retribution was fatally poisonous and redemption a healing balm.”

That man was Nelson Mandela.

The former political prisoner, elected president that fateful year, prevented a descent into violence by the moral force of his call for reconciliation. His words could not be ignored, because Mandela had lived them during 27 years of isolation and hard labor as an inmate in the windswept prison at Robben Island. Years before he was released, he had begun negotiating a gradual end to apartheid with the South African regime.

His 1990 release sparked national euphoria and worldwide celebration, but peace in South Africa was anything but assured.

 “Great anxiety existed in the sub-Saharan African region as the first multiracial elections were approaching in South Africa,” says Gordon Fort, a veteran missionary to Africa who now serves as IMB’s senior vice president for prayer mobilization and training. “President F.W. de Klerk, in conjunction with Nelson Mandela, had led in a courageous movement to abolish apartheid. [But] great fear existed that after the elections, a bloodbath of revenge would ensue. When it became clear that Nelson Mandela and the ANC [African National Congress] party had won the election, in the midst of the celebrations the clear, calm voice of the new president set a new tone calling for forgiveness and reconciliation. 

 “While tackling the daunting task of dismantling institutionalized racism, poverty and inequality, [Mandela] gave a clarion call to national unity and religious freedom. This atmosphere led to a season of opportunity for the church and its missionary representatives to advance the Gospel, engage new people groups and play a part in the healing of the deep rifts within the nation. President Mandela was among the first to invite and welcome the role of the church in the new nation he was seeking to build. After retirement from the presidency, he continued to provide leadership and an example of statesmanship that allowed the church to flourish.”

What happened to the young firebrand who, decades before, had embraced armed struggle to change South Africa when civil disobedience failed?

He never renounced the use of violence to overthrow apartheid, but he sought to avoid it. Suffering, solitude and study tempered and deepened Mandela during his long years in prison. Meanwhile, international pressure — and the tide of history — eventually forced the white regime to negotiate. When the moment came, Mandela the savvy politician was ready. He knew times were turning in favor of his cause, but he also knew the nation had to put anger behind, as he had worked to do in his own life behind bars.

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison,” he said upon his release in 1990.

And after serving one historic term as president, he voluntarily stepped down in 1999 — a rarity in a continent of strongmen — and spent his remaining years fighting against AIDS and advocating for freedom and international reconciliation.

“He led a country in transition with grace, forgiveness, humility and dignity,” recalls Kim Davis, a Southern Baptist author and former Africa missionary who witnessed those historic days close up. “I feel privileged and grateful to have lived there, and President Mandela was an inspiration to our family.”

The influence of faith on Mandela’s post-prison philosophy of reconciliation is open to debate. His mother was a strong Christian believer. He was baptized as a Methodist in his teens. Like many African political leaders of the post-colonial era, his early life and education were strongly influenced by the impact of missionary work. “The Church was as concerned with this world as the next: I saw that virtually all of the achievements of Africans seemed to have come about through the missionary work of the Church,” he wrote in his memoir, Long Walk to Freedom.

There’s no need to idealize Mandela, as many have done, to appreciate his greatness. The smiling grandfather of later years was once the angry young revolutionary. He helped found the ANC’s military wing, which carried out many bombing attacks against the regime. He once was regarded as a dangerous enemy of the United States. The South African struggle, like many national conflicts, became a proxy in the larger Cold War struggle between East and West. The Soviet Union supported Mandela’s ANC. Like other world leaders, he sometimes made questionable decisions. He unapologetically supported several notorious international tyrants. He failed to solve some of South Africa’s deepest problems, including violence and widespread poverty, which continue to afflict the nation.

Mandela himself was keenly aware of his own humanity. He resisted the secular sainthood many tried to impose upon him.

“We are told that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying to be clean,” he wrote. “One may be a villain for three-quarters of his life and be canonized because he lived a holy life for the remaining quarter of that life. In real life we deal, not with gods, but with ordinary humans like ourselves: men and women who are full of contradictions, who are stable and fickle, strong and weak, famous and infamous, people in whose bloodstream the muckworm battles daily with potent pesticides.”

He was human, but he changed the world through perseverance, forgiveness and a resolute refusal to harbor hatred in his heart. 

“People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite,” he said.

That is a truth the world desperately needs. The church needs it, too, especially in Africa and other places where the fires of persecution are burning.

“The death of Mandela may be the axis for predicting the racial futures for many African countries, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, [which] is a deeply defined racial and tribal-based region,” observes Nik Ripken, a longtime missionary in Africa who has interviewed persecuted Christians in many countries. “Many churches are asking, in relation to [attacks on Christians by Islamic militants in] Nigeria and the Somali fundamentalist bombing of the mall in Kenya, if they will continue to ‘turn the other cheek.’ Pastors and religious leaders have said to me that perhaps it is time to only turn one’s cheek ‘seven times.’ After that it is time that if one bombs a church then a mosque goes, if one kills a Christian then a Muslim life is taken.

“Will African believers follow Jesus, and the example of Mandela, and turn the other cheek ‘77 times’ — or align themselves racially? Will they slaughter pigs and toss them into mosques, or be willing to love their enemies as commanded by Jesus? Mandela chose the high road of forgiving one’s enemies. May his example not be forgotten in all the noise.”

Monday, November 25, 2013

Returning home for Thanksgiving


On a recent visit to India, I met a father of two sons. One son has been dutiful and loyal through the years. The other? Well, let’s just say the police were familiar with his activities.

The wild child was a big, hard-punching brawler. He picked fights all over town. When he grew up, he got involved in criminal gangs, bringing shame on the family name.

“Do something about your son, or we will!” angry neighbors demanded.

“Please, give him a little more time,” pleaded the heartbroken father, a Christian leader in the community. “I am praying for him.”

The father wept many tears and prayed many prayers, refusing to give up on his wayward son. One day, the son came home, seeking forgiveness. Today, he joyfully works alongside his father and brother to spread the Gospel in Hindu villages. When asked about his son’s formerly evil ways, the father waves his hand, as if sweeping the painful memories away. Those days are past, he says. My son has come home.

 “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” wrote the poet Robert Frost.

 But here’s the thing: They don’t have to take you in. They probably will, if they love you. But they don’t have to.

 Nor does the Lord have to take you back when you come stumbling home — hungry, ashamed, afraid even to ask for restoration as His child — after abandoning Him yet again. But He will, if you ask with a repentant heart, because of who He is.

 What makes the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) one of the Bible’s most moving descriptions of God’s grace is the way the rejected father responded before his returning son even opened his mouth: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20b, NASB).

 I heard a preacher put it this way: God’s mercy is not giving us the punishment we deserve. God’s grace is giving us the love we don’t deserve.

 That’s what I’ll be thinking about during Thanksgiving this year.

 Another Scripture passage I’ve rediscovered is Isaiah 30:15 (KJV): “For thus saith the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel; In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength: and ye would not.”

 “And ye would not.” How sad is that?

 Instead of returning to the Lord and quietly trusting Him to defeat an invading enemy (mighty Assyria), Jerusalem panicked. God’s people sought help from Egypt, Israel’s old slave master, without even consulting the Lord. It was a political, military — and above all spiritual — mistake doomed to failure. But His offer of salvation stood, and as Isaiah later prophesied, it would be extended to all nations with the coming of the Messiah.

 It stands today, as an invitation both to wandering souls and to wandering nations (peoples). America seems very far from God at the moment. Other nations and peoples are even farther from Him — so far that they don’t even know He is Lord of all. But He is standing at the doorway of His kingdom, scanning the distance for any sign of His children coming home.

 “Come, let us return to the Lord. For He has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bandage us,” appealed Hosea, Isaiah’s contemporary and the prophet of a God heartbroken over the unfaithfulness of His people. “He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day, that we may live before Him. So let us know, let us press on to know the Lord. His going forth is as certain as the dawn; and He will come to us like the rain, like the spring rain watering the earth” (Hosea 6:1-3, NASB).

 Saint Augustine knew all about wandering from God. He was an enthusiastic sinner in a pagan age. But he yearned to return to his true and eternal home.

 “Life with You is the good life indeed,” Augustine prayed in his Confessions. “When we live apart from You, our life is a twisted life. Let us come home to You, Lord, lest we be lost. Life with You is a life in which nothing is lacking, because You are life. We do not fear that there is no home to turn to. We may have turned away from it. But it remains. It did not fall because we fell away. Our home is Your eternal life.”

 Make that your prayer this Thanksgiving. Come home to the One who is waiting for you.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Seeking the unseen kingdom


“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven,” Jesus taught His disciples to pray.
Where is the kingdom of God? You will find it on no map, but it is coming — one soul, one household, one village, one nation at a time.

“We arrived at house number 37 and were met by a sweet, short, red-headed woman with a smile that flashed the most beautiful gold teeth,” an IMB missionary wrote earlier this year. “We introduced ourselves and told her that we came to her village to tell her that God loves her and to give her a copy of His Word. She took the gift and invited us into her home. Once inside, we met a man with a sad, sunken face. He had no legs. The first words out of his mouth were, ‘Yesterday, I wanted to die.’ We talked about faith matters and asked if he wanted to invite Jesus into his life. He asked if he could right now, and then he prayed with great emotion. Then I looked up and saw his wife with tears streaming down her face, and I asked if she had repented, too. She said, ‘Yes, right along with my husband.’

“When we arrived, that house had been full of despair, but the Savior gave hope. I am so grateful that I still have legs and can walk into places and touch lives for eternity. Though I don’t get to experience it every day, I was born for this.”

You were born for it, too, if you belong to Christ. Before you can spread the kingdom of God, however, you must seek it with all your heart. “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you,” Jesus urged in the same sermon that contained His guide to prayer (Matthew 6:33, KJV). Only one thing is necessary, He told anxious Martha: Sit quietly at the feet of the Master, like Mary (Luke 10:38-42).

Worldly kingdoms are visible. They traffic in power, wealth, military might, prestige. Victory is to be sought at all costs. Defeat is the ultimate humiliation.

The unseen kingdom of God, by contrast, glories in humiliation. Its symbol is a cross. In this life, it offers rejection, suffering and death. It demands surrender. The reward: union with the Lord.

“To really be His heart, His hands and His voice, to completely love the Lord with all our heart, soul and mind, we must totally surrender to God’s leadership,” says IMB President Tom Elliff. “This means being unconditionally, wholeheartedly committed to God — first to love Him, then to love others.”

It begins in prayer, a deeper form of prayer than many of us have experienced.

“Most people don’t know how to pray for the fulfillment of the Great Commission because they don’t even know how to pray for themselves,” said Marty Sampson,* an associate pastor from Alabama who attended the first School of Prayer for All Nations, held earlier this year at IMB’s International Learning Center. Sampson, who asked that his real name not be used because he travels to overseas regions hostile to Christianity, said he was drawn to the school out of deep conviction that Southern Baptists have forgotten the importance of prayer.

“I’m convinced the church lags behind in spreading the Gospel because we are depending on ourselves, our strategies and our plans as opposed to the power of God in response to intercessory prayer,” he told IMB writer Don Graham. “I’ve been on a personal journey in my spiritual life of learning to be dependent on Him. And the key to that is absolute surrender. Everything about my life, everything that I value, I’m going to put on the altar so that nothing takes precedence over God.”

Drawing away from the world in order to change the world seems counterintuitive, but it was the spiritual practice Jesus Himself followed. He sought out solitary places to be alone with His Father and to listen to His voice. He returned to the world filled with God’s Spirit and power.

Let’s follow Christ’s example. No strategy, no amount of resources will bring light to the darkness without Him.

To learn more about the School of Prayer for All Nations or to register for an upcoming session, visit imb.org/span. Questions can be emailed to SPAN@imb.org.

Watch a related message from IMB President Tom Elliff: http://vimeo.com/70780511

*Name changed

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Love is a tomato sandwich


The tomato is one of God’s masterpieces.

I don’t mean those pallid, pulpy imposters piled on grocery store shelves. I’m talking about tomatoes right off the vine — the kind you have to visit farms, well-tended home gardens or rural roadside stands to find. Lots of city folks have never even seen a real tomato, much less tasted one. The authentic item is blood red, firm but not hard, bursting with tart sweetness. Bite into it and the juice will gloriously assault your taste buds in a way those store-bought phonies never could.

“It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato,” observed writer and humorist Lewis Grizzard, a fellow Georgian, after extensive experimentation. (Georgia, by the way, grew the best tomatoes — and peaches — while I was growing up there, despite the dubious claims of other states.)

The true poet of the tomato, however, was Guy Friddell of Virginia. Friddell, who died in July at age 92, was a great political reporter for many years. But he reserved his higher literary gifts for meditations about more important things: watermelon, corn on the cob, butterbeans, black-eyed peas. And above all, tomatoes.

“Improve the tomato?” he once asked. “How can one perfect perfection?”

Friddell loved tomatoes best the way I love them: in tomato sandwiches. “Has it crossed your mind that to eat a tomato sandwich, as well as build it, is a work of art?” he inquired of his readers. Indeed it has, since my elders approached tomato sandwich construction with great seriousness and taught me to do the same. Slather some bread or biscuits with plenty of mayonnaise. Carefully apply thick tomato slices and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Add potato chips and an ice-cold soda or sweet tea.

Friend, I’d take that feast over filet mignon most any day.

I passed many a happy hour long ago consuming tomato sandwiches with my grandparents, with my father while watching ballgames on TV, with other dearly departed folks I loved and who loved me. One summer at Grandma’s house, we ate them every day — and had plenty of tomatoes left over to give bulging sacks full to neighbors. In the country, it’s a luxury even poor folks can enjoy together when the harvest is good. If you can’t make a friend over tomato sandwiches, something is wrong with you.

Love is what I’m talking about, of course, not tomato sandwiches per se. But the two go together in my mind and heart. Pick your own food if you’re not a tomato fan. There is something about eating together, cooking for others and sharing food with friends and strangers that goes beyond human affection. It is holy.

The Book of Acts records the joyful times that followed the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles and 3,000 new believers were baptized after Peter preached the Gospel:

“They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47).

That sounds almost strange to many of us, accustomed as we are to individualistic faith and “personal space.” The first Christians prayed together. They worshipped together. They shared their belongings with one another. And they ate together, daily. They also fulfilled the command of Christ, who said, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:13,14).

They not only enjoyed food and being with one another around the table, they used the act of breaking bread as a natural way to bless others — especially the hungry and needy — with the love of Christ. We can do that, too, in our daily lives and our own Jerusalem. We, too, can feed the hungry around us. We, too, can hold banquets and invite lost people the world over who long to be invited to the Master’s feast.

For some ideas on how you can do that, browse through the “Flavors of the World” feature series. Take a global tour of ways Southern Baptists are on mission with God through food — whether it’s drinking tea with new friends, sharing meals with other believers or fighting hunger and malnutrition among the poor and the unreached. The multi-week “Flavors of the World” series launched in October, coinciding with the inauguration of Global Hunger Relief, an initiative of Southern Baptists that succeeds the highly effective World Hunger Fund campaign.

In the meantime, invite a friend — or a stranger who needs a friend — over for a meal. If it includes tomato sandwiches, call me.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Work and mission: no division

An American executive working for a major automobile company in Asia is just hitting his stride: top salary, big results, great industry contacts.
But it’s not enough to satisfy him. He wants more than anything to tell the people around him — many of whom have never heard the Gospel — about the joy and hope he experiences knowing Jesus Christ.

What should he do? Quit his job and go into mission work? Maybe. On the other hand, maybe he’s ideally positioned to do mission work as a natural, integral part of his current job. Maybe that’s why God nudged his company to send him to Asia in the first place.

 “I had to bite my lip a few times when I was talking to him,” admits Scott Holste, IMB vice president for Global Strategic Mobilization, who encountered the executive during a trip to Asia. “My gut reaction was to say, ‘It sounds like God is calling you to be a missionary,’ because that is so much a part of our thinking.”

 God still calls people to be missionaries every day. But in a complex, economically interconnected world where thousands of Americans live and work in places missionaries can’t access, there are other possibilities. He can use all kinds of folks to accomplish His purposes.

 “God may indeed be calling you out of a vocation as an engineer, for example, and calling you into full-time missions,” Holste says. “But He may be wanting to build on the fact that you are an engineer — that you have the skill set, the problem-solving ability and the creativity to bring to the task of expanding the kingdom of God.”

 Holste is heading up an effort to encourage and equip “marketplace professionals”: business people, teachers, medical workers, artists, students pursuing degrees abroad and others already working overseas or open to the possibility. The marketplace is the world. Countless American Christians already practicing their vocations have the professional skills the world wants — and the hope the world needs.

 More than one-third of the world’s nations impose “high or very high” restrictions on religious activity, including mission work, according to the Pew Research Center, which tracks such restrictions in 197 countries. About 75 percent of the world’s approximately 7 billion people live in those nations. The trend toward increasing restrictions, even in supposedly democratic countries, appears to be accelerating, Pew reports. But God, the ultimate Creator, is endlessly creative. Governments, cultures and borders may prevent certain types of traditional mission work, but they cannot stop the spread of the Gospel. Church history has demonstrated that again and again, as merchants, teachers, artists, explorers, even slaves, have taken the Good News with them along the globe’s trade routes — transforming the places and peoples they met along the way.

 There are other spiritual principles here. Work is holy, beginning with God’s own labor: “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands” (Psalm 19:1, NASB). Work done unto God glorifies Him. And work and mission need not be separate; they can be an integrated whole. We often forget that in our fragmented, hyper-compartmentalized lives.   

 Johann Sebastian Bach provides one of the most inspiring examples of integrating work, worship and mission. Bach was a towering creative genius, but he also was a working musician. Many of his hundreds of works were composed for the regular worship services in the German churches he served. Perhaps it felt like a grind at times, even for the great master. But every note he wrote was dedicated to God. 

 “In a simple way, such consecration is seen in Bach’s own hand,” wrote Southern Baptist theologian Jason Duesing in a recent column for Baptist Press. “As he started each composition, he would mark ‘J.J.’ at the top of each page as an abbreviation for Jesu Juva or ‘Help me, Jesus.’ Once he completed the work, Bach routinely concluded with the initials ‘S.D.G.’ representing Soli Deo Gloria or ‘To God alone, the glory.’”

 God has given you unique gifts and a particular vocation. They’re not intended for your glory, but for His. Could He use those gifts among the nations? Maybe you’re already living abroad, like the auto executive in Asia. If you’re a student, perhaps you see yourself working for an international company one day.

If you’d like to explore possibilities and network with others seeking to fit their vocation into God’s global work, there’s a global gathering place for you: Skybridge Community. The newly expanded online network, which launched Sept. 26, offers a range of tools, resources and ways to connect with like-minded professionals. Check it out at www.skybridgecommunity.com. Among other tools, SkyBridge Community features: “SkyCafes,” where you can start a conversation with other marketplace professionals living in your country or region, or with whom you share a vocation or interest; “SkyBlogs,” blogs tailored to specific interests from career transition to culture; and “RightNow Media,” which includes thousands of videos designed to help you live your faith in the marketplace where God has placed you.

The world is God’s creative workplace. Make it yours.

Watch a short video about Skybridge Community: http://vimeo.com/72201246

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

No shortcuts for disciples


Hey sports fans, it’s quiz time: Who broke Muhammad Ali’s jaw during one of the biggest boxing upsets ever?

Ken Norton did. And there’s a truth behind his victory we need to remember.

Norton, who died Sept. 18 at age 70, was a heavyweight fighter during the sport’s last golden era. He wasn’t as famous as Ali or “Smokin’ Joe” Frazier. But Norton, a three-time boxing champion in the Marine Corps before he turned pro, was for real. In his prime, he was a 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pound, one-man wrecking crew who kept coming at you. He won 42 fights, including 33 knockouts, and lost only seven over a 14-year pro career.

Marines don’t go down easy. Norton sure didn’t.

The first time he fought Ali, in 1973, he was a 5-to-1 underdog. Ali, who was looking ahead to a big title shot at then-champ George Foreman, expected the upstart Norton to be a punching bag. Big mistake.

Norton came out firing, pounded Ali and took over the fight. Ali might have been “the greatest of all time,” but he didn’t see Norton’s determined assault coming.

“Godzilla couldn’t have beaten me that night,” Norton said in an interview years later.

How did he do it? Simple: work, work and more work. Norton trained relentlessly for the fight. He allowed no distractions. He believed he could win, and he prepared for it. And once the bell rang, he didn’t listen or respond to his opponent’s legendary trash talk. He let his fists do his talking. Chastened by that painful wake-up call, Ali won two later fights by razor-thin decisions. But he never knocked Norton out in the 39 total rounds they fought.

Hard work doesn’t always triumph over hype. But it wins more often than you might think.

“Success depends on effects,” observes James McIntosh, who coaches leaders and executive teams in the business world. “Do you do things for effect or do you do things for effect? To help you to decide, I’ll ask the question differently. Do you do things mainly to impress others or do you do things to accomplish something of consequence? … Your choice of effect determines whether your success is flash-in-the-pan or sustainable.”

We live in a flash-in-the-pan culture. Commitments and loyalties shift like the wind. People want something for nothing. Short-term profit rules. Make a splash, take the money and run. Let somebody else clean up the inevitable mess.

Children raised to believe they are extra-special expect straight A’s in school just for showing up. They think they’ll breeze through college and into great careers — without years of hard work and despite all economic indicators. Psychologists call this “magical thinking.” It flies in the face of reality, experience and common sense.

Tragically, this mentality has seeped into our spiritual lives. We want closeness to God without prayer, Bible knowledge without study, church growth without missions, blessings without obedience.

God’s economy doesn’t work that way. Grace is free, but it isn’t cheap. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died at the hands of the Nazis because he refused to submit to their evil, regarded cheap grace as the “deadly enemy” of the church.

“Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate,” Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship. “Costly grace,” on the other hand, “is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of His Son … and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. … Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

There are no shortcuts to becoming a disciple. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not the spiritual equivalent of an exercise workout or weight-loss plan. God provides the power and brings the results — not our puny efforts. But He requires commitment and obedience.

The Apostle Paul, master missionary and disciple maker, put it this way: “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:12-15, NASB).

Paul turned the world upside down, one disciple and one church at a time, through relentless work, prayer, teaching and missionary activity — even in his last days in Roman chains, when he wrote the words above.

If you’re looking for flash-in-the-pan success, Christian discipleship isn’t for you.

If, on the other hand, you want to participate in the only enterprise that will produce eternal results, get to work.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The force behind the bullet

Few outsiders venture into Mosby Court unless they’re visiting relatives — or looking for trouble. Almost no one lives there by choice. Six-year-old Ernesha Baites has no choice. Her mother can’t afford to live anywhere else. So the little girl and her teenage sister do the best they can in the tough housing project in Richmond, Va., while Mom works to make ends meet. Ernesha has big brown eyes set off by the white beads in her braids. Her gap-tooth smile could melt steel. She loves cartoons and Rapunzel. The week before she started first grade in September, somebody shot her. He probably wasn’t aiming at her, you understand. He just didn’t care that she was playing near the line of fire. It could have been a drug deal gone bad or a gang beef. This time, witnesses said it was an argument on a basketball court that turned into a shootout. Neighbors said they heard at least 20 shots fired. A bullet hit Ernesha’s leg, but she’s going to be OK. Once she got home from the hospital, she even talked to a local TV news crew. Sitting on the couch in her living room, she showed a reporter the cast on her healing leg. Her relieved mother sat beside her, talking about moving someplace safer as soon as she can get more work hours. A happy ending, you might say — as happy as endings usually play out in Mosby Court, at least. But before the news crew turned off their camera, Ernesha had a question. “Why did they shoot me, if they already saw me?” she asked. The look of confusion and hurt on her face reminded me of the expressions of Syrian refugee children I have met in areas bordering the horrific civil war in Syria. They don’t understand why someone would shoot at them and try to kill their parents or their brothers and sisters. They don’t understand why they can’t go home. Ernesha doesn’t yet understand how cold this world can be, either. But she’s learning. You wonder if she looked into the eyes of the shooter and, if so, what she saw there. I know all the sociological answers: The gunman might have been shot or brutalized when he was Ernesha’s age. He might be trapped in Mosby Court, or someplace like it, by poverty and hopelessness. He might have felt the pressure to “represent,” to kill or be killed, to uphold the street code. But the real force behind the bullet was sin. It never ceases to amaze me how many otherwise sensible folks believe that people, deep down, are basically good and want to do the right thing. We’re just confused or traumatized by bad experiences, they say. We’re misguided or manipulated by others into doing wrong. We have no choice. All these rationalizations sound reasonable at different times or places. But the root cause of wrongdoing is sin. People are basically good? Nonsense. I’m bad to the bone, every bit as bad as the guy who shot Ernesha — and I have fewer excuses. You’re no better, if you’re honest with yourself and God. We are sinners. We have rejected God and sought our own selfish and evil ways, just as the Bible says we would. Technology and science may have produced staggering human progress, but they have improved human nature not at all. We hate one another just as passionately, fear one another just as keenly, disobey God just as willfully as our bloody-minded ancestors. We are sinners — collectively and individually. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t need a Savior. And the world wouldn’t need to know about Him. Recently, IMB President Tom Elliff spoke about having a hard time sleeping after watching the evening news, not just because of wars and disasters, but because “every one of us has learned how to look at the most horrific things you can imagine and be unmoved by them. We know where the great tragedies are, we see people running for their lives and starving physically,” he said. Often they are also starving spiritually. “We’ve learned how to be aware of lostness but not be moved by lostness.” We have an even deeper problem, however, if we cease to believe that sin causes darkness and can be defeated only one way. “We can talk about the problems, the poverty and corruption and politicians. But it all goes back to the darkness they live in,” said a missionary in one of the most corrupt cities in Asia. “The only answer is Jesus Christ.”

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Invisible people

Here’s a handy back-to-school tip: Make friends with that pimple-faced kid sitting alone in the back of the classroom.

You know the one. Nobody wants to be around him because he’s weird. He doesn’t belong to a group, except for maybe the losers. He smells funny. All the cool people make fun of him. The jocks push him around. If you talk to him, he either freezes up or gives you an excruciatingly detailed description of his comic book collection.

Talk to him anyway. Not out of pity. Not because he might become the next Bill Gates. Do it because Jesus would.

The Lord left the flock to search for the lost sheep. He associated with the lowly and He touched lepers. He endured personal rejection and shame, even unto the cross. So if Jesus were in your classroom this year, where do you think He would sit? If He lived in your town, where would He hang out?

God loves the whole world, but He has special compassion for the rejected, the forgotten and the neglected. “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18). He commanded Israel to establish “cities of refuge” for those fleeing for their lives from other lands.

Ten minutes outside an African city lies a place that’s easy to miss. Few people talk about it. It’s called the Outcast Camp. It is home to 90 women and children who have been accused of witchcraft.

“The majority of these women have been abandoned by their husbands, parents and friends. They are forced to farm the chief’s land in return for their safety. They are outcasts of society,” writes a missionary. “We go twice a month to share Bible stories. We facilitate volunteers and churches in America coming to help ensure these women are loved and cared for. When a woman is able to leave the camp and return to her village, we help her transition back. We are excited for this opportunity.

“Please pray for these women and children. Pray for their eyes to be opened to the truths of the Gospel. Pray they would know that though they are outcasts in society, in God’s eyes, they are worthy and someone for whom Christ died.”

Whole peoples and ethnic groups have been treated as outcasts through the ages. The Jews. The Roma (Gypsies) of Europe. Bedouin of the Middle East. The Kurds, caught between multiple nations. Untouchables in caste-ruled parts of India. Tribal peoples. Mountain peoples.

Mountain communities “were often isolated not only from the outside world but also from each other, even when they were not very far apart as the crow flies, but were separated by rugged mountain terrain,” says economist Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. “A pattern of poverty and backwardness could be found from the Appalachian Mountains in the United States to the Rif Mountains of Morocco, the Pindus Mountains of Greece and the mountains and uplands of Ceylon, Taiwan, Albania and Scotland.”

Even when they migrate to dominant cultural centers — willingly or after being driven from their traditional homes by war, persecution and other factors — forgotten people often remain invisible in plain sight.

The United States leads all nations of the world as a destination for migrants, the Pew Research Center reported last year. With 43 million foreign-born residents, America is home to one of every five migrants worldwide. According to mission research, nearly 600 unengaged, unreached people groups also can be found in North America. They have yet to hear the Gospel in ways they can understand it and respond to it. Up to eight of every 10 refugees resettled in the United States come from unreached areas of the world.

Yet 20 percent of all the non-Christians in North America don’t even “personally know” a Christian, according to new research from Gordon-Conwell’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity. The top reason: immigration. Newly arrived Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims or non-religious people move into ethnic enclaves — or right next door — and no Christian attempts to meet, greet or welcome them. True, churches and church folk are the main sponsors of incoming refugees and have been since at least the 1970s. But that doesn’t make up for the waves of immigrants who find no hospitality at all.

“Why does our compassion so often scab over in response to those closest, and most unlike us, even as our hearts burn with passion for ‘those in need’ who are far off?” asks Melody J. Wachsmuth in Mission Frontiers magazine. “Perhaps Jesus told His parable of the Good Samaritan in order to elicit a visceral reaction regarding the true challenge of loving our neighbor — a reaction we can experience today if we take out the word Samaritan and insert a neighbor with whom we share close physical proximity but try to avoid.”

It’s not as hard as you think. It’s like talking to that kid in the back of the classroom: A little kindness goes a long way.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The ‘radical’ backlash

                                                         (PHOTO: Genessa Wells)

The backlash against striving to be a “radical” follower of Jesus started earlier this year.

Giving your all for Christ — including your life — goes back to the earliest Christian disciples and has been one of the marks of true faith throughout church history. “Radical” living, however, has a more specific meaning in this controversy, stoked by several articles in Christian publications. It refers to the commitment young evangelical leaders, particularly Southern Baptist pastor/author David Platt, have urged American Christians to make.

In a popular series of books and teachings beginning with Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (2010), Platt has challenged American believers to forsake the comfortable, materialistic, watered-down Christianity many of us practice. In its place, he calls for the kind of sacrifice and obedience that might lead some to give up possessions, go to risky places to proclaim the Gospel, maybe even suffer and die for Christ. He’s been joined by evangelical voices such as Francis Chan (Crazy Love), Kyle Idleman (Not a Fan) and others calling for a faith that looks more like the one found in the New Testament than the one commonly seen in suburban American churches.

Hold on, respond the critics. You’re setting up an elite category of super-sanctified commando Christians, leaving the rest of us feeling like inadequate, second-class believers. What about everyday folks who quietly go about their lives and provide for their families, while faithfully worshipping God and serving others? Are they failing the test of basic discipleship if they don’t leave their homes and families and do something “radical” for Christ?

“The heroes of the radical movement are martyrs and missionaries whose stories truly inspire, along with families who make sacrifices to adopt children. Yet the radicals’ repeated portrait of faith underemphasizes the less spectacular, frequently boring, and overwhelmingly anonymous elements that make up much of the Christian life,” wrote Matthew Lee Anderson (founder of the influential Christian blog “Mere Orthodoxy”) in a March cover story for Christianity Today magazine. “[T]here aren’t many narratives of men who rise at 4 a.m. six days a week to toil away in a factory to support their families. Or of single mothers who work 10 hours a day to care for their children. Judging by the tenor of their stories, being ‘radical’ is mainly for those who already have the upper-middle-class status to sacrifice.”

Anthony Bradley went a step further in a commentary for the Acton Institute, reprinted in WORLD magazine in May. He called the push to be “radical” — and the “missional” church movement generally — manifestations of a “new legalism” among evangelicals. Bradley, a well-known commentator and professor at The King’s College in New York, said he reached that conclusion after a long conversation with a Christian student struggling over what to do with his life.

“I continue to be amazed by the number of youth and young adults who are stressed and burnt out from the regular shaming and feelings of inadequacy if they happen to not be doing something unique and special,” Bradley wrote. “Today’s millennial generation is being fed the message that if they don’t do something extraordinary in this life they are wasting their gifts and potential. The sad result is that many young adults feel ashamed if they ‘settle’ into ordinary jobs, get married early and start families, live in small towns, or as 1 Thessalonians 4:11 says, ‘aspire to live quietly, and to mind [their] affairs, and to work with [their] hands.’ … The combination of anti-suburbanism with new categories like ‘missional’ and ‘radical’ has positioned a generation of youth and young adults to experience an intense amount of shame for simply being ordinary Christians who desire to love God and love their neighbors (Matthew 22:36-40). … Why is Christ’s command to love God and neighbor not enough for these leaders?”

This supposed “shaming” of young Christians sure is news to me.

I seldom pass up a chance to challenge young people to get involved in local and international missions — and I’m regularly inspired by their responses. Ask counselors who work with young missionary candidates and campus ministers who mentor students, and they’ll tell you the same thing: Millennial Christians want to make a difference in the world. They want to serve the poor and fight injustice. They want to act on Christ’s command to take the Gospel to the nations. Sometimes they get impatient with parents and other elders who try to hold them back. And they’re willing, even eager, to go to some of the toughest places on earth.

True, not everyone is equipped by God to go to such places. Those who do go need to demonstrate a clear calling from God; otherwise they’ll never make it when the going gets hard. But everyone can participate in the task through awareness, prayer, support and local church mobilization. The old division between
“regular” church folks and the special few who go to the mission field has been bridged by the vast new opportunities for participation afforded by modern travel, technology and networking — and the rediscovery of the biblical truth that reaching all peoples is the mission of the whole church and everyone in it.

The only non-negotiable requirement is obedience.

One of the young people profiled in Platt’s Radical is Genessa Wells. The Texas Baptist teacher lived and served in Egypt for two years — and died there at age 24. She wasn’t a martyr; she was killed in a bus accident in the Sinai just one day before the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. I never met her, but I had the privilege of attending a memorial service for her a few days later in Cairo.

Wells, who had an angelic singing voice, had planned to pursue her study of music in seminary after she came home from Egypt. She never made it back, but she packed enough passion for several lifetimes into her brief life. Shortly before she moved to the Middle East in 1999, she wrote: “I could give up (on overseas service) and get married and become a music teacher. All of this is very noble and to be quite honest, sounds good to me! But in my heart, I want to change my world — more than I want a husband and more than I want comfort. I need this opportunity to grow and to tell others about Jesus. One of my favorite praise songs says, ‘I will never be the same again, I can never return, I’ve closed the door.’”

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

She shared her passion for God with Egyptians, with Palestinians in refugee camps, with Bedouin in the desert. If she had lived, she might have gone home to Texas, gotten married, started a family, become a music teacher. Or she might have opted to serve long-term overseas. Either way, she had one grand purpose in life: to love God and praise Him wherever she went and in whatever she did.

That should be the one purpose and desire of every follower of Christ. It only looks “radical” because it is so rare.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Blowing in the wind


Ramadan is especially hungry in the Arab world this year.

As Muslims there observe the annual month of fasting, which began July 8, they face violence, chaos and growing uncertainty about the future. Have the hopes invested by so many in the Arab Spring finally died? Many think so.

“Roughly two-and-a-half years after the revolutions in the Arab world, not a single country is yet plainly on course to become a stable, peaceful democracy,” reported The Economist magazine in a recent cover story. “The countries that were more hopeful — Tunisia, Libya and Yemen — have been struggling. A chaotic experiment with democracy in Egypt, the most populous of them, has landed an elected president behind bars. Syria is awash with the blood of civil war.

“No wonder some have come to think the Arab Spring is doomed. The Middle East, they argue, is not ready to change. One reason is that it does not have democratic institutions, so people power will decay into anarchy or provoke the reimposition of dictatorship. The other is that the region’s one cohesive force is Islam, which — it is argued — cannot accommodate democracy. The Middle East, they conclude, would be better off if the Arab Spring had never happened at all.”

But that view is “at best premature, at worst wrong,” The Economist contends. The millions of people in the region who want something better will not give up so easily. Nor should they. Political change comes slowly, but it comes. More than 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, for instance, the peoples once ruled by that dead empire still struggle under varying degrees of oppression. “The Arab Spring was always better described as an awakening: the real revolution is not so much in the street as in the mind.”

The mind and the heart, meanwhile, are the unseen cradles of another, far more profound revolution. It has begun not just in the Middle East but throughout the Dar al-Islam — the global “House of Islam” that encompasses 1.6 billion Muslims from West Africa to Indonesia.

For the first millennium of its existence, Islam expanded relentlessly, absorbing tens of millions of Christians, “while not a single uncoerced Muslim movement to Christ [took] place,” writes IMB strategist David Garrison, one of evangelical Christianity’s top scholars of church-planting movements around the world. Despite heroic efforts by missionaries and other believers, even “the Great Century” of Christian global advance (the 1800s) produced only one movement to Christ among Muslims that counted at least 1,000 converts.

Garrison’s forthcoming book, A Wind in the House of Islam, excerpted in the latest issue of Mission Frontiers, explores the cracks that have appeared more recently in the fa├žade of seemingly monolithic Islam. Its biggest internal struggle, between Sunnis and Shiites, is obvious — and fuels many of the sectarian conflicts now tearing apart the Middle East. But a quieter shift is occurring behind the scenes, as Garrison confirmed in his travels to every corner of the Muslim world, where he collected interviews from more than 1,000 former Muslims who have decided to follow Christ.

“Today, in more than 60 separate locations in at least 17 of the 49 countries where Islam holds sway, new communities of Muslim-background followers of Christ are emerging,” Garrison writes. “Each of these movements has seen at least 1,000 baptized believers and at least 100 new worshipping fellowships, all of whom have come to Christ over the past two decades. In some countries the communities have grown to number tens of thousands of new Muslim-background followers of Christ.

“Though the total number of new Christ followers, perhaps as many as 1 million to 5 million, may be a statistically small drop in the vast sea of Islam, they are not insignificant. Not limited to a remote corner of the Muslim world, these new communities of believers are widespread, from West Africa’s Sahel to the teeming islands of Indonesia — and everywhere in between. … And these religious renegades are paying an incalculable price [in persecution and rejection] for their spiritual migration to Christ. Yet they continue to come. What began as a few scattered expressions of dissent is now emerging as substantial, and historically unprecedented, numbers of Muslim men and women wading against the current of their societies to follow Jesus Christ. And it is only beginning.”

Some of these movements to Christ have occurred in places that seem, on first glance, unlikely breeding grounds for the Gospel: Iran, heart of the Shiite revival. Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world. Algeria, site of a murderous struggle between Islamists and the military that saw more than 100,000 civilians killed in the 1990s. Central Asia, ruled for generations by Soviet communism and, for centuries before that, by rigid forms of Islam. Bangladesh, born in the blood of a war for independence from Pakistan in 1971, ravaged by poverty and natural disasters.

The common elements? Conflict and wrenching change have played a role, to be sure. Political and religious oppression have given rise to a yearning for true freedom. But social and political explanations are inadequate. Could it be that God has chosen, in His time and by His power, to answer the prayers of many centuries, to reveal Himself in Christ to Muslims yearning for a true encounter with Him? Can there be any other explanation for the countless stories, offered by Muslims themselves, of Christ appearing to them in dreams and visions?

“These 21st-century movements are not isolated to one or two corners of the world,” Garrison says. “They are taking place across the Muslim world: in sub-Saharan Africa, in the Persian world, in the Arab world, in Turkestan, in South Asia and in Southeast Asia.

“Something is happening, something historic, something unprecedented. A wind is blowing through the House of Islam.”

If this is true, how tragic it would be for Christians to continue responding to Muslims in fear and hatred — or worse, indifference — at the very moment of the greatest turning of Muslims to Christ in history. If God asks you one day where you were when He began opening the door to nearly a quarter of humanity, what will you say?

(Read an excerpt from A Wind in the House of Islam at http://www.missionfrontiers.org/issue/article/god-is-doing-something-historic. Visit Garrison’s new website: www.WindintheHouse.org.)

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

True confidence

If you believe in yourself, you can achieve anything. Visualize success and it will happen. Positive self-talk is the key. Go for the gold and let no one get in your way.

Those tips might help you develop a great jump shot or close that big sale, but they won’t make you a successful person. Have you noticed how many star athletes make a mess of their personal lives? The will to win is great in competition, but it tends to wreak havoc in relationships.

Belief in yourself as an exclusive guiding principle is a recipe for misery. That may sound like heresy in our age of self-worship, but the self is a particularly undependable little idol. What happens when you let yourself and others down? And you will, again and again.

Granted, self-confidence is an attractive, magnetic quality. Many leaders have it. They seem to know who they are and where they are going. Especially in times of chaos and confusion, we are drawn to them. We would follow them anywhere — even over a cliff, which is where some of them take us.

Julius Caesar was adored by his troops, whom he led to great victories in Britain, Gaul and elsewhere. But power went to his head. “I came, I saw, I conquered,” he famously declared after one glorious conquest. Governing Rome wasn’t quite as simple. When he took dictatorial power, delivering a fatal blow to the tottering Roman Republic, his opponents returned the favor by assassinating him on the Senate floor.

“Give us a king,” the Israelites cried out in the days of Samuel, many centuries before Caesar. For them, God Himself as divine king wasn’t enough; they wanted to be more like the nations around them. Samuel, a faithful servant of God and righteous judge of Israel, took their request to the Almighty. His response: “Listen to the voice of the people … for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them” (1 Samuel 8:7 NASB). They ended up with Saul, who accepted the crown reluctantly but held on to it violently — long after he had lost the blessing of the Lord.

Moral of the story: Choose your leaders carefully, starting with yourself. They all are fallible — except for Jesus Christ, the sinless One. In this world, seek role models who display authentic confidence, not the counterfeit kind.

“Confidence is not bravado, or swagger, or an overt pretense of bravery,” says Dharmesh Shah, software company founder, author and frequent blogger. “Confidence is not some bold or brash air of self-belief directed at others.”

In a recent article, Shah listed some qualities shared by “truly confident people.” His perspective and primary audience are business-oriented, but several of the qualities he highlighted have spiritual resonance:

 “They listen 10 times more than they speak. Bragging is a mask for insecurity. Truly confident people are quiet and unassuming. They already know what they think; they want to know what you think.”

 “They duck the spotlight so it shines on others. Perhaps it’s true they did the bulk of the work. Perhaps they really did overcome the major obstacles. Perhaps it’s true they turned a collection of disparate individuals into an incredibly high-performance team. … [But] truly confident people don’t need the glory … . They don’t need the validation of others, because true validation comes from within. So they stand back and celebrate their accomplishments through others. They let others shine — a confidence boost that helps those people become truly confident, too.”

 “They freely ask for help. Many people feel asking for help is a sign of weakness … . Confident people are secure enough to admit a weakness. … [Also], they know that when they seek help they pay the person they ask a huge compliment. Saying, ‘Can you help me?’ shows tremendous respect for that individual’s expertise and judgment.”

 “They don’t put down other people. Generally speaking, the people who like to gossip, who like to speak badly of others, do so because they hope by comparison to make themselves look better. The only comparison a truly confident person makes is to the person she was yesterday — and to the person she hopes to someday become.”

Ouch. I wish I could go back and change all the times I have failed to follow those wise guidelines because of insecurity, foolish pride or ego. Truly confident people are humble, teachable, eager to encourage others and help them grow, excited to reproduce and multiply success in the lives of others. That sounds like an effective disciple-maker to me. Compare Shah’s tips to the qualities of authentic love outlined by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (NASB):

“Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

That is true confidence in action, because the object and source of true confidence is not ourselves but Christ.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Declassify the Gospel

The scandals currently engulfing the IRS, the National Security Agency (NSA), the Justice Department and other government agencies have something in common: information.

Who has certain information and for what purpose? How should they be able to obtain it? What should they know and when should they know it? And so on. “Big Data” offers enormous power to those with the resources to gather, analyze and use it, for good or ill. The challenge for free societies is to harness Big Data without allowing governments or corporations to become Big Brothers and manipulators.

Secrecy is another common element in the latest scandals. Public officials at every level of government, regardless of political affiliation, seem to have a compulsive need to classify information — regardless of its sensitivity. They’re not the only offenders. Questionable secrecy is common in the business world. Bureaucrats and managers who regard knowledge as power withhold important information from underlings who need it to do their jobs. It only hurts the companies they work for, but it’s almost impossible to eliminate. Why? Human nature. People love secrets.

But there’s a secrecy — or silence, to put it more accurately — that’s much worse than the bureaucratic brand. It has potentially eternal consequences, and it’s practiced consciously or unconsciously by many folks who claim to follow Christ. We have the most important information there is: Jesus is Lord and Savior of the world. But we don’t tell others He is the way, the truth and the life.

You can come up with any number of rationalizations. You aren’t good at one-on-one evangelism. It’s not your “gift.” You’re a sinner, so you don’t have the right to tell somebody else what to believe or how to live. You aren’t ready when the opportunity comes. The people you need to tell aren’t ready to hear it. They don’t want to hear it. They will reject you if you say something. Old-school evangelistic methods don’t work anymore. Blah, blah, blah. I’ve used ’em all. Still do from time to time.

These are excuses, not reasons. Yes, you need to live the Gospel in order to share it effectively. But that doesn’t mean you wait until you have eliminated all sin from your life to tell others how to find forgiveness. That day will never come. The real reasons we don’t tell everyone we know about the Good News of Jesus boil down to three: We’re afraid of the reaction we might get, we don’t care enough about others to tell them — or we don’t really believe Jesus is the only way to salvation. That last one is the heart of the matter. Unbelief and disobedience usually go hand in hand.

Larry Alex Taunton, an author and commentator who directs the Fixed Point Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to the public defense of Christianity, has debated many prominent atheists. In an excellent article for The Atlantic magazine, “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity”, he reported on a project carried out by Fixed Point to interview members of college atheist organizations about their “journey to unbelief.”

Taunton expected the young nonbelievers to cite science, rationality, logic or the conflicting claims of major faiths as the sources of their rejection of religion in general and Christianity in particular. Many did so. But he was surprised by how many had grown up in church and left the fold — not because they felt it was oppressive or fanatical, but because they found it superficial and disconnected from its biblical origins.

“These students heard plenty of messages encouraging ‘social justice,’ community involvement, and ‘being good,’ but they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ, and the Bible,” Taunton reports. “Listen to Stephanie, a student at Northwestern: ‘The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.’ This is an incisive critique. She seems to have intuitively understood that the church does not exist simply to address social ills, but to proclaim the teachings of its founder, Jesus Christ, and their relevance to the world. Since Stephanie did not see that connection, she saw little incentive to stay.”

They also expressed respect for, if not agreement with, Christians who “unashamedly embraced biblical teaching.”

“I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn’t trying to convert me,” stated Michael, a political science major at Dartmouth.

According to Taunton, “This sentiment is not as unusual as you might think. It finds resonance in the well-publicized comments of Penn Jillette, the atheist illusionist and comedian: ‘I don't respect [believers] who don't proselytize. … If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward. … How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?’”

Good question. Believers in many places are willing to put their lives on the line to tell others about the eternal truth they have found. We’re hesitant to share it because it might make someone else (or us) uncomfortable. Our hesitance is hastening our own society’s destruction — and helps explain our half-hearted participation in taking the Gospel to all nations.

If you don’t have the compulsion to tell others that Jesus is Lord, do you really believe it yourself?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

So long, kitchen table

We hauled the old kitchen table out to the curb the other day.

My wife found another table she liked at a yard sale. The old one was battered and beat up, so it had to go. We called a charity group to pick it up. I was in a hurry to go somewhere. My wife had errands to run, too. So we left it there. No moment of silence. No fond farewell. When we came home that afternoon, it was gone.

I felt a pang of sadness when I thought about it later. That old table deserved a better send-off than we gave it.

It wasn’t an antique or a fine work of craftsmanship, just a pine table from a low-end furniture store. But it was the center of our home for nearly 30 years. It’s where we got to know each other, where we talked, argued and made up. The first time our infant son laughed out loud, he was watching an empty pop bottle roll across the tabletop (he thought that was hilarious for some reason). The kids spent countless hours wriggling around underneath it as toddlers — and countless hours doing school projects atop it. My parents, both gone now, rocked their grandchildren to sleep beside it.

How many meals did we eat together around that table? How many prayers did we pray?

“Things don’t matter; people do,” was the motto of Martha Myers, the late, great missionary physician who spent her life — and ultimately gave it — serving the people of Yemen. For her, things had significance only if they could be used to help the needy. She had little interest in personal possessions for their own sake.

Martha was right. Things don’t matter. But things do have meaning, if we use them for people. That’s the difference between selfishly accumulating stuff and blessing others with it.

A missionary in Africa broke one of his sandals recently. What to do? “I did what I have always done,” he wrote. “I went to what I considered a nice store, sought out a pair of sandals that I thought would be serviceable and purchased them for $24. An astronomical price for the Africans, I am sure. But I am an American. When things break we don’t fix them; we throw them away. My new sandals broke two days later. I asked a local friend what he would do.

“‘Fix them,’ he replied. Apparently there are men all over town who repair shoes for a living. He took my old sandals home. The next morning he brought them back, having sewn the sole of my favorite sandal to the upper part. Amazing! They still work. They feel great. Cost: $1. I had them fix my new sandals as well for the same price.”

The missionary also brought a new soccer ball with him from America, but it wouldn’t hold air.

“I went and bought another ball. The Africans with whom I was playing asked if they could have my broken ball. ‘Why?’ I asked.

“‘Because we can sell it,’ they replied. They were able to get $4 for it. Apparently one of the boys from the area took some glue and inserted it into the hole and plugged the leak. Who knows how long it will stay inflated, but some kid and I are each $2 richer!

“What have I learned? God is teaching me how to be a better steward of what He has given me. Can what I am about to throw away be repaired or used again in some other way? In America, when something breaks, you replace it. In Africa, we are learning to see things differently — and even find the value in something that looks ‘broken.’”

I wish I had done that with our good old kitchen table.