Tuesday, June 24, 2014

‘Pray for my friends,’ 8-year-old asks


Jacob,* age 8, probably isn’t up to speed on the cultural and spiritual struggles going on in America.

He’s a kid, for one thing. He doesn’t live in the United States most of the time, for another. His parents are Southern Baptist workers in North Africa and the Middle East.

He doesn’t understand why far more violent conflicts are exploding around him and his family, either. He just knows that he misses his friends.

See, Jacob is sort of a refugee. His family had to leave the country where they were serving because of potential threats. They’re serving in another place for now, but leaving the home and people they love has been hard on all of them — especially Jacob.

“This past year I have had to move around a lot,” Jacob wrote in a recent prayer message to American kids. “I love playing sports and meet lots of friends by playing sports at clubs. I have lived in three different countries in [North Africa and the Middle East]. In each of those countries I have friends that I have made by playing sports. 

 “These friends are just like me,” Jacob said. “But they don’t know about Jesus. Please pray that these friends of mine would come to know Jesus. Also pray for them to be safe, as they all live in very unsafe countries where there are wars and bombs and really bad people. Pray that these bad people would come to know Jesus, too. Pray that it would be safer in these countries, so I can go back to them and see my friends.”

I could leave it there, since Jacob’s words are more powerful than anything I might add. But I read his simple plea for prayer as Southern Baptists, at their 2014 annual meeting in Baltimore June 10-11, were doing some soul-searching about struggling churches, declining baptism rates and the lack of evangelism in an increasingly secular culture.

 “God, please forgive us for not being obedient and sharing the Good News of the Gospel with those in our community,” outgoing Southern Baptist Convention President Fred Luter prayed during the meeting, after noting that 80 percent of Southern Baptist churches baptize only one person per year between the ages of 18 and 29.

“America is rapidly … turning into a pagan nation,” Luter said, and the cure — the only cure — is the name of Jesus.

But do we really believe that? Do we really believe that Jesus is the only way to reconciliation and personal relationship with God? Beyond all the debate about the best evangelism tools and strategies and approaches to employ in a rapidly changing culture, that is the fundamental question: Do we still believe it ourselves?

In an aggressively “inclusive” environment, perhaps the most countercultural words in the Bible come from Jesus Himself, shortly before His death and resurrection:

“Thomas said to Him, ‘Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.  If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him’” (John 14:5-7, NASB).

This is the heart of the Gospel of Christ, according to the New Testament. There are any number of ways to communicate it and demonstrate it effectively, lovingly and redemptively. You can accept it, reject it or ignore it. But there is no way around it. Jesus is the way to the Father.

Several years ago, R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, observed that the American evangelical church was “losing its voice” just as the opportunity to declare the Gospel worldwide is greater than ever. The issue, he said, is a “failure of theological nerve — a devastating loss of biblical and doctrinal conviction. Put bluntly, many who claim to be Christians simply do not believe that anyone is actually lost.”

The death of missions inevitably follows such a loss of nerve and conviction, since there is no reason to preach the Gospel among all nations if preaching it and hearing it aren’t life-or-death matters.

That brings me back to young Jacob in North Africa and the Middle East. He might not have all the theological arguments and explanations worked out, but he loves his friends. He’s also concerned about the “bad people” setting off bombs and hurting others, even though he’s been forced to move because of the havoc they are causing in the region. He knows they are lost, friends and enemies alike, and that it is indeed a life-or-death matter.

He knows Jesus is Lord and wants them to know it, too. That’s all the theology Jacob needs to obey Christ’s command.

*(Name changed)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Break the rules, grads

Graduation season is a time for pithy quotations. Here are three of my favorites:

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” — Mark Twain

 “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” — Winston Churchill

“If at first you don’t succeed, do it like your mother told you.” — author unknown

 I especially like that last one. But doing it your way is better no matter what, say many commencement speakers.
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life,” the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, told the 2005 graduating class at Stanford University. “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

Be your own person, in other words. Blaze your own trail. Break all the rules.

Ironic, since “a graduation ceremony is an event where the commencement speaker tells thousands of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that ‘individuality’ is the key to success,” humorist Robert Orben once observed.

If you really want to break the rules in our culture of hyper-individualism, surrender your future to the will of another — God’s will, to be specific.

“What is the Lord’s invitation?” IMB President Tom Elliff asked a group of recent “graduates” – 59 new missionaries appointed in May to serve around the world. “We read in Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 11, beginning in verse 28, ‘Come to Me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.’”

Of the three commands in the passage — come, take and learn — the second one might be the hardest for us, because it involves voluntary submission. For folks unfamiliar with farm life, a yoke is a wooden crosspiece laid over the necks of oxen or other work animals to haul a heavy load. God’s yoke is light, but it is still a yoke, and we must willingly submit to wearing it.

As modern free agents, we like options, choices, negotiating the best deal, haggling for the best salary or price. There is no negotiation with God. He is gentle, but He is Lord. You obey Him or reject Him.

Jesus’ offer is “an invitation to surrender,” Elliff explained. “Sometimes we talk about the importance of the fear of God. It doesn’t mean to cower before Him as a slave would cower before a master. What does it mean? It means to have such a big idea of God that you just surrender. … Jesus is saying, ‘Surrender. Give up. My way is best. Just surrender to Me.’”

And it’s not a one-time thing. You must surrender daily to follow Him.

But joy comes in obedience. One of the new missionaries appointed in May, a physician, could barely contain his exuberance.

“When I was in high school, God instilled in me two desires: to preach His Word where it has never been heard and to pursue a career in medicine,” he said. “After many years of training and preparation, now is the time! I’m excited to be ‘His hands,’ bringing physical healing and spreading seeds of the Gospel.”

When you surrender to God, others see Jesus in you. They begin to surrender to Him, too. Lives change. Communities change. The world changes.

Graduates, that’s an infinitely better way to live your life than doing it your way.

(Explore the possibilities for surrendering to God in missions at  www.going.imb.org.)