Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Inspiration and perspiration

                                                  (Bill Koehn at Jibla Baptist Hospital)

Inspiration only gets you so far.

It’s great for starting a major task. As for finishing one — not so much. That’s where commitment comes in.

Winston Churchill, one of the greatest inspirational speakers of the modern age, understood this truth: There’s a time for words and a time for action.

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat,” Churchill told the British people 75 years ago in May. It was his first address to the House of Commons as prime minister. A fight to the death with the mighty Nazi war machine loomed. Years of suffering lay ahead. America’s entrance into World War II was in doubt, as was the continued existence of Great Britain itself. Many who heard Churchill’s stark words wouldn’t survive the struggle.

He knew what was coming, had no illusions about it. He’d been issuing warnings about it for years from the back benches of Parliament. So he didn’t try to sugarcoat it. His speech, less than four minutes from start to finish, is a stern call to victory at any cost (listen for a bracing lesson in leadership). He knew that solemn day was not a time for soaring rhetoric. It was a time for getting on with the task at hand.

The same applies to servants of a greater cause: God’s global mission.

Don’t get me wrong: As followers of Christ, we need His inspiration every day, every hour, every moment. We need the constant nourishment of His Word and the power of His Spirit to accomplish anything worth doing. We need to encourage and challenge one another.

But then we need to act. Obedience is the truest sign of faith.

Sometimes obedience is hard — especially after the glorious music fades away and the exciting speakers move on. Sometimes the people who raised their hands with you in those high moments of worship and inspiration change their minds when things got hard. They were willing to go anywhere, do anything, until they weren’t. What about you? That’s when you find out if you are serious.

Paul, the first great Christian missionary, didn’t sugarcoat the task for his young friend Timothy:  “You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. … Suffer hardship with me as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1,3 NASB). And Timothy knew Paul was enduring great hardship.

Many centuries later, another great missionary had similar words. Writing to her friend Annie Armstrong in 1889, Lottie Moon had this to say about daily life in North China:

“Please say to the new missionaries that they are coming to a life of hardship, responsibility and constant self-denial. ... They will be alone in the interior and will need to be strong and courageous. If ‘the joy of the Lord’ be ‘their strength,’ the blessedness of the work will more than compensate for its hardships. Let them come ‘rejoicing to suffer’ for the sake of that Lord and Master who freely gave His life for them.”

Sometimes serving Jesus isn’t particularly hard or dangerous. Sometimes it’s just mundane. Boring, even. Blessed are the plodders who do boring stuff faithfully.

One of the most faithful plodders in Southern Baptist mission history was Bill Koehn. He died in 2002 after being shot point-blank, along with medical missionary colleagues Martha Myers and Kathy Gariety, by a Muslim militant in Yemen. Until then, Koehn, age 60, had spent 28 uneventful years running the Jibla Baptist Hospital as administrator. Relatively uneventful, that is.

The hospital faced the daily challenge of ministering to an endless stream of patients from all over the impoverished Middle Eastern nation. At its peak, the 77-bed mission facility employed several hundred workers, treated some 40,000 people a year, performed more than 400 surgeries a month and operated a busy outpatient clinic. Koehn and his staff also endured extended civil war in Yemen, occasional kidnappings, a disastrous fire, numerous financial crises, ongoing personnel shortages, political pressures and legal battles that threatened to shut down the hospital.

Other than that, it was pretty normal.

How did Koehn cope? The former supermarket manager from Kansas was quiet, predictable, a creature of habit. He operated on a strict daily schedule, starting with prayer and Bible study before dawn and proceeding with clockwork precision until nightfall. Unfinished projects, whether at the hospital or in his woodworking shop, irked him.

“You never called Bill after 9, because he was in bed,” said a longtime colleague.

Koehn’s highly structured style enabled him to handle the countless details and headaches involved in running the hospital. Yet he somehow found the time to make wooden toys for the orphanage he loved to visit, to assist needy widows in the community, to drink tea with Yemenis and listen to their struggles and needs.

Plodders get things done, even on the mission field.

The Apostle James said our lives are but a mist that will soon disappear (James 4:14), IMB President David Platt reminded listeners June 17 during a “Sending Celebration” to recognize 59 new missionaries and their sending churches at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Columbus, Ohio. None of us is guaranteed tomorrow, so we should make our lives count for God now — even in seemingly small things.

“May the urgency of this mission mark us,” Platt said. “May our light shine amidst the darkness, and may our mist count while we’ve still got time.”

Roger Cohen of The New York Times warns about using that precious time to “follow your passion,” as the cliché goes.

“Life is a succession of tasks rather than a cascade of inspiration, an experience that is more repetitive than revelatory, at least on a day-to-day basis,” Cohen writes. “The thing is to perform the task well and find reward even in the mundane. … I’ve grown suspicious of the inspirational. It’s overrated. I suspect duty — that half-forgotten word — may be more related to happiness than we think. Want to be happy? Mow the lawn. Collect the dead leaves. Paint the room. Do the dishes. Get a job. Labor until fatigue is in your very bones. Persist day after day.”

Following your passion is great, as long as your passion is following God. Day by day. One foot in front of another, faithfully. God will multiply every step you give to Him.

(Explore ways to follow God in His global mission.)

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Hope, by the numbers


Hope is one of the most powerful forces in the world. The absence of hope is like death.

I’ve written in the past about my friend George. He was sincere, thoughtful, funny — and deeply depressed. He eventually hanged himself.

On the last morning of his life, George lay motionless. According to his father (who later found his body), the only words George managed to force through gritted teeth that day were: “No hope. No hope. No hope.”

Hopelessness afflicts many more people than the clinically depressed. It torments millions who think that they have nothing to live for, that the miseries of the present will never go away, that the future holds nothing but more despair.

Hope, on the other hand, leads people in even the most difficult conditions to reach up, to believe in possibilities.

That may seem obvious, but there’s new statistical support for it. A major trial study, involving more than 20,000 people in six countries, has demonstrated that targeted aid aimed at getting extremely poor families out of poverty produces big results with small investments — maybe as small as a single cow or a few goats.

“Why would a cow have such an impact?” asks Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, who wrote recently about the trial. “There’s some indication that one mechanism is hope. Whether in America or India, families that are stressed and impoverished — trapped in cycles of poverty — can feel a hopelessness that becomes self-fulfilling. Give people reason to hope that they can achieve a better life, and that, too, can be self-fulfilling.”

The aid, minimal as it was, motivated recipients to work harder, save more and show more optimism.

“Could hopelessness and stress create a ‘poverty trap’ — abroad or here in the U.S. — in which people surrender to a kind of whirlpool of despair?” Kristof asks. “Some economists and psychologists are finding evidence to support that theory, and experiments are underway to see if raising spirits can lift economic outcomes. Researchers are now studying whether exposure to religion might have a similar effect, improving economic outcomes. If so, Marx had the wrong drug in mind: Religion would not be an opiate of the masses but an amphetamine.”

Kristof, a widely traveled journalist who has praised evangelical humanitarian work in the past, notes the similarity between the program studied in the trial and the models used by Christian development organizations overseas. He adds, “Much of the news about global poverty is depressing, but this is fabulous: a large-scale experiment showing, with rigorous evidence, what works to lift people out of the most extreme poverty. And it’s exhilarating that one of the lessons may be so simple and human: the power of hope.”

These findings also complement the groundbreaking research of sociologist Robert Woodberry, director of the Project on Religion and Economic Change at the National University of Singapore. In country after country, Woodberry began to find a direct correlation between the historical presence and mission activity of “conversionary Protestants” and the advance of freedom, social progress and economic well-being.

In 2005, a $500,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation enabled Woodberry to hire a platoon of research assistants and launch a major database to gather more information. Armed with those results, he was able to assert: “Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.”

By and large, those earlier missionaries weren’t radical social reformers or political revolutionaries. They were bringers of hope. Their gospel ministry connected them to the common people and the poor, whom they sought to serve in the love of Christ. Yes, they started schools, hospitals and various engines of social progress. But most of all, they preached the hope of Christ, started churches and made disciples who carried on the work in subsequent generations.

That work goes on today, as missionaries and their partners find new ways to heal bodies, educate minds, transform cultures and bring the good news to starving souls. One example among many: South Asian women often despair of finding a decent life. Many face domestic abuse. Many more are abandoned to care for their children alone but have no skills to find good work.

With an investment of $3,550 provided by IMB’s Global Hunger Relief, 15 women were trained to create quality jewelry that met market demands better than other jewelry produced by local artisans. An export license was obtained to ship the products out of the country to “fair trade” sales partners.

A year later, the new micro-business is generating enough revenue to stand on its own and even expand to help more at-risk women in rural areas.

“We have employed many ladies who were left by their husbands or divorced,” the project director reported. “[One] lady was abused by her husband and went back to her parents and is going through a divorce. She had a desire to go back to school in order to support herself, but her parents didn’t have the money to send her. Our micro-enterprise provides her with an income that can fund her school ambition. We are gaining a reputation in the community for caring for those who cannot care for themselves and have had many opportunities to share.”

Hope. People need it, crave it, search for it. They will risk their lives to find it, and having found it, will risk their lives to share it with others. That’s why the gospel of Jesus Christ is so powerful and why it is spreading so rapidly outside the secularized West.

By comparison, all the substitutes offered in its place grow strangely dim.