Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Christians, Culture, and Beauty and the Beast

In every age of history, Christians have had to wrestle with the issue of how to exist as a godly witness within their own culture. There are essentially three positions we can take.

1. To fully embrace culture as the place and time in which God has placed us and to just flow with the times.
2. To isolate ourselves from the culture, keeping ourselves clean, holy, and entirely separate from those within our culture, while society drifts further and further from righteousness.
3. To engage the culture in which we live, remaining a part of the larger society, while not accepting a personal compromise of biblical standards. 

To use another author's summary, Christians will receive, reject, or redeem their culture.

Which of these positions is right for a Christian? To start with the low-hanging fruit, the first position cannot be correct. It is too easily refuted by the clear teachings of Scripture and the warnings of Jesus. He said, "If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you" (Jn 15:18-20). The apostle John wrote these words of Jesus into his gospel, but then repeated the theme in the first of his epistles to be sure that Christians didn't miss it: "Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you" (1 Jn 3:13). If a Christian fully embraces culture, accepting all of its twists and turns, no matter how corrupt or contrary to God's Word, he will be fully embraced by that society, but he will not be living as a faithful disciple of Jesus.

The second position is one that Christians commonly take. "Go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you" (2 Cor 6:17). "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him" (1 Jn 2:15). "They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world" (Jn 17:16). "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: . . . to keep oneself unstained from the world" (Jms 1:27). These are the type of verses commonly quoted to defend this position. A Christian's chief job is to keep himself clean, pure, and holy. This requires that he remove himself from anything that could defile his holiness. These Christians attempt to create their own subculture or counterculture within the world. They create "a Christian bubble." They will live in their Christian homes, attend their Christian churches, work their Christian jobs, study in their Christian schools, play on their Christian sports teams, and - in my view - live, work, and die having little to no impact on the lost world around them. Let the world go to hell; we will stay clean on our way to heaven. Nobody else will make it to heaven because of their lives. The only contact they have with the lost in the world is a guarded, condemning, self-righteous interaction - perhaps sharing a tract or pushing for repentance, but seeking only conversion or moral reform.

It is obvious by now that I believe in the third position. It is the only position that considers all of Scripture, in its proper context, the comprehensive plan of God for the world, and the very reason that we Christians are left here in the world at all - to make disciples of all peoples. This purpose requires contact - close contact. One of our responsibilities as Christians is to keep our lives holy and pure, but this relates to personal character and does not require isolation from our culture. The very sinners who most need to witness your godly conduct and hear your gospel message are not going to come to you in your "Christian bubble." From the time Jesus issued the Great Commission to his followers, he changed his evangelistic strategy from the "come and see" model he used with Israel to a "go and show" model with the Church. This is the proper understanding of the Christian's "in the world, but not of the world" mentality. It is not "in the world, but isolated from it." In Jesus' prayer for his followers in John 17, quoted out of context above, our Lord specifically prayed, "I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one" (Jn 17:15). He even clarified his prayer further, saying "As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself" (Jn 17:18-19). That is it! That is our position in a nutshell. The Greek word used there for consecrate is the same root word translated holiness. Jesus did not compromise his personal holiness by living in close contact with sinners. That was the accusation made repeatedly by the Pharisees (the religious people in their isolationist Christian bubble!). "This man receives sinners and eats with them" (Lk 15:2). "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner" (Lk 7:39). But Jesus sent us into the world to engage the people in the world with his gospel, while keeping our own lives aligned with his standards of personal holiness. He said to us, "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden" (Mt 5:14). Our light is to be set "on a hill," in the place that it is the most visible to the world. Christians who seek to isolate themselves from the culture are those who "light a lamp and put it under a basket," rather than "on a stand" so it can "give light to all in the house" (Mt 5:15).

So as Christians, I believe, our job is to engage the culture. We are to live in it - close to it. We are to intentionally find ways to be close to the unsaved, the lost, the sinners. Yet our lives are to be markedly different from theirs. 

The current debate over Disney's remake of their "Beauty and the Beast" film is just another example of how Christians treat cultural engagement. The first group embraces Disney, the film, and all it is seeking to promote. It accepts the "exclusively gay moment" as just something else our culture has embraced. The second group is all up in arms about the film. How could Disney do this? Why must they ruin a classic film our family has loved for years? These are the boycotters. We won't stand for this! Make a statement to Disney! Fight for righteousness in our culture! Stay away and make Disney regret their decision to push forward the LGBTQ agenda. Dive back into your Christian bubble and let the world go to hell with its sinful values. The third position is where I find myself on this movie. 

In every culture, a discerning Christian can find redemptive motifs within different elements of culture that can be used as powerful catalysts in helping the lost world to understand the gospel message. Anyone who has read the work of Don Richardson will be familiar with the concept of "redemptive analogies," as illustrated in his books Peace Child and Eternity in Their Hearts. This idea is based upon the doctrine of general revelation - that God has put within the heart of all men a general sense of his existence, a sense that something has gone wrong in the world, and an ingrained hope for redemption. Even where this general revelation is rejected in the hearts of men, they will inevitably incorporate elements of this hope into some aspects of the myriad cultures that they develop in the world. If we as Christians can pick out these redemptive analogies, they offer an open platform for discussion and the opportunity for gospel engagement.

I myself have not yet seen the movie and am not yet settled on whether or not we as a family will watch or own the film. But I was so thrilled this morning to read the following article and hear a different Christian perspective on the movie. And I agree wholeheartedly with the position of noticing redemptive motifs within culture that can serve as a gateway to engaging the lost in our world with the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ!

I encourage all of you Christians in America to read this article and to consider your position in relation to Beauty and the Beast. Whether or not you will watch it with your family, for your own entertainment, or explain to your children why you cannot watch it, the fact remains that the world is talking about it. The culture is loving it. And the end of this film depicts a powerful, emotional, moving expression of the despair of death and the hope of resurrection. It displays the happy ending that all sinners are hoping for, but none will encounter without Jesus. I implore you to grasp this element of culture in your interaction with unbelievers and redeem it. Use it to draw out the hope of redemption that lies deep within the heart of all men. Use Beauty and the Beast to introduce sinners to the Redeemer of the World.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Three Things Every American Christian Needs to Consider Concerning the Syrian Refugee Crisis

This is a post for all of my American Christian friends.  It is not for U.S. government policy makers.  I do not know the best solution for the Syrian refugee crisis.  I do not have the same responsibilities as you do.  This is for everyone who wants to make his voice heard, but has no actual say in what will happen.  If you are a Christian and a U.S. government official, I pray you will have God’s wisdom in making your decisions.

I write this because I cannot believe some of the things I have read concerning the refugee crisis.  I have been shocked at the attitude displayed by American Christians over this matter and, frankly, I am embarrassed by them.  I live in a setting where there are few Americans, so we are usually judged by what people hear in the news and read on issues such as this.

Here are some things I wish to avoid in this post:
  • America’s role in the world, the “shining city on a hill,” a “Christian” nation
  • The theology, goals, or tactics of radical Islamists
  • The politics of the Middle East
  • The statistics of radical to moderate Muslims
  • The identity and status of Syrian refugees

I believe that all American Christians need to consider three things concerning this refugee situation with Syria (or any other nation, for that matter).

1. Your Identity
Who are you?  Who were you first and who are you most? You were first an American.  Then one day you became a Christian.  Today you live as both an American and a Christian.  Yet each of you must decide which you are ultimately - for there will be times when the values of an American and the values of a Christian collide and you will have to choose which set of values will overrule the other.  One must overrule, or else you will end up with some strange mixture of values that is neither truly Christian nor truly American.

It has been said that we are dual citizens.  We are citizens of the City of God and citizens of the City of Man.  The Bible teaches, though, that our ultimate allegiance must be to God and to his Son, by whose teachings we live.  When the apostles’ government directly commanded them to go against their mandate from Jesus, they answered, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Is your view of the Syrian refugee crisis shaped more by being an American or by being a Christian?

2. Your Priorities
Which is more important to you - safety or the souls of men?  Is it more important to keep yourself, your family, your neighbors, your country safe and healthy and secure?  Or is it more important to minister to lost souls in need, to love them, and to provide for any of their needs that you are able to meet?

Jesus made it clear what his priorities were. “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).  “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).  He did not place his own physical safety above the spiritual needs of men.  He often put himself directly into harm’s way to save the souls of men.

3. Your Responsibilities
Whom ought we to protect - ourselves alone or all victims of evil whom we are able to help?  Are we to defend ourselves at all costs or may we be vulnerable and able to be taken advantage of?  Should we help the refugees directly and personally or should we just allow the government to take care of them while we faithfully pay our taxes?

Each of these three things will be answered differently by Americans and by Christians.

The American is firstly American.  He follows the laws of the land, cares about the future of his country, perhaps serves in its military, votes and voices his opinion, and always seeks America’s benefit ahead of the rest of the world.  His priorities reflect his patriotism. America’s enemies should be kept out and should even be destroyed in their homelands.  All immigrants to this country must come to benefit the nation.  They must contribute to receive its benefits.  The safety of our nation and its citizens is our government’s first priority.  No immigration crisis should be allowed to threaten the internal safety of our people.  We pity the other nations of the world for their problems, but they are their own problems.  Any aid or assistance that we give to other nations is only to promote our own status as a global leader and world superpower.  Our responsibilities are to protect ourselves and our people.  We will defend ourselves and our property at all costs.

The Christian is firstly Christian.  He follows the teaching and the example of Jesus.  His loyalties lie in the City of God, even if that conflicts with the interests of the City of Man.  His priority is the souls of men.  He has been rescued from an eternity of punishment for his sins and he knows that his purpose on earth is to help rescue others as well.  He will place the souls of men above his own safety, his own country, his own family.  He sees himself as an extension of the hands, eyes, mouth, feet, and heart of Jesus.  He will risk all in order to reach men.  His responsibilities extend to all mankind - any human being that he can serve in the name of Jesus.  He makes himself vulnerable and perhaps is taken advantage of by wicked men, yet he suffers for the sake of the gospel.  He is not content to allow a government to meet the physical needs of others, but insists on a personal involvement.  He gives of his resources, he opens his home, he shares his life with those in need - perhaps even those who hate him and wish him harm.  He is driven by the words of Jesus: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor… ‘The one who showed him mercy…’ You go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:36-37).  The Christian follows the spirit of God’s law to Israel: “[God] executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).  “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

So it comes down to your identity.  If you are first an American, keep the refugees out.  Bar the gates.  Raise the drawbridge.  Shut the windows.  Lock the doors.  Call out the guard.  The risk is too great.  But if you are first a Christian, welcome them.  Minister to them.  Serve them.  Love them.  Put yourself at risk.  You can’t lose anyway.  “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

As it stands now, the United States government is planning to allow Syrian refugees into the country.  Instead of arguing about it,  being afraid of it, and opposing it angrily, HELP THEM!!!  Or else risk standing before your Lord one day and hearing Jesus say, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me… Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matthew 25:43,45).

One final thought - There are probably none of us who could pack up and move to Syria to share the gospel with the Muslims there.  Instead, God is using a crisis - as he often does - to involuntarily move people out of a restricted land and into a land where they can be free to give their lives to Jesus.  American Christians, don’t miss one of the greatest mission opportunities of our time!  God is bringing thousands of lost souls to you.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

"As he loves himself..."

Remember when I said that I would use this blog to write about things I was still learning? Well here I go.

I spent part of today angry. Actually I think I've spent most of the past few days somewhere between mildly irritated and inwardly fuming. Twice in the past week, I've had to seek Kyle's forgiveness for exploding at him in an angry outburst. Ellee probably also wonders why she was told so loudly the other day to stop splashing water in the bathtub (isn't that what bath time is for to a one-year-old???). They weren't the problem; I was.

God has been trying to teach me a lesson: I'm spoiled. I'm selfish. And I need to grow as a husband and as a father.

Our family is happy to be expecting our third child sometime in October. As with both of our other children, however, it seems that the first months of pregnancy are going to be very difficult for Abby. She is not able to function the way she usually does. She usually wakes up nauseous, tries to get some strength through food, then works to keep it down the rest of the day. She is weak and tired and needs a lot of rest. I trust the baby is getting all the strength and energy it needs, because it sure isn't leaving much for Mama! I hate to think that Abby may be suffering so that God could teach me a lesson. Well maybe if I learned it today, she can start feeling better now.

Everyone knows that you often don't appreciate what you have until it's taken away. Let me tell you what my life is usually like. The kids normally wake up around seven. If they awaken earlier, they're not allowed to get up or begin playing until seven. Abby usually gets up with them and feeds them breakfast. I sleep for a while longer, especially if I was up late doing school the night before. Most days I smell bacon or pancakes or something and know it's my call to get up now. As the day goes on, I do my schoolwork or study for TEE or practice soccer or really just do nothing. The kids are given snacks as they play, dirty nappies (sorry, diapers) are changed, the house is cleaned and tidied. Around noon, lunch appears. Then Ellee is put down to nap and I help Kyle get settled for his. Then Abby often naps and I get two or three hours of quiet time for reading or study or rest or a movie. As everyone wakes up, supper starts cooking and I play with the kids. After supper, I give both kids a bath while Abby showers, then she puts Ellee to sleep and I put Kyle to sleep. Obviously there's a lot more to it, but that's kind of our normal day routine.

Not anymore. Kids wake up. Abby's in the bathroom. I go get them. Usually manage to fall back asleep, still. Wake up without a hot breakfast most days. Kids strew toys everywhere. I straighten up or trip over them all day. Dirty diaper, here you go, Daddy. Meals are over, dishes pile up. Lunch time, I ask how to cook stuff. House is dirty, where's that broom? How did you sleep, Abby? Aaaagggghhhh! How do you feel, Abby? Eeeeehhhhh! Such a beautiful day today! Uuuuugggghhhh! Kids want snacks, ask Daddy. Supper comes, what do I do this time? Bath time, still daddy. Good thing I don't have school right now!

So I've been mad. Here's some more about me. I'm not very good at sympathy. I don't want to hear problems I can't fix. Sorry isn't good enough for me. "I feel terrible." "Take some medicine. Try some food. Need more sleep? Want a hot bath?" If I just say "Aw, sorry you feel bad," I feel useless. So I don't want to hear it. I'm also the eternal optimist, like Mr. Positive. Hey, life's ok; things will get better. It could be worse. We can fix it. God will get us through this. It can't be that bad, just don't be so down about it. However, this all-day morning sickness hangs a cloud over the house that I can't shine through. I can't fix it. I can't change it. I can't make the whole trimester look like it will be okay or pass quickly. So I don't want to hear about it. Maybe a quick "Feel any better today?" "Ugh..." and I'll go on with the day.

So now most of you are probably glad that you don't have to live with such an insensitive, lazy bum. And you know now how to pray for Abby!

But God's not through with me. Several things have coincidentally come together recently to send me a message loud and clear. In TEE we are currently studying "Christian Family Living" and the pastors also recently asked us to give a study on biblical family roles. Ephesians 5 was a necessary exposition, so we spent a lot of time there - especially on the role of the husband. To be honest, I didn't feel like I was teaching that class. It felt more like a group therapy session where I tell everyone how much I'm not living up to the standard. I have this rule for myself that I've always followed: I will never preach on a subject where my life is not exemplary without making it known that I, too, need to hear and apply this message.

The phrase that caught my attention was: "Let each one of you love his wife as himself" (Eph.5:33). It's such an interesting verse. Is Paul saying a husband should love himself? Not at all! He is saying you already do! "In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it," (Eph.5:28-29). The other convicting phrase, of course, was "and gave himself for her" (Eph.5:25).

I have seen up close two men who give themselves for their wives - both are my fathers. My birth father has always put his wife before his own interests and his family before his ministry. Even now as he cares for his wife's mother, putting his own desire to travel in revival ministry on hold indefinitely, he shows me what it is to "give himself for her." My other father, made mine through marriage, is also the quintessential family man. He works a good job faithfully and comes home to invest in his family. He does the dishes, I think, after every meal. He serves in the local church. He reads to his kids every night. He has a few hobbies, but they only get done if all family priorities have been upheld. I've always admired these two men and said I want to be like them, but it often seems an unattainable goal. Where do I start?

At the same time that all these thoughts were running though my head, I saw one of those cheesy Facebook posts with a quotation on an artsy background. It said something like, "The voice you speak to your children will be the voice in their heads for the rest of their lives." I thought back on some of the voices I'd used with my kids this week. "Why won't you listen to me!?! I told you that would happen! Sit down and stop goofing off right now!" Do I want him to hear that voice throughout his life as he looks to the future or makes mistakes?

Today, I trust, God got through to me. I write this right now - late at night, when I should be sleeping - to be a reminder in the months and years ahead. It is a means of accountability for what God has said to me today. I'm sure I will not follow these new instructions perfectly from here on, but at least I can return and be reminded.

Today, God said to me, "Love your wife and give yourself for her. Love her as much as you obviously love yourself." So I tried to. I just did what she usually does to care for me. I did what I would have wanted someone else to do. It wasn't all that hard, either. It just involved thinking differently. I pray the lesson will stick, and I write it here to haunt me.

Monday, August 18, 2014

"Whoever causes one of these little ones to sin..."

When I first started this blog, I said that I would use it to write about things I've learned and also things to which I don't yet have an answer. This post is one of the latter.

I think every parent knows that we can often learn some of the most surprising insights from our children.  Today as I sat in the church of one of our TEE pastors, I noticed something in the little children playing around the church. This observation combined with my current experience with our own children to get me thinking about a potentially serious issue.

At church yesterday, about five or six little children were sitting near the front of the room while the pastor was preaching.  They would sit a while, get up, go outside, eat a snack, and keep themselves occupied while the service was going on.  I noticed one little boy who had a marble - just one.  He would roll it around, bounce it across the floor, toss it outside, laugh, and go chase it.  Another boy had some kind of a small tin can about the size of a sardine can with maybe a 12-inch-long metal rod stuck through the middle of it.  It was nothing.  He sat there looking at it, turning it this way and that, spinning the can on the wire, running it across the floor, and smiling.  Before too long "metal boy" and "marble boy” were sitting beside each other.  Metal boy seemed about three years old and marble boy was probably two.  While I watched them, marble boy showed his marble to the older boy and then handed his prized ball over to him.  The older boy took the marble and smiled and handed the little boy his tin can toy.

Fast forward to that afternoon (or about any afternoon in this month).  Kyle and Ellee are playing together.  Kyle is holding his two favorite motorcycles which he lost back in the States, but were recovered and mailed to him by our family last week.  Ellee is over by the TV pulling out every toy in the bottom drawer.  Finally she settles on one of Kyle’s planes and crawls over to Mommy and me, smiling and giggling about her special toy.  Kyle hears the happy sounds and comes over to see what’s going on.  “Ellee, no, that’s my plane,” he says, trying to take it away.  “No, Kyle, let her play with it.  You haven’t been interested in those planes all day.”  After some grabbing and maybe some crying, he goes back to his motorcycles.  Snack time comes and suddenly the motorcycles are sitting alone while Kyle eats his apple.  Seeing her opportunity, Ellee speed-crawls to grab a motorcycle and the fight ensues again.

Those were my observations.  Neither one is complete, I’m sure.  I know Kyle and Ellee are sometimes very good at sharing toys and playing together nicely.  And I’m sure the two boys also have times when they don’t get along.  But my observations got me thinking about possessions.  How often do we observe that those with less are more inclined to share and those with more and more inclined to hoard?  It’s one of the things I hear most often about cross-cultural mission trips: “These people have nothing, but they insisted on feeding us and caring for our needs.”  I hear missionaries raising support for the field (and have been one) wondering why the family with the giant house can’t spare $20 per month or why the church with the million-dollar budget can’t give $100 per month to see the gospel spread.  Why is this?

The West is rich; the Majority World is poor.  The West is typically selfish; the Majority World typically shares.  Are these factors totally unrelated?  Is it only our individualist mindset vs. their collectivist mindset?  Or is it that the more we get, the less we give?

Our kids have literally a tent full of toys.  Most of them were the favorite at one point or another.  We have trouble getting rid of the toys because we remember how much he once loved them (oh my goodness, this tore me apart when we were moving to Africa and had to give away most of Kyle’s baby toys).  But eventually, the new one replaces the old one.  As a parent, I still walk through the toy store (occasionally) and think, “Oh, my kid would like that so much!”  Like our heavenly Father, I do love to “give good gifts” to my children.  I love to see the surprise and excitement when Kyle’s favorite movie character jumps off of the screen and becomes a plastic buddy in his hand to accompany him on his daily adventures.  But I wonder, am I hurting him in my good intentions?  Are my “good gifts” really “good”?

What is the problem?  Why do the kids with one toy share so happily and the kids with many fight over one?  Is it just our children’s inherent sinfulness?  Is it the selfish heart, the lust of the eyes, and the greed of human dissatisfaction?  Or is it the tyranny of the new?  Are their desires becoming ruled by the fact that they often get something new and so the new becomes “mine”?

This makes me wonder even more: Are our possessions a blessing from God or a curse from Satan?  What does Jesus call our “needs”?  He said, “...do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on . . . your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Mt 6:25, 32).  He doesn’t even mention a house.  He said, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Mt 8:20).  These are the things Jesus says we need.  He gives us much beyond that, but we must be careful to realize that they are not needs.  He never promised abundant possessions.  So when we have abundant possessions, are they really from God?  Or does God give all we need (and more) and then Satan gives us abundance to corrupt our desires and turn our hearts away from God because “you cannot serve God and money” (Mt 6:24).

I've heard it said before, and thus far have seen it consistent throughout Scripture, that Satan is not an innovator as much as he is a corruptor.  That is, he does not invent new evils or create new types of sin.  Rather, he takes those things which God has given in good measure and corrupts them towards evil purposes.  He takes the high value God has placed on man and makes man to overvalue himself.  He takes God's good intentions for sexuality and tempts man to take it outside of the boundaries God has set.  Could he also turn God's good purposes for work into overwork?  Could he not try to corrupt God's faithful provision of possessions and turn it into selfishness and idolatry and "the love of money," which is the root of all kinds of evil?

Considering these things makes me think of more questions.  What does this say about missionaries who spend all their time giving away possessions to those who have less?  Are they helping at all?  I know missionaries who do this 24/7.  It’s all they do.  Certainly it is motivated by compassion.  We love to see the African and Mexican children receiving toys, footballs, and candy.  We feel happy to know that we have given to help them.  Furthermore, we want to do these compassionate ministries as a way to show Christ’s love to the world, praying that they will see Him, believe in Him, and receive Him.  These are right motives.  But are they right actions?

What about programs like Operation Christmas Child?  We in the West celebrate Christmas by giving gifts.  We assume everyone else should, too.  Our cultural lenses let us see this in the three wise men who gave gifts to Jesus at the first “Christmas.”  Somehow, though it’s not the same.  The magi didn’t give the gifts to each other!

This is not even about creating dependence, “When Helping Hurts,” "When Charity Destroys Dignity,” or transformational development principles.  Are we helping at all?  Or are we exporting our materialism to the children of the world?  Are we “causing one of these little ones to sin”?

These are my thoughts.  I don’t have the answers.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

10 Things Missionaries Don't Tell You Enough

I try not to write reactionary posts.  This one certainly is.  But I trust that I can write this without sounding reactionary or disagreeable.

I saw a post going around Facebook.  It was actually a link that several missionaries I know shared on their pages.  When I saw the title, I immediately wanted to read it, expecting to share it myself.  However, once I was finally able to access it tonight, I really didn't like it at all!  It sounded like it was written by a tired, burnt-out missionary who needs more than a little time on home assignment.  I certainly identified with some of the things written on the post, but felt that the perspective was incredibly pessimistic under it's cover of "being real."  So I thought instead to write my own post, aligned with the same 10 ideas, giving what I believe to be a better perspective on them (and perhaps to rescue us missionaries from being clumped into a group who all think like this man does).  The original post is called "10 Things Missionaries Won't Tell You."  You may read the article here for cross-reference: http://www.adammosley.com/2014/07/05/10-things-missionaries-wont-tell/
I've decided to call my post "10 Things Missionaries Don't Tell You Enough."

10 Things Missionaries Don't Tell You Enough:

1. We love to hear from you!
- There are not many things more encouraging that getting a short email from home saying, "Hi, how are you? We were thinking about you today.  How is the family?  We love you."  It tells us that you had a moment, we were on your minds and in your prayers, and it meant enough to you to take a moment and tell us.  In an age of instant communication, it doesn't take us any more than 5-15 minutes to reply to an email or Facebook message and we are more than happy to do that and stay connected with you back home.  Perhaps don't ask us to write you back a full-blown theology of mission, but we are always blessed to hear from you - especially in response to a newsletter we've just sent (then we know you've read it!).

2. We look through every comment and every "like" on our Facebook posts.
- It is encouraging to see who is following our lives, even in the small, everyday matters.  When I get on Facebook during my breakfast in the morning, I scroll through my notifications.  I admit also that on nearly every post or picture I've shared, I read through all of the comments and usually look through the names of everybody who "liked" those posts.  Am I a Facebook addict?  I don't think so.  It's just nice to know that people care about us, they follow us, they "like" us!

3. We are offering you the chance to invest in God's kingdom work.
- Yes, we too often see ourselves as Christian beggars, asking you to give us money so we can do something important for God. It is easy to feel guilty for that sometimes. But the fact is that we are offering you the chance to invest your money in something eternal - to "lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and rust do not corrupt and thieves do not break through and steal."  We are giving you the opportunity to expand your sphere of eternal influence beyond where you can go yourself.  Is that selfish?  Is that begging?  If it is begging, it is begging on God's behalf.  It is begging you to do something eternally beneficial for yourself.  You give your money to God.  We give our time and service to God.  It is a ministry partnership - both of us together for Him!

4. You don't want to or need to hear of our worst days.
- And we don't need to hear of yours either.  There is no point in discouraging each other with a mutual pity party.  Does anybody like to see those Facebook posts of "Oh what a miserable day I'm having.  Like this if you are having one, too."  We have difficult days over here.  But I'll bet you have some difficult days, too.  We haven't earned a special degree of bad days by going overseas; we probably just have different reasons for our days being bad.  Apart from openness, vulnerability, and mutual support with those closest to us, we don't need to lay our problems on the world.

5. We take breaks and vacations - like the one you just finished.
- I admit to the difficulties of this area.  Because our work is one that is supported very directly by others, we may struggle with feelings of guilt over "wasting" the money that people have sent to support us.  We may think it unwise to post pictures on Facebook of our beachfront view hotel or our fancy dinner out.  But apart from these concerns, we need breaks just like everyone else.  And we take them!  There is a fine line between considering the effect our actions may have on others and the fear of man, which "brings a snare."  We see the pictures that all of our friends back home post of their vacations.  We see the exotic locations, the fancy meals, the swimming pools, the cruises, and the mountain hikes.  We see the pictures coming up for a week or more.  But because those were financed by business income instead of missionary support, it's somehow justified.  We, on the other hand, may post about the beautiful guest house we're booking in Durban next week.  But we won't tell you it cost less than $60 per night, instead of hundreds.  We won't tell you we were there for three days instead of a week.  We won't tell you that we drove there for about $100 in fuel and not thousands of dollars in plane tickets.  If we all held each other to the same standards, we would have no problem in showing you our vacation.

6. Hosting teams can be a benefit to our field ministries.
- I hope I'm not speaking beyond my ability here.  We have not yet hosted "a team" in our overseas ministry.  I'm sure that much stress can be involved in the logistics of planning to host a short-term missions team.  But I would think that much of that difficulty could be avoided if we would have a proper view of STM's in the first place.  Should not a STM team be planned based on its ability to further a field ministry and not only on the desire of the team to see the field ministry in person?  Do not the missionaries have the right (I would say responsibility) to turn down a team who wanted to come visit if their visit would not aid the ministry and could even hinder the ministry for a time?  Perhaps the need for finances and the promotion of one's ministry back home too often pushes a missionary to host a team they can't really accommodate.  Better instead to refuse the team or limit its size to a manageable number who may actually be able to further the ministry.  The movement critically called "voluntourism" may be getting out of control and can only be curtailed by somebody making the hard decisions.

7. Chances to go home are a tremendous blessing.
- Assuming the arguments already made in point 5 (we take breaks) and looking forward to point 10 (we miss our families), going home is not about getting rest.  When we are on the field, we speak often of home.  We recount memories of home.  We daydream about what favorite restaurants we will eat at again when we get home.  We miss our friends and we miss our families more.  So when we have the opportunity to go home, we're not there to sleep!  We're not there to hole up in our houses and say, "Ahhh! This was nice when I lived here."  We want to see our people, attend our churches, tell people about the amazing things God is doing on the other side of the world.  I felt bad many mornings at home when I slept late or when we were alone with nobody around.  "Why are we doing this here?  We can be alone while we're over there!"  Certainly there is a balance and we don't want to be run into the ground catching up, traveling, and speaking.  But every opportunity to visit home is a blessing and a refreshment, in spite of any difficulties.

8. We must work to make God our first priority.
- As mentioned above (point four), we're no different from you in this.  Yes, there is certainly still a stereotype that missionaries are the most God-centered people in the world and must have no problem spending hours a day alone with Him.  But that is largely a shattered lens these days, I believe.  Our lives are busy; your lives are busy.  We must make our relationship with God a priority; you must make your relationship with God a priority.  There is nothing more to be said here.

9. We have some of the deepest life relationships with believers from other cultures.
- Few things I know of will knit hearts together more closely and more permanently than true intercultural friendships.  One person alone may work hard to understand another person and may thereby develop a decent friendship with him.  But when two people must put tremendous effort into understanding and appreciating each other, that bond will not be easily broken.  This is especially true in the relationships between believers, where our mutual love for Jesus transfers into our love for each other and our likemindedness for God's cause in the world unites our desires and passions for the ministry.  I doubt that anyone can fully appreciate this bond until he or she has experienced it personally.

10. We look forward to eternal company in heaven.
- Yes, we get lonely.  That is one of the most difficult parts of being on the foreign field.  But why do we do it?  Family is the first relationship God gave us on this earth.  Why would we abandon that family and move to another part of the planet, removing our children from those families as well?  Because one day we became part of a bigger family.  We became part of an eternal family.  And the Head of that family asked, no, commanded us to go and invite into that family others whom He loves and desires.  We leave our first families on one part of this planet because our new family (of which many of our first family members are also a part!) is all across the planet!  One day we will be able to be together permanently, even eternally, as one big, happy family and that is what we look forward to.  That is why we endure the loneliness now for the fellowship later.

These are the things that we missionaries don't tell you enough.  But they are all true.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Hard Doctrines and Agreeing to Disagree

These should perhaps be two separate posts, but feeling that the two often go hand in hand I've decided to cover them together. My first thought is this: Many doctrines taught in the Bible are very difficult to study. They are "hard doctrines" - either to understand or to accept. This will not be news to any consistent Bible reader and should not be a surprise to any of us because of the very nature of the Bible's divine origin and our fallen and earthly intellect. In many areas of theology, the Bible appears to hold or permit differing views. One of the most commonly known of these difficult areas is the matter of God's sovereignty and man's will. Other areas include the roles of faith and works in salvation, an understanding of the old and new covenants and Israel's role in history, the continuance of certain spiritual gifts, the "now and not yet" nature of the kingdom of God, and the future timeline of mankind and creation.

In my own life, I try to constantly be digging deeper into these areas - to read multiple and variant books on the topics and listen to deep, lengthy sermons discussing the relevant Scriptures. Often, I find myself further confused or "in over my head," but I believe it is a struggle worth making. I occasionally hear the comment, "Why do you keep going on that one topic? You'll never be able to fully understand it, so why keep studying?" Are they right? If there are certain doctrines I will never fully grasp, why shouldn't I just forget about it and "take it in faith?"

I have two concerns. Number one, as a minister of the gospel, a student of theology, a missionary to a lost world, and an instructor of pastors, I feel it is my duty to make every effort to understand clearly what the Bible teaches. Doctrinally, I believe that God is indeed black and white, that the Bible holds only one position on all matters, and that the Bible is sufficiently clear to communicate everything God wants us to know for life. Number two, even if I weren't a vocational minister, I believe it would still be necessary to make every effort as a lay person to equip myself with a correct understanding of God and His truth.

Now, the fact remains that some doctrines I will not understand until eternity, when my glorified body is separated from my fallen nature and I will know fully what I now know in part (1Co.13:12). In all our studies, we must be careful never to force our logic beyond what the Scripture explicitly states, for even our human reason is fallen and flawed and finite. We won't get the answer to every one of our questions. As one of my seminary professors liked to say, "The Bible is too short. It just didn't tell us everything we wanted to know." However, we cannot allow ourselves as Christians to retreat to "faith" as a cover for theological laziness. Too many times, I have been in discussion with another believer on a difficult doctrine over which we disagree and heard, "I can't explain why I believe that, I just take it in faith."

It is for this reason that I have really grown to dislike the phrase "agree to disagree." While I do respect that the intent of the message is to maintain unity amidst conflict, I feel that people too often rush there and hold it up as a shield. It seems to me a final resort to hold to an untenable position. It is the period to end a discussion without further pressing the matter.

This person will merely disagree - no further discussion is permitted and no passage of Scripture given to refute or defend. Or instead, they will dismiss - that's not really what the passage means or it doesn't really matter anyway. Occasionally, they will divide - suddenly you don't see them anymore or they relate to you only on surface issues. Or they will distract - the hard doctrine is avoided and the topic changed. Or they digress - well, this other person who agreed with your position also did this or said that. The correct response for the believer is to discuss and decide - bring up all relevant Scriptures, pray, study, seek counsel and wisdom from God and others, then take the more reliable position, allowing room for personal conviction.

Paul's exhortation to Timothy has grown to become one of my favorite passages as it refers to these matters. "Study! . . . to show yourself approved unto God, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, *rightly dividing the word of truth*" (2Ti.2:15, emphasis mine). Study is required of us. Diligence is used in other translations. "Do your best." "Make every effort." All of these carry the same idea. It takes hard work in God's Word to understand hard doctrines. But we must do that work to be approved by God! Then we will be workers who don't need to be ashamed and we will be able to rightly - correctly - divide God's Word.

This is why I persist in study. It's not because I have to know everything or have to always be right. It's because I sense that there is more in the Word that I do not yet know. When I am unsettled on a matter and another minister I respect is settled on it, I want to hear from him why. Where his reasons are valid and biblical, I will take up his position as well. May we always be diligent to learn more about God, and in knowing Him more, to love Him more!

Cultural Disconnect

It is said that some of the biggest changes a missionary will go through relate to culture. As a matter of necessity, one must observe, analyze, and adopt (parts of) the culture in which he will be ministering. In the process, he will lose or intentionally discard some parts of the culture to which he is native.

As our time in the States was coming to a close and our move around the world began to approach, I remember feeling a noticeably increasing disconnection from other Americans. As I would sit and have my lunch break at Chick-fil-A, I remember some of the conversations I heard around me (sorry, everyone; I eavesdrop). Two older ladies sat one day involved in what seemed like a deep, serious talk. "Oh, I just cant believe it!" they remarked in hushed tones. "I'm really going to miss him." "Oh, me, too. I just don't know if it will ever be the same again." I couldn't figure out what they were talking about. It sounded as if someone had died in their family. Then one of them said something like, "I don't know who they'll get to replace him. Those two always just interacted so well together! I mean he's been on NCIS since season 1!" I didn't know someone's life could be so wrapped up in a TV show.

Another day, I remember hearing a group of about 6 business people sitting at a table and chatting about their sports teams. It was amazing to me how much of their own identity seemed tied up in their college sports teams! "Last week, we lost to . . . " "It was our most embarrassing season ever!" "I couldn't be seen in public last week after that loss!"

I won't pretend to be completely innocent on these things. I loved watching Lost as much as anyone back when it was running. And I still love to follow American Idol (though less and less now). Actually, a few months before we left, I was at work one afternoon when two people were talking about "The Voice." They asked me who my favorite singer was and I didn't even know who was competing. I realized I was actually a little embarrassed to say, "We don't have cable." What I should have said was, "We canceled our cable, because I'm in seminary and don't have time to watch TV." I felt so weird, though - like I was already an outsider.

But life is just different now. It doesn't matter anymore. If I may share a personal struggle, it is very hard not to feel superior to others in my country now - as if their lives are so trivial and mine so spiritual. A short while ago, we missed the Super Bowl. Someone had mentioned the previous week that it was coming up, but we didn't even know who was playing until my news app gave me a notification that the Ravens had won. I didn't miss it. I mean, yes, Super Bowl parties are fun and I love having chips and queso and Cokes with all of my friends while we root for our opposing teams, but it just had no meaning on our lives whatsoever (maybe during World Cup we'll get some parties over here!). Then I got on Facebook and saw people raving about how amazing the raunchy halftime show was and I wondered, "Where is the disconnect? Is it just me? Would I have been just as caught up in the game if I had still been there?" I remarked on my Facebook that we'd missed the game and noticed several other missionaries said the same.

So, it's a lesson I'm learning. It's easy to get so caught up in my culture that it negatively affects my life, making it trivial at times. It's also easy to look at my culture without any discretion, merely taking in whatever it gives. In my foreign culture, I'm at the opposite point right now. I see many things in Africa negatively, wondering why the people don't use discretion in certain matters (pastors letting their kids watch American music videos all day). This is a developing process. I must learn to retain only those parts of my culture which are wholesome and meaningful and must learn to adopt any parts of this new culture that are beneficial without harshly criticizing the parts I believe to be negative (though tea time will definitely be adopted!).