Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Wrong Part of Town

I live in Minas Tirith, the capitol city of Gondor here in Middle Earth. I didn't always. My life now is very different than the life I knew when I lived in Rohan. Today I drove over 150 miles over two mountain passes and forded a river to get to a village where we are doing a water project. When I lived in Edoras in Rohan I didn't have a car and I taught English as a second language at a language Institute. Yeah, I know, it doesn't show. Anyway, I like to tell stories on this blog which make a point about my relationship with God, or Church Planting, or Discipleship. Today I will tell a story about one day in Rohan and while I think it is a good story I don't think it has much point. But you can be the judge of that.

All the experts will tell you that after about six months in a foreign country you really hit culture shock hard. In Middle Earth most Westerners get culture shock after about six minutes but you get over it, you recover, and let's face it; you don't have the language or know-how to get a ticket home right then anyway and that is a good thing. So, after six months of being in Edoras I was missing a few things about home. On really bad days we would list food that we missed, or even just the names of restaurants that we would love to go to. We might be sitting around on mats on the floor drinking green tea and someone would say, 'Chilli's!' And then I might say, 'Arby's beef and cheddar!' That kind of thing. It's pretty sad. At that time we could get almost no imported Western things at all. It was in this mood that I set out one morning to go to a section of town called Central Station. I had been there before by taxi but I wanted to figure out how to get there by bus. I went down to the bus stop and I asked a driver what bus I should take to get to Central Station. He told me that his bus was going that way so I got on. We went right at first but then slowly I thought we were going too far west. We went a long ways and everything became less and less familiar. Finally, in the middle of a strange neighborhood that looked nothing like Central Station the driver stopped the bus and told me I was to get off here. I asked him where Central Station was and he told me. See that narrow alleyway to the right? Just go down there about a mile and you will find Central Station. I was pretty mad but as I didn't know any swear words in the local language I just said thank you and started walking.

I walked a long way. It was an interesting street with lots of buildings and shops I had not seen before. I was looking up at an interesting building when I walked straight into a pole that stuck up about two feet out of the middle of the sidewalk. It probably had a purpose at one time but today it just sat idle waiting patiently to destroy my knee. It hurt a lot. I choked back a cry of pain and hobbled off to one side of the road breathing hard and hoping nobody would notice. Nobody had noticed my foolish brush with inattentiveness so I lumbered on slowly taking deep breaths. I came to a small store and decided that a candy bar would ease my pain and I went in hoping to find a good western candy bar and maybe, with a lot of luck, a chair or a bench to sit on and eat it. Upon entering the doorway I was transported. I stood with mouth wide open and eyes bugging out of my head at the scrumptious array of product before me. Shelves and shelves of Cambell's Soup, Spice packets of every kind, breakfast cereal, breakfast cereal, more and more glorious breakfast cereal, cake mixes, jars and cans and jams, and what was that on the bottom to the right? A large bottle of Pace Picante sauce which had only expired two years previously! Had I passed out? Did I die? No, I was conscious and the proof was that everything there was water damaged. Some container must have fallen off a ship somewhere and the contents salvage and sold by weight. Everything was sold by weight and it was all dirt cheap! I bought a few things and then hurried to our team meeting which was just about to take place all the way back across town. I entered the meeting slightly late and with great gusto proudly proclaimed my magnificent find. I announced that our ship had sunk three times but by golly it had finally come in! Everyone was very excited and we all ran off to the store to purchase as much as we could carry. Well, everyone was excited except our team leader who had been in the middle of a some profound point when I came in. He just said that he hoped we could one day be as excited about church planting as we were about Lucky Charms. His wife told him to grab his wallet and get moving.

Two weeks later the store was gone. No, we didn't buy everything. The whole lot was packed up and taken away for someone else. We have a saying in Middle Earth that if you want something then you buy it when you see it. No bargain shopping here. Tomorrow it will be gone never to be seen again. Life is like that here. Impermanence is the fabric in which we live.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Inviting Speech

I was in Rohan the other week when I took my daughters to fly out to boarding school. On my way back home my friend and I stopped in Edoras to encourage some of the local believers there. They are having a pretty rough time these days as the king in Rohan is outlawing all things religious. It is now illegal to preach in Rohan. I asked them what the Government's definition of preaching was. They said that anytime, anywhere you speak to people- even in your own home- with a Bible open in front of you and non-believers are present then you are preaching. The fines are astronomical and several have had trouble with this fun law already. But that was not what was discouraging the leaders there. What was really getting to them was the fact that many local believers were beginning to grow weary of the struggle. They were growing cold and indifferent toward God and other believers. One of the leaders asked me if he should continue to work with one of his church members who seemed to have drifted away. This person was still coming to meetings but was not bearing any fruit and seemed to be permanently immature in his faith. Should he give up on such a person and work with others who would bear more fruit?
I replied that this was a common problem everywhere in the world today and that many people had varied opinions on this. Many people quote 2 Tim. 2:2 believing that we should focus our time on giving the message to 'faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.' This is of course, true but looking to Jesus as our model I like to tell the story of the Prodigal Son. What does this story have to do with who we work with? I believe this story is critical in understanding what a 'godly' attitude towards others is regardless of who the other person is.
As you recall the story found in Luke 15 there is a man with two sons. The second son, the 'Prodigal', leaves the father to find pleasure and satisfaction in the world. The first son stays but toward the end of the story we discover that in his heart he too has left his father's house. He stayed, but began to think of himself as a servant and not a son. He was bitter, jealous, and ungrateful. When the younger son repents and returns the father receives him and invites him into a great banquet. When the older son hears of this he is enraged but the father pleads with the older son and invites him into the banquet as well. You have doubtless heard many fine sermons on this parable and indeed there is much that can be gleaned from this story. But I will focus on just this; The younger son's character was that of a man who looks for pleasure in worldly things, the older son's character was bitter and thankless, but the father's character was constantly inviting in. I see myself in all three and indeed I have been all three characters. I have and continue to seek pleasure in the world far too often. I have been the thankless older brother who is ungrateful and jealous. And, even I, am learning to become like the father. In fact, all children should grow up. We begin like the older or younger sons- usually a combination of both- but we must grow up. When we do we invite others in. It is in the heart and nature of our Great Heavenly Father that he invites us to join him. We must become like this if we are truly followers of His Son.
Jesus was constantly inviting others to join him. We remember when He invited the little children to come to Him and we smile thinking that is how He thinks of us. But remember that in the parable the father represented God, the Prodigal represented the outcasts and sinners, but the older son represented the Pharisees and the religious of Jesus' day. Yet, in the story he too was invited to the banquet. We are not told if he went in, but even he was invited. I will put it to you that in everything Jesus said and did, even when dealing harshly with His enemies He was inviting them in. He never casts anyone out who came to Him. He told them the truth. He did not sugar coat what He said with flattering speech but He was always inviting.
We must be also. I counseled the young leader not to cast out anyone but to speak the truth clearly- always inviting. Many will leave our ranks in the end. The love of many will grow cold. We must not pander to them or cheapen the Gospel for them in any way. Jesus never chased anyone down nor did He beg others to follow Him. But we can and we must speak the truth in a way that invites them into relationship with us and our Father. They too are welcome at the banqueting table. There is room. Be like the father today, grow up and invite them in.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Feet of Clay

Personal Note: My girls are safely back in boarding school and we are back to work. I will try and start doing posts at least weekly again. Well, I say that but my home computer- usually used by my wife but also by me in the evenings- has died a violent death. I don't know when I will be able to replace it but pray for us, I am looking into Macs.

He was my knight in shining armor. He showed up for my disaster management team training and I knew that he was just what I was looking for. He was ready to serve, he was intelligent, he had been a lawyer, he spoke English, he had been a Christian for many years and he was active in a local Church that recommended him to us. His name was Boromir and I loved this guy. But then I loved him less. We did the two month team training and he told stories of his evangelistic exploits. He told of his own conversion to faith in Christ and how God had miraculously saved him from his addiction to drugs. Then after the training was over, after two months of being together for 8-10 hours a day and several overnight trips he showed up to my office drunk.

Ok, he had had a tooth pulled and the dentist had suggested alcohol to kill the pain. He made a mistake, no big deal. I told him if he ever showed up to the office drunk again he would never work for our organization- he would be off the team. The next week there he was again. Then the guys- his friends began to fess up. Boromir was an alcoholic and everyone knew it but me. Typical. That was it, he was off the team, he was history, I would not work with this clown. The King had other ideas. God gave me a project to work on concerning John Eldridge's book 'Wild at Heart'. I was to take it and use it to disciple some men. But I needed translation help. So, God in His infinite wisdom asked me to use Boromir and another man to do the job. Both of these guys were seriously flawed. I argued with God every day. I have never worked with an alcoholic before. I knew nothing about this. I had lots of other guys to work with at the time and too many other projects to do. But I was in the end, obedient. It was not fun. As we worked through the concepts in the book, concepts on how to be a real man according to what God wanted in a real man, the guys did not get it. They misunderstood at every turn. The other guy used some of the concepts to justify his domestic violence and chasing prostitutes. Boromir just plowed through the material as if nothing could touch him. As if everything in his life was just fine. I prayed a lot during those days. I kept arguing with God. Then after about three months of this nonsense, just after New Year's Eve, Boromir stopped drinking. He began to make sense. He began to fight the spiritual battles before him and more than that he began to win.

He ask if I could help him get his lawyer's license back. He needed books to study for the exam and he needed money to make it all happen. I helped. We had a vision for a Christian law firm and one was registered only a year before- only we still didn't have any Christian lawyers in it. From January of 2004 on into the summer he stayed completely sober. I was wary and watching him. We studied together several times a week. I met with his parents and helped him share the Gospel with them. They were overjoyed at the difference in their son. Then he got his license and began actually practicing law. We live in one of the most corrupt countries on this planet. I know every expatriot worker thinks that but Transparency International has backed us on this consistently ranking Gondor in the top 5 - 7 for the last five years. Hey, at least we are consistent. I think that a lawyer in any country is tempted to be unethical but here in Gondor being totally above board is not even an option. Boromir told me that the judges just want money and the prosecutors just want to intimidate people with their power.

He began to help the helpless. He began to pray and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit and he began to win. He shared Jesus with judges. He managed to reduce bribe payments by 70%- 80% to 100% for families facing unimaginable injustices. I was proud of him. Everyone was coming to me and exclaiming that Boromir had never looked healthier and happier. He found a girlfriend and began a house church in her home. One day in early October he tried one of the biggest cases he had so far. A woman who was a member of a local Church had an unbelieving husband who was a drug dealer. The police knew that she had nothing to do with his business but when they arrested him they found out she was a Christian and assumed that she had links to foreigners. Links that would get them lots of money. So, they arrested her and held her for the astronomical sum of $3500. No one here has that kind of money. Boromir went to work. Talking sense and preaching boldly about justice and God's will he brought down the amount of the bribe to less than $500. When the woman's Church went to pay it they found that the judge refused their money and let the woman go free. He sited his respect for Boromir and Boromir's God as his motivation.

Those of you with experience understand what happened next in a way I could not. Boromir celebrated. After nine months of sobriety he fell off the wagon with a huge thud. I was not totally caught off guard by this. I knew it could happen but here is what I did not expect. He never got back on the wagon again. I went to the West to be with my wife as she had our fourth child. When I returned I found a still drunk Boromir whose hands were shaking, who had drank all of his money and the money of several of his clients, whose mind was virtually destroyed and who had fallen so far that he was incapable of telling the truth about anything. He stayed drunk for a year. I saw him sporadically, usually he had some scheme to try and get money out of me. I gave him none, though I frequently gave his mom and dad food.

Last January I heard he had sobered up. I heard that he was working for some relatives and doing well. I heard that he was getting healthy again. I sent messages to him through his family asking him to come by and see me. In March I got word that he went to the hospital with what I think must have been a stroke. The next morning he was dead. I went to his parent's home and prayed with them. It has taken me from then until now to be able to write about this.

I tell a lot of stories about the people we work with. I never sugar coat what happens. God does incredible things, miraculous things in my life and the lives of those around me. But there are many things that I don't understand. I don't know how people can fail so catastrophically. I don't know why God has protected me from moral failure and yet Boromir who loved Jesus just like I do sank so low. There is a lot of talk in seminaries and in Churches about Calvinism and the idea of God being sovereign over all or Arminianism and our ability to choose. These debates make sense to the debaters as they sit in front of their computer screens or in the classroom. But out here in Middle Earth I can make no sense of it at all. God moves in my life and the lives of those around me, this is clear. I and those around me screw up all the time. This too is painfully clear. At the end of the day we face Romans 7 and look to Paul to answer our questions for us. He simply says, "Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God- through Jesus Christ our Lord." At first glance I am very disappointed in this answer. I want more. I want a winning formula that will guarantee my spiritual prosperity. Like the crowd I want to call out to Jesus and say, 'What are we to do to do the works of God?' Jesus. That is the simple and the complex answer. As I think about it I like this answer more and more. It gives hope to me and to Boromir. Jesus loves us both, Jesus died for us both, Jesus calls us both. Jesus, he's more than enough for me and for Boromir. How about you?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Redeeming Communities

Tomorrow I will take my girls to Rohan where they will get on a plane and fly off to boarding school. We have done this for a couple of years now but it seems to be getting harder. I wont be back until late next week as we hope to spend some time encouraging discouraged believers in Rohan. They are having a rough time these days so I look forward to this opportunity to see them. Until I return I offer you the following:

Revelation 11: 15 Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven saying, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.’

Sounds pretty dramatic huh? The trumpet blowing and loud voices and everything. But I think that there is a subtler side to this. The kingdom of the world has become… It’s the ‘has become’ that has my attention. You see when God decided not to blast Adam and Eve into nothingness for their disobedience he made a plan. He decided to recreate man in His image. He did not decide to make another man. He took the same broken clay and reformed it through the blood of His Son. This is what we call salvation. We think we have some understanding of this but what about ‘kingdoms?’ Kingdoms, as far as we are concerned are fallen communities based on injustice and with the possible exception of our own country they will all be blotted out in favor of a new Kingdom that is coming soon. But what if we have misunderstood this? What if the Great King is going to recreate Kingdoms the same way He has recreated us? Would that change the way we live and work? In almost all Church Planting efforts for the last two-hundred years missionaries have sought to take people out of their communities of sin and brokenness and build new pure and wonderful communities. We here in Middle Earth have done our work a different way.

Kili and Fili have been followers of Jesus for a year and a half now. They remain active members of their community which is the small village called Anfalas. Anfalas was a broken difficult place from the start. Transplanted families from the mountains came down to a desert plain to try and build a life. What they found was heat and trouble. We helped them by showing them a different way of life, a life that revolved around the worship of God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Kili and Fili and their wives have followed our example and are living out their faith in the village. This Spring there was an accident. Fili was down in the village well clearing out the silt when the cement ring walls slipped and his foot was crushed. He lost the two end toes of his right foot. But there is a cool side to this. The whole village took a collection and sent him to the hospital. They kept someone at his bedside 24/7 for three weeks. They paid for everything. Now several months later Fili is home but still can not work. Kili works as a day laborer and he has worked for both families all summer. He does it joyfully. He is a great inspiration to me and to the whole village. Now many of the good Muslims in this village are wondering what it is about Kili and Fili that make them so joyful, a great asset to the community, and yet they have forsaken their faith in Islam. Many others are cooperating and working together as well. The community is already transformed and yet only four out of 300 people have professed Christ! I believe that more will proclaim Jesus as Lord but not because of a logical argument or a glorious miracle- even though they have seen both- no, they are being transformed by the leaven growing and expanding in the lives of Kili and Fili. I don’t know about you but I want to see this happen in my community and in communities around the world. Can we do that? Revelation seems to say He will do that.