Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Christmas Story- The Wrong Version

I love the Christmas story. I know, that is really trite, everyone is suppose to say that. Nevertheless for me the story of God coming to earth to redeem fallen and rebellious man is a great story. The Muslims here tell the story a little differently though. Many of you probably know that Muslims are very offended by the idea that Jesus is God's Son. A couple of years ago I had long discussion about it with a good friend of mine who is a Muslim. In frustration he gave me a movie that was produced in a Muslim country for Muslims about the birth of Jesus. He felt that it would clear up all my misunderstandings- in a sense it did.

The movie opens with Mary in the temple in Jerusalem. She is a highly respected member of Jewish society. She is well known for her work with the poor, for her spicial purity and grace, and for the miracles and healings that she could do. She stays with her uncle, Zachariah who is one of the priest. There is no mention of Joseph. Mary is discovered to be with child. The rulers and the priest feel betrayed and they accuse Mary of immorality. She knows she is pregnant by God's Spirit but no one believes her except for Zachariah- and he only half believes her. She is yelled at and disgraced and finally when Zach can no longer defend her she flees into the wilderness where there is an abundance of loud dramatic music and moving scenes of sand and rock. She then goes up to a strange pillar of rock leans against it and gives birth to a chorus of more loud dramatic music. She goes back to Jerusalem and takes her baby to the steps of the temple where she is greeted by a crowd of bitter old angry men dressed up as priest. They mock her and scold her. They asks her the baby's name and she replies that they should ask him themselves. They mock her some more and one of them says, 'So, the baby can talk can it? I will just ask him myself shall I? Hey kid, what's your name?' To everone's great shock the baby replies in a deep voice that he is Jesus and he is a great prophet sent from God. All the old men fall down defeated and ashamed.

What I like about this movie is that they describe Jesus' parenthood nearly exactly like we do. One of the big arguments from Muslims is that Jesus could not be God's son but they do in fact acknowledge that Mary was a virgin and that God's Spirit made her to be pregnant. Very interesting. But there is much that I hate about this movie. In addition to the ridiculously dramatic music there is the character and nature of Mary herself. In the Muslim view Mary is beloved by God because of her exceptional nature. She is better than everyone else and that is why God chose her. But I like the truth much better! The truth is that Mary was the least of the least. She was an uneducated, poor, unremarkable village girl from the smallest town in the smallest most oppressed country in the world. She was completely powerless so what better person could God use to change the entire world? I said Mary was unremarkable but that of course, is not quite true. She was nothing in the world's eyes but what she was could move heaven and earth. She was one of the only people confronted by God who didn't argue with him. You will bear a son.... Ok, do what you will. Moses didn't give that answer. Gideon didn't give that answer. Most people when confronted by God look at themselves and say, 'But Lord, I can't. I am not able.' No such foolishness from Mary. She told the angel that GOD COULD DO whatever he wanted- and she is so right.

So, what about you and me? God is here today and He is asking us if we will let Him move in our lives. What is your answer to Him. I pray that my answer will always be like Mary's, the unremarkable village girl whom the whole world will always call blessed. Have a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year. I thank each one of you for praying for us, giving money to Lottie Moon and the Cooperative Program, and for being obedient to God in all the ways He is forwarding His Kingdom.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

High Trust

I work with some really great national guys. Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pipen, Balin, and others are some of the best. We often talk about discipleship in our line of work. Discipleship is what we are commanded to do- we have to be a disciple and we are called to make disciples. To be a disciple of Jesus is to be a follower of Jesus. It means to walk in His ways, to do His will, to have faith in Him that whatever happens His plan is the one we are sticking to. In order to be a disciple we have to know what His ways are. We have to study under Him to know Him well. Too many people stop here. They learn about Jesus but they don't walk His walk. Knowledge without life is more than useless, it is death. We need to learn about Him so that we can act just like Him. In the West too often discipleship is thought to be a one hour Bible study or reading a good book. These things could lead to discipleship but as yet they are far from it. Following Jesus actually becomes real as we make decisions based on our relationship with Him. This has far more to do with going left instead of going right for the sake of Jesus and His Kingdom than how many Scriptures one has memorized. I have seen many very good men and women pour their lives into others only to see them become dependent, hesitant, faithless, gutless non-followers of Jesus. Why?

I think the crux of the issue is this; we make followers of Jesus and not followers of ourselves. I have told all the guys who work with me that we are not to refer to other people as 'our' disciples. We are to make disciples of Jesus. The best way to insure this is what some people call high trust. High trust means that we invest others with a lot of trust and control. We do not control others, we pray for others and let Jesus be in control. If you think about the kind of leader that Jesus was I think you will understand what I am talking about. Jesus sent out his men to do ministry long before they were what we would call ready. He taught them truth, lived truth in front of them and then sent them out. They went out proclaiming the Kingdom and healing and casting out demons even before they saw his resurrection. They let him down, they were faithless, they even deserted him, but that did not stop Him from entrusting the ministry to them. They taught, healed, baptized. It is impressive if you think about it. This is the kind of leader, discipler I want to be.

One day I was out with the team and we saw a house burning. We stopped and it was an amazing scene. Two rooms of a large home were engulfed in flames. Two boys- perhaps teenagers at most- were pouring buckets of water on the fire. A huge crowd of at least thirty or more neighbors were gathered around standing there watching with their hands in their pockets. I surveyed the situation and then I called the guys as they came in behind me. I had them get all the neighbors into a bucket brigade and then I found the breaker box and turned off the electricity (it turned out to be an electrical fire and no one had thought to turn of the fire source). We put out the fire before the fire department even arrived. We left and the guys took away a lesson far better than a one hour study could provide. Since that time we have helped in two other fires, taken countless sick men and women to hospital, and generally served wherever we have seen a need. I say we but really the guys have done most of this without me. Each week I send them out to do the projects, share their faith, and make a difference in the villages we work in. I hold them accountable but I trust them to do the job, spend the money, get the receipts, and make the reports. I modeled for them and now they do- and do and do and do.

In many ways this sounds simple. But in reality this was years in the making. It took time and hard work to follow God and let Him create for us a situation where we could work together like this. I credit my own leadership as well. It was Southern Baptists who sent me out with a God-sized task of getting to Gondor and impacting it with the Gospel. My boss did not think I could do it but he believed fervently that God could and he sent me out with his blessing. Over the years I have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. I have been held accountable for how I spent it but I was always supported to spend it how I thought it would be most beneficial. Sometimes we did things that were illogical or appeared non-strategic, but if I said that God was moving us to do something then I was supported to do it. This is high trust. The result has been that I am more than I was when I started this job. The men I have worked with are certainly more than they were when we began working together, and the men and women they work with are becoming the Children of God even as I type. High trust comes with high risks but if you want to see God move in peoples lives there really is no other way to do it.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A New Look at an Old Story

I was talking to some colleagues of mine about how to share the Gospel here in Gondor the other day. Now, you might be thinking that since I have been a follower of Jesus for 33 years now and I have a Seminary degree that surely I know all there is to know about the Gospel. Here is what I know: God is so big that there is always more to know! And here is something else I know: The way that I heard the Gospel and responded almost never works here among Muslim people. My story, like most Western Christians, goes something like this. I felt guilty. I worried about eternity and what God wanted from me. I felt inadequate and hopeless. I finally, through reason and logic, understood that Jesus died in my place, for my sins. Often at this point we throw in a court room illustration with God as judge and us as defendants and then Jesus enters and defends us- not by claiming our innocence but by taking our punishment on himself. We thank God for His mercy and grace and we are so overwhelmed by gratitude that we choose to follow Jesus anywhere He leads. This is the truth, it is awesome and everyone should be excited about it. But everyone isn't. Muslims here in Gondor are profoundly disinterested in such a story. The courtroom story misses their hearts by a million miles. Some acknowledge the truth to the claims of Christ we present but they are not overwhelmed with gratitude- they don't even seem terribly interested. Why not?

The answer is that we Western Christians live in what some sociologist call a 'guilt-based' society. We understand reality by categories of right and wrong. Sin is bad- wrong- and must be punished. Here in Middle Earth Muslims operate on a different system. Their reality is dictated by 'honor and shame'. An act is either 'honorable' or 'shameful' and shame must be dealt with or it affects the whole family. A very good friend of mine from Mordor lost his father when he was a young man. Enemies came to his house at night and stole his sister to be a bride for one of their men. The father fought with the men and lost. After they left he had a heart-attack and died. My friend's family was shamed by the actions of their enemies. In order to restore honor he should take his revenge on them. Now, a very interesting point here is that it does not count if these men are punished some other way. If the police had arrested these men and put them in jail that would not count to bring honor back to the family. Only a family member could exact the necessary revenge to restore family honor. The trouble was my friend had just become a believer and refused to act in this matter. He forgave the men who did this act- the man who married his sister died violently a couple of years later but not at my friend's hands. In Mordor many of people still think that my friend acted shamefully by forgiving his father's murderers. My friend is at peace because he knows Jesus. But how do we tell the old old story of Jesus and his love to people who think like the people of Mordor and Gondor and throughout Middle Earth?

Back to my discussion with my colleagues. So, one of my friends told a joke to illustrate honor and shame. Once there were two Oxford professors who went down around the bend of the river from their school in England to go skinny dipping. After swimming with no clothes on they laid on the bank of the river to dry off and fell asleep. They awoke to the noise of rowing and voices and looked up just in time to see a boat full of students coming around the bend of the river. Both men stood up with their towels. One put his towel quickly around his waist and the other put the towel over his head. The students pointed and laughed. When they had passed by the teacher who had put his towel around his waste said, 'How will we be able to stand before our students in class tomorrow- and why didn't you cover yourself instead of covering your head? The other professor answered, "My students know me by my face!"

Well, the point is clear I hope. With shame-based cultures what you do is not as important as how you are perceived. This is shocking for those of us with a guilt-based culture but you will be surprised at how forcefully the Word of God speaks to honor and shame. Instead of Jesus the trial lawyer picture Jesus the redeemer. Muslims have pretty hard time seeing Jesus as God or God's Son but what if we put it this way? Man's family is shamed because Man has behaved foolishly and allowed our great enemy Satan to shame us all. Man cannot defeat Satan, only God can do that. So, God sends His Son to become Man and He thus joins Man's family. Jesus defeats Satan at the cross and blows open the gates of Hell defeating Satan's Kingdom. Man's shame is covered and honor is restored by the redeeming work of Jesus. As you look through scriptures see if you do not see honor and shame being played out again and again. Many people believe that Muslims are resistant to the Gospel but what if they are not resistant? What if they have not yet heard the story that God has been so clearly telling all this time? What can we do about that right now?

Monday, December 03, 2007

What's in a Name?

Last week my back went out and it is still keeping me down even as I type with the smell of Ben-Gay wafting through the air. I smell like, like, like old people.

I don't remember the name of the movie but it was an old Frank Sinatra movie with (I think but could be mistaken) Danny Kaye and Fred Astaire.
Frank- What do you see in that girl anyway?
Danny- She's the most beautiful girl in the world and she has the most beautiful name!
Frank- A name! What's in a name, what's in a name?!? Why I once knew a girl named Virginia!

The Bible seems to have a higher view of names than Frank does. We see again and again men and women whose names get changed. Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel, and even Saul to Paul are all name changes that changed the courses of these men's lives and indeed the course of history itself. I want you to think about the power of identity in the Kingdom of God today. Jacob the supplanter, the one who deceived, and grasped, and connived became Israel the overcomer, the one who strove with God and men and overcame. Seen from God's eternal standpoint this is who Jacob really was all along only Jacob didn't know it yet. Jacob didn't feel like an overcomer when he was his father's SECOND favorite son. He didn't feel especially victorious even when he deceived his way into the blessing and the birthright of his brother- in fact he ran away at that point. He did not feel like he was 'overcoming' when he worked for Laben for more than fourteen years and he certainly did not feel like a conquering hero as he returned at the end of the camel train to face his brother again. His children let him down a lot and when he lost Joseph he must have thought that the name Israel was a cruel joke after all. But in the end he births the twelve most influential tribes in the world and a nation stands today on the map bearing his true name- Israel. Of course, this political name on the map is nothing compared to the reality of the heavenly Kingdom which bears the name Israel and is made up of men and women from every tribe and nation on earth.

I was speaking to a friend once about a liberal activist in the West who was especially irksome to my very conservative friend. My friend mentioned what an egotistical fraud this man really was and how he wished everyone could see him for who he really was. I responded that it would be better if HE could see who he really was. Regardless of this liberal activist current status in the news or in his own mind God had a plan for him and a position that was better, more glorious, and certainly more eternal than this man could ever dream of. It is unfortunate that he has believed the lie about himself and has followed a road of self-adulation and self-fulfillment. It is more than unfortunate, it is tragic. You see, it is easy for us to identify with the oppressed in the world today. We know that they are wronged and we cry out for their justice. But, did you know that the oppressors are equally wronged? Do you understand that their real names are not oppressor, villain, backstabber, politician, scoundrel, but rather God longs to name them peacemaker, rescuer, lover, and friend? When men and women settle their identity on less than God's grace they have settled for a lie and walk in darkness.

When I started this blog I had a problem. If this were truly 'Tales from Middle Earth' then I could pick any character I wanted to to represent myself. Aragorn came quickly to mind but Aragorn is the King. He is tall and majestic. He is wise and valiant. He is a conquerer, a warrior, and a hero. I am none of those things- or at least, I am not comfortable wearing any of those descriptors. But then I fell on Strider. Strider is a name given to Aragorn in the story by people who do not know nor trust him. It is a name for a wanderer of no or questionable reputation. That fits me pretty well. For now, I am very happy to be Strider- a man who wanders on a journey until the King of Kings choses to make him Aragorn.

Many times people have asked me what my name was in the language that they speak in Gondor. What do people call me here? Usually they call me by my western name, sometimes with a 'Mister' in front of it though I don't like that. But about two years ago something happened that I rarely talk about. I have hesitated to tell this story on this blog because it is very personal and it puts me in too good of a light. I am much more comfortable telling you stories of how I screwed up- it boost my humility right? When I first went down to Anfalas I saw a people who were struggling to survive in a plight worse than I had ever personally witnessed before. I helped them with one project and then another. I sat with them, I listened, I listened, and I listened some more. I acted on what I heard and I cried out to God on behalf of this people often and long. One day when I went down to the village I met with the team. Frodo, Sam, and Merry were working on a project and we had dinner that night and prayed together. Merry said to me, "Strider, do you know what the people here call you when you are not around?" I was afraid to know! He said, "They call you 'Didor'" Didor is a word in the language of Gondor for 'the one who sees'. Merry went on to say that Anfalas was poor and many aid agencies and government agencies went to visit it and take pictures but only Strider really saw them. Only Strider really knew who they were and how they suffered.

Well, you can see why I don't like that story. One, it makes me look good, like some kind of hero or something and two, it really isn't true. I don't know them that well. I wish I was that guy, the one who sees, but really only God can bear that title honestly. Still, am I made in His image? Is He not recreating me to be His true child? Can I become the one who sees in earnest? I think that is what he wants for me. In Revelation 2:17 Jesus says that he will .... give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it. Could it be that one day I will receive a stone with my new name? And what will it say, Strider or Aragorn? Didor or Sleeper? What is your name? Your actions could determine that today. Let go of the name that the world has given you, it is a lie. What is your new name? Who is the King making you to become? What does your new name direct you to do today?