Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Calvinistic Thinking- Irresistible Grace

I have been thinking about this post for a long time now. I know, I know, some of you have given up on me even writing it. The truth is that I have been very sidetracked these days with the Ministry of Justice trying to close us down, our moving back out to Gondor after six months in the West, and now our local office manager leaving us after ten years of very faithful service. In the midst of this I want to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas. In the midst of this I want to write a post that is the continuation of a series and yet also a very seasonal topic to discuss. In the midst of busyness and transition and everything else that is going on I want to talk about the efficacy of Love.

If you have not figured it out by now I am not that interested in a 'you're wrong', 'I'm right' kind of debate. What I have been trying to get at in these Calvinistic Thinking posts is more of what is Jesus really like rather than why is my systematic theology better than yours. I am convinced that we miss the truth on both sides of this issue. A good example of what I am talking about is found in the last post on Limited Atonement. 1 John 2:2 is a slam dunk verse defeating this idea. You can't get around it. Limited Atonement states that Jesus only died for the elect and yet this verse clearly states that Christ died not only for our sins but also for the whole world. Like I said, "Slam dunk." I am right, you are wrong and that is the end of it. There is only one problem. The whole world is not saved. So, what are we talking about again? Yeah, we kind of lose track of God and what He is doing in this world as we parse each other's systematic theology. There is obviously a lot more going on here than who Jesus died for. Apparently this is a very big and complicated story. As we look to Irresistible Grace I would like to get past the whose right and wrong and get to the 'what is really going on here' part. I will try at least.

What Calvinists get accused of on this concept is that if Grace is irresistible then all those whom God wants to save will get saved. His love and grace can not be resisted. It kind of makes us sound like robots with no free will. More than that if this is true why am I working so darn hard to reach others for Jesus if all of those whom God wants saved will be saved without any effort on my part. I could just go home and watch TV and stop all this insanity right now. Calvinists on the other hand love this concept because they say that this means that their toil and effort which they are commanded to do will not be in vain. We can go confidently out to the fields of harvest knowing that we will have the victory. This is a great comfort and motivator for them.

Biblically we can look to passages like those in Romans 8 and the word 'predestination' is actually used. For all of you opposed to the concept of Irresistible Grace I caution you not to be opposed to the concept of predestination. It is in the Bible, you can look it up. Now, we can argue about what predestination means but we don't really have the right to discount it as a biblical concept- it's right there in the Book. Calvinist might also point to passages like Paul's conversion in Acts as proof of God's overwhelming Grace in His relentless pursuit of those He has chosen. I have been asked on more than one occasion why God does not just strike down blind those whom He is pursuing more often. It sure would seem to make my job easier. But on the other hand the reason so many do not believe in Irresistible Grace is because we have seen it resisted with our own eyes so often. The sister story to Paul's is the story of Balam who while on his way to curse the Israelites was told off by his own donkey. An angel stopped him on the road and Balam's donkey spoke to him to warn him. A great story. Unfortunately for Balam the story does not end there. Later we see this same 'prophet' giving advice to Israel's enemies on how to defeat them. This so-called prophet of God had a huge capacity for resistance. Of course, the good Calvinist could reply that Balam was destined to play the role that he played. But this line of reasoning goes no where fast because then I might reply that I am not predestined to be a Calvinist and then the Calvinists could rejoice in this fact and be at peace that all is exactly as God would have it. Except it isn't and we all know it isn't. There is more going on here....

The bottom line is that I believe that Grace is irresistible. If I get to define what that means. I also believe that very very few people believe this. Grace is God's unmerited favor. I like to call it God's love. I believe that the love of God is the most powerful effective force in the Universe. I believe that it transforms all that it touches. I believe that it creates life and breathes out beauty wherever it goes. You probably think that you agree with me on this. I wonder if you really do? I was sitting in a hotel room at a conference not long ago with a man that I think God has truly transformed into someone wonderful. This man works for our company and as we were debriefing at the end of the day about the conference we were at I spoke to him about an evangelist friend of mine. My evangelist friend was talking about the most effective evangelistic methods he used. He talked about love. He told me that if he could just communicate love to others that was enough. As I shared this with my friend I could see his eyes narrow. Doubt and concern lined his face. Love? That word is so watered down that it has lost its meaning. My friend doubted that a Gospel presentation that consisted solely of love would be effective. I could read his mind as clear as a book- what about sin? what about repentance? what about so many other issues? Love? Is that enough? Most don't really think so.

The reason of course that we don't believe in love is because we have lost what it means. The love of God is the unmerited favor of God. To love is to meet another's needs. To set aside your own desires and to promote the good of someone else. Real love is oblivious to selfish ambition or self gratification. It's all in 1 Corinthians 13, look it up. We think of love as fluffy and sentimental. That is why we jump in so quickly to say that the Gospel is not 'just' about love, it also means sin and repentance and whatever else we are feeling particularly passionate about just now. For some an effective Gospel means love and being baptized in my church, others believe the Gospel is love and being against drinking alcohol. Still others demand that the Gospel be presented as love and being anti-President Elect Obama or anti-abortion or anti-everyone else who is not just like me. Is love really that complicated? I don't think so.

It is not that love is so complicated as much as it is just so wholly other than what we are. We can hardly conceive of real love. Look at the Nativity story. God comes to earth and 'Immanuel' happens. He is with us. Ah, we think, 'this is going to be big. Now His enemies are going to get it. Now everything will be put right.' But what do we get? A baby. The baby is helpless. He just lies there. He does not 'do' anything. What a big disappointment the love of God turned out to be. But wait! What happens? Judgment on a huge scale. As the helpless baby lies there truth is revealed in unprecedented ways. As God invites us into relationship Herod judges himself to be a liar and a murderer. The wise men are judged to be true worshipers. Joseph is judged to be selfless and faithful. Mary is judged to be obedient and is found to be blessed. Maybe we don't need to put all kinds of restrictions on love after all. Maybe it comes with its own built in power to judge, to transform, to make right. Maybe it is in fact, irresistible. It was to all involved in the Christmas story. That story continues to this day and that helpless baby grew to be a helpless man who was violently taken and crucified... helplessly. But the love demonstrated there continues to transform hearts and reveal true judgment to this day. I believe in the efficacy of love. I believe that it is powerful to change lives and that it alone is the Gospel we are to present. There is more to this story than predestined robots or a giant throw of the dice. The reason some people are saved is because a loving God invited them in and that love was irresistible. The reason some people are not saved is because a loving God has sent out the invitation and the call of love has not been heard or understood. The enemy is waging war and there is the part of the story we are missing. Revelation 12 is a reality we live in. We are not free to choose, we are not robots predestined, we are a people caught between titanic forces. Love is the only way out. Believe that, live it, present it as a saving Gospel to all. The little baby judges me and you even today.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Games People Play

I sat down with the national team yesterday and we had a great time of sharing together after my absence of six months. I often write here about spiritual warfare and it seems today I need to write some more. When will we grow up I don't know but until we do we will continue to be vulnerable to the enemy's attacks. Defeat is not inevitable however, in fact victory is certain as this story will show.

I heard a couple of months ago that Kili's wife was attacked in their village of Anfalas. You may remember that Kili and Fili and their wives comprise a small house church in the remote village of Anfalas that is more than three and a half hours drive from the Capitol of Minas Tirith where I live. The full story is a warning and a testimony for all of us. One day Kili's wife was walking in the village when a neighbor came up to her and began verbally abusing her. She said that she was a loose woman and a despicable person because she had become a Christian. Kili's wife's character is well known in the village and these accusations are completely without basis. But as this woman began attacking verbally she got more and more animated and finally hit Kili's wife and began repeatedly striking her. Kili approached them at this point and struck the woman and pushed her back off of his wife. Then other nearby villagers joined in and began beating on Kili and he was fighting back furiously. Before he accepted Christ Kili had a great reputation as a fighter and a hot head. This was the first time he had struck anyone since before his baptism in 2006. Fili happened along at this point and tried to break up the fight. Kili hit Fili and the fight broke up but now the two men were furious at each other. Kili was mad because Fili did not join his side and Fili was angry that Kili was fighting- and I think because he got hit. The team was called and Frodo, Sam, and Merry headed on down to see what could be done. Frodo was totally discouraged at the scene. He could see everyone was angry and that the testimony of the group was greatly damaged if not destroyed. It all looked hopeless as the two families would not talk to each other and the whole village was saying, 'this is how Christians act'. Frodo wanted to get back in the car and drive away for good but that is not what the King wanted. Frodo, Sam, and Merry got out a guitar and started singing praise choruses. They prayed together and sang together for some time. Finally, the two families came together and the haze of anger and resentment dissipated. They hugged each other and cried and forgave each other. The village was amazed.

Since then they have had to get more Bibles to hand out to all who want them. They meet daily to pray and worship together and encourage one another. Worship is a powerful and effective weapon in our arsenal. As Frodo found out it is even effective when we don't feel like doing it! Let us draw near to God and discover the promise that He will draw near to us. When He comes near He will deal with the evil one Himself and we will find the strength to love and serve each other with joy.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Home Again?

We are home again... or are we? We arrived in Minas Tirith at 3:30am on Monday early morning after a 36 hour trip. The very good news is that after four flights we arrived with all of our bags. The bad news is that since we have all of our bags we will now spend the next week or so trying to figure out where to put all the stuff. But I don't want to talk about stuff just now- maybe later- now I want to talk about home.

We were talking to a friend of ours last Sunday and we told him how much we were looking forward to going 'home'. He said he had a problem with that. He said he knew that most M's referred to their assignments overseas as home but he didn't understand it. Were we not patriotic Americans? Well, the answer is yes, I am. My father was a pilot in the US Air Force and I grew up on base. I was born in Kittery, Maine- a place that I never lived even two full days. I actually lived at that time on the Air Force base across the river in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. We moved when I was one to Mobile, Alabama. When I was two we moved back to New Hampshire and when I was three we moved to California. We then moved to Nebraska, where my parents were originally from, when I was seven but moved to Florida when I was ten. When I was twelve we made the big move to Okinawa, Japan which was very significant because that is where I accepted Christ and was baptized in a Southern Baptist Church- actually, it was an SB affiliated Church as there are no SB Churches outside the US. When I was fifteen we moved to Germany. I was called into International Mission work then but a significant event happened then that cemented how I felt about America. On base we always stood for the National Anthem before the movie began in the movie theater. One day I was standing with my best friend and he started acting silly- well, we were just 17 at the time. I had taken off my hat as the anthem began but he grabbed it from me and put it on his own head. I was offended and took it from him but he grabbed it back and placed it on his head again. Just then a large man behind us in an officer's uniform snatched my hat off of my friend's head- with no small amount of hair- and pushed the hat forcibly into my friend's chest. My friend looked very sheepish and said softly, 'thank you, sir.' As I stared at my friend I understood something that I hoped that the officer understood. My friend was really grateful. He was grateful to be reminded of the importance of our anthem and he was ashamed that he had momentarily forgotten it. I was proud of my friend for feeling this depth of patriotism and I realized that I loved my country very much as well; that my Country was not something that I took for granted but something I chose to be thankful for and responsible for.

This last time I was home I heard a lot of Christians complaining about our Country and it saddened me. I know we have a lot of problems but I wish others could see our country from a global perspective. Here's an example. My wife and I were talking about this issue in a local fast food place. As we discussed what a real post-christian nation would look like and what a real financial meltdown would be like a worker came by cleaning the tables around us. It was obvious he had down-syndrome or some such handicap. As he worked his fellow workers treated him with respect and dignity, so did the customers. In fact, I began to suspect that this young man was actually a very popular person in this community. Do you know how many communities there are in the world that accept and respect people with disabilities? How about none, especially with mental handicaps. Zero, zilch, nada. No community in the rest of the world is capable of accepting mentally disabled people. Only in America. I could be wrong, maybe there are places where the disabled are loved and respected, maybe in England for example. I don't know about them. I am proud to be an American. But I don't live in America. I am home now in Minas Tirith, Gondor. A country where the disabled are hidden and shamed. A country where the banks do not function and people suffer under the oppression of a truly non-existent economy.

I received some encouragement this morning as I pondered all of this. I read in Hebrews 11:15-16:
If they had been thinking of the land they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Let us all be proud to belong to the nations that have sheltered us but at the same time let us work for the promise of a new home. A home provided for by our loving heavenly Father himself. The old writers were right, 'This world is not my home, I'm just passing through.'

Friday, December 05, 2008

Trying Again

Well dear friends, we arrived at the airport on Tuesday morning 4 am only to be told that the travel agent messed up and we did not in fact, have tickets. I guess all of us who have ever flown on e-tickets have waited for this to happen. But after some wrangling the travel agent has us booked on Saturday's flight and we will go early tomorrow to discover if we will really be seated or not. Surely we will. Surely I did not say 'surely'. If all goes well we will land at the Minas Tirith airport in Gondor on Monday morning somewhere around 3:30am.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Once More Into the Breach

Well dear friends we have everything lined up, staked out, and packed up and we are leaving the West for Middle Earth on Tuesday. We go into uncertain times. The Ministry of Injustice cleared us but the Ministry of Security is very unhappy and would like to bother all westerners in poor little Gondor right now. We have one month visas and we will see what the Boss has in store for us beyond that. Our family is very ready to be back. Goldberry who is at boarding school will come and meet us in Gondor December 20th. We look forward very much to our reunion with our 16 year old daughter.

Pray for us as we return to a cold and possibly unfriendly Gondor. Do not consider that we are in danger in any way. Our national friends face many dangers and challenges but the most likely result of folks being very unhappy with us is that we will be kicked out of the country. I don't want that to happen but we will take whatever time they give us and use it as wisely as we can to sow eternal seeds for His eternal Kingdom. I have seen many get kicked out of the countries in which they were called to serve. Many have been emotionally devastated by the loss. They were so invested in the people that the King had called them to love that they went home broken as a result of being kicked out. For our family- and I think I can speak for our team- we love the people of Gondor very much but the reason we are in Gondor is because of our love for Christ. No government can take Him away from us! We are eternally His and He in turn has promised to be eternally ours. Grace and love like this demand an attitude of obedience and service. We gladly go to cold Gondor for Him and we will just as gladly leave there and follow Him wherever He wants us to go next. For Arwen and I who have been so rootless all of our lives we know that we will never be 'home' until He calls us to rest with Him in an eternal home where our visa will never expire and our welcome will never where out.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Falling Short

I know I need to finish off the Calvinistic Thinking posts but if you can be patient a little longer I promised a friend that I would tell her story. Really, it is the story of her husband but since I have her permission- and encouragement- I will tell the tale.

We didn't come to Middle Earth alone. I remember so well arriving at the home office for Candidate Conference and discovering someone else wanted to go to Gondor. At first we were afraid that we were in competition for the same job! Then we discovered that our Boss is trustworthy indeed- funny how we need to keep discovering that! No, this couple was coming to join us and we were to be a team. The first team to go to Gondor from our Company. Boromir was everything I was not. He was organized, experienced, business minded and analytical. I was and am, a dreamer. I listen to the Boss and do that. That's the end of my unique abilities but the point was that we had never met before and yet we were the perfect match. We went out to dinner the next night and as we sat around the table with our wives we dreamed big dreams and each of us committed to laying down our lives for the sake of getting the Gospel to the people of Gondor. These were not oaths taken lightly. We had just heard that a deacon in a foreign church there was killed with his entire family- 9 children- by Islamic Fundamentalists. I later found out that only the man was killed and not his children but with what information we had we accepted the challenge knowing the costs. I was the team leader and Boromir was the business manager. I was proud to work with such a fine man and his equally talented and committed wife.

We went through orientation together and then went to Rohan. The plan was for us to live in Rohan for a year learning language and then figure out how to get to Gondor. We enjoyed having house church together, learning the new city together, praying and planning together. It became apparent right away that Boromir was very competent and even in a new culture with a new language this guy could get stuff done. After a year I started working on getting to Gondor. I made many trips and began to work out the details of how we would get there, what aid work we could do there, what organization we could work with, where we should live etc. Boromir never went with me. At first it seemed that he was just too busy but over time I realized he had worked hard in Rohan and he was invested there. He was not going to move. In February of 1997 he announced that he was staying to support the team in Rohan. His wife agreed to the decision feeling that God was definitely calling them to stay. I was really disappointed. Not devastated, but really disappointed.

Boromir had always been a fill in all the boxes kind of guy. He was meticulous. I considered him to be borderline legalistic in fact. Everything had to be done the 'right' way and believe me this was not easy to do in a former Soviet Republic. I remember the time he charted the steps we had to take to get a package from the post office in the Capitol city Edoras. It had 18 steps which invariably changed from week to week. Only a guy like Boromir could keep up with that! We left for Gondor in the summer of 1997. Boromir came to visit that fall- the only time he came to Gondor. It was a difficult time for us. The city was a mess as factions continued to fight even though the civil war was over. The aid agency that we were with had a serious breakdown and some good friends were wrongfully fired. A couple from another agency was kidnapped. And to top it all off my wife, Arwen, had a miscarriage that weekend. Boromir was encouraging and his approval of how we were handling such a stressful situation meant much to me. I loved and respected that man.

After he left I did not hear from him often. I saw him one more time the next Spring at a company meeting. He was doing well. The work was going well, if slow. The Government was not getting any easier to deal with. Then a few months later I got word that he was missing. We prayed for him. He was found in Edoras.... with another woman. He confessed to the team there and his wife that he had had prostitutes but then had found this woman. He was going to leave his wife and marry her. This was beyond unbelievable. My first thought when I heard that he had had an affair was that he was so legalistic he would never forgive himself. He may do something drastic. I called him and told him I was praying for him. He never admitted anything to me. But later I found out I was concerned for naught. Boromir was completely unashamed of what he had done. His wife went back to the West by herself and was forced to go through the divorce by herself. Boromir did marry the woman and spent several more years in Rohan before finally bringing his new wife back to the West. I have never seen or heard from him again.

This is a tough story for me. I loved Boromir and consider that he was a better man than I. But he fell- and fell far. How? There are a couple of reasons that I can see. One, legalistic people are often wound too tight. Several who know this story say they were not surprised that the strict guy was the one to fall. Colosians 2 has an interesting phrase in the King James Version where it uses 'will-worship'. Legalism is all about making our own righteousness- or worshipping our own will-power. As every religion on earth has abundantly proven this does not work. Will-worship never leads to purity. We can not save ourselves. Second, we are in a real spiritual battle. We are taking the Gospel where it has never been before. The enemy is fighting like crazy to stop this. Boromir was a casualty of this battle. Dr. Johnny Hunt is a pastor whom I had the privilege to hear speak once and he said that he prays, 'Lord, keep me close and keep me clean' everyday. I pray that too. In fact, I will ask you right now to pray it for me as well.

The cool part of this story is the way our organization took care of Boromir's wife. Once she resigned they hired her on in the home office where she still works. I saw her this summer and her healing is an on-going reality. She is being used- too often- to help those who are in her position, to comfort those who need it with the comfort she herself was comforted with. I love that about our Organization. I love that about our Lord as well. I don't know why Boromir fell and I have not except that I stand in the grace of my Lord who is able to make even me to stand. You can rest in that.... in fear and trembling and no small amount of humility.

Friday, November 14, 2008

There was a Crooked Man who Walked a Crooked Road

As many of you know my time and energy have been taken up by the wonderful folks at the Gondor Ministry of Injustice. They came into our office in Minas Tirith and claimed we were breaking the law and threatened to throw us out of the country- a threat we took seriously since they had just thrown out another aid agency. My first thought was, 'Oh no Briar Bear, don't throw me in the briar patch!' Hey, do I want to spend another miserable cold winter in Gondor? Do I want to continue to beat my head against the wall that is Middle Earth? My wife and Legolas' wife began thinking of other places we could serve. Nice places. Places that had relatively clean running water and perhaps an actual economy. Of course, I also thought of the many folks who depend on us. We have three teams outside of Minas Tirith accessing the lost villages of Gondor for the first time. I was torn.

The news got worse. The Minister needed lots of money and we were going to pay it. We refused. Now, don't get me wrong. I have paid extortion before. It is the way of things, but there is a difference between understanding how a strange system works and being bullied by a thug. You can't do business with a thug and the Minister was looking quite thugish. We counter offered. We said we would do a good project for poor people in a village of his choosing. He thought that was a great idea. Yes, we could do that in addition to giving him $10,000. We said no. We began to think seriously about leaving Gondor. We began to make contingencies for the other team members. How could they stay? Could they switch to other agencies? Could they register seperately? We began looking into this. Then the Minister came down to $5000. We said no. I didn't trust this guy and I don't like being bullied.

Finaly, I had the conversation that I should have had from the beginning. I talked to the Boss.
Me- What do you want me to do?
Boss- You can go somewhere else if you want to.
Me- Yeah, but what do you want me to do?
Boss- There are lots of places you can go. Needy places.
Me- Yeah, but what do YOU want me to do.
Boss- I gave you the authority to reach the villages of Gondor.
Me- Ahh... right. So, I should stay?
Me- I take it that you want me in Gondor? Right, well you keep me here and I will stay here. I don't quit.

So, here I am. On Monday I got a call. They came down to $3000. I pushed the button and said, 'Yes, Howie I am taking the deal.' Two scriptures came to me right then. The first was Matthew 6 where Jesus says if someone takes your coat give him your cloak as well. The second where Peter asked Jesus about the Temple tax. Jesus tells Peter to pay the unjust tax by going fishing and giving the coin found in the fish's mouth. Very strange. The point I suppose is that Jesus wants us to go and make disciples. He will deal with corrupt Governments, that is not our job. We pay the authorities what they ask and we move on knowing that God Himself will provide. Really- and this is the hard thing for me- it is just pride that cries out against us losing our stuff. It's just stuff. He's got more and better. Today I went fishing and a guy gave me $3000. He told me he would be happy to be a fish. I am quite certain we underestimate how good and gracious and loving our God is. I will just say it this way, whatever you think He is, He's more. I will leave for Gondor on December 1st with my family and we look forward to seeing what our God has in store for the people of Gondor.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Falling In and Out of Love

I have been wanting to tell this story for some time now. It indirectly relates to the Calvinism posts I have had up but mostly it is about a love story that went terribly wrong.

When I first came to Middle Earth I met a guy who had worked in another country for 15 years. He told me one day that he got a letter from a national friend in that country that really broke his heart. His friend who had worked with him for 15 years, helped him lead folks to Jesus, helped him plant Churches, prayed with him daily, and had shared so many of his joys and sorrows had given up on Jesus and gone back to Islam. I didn't know what to say. How do you make sense of that? I prayed that this would never happen to me. The truth is that everyone who stays out on the field lives to see a story like this. It is one of the more painful things that any christian worker will experience.

One day a young man came to the gate of one of our Doctors. Doc answered the door and was surprised to find a young man of Gondor asking if there was a follower of Jesus that lived here. He told Doc that he had become interested in Jesus through some stories from a friend and wanted to learn more. Doc suspected some sort of trap at first. Who was this young man who spoke good English? Why was he really there? They began studying the Word together a couple of times a week. After a couple of months the young man, I will call him Grima, insisted on praying and receiving Jesus as his Lord and Savior. It was an exciting time. They continued to study together and young Grima grew in his faith. Balin started a prison ministry about that time and Grima joined him with two other men. The four of them began feeding sick prisoners, sharing their faith boldly, and praying with sick and desperate men and women. Grima grew greatly in his faith. He shared well but did not really enjoy evangelism the way Balin did. Grima liked to follow up with men who had made decisions. He had Book studies with eager convicts who would gather in the prisons and discuss the Word of Life.

Later we had openings in our aid agency and Grima began to help out. He helped us support the new team down in Mordor and twice he made trips to Mordor himself. The first time he passed out Bibles indiscriminately and got the team there in trouble. The second trip he was more careful and was even able to meet with some secret believers and encourage them greatly. This all happened over a four year time span during which Grima grew in faith and knowledge. We were thankful to have him working with us.

One day I became aware that there was some tension in the office. I asked around and found out that Grima had been really prideful in front of the Muslim workers on our staff. I confronted him and he apologized but I saw something in him that I had not noticed before. Grima was really a very prideful young man. I told Doc about this and he promised to follow up on this in their discipleship meetings. A month later Grima went back to his village in the mountains. He had not been back since he became a Christian- I did not realize this- and he was concerned with how his parents would react to him. We prayed for him and a few weeks later he came back. He could not bear to face the shame of his parents upon hearing that he had become a Christian. They were very angry so he renounced Christ and declared himself a Muslim again.

In addition to this he quit his job with us and joined a non-christian aid agency. He went back to the Church that he had been a part of and convinced a young lady that he was interested in to renounce Christ so they could get married. She did but later they could not get married because the parents would not bless the wedding. I never understood why not but they didn't. I still see Grima now and again. Sometimes he comes by the office just to hang out. He says that life is miserable now. He hates himself but refuses to change. He has no peace and comes by the office sometimes to remember what it was like when he had peace and worked with gracious people. Honestly, it is hard for me to look at him as his very face is a picture of contorted pain and confusion. He becomes quite angry at any suggestion that he did the wrong thing. As far as he is concerned this was the only path for him and if it is an unhappy path then that is God's will. The bottom line for him is that he could not dishonor his father and mother.

So, after my horrific story are you ready for some good news? The good news is what all this teaches me about the Gospel. Most of us really don't understand the Gospel if we are honest. We believe it, sure but we don't understand it. We try and boil it down into some kind of propositional truth- just believe A, B, and C and you will be fine and go to heaven when you die. But then a story like this comes along and we don't know what to do with it. Jesus teaches us better. Believing propositional truth does not save you. Knowing what is right does not save you. Doing what is right does not save you. Salvation is loving and being loved by God. It is a love story from start to finish. Grima knew as much and more about the Bible as you do- and he believed it to be true- but that did not save him, and make no mistake he is not saved. Grima is not going to Hell, he is there already. I can see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice. His hopelessness is palpable and it breaks my heart.

I knew my wife over a year before I loved her. I worked with her in the University cafeteria. She was cute but I did not love her. I was not that interested in her really. Then one day I understood she was interested in me. We talked- exchanged some propositional truth like, 'we both wanted to go into missions' and stuff like that. Then one day I looked at her and nothing was the same. I didn't want to do anything but look at her. I would do anything for her and once we were married I discovered just what that would mean. I was no longer my own man. It is like this- but much more so- with Christ. We learn about Him. Know some truths about Him but we are not truly His until one day when we fall in love with Him completely. We give our lives to Him in ways that take the rest of our lives to understand. Jesus says it this way, 'Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.' Luke 14:26. You can't 'choose' that. Grima couldn't choose to reject his family. No, love is more than a choice. It is a mystery that takes us and takes over. Poets have written about this for as long as there have been poets writing but none of them capture completely what it means to be in love. And that is what we are. We are in love with the one who loves us more than His own son's life. Let us love passionately, unreservedly, and more deeply than ever before. Look to our great lover and BE loved. And in this great love be changed to be a lover who will never shrink back, hold back, or hold out. The Bible is full of propositional truth about who God is and what he wants from us but mostly it is a love story sung over us by our Great Lover. Rest in that and find the peace that Grima threw away. The old Baptist were right when they said, 'Faith that fails before the finish was faulty from the first.' Grima knew truths about God but could not love Him more than his own family. We must be more than this. Look to Jesus and see the love in Him and be changed by that vision of love forever. Let others see Jesus in you and in turn they too will be changed.

Monday, November 03, 2008

I Have Had Enough!

I am fed up with the election rhetoric here in the US so I need to write just one post about it to get it off my chest. I have read blogs, e-mails, seen Youtube Videos, and had countless conversations about the Presidential Candidates and I am just about ready to punch the wall. Why? Because of the anger, hopelessness, and downright hatred coming from too many followers of Jesus. I am hearing things like, "America is finished." "America is under God's judgement." "All is lost." And why am I hearing this? Because the Republican Candidate looks like he wont win. Barak Obama is being vilified in the most disgusting ways imaginable by people who claim to be followers of our Lord. Well, here's my take on this and let's start at the beginning- or at least with our current President.

I voted for President Bush in the 2000 election. I have always been a Republican and I firmly believe in that form of Government. After the 2001 bombings I believed that I was justified in my decision. I believed that George Bush led well and I saw the hand of God at work as a worldwide coalition rallied behind us and went after Osama and the Taliban. But then Bush went after Saddam Hussein who had nothing to do with 9/11. I was confused and disappointed. The rhetoric spiraled out of control and we left the hunt for Osama behind. I remember arguing about this with friends in 2002 and the Spring of 2003. They couldn't understand why I didn't see that Saddam had to be taken out right now. After all he had used chemical weapons in 1989- 14 years before! But the war was not all. Then George Bush set up Guntanamo Bay Prison. I am sure that most Americans don't care about it. That is why Bush set it up in Cuba. Cuba is supposed to have illegal detentions with no charges and no trials and no human rights. We were supposed to be treating these guys like prisoners of war- except we couldn't- and we were supposed to develop a legal means of dealing with them- which we still haven't. We tortured the prisoners there which we have never done before. We have always been the good guys calling the rest of the world to behave better and live freer. With Bush's second inaugural address he declared war on the rest of the world. He openly said that if people would rise up against their totalitarian governments the US would help them. The rest of the world saw that we were just the same as Saddam Hussein and they shook with fear and anger. We became everything we ever denounced, even sending other nation's citizens to Syria for them to torture for us. Condeleeza Rice taking the stand before Congress said it was a big mistake, 'The Syrians promised us they wouldn't torture them.' Unbelievable.

But wait! Is not President Bush against abortion? How many babies have been saved during his Presidency because of his brave stance? Any? I have not heard of even one. It has not been on his agenda as far as I have heard. It was on Ronald Reagan's agenda but he was unable to stop any abortions even though he spoke more eloquently against them than any politician I have heard since. So now we have Christian leaders everywhere saying this is the end of America because Barak Obama does not oppose abortion. Give me a break! America will not be judged based on one stance of her President. The Church will be judged on it's allegiance to Christ and His Kingdom. So, let me tell you where we stand on that. While we weep and wail over a Presidential Candidate who would not apparently make any difference in the abortion situation it is OUR daughters who are having abortions. OUR children are living lifestyles of selfishness, lust, and greed and the result is that OUR daughters need to get abortions. WE are the ones holding up a rock star's lifestyle as the ultimate goal and WE are the ones who are failing to teach our children to love and respect each other, to act responsibly, and oh yeah, just as an aside, to live for Jesus and His Kingdom.

I do think that abortion should be illegal. Roe V Wade is a horrific abuse of the Constitution which is supposed to protect life. In our democratic society I will vote as I can to make a difference. But as a good Republican I still believe in individual and community initiative. I believe that we live in the society we create. In spite of the fact that Roe v Wade is bad law not a single abortion has occurred because of it. Abortions occur because our daughters want to kill their children. The Supreme Court is not responsible for that!

We have two million people in jail in this country- more than despotic China- and every single one of them lived next door to a Christian who has made no difference in his or her life. A million abortions a year? They are not living next door, they are living under our roofs. And we want the next President to do something about this? Talk about intrusive big government liberalism! Teach your children to love Jesus. Share your love of Jesus with others. Reach out to your community with the love of Jesus. This will make a difference far greater than electing a Republican. Barak Obama is not the anti-Christ. For my money whoever wins this election America wins because Bush will no longer be in the White House. Many of you have heard so much fear mongering that you will not be able to read this without breaking out into an angry sweat. Trust in Jesus. Live for him and do not fear whoever leads America. America is not eternal, Christ's Kingdom is. Live for what is eternal. If we stop looking to Washington save our nation and put our lives and the lives of our families in Jesus hands that would be change we could believe in.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Calvinistic Thinking- Limited Atonement

I have a friend who was married for over twenty years. One day she found out that her husband was having an affair. In fact, he had gone to prostitutes for a while and then found this other woman. He was not sorry. Her world collapsed. She would go to work and not remember any of the drive. She became so physically ill she threw up. She couldn't think straight or concentrate for a year. This is what his unfaithfulness did to her. You probably know someone like her- maybe you have even been her before. I think God feels even more deeply than this. I know we like to think of God as someone who is utterly 'other', someone who is completely unaffected by what we do or how we feel. There is some safety in thinking in this way. If God is so far removed- so utterly 'holy' then what we do doesn't really matter. Our sin is not a big deal and therefore God's wrath wont be such a big deal either. This is not who we see in Jesus. This is not who the Word portrays God to be. God is intimately related to us- humankind who are His creation. I think that God being wholly other than we are means that He loves more deeply, more truly, more passionately than we mere humans can imagine. I think that His capacity to suffer is just as deep and wholly other than ours. We black out, we escape into fantasy or delusion, we deny and ignore. He never does. I think He FEELS in a way that we can not understand. He knows every inch of our rejection of His love, every detail of every betrayal and He takes it all in. He absorbs it in ways we will never understand.

As we look to theology to make sense of who God is we are betrayed at a key point and I think it is important to bring it up now. Most of our 'official' theology was written by lawyers. That's right, Calvin, Luther, Augustine and many others were all trained as lawyers. Now, bypassing all the great lawyer jokes I know let's look critically at what this means. I have some good friends who are lawyers and the reality is that they don't think like the rest of us. I read poetry and they read loopholes. Their worldview is different than most of the rest of us. I think that that is very valuable when trying to write a constitution that will protect the rights of a nation's citizens but it is not so helpful- or at least of limited help- in understanding God. Contrary to some popular books the Bible is not a code to be deciphered or a manual to build a healthy life. It is a love story. I heard a man preach once on Genesis 1 and proclaim emphatically that whales were the first mammal that God created. Well, Genesis 1:21 does list sea monsters first when talking about what God created that day... No, I am sorry Genesis 1 is a beautiful poem about the Creation. It is full of wonderful truths about God, nature, and Man. But reading it with a lawyer's eye is like reading Psalm 23 in order to determine how to get the best return on our flock of sheep. Excuse me while I get up, pace back and forth and give a loud frustrated 'AAARRRGGGHHH!'

So now finally, we come to Limited Atonement. Honestly, I have studied this and tried to get my head around what people are saying with this one and I don't get it. Limited Atonement means that Jesus only died for the elect- those who will be saved. He did not die for the those who will not be saved. Rev in the last comment section said truly that people for both sides could trot out our scriptures for both positions for and against this point and we would not get anywhere. I suppose he is right depending on where we want to go. It seems to me that what the Calvinist is saying is that God accomplishes everything He sets out to do and therefore if some are not in the end saved then He must never have purposed their salvation on the cross. That's lawyer talk for sure. Jesus did not hang on the cross writhing back and forth thinking, 'This blood is for Suzy, but not for Jimmy. This blood is for Sammy, but not for Jenifer.' The picture of the nature of Jesus and of His Father from start to finish is that of a God who stands on the hill over Jerusalem and pleads for His people to come to Him. And lest we lose sight of the facts we are all His people. There is no other creator. The only people walking this earth are people He created. 1 John 2:2 says that, 'he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.' There are scriptures that could be construed to mean that this is not so, I suppose but the point of what John is saying here is that you need not fear your sin because Jesus death on the cross covers all sin. I am not a Universalist. I do understand that many will reject His sacrifice. Indeed most today do not know or understand His sacrifice and will therefore not benefit from it. But I do not see any value in delineating some kind of fine line between those Jesus loves and redeems and those whom He loves and who remain lost.

I guess the point I want to make in this post is that I don't really care if technically Jesus' sacrifice on the Cross is only 'for' the redeemed or if He really did mean that His sacrifice was sufficient to cover the sins of all men for all time. The nature of Jesus is that He loves all of us with a real and tangible love that is deeper and more passionate than pitiable human words can convey. Do what you want with the lawyer talk but do not minimize His love because to do so would minimize His pain. The depth of His pain is real just as the depth of His love is. His wrath makes no sense otherwise and His wrath is real as well. Since I have been back in the West I have heard several people say that we hear too much preaching on the love of God, what we need is more preaching on His wrath. I hate this kind of talk with a great hate. It is a misunderstanding of who He is on so many levels. There is no wrath without great love and I don't hear anyone talking about His love with any depth of passion. Preaching on His love is sufficient to change the world. Too many have opted out of the true Gospel for a bunch of lawyer talk that presents passionless principals for living that look nothing like the one who laid down His life for us. Let us be passionate, feeling, loving people who serve and walk in the ways of a passionate, feeling, loving God. Surely His sacrifice has purchased at least that much?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Ministry of Injustice

Well, I had several posts I was meaning to get up here but life has caught up to me. Arwen and I spent several days down in San Antonio without the kids! Then we got back and we hear from Middle Earth that the Ministry of Justice seems to think we are doing evangelism and now they want to shut our aid agency down. I wish I was more guilty than I am but nevertheless they are taking us to court soon and it wont be pretty. I should be able to get back into Gondor in December and then this whole thing will take the best part of next year to sort out but as of right now unless someone steps in and tell the Ministry to back off of us then we will be out sometime in 2009. I am not worried about it as our Father has a good plan. We may yet stay- or if we go we will go on to do His will wherever He calls us to. Arwen and I are at peace and so is our team on the ground. Nevertheless pray for the Boss's own wisdom and power to be at work in our lives and the lives of those in Gondor and throughout Middle Earth.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Calvinist Thinking: Unconditional Election and Irresistable Grace

A few years ago Gandalf had a Bible study with some of the Muslim guys who work for us. I was concerned at first because I did not want the fact that they worked for our aid organization to influence what they would say to us about their faith. The truth is I would rather go to their homes and discuss God. But Gandalf said that God was moving him to do this so he did it. Four of the guys attended every morning and paid close attention to what was said. One guy always found reasons not to be there- he is still working with us and is a great guy but just as lost as the first day we met him. But the others listened and as they did one of them seemed to be changing. He cleaned up his language and really seemed to soften. He was a truck driver and a pretty rough character really. After a couple of months he seemed to be a completely different guy. I am not just talking about language but about optimism, charity, hope, and kindness. We were all quite excited to see the transformation in him. Then one day he got in an argument with one of the other workers. I don't know what started it but as I came out of the office he declared to Gandalf and to the other workers there, 'I will never believe that Jesus was the Son of God.' After that he began to deteriorate quickly. He began swearing, he was rude, he was dishonest. Six months later I fired him for stealing.

Well, you can see where I am going with this already can't you? And some of you are quite unhappy about it I am sure. So, let's start from the top. First, while this is a powerful story in my mind it does not overthrow the Word. My theology is built on the Word of God not my experience. I can misread my experience but the Word says what it says. Today we are looking at the U and the I of the Tulip. They do in fact go together (for many Calvinist the TULIP as a whole goes together) and I could not think of a way of approaching one without talking about the other.

Unconditional Election is an important Calvinist teaching that has much merit for us to consider. Calvin used this concept to emphasis that Man can not earn his salvation. There is nothing that Man can do to 'force' God to do anything. With this concept in mind most Calvinists go on to say that this means that men and women are saved by the grace of God alone and Man's choosing to accept God's offer of Grace is simply Man's preordained response to God's call. To put it more simply God calls and Man must respond with a yes. Calvinists reasoning at this point explains that if Man responds of his own volition to the call of God then that constitutes a 'work' that Man could boast in. "Yes, it was God's lucky day when I said, 'yes' to His call." Irresistible Grace takes the idea one step further and states that whoever is called must answer yes. The reason for this concept is that God is Sovereign and if Man could potentially say no to Him He not only would not be sovereign but again, all those who were smart enough to say yes would have reason to boast.

I hope that I have explained these concepts fairly- if not thoroughly- and that everyone reading has a good grasp of what is being discussed to this point. I apologize to my Calvinist friends who doubtless feel I have done a poor job but in my defense I was never destined to be a great theologian or deep thinker. What I really want to address now is where Jesus stands in all of this.

First, let me say that God's sovereignty is a literal reality and I respect Calvinist for highlighting it. Too often Christians glibly say that 'He is in control' and then live a life of high octane anxiety that clearly indicates they either do not believe He is in control or do not trust Him to control things 'properly.' I do believe that the Bible paints a picture of a God who knows what is going on and is in control of it. Look at Jesus life in total. He knows he is going to the cross. There are a million variables that could take Jesus life in another direction. What if more of the Pharisees believed Him? What if the people really had made Him a King after He fed the 5000? What if Judas got cold feet and backed out of betraying Him? He knew what would happen from the beginning and it happened as prophesies had foretold over a thousand years beforehand. He is in control today just the same. You can't read the Bible and come to any other conclusion honestly. But... and here is the but. But Unconditional Election and Irresistible Grace fail to capture what is happening in the life of Jesus and in the world today.

So, moving past our experience with one grumpy driver who rejected Jesus what does the Bible say about this subject. I think of Jesus experience with the Rich Young Ruler in Mark 10. A young man comes to Jesus and Mark records that Jesus 'loved him'. But when the young man hears what he needs to do (the conditions?) he walks away sad. Jesus does not chase after him or cajole him in any way. He lets him go. He invited the boy in and the boy refused. To apply Unconditional Election is to make irrelevant half the verses in the Bible. God gives us through out the Old and New Testaments 'conditions' that we are to meet. Isaiah 55 is one of the greatest OT invitations and in Acts 2 we see Peter inviting people to come again. He gives some pretty good conditions for coming- like repentance and belief- and I just can't read these without thinking that God is honest and upfront in His invitation. I do not believe that He is telling everyone that they are welcome when in fact, He is only calling some. I will get to Limited Atonement in the next post. We are commanded to seek the Lord and Jesus informs us that all who seek will find Him. Unconditional? How's this for a condition?
"But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?" Romans 10:14
Those are conditions. In our work we see the truth that in places where the Gospel is boldly proclaimed people respond and in places where it is not there is little fruit. We are to go out to the highways and byways and compel them to come in. I appreciate that salvation is a gift from God, provided at great expense by God and it is only by His grace that I am saved. Our works can not save us but we must say yes to His grace. There are many Biblical examples of those who have rejected His grace. The Bible is full of the conditions that must be met to receive His grace. He was very clear about this.

I do not believe that holding such a view denies God's sovereignty. To use a poor analogy that is sure to break down somewhere, God is a master chess player. He will win the game. He is not surprised at the moves being made but anticipates and is prepared for them. Even now He is moving His pieces into position for the final push to the endgame. We must be out and about sharing the Word and giving the invitation. Many will reject Him but some will receive Him and be transformed into an army that will swell the ranks of His Kingdom until the whole of Heaven is filled with grateful souls giving Him the glory He deserves. I do not go in for the saying, 'Pray like it is all up to God and work like it is all up to you.' It makes a nice point about hard work but it is not good theology. No, pray as if it is all up to God and work for God is coming soon and will require an accounting of the use you have made of the costly Grace He has given you. We can resist His Grace as many have- we must not. We must accept His Grace and offer it in turn to a lost and rebellious world. He has commanded us to go and to love and to share. If we fail to meet this condition the judgment will be terrible indeed.

I just reread all of this and I am not happy with it. The bottom line of what I want to present is that of the character of God as demonstrated in Christ. He is an inviting God. In the parable of the Prodigal Son the Father is inviting the younger AND OLDER sons into the banquet. The invitations are genuine. Saying yes is not an act of self righteous works, it is the response He honestly seeks from all of us because He honestly loves all of us.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Practicing what you preach

I will now take a short break from my Calvinistic posts and tell a short story. This story could be construed to illustrate Total Depravity but that is not my intent.

We had a team meeting with our new family a few years ago and Legolas seemed to fit right in. I wanted to impress him with my deep spiritual nature and I gave a devotional on loving our enemy. I gave the example of the local traffic police who pull over drivers and shake them down for money regularly. I said that we needed to see the oppressor as a victim of his own violence. I said we should pray for these guys and present them with the love of Christ just as we do to the down and out. I said a lot of things and the next day as Legolas and I drove down the road the Lord decided he would test out my theory.

As Legolas and I turned a corner there were a couple of traffic police, one in particular that was notorious for being less than fair and truthful. He pulled us over immediately even though I had done nothing wrong at all. He asked for my documents and I pulled them out. My Identification Card, my drivers license, and my... my... hey, where was my local driving talon? It was here before. I looked and looked but now it was gone. He walked over to a large group of his friends with my documents- minus the talon- in hand. He announced to the group of around ten traffic police that wasn't it shameful for this foreigner to be driving without his driving talon. I replied that it was not as shameful as a traffic cop who pulled people over for no offense. Yeah.... how did that devotional sermon go again?
So, we got in my car and followed him to an office. This was unusual but he said we could pay a fine at the office and be on our way. I parked the car and when I went in to pay the fine the clerk said that I could have my car back when I came back with a driving talon. Hold on, I cried, I was just supposed to pay a small fine. Nope. My car was now in the impound lot and the traffic cop was no where to be seen. Legolas was mercifully silent as we walked about a mile down the road to public transport and then on to the talon office where I got a new talon and then headed back to get the car.

We got the car back and I was batting 500. I did not exactly pray the Father's peace on this guy but neither did I lose my temper. My advice to all of you is to preach the Gospel and as you go expect to find the opportunities to live it.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Calvinist Thinking: Total Depravity

I have a strong conviction about how to read the Bible. When we read a verse of scripture we should never interpret it in a way that is opposed to the clear meaning of other scriptures. For instance, 1 Corinthians 14:34 says, 'Women should be silent in the churches'. Taken out of context this seems pretty straight forward but when we read the rest of 1 Corinthians- much less the rest of the Bible- it is clear that women do speak and teach and proclaim within the Body of Christ. So we conclude that Paul is speaking about a specific situation here and not as a universal all-time rule for women in churches. By the same token Paul says many things about the character and nature of God, Man, Creation, etc. But we must always keep these in line with what has been revealed in Jesus. In John 14 Jesus makes an incredible announcement. He tells Philip and the disciples that whoever has seen Jesus has seen the Father. Do you want to know what God is like? Look to Jesus. So here is my point: Any interpretation of the Old or New Testament scriptures that is contrary to what Jesus has revealed to us about God can not be correct. Or to put it another way, we don't read Paul to find out what Jesus is like we look to Jesus to explain what Paul was talking about. This all sounds terribly complicated until we look at Total Depravity in the Calvinist system of thought.

Total Depravity according to Calvin meant that everything about Mankind is fallen and broken by sin. To Calvin's way of thinking this is a critical point in his theology because it sets up the number one point that John Calvin wanted us to understand about God. He chooses us, we do not choose Him. WE CAN NOT BY ANY MEANS FORCE GOD TO DO ANYTHING. I happen to believe that. But I do not understand Total Depravity the way some Calvinist consider it. Here, I will diverge from what some of you may have been expecting, namely a scholarly discussion of what Calvin thought. I am actually not too terribly concerned about what Calvin himself thought. I am much more concerned with what we think and in the conversations I have with Calvinists and non I am concerned with this Total Depravity issue. You see, Calvin may be right but I have two things to say about this. One, I believe that Man was made in God's image and that no matter how badly Sin has messed it up it is still in there. You can see it in the beauty of friendship, love, and forgiveness in Christians and non-Christians alike. I see this as God's original splendor still percolating beneath all the filth we have covered it with. So, while I- and every non-Calvinists I know- agree that there is no part of Man that does not need the redemption of Christ I will not yet declare Man totally depraved in the way that some Calvinists seem to think of Man. Man is not wholly evil. Second, Jesus does not see us this way.

If Total Depravity is technically correct or not too many Calvinists and non use it to misunderstand how God looks upon Man. When Jesus sits next to prostitutes and tax collectors the Word does not record Him thinking, 'What a bunch of despicable reprobates! There is no good thing in them and they make my skin crawl.' On the contrary, the Pharisees are rather annoyed with Jesus because He not only teaches them but seems to genuinely enjoy being with them. I know, I know, we are fallen, corrupted, 'All have fallen short...' Yes, I understand that. But when Jesus looks on the Rich Young Ruler who rejected Him the Word says, 'He loved him.' Think about that for a moment. Some of you may have thought, 'Ok, I know God loves me but it is solely because of the work of His Son. It is because of Christ's sacrifice for us that God can stand to look at us.' Or, some of you might think 'Well, of course He loves me. He knows all things and He knows what I will become in His Kingdom. He loves me for what He will make of me.' But the Rich Young Ruler rejected Him and would never become any more than what he was- in fact, he was probably never closer to the Kingdom than at that moment and the Word says he walked away. I have seen those who walk away and I bet some of you have as well. What they go on to become is never pretty. No, somehow Jesus loves us. He does not love the sin. He does not love us for the good things we occasionally do. He loves us.

Now, some may step in at this point and say, 'I see that He truly loves us but that is because He is so loving. It has nothing to do with who we are. We are yet totally depraved, utterly sinful.' My only response to that is that sometimes we say things we just don't think through. God does not love sin or depravity and yet He loves us. Therefore there is something about us that is not sin or depravity. I have a teenage daughter. If she came home one day and told me that she was a loving person and that is why she is going to marry a totally depraved, sinful, immoral man I would have a less than positive response to this. God loves us and He plans on marrying us!

Total Depravity is a good way of understanding our relationship to God in regard to our salvation. We have nothing and can do nothing that demands God's love. But do not then go on to understand that is all Man is. The King of Kings truly loves us. He finds a value in us that I do not comprehend but as we relate to one another it is perilous to forget that the King loves those whom you love, those whom you hate, and yes, even Democrats and Republicans. Let us treat each other with this love and leave Total Depravity on a theoretical shelf to be pulled down only when we get too prideful. But in my life I have seen more people rescued by the certain knowledge of God's love than the hell-fire sermons of a vengeful God who may or may not save us against His better judgment.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Calvinist Way of Thinking

Theology is an interesting subject. It can be studied, analyzed, debated, or even gulped down whole like a glass of cold milk. Many of us do the latter. Well, of course we do. We grow up with admirable people around us who spout off probable or improbable things and we swallow them whole not so much because of what those ideas are but because we trust the person spouting them off. As an example look at what it means to be a ‘conservative’ in American life. If you are conservative you believe in the sanctity of life and therefore you are against abortion. You believe in the Second Amendment and therefore you are against gun control. And you believe that Capital Punishment is an acceptable form of punishment within our criminal justice system. I defy any of you to have a conversation with any conservative and leave off one of these positions. If you do you will quickly be told that you are not a conservative at all and as we know good Christians are conservatives and therefore you are not a good Christian. Some of you are saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute that won’t happen!’ Yes, my friend it will. And if we set the glass of milk aside and look at these three completely disparate issues we will see that it is ridiculous to equate the three in any meaningful way. Sanctity of life is a biblical issue. God created us and we should respect that. Gun Control? Give me a verse of scripture on that. It may be a valid discussion to have within our society but it is not a moral issue biblically. If I am opposed to gun ownership in our society it does not make me a cursed liberal God-hater. If I believe that Capital Punishment is wrong that does not make me a tree hugging hippie. So, you get my point I hope. I have brought up three volatile issues that will surely have your head reeling by now and I am trying to show that we don’t have to believe all of them in order to be a biblically faithful Christian even though we have been told we must by good people.

This unhelpful ramble brings me to Calvinism. We have been told by some good men and women that all Calvinists hate missions and if we give any space to them in our Churches then missions will decline and we will fade away. That is of course, non-sense. There are now and always have been lots of God loving, Bible believing, missions focused Calvinists just as there have always been those who believe in man’s free will to choose who never ever share the gospel with anyone. That is a false argument that has kept many in fear for too long. The truth is that some of my superiors here on the mission field are Calvinists. They love Jesus and they love to tell others about Him. I believe that Calvinists within Southern Baptist life have reminded us of important doctrines like purity, God’s sovereignty, and God’s grace. I am not however, a Calvinist. I think that the doctrines of Calvinism fail to describe to us what God is like. I believe that good theology tells us what God is all about- Theology is supposed to mean ‘the study of God.’ So, with all that I have said under our collective belts I would like to lay out what I believe about Calvinism and therefore what I think God is really like.

Calvinism best describes itself as doctrines of grace. When they talk about Grace there is much we can agree on and much that I like about the way they say it. But Calvinism is usually described by their famous TULIP. I think that this is interesting because the TULIP does not describe everything that Calvin himself believed. I remember talking with my supervisor who is a Calvinist once and someone came and joined us. After we continued our conversation for a moment the newcomer said, ‘Hey, are you a Calvinist!’ He was clearly surprised to find a Calvinist as a top leader in our missions agency. Before our leader could reply I said, ‘Yes, he is. We would complain about his infant baptism if we weren’t afraid he would burn us at the stake!’ It was very funny but it was not true. Even though Calvin believed in infant baptism and did have just one enemy burned at the stake my friend believes in neither of these things and yet is a Calvinist in good standing. I don’t understand that I just accept it as reality and move on. So, we will stick with the TULIP which stands for the following:

Total Depravity
Unconditional Election
Limited Atonement
Irresistible Grace
Perseverance of the Saints

Now, because this post is long enough as it is I will unpack each of these issues over the next couple of days. This subject touches on the Mission but as you can see it is a departure from my usual story telling agenda. I will return to story telling about what God is doing but I wanted to get my thoughts down about this important issue. I hope it is helpful for you as well as a good exercise for me.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Twenty Years

Twenty years ago today Arwen and I were married. Our marriage has been a tribute to God's grace. I am very thankful to be one with such a beautiful, intelligent, God-honoring bride.

We met at University. She was dating my roommate whose ambition it was to get rich and go into politics. She had other values and upon finding out that I was called into overseas work she set her sights on me and I had no chance at all. Twenty years later we have experienced much more than we had planned. We live in Middle Earth, we have four really cool kids, and God is opening up new doors everyday in the ongoing adventure that is our lives. It is the life I have always wanted and certainly never deserved. God's grace is amazing.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

More on Brokenness

I have said it many times before and written about it specifically more than once: I am a big fan of brokenness. That's really odd isn't it? Who wants to be broken? There is a verse in a song that says,

Brokenness, brokenness is what I long for

Brokenness is what I need
Brokenness, brokenness is what you want from me

I like that song a lot. Jesus won our freedom on the Cross. It was in His brokenness that He found the victory. Now most of us spend the majority of our prayer lives pleading with God not to allow brokenness in our lives. Well, it isn't fun is it? But is 'fun' what we are about? If it is then we have definitely picked the wrong God. Fun in the sense of life is like a trip to Disneyland is not what is going to happen if you are faithful to the true Lord of All Creation. But before you panic let me show you what you will find if you follow the in the Way of the Cross.

Our missionary career began like few ever have. We moved to Middle Earth in 1996 and began trying to figure out how to get to Gondor. We had no workers in Gondor and our organization was intent on reaching 'All Peoples, Nothing Less'. The year after we moved there all the workers in Mordor were forced to leave. So, we moved into Gondor from Rohan and in the next year registered a disaster relief organization. In 1998 we went south into Mordor, responded to a huge earthquake crisis there and reestablished work in that country. In 1999 we saw a small church start and in the Spring of that year before I went on my first home-leave we baptized 14 people. All this in a Muslim country that had just come out of a brutal civil war and was still a very dangerous and violent place. It was awesome and we expected that in year 2000 we would return to more and more victories.

In year 2000 I came back to some irritating news. Other families joined us but they would not be on MY team. My boss decided that Mordor was not MY responsibility and he gave supervision of the new office and personnel there to someone else. There were no disasters in early 2000 and we all sat around wondering what God was up to. Why were we not making a difference in other peoples lives. One of the families decided to move to another city and set up another team. The other family on our team became increasingly contentious and decided that they would not support our disaster work anymore. They went out and did there own projects. I was reeling. MY self esteem was in the toilet. Everything I had built up had fallen apart. I went to a conference in 2002 and I learned that most of my problems were due to my lack of organizational skills. I was a terrible administrator and no one on the team felt called to step in and help. I got some books, cleared off my desk and got to work making sense out of my life and work. At the same time I thought I would now be able to pull my wandering team mates back in. I went to them several times and talked about new vision and new organization. They were unmoved. I kept hearing that they were talking bad about me and that they were unhappy with me. I went to them to confront them over their unbiblical behavior. I sat down and confronted them in one of the most painful meetings I have ever had. I laid out for them all the ways they were wronging me and they looked sheepish and would not reply. Then I pressed forward and demanded an answer and they gave one. It was me. I had betrayed their trust on more than one occasion. I had let confidences slip too often and I had not protected their reputations. It was me. I wept openly. I went away and prayed about it. I came back and talked to them again confessing my sin and weeping tears of bitter repentance. I wish I could say that our relationship was restored. They said they forgave me but our relationship was never the same. They left six months later and went to work in some new opportunities in Mordor.

I went on home-leave again in 2002. Arwen and I wondered what we would share in the churches we spoke in! Where were all the great stories of what God had done. We had not seen anything. Well, God is good and there were a couple of neat things that happened and we made the most of it telling others about what God had done in some friends lives. But we were empty. I stayed on my face before God all winter. I was like a zombie walking around with nothing inside. All the I's, MY's, and ME's had built up until the scales tipped and the story of my life collapsed like a house of cards. But in the early Spring of 2003 God began to speak to me in a still and very quiet voice. He was not through with me. There was more to do and I was going to go back and do it. He called me to put together a national team of guys who would work with me in Disaster Management. That team has seen villages changed, men and women come to faith, and faithful churches begun. There is no I, ME, or MY in any of it. Just God working in us and through us to make a difference in others lives. I never could be a witness to 2003 if I had not gone through 2002.

Brokenness, brokenness is what I long for. Brokenness is what I need. Brokenness is what He wants from me. And in return I get to witness the Kingdom of God being established in places you can not imagine. That beats the snot out of Disneyland any day.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Praying for Patience

One day Gandalf made an off-hand comment about needing more patience. His reply was quick and dramatic. "Don't you pray patience for me!!! If you do I will let all the air out of your tires!" Why you might ask would he respond so? Because if you pray for patience God will give you opportunities to practice. I really love the way God moves us forward in our lives. My boss says that 'God is ruthlessly committed to your sanctification.' Hmmm ruthlessly? Oh yes. I think we all have stories. God moves us forward through suffering- see Romans 5 or James 1- and he moves us forward by stretching our faith. Asking us to take great leaps of faith into the unknown is one of my favorite ways to grow. At least, it beats the heck out of life threatening illnesses. But God also moves in the small mundane things of life. Like through our children.

When we lived in Rohan we went through some really serious culture shock. We were deeply unhealthy emotionally and all of our relationships suffered. Arwen and I started yelling a lot at our two girls. Of course, they were in culture shock too so they behaved in ways that deserved to be yelled at a lot. But it was not good parenting. It was becoming increasingly out of control and one day after screaming at the girls in an uncontrolled rant I broke down. Arwen and I prayed together and then brought the girls in and sat them down. We told them that if they disobeyed they would be punished in appropriate ways but mommy and daddy were not going to yell at them any more. I have raise my voice on occasion but I can honestly say I have not broken this promise and railed on the girls the way we had done and neither has Arwen.
Well, after a promise like this you can count on it being tested. Not by the girls- they were 3 and 5- no, God was going to test this one.

I was cooking French Fries in the kitchen and had the potatoes and the oil out on the counter when our five year old Luthien came in. She just stood there quietly. I said, 'Hello sweety.' She didn't say anything. I turned back to the potatoes for a split second and when I turned back to her she was gone. And so was the open bottle of cooking oil. I took off out of the kitchen and into the living room- to her bedroom- to the next room- and then to my bedroom. I ran in and there she was. She was laughing and jumping on my bed with the open bottle of oil in her hand. Oil was flying out of the top and going everywhere. It soaked our pillows, sheets, dripped from the walls, and puddled on the floor. I took all this in in an instant and then immediately ducked out of the room and collapsed in laughter. I didn't want her to see me laughing but I looked up as I laughed and I knew without doubt that God had sent her to test my words which I had just uttered yesterday. I went back in the room and took the oil away from her and I gently asked her why she did that. She had no idea but I could hear Him laughing in Heaven with a deep laugh at the guy who promised never to lose his temper again.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Inviting Judgment

You can't make decisions for other people. I know. These words are both true and very depressing. Don't you think everyone would live a lot happier lives if they just listened to you? Lots of people feel this way and you know what? I think they are right. Others can often see the truth in a situation that you can not see in your own life. But in the end each of us lives our own lives and we are each responsible for our own messes. I have this friend who continually makes bad choices concerning his marriage. He is caught in a terrible mess. He married a girl for the wrong reasons and has ended up paying for it big time. So, what is my role now? How do I confront his past mistakes? How do I confront his present sins? How do I advise his future decisions? How do I relate to him in all the mess that is his life? Whenever we think about these questions over tea in a safe place the answers come easily but when we get out into real life we have a lot of trouble negotiating the rough waters of sin and judgment, of love and rejection.

I have two more pages of introduction but I think I will cut it all out and get straight to the story. My friend was in this terrible marriage as I said. His wife left him a couple of times a year. He deserved it, but then again she deserved him! She would badger and bait him repeatedly with the meanest mouth you have ever heard until finally he would haul off and hit her. Then she would cry about how abused she was and he would feel weak and powerless. He dealt with feelings of being weak and powerless by sleeping with prostitutes. Yeah- the good news is they are both professing Christians. I know, any sane person trying to find someone to disciple would run for their lives. But as you may have guessed I am not always sane and more importantly God asked me to disciple this guy. After a few years of ups and downs- some of which I have already written about on this blog though I am too tired and lazy to go look up the references- she left him seemingly for good and they went through divorce proceedings. His parents were delighted that he was finally free of her and immediately went out to find someone else for him to marry. They are not believers and don't think much of his faith. So, they set him up with a divorced Muslim girl. He asked me what I thought. I know. What would you say? The divorce papers were not even completely processed yet and his family had already set his next wedding date. He was completely passive. If his parents wanted this then who was he to fight it? Well, I had an answer for that but he was not up to it. So, he got married again. A national pastor friend of mine and I went to the small wedding. My pastor friend said, 'We can not support this terrible mistake but we must support our friend.' Well said I thought.

Four days later it was over. He left her and walked away. His first wife came back with their three kids and they all moved in together into the apartment while his second wife went back to her family in disgrace. I was sick at what he had done to this second woman. She already had a ruined reputation from the first divorce, this second marriage being dissolved before it began would destroy her whole family's reputation in their community. After all the bad decisions he had made I still couldn't believe he would make this bad of a decision and hurt this many people. A week later he came to see me. I couldn't let his decision stand uncondemned. I told him that he should never have done that to this poor woman. I was harsh. He was really ashamed and left. Many people to whom I have told this story have said I did the right thing. But I didn't. I did not do what Jesus would have done and I did not do what Jesus wanted me to do.

But you say, ' Hey Strider, sin is sin. We have to tell it like it is. Telling the truth is the loving thing to do.' Ok, but you need to be very careful here. We like to say that the devil is a liar and he is. But how the devil lies is important to understand. He lies to us most often by pointing out the truth. The devil tells us the truth about a lot of things. He loves to tell me how often I screw up. He loves to tell others how difficult, how tough, how hopeless life can be. It's true. But Jesus brings the truth in love and that makes all the difference. In the parable of the prodigal son the younger son has rebelled against his father and done lots of immoral things. The Father's response to this is to invite him back into the home as a son. The older brother's response is to condemn him and remind him of his sin. Both are speaking the truth but only one is representing God in the story. Jesus says that God is like the forgiving father in the story. Many times I play the younger brother, seeking my fulfillment in the world instead of at the hand of my father. Many times I am the older brother, unthankful, bitter, and judgmental. The father invites me in in any case. But you know what? God wants his children to grow up. We come to him as little children but we don't stay that way. We are to grow up and become like the father.

A year later I saw my friend on the street and I invited him in. I asked him to come to my house so we could sit and drink tea as friends. I saw my friend again just a few weeks ago. He and his wife came by to tell me about the ministry opportunities God was giving them and how blessed they were. I don't think all their problems have magically gone away but I do believe that God is working in their lives. He is working on those nasty sin problems but he does not do it with a sledge hammer. He does it with love. Love is the most powerful weapon in our arsenal. The next time I see a brother in sin I hope I will be honest with him about it but more than that, I hope I will invite him in. Only love will transform him. Do you believe that? I can hear your objections from here. The religious leaders did not believe Jesus either but in the end His love changed the world. My good advice will never change anything but loving others and inviting them in regardless of their sin will change everything.
Taste and see.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Up From the Ashes

I have been sorting pictures here in the West and I came across a picture of a friend I had not thought about in a while. I met him in the midst of tragedy about 8 years ago. We got up one Monday morning and heard that a local church had been bombed by some extremest. They had planted three bombs actually. One went off at the back of the large meeting room as the church's evening service was coming to a close. As everyone quickly headed for the stairwell a second bomb went off and when they got to the bottom of the stair well the third bomb praise God did not go off. Ten people were killed and more than fifty were severely injured. We grabbed a doctor who had just joined our team, and we headed to the hospital. I began meeting with distressed and confused church members milling around the hospital yard. They didn't know how many were injured or where they were. I asked where their leaders were and many didn't know. Then I found out that all the leaders of the Church had been arrested after the bombing. Only in Gondor! Our doctor set up a clinic to see all the victims who were released from the hospital so they could get real treatment. He cleaned open wounds and treated a lot of burns. Other team members helped them set up a command center in one of their houses. They cataloged everyone injured and where they were. I went to a European Human Rights organization that had some clout and asked them to intervene on behalf of the arrested Church leaders. They were released the next morning.

During this time we met Hurin. He was badly burned over 80% of his body. His head was burned black and swollen up like a basketball. I did not think he would live but his church members put some money together and sent him out of country for some real medical treatment. When he came back a couple of months later he was normal. I mean- really normal. He didn't look as though he had been burned at all. The color of his skin was not quite right to me but he did not look scarred. He was beaming and he told us his story.

Hurrin's Story
I was going down the stairs when the second bomb went off. I fell into a huge gulf of pain. I could not speak or move. I thought they would think I was dead- later I learned that I was screaming wildly but at the time I had no control of my body or any understanding of my surroundings. I passed out. When I awoke I was in worse pain than I have ever known or imagined. It went on and on. I called out to God to help me and suddenly I was somewhere I did not recognize. I was in a room that seemed to be a party but everyone there looked completely miserable. I was a little afraid of them as they looked grey, unhappy, and a little intimidating. I saw many of my friends and family there. I didn't talk to anyone but moved to the center of the room trying to stay away from everyone. Then suddenly I moved up through the ceiling and found myself in another room. It was huge. It was full of truly beautiful people. The women wore fantastic dresses and the men all wore brilliant suits and ties (at this point I, Strider was very discouraged to hear that there will be ties in heaven). I loved everyone and everything and I was very happy. They all seemed to be expectantly waiting for something to happen. Then I moved up through the ceiling again. I was in a really beautiful city. It was huge and seemed to go on forever and ever. The buildings were beautiful and I don't have words to describe how wonderful and immense it was. As I walked toward the center I noticed the light. The whole city was well lit but I could not see where the light was coming from. Then I saw Him. He was seated on a throne in the center of the city and all light was coming from Him. There was no one in this city. It seemed to me then that everyone in the previous room was waiting to come here. That is why they were so excited and happy. They were coming here. I walked up to the throne and fell on my face before it. Jesus told me to stand and I got up and faced Him. Love was pouring out of Him so that I felt I could asked Him anything. I cried out to Him and told Him that all my friends and relatives were trapped in the lower room and would never come to this place. He said they all could come but did not know they were invited. I plead with Him to do something for them and He said, 'Hurin, I am sending you. You invite them here and show them the way.' Then suddenly the whole city was full of music and it overcame me and I fell down. Then I was awake in my bed and the pain was completely gone. As the doctors tended me and the swelling went down they could not understand it. I was not scarred. It was a miracle. I came back to Gondor and I began working harder than ever. God gave me a word that told me that I would not only tell my story in Gondor but all over Middle Earth. Since then I have spoken to thousands of people in a dozen countries telling them about God's great invitation and the beautiful place He has prepared for all of us.

Hurin has been traveling for the last couple of years but last year came back to Gondor. He loves telling people about Jesus. What about you? When was the last time you shared with someone about God's great love for us? Invite them in. They are welcome at the throne. I hope we don't need to be blown up to be motivated to share our faith. Lord, just set us on fire!

Saturday, June 21, 2008


Today we received a letter from Jerry Rankin who is, as most of you know our esteemed leader and President of the International Mission Board. In his letter he mentioned a phenomenon that I had noticed on other blogs namely that some are saying that our overseas workers are demoralized. He does not believe this to be true. I am here to tell you it is NOT true. Our overseas workforce is facing unprecedented challenges and is excited about seeing God come through again and again. There are two issues that are brought up by some as to why our M's are demoralized. One is the issue concerning the policies passed by the trustees over two years ago about Baptism and private prayer language. The other is the issue of annual reporting and whether we are ethical in our reports. I have strong feelings about both issues so let me tell it like it is.

First, the new guidelines on Baptism and Private Prayer language were unnecessary and wrong. But these guidelines apply to new candidates and not myself. They have not curtailed my work in any way so while I am concerned that our Trustees make good decisions I will not let their decisions good or bad make or break my day. I do not- as some have wrongly suggested- 'work' for them. I work for Jesus alone and I pray for these good brothers and sisters to make good decisions. End of story. Everyone I know on the field feels the same.

But now we need a story. I met three M's recently just outside of my 'Middle Earth'. I was deeply impressed by each one. M1 is an SC for an unreached people group. He is eager to engaged them in any way he can and has found several creative ways to do it. He is everything our organization is looking for but he feels that his fellow M's don't understand him and he often feels like he is not supported by our leadership. He is writing a letter to challenge them to adopt a new idea he has. He wishes that he had better fellowship with the other M's living in his area but feels estranged from them since they are on other teams with other focuses.
M2 is another SC for another unreached people group. He works with particularly difficult to access people and is constantly finding ways to improve security and maintain access. He is everything our company is looking for in an M worker.
He wishes that he had better fellowship with the other M's living in his area but feels estranged from them since they are on other teams with other focuses.
M3 is another SC for an unreached people. His people are at least engaged and he does a fantastic job of motivating national leaders to reach their people. I suggested to him- what I had been told by several nationals- that the Church among his people had really taken off in the last ten years. He denied that and said no, the Church had been there for over fifty years and it was needing more growth. I think that it is interesting that he has been there for the last ten years and that is when most of the nationals think it has really taken off. Hmmmm.
He wishes that he had better fellowship with the other M's living in his area but feels estranged from them since they are on other teams with other focuses.
Do you see the pattern? Each family I spoke with were tremendous men and women of faith. Each of them was seeing God work in their lives and ministries. But too often we all let the enemy speak in our ear. We allow him to convince us that we are alone and unsupported. It is not true. We are not alone and we have great support.

Now, about the reporting numbers I am growing weary of some of my colleagues comments about this. Some feel that we are reporting baptisms and church plants that we should not take credit for. Well, that depends on what you are measuring. A hundred years ago a good M went out, shared his faith, won some to Christ, baptized them, gathered them into a Church and pastored it until he could raise up national leadership. When he reported a baptism it was him that got wet, when he planted a church it was him that hammered the nails for the building. Those days are long past us. We have grown in our understanding of what it is God is calling us to. I have never physically baptized any man or woman from Gondor where I serve. Why? Because I should not. I empower nationals to do this. The nature of our work has changed. I am not an Evangelist, nor a Church Planter. I am a Church Planter Trainer and so are most of us out on the field today. When I report baptisms I am reporting baptisms done by national workers with whom I am working. This is not dishonest- it is the nature of our work. If people think that our baptism numbers represent baptisms done by M's themselves then our numbers are misleading but I don't think that is what people think. Our numbers represent the work God is doing in our lives and ministries. How many baptisms the national workers I work with are performing and how many churches they are planting is very relevant to why SB's pay me a salary to be here.

So, to repeat: We are not discouraged. We are excited about what God is doing around the world and we are over the moon about being a part of it. Join us in celebrating what God is doing to reach the Nations.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Back in the USA

After going to the high school graduation of my daughter we are now back in the West. I have just spent several days with my dad and have now traveled down to see my mom and brother. I will continue to blog this summer while I am here but I have had very little internet access so far. In two weeks we will check into an M house and be stationary for a while. There is much I want to say so watch this space.