Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What is the BGR?

I posted this on SBCImpact a few weeks ago.
Sometimes you can be in a place too long. Being somewhere too long can make you blind, you just kinda get used to what you see and you forget to be amazed or even horrified. I have been traveling down to the barren south of Gondor for almost ten years. That is a long time to become blind. But a few weeks ago we had a pastor come from the West and as I took him down to show him our projects and I saw things through his eyes. I showed him our drinking water well projects, the villages we were working in, the believers who were worshiping God in really dark places. Do you know that guy took pictures of every kid who was drinking water out of a ditch? It is what everyone does…. when they can get water out of the ditch at least. That first night we were sitting out under the stars eating dinner in the yard of one of the believers there and I ask him what he thought. He said he was very interested in getting us funds to ramp up our drilling capacity. I told him that while we had the technology (yes, it is banging a pipe down in the ground with a sledge hammer but that is a kind of technology) to do wells lower down in the village we could not beat the rock up here where this family lived and so this part of the village remained dry. I asked him if he really wanted to help. He replied choking up with tears in his eyes, ‘These are my brothers and sisters in Christ and they are drinking water out of a ditch! I have to do something.’ I wonder why I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

To be clear he is doing something and so are most of you. I would venture to guess that the vast number of of people in the Southern Baptist Convention don’t know much if anything about the Hunger and Relief Funds. In 1978 the SBC established the hunger fund and some of you as old as me may remember cans sitting on our fellowship hall tables during Wednesday night potlucks. Well, that fund still exist and many churches still keep the cans on the tables collecting loose change. Many also take up a special hunger fund offering in October of every year. My experience is that most people today don’t give much to stuff they don’t know much about or understand. That’s probably why the fund is down from twelve million dollars about seven years ago to just over five million today.

For many years the fund was operated by pretty much one guy with a secretary. Yes, I too think that is insane but we didn’t want to waste money on infrastructure in the US when so many were suffering. Jim did a great job administrating the fund as did the director before him- whose name escapes me just now. I set up a humanitarian aid agency as did many other missionaries in the 1990′s and we spend around $200,000 per year serving the needy people here in Gondor. Let me say a big THANKYOU to all of you who have supported the fund through the years. There is a Gospel witness in many countries that were formally closed thanks to your support. But don’t get the idea that we have set up some kind of ‘fronts’ or platforms that are just an excuse to share Jesus. NO SIR! We love people well with the funds entrusted to us. It has taken time but we have learned, and not only my team but all around the world missionaries who previously walked around with nothing but a Bible in their pocket are now experts in Community Development, running projects, and even disaster relief.

This brings me to BGR. A couple of years ago someone somewhere realized we needed to beef up our organization and become more effective in our ability to help people well. Baptist Global Response was the answer. This is a lean organization of some of the best community development and disaster response guys and gals that we have. How it all works is this: Churches send money to the hunger and relief funds. Notice that there are two funds, hunger and relief. If you only write hunger on the check then we can only buy food or provide water. If the check says ‘hunger and relief’ then we can use it to build homes, schools, canals, whatever the community needs. The funds are then sent to the Christian Life Commission. Yep, that’s right our ethics organization has charge of administering and advertizing the hunger and relief funds. Richard Land could spend more time promoting the hunger and relief offering but that’s just me. Anyway, now you know why you don’t know! So, once the check is received it gets divided up 80% to the IMB and 20% to the NAMB folks who use it in the US.

Now, there are some of you who love to give and help others but you do it through lots of other agencies. Some of you even give to secular agencies in the belief that you want to help people effectively. So, here is Strider’s list of reasons why the hunger and relief funds are the most effective way to help poor people there is.

All the funds are used by your personnel and we are accountable to the BGR for what projects we are asking funds for, we are accountable to our own IMB finance office for all the receipts on how we spent those funds, and we are accountable to our supervisors to do effective projects in a strategic way.
All the funds go to national people who need the help. NO money goes to IMB personnel- not for office expenses, not for my fuel for my transportation, not for my food on the project, not to US based advertising or administration. When you give a dollar 20 cents stays in the US and 80 cents goes overseas but 100 cents goes to meeting real human needs. There are zero other organizations who can make such a claim.
We are good. 13 years ago when we got started we made mistakes, we didn’t always know what a good project was and how to pull it off. When I did learn I was discouraged to be in the minority of guys with significant experience in doing quality project work. No longer. Today we have teams all over the globe doing effective work.
People are poor because their relationships are broken and their relationships are broken because their relationship with God is broken. – Brent Myers from his book Walking with the Poor. We don’t just drop off a sack of floor and walk away. We love people, we help them with things, with prayer, with truth. I dig wells to provide people with drinking water but we would never do that without telling them about the living water. Our aid comes with no strings as does our love but we always share the truth about why their communities are broken and who is the only one who can heal them.

So, get the cans back on the table. Label them Hunger AND Relief and get real help to people in the darkest corners of this planet. Get on the BGR website and partner with teams on the ground. Do what it takes to reach the lost, to serve the least, to be His disciples. And I thank you again for the privilege of doing what I do where I do it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

On Rob Bell and the Myth of Universalism

I should have written this post months ago but have been busy with other things. Still, I want to get my thoughts down on this important subject. Rob Bell published a book earlier this year called 'Love Wins'. In it he posits that God is love and that love will win out over all evil. Sounds pretty good so far huh? But he goes on to suggest that love winning must surely mean the salvation of most all people whether they currently embrace Christianity or not. He seems to suggest- very vaguely in a Rob Bell kind of way- that people get a second chance and that eventually, in eternity beyond this world, most everyone will end up in Heaven because of the irresistible pull of love. I would love for this to be true and Bell ask some good questions along the way that I don't think his critics have answered very well but what I want and what is truth are two different things!

Rob begins by asking a good question (which is what he is famous for by the way). In the opening of his book he says that when we present the Gospel Evangelicals very often say that God is holy and just and hates the wicked. They go on to say that Jesus came to die for our sins and saves us. Bell's question then is this: Are we saying that Jesus came to save us from God? And if this is the case what kind of God are we seeking to spend eternity with? Do we even want to spend eternity with such a God? This stings me because I have indeed proclaimed just such a Gospel- years ago- and I don't like it at all. It isn't that I don't like it because I don't prefer it- as if the character and nature of God is somehow my own choice- but rather I don't like it because it is a lie. It misrepresents the nature of God entirely. Bell wants to rescue Evangelicals from proclaiming a God who is narrow, vengeful, and mean. Well, good. God is not vengeful, narrow, and mean and we should not proclaim Him to be.

Unfortunately, Bell's solution to the problem is classic heresy dressed up in new clothes. With no recognition that the Church has throughout history struggled with these questions and no biblical backing he postulates his own view of truth. Many critics have already torn Rob's ideas to shreds here so I wont go into it in detail. In short, Bell suggest that because of Jesus' death on the cross all sin is atoned for and in eternity all people will see God's love- regardless of their earthly decisions- and accept it and be saved by it. He goes on to suggest that the few who will not bow the knee to our savior will go to Hell but that Hell is not eternal, suffering is not eternal, (after all love wins) and those who go to Hell will cease to exist. This is known as the doctrine of annihilation. The problem with this view is not so much that it is unsavory as much as it has no biblical backing. 'Forever and ever' are used too many times by the biblical writers to mean 'not at all'.

But here I am writing on this topic when it has been exhausted by countless writers. Why? I am glad you asked. It is my belief that of all the writers who have written on this subject none of them have satisfactorily answered Bell's questions. The truth has yet to be told. The error lays in our basic understanding of salvation and what it means to be 'lost'. The consequences of our misunderstandings here are the reason the church is weak and poor. This issue is huge and we need very much to get a proper understanding of it. Bell saw his critics coming and he knew what they would say. "But God is just and holy! People must go to Hell for eternal punishment because they are sinners. Don't you want God to be just and holy?" I will answer this for Bell, 'No, we don't.' At least most of us don't think we want that. Just and Holy for most of us who have grown up in the church means that God loves us and hates our enemies. We have a vague notion that we all deserve punishment and are really glad that Jesus sacrifice somehow gets us off the hook. Some of us are grateful but most of us are just glad that the whole 'sin' deal is dealt with and now we can go on with our lives.

The thing is that God is holy and just. Holy means 'other than, or set apart.' What we are really saying is that He is not like us. This is an excellent thing. It's like when you are talking about police and you think of the riot police in Syria shooting unarmed people in the street and you say, 'Yeah we have police but they are not like those guys!' There is a God but He is not like anyone you have ever met- and trust me on this one- that's a very good thing. God is love. We take all the worldly definitions of this and confuse the issue as much as possible but once we back up and read 1 John we can't get away from it. He is love. That is not a metaphor or some kind of symbolism. It is what He is. And He will win, the title of Bell's book is dead on correct. The misunderstanding is in the nature of sin and what it means for love to win.

If you have read this far please stay with me for a bit more- I am getting to the point finally. The Bible uses a couple of metaphors to describe the effects of sin and our human condition. We get these confused and this has led to both Bell and his critics getting it wrong. In Luke 15 we find three parables describing things that are 'lost' and the desire to find them. The point of these parables is to show the nature of God as He (as love itself) is determined to save us and restore our relationship at all costs- even the costs of His own Son. But we get confused. We think these parables are about us (a common human failing). We talk about 'lost' people as if they are just somehow misplaced and if only they could be found and put on the right road then all would be well. In this context we have arguments about sin and judgement. Some say that if people are merely lost then surely God should have mercy on them. "After all it isn't their fault, what about all those who don't even know about Jesus? Surely God would not send those to Hell who have never even heard the truth? It isn't fair! They are 'just' lost and we should be pitying them instead of condemning them." The response is usually that God is holy and just. "Those poor lost souls deserve Hell and so do I but thank God I was saved, darn shame about those who weren't. Hey, did you see who won on Dancing with the Stars the other night?" No, friends we are missing the other metaphors for those who do not know Christ. The Bible says that we are dead in our sins. Lost means that we would be fine if only someone just pointed out the way. Dead is not a choice. Dead is not a decision or a minor irritation. God told Adam that in the day that he ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil he would die. He did die and so have all of us. God could choose to put a bunch of dead people in Heaven but they would still be dead. God is not harsh, or mean, or unloving to send people to Hell. Hell is where the corpses go regardless of how much we love them. I loved my grandma but I carried the coffin to the graveyard just the same. Her body belonged in the ground no matter how much I would want otherwise. We could have kept her in the living room but that would not have helped her or us. This is the reality that God has faced. He is all powerful and He can raise the dead but if they will not be raised then there is no place for them but Hell.

Now let me say something else about Hell that most do not understand. It is eternal in the sense that it is final and forever. Once a soul has refused life and remains dead it will go to Hell and burn there in the knowledge that it was created for life and can never ever have that. Hell is awful, not like Dante's Inferno or our popular mythologies of Hell being eternity in the waiting room of the Department for Motor Vehicles. Did you see the pictures of the survivors of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan? Those folks were really devastated. Can you imagine? Everything that they knew, their homes, work, school, communities, friends, family, evaporated in minutes. They are disoriented, their very personalities changed by the whole experience. Hell is that times a million. The body dies and the broken and dead soul discovers that all of what it thought reality was is gone. Don't imagine your dear Aunt who knitted you a sweater when you were ten years old burning in a fiery pit thinking, 'I really cared for little Timmy and now here I am burning alive while he is in Heaven living it up.' Whatever was good and wonderful about your dearly departed aunt is gone. In this sense annihilation is not entirely false. There is goodness, and decency in people who do not know Christ but for those who are not made alive in Christ none of what was the marred image of God in them will remain. Sin destroys lives here on earth how much more in Hell! I don't pretend to understand everything on this point but this I do know, we will know the truth in the end when we stand with our God at the last judgment and whatever the final state of all things is we will declare God to be holy, just, and love itself.

Do you see where all this takes us? If the dead are dead forever then what of the living? If salvation is not just a free pass at the final judgement but a dead soul come to real life then what does that mean for us now? If you are truly alive then you and every truly alive person in your church are not just 'better than everyone else' you are ALIVE! This makes you real and eternal and everything else this world is not. This world is not eternal. The money you work for, the home you build, the life you lead will not stand forever. In that sense it is not real. You too will face death and everything and everyone you value will be washed away in an instant. What will remain? God is love and whatever in you is love will remain. Souls are eternal and every soul you have valued and invested in will still be there at the end of all things. How should you be living your life then? The church is weak and poor because we have become experts on building organizations that will pass away while filling those organizations with eternal souls that we do not invest in or value. What am I saying? Forget about your parking lot, the color of your carpet or your tax exempt status. Forget about politics and who who wins what powerless temporal position. Invest your time, energy, and resources in people. Use the hurt and the suffering around us for what it was intended for: to make us stronger, more loving, more alive, more like Jesus who will reign forever and ever. This is our calling and in this we have so far fallen far short of where He has created us to be. It isn't about Hell, its about a soul made alive and what that means for now and for eternity.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Miracles Come in Many Forms

Last week Eormer, the local house church leader who drives for our humanitarian aid agency came in with a good story. So for your edification, here it is told in his words. Of course, his words are actually in the language of Gondor but I will go ahead and translate.

"Strider, as you know my family is from the village of Pelegir way down south on the border with Mordor. I have one aunt, a niece, and one uncle who have become believers in that village but they have been really persecuted by our family and neighbors there. In December I made a trip down to Pelegir with my wife and we had a good meeting with them. While we were there in the room with all the relatives around my aunt who is a believer complained how her husband has been gone to the north to work for many years and she has not seen him nor any money in a long long time. I told her to stop crying and that if she needed anything then what she must do is to ask Jesus for it. So, I prayed for her in front of everyone that her husband would return. I prayed in Jesus name. Many people there laughed and made jokes. No one believed praying would bring this man back who had been gone for so many years.

The next week the woman's husband returned. Not only did he come back but while he was up north he had become a follower of Jesus! So, two weeks ago another of my aunts came up and stayed with me several days. She is the one who persecuted the believers the most. She was always very condemning and never wanted to hear about the truth. Friday night a week ago we had a meeting at my house and she listened to all of it. She had many questions after the meeting and late that night she accepted Jesus as her Lord.

I called her yesterday and she told me that she had been very mean to her daughter in law. She went to her daughter in law and asked her for forgiveness. I asked her what about Jesus, who is he? She told me that Jesus is her God. I would not believe her for her words but because she asked forgiveness of her daughter in law we know that she is a true follow of Jesus."

Amen and Amen.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

5x5x5 IMB Strategy Goals for 2011

As I set my goals for 2011 I am keeping the 5x5x5 principle in mind for the work that God has called our team to here in Middle Earth. The three fives stand for the following: We are to be praying for

5 lost people

5 national believers

5 unengaged unreached people groups

The first 5 is an obvious one. We should be praying for the lost and striving to find ways to engaged them with the Gospel. I have been praying for ‘my 5′ for several years now. The number 5 is a bit artificial but it is a good number to shoot for. Obviously, we want to see many more than just five people come to faith this year, but these five are the guys that I am close to and have regular opportunities to share with.

The second 5 is one that I am most passionate about. We are to be praying for five fruitful believers. These are men and women who have ministries that are bearing fruit in their community. I am firmly convinced that this is an area we all need to do better in. Every time a team member comes to me with a job request my first response is, ‘Is there anyway that this position could be taken by a trained national?’ I believe that my main job is to empower nationals to do the work that God has called them to so that their people will be reached with the Gospel. I have said it before and I will say it again, I love John 4:1-2 where it says that Jesus was baptizing people by the Jordan but in verse two it says, ‘although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples.’ That is so fantastic! This was the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry and his disciples knew next to nothing but Jesus began his training of them by having them ‘do’ ministry. This concept has had a huge impact on my ministry. I remember when I was a pastor back in the West that a young man came to me for help. He had a porn addiction problem and he wanted free of it. I counseled with him a little and prayed with him and told him I would see him on Wednesday night. He thanked me and said, ‘ok, but what I really needed from you was something to do at 2:30 in the afternoon when I get off work!’ I am sure he never got free when I was there. I hope he found someone who knew better later. If I had it to do again…. man, don’t we say that too often! I would have grabbed that guy and taken him visiting in hospitals and nursing homes and found ministry for him to do to fill up those few empty hours between the time when he got off work and his wife came home. Now, I know better. I pray for my 5 and I empower them to do the ministry God has called them to. I make sure they get to the people they are supposed to reach and I make sure they know what they are supposed to do when they get there. It is hands down the funnest and most rewarding part of my job.

It sounds kinda funny to say but I am equally excited about finding and engaging unengaged unreached people groups (UUPGs is the new term in missiology). If that phrase is new to you what it means is a people group who are not only ‘unreached’( there are thousands of these) but an unreached people for whom there is no one even making plans to reach. It is one thing to be lost, it is another thing for no one to be looking for you! And you and I both know that the Good Shepherd is looking for them so we must be about his business. So I am praying for the five largest UUPGs in Middle Earth and guess what? Already we have the possibility of engaging one this year. I will be hosting a volunteer team of nationals from a country to the north of us to go and see about reaching one of these groups where there are no churches and no known believers. We also have a new long term person who has come to reach a small UUPG in the mountains above our city here in Gondor. Two down maybe but still way too many to go. God is on the move though and we are striving to keep up with him here in Middle Earth.

There are truckloads of issues in the IMB today. We still don’t have a president. We have an administrative reorganization that has been an unmitigated disaster. We are way short of funds still even though we have cut personnel by the hundreds from the totals two years ago. But I am not going to focus on any of that. It’s not my job. The thing that God has called me to are the things I just outlined and I am sticking with that. What about you? What are you focusing on as you go into 2011?

Friday, January 14, 2011

What is Offensive- a repost from SBCImpact Blog

Last week Tucker Carlson over at Fox News did what guys in his business are supposed to do, he said something controversial in a controversial way. It made some headlines and even caught my attention way out here in Middle Earth. In discussing the Eagle’s quarterback Michael Vick, Carlson said that Vick should have been executed for torturing and killing dogs. Vick famously went to prison several years ago for cruelty to animals ending, it seemed then, a promising career as an NFL football player. After prison though, the Eagles signed him up giving him a second chance. President Obama made mention of his approval of giving Vick a second chance and this led to Carlson’s comment. What interests me is Carlson’s preface to his comment. He said, ‘Now, I am a Christian, I have made mistakes myself. I believe fervently in second chances, but…’ And that is of concern to me. He doesn’t just believe Vick should have gotten a harsher sentence, (yes, I understand that the ‘execution’ rhetoric was probably (hopefully?) hyperbole) he believes that Vick should not have been given a second chance. Well, he is entitled to his opinion but is he entitled to claim his opinion is grounded in Christian teaching?

We talk about the ‘offense’ of the Gospel. We usually use this term when discussing why we need to speak out against homosexuals or drinking alcohol. As I look through the Word of God and study the life of Jesus ‘offense’ looks a little different to me. It seems that Jesus offended a lot people and almost always for the same reason: forgiveness. The Pharisees were mad at him for forgiving the sins of the paralyzed man. They were mad that he fellowshipped with sinners, that he ate with them, talked with them, and even seemed to like them. They were mad that he healed people on the Sabbath. It seemed there was no good deed or loving act that they couldn’t criticize. It was as if he knew what would really push their buttons. He talked to women, and not just any women, he went to Samaria and spoke words of comfort and hope to THOSE people.

The picture of Jesus that I keep in my head, the one that defines him for me personally is the story of the woman caught in adultery. In John 8 the religious leaders bring a woman caught in adultery before Jesus and ask him what they should do. The religious leaders believe that if he sides with the law and condemns her to stoning then the crowds will leave him because his message will not be new or hopeful. If he lets her off free then he would not be respecting God’s law and that would make him no true prophet. But you know what happened. He proclaimed that the one without sin should cast the first stone. At this point in the story I am waiting. Will he not pick up a brick, declare to all what they already know, that he is sinless and bash her in the head? No, he doesn’t. I do that, you do it too, but Jesus didn’t and still doesn’t. The woman is guilty. The laws were written for a reason and a purpose. They can not be ignored because we don’t like them or popular culture decides they no longer apply and yet, Jesus forgave this woman and let her go. This is why I love him and this is why the religious leaders of the day killed him. Not because he stood up for the law, for what was ‘right’, for morality, or anything else; he was killed because he forgave sinners. And this is so cool because it was his sacrificial death that enabled him to forgive sinners!

We are the older brother if we like it or not. We, as Southern Baptist Church members have grown up in our Father’s house and have done our duty. We go to the meetings, we pay the tithes, we do the work and we have watched in eager anticipation for the day when our younger brothers get what is coming to them. The drug addicts, the prostitutes, the crooks, the homosexuals, the guys who sleep in on Sunday morning, the divorced, the Democrats and anyone who voted for the Health Care Bill, those Church of Christ people, the evil, the lawless, the lawyers, and even those guys who believe the earth is getting warmer are all around us and we have been waiting for the fire to come down on their heads. Now, I am a Christian, I have made mistakes myself. I believe fervently in second chances, but… Jesse Jackson? Anyone in Hollywood? Most people in New Hampshire? Surely not these Lord! It couldn’t possibly be politically correct to kill a fatted calf for Michael Vick, right?

I was in a local friend’s house for New Year’s Eve. They have a son who is becoming increasingly Muslim fundamentalist in his outlook and belief. He usually wont come in and sit with us because we are kofirs (unbelievers). But Friday night he came in and sat across from me. After a while he began talking about religion. He said that there were not even 100 good Muslims in this Country, they all fell short of the law. They didn’t read and obey the law as they should and now they are building a large new mosque here in Gondor. He said, ‘Strider, we have satellites and compasses and all kinds of science to tell us exactly which direction Mecca is in but do you know what they are doing? They are building the Mosque to face directly West so the walls line up North, South, East, and West. When we pray we will be facing straight at Rome!’ I laughed out loud but he responded that this was ‘NOT FUNNY’. I disagree. It is hilarious and in the end it always is. Legalists can never satisfy the law no matter how hard they try. I told him that Jesus died to save us from our sins and that our works were useless. He was angry with me. ‘Jesus could not have died’, he said, the Koran says he didn’t die. Our only hope is in obeying the law. I told him that was no hope at all. Our only hope is to trust that the Jesus who forgave that woman, the Jesus who rescued the thief on the cross, the Jesus who loved little helpless children still loves and forgives today. I love my friend. I love him so much that I was willing to offend him by proclaiming a God who loves and forgives. Go out today and offend someone- it’s fun and it’s the Christian thing to do.