Thursday, November 29, 2012

Starting Over

To anyone still coming back here to peruse the stories I say thank you. I am closing this blog down but will leave the content here as a record of what God has done in us and through us in Middle Earth. I will be starting a new blog: Meditations from Middle Earth which will be devotional in nature. You are welcome to come by anytime at Meditations from Middle Earth. It was a privilege for me to keep this blog going for as long as I did. Thanks you to all who commented, you were an encouragement and blessing to me. May God guide you and bless you as you continue your journey. - Strider

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.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year

May God richly bless each and every one of you in the coming year. I am praying that 2011 will be a year of harvest where God's glory will be revealed to many and His Kingdom will a blessing to the whole earth.

Each of you who have persevered in coming back to this blog have been a blessing to me. Thank you and may God pour out his grace and mercy on each of you.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas from Middle Earth

We have some great Christmas traditions out here in Middle Earth. No, not in this Muslim culture but at our house. One of my favorites is the Carol Sing. Every year we stuff as many homesick expatriots into our house as we can and sing Christmas Carols for four hours or so. It always starts with my wife at the piano and us all singing hymns out of the Hymnal and slowly degenerates to the Karaoke where we go from Winter Wonderland to the inevitable Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer. Last night we had over fifty people in our living room at one point and a great time was had by all. We had truckloads of fancy sweets and cookies. The highlight of the evening is usually my daughter Goldberry and I singing O Holy Night but last night we also sang the much lesser known One Small Child which was beautiful not least because Goldberry coming home from University was unexpected and a great joy in its own right. Just so you know I do sing Rudolf the Rednose Reindeer with a red flashlight on my nose every year and last night was no exception. When I think of Christmas I think of my Lord and how His coming has made our remarkable community possible. I love our community. They are special, extremely cool, dedicated people who love the Lord and are committed to bringing hope to a very dark and desperate place in this world. We sing and laugh and hug each other and part knowing that though we will each face remarkable trials we will each be there for the other over the coming year. On Saturday several of the families will gather again at our house where I will have a Turkey and some of my homemade stuffing. A good friend of mine is coming up with a ham! It will be a great day full of love and good friends and family. This is Christmas to me.

This morning my daughter Goldberry got up early and went out with a local fellowship. When she came back she walked in the door and fell into my arms and sobbed and cried uncontrollably for nearly ten minutes. I wondered if something terrible had happened but between sobs I understood that they had been to the local orphanage for handicapped children. Whatever you are thinking about how bad it could be there you are wrong. It is much worse. These children are not just blind, or have Downs syndrome, or are crippled. They each have several of these issues to deal with and are living in one of the poorest institutions in one of the poorest Countries in the world. Goldberry went with a local church group that gave gifts and sang songs. They even did a short play on the Good Samaritan. My daughter spent most of her time holding a two year old boy who had no eyes and clubbed feet. She told me about the young autistic boy with boundless energy who exasperated his caregivers by continually bolting for the door. She told me about the little boy who sang songs about everything all the time and in spite of having empty sockets where eyes should be he was continually happy. She told me about the little girl who danced in circles with joy for their coming though she couldn't use her hands and her cleft palate made speech difficult.

Christmas is a reminder to me of the community that Jesus came to establish but it is also a reminder to me of the war He came to declare. Jesus coming to the world was a declaration of war on the evil forces mankind has unleashed on itself. The forces of Hell are trying to mar dehumanize the image bearers of God and Jesus has come to declare that our enemy's power is broken. We declare this with every song of hope and joy that we sing, with every love-soaked hug that we give, with every generous act of compassion we share. The Christ is born in a humble manger as a poor baby in a small insignificant place for a reason. He is the way. Our way is not with the politically powerful, nor with the wealthy, nor with the cunning. Our way lies with the meek, clothed in forgiveness, full of grace and peace. When we live this way we bring His Kingdom and in the wake of His Kingdom injustice fails, falsehood is overthrown, and poor blind children are held and loved forever.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Fredegar's Miracle

My friend Fredegar the lawyer had an opportunity to go down to Mordor. He saw a local believer there and got to encourage him as he faced imprisonment and trial for his faith in Jesus. They may yet execute him but time will tell. It was really great that Fregegar got to see him and encourage him two days before he had to face a council of Islamic leaders who demanded that he return to Islam. He stood strong in his faith and testified to the love and grace of God through Jesus. I am not sure he would have had the courage had he continued to believe he was abandoned and alone.

Fredegar came back last Saturday and arrived in the middle of the night. He jumped in a taxi and went home. Upon arriving home he got out and the car drove off will his bags! It was dark and he couldn't see the license plate number and he assumed that his computer and all his documents were lost forever. The next night a guy called him and offered to sell him his computer for $3000. Fredegar laughed at him and he came down to $2000. Fredegar told him that he could buy two new computers for that price and the guy hung up. The next day a guy called and said if he would meet him at midnight at a remote park he would give him his documents back. Fredegar is not a complete fool and told him he should call him tomorrow during the day. The guy didn't call. We were in a team meeting hearing about all these events and praying for Fredegar when he got a call from a local pastor. He took the call and went at once to the church. Some ladies had found a bag at the park and found the documents in it and realized that they were very important. They took the bag to the US Embassy but since Fredegar is not an American they took no interest. They searched through the bag and found one receipt in the local language. It happened to be a receipt from the local church for some materials Fredegar had purchased some time before. Fredegar doesn't even go to that church regularly! So, the ladies took the bag to the church and now Fredegar has his passport and other important lawyer type documents. For you it may be another lawyer story but for Fredegar it is surely a Christmas miracle.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Dazed and Confused: Women in Ministry part next

In my last post I gave a long introduction to what I am writing about and now in this post I want to get some scriptures written down and evaluated. My intention is not a full exegesis but a list of scriptures with the questions I have about them.

In the beginning God... yes, let's start in the beginning. We note that God made man and woman in His image. In chapter two of Genesis we have a cool story about Adam going to sleep and God creating woman from his side. Some make a big deal of this story concerning the roles of men and women. I don't see any roles at all. Woman is a helper to man. Well, yeah but don't we all want to be helpful. As we look at what it means to be meek and to submit to others is this not the basis for all loving relationships? In my mind there are two ways to relate to people: We can love them by considering them better than ourselves (Philipians 2) or we can use them and manipulate them for our own ends(Jesus' definition of worldly leaders). The word 'helper' gets a bad rap if we think of helper in the sense of our maid or some kind of worldly definition of a servant. Isn't that what Jesus came to turn up on its head? Isn't the Holy Spirit the one who comes alongside and comforts us, helps us, guides us, encourages us? I see this original relationship as something intimate but when some people then conclude, "And that is why a woman can't be a pastor" I can't see it. Eve was not a position she was a person. She lived and loved and served and I am not willing to shackle today's women based on this story. I don't think that Genesis 2 can be used to address this issue without us losing the meaning that it was intended to have.

But what about the curse in Genesis 3? I have heard lots of teachings on these verses that basically say that the curse says that the 'woman's desire shall be for her husband and he shall rule over her.' There you have it straight out. Men are to rule their wives. But I have a couple of questions here. One, if the curse in chapter three is that women are to be ruled by the men then doesn't that presume that that was not the case before the fall? So, if the work of Christ is to undo the the work of sin- and the curse- then would that not mean that in the New Covenant that men should most certainly not rule over their wives? And secondly, why is it that some teach that women have to respect the curse in verse 16 but in verse 17 and 18 no one teaches that we should not use fertilizers and pesticides to make farming easier? If the curse is what God wants for us why do women have to submit to it but men are encouraged to fight against it? The more I think this through the less I am convinced that it was God's original plan for man to rule over women much less His plan for now.

Regardless of what we think God's original plan was or the intentions of the curse men most certainly did rule over the women after this. Patriarchy defines family life in the Old Testament. We know about Noah and we know he had a wife but we don't know her name. We know that Abraham had a wife and we know her name but it was most certainly through his son Isaac that the line of promise is passed. I say this because if you read through Genesis you see the story of the Patriarchs. But if you look to the genealogy of Jesus you see several- not just one or two- women mentioned. Apparently, in spite of the whole 'Patriarchy is the fabric of society' thing women have a huge role in salvation history. In fact, we know there were something like 613 laws in the Old Covenant. That's a lot of legislation. While many of them are particular to men or women none of them delineate specific roles for them except for the priest. Priest were a special class who could approach God in the Temple in a way no one else could. We don't know why women were excluded- there are no verses I know that explain God's reasoning for this and Him being God I don't demand that He explain everything- but women were not allowed to be priest. That is a specific role difference. Deborah was a Judge though, and a good one. There were also a couple of queens who were not so good. So, apparently the role deal did not extend past the priesthood. Women did exercise positional authority over men in the Old Testament and there was no rule against this. A lot of people disagree with this conclusion but I don't know what else to do. There is no law forbidding a woman to rule in the Old Testament and Deborah did. I have heard some complementarians complain and say, 'I am tired of hearing about Deborah' but that does not seem to be either an argument nor an explanation.

Moving to the New Testament there are several must see passages on this issue. Since I myself am a very practical guy there is no argument stronger for limiting women's roles than the fact that Jesus called twelve men to be his main disciples. That he had women ministering with him in so many other ways only emphasizes the fact that women somehow 'couldn't' be among the Twelve. Jesus teaches women, gives them opportunities to serve, he honors them, he protects them, and I think most significantly he appears first to a woman after his resurrection. I have heard some extreme complementarians argue that a woman can not preach and certainly should not teach a man but Jesus encouraged both. If good preaching is to proclaim the resurrection then according to scriptures a woman did it first and she proclaimed it to men. Mary was the first apostle and she was sent to the Apostles!

Paul dealt with the Church as it was being established. Jesus replaces the 613 laws with one law, the law of love. Paul then has to explain to the young believers how to understand that one law. I see in Paul's writings a desire for two things. One, he is calling the church to love God and each other well and two, and he spends a lot of time here, he wants everything we do to advance the Kingdom. Paul is very big on Christian liberty and he never wants believers shackled to a set of rules but he also exhorts us to never use our liberty in a way that will hinder the spread of the Gospel. As we look through the things Paul says to the Church it is important to keep these two types of teachings separate. One, declares how we should love and is eternal. The other declares how we should behave honorably in society and is contingent on culture. To wit, sexual immorality is always wrong because it abuses yourself and others in unloving ways. But wearing a headscarf may or may not be the best way for a person to demonstrate that they are respectable. The first is always true, the second depends on the culture. When we confuse these two we end up either acting selfishly or ridiculously and neither gives glory to God.

And so we come to the first of the difficult passages 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. If anyone can make sense of these verses be my guest. It starts out by Paul commending the Corinthian church for doing something right. They remembered the teachings and traditions he gave them. He then says that the head of every man is Christ, the head of every woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. If this verse were by itself or even if we skip to verse 11 where he makes clear that men and women are not independent we would not have much of an issue. We are interdependent as designed by God. We are to submit to one another. The man is the head, fine but what on earth is he talking about in the intermediate verses? He says that a man must not pray or prophesy with his head covered but in Jewish tradition they DID cover their heads. He says that a woman must cover her head because of.... angels? Or does he mean 'messengers' there? And what do you mean it is shameful for a man to have long hair? How does 'nature' teach us this and have you ever seen a picture of Jesus without long hair? Well, I am not writing a commentary and I don't have to answer all these questions. What I can say is that the husband is the head of the wife. They say that here in the culture I work in too. They say the husband is the head and the wife is the neck and she turns him where she wants. But all that aside what I don't see is men/women roles in Church. If the husband is the head of the wife does that mean she can not perform some roles or exercise some gifts? I don't see that it does. So, while I am a bit confused by this passage I am not going to let it push me to demand that women do or do not do anything. As a man my responsibility to my wife is to be the head. For me, taken in the context of Jesus teaching on leadership and authority I must serve my wife. I must disciple my wife and help her to become what Jesus is making her to become. She serves me as well. We function together. I see this but I don't automatically toss out Jesus teaching on servant leadership and start talking about that woman doing what I say. I certainly don't start making illogical connections of, 'If the husband is the head then the woman can't be a pastor because she would then have authority over a man.' What? But bear with me as we move on to 1 Corinthians 14 and then to Timothy.

1 Corinthians 14 bothered me for a long time. Verse 4 says that the one who prophesies builds up the church. We know that Philip had four daughters who were prophetesses. We think of Anna who prophesied over the young Jesus in the temple. We all know women who speak the truth of God well. Paul goes on in verse 26 saying let each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation... Paul is encouraging everyone to participate orderly. But in verse 34 Paul demands that all the women keep silent in the churches for they are not permitted to speak. Now I know that most have ignored this verse not knowing what to make of it and that bothers me. I don't want to throw out a command just because I don't understand it. Some have interpreted this to mean that when the church meets in the big church building on Sunday morning that the women can't speak in the service. That is an anachronism. When Paul wrote this he was writing to small groups of people who were meeting regularly- not just Sundays- in their own homes. In fact, one of the groups met in Chloe's home. Paul even intimates that Chloe was the leader of that group as he refers to 'Chloe's people'. Do you think Paul was saying Chloe could not speak in her own home, with her own friends? I was confused about this for a long time. Then someone pointed something out that should have been obvious. He says that the women should be silent 'as the Law also says'. Where does it say that? Is there one verse in the Old Testament that says that women should be silent? In all 613 different laws that one is not there. So, what is he talking about. He is talking about the oral law that Jesus got after the Pharisees about. It was the highly abusive over the top oral law that Jesus condemned that Paul is quoting. So, is Paul forbidding women to speak or is he quoting his opponents here? If he is quoting his opponents then the verses following demanding that people not be contentious and forbidding people to make up their own rules certainly take on a different meaning! To be honest though, it does not seem very obvious from our English translation that he is now quoting his opponents. For me, the fact that he is quoting the oral law is enough to prove that 'women keeping silent' was not Paul's desire but I would not feel I had a very strong argument in insisting that you see it that way. We need more verses and more clarity.

1 Timothy 2. Verse 8 asks men to pray lifting holy hands- yeah, most of us don't but ok. Verse 9 women shouldn't 'adorn' themselves with fancy clothes but be dressed modestly and with 'good works'. Ok, I am cool with that. Verse 11, 'Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.' That sounds good to me. I think we should ALL learn quietly in all submissiveness. Again, remember the context of house church that they were living in. Remember Mary and Martha? Martha was running around serving and while Mary was doing what? Sitting quietly and submissively. In our big western churches we have everything under control and this command is well enforced. We all sit in pews, in rows, facing forward and we know to sit still and listen respectfully. In the house church we do things a little differently. Everyone is sitting on the floor in a circle and the host is very busy hosting. Remember Chloe? I guarantee you she was serving tea more than once when she should have been listening. Submissively? Oh man, you get a bunch of people on the floor in a circle and you get to talking and order can go out the window in a hurry. I have no problem with the proper application of these verses. I am telling you that in context these were necessary instructions. The men should pray, the women should dress modestly (and not to impress others), and the women should sit quietly and listen to what was being taught submissively. Yep, it is all clear and easily understandable and applicable in the house church context. But he doesn't stop there. Verse 12 says, 'I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.' This verse- in context with the following verses that make clear Paul is speaking of a universal principle based on Adam and Eve- is the biggest headache to both egalitarians and complementarians. How on earth are we to understand this? Some complementarians say simplistic things like 'just believe it'. Believe what? Women teach all the time. My mom taught me tons. Let me remind you again that in our proper western big church meeting on Sunday morning in the big building we have fooled ourselves into thinking that the application of this verse is simply not to let a woman speak from the pulpit but this verse says nothing about that because pulpits did not exist then. Paul was speaking to small groups of people who called themselves the Church. Church was not a meeting or a building. It was the people gathered together. Women shouldn't teach? How could they not? But maybe we should put teaching into the context of the verse and say they should not teach and have authority. That is usually where this discussion goes. The issue is not so much that a woman can't teach- tell what they have learned about God- but that they can't be in authority. The word used for authority here is an ugly manipulative word for authority by the way. One of my issues when this is discussed is that by the time Pastor so-and-so is finished explaining why a woman should not have authority over a man I don't want him to have authority either. I looked up authority on Wikipedia and it confirmed my culturally conditioned reservations:

Essentially authority is imposed by superiors upon inferiors either by force of arms (structural authority) or by force of argument (sapiential authority). Usually authority has components of both compulsion and persuasion. For this reason, as used in Roman law, authority is differentiated potestas legal or military power and imperium persuasive political rank or standing.

So, you can see from Wikipedia that really no one, much less women, should have this kind of authority over another. We have leaders- those who have influence- and we have those who are responsible- those whom God has gifted and is holding accountable for the usage of those gifts- but authority belongs to God alone. For me this is the heart of the whole discussion. Who is in charge? It seems that too many read the scriptures decide what they mean and then take over and manipulate everyone else to do what they think should be done. A lot of violence has been done to women in this regard. Woman whom Jesus freed and gifted to serve get told what to do by authoritarian men. As a former pastor myself I both understand this and abhor it. The pastoral gift was meant to empower people to find the power of God in their lives and unleash it to serve in their communities. Too many pastors have behaved as if the authority was theirs. They have decided what a person can do and limited that person to doing what was in the pastor's plans and not what was in God's design. This is all just a theoretical debate until a woman comes along and seeks counsel. When a real person seeking God's will comes along and the church says, 'No, you can't be a pastor. You are mistaken in what God has gifted you to do.' This now is dangerous ground. Do you really have the authority to say this. No, you don't. You have no authority at all. God's Word is our authority and I am a long way from a definitive answer on this.

The problem lies in our application as I have said. If we interpret these verses to mean that a woman should never teach then why did Paul work with women who taught. Lydia, Pheobe, Priscilla, the list goes on and on. Paul had multitudes of co-laborers who were women as did Jesus. So, can a woman be a chaplain? We used to say yes, now Southern Baptists are saying no. Why or why not? If we interpret this too strictly then we can't even have women teaching boys in Sunday School. The glaring inconsistencies are ridiculous. I mean, if Jesus teaches that the greatest among us are to be the servants and that is how to become the greatest leader then surely the pastors in our churches should be kicking the women out of the fellowship halls and doing the dishes themselves. But that doesn't happen. It doesn't happen because we don't really believe this. We understand that servanthood is much more than doing the dishes and we understand that teaching is much more than delivering a 30 minute speech on Sunday morning.

At the end of the day we must be much more discerning when it comes to these issues. We need to stop making decisions based on protecting our positions of power and really try to understand what God is doing in the life of that person who is seeking our advice. We need to stop making blanket statements about what women can't do and prayerfully empower them to do that which God is calling them to.

At this point you might be saying, 'Hey Strider, are you not an IMB missionary and should you not be acting in accordance with the BFM 2000? Well, actually I do. The BFM says that the office of pastor is limited to men. So far in the ministry that God has blessed me with God has only brought along men who were pastors. In the first church we planted it had a woman pastor (two co-leaders really) for a while but only because they were all women! Once a discipled man showed up they encouraged him to exercise his obvious pastoral gift. I didn't have to pull out 1 Timothy and beat the women over the head with it. The Holy Spirit gifted a pastor and the Church recognized him.

As far as where I am now on this journey I remain a reluctant complementarian, sort of... depending on the day. I would love to be an egalitarian and just give men and women equal rights and responsibilities. I will say this though. I don't like any of the talk of the current flavor complementarians. They say women are separate but equal. That was said about the blacks in the fifties and it has the same meaning then as now. Separate is not equal. Many conservative Christians are crying foul about this subject. They say that egalitarians are 'liberals' who are caving into 'worldly' ways. Let me just say that that is utter nonsense. In Western society there is an extremely small percentage of battered and abused women who hate men and are very militant about their feminist stance. Numbers-wise this is like .0001 percent of people today. A billion Muslims, 3/4 of a billion hindus, half a billion Budhists, and countless animists, still see men as superior to women. Fear not, my fundamentalist friend your numbers are yet strong. For me, I want to see women empowered to fulfill everything God is calling them to do. They do this best (same as me) when they are encouraged and empowered to believe that with God all things are possible and that the heroes of faith recorded in the Bible, far from being exceptional, are all models that we are called to transcend. God forbid that a Deborah came my way and I discouraged her from pursuing her calling.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dazed and Confused: What about the Women in Ministry Question?

I have been wanting to get my thoughts down in writing for some time on this 'women in ministry' issue. This paper will not likely come to very strong conclusions but let's see where writing this down takes us.

First, Some presuppositions need to get stated. I strongly believe that all women who love Jesus should be in ministry. Everyone who has the Holy Spirit of God dwelling in them should be about the work of loving others well. Loving others well is my own definition of ministry. Christian women must be in 'ministry'. Most people don't say it this way and I realize that the way I have said this is not very controversial. There is controversy to come, I promise you. Second, I believe that God's Holy Spirit has protected the Scriptures and they are trustworthy. I may not understand everything the Bible says and Lord knows I disagree with what some people have said the Bible says but I believe that the Bible is inerrant even if, and perhaps especially when we are not. Some people approach the scriptures with a view that says everything I don't agree with must be wrong. I don't think that. I am also not a big fan of assuming we have mistranslated lots of stuff. We may have, but I don't like to fall back on that excuse for our not understanding what God is trying to tell us. If we assume that only people who know the original languages can rightly understand scripture then we set ourselves up for our own enslavement to worldly scholars and we minimize the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

My own journey has been vast in this area of theology. I was baptized in a very conservative Southern Baptist Church. The pastor always wore a tie and we believed lots of things to be true just because we believed them. As a teenager I never questioned that women should never be pastors and I was pretty suspicious as to whether in some circumstances they could be deacons. I had never heard a contrary opinion to this kind of thinking. There were many strong women around me. My mother and my sister are both very strong women. I respect and like strong women but in my early years I accepted without question that women, even strong ones, could never hold any kind of authoritative position in the Church. When I was 18 our youth group visited a church that had an 'Assistant Pastor' who was a woman. I questioned this and our youth group leader suggested that this was a great thing. I was baffled. Someone who I had not only knew but respected thought a woman could hold an authoritative position. Crazy. So, for the first time I began looking to see what the Word actually said. I was immediately impressed by two things. A couple passages of scripture seemed to very clearly say that women could not serve in any capacity in the church and second women in the New Testament clearly did serve in many capacities in the New Testament. Where was the disconnect? At that time I decided to abandon any idea that there were any artificial limits on women in ministry. I believed then that women were full equals and if what is grace and mercy in us is the Holy Spirit then women have as much capacity for ministry as men and therefore as much responsibility to minister as men. I assumed then that the passages that spoke against women ministering- and specifically speaking and teaching- must have a good explanation and I just don't understand them yet. In 1987 I went to Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. I came into contact with big words that tried to describe the positions of those who believed one thing or another. I learned the original languages and I studied the Word a lot. At the end of the day I could not undo the passages of scripture that prohibited women teaching men or holding authoritative positions in the Church. I worked on it, prayed about it and in the end I had to make a decision. Either the Bible was mistaken and women could hold such positions or it was not mistaken and I was. I decided that the Bible was right even if I didn't understand it.

At that point in my journey I was an unhappy complementarian. There are two categories used to describe the positions on this issue; Complementarianism and Egalitarianism. The simple definitions for these terms are:
Complementarianism- God has created male and female with distinct and complementary differences. Since men and women are different they obviously have different roles and ministries within the Church. The most important of these distinctions is that women should submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5) and men are to be leaders and teachers in the Church (1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2, and the fact that all of Jesus' disciples were men).
Egalitarianism- Men and women are created equal and each can do whatever God asks them to do. There are no role or functions that are out of bounds for either to do (Galatians 5 and the many passages that list what women have actually done- like Deborah, Phoebe the deaconess, Philip's four daughters who prophesied, Lydia who helped Paul start the Church in Philippi, Prisca who helped teach Apollos, etc).

It should be duly noted that these two 'camps' are not uniform. There are many different expressions of these two groups. The extreme positions of these two are pretty horrific in my opinion. Radical egalitarians include women who hate men altogether. This radical element takes credit for getting women the right to vote and equal pay for equal work. These are worthy accomplishments but there are lots of women who were not radical feminists who also helped bring these things about. I would like to think there are egalitarians who love Jesus- even though he was a man, love the Word, and don't think all men are oppressive zealots. At the same time there are lots of levels of complementarians. The average Southern Baptist for instance, just believes that men and women are largely equal but that woman can't be pastor's of churches. There are radical complementarians who are pushing this issue much farther. They would like women to submit to men in all things and there is even a growing group promoting 'patriarchy' who believe that men are the rightful leaders in every aspect of society and that a woman's only role is to have babies and cook for their husbands. The 'quiverfull' group is particularly troubling in that they take this idea a step further and contend that since women are 'saved' through childbirth they should have as many children as possible.
What has made the whole discussion all but impossible is that each side attributes to the other all the extreme characteristics and accusations of being either 'women-haters' or 'Bible rejectors' get thrown around until the shouting gets quite overwhelming.

Let me be clear about where I am on this journey. I will not accept a position that indicates that a woman has value based on what she does. She is not more blessed if she has more children. She is not more loved if she pastors a church. She is not of more value to the Kingdom based on her contribution. Neither the woman nor the man is capable of screwing up God's plan for creation, redemption, or eternity. God loves women and men because it is His nature to love. Out of our understanding of His tremendous love for us we are ourselves set free to love. Our position on the position of women must not be based on a woman's value but our understanding of what God in His Word is asking of us.

In my next post I will identify the relevant scriptures and attempt to see what they say on this subject. Which scriptures we choose to evaluate and which we leave out have a big bearing on our conclusions here. Then we need to apply and let me just say it is in the application that both sides run into serious trouble.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Loving Your Enemies

I didn't have a blog back in the days of the civil war here in Gondor. I didn't even have an internet connection. It is a shame because there were so many great stories that I have lost over the years. Yesterday I was talking to some friends and they reminded me of one of those 'lost' stories.

In 1997 the Government of Gondor signed a peace agreement with the Opposition whom they had fought with for five years. What this meant practically for us was that while previously all the fighting had been up in the mountains now all the factions could come down into the Capitol city and fight every night for a seat at the table of power. It was a very ugly time. Just outside of Minas Tirith there was a small town where three Opposition commanders and their troops settled down. Some friends of mine were living in this town trying to reach people there for Christ. Unknown to them at the time there was one believing family who lived there. They were holding meetings with their neighbors and one night three armed and masked men came into their meeting and said they would come back in one week's time. If any of these people were still here they would kill them. These guys were hard core Islamic Fundamentalists and no one doubted that they would do what they said. One week later the neighbors were gone but the one believing guy stayed there with his family. That night the three masked men came in with guns and told him he was going with them. He called into the next room and told his wife that he was going out with friends and would see her in the morning. The took him out to a trash dump that was a famous place for executions at the time. He knelt down and they told him he had one last chance to pray. He prayed. He prayed for his captors,for their forgiveness and for their salvation. They stopped him and said, 'What are you doing!? You can't pray like that!' He told them that as a follower of Jesus this is how he was taught to pray. They let him go and he went home.

A week later two of the three masked men were back and this time there were thirty men with them. They asked him how he knew what to do and he told them he didn't know what they were talking about. They said that a few days ago the Government forces had them pinned down against the river. They were sheltering behind a low wall and it was raining bullets down on them. They were being taken out one by one and knew they were finished. Then they saw the believing man walk right through the hail of bullets and up to the wall. He told them that the only way to be saved was to jump in the river. Two of them jumped and the rest perished. For the record, the river really rages through that point and I am sure I would not want to jump into it anytime much less at night.

The believer told them that he was not there but clearly an angel of God was. They asked him to share about God and he told them the Gospel. As far as we know just one man made a commitment to Jesus that night. Where the others are I have never heard. But I have two things to say about this story. One, it is interesting that God sent an angel in the likeness of this believing man. Apparently, he was the only one these guys knew that they could trust. So, praise God for his godly character and we must pray that we would face adversity with grace as well so the next time the Lord wants to use someone as an example of love He has someone to show them. Second, it never ceases to amaze me what God will do in order to reach us. Of course, it similarly amazes me what God must do in order to reach us. I mean, come on all that pain and death and sorrow just for one guy? And what was keeping the others bound? Strong delusion has a grip on the world. Pray it does not have a grip on you so that you will be free to act whenever God calls.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Why You Should Support the IMB

I posted this the other day over at SBC Impact.

Facebook is a funny thing. Not only do you get to get back in touch with old friends that you had hoped to leave behind but you also get to see the weird conversations they are having with their other old friends. The other day a conversation popped up on my screen from a friend of mine who pastors a church. He is also a trustee for our International Mission Board and had requested prayer for the meeting he was about to go to. One guy (obviously not a Christian) commented that the very idea of a ‘mission’ agency was deceptive and evil and we should ‘help’ ‘those’ people instead of cramming religion down their throats. Ok, well I expect this from those outside the Kingdom. But then a person who was apparently a church member commented that we should not spend any money overseas and that all of our money should be spent right here on the poor at ‘home’. Wow. I forget the battles you guys face at home. I am sorry that I forget and so, to make amends I am posting the ammunition you need to face such battles as these as we approach our Lottie Moon Christmas Offering- or is that the Lottie Moon ‘Holiday’ Offering? I am so behind the times.

First of all, let me say that your response to non-Christian guy should be the Gospel. In the context of what he was saying about being ‘deceptive’ and ‘cramming’ religion down other people’s throats I plead not guilty. I understand where he is coming from and I know the guys he is talking about but we is not them. Back in the early 1990′s we escalated greatly the accessing of what was called ‘closed’ countries. I know facts and figures are boring but to be blunt we used to work in around 90 countries and now we work in them all. No, I am not speaking in hyperbole. We are now accessing all the countries of the world with the Gospel in one way or another. Your money is paying for some pretty darn creative, brave, and obedient people to get the Gospel everywhere the Lord has commanded us to go- which is everywhere. We have done this in many ways. One way has been to do what I do; set up a humanitarian aid agency in order to get a visa. Fifteen years ago that sometimes meant that guys would go out, say they were helping poor people and then just pass out tracts. Some of us (me included) thought that was deceptive and wrong. Today the situation is very different. Many of you are thinking that perhaps if you fund a secular agency, or a christian agency that just focuses on relief and not church planting then your money will be more effective in relieving poverty. You would be wrong.

Major concept to get your head around: People are not poor because they don’t have money. People are poor because they have broken relationships and people have broken relationships because they have a broken relationship with God. (That is a slight paraphrase from Brent Meyers’ excellent book, ‘Walking with the Poor’). For 15 years I have been learning about indigenous church planting, avoiding dependency issues, being culturally appropriate and relevant, doing things in a reproducible way, letting the locals have ownership, etc etc. A couple of years ago I went to a big humanitarian aid meeting sponsored by the UN. All these secular guys got together and started talking about all the same concepts for their humanitarian work. The upshot of the downside was that they all agreed these concepts were essential but they couldn’t implement half of them. Why? Because they have to impress the donors. Look guys, you don’t hear alot from me about all the great work that I have done and now the funds for my work are drying up. I am sorry for the lack of communication here but it is essential. I can’t take credit for the work I do because we are giving the credit to everyone else. So here is the deal for Mister Athiest who thinks we should be doing good. We are. People are being fed, getting fresh drinking water and even getting housing. I have built seven villages since I have been out here- except, I haven’t. They built their own villages and even provided much of the materials. I taught them to work together, to trust each other. I gave them a few things they didn’t have but mostly they did it themselves and I am proud of that. They didn’t need money as much as they needed forgiveness and a right understanding of who God is. The Gospel makes all the difference.

Secondly, for Mister Atheist who thinks we shouldn’t be shoving religion down people’s throats, tell him I agree. I have no interest in going to a Muslim people and telling them that my set of rules is better than their set of rules. I never criticize Mohamed or Islam. There is no point and no need. The people we work with are fed up with the status quo which keeps them in bondage and brokenness and are looking for something else. They are excited to find out that God is not some powerful vindictive spirit who is out to get them. We present Jesus and that is always received well even by those who do not ultimately accept Christ. Persecution comes and it is vicious. It comes to the new believers who are persecuted by a community that does not understand. I have more to say on this but that is for another post.

Now, for Miss Shouldn’t We Just Stay Here I have this to say. No we should not. First of all, and most of you reading this blog are up on this, Christ commanded us to go so, we should go. End of story. But more than that can you not see how inconsistent that is? Most of our Church members are Republicans who think that our going to Iraq was a great thing. They think that going out and interacting with the world directly benefits us at home. Well? Does it not make sense then to send me? Who is more effective at changing society and relieving poverty the Gospel or a gun? All right, I had better answer the question because in recent years some of you have gotten confused. The Gospel! I have a friend who when he speaks at churches back home apologizes to our military for them having to shed their blood in Afghanistan and Iraq because we were too lazy to go there fifty years ago. I have not decided if he is right but he goes on to point out that all of our places of greatest conflict today are places we have failed to take the Gospel. He says we should have gone fifty years ago and lost a couple hundred martyrs so that today thousands would not be dying. Again, I don’t know if I agree completely or not but you see his point.

Secondly, for Miss Shouldn’t We Just Stay Here we also need to address her further concerns- and these many of you might also have. Are we not wasting our time? The Muslims are hard soil, should we not put our resources into the harvest fields and wait till later for these difficult places? We need so much here at home should we not spend more at home and get ‘over there’ later when we have more? I consider these questions a slap in the face to the Spirit of God. God is not poor. His resources are not limited and neither are ours. I know, I can hear you “But, But but, but, but…’ But nothing. Is the soil hard? Yes it is. It has hurt my family for us to stay here for 15 years and the vast majority don’t last nearly that long. Is hard soil of any consequence to Almighty God? Not one bit.

When we first came out we had to learn about security. We had to learn that there were groups, organizations, and whole countries who wanted to stop what we were doing so we had to be secretive. Our media folks back at the home office threw a fit. How could we not tell the most exciting story to happen in the last 2000 years of mission work? Well, we haven’t. Even I don’t know everything that has happened over the last 20 years. I have thought long and hard about just telling you what I know and name the countries and all in this post but I can’t do it. As far as you are concerned I am Strider in Middle Earth and it has to stay that way. So, let me be as general as I can and still be helpful. Here where I live there were two known Muslim Backround Believers (MBB’s). We use MBB’s to differentiate majority population people from the local minority traditional Christians that you find so many places. For instance, the Coptic Church is there in Egypt and Ethiopia and such places but when we are looking to reach Egyptians and Ethiopians with the Gospel we are trying to do something new and we use MBB to differentiate this new work from those Churches that have been there for centuries. So, as I was saying there were two known MBB’s in Gondor in 1990. By the year 2000 there were over 2500. In a couple of Countries to the north of me they went from two to over 12,000 and two to 30,000. Rohan, a brutal Christian persecuting dictatorship next to me has seen the church go from zero to untold thousands. But this is not the whole story- not even a small part of the story. I wish we would stop counting baptisms and count numbers of alcoholics who have stopped drinking, numbers of wife beaters and child abusers who are now loving fathers and husbands. I wish we could count on our forms the number of fearful and oppressed who now stand up bravely in the face of certain persecution. I wish I could tell you about the martyrs who have given their lives willingly for the cause of Christ. There are many and you don’t know about them. I am truly sorry about that. But the story of what God is doing goes on and on. To the south and east of me are some of the most hostile areas to the Gospel in the world and you know what? Not thousands but millions are coming to faith in Christ. I am just talking about the Muslim world here!

But some of you might say, ‘Hang on Strider we didn’t do all that! There were lots of different agencies involved.’ Yes, but what is your point? Lots of different agencies have not done any of this. God has done it all and what I am telling you is that in every case there has been an IMB worker who has been faithful and has pulled together with lots of people from all over the world. We have been the primary catalyst to see all of this happen and I don’t think you will find many who will disagree with me on this. When you start talking about defunding the IMB and sending your own teams you are- in my opinion- talking about leaving behind the most important organization for unified mission on the planet. I know the word cooperation terrifies some of you but believe me, we have led the way in many places around the world and the Kingdom of God has been greatly expanded by this.

Finally, there is one last criticism to be dealt with. Is not our IMB a huge and expensive organization? Are we not wasting thousands of dollars on this dinosaur? With respect, no. Our recent reorganizion has been an unmitigated disaster. We have 17 vice-presidents. Nuff said. But even with all of that we are more efficient than any agency I know about. The Trustees just voted on next year’s budget, 308 million dollars. If you divide that out by 5000 missionaries on the field (we have more still but by the end of 2011 that is where we are meant to be) that comes to around 62 thousand dollars per missionary. My salary and benefits comes to about 42 thousand dollars. So, that not so much per missionary to cover medical expenses, pay home office salaries and expenses, do actual ministry like print Bibles and such, and a host of travel, not mention the ever increasing platform budgets to pay for humanitarian and business offices all over the world. For all our faults we are doing pretty well.

If you kept reading this far you deserve something special. All I have to offer you is what you should already know. God is on the move in this world. He is opening doors that have been closed for centuries. He is bringing people to faith in places that even if I named them you would not know where they were. I have gone places with nothing but a New Testament where are US Military are not willing to go even with air support and many of my colleagues have gone to really dangerous places and what we find when we get there is that God has already been and is bringing a people to himself. I urge you in the strongest possible terms to be a part of that.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The Story We are Telling

When I first started this blog in 2006 I was keen to get my stories written down. Tales from Middle Earth was to be a place where anyone could go and find out the story that God was telling in the world around me. I had a lot of romantic notions about that. I thought that my life would be so fascinating that thousands of people would log on every week to find out the amazing things God was doing here in Middle Earth. I told myself that I was being 'brutally honest' because I would share the good and the bad. The great days with the wonderful miracles along with the depressing days and the rotten setbacks. I think I have accomplished much of what I set out to do in that regard (except of course, that about 20 people read this blog instead of thousands but I don't mind).

But the stories are fake in one important aspect. Each blog post comes to an end but real life doesn't. Shoot, even when when one of the subjects in my blogpost dies it is not really the end of their story. Take the young woman who was murdered a few years ago. She sought the truth, we tried to share with her whole family but they wouldn't listen and then one day she was murdered. End of story right? Wrong. She left behind several books that were picked up by a cousin who shared them with an Aunt who sought out Bible study with some others and now there is a small church. The story goes on even when we don't. I remember writing a brutal post about one of this lady's relatives and how he had rejected the Gospel and chose @#!*% . But today he is a follower of Jesus. The story goes on well past the publishing date of my blog post.

This is a really hard thing to live with actually. You see, while we can take comfort in the fact that no defeat is final it also means that no victory is sure. I have written much about Frodo. A man of great faith who led my national team of Church Planters for six years. Frodo was prophetic in his nature, he called others to account and turned many to the Lord. I have seen him stand in the midst of a village that was tearing itself apart in greed, and mistrust, and who knows what all, and call for peace. He got others to work together to accomplish what they never thought they could accomplish. After we showed the Jesus film in a village once he went to do marriage counseling at 12:30 at night. Everyone else was exhausted and surely we had done enough for one day but he kept going and was largely responsible for saving that couple's marriage and possibly the woman's life. He has preached to many, seen many miracles including the raising from the dead of his own Aunt. I would very much like to leave all those stories just as I wrote them. But his story goes on. Early this summer he left his wife for another woman. He lives with this young woman now and his own wife and three children are shattered. I don't understand how that can happen. I don't know where his story is going but it seems a long ways away from 'happily ever after.'

Donald Miller says that a good story is a guy who wants something and has to overcome adversity to get it. In the story we are telling there are guys. There seems to be plenty of adversity. I really believe there is something worth having in Jesus Christ. So, I guess the missing element seems to be the overcoming. I will keep writing stories as they happen but you have to understand that we are a long way away from the end. Before the end a whole lot of overcoming is going to have to happen- and keep happening.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

On the Church

I was invited to speak to a small church yesterday. It was a good day as we spent about 7 hours together discussing all kinds of things. I was supposed to talk about Church Planting and we did some, but much of the day was spent with their questions. They asked about everything from, 'who are those Sons of God things that come and breed with women in Genesis 6?' to 'If a guy becomes a believer but he has several wives what do we do?' It was some good discussion but the best part was definitely in talking about the true nature of the Church. They,like so many here, have been established by foreigners who built a building, registered an organization,and then declared it 'church'. It was great to see their faces light up when they found out that the Church is actually a community of the redeemed, that their love for one another is the very truest praise for our Father, and that Jesus Kingdom is not a meeting or a meeting place but the reign of God in our lives right now. Buildings and meetings are not good or bad, they are irrelevant to the love relationship we are to have with one another. It is remarkable to me how many people there are out here who have come to plant churches but have never really thought through- much less prayed through and did biblical study on- what a church is. Our working definition of a church is as follows:

A Church is a group of baptized believers who meet regularly together, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and worship together, and are obedient to fulfilling the great commandment and the great commission together.

I like this because it uses the word 'together' several times. The Kingdom is all about relationships. When the lawyer came to Jesus and asked him what the greatest commandment was Jesus could not give just one answer. He told him that the greatest commandment was to love God but then he threw in a second which was to love our neighbor. I am convinced that Jesus gave just one answer. In the heart and mind of God these two things are the same thing. We are to love God and we are to love each other. In God's mind this is one and when we do this well I think we have achieved what He meant us to have all along: Church.

My challenge is to not grow weary of proclaiming this, to never take this for granted, and to be faithful to see churches planted and grow that never forget this.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Under Persecution

This post was recently put up over at SBCImpact blog.

Tuesday morning I got a phone call asking me to check my e-mail right away and get in touch with the team in Cair Andros. For those of you who don’t know I am the director of a humanitarian aid agency that has four offices in Gondor. Some are IMB personnel and some are seconded from other organizations. The team in Cair Andros is a multi-national team and on Monday night an armed group of men broke into the home of one of the families there and tried to take the Doctor hostage. He refused to go. They beat him and in the end he gave them all of his money before they left. His wife was hooded and threatened with a gun, his money was taken, and he has a really impressive black eye but we praise God that his four young children were asleep and heard none of this. We evacuated the team down to Minas Tirith and they began their debriefing. The five families are pretty shaken up but it was clear that they are determined to return and that they were pretty annoyed that I made them leave in the first place. I have given them some protocols for living in dangerous places where kidnapping is a possibility- something I learned here 14 years ago when Gondor was a much more dangerous place- and two families will go back up tomorrow.

The team has been there for two years and has faced some really intense spiritual warfare. Cair Andros is in fundamentalists territory and the the Enemy does not want to give it up. In the two years the team has been there several have had to leave, there has been sickness, threats, difficulties, and a small church has been started that is beginning to grow. What we need to understand is that persecution has one aim: Persecution’s aim is to stop the proclamation of the Gospel. Our enemy does not want the truth of our Lord’s salvation proclaimed anywhere much less where it has never been proclaimed before. He recruits any who will aid him in his endeavor to silence those whom our Lord has called to proclaim the Truth. When we remain silent we cooperate with the persecutors. When we proclaim the Truth we are His Ambassadors. The Cair Andros team needs some time to regroup, pray, and heal but I am so proud of them in their determination not to let the persecutors win. They are and will continue to be proclaimers of Truth.

I have been asked on occasion if I think that serving where I serve in Middle Earth is harder than those who serve in the West. The short answer is yes. Most of you don’t want to live here or even visit. The economy is non-existent, the standard of living is low, the difficulties in sharing the Word among Muslim people is enormous. But the long answer is no. The truth is as difficult as it is to live here you and I face the same enemy. The battle I fight looks different in content but in reality it is the same battle. And, to be quite honest, persecution in the West is very effective. Would you say that even 10% of Christians in our Churches have shared their faith this week? Very few have had attempted kidnappings, beatings, threats, jeers and yet how many have been silenced? Persecution as it is usually defined in the West is not needed in an environment where 90% of the Body of Christ is silent.

My point here is not to ridicule but to wake up. Many in the West have fallen asleep and the oil is running out. The Bride Groom is coming and time is short. We must wake up and face the challenge in front of us. Most of those around us are going to a Christless Hell forever and we are saying nothing. A small vocal few are railing about homosexuality and abortion and we believe that the world’s opposition of our views on this constitute real persecution- that is neither biblical nor true. If we have biblical positions on social issues that is all well and good but if we are silent about our Lord in what way will He be pleased with us? We are those who proclaim the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. If we are not then our enemy has stolen our identity from us and our prophetic voice is silenced. If this is true then we will be found on the side of the persecutors. We hold our tongues and silence the message that will bring life to the dead and dying.

We must come to grips with the waywardness of the Church. We are consumed with ourselves. It has been said that if we took the entertainment off of our stages then our churches would be empty in two weeks. I pray that is not true. What is true is that 60% of the money of the Church in the West goes towards interests payments on the buildings. Banks are wising up to this and are forcing pastors to get insured because they know if anything happens to the visionary leader who is leading the church into this debt they will likely not be able to pay it off. I recently heard of a pastor who was challenged to go on a mission trip but though he was convicted to go he was unable to because his insurance policy would not allow travel to a dangerous place. It is time to wake up, stop giving the Church’s authority to the persecutors and shout out the message of salvation.

I know that some of you are rightly horrified that our team was attacked in this way. What I want you to see is that a black eye pales in comparison to an eternity in Hell. Too many are weighing the costs of sharing, the costs of missions, the costs of personal evangelism. You may believe that at the Judgment Seat Christ will stand and you will not be judged. This is foolishness and completely unbiblical. You will be judged and if you are silent about Christ now how will He stand and defend you later. Stop siding with the persecutors. There is a team that is going back to Cair Andros. They know what they are going to face and are prepared to face it. Will you go out today and face the persecutors in your life?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Gospel Unleashed

I just put this up at SBCImpact blog and thought some of you might like to see it here.

I sat, just a year and a half ago, with some of the most experienced apostles of our age. They had each been used by our Lord to change whole societies, impacted nations, and discipled hundreds who have in turn reached thousands for the Kingdom. I was eager to impress them, to be accepted, even admired by this group of men. I told a story of my going to a remote village, sharing powerful Bible stories, and moving hardened Muslim villagers to tears. I completed my story and took another bite of lunch expecting approving nods. Before the bread had reached my mouth a hand came across the table and slammed down into the middle of it. ‘Where was the Gospel?’ a man catty-corner across the table cried. ‘I didn’t hear the Gospel in that story!’ ‘Um…. what?’ I replied more than a little alarmed. He went on, ‘The Gospel! You want to tell stories to get people ready for the Gospel, to changed them, but ONLY the Gospel can change them. They can not change until you proclaim the Gospel.’

These words have deeply impacted me and the ministry the Lord has given me. We do over $250,000 of aid work each year (thank you to all who give to human needs funds and the Baptist Global Response). We serve others and I would dare even to say we love others well. But we accomplish nothing until we get to the truth of the Gospel. There is nothing more important. Yet, as I look around at our ministry and so many others like me I see us stopping short again and again. We seem to have so many messages to give. It seems that we have so much truth to share but when it comes to sharing the Gospel itself talking about it doesn’t come naturally. Just yesterday I lamented to a friend that sharing the Gospel would never be a natural thing since it is in fact a supernatural act!

But yesterday put action to my words here. I have been working in the remote village of Anfalas for several years. There, down on a desolate plain over looking Mordor is the poorest village in the poorest country in Middle Earth. Four years ago we saw two couples baptized there and their faith in the face of persecution and trial has been inspiring. But there has been a man there who has puzzled me. His son was miraculously healed 5 years ago. His daughter was likewise healed a couple of months later. He has heard much truth and has seen more of the power of God move in his village and his life than many of us will ever hope to witness. But he would not become a follower of Jesus. He could not because he was an alcoholic. Now, you might say that God could move in his life anyway, he perhaps should become a follower and then worry about giving up alcohol. I agree, but he could not. He knew what becoming a follower of Jesus would mean, he counted the costs and he was unwilling to give up the alcohol or face the persecution of his Muslim community. I saw him for the first time in two years yesterday. We had just prayed for a man with kidney stones and coming out of his house I was greeted by the former drunk. I did not at first recognize him. After greeting him and talking with him for a few minutes I realized that this was the drunk. Except, he was not drunk and had not been drunk for a long time. His face was relaxed, fleshy, and even joyful. His countenance could not be explained solely on the basis of his sobriety. He was a true follower of Jesus and the Spirit on him and in him was evident. He was not afraid to speak of his faith or the divinity of his savior in the presence of the community. We went and sat down to tea in Kili’s house and he told me of his experience.

He knew that Jesus was the truth. He had come to the end of himself and found that he had nothing left. He would not say, I think, that he ‘chose’ to follow Jesus. I don’t believe that he believes he had any ‘choice’ at all. (No, I am not a Calvinist for those wondering). For him there was a long crooked road that led to death and he had followed it almost to the end when he took the only road left to him that did not lead to eternal destruction. I think salvation is always like this but it is very rare to find someone who sees it so clearly. I asked him who Jesus was and he simply said that He was God. He was his God and he would follow him regardless of the consequences. There have already been quite a few consequences. He has been brow beaten and persecuted by the local mullah and his neighbors. He is standing very firm. His wife is overjoyed and can’t wait for them to be baptized together. Oh, and he has a job. He is the accountant for the county government office. How is that for an old alcoholic who hasn’t been able to keep a job for years upon wasted years?

The Gospel is a beautiful thing. When I asked my fellow workers about it they often can not tell me what it is in just a few words. But we must learn. We must strive with everything we have to understand it and explain it as simply and clearly as we can. It is ‘good news’. Now, I know that some people begin their presentation of the Gospel by explaining that there is bad news. We are sinners. Man is by his own foolishness separated from Almighty God. We are a cursed and suffering people. May I say that I have stopped describing this as bad news. It is not. My sister in law went to the doctor a few years ago with chronic back pain. He told her there was nothing wrong and that she would have to ‘live with’ the pain. She did not hear this as good news. She cried for a week. No, the ‘nice’ guy delivers no good news by telling the divorcing couple that they are fine, the alcoholic that God loves him just as he is, nor the homosexual that there is nothing wrong with him. The good news is that all of us ‘feel’ terrible but we were not meant to. It is indeed good news that you are not supposed to be hopeless, helpless, powerless, and joyless. The multitude of addictive behaviors driving you to break every loving relationship you have ever had is not the way you were meant to be. The good news is that God has made a plan and paid a horrific price to rescue you and restore you to His Kingdom. And His Kingdom has come. It is here. It was made possible by the death of Jesus on the cross and transferred bodily to you now by the power of His resurrection from the dead.

This is what we must be about proclaiming. This is the only message that makes a difference to those we have been called to serve. We must never stop short by giving good advice or providing moral guidance. People do not need to be moral, they need Jesus. Let us love them truly and sacrificially. Let us tell the world that we have one message and it is that God’s Kingdom has come and you are all invited. Let us tell them of Jesus clearly and unashamedly. When we can do that we will see many more broken people made whole and stand up as beautiful witnesses to the power of our Lord.