Spiritual Parlor Tricks.

In about six weeks I’ll be going back to Kenya, and as usual God has been speaking to me about His Kingdom. Last week He revealed something to me that broke my heart; something about the western Church and about myself as well. I wanted to break this up into a couple blogs, but I don’t think that’s going to be possible, so I apologize in advance for the length.

This will be my thirteenth trip to Africa in the last eight years. When you go somewhere outside of your own culture, there are certain things that become impossible to miss. One of those is how closely the African Church, at least as far as I’ve seen it, mirrors the church in Acts, and conversely, how poorly the western church mirrors the early Church.

As Jesus was just about to go up to Heaven, he gave instructions. “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mark 16)

Largely this is what I see in Africa. I see the sight of the blind restored, the sick healed, the insane restored and their entire lives changed, addicts recover. I see people pray for what we would consider crazy and God answers it, and the list goes on, reflecting what Jesus said would happen as signs that would happen after the gospel is preached.

While I see some of that in America, I don’t see nearly as much of it. So why would that be? Well, that was what God spoke to me about.

There are a number of gifts of the Spirit of God that are listed in the bible, besides the signs that Jesus mentioned in Mark. There’s a somewhat comprehensive list of the more common ones in 1 Corinthians 12.

“There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works [e]all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.”

There are largely two lines of thought on this in the west. Those who think that the gifts of the Spirit mentioned above are to be sought above all other things, and those who don’t think they exist anymore. So how do we get such polar opposite views in a supposedly singular Church? Well the answer to that question is where we went wrong, and where the African church can save us, because we’ve gone way off course.

I’m going to start with those who seek the gifts over all things. There are churches that will tell you that if you do not speak in tongues then you are not saved, or other similar statements about the gifts of the Spirit. But what are the gifts? If you look at what they are and how they are used, they not only display the glory of God, but more importantly they display the love of God to a lost world. It is no mistake that the next chapter in 1 Corinthians after the one about the gifts is the chapter about love, summed up in the verse, “And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

If we seek the gifts of the Spirit but do not love our neighbor, we only seek to perform spiritual parlor tricks. If we do not love our neighbor, who was created in God’s image, then we do not represent the God who created them.

The other side of the coin is those who say that the gifts of the Spirit died with the apostles, and that God no longer does these things today. Dispensationalism is the name for this doctrine for anyone that cares. I’ve heard prominent pastors engage in spiritual contortions in order to make this work in their own minds, going so far as to forbid these gifts. (How you can forbid something that supposedly doesn’t exist, I don’t know, but that’s beside the point.)

Here’s the problem; When those gifts start showing up, who am I going to believe, your preaching or my own lying eyes? Faith is the evidence of things unseen, but when God shows up in powerful ways and we still don’t believe it, that’s something straight out of hell.

But when we don’t see God show up in the ways He said He would, it’s easier to build a doctrine around how God has changed and not have to face the fact that we were unfaithful. You see, if we were faithful to love our neighbors as ourselves, as we were commanded to do; if we were to give of ourselves sacrificially to the poor and the lost, then the gifts of the Spirit would show up as a matter of course. If on the other hand we seek the gifts without doing what Christ commanded, then we are guilty of idolatry, worshipping the gifts rather than the giver.

So boiling it down, and this is going to make people mad, but so be it; the African church loves the lost, and we don’t. We don’t love the lost every time we turn a blind eye to the poor, every time we refer to immigrants as filthy criminals, every time we judge the addict because they “made bad choices and they’re just reaping what they sow. Shall I go on?

How do the Africans love their neighbors? By blessing people and praying the love of God over people even as they’re being beaten, by exercising gifts of healing over the son of someone who tried to burn down his house, by giving sacrificially to the needy, even in their own poverty. This is what the Church was created for.

As Jesus said when he started his ministry,

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

    because he has anointed me

    to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

    and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

We’ve, no, I’ve got so much I have to learn.

Photo of the woman who’s sight was restored after two years of blindness in Ethiopia.

Maybe It’s Time To Serve Someone.

I remember back in the early 1980’s, there was a boy known as “The bubble boy” who had to permanently live in a plastic bubble. He had a compromised immune system, and any exposure to the outside world could cause him to get sick and die. As I prayed this morning, the Lord brought that analogy to my mind as I thought about missions and service. You see, many of us are living our lives trying to avoid the world. While the boy in the bubble was safe from the world around him, he was relegated to a life of ineffectiveness.

The book of James says, “true religion is this, to look after widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself unpolluted by the world.”

We spend an awful lot of time on the second part while often ignoring the first part. I think we are often afraid of what will happen if we take the world on for God’s Kingdom. But there is no reason for fear. Hebrews 13 20-21 says, “Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ.” That’s right, we have access to the same power that raised Jesus from the dead and we walk in that victory as more than conquerors.

Jesus showed us the example we should live by in that he was the perfect imitator of The Father. How did he show that? By being a servant.

Are you feeling ineffective? Serve someone.

Feeling beaten down? Serve someone.

Are you feeling like you don’t know your place in the church? Serve someone.

Do you feel called to missions but don’t know how? Serve someone.

Feel like you are still working on you? Serve someone.

The more we take the focus off of ourselves and place it on God, the more he can do with us. And God will take faithfulness with little and give you larger things to be faithful with.

Only Photos

I’ve been back from Ethiopia for a month now, and as of yet I haven’t done a blog post of just photos. Usually I’ve done one by now. As I looked through some of my favorites, I realized there is going to have to be more than one blog of just photos. I simply have so many I’m happy with. This was my first trip to southern Ethiopia, and all of the following pictures are either from Borana, Arba Minch, or somewhere in between. Enjoy.

The Immortal Hamster

I’ve been back from Ethiopia now for nearly a month. I’ve thought about a lot of things in that time, from the things I’ve seen and the people I’ve met, to the vision I have for what God is doing. It’s very exciting, but also upon returning, I can’t help but feel as if I’ve come back to an American church that is fast asleep. The bible says that “my people perish for lack of knowledge.” Well, without knowledge, you can’t move on to wisdom. And without wisdom, there is no vision. Without vision, we have no purpose. Without purpose, we start chasing all kinds of crazy things, and the church gives up the gospel in exchange for prostituting itself to the world in the hope of finding “cultural relevance.” The bride of Christ is searching the street corners, looking for someone to tell her she’s beautiful.

I often teach a class on missions and poverty alleviation, and one of the questions we open with is, “Why did Jesus come to Earth?” The two most common answers I get are, “So my sins could be forgiven,” and “so I can go to Heaven.” Though both answers are technically correct, they are both tertiary reasons and completely egocentric.

In Luke 4, Jesus himself states why he came. “So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,

Because He has anointed Me

To preach the gospel to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,

To proclaim liberty to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To set at liberty those who are oppressed;

To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus came to restore what was lost, and to put us back into relationship with God. He set in motion a restoration of relationship between God and creation. It wasn’t just so we could be saved from Hell but continue to do what we were already doing. It states right in the beginning of Genesis that men and women were created in God’s image. That being the case, we ought to imitate Christ as he imitates God the Father. If we accept Jesus’ sacrifice without accepting this second part, we have reduced ourselves to God’s immortal pet, his hamster, if you will, existing for God’s amusement but with no purpose, born only to consume.

I believe that this is why the American church is largely devoid of men. Men are designed and built to serve a larger purpose, to take hold of a challenge and to serve a greater purpose than themselves. But if we accept a Christianity that says “I’m saved now. Just sit in the pew on Sunday and listen to a watered down message of meek and mild Jesus,” a great injustice has been done. Do we need to be reminded that Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple with a whip….twice?

Jesus gave us a lot of instructions, most of which we aren’t following. Sure, we follow the ones about keeping ourselves pure…..sometimes, but what about all those ones about going out like sheep among wolves? What about all those instructions about feeding the poor, standing up for the widow, the orphan, and the alien? What about blessing those who curse us, or showing love to our enemies, or were those instructions for somebody else? What about dying to self?

I have to ask these things, because if we say we’re going to be Christ followers, then certainly we should take a cue from Jesus, who “made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” (Philippians 2)

God is looking for men and women of purpose. The Church has got to wake up.

“Awake, you who sleep,

Arise from the dead,

And Christ will give you light.” (Ephesians 5:14)

The Circling Birds of Prey.

I’ve now been back from Ethiopia for three weeks, and have had some time to reflect on the things I saw and experienced. I want to convey a surreal event that happened November 26th. The week in Dire Dawa was finished, and I was prepared to move on to the second half of my trip. I had just gone for a run, and I walked back up to my room and onto the balcony overlooking the city to cool off. As the sun went down, the Muslim call to prayer rung out over loudspeakers from minarets around the city. At the same time this was happening, there were at least hundreds, if not over a thousand birds of prey circling over the city. It was one of those times I wished I’d grabbed the camera. As it got darker, they began to dissipate into different directions, and it got me thinking about the spiritual aspects of what was going on in that city. I just stood on the balcony and prayed over that city that God’s grace and power would come to it.

In Daniel 10, there is a very interesting passage. Daniel the prophet has received a vision that is very disturbing to him. In response, he humbles himself, fasting and praying and mourning for three weeks. He waits for an answer from God. After the 21st day, he receives his answer.

“Suddenly, a hand touched me, which made me tremble on my knees and on the palms of my hands. 11 And he said to me, “O Daniel, man greatly beloved, understand the words that I speak to you, and stand upright, for I have now been sent to you.” While he was speaking this word to me, I stood trembling.

12 Then he said to me, “Do not fear, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand, and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard; and I have come because of your words. 13 But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days; and behold, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I had been left alone there with the kings of Persia.”

It’s the last passage that I find particularly interesting. A messenger is sent from God to Daniel, but is unable to get through to him because of opposition from, as would be called in the New Testament “principalities and powers.” What breaks this opposition is Daniel standing in the gap in fasting and prayer.

I bring this up because there are places in this world where principalities and powers have had free reign for hundreds or thousands of years. Dire Dawa is one of those places. I hear it in the interviews of the missionary pastors being sent out. Their converts slide back into their old ways of life because they are opposed at every front. They are rejected by family, fired from jobs, physically beaten, and sometimes even killed, and all for their decision to follow Christ. On top of this, Saudi Arabia is pouring oil money into the region to build madrassas that teach the austere, severe form of Islam called Wahhabism. Even as they oppose this type of teaching in their own nation because of the insecurity and instability it produces, they are exporting it to Ethiopia.

I say all this to try to paint a picture of how hard it is to be a church planter in Eastern Ethiopia. The people I talked to who seem to have had the most success are those who are willing to take a new Christian into their home and disciple them on an intensive basis.

So let me bring this back around, because this is, after all, written to a Western audience for the most part. We like to send out missionaries who will send back quarterly reports telling of their successes. How many converts were there? How many children were fed? How many shoes were handed out?

If we truly want to reach the unreached areas, we need to be willing to be supportive when there is little or no good news. We need to be willing to fast and pray, and humble ourselves, and mourn. You see the enemy knows that sometimes all he has to do is delay God’s messenger long enough, and we with our short attention spans and merit based giving, will give up. Sometimes we need to put our resources and time and money and prayer into the places where nothing seems to be happening. And on that metaphorical 22nd day, God’s messenger will show up. At that point, the enemy will be exposed for what he is, and as it says in Colossians, speaking of Christ on the cross “Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.”

So in closing, I would ask that when you see missionaries in difficult areas having trouble, to pray harder, and back them even more. After all, there’s a reason not everyone goes to the hard places.

To The Ends Of The Earth (All Of It.)

I’ve now been back from Ethiopia for a week. I rolled into town on Saturday night, and had to be at a conference on world missions literally the next morning. That conference ended this morning and now I have a moment to stop and gather my thoughts. I saw a number of encouraging and discouraging things on this last trip to Ethiopia, but fortunately it was mostly the former. Back in 2012 I began to pray that I would see God move, and that prayer has not just been answered, but continues to be answered in ways more profound than I knew I was asking.

My first trip to the Borana region along the borderlands of Ethiopia and Kenya was no exception. It was like no place I’ve been before. I wondered in a previous blog if it would be similar to South Sudan, due to its proximity, and the answer is that it wasn’t similar to South Sudan in either landscape or culture.

I’ve been to eastern Ethiopia a few times now, and whereas that region is dominated mostly by Islam, the southern region is mostly animist or traditional religion. Books and movies tend to have a somewhat romantic vision of animism, but when you actually go and talk to the people living it, you find out just how oppressive it is. I will probably get into the details of that in a later blog, but for now I’d just like to tell a short story about a woman (a girl really) that I interviewed last week, and how it relates to the western church.

My main function in going to the places I do is to tell the story to others when I get back, through photography, video, and writing. Consequently I always have my ears and eyes open for compelling stories when I’m out in the field. As I listen to reports of the indigenous church planters, patterns develop. One of those patterns is one of persecution. It’s almost universal, which is something the western church has a hard time understanding. This again is something for a future blog, and why persecution is not only to be expected, but in some ways is necessary to complete our calling.

So when I hear a story that goes completely against the grain of what’s normal, I take notice. I met a woman who was 24 years old, though honestly she didn’t look over 18. She was both quiet and unassuming, yet at the same time fierce. She had gone out to a village where the gospel of Jesus had not been heard yet, and in six months sixty people had committed their lives to Christ, and 51 had already been baptized. She was not being persecuted, and in fact more people were hungry to hear what she had to say.

When I bring this report home, the church is of course elated. It is, after all, good news. But then I started to think about it, and the broader issues of what this means.

You see, Jesus told us to go, figuratively speaking, to Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth, teaching all he commanded and making disciples. When we hear stories over and over again of persecution and people falling away because they are physically attacked, or rejected by their families, or they’re fired from their jobs, it’s easy for us to tell ourselves this is why we haven’t fulfilled this command. But when I meet a woman that goes to a new village and has huge success with no persecution, the truth comes out; the truth that there was a village out there that was hungry for the gospel, the the only reason they didn’t receive it was because in 2000 years since the instructions had been given, no one had bothered to go.

The good news is that it’s never to late to change our priorities, but how many have been lost in the interim? While we send 40% of our short term missionaries to Mexico, a nation with a sizable church presence capable of doing their own work, we virtually ignore the thousands of people groups that have never once heard the gospel. Oswald Smith said, “No one has the right to hear the gospel twice when there are those who haven’t heard it once.” I agree with him. We go repeatedly to the places that are easy and saturated, while ignoring the places that are hard. But awareness and faithfulness are everything. Now that we are aware, let us be faithful to do the job that we have been given.

I’m not putting up a picture of the girl I spoke of, but I am posting a few other pictures from the southern region of Ethiopia.

Borana and The Southern Nations

I am back in the land of the internet. I’ve spent the last few days in the Borana region of southern Ethiopia. The Petros Network was invited here just in the last couple years to partner with a largely forgotten people, and I can say that the transformation that I’ve seen happening is truly incredible. Whole villages are changing for the good in tangible ways through the power of the gospel. We look at the people there, and they are so young that your initial thought is that they aren’t capable of changing the world, but thank God, we are being proven wrong again and again.

I will have stories to tell later as I go through the pictures and interviews from this past couple weeks, but for now I have pictures from both Arba Minch and the Borana region. Usually I have a few photos that I know are going to be some of my all time favorites, but this time there are just so many I’m happy with that it’s going to take me a while. Enjoy these for now, and soon I’ll have more.

Arba Minch

Today was not a people day, it was a travel day, so the pictures will reflect that. I took two short flights and landed this afternoon in the city of Arba Minch in Southern Ethiopia. Tomorrow we hit the road, but for today, we were able to recharge a bit. I have to say, this is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, and that’s saying a lot.

Unfortunately I only get to spend one day here, but please enjoy these pictures from this amazing place, including one very atypical picture of Kifle swinging on a vine in the forest.

The October 26th Update.

As you might have noticed, I don’t have a catchy title for this article. The fact is, I’m just too tired to bother thinking of one. I’m coming to the end of my time in eastern Ethiopia. Tomorrow I’m off to the south.

One of the things that’s always great about coming here is that I meet people that are bigger and better than me in so many ways, and it really allows me to center both my perspectives and my priorities for the coming time.

I met, photographed, and interviewed people this week who have been brought down to nothing and then miraculously restored. I’m met many people who have been beaten for their faith, and two who were attacked with swords. I met a man who was blind from birth until the age of 13, at which point someone prayed for him and he got his sight. I met a man who was freed from addiction issues and now sings to God with a beautiful voice about the ways he’s been saved.

Many of these stories I will write about in the future, while some I may not? But what is the common thread that runs through all of these stories? Grace and restoration run through them all, and a desire to continually become more and more like the one in who’s image they have been created.

I’m not going to say who’s story goes with which picture, at least for now, and some of these pictures don’t have a story that I know about yet. But these are some of the people I have met here in eastern Ethiopia, and one shot of some of our team. Until next time…

Simple Wisdom

I’m writing today from the field in Ethiopia, since I’m blessed to have internet in this part of the country. We spent the day today training and interviewing a couple hundred church planters. As usual, I’m on media duty, which for me is not a duty at all but frankly pure joy.

One of the great things about going to Ethiopia is getting to hear perspectives and simple wisdom from people I would never have contact with otherwise. Today’s simple but profound statement said to me by an Ethiopian brother was, “Jesus didn’t die to save buildings. He died to save people.” I wish we’d remember that whenever we refer to the building we go to as “the church.”

Here are a few pictures from today and yesterday. The first includes the man I was speaking to.