Tag Archives: Church

Children of Agreements

In my last post I wrote a bit about agreements. It’s been a while since I’ve written, but the subject is still on my mind. Now that I’ve become aware of it, I have become more able to see what kind of agreements people make (including me) that we shouldn’t enter into.

In the movie “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” Tommy is telling the others about how he met with the devil at a crossroads and agreed to give up his soul in exchange for being able to play the guitar.  Delmar responds with, “You sold your ever loving soul to the devil for that?”  To which Tommy responds, “Well, I wasn’t using it.”

The agreements we make are frequently not made so explicitly, but they are made nonetheless. I’m finding that most of the agreements we make are made not because we met with the devil at a crossroads, but because bad things enter our lives, and rather than fight them, we become comfortable with them over time, until we finally fail to see them at all. Then, even when we are given an opportunity to be free of what plagues us, we’re so comfortable with our affliction that we choose not to give it up.

This blog is mostly about Africa and missions, so let me give you an example from that vein. I will shortly be going back to Kibera, Kenya. I’ve been to a lot of places in Africa that seem hopeless, but Kibera is possibly the worst.  The filth alone is enough to completely overwhelm. People live (and I use that word loosely) on less than two dollars a day. Disease is rampant. Sewage runs between all the shacks. Children are abandoned during the day as mothers go out looking for work. There are constant fires because of electrical shorts from spliced wiring as people steal electricity from neighbors. Garbage has literally formed layers like a geological feature that you can see from the past hundred years.  When you ask people what they have hope for, they literally come up with nothing because hope is a distant relative that died a long time ago. For some people poverty is a temporary thing; a temporary setback until they are able to get back on their feet. Kibera’s poverty is something much worse. It’s poverty that is over 100 years old. It’s no longer simply a lack of resources, it’s now a pervading state of mind. It’s old, generational poverty.

Many people living in Kibera do not have what it takes to extricate themselves from the slum, but some do. These are probably the saddest cases, because they have made an agreement that Kibera, as bad as it is, is ok. The first time I was in Kibera, after about forty five minutes, I literally felt like I needed to get out. From that point to being so comfortable with it that you decide not to leave even if you can is almost unfathomable to me.

Now, I’m going to preface my next statements by saying that I have a real problem with prosperity doctrine, which is unfortunately popular both in the United States and Kenya. It teaches basically that if you have enough faith, God will bless you and make you rich. I could go on for an entire blog about how this is wrong both scripturally and in the real world, but I won’t. While I don’t believe it is God’s intention to make us rich, I do believe he cares for us as his own children, which we are. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11.  ““Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Luke 11: 11-13

The bible frequently talks about how we will suffer along with Christ if we follow him, but if we realize that we are beloved children of God, when he sends the opportunity to be freed from bondage and suffering, it hardly makes sense to then say, “No, that’s ok. I’m good”. While we are called to suffer with Christ, we are not called to make agreements with the devil simply for the sake of taking on suffering. “My marriage is bad, but it’s ok.”  “I live in filth, but it’s ok.” “My children are starving, but that’s just life.”  These are all agreements from the pit of hell. Something I have been learning is that I don’t pray big enough. I pray for something but cut short the full extent of what I need, or the needs of someone I’m praying for. When you realize you’re praying to an infinite God, it suddenly seem stupid to put limitations on your prayers. I met an Ethiopian pastor recently who said “I always pray for something, then double it.”  He’s not praying for riches, he’s praying for the lost to be saved, for the captives to be set free, and for a bit of God’s kingdom to show up here on Earth. The first step in that process is to stop accepting the physical, spiritual, and mental squalor that we have agreed to live in.

A child of agreements in Kibera
Children of agreements in Kibera

The Hyena Gate

Hyenas are opportunists. So is the devil.
Hyenas are opportunists. So is the devil.

In eastern Ethiopia is a small and ancient walled city called Harar. It was founded sometime between the 7th and 11th centuries, depending on whom you talk to, and it is Islam’s fourth holiest site. One of the things Harar is known for is the nightly feeding of the hyenas. The people of Harar and the hyenas have an “arrangement” if you will, where the hyenas come in at night and clean up the trash. There is actually a small gate in the city wall for the hyenas, known appropriately enough as the hyena gate. Though the hyenas will eat out of a person’s hand, they are by no means tame, but it makes for a great show for the tourists every night. Hyenas are known as scavengers, but I think a more accurate description of them would be that they are opportunists. If hunting is easier, they’ll do that. If intimidating a lion out of its kill is more convenient, or if taking food from a willing Ethiopian works best, then that’s what they’ll do. But the fact is that they are wild animals with no loyalties, and if ripping your face off works for them, so be it.

A couple days ago, I read a simple phrase that said, “The devil is an opportunist”. My thoughts were immediately brought back to the hyena gate. What is the purpose of a wall, but to keep things out that are dangerous to life and limb?  Every walled city has weak points, but the people of Harar have made an “agreement” and purposely allowed something unsavory into the city. Yes, attacks are rare, but it remains that at any time that arrangement might no longer be considered convenient for the hyenas, and at that point, it’s too late.

This works for people as well. After considering this, I had to ask myself, “are there things in my life that I have made agreements with that have the potential to destroy me?” Have I told myself that having the hyenas inside my city wall is ok because they clean up for me? Have I learned to trust them?  How many of us have gone so far as to install a hole in the city wall?  The devil is an opportunist. I’ve heard lots of people say in one way or another, “the devil made me do it”. This is nonsense.  He doesn’t need to. “But each one is enticed by his own evil desire. When desire is full grown it gives birth to sin. And sin, when it has reached completion, gives birth to death.” The devil has only to wait and see where our weak points are and exploit them, which is why it is so important to be vigilant and to daily put on the full armor of God. What are the gates we have installed? They’re different for everybody. “I have to drink after work or I can’t wind down.” ”  “I know I shouldn’t look at that, but I’m not hurting anyone.” The list is almost endless, and if you think you have no gates, I can almost guarantee that pride is your gate.

The news recently has been full of people who had everything going for them, but had made agreements in their life they thought they could control. They were wrong. Their agreements were found out, and their lives were destroyed. It’s time to take inventory of the gates we’ve installed, and ask God where the weak spots are in the city wall. It’s time to get a pile of stones and some mortar and fix those spots, before the hyenas grow tired of  our arrangement.

A woman entering the old city of Harar through the hyena gate.
A woman entering the old city of Harar through the hyena gate.

Indulgences For Narcissists

There’s been a lot of talk lately about “privilege”, especially when talking about subjects dealing with the poor and with social justice.  I’ve had some thoughts on the subject I’m going to write about for a while, but I’ve really had to take some time to formulate my opinions on this. I knew from the beginning that there was something that rubbed me wrong about the whole concept of “check your privilege”, etc, but it took my a while to work out in my mind why. I think after a couple months of thought on the subject, I’ve figured out the whys of this enough to write it down, and I doubt it’s what you think.

There are two sides to this whole equation, the side as seen from the “haves” and the side seen from the “have nots”.  I’m going to start with the side of the “have nots”. The idea of privilege basically says that there are certain things endemic or common to a certain group of people that makes it difficult if not impossible to get ahead; that you will never be able to battle against the “haves” who have had everything handed to them. The idea that “I will never get ahead because I’m the wrong gender or the wrong race or I was born in the wrong country or my parents were from the wrong societal class, etc, etc, etc.”  My main gripe with this mode of thinking is that it automatically relegates entire groups of people to victim class. Let me start by saying that there are classes within society that generally speaking have a harder time getting ahead. Now that I’ve aired that fact, unless someone is blaming themselves for things beyond their control, the worst thing you can do for someone having a hard time in life is to tell them they are a victim.  People who see themselves as victims tend to give up. They see life as something that is beyond their control, and any effort to improve themselves or their situation will be met with failure, because the system is against them. People who see themselves as victims also see anyone better off than themselves as the enemy, and frequently demand their pound of flesh, even if those people grew up in the same circumstances that they did. I’m reminded of the Lakota Reservation near where I used to live. The conditions there are deplorable, worse in fact than those in some of the developing countries I’ve worked in. There was a Lakota man who bought a house to fix and live in. Right after he replaced the windows in the house, his neighbors thought he had “sold out”, and threw rocks to break all the new windows in the house. This is what happens when someone takes ownership of the victim mentality, and there is no profit to anyone in driving that idea home. Some of the people I respect the most started out with the least. Some of them still have very little monetarily, but they are tremendous stewards of what they’ve been given. The difference is that they are not unaware of the difficulties, but they do not see themselves as victims.

The other side of this equation is from the perspective of the “haves”, if you will. This side of the equation bothers me even more. Lately a common way of thinking has been that there are certain people who just by who they are and where they are born, are more likely to be successful than other people. They will have less difficulty in life and more success in what they do. While in a large number of cases this is true, the conclusions drawn from this are what bother me. The conclusion is that one should feel guilty about this and hold yourself back from the benefits of this because someone else did not have the same opportunities you did. Does this make sense? Well, I guess that depends entirely on how you see yourself. Do you see yourself as the final recipient of all the blessings you’ve ever received? Do you see yourself as the ocean into which all blessings flow? If you do, then feeling guilty about how you got where you are makes some sense. But in this line of thinking, it’s still all about self, which is in fact the root of the problems we’re talking about. The unfortunate result of this is a twisted line of thinking by which your feeling guilty about your own success in life somehow absolves you, and by feeling guilty you actually feel better about yourself. It’s as if staring at the severed finger of Saint Guilt in it’s golden box absolves you of your sins. It’s truly an indulgence for narcissists. No matter how guilty you feel about yourself, if you see yourself as the final recipient of all good things that have happened to you, your focus is still on self, no matter how much you say it’s about the less fortunate. Remember, a lake with no outlet is usually a stagnant pond. In some ways, thinking like this actually allows you to secretly feel superior to the less fortunate so long as you feel guilty about it.

The other way of seeing yourself is that if you receive a blessing, it is a gift from God. But it doesn’t end there. If you receive a gift, it is just that; a gift, something given to you because of the generosity of the giver and not because of the virtue or deservedness of the receiver. Gifts, then, are something to be shared, and not something to be hoarded. If you are given good things, whether they are talents or money or favor, these are things to be shared with those who did not receive them. Feeling guilty helps no one and does not help you to be a good steward. If you are not the final recipient of a gift, you are more like a lake through which rivers flow both into and out of. The constant recirculating of fresh water in and out keeps the water clean.

The parable of the talents in Matthew comes to mind. It talks about three people who are given different amounts of money (talents).

“For it (the kingdom of heaven) will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property.  To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.  He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more.  So also he who had the two talents made two talents more.  But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.  Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.  And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’  His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’  And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’  His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’  He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed,  so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’  But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?  Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.  So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.  And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

The two things I notice here is that first, the master (God) gave different amounts to different people, but it was not FOR them. It was given to them so that they would make something of what they had been given for the benefit of the master. The second thing is that the one who was scolded and punished at the end was not the one given the most, who should naturally feel guilty about all he’d been given, but rather the one given the least, because he was not faithful with the little he’d been given.

We are given what we are given to make the world a better place, to bring a piece of the kingdom of God to Earth. If we are given much and spend it on ourselves without regard to those around us, who are made in God’s image, then it doesn’t matter whether we are given little or much. We are still being unfaithful. The book of James sums it up very well. “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”  God does not give to us because we deserve anything, so let us treat his gifts as such, and be good stewards with what he gives us. Guilt has nothing to do with it.

Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? James 2:5
Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? James 2:5

What Is Kingdom?

I haven’t written much since getting back from Ethiopia. It’s not because I don’t have a lot to write. Frankly, it’s because it’s hard to put it all together. It’s hard to describe the things I’ve seen and make it seem relevant or even believable to western readers. There’s a point where you no longer are able to convey the amazing things that happen somewhere because you cross the line where people simply dismiss what you’re writing as fanciful drivel. So today I’m going to try to convey what “kingdom” is, and I’m going to quote such seemingly unrelated sources as Nate Saint and Douglas Adams.

Nate Saint, who was martyred by the Huaorani people in Ecuador in the 1950’s, said, “People who do not know the Lord ask why in the world we waste our lives as missionaries. They forget that they too are expending their lives… and when the bubble has burst, they will have nothing of eternal significance to show for the years they have wasted.” While Nate himself was not able to personally bring the gospel to the Huaorani people, his courageous wife went into the lions den, to the people who had killed her husband, and brought the gospel of Jesus to that tribe. The consequences were staggering. The tribe was on the verge of extinction because they lived such a violent lifestyle. There was no word for “grandfather” before the gospel came, because no man lived long enough to become one. All that changed because of people who believed in kingdom. So what is kingdom?

In the “Lord’s prayer” Jesus teaches us to pray, “Our Father in Heaven, Holy is your name. YOUR KINGDOM COME, YOUR WILL BE DONE, ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN.” So what does he mean by that, and what does “your will be done” have to do with kingdom. Well, imagine it this way. To an earthly ruler, anywhere that ruler’s will is done is their kingdom. Consequently anywhere where God’s will is done is his kingdom. I think this is where Christians in the west have gone completely off course. We’ve been taught that kingdom is what we experience when we die. Consequently, following God becomes a set of rules we follow as we go about our business with the final goal of going to heaven. It becomes a very inward-focused faith that doesn’t touch the world around us. It leads to such statements as, “my faith is a personal issue”. Imagine if you started working for a company, but you were only there for the retirement benefits, and never intended to actually do anything during the 30 years or so you were there. This is what kingdom looks like if you see it as only heaven when you die. If, on the other hand, we recognize that kingdom is not only what is to come, but what is also here now, our focus changes from the inward to the outward. In Colossians 1 it says, “all things have been reconciled through Christ, whether on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of his cross.” How long have we ignored the part where “all things on earth have been reconciled” and just moved on to the heaven part? Admittedly, it’s easier to ignore that part because it takes work, and it takes faith.

Douglas Adams in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy states that there are three kinds of people. There are thinkers, doers, and everybody else. I believe this is true, to an extent. Ideally I’d like to be both a thinker and a doer. When you take prayer, and add thinking and doing, that is where visionaries come from. Many of the people I met in Ethiopia are visionaries.  Being either one or the other frequently causes problems, but there are too many of us content to be the “everybody else”, neither a thinker or a doer, especially when it comes to our faith. Let us be the visionaries, the thinkers, and the doers, not the spiritual equivalent of a forty year old living in his parent’s basement playing video games.

I got back from Ethiopia about three weeks ago. While I was there,  I was able to see kingdom in action. 175 church planters were there for training, but the great thing about being with these people is that we truly learn from each other. Two or three of them weren’t able to make it because they were in prison for preaching the gospel. Several people from their churches were also in jail for being Christians. We interviewed every one of those pastors, and every one of them faces persecution. They’ve been beaten, had their lives threatened, had stones thrown at them when they’re preaching to their churches, had their families attacked when they’re away to keep them from leaving, and had phone calls in the middle of the night threatening to kill them.  The sobering thought is that it is very likely that some of the church planters we send out this fall will be killed for their faith. I am not exaggerating at all. These men and women understand kingdom, and if you told them your faith is a personal thing, I think they’d look at you dumbfounded, because where they are coming from, that is not even possible. In their prayers, and in the way they speak, and in their entire demeanor, it is evident that they are all in. And this is what kingdom is all about. It is about expending yourself to make the world the one God intended it to be; one where the gospel is preached to the poor, where the brokenhearted are healed, where the captives are set free, where the blind are given their sight (both literally and figuratively), and where the oppressed are liberated. That is what kingdom is about. I see a movement coming in this country (we’re rather behind the much of the world here) where people put the old “fire insurance” version of following Christ to bed, and start recognizing that kingdom is not only coming, but is now.

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Banning “Bossy” And The Christian Walk

Recently a public campaign came out called “Ban Bossy”. I am all for empowering girls and women, but in my opinion, this is one of the most misguided public campaigns since margarine was pushed as heart healthy food. The basic idea is that when girls do something others consider “bossy”, it should be seen that they are displaying leadership skills, and no one should call them bossy. Here’s the big problem with that; bossiness is a leadership skill like cruelty or manipulativeness is a leadership skill. Don’t believe me? Last time you filled out a resume, did you list bossiness as one of your skills?  If you did, you didn’t get the job. The reason is that people are bossy not because they have leadership skills, but because they have a need to control, and feel that they lack it.  No one wants to follow someone who is bossy. If your boss is bossy, he/she is a lousy boss, and a lousy leader.  Just look around at our elected “leaders”. There is a tremendous leadership gap in this country, not because we have a shortage of people who are bossy, but because we have a shortage of people who know what leadership skills actually look like.

A good leader has traits that make other people want to be like them. On the other hand, a great leader brings out the best things that are already inside of other people. None of this comes by brow-beating or yelling or imposing their will over people. It comes when other people look at a person and say to themselves, “I want whatever they’ve got”. Leaders are great when other people WANT to follow them, not when they demand that others do what they say. So if you want to raise up the next Caligula or Hitler, by all means go with the whole “ban bossy” thing. If on the other hand you want to raise up the next Abraham Lincoln or Mother Theresa, then instill in kids character traits like selflessness, hard work, respect for others and themselves, compassion, and wisdom. Great leaders are the first ones to jump in when something needs to be done. They don’t just dictate from on high. They inspire people to be their best. A bad leader rules through fear and manipulation, and they are quickly abandoned when someone better comes along.

This brings me to Christians. Many Christians feel that our witness is best expressed by loudly proclaiming our beliefs, without love or respect for whomever it is we’re proclaiming at. When others push back, we stand on our rights to say whatever it is we want to say. “We have our first amendment rights”, don’t we?  Essentially, we’re saying “ban bossy” will work for us. But it works the same for Christians as it does for girls. If you want someone to follow Christ, act like he did. Don’t just yell about what he did. Once again, you are far more of an influence because of who you are than by what you say.  Saint Francis said, “Preach often, and if you must, use words.”

Whom did Jesus oppose more than anyone else? It was the Pharisees, not because they were any worse than anyone else, but because they saw themselves as superior and let everybody know it. Matthew 23:15 says, “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!” If we don’t think this applies to us, we are sadly mistaken. We must constantly be in a state of asking ourselves, “Is the man (or woman) that I say I am the same one that everyone else sees?” If we’re not, well, then I guess we could always go back to “ban bossy”.

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The Talking Drum

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In the 1960’s my mother was a missionary in Nigeria. In many ways things are the same now as they were then, but in other ways it’s a different world now. One of the stories she used to tell was of hearing the talking drums at night. To her it was a disconcerting sound, because it frequently meant bad news. There were few telephones in Africa at the time, and villagers would communicate by code through the beats of drums from place to place. This practice has largely disappeared, though you will still find that in rural villages, gatherings will be called together by banging the drum. In Bor, South Sudan, for instance, this is the way they announce that church will start soon.

The cell phone has now become ubiquitous in Africa, and it makes sense. It requires very little infrastructure to put a network together, and it’s relatively inexpensive to use. You can also get internet without an expensive computer. I’ve been to many places that have no electricity, but have cell phone service with data. This was incredibly helpful when our friends had to flee into the bush when running from tribal fighting last year. Even while hiding from enemies with no food or shelter, we were still able to communicate.  When my mother was a missionary, there was no telephone service. If you wanted to communicate, you had to either send a telegram or write a letter, which would take weeks to show up. She traveled with her husband and children to Nigeria by ship.

The opportunity for short-term missions, at least to places like Nigeria, were non-existent in those days. In order for missions to truly be effective, you need to build relationships with people. This is why people uprooted and left for years at a time.  Building relationships is still of the utmost importance, even in short-term missions. This is where many missions programs fail. People feel that if they show up to a place once and build a church building, everything is good. We feel good about it. Missions is about building relationships though, and about reconciliation between people and other people, and between people and God. You can’t do that if you only show up once and have no further contact. It’s important to understand that missions is often more about building processes than about building concrete structures. This is hard for western, type-A, goal oriented people to grasp, but it is nonetheless the truth. Fortunately, it is infinitely easier to keep in contact now with people in the most remote parts of the world. Facebook, though a curse in many ways, has also been a blessing for building relationships. A book I’m reading about short-term missions that was written just about ten years ago still states that hardly anyone has contact with people they meet on short-term missions trips when they get back home. This is not the case anymore. If I’m at work, I have to be very careful about getting on Facebook, because I will frequently end up messaging with three different people in three different African countries at the same time. This isn’t great for getting work done, but the ability to continue and build relationships is priceless. Short-term missions is no longer months or years of silence punctuated by short visits. That was not effective, any more than a dating relationship would be effective using this method. The end of this era is why short-term missions is now a viable plan if done right. If you’ve thought about doing missions before, but didn’t want to sell your home and all your belongings and leave for several years, you now have that opportunity. That’s not to say you won’t end up doing that. If God calls you to do it, don’t argue. But for many people who have had talents they wanted to use but couldn’t because of family or other obligations, it’s no longer a limiting factor. This is a fantastic development, and I’m glad I’m living in a time when it is happening.

On Fathers, Children, And Lovers

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“We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.  And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world. Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.”

The book of 1st John sums up the love relationship between God and his people very well. There are various places in the bible where the love relationship between God and his people is described. In many places, we’re called children of God, but in other places the description is like that of lovers or a bride and groom. These seem like contradictory or even opposite descriptions of God’s love, but they’re not. I believe they do, however, tell more about our end of the relationship than about God’s.

I’ve heard lots of people say, “I’m a child of God.”  But what are we really saying when we say that?  Being a parent of three, I know a little bit about relationships between a father and his children. Children can be immature, selfish, manipulative, and needy. Despite all this, I love them unconditionally. Ephesians 2: 8-9 says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”  This is a great description of God’s love for us as a father for a child. I loved my kids unconditionally even when they had done nothing for me, and it’s the same way with God.  But if we stop there and just consider ourselves children of God, we’re really missing out. We’re saved through faith, but just as I love my kids even though they have all of the bad traits I listed, I hope that some day they will move out of that. In fact, if my children were thirty years old, living at home, and still only motivated by discipline and not by love and respect, I would know that there is something terribly wrong.  Children are motivated through love, but they also frequently have to be motivated through punishment and discipline. God disciplines those he loves, but I would hope there is more to it than that.  1st Corinthians says, “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.”

The other description we get of our love relationship with God is that of lovers, or a bride and groom. In fact there’s an entire book of the bible, “Song of Solomon” that is, in addition to the literal meaning, an allegory of the relationship between God and man. This is the more perfect love that we have with God. Just as it says in the opening verse,  “If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.”  Children often behave out of fear of punishment. It is not the same thing with lovers. Just as no one needs to instruct lovers how to act towards each other, no one needs to instruct a lover of God how to act towards God, and consequently towards people, who are made in God’s image. These two types of relationships sum up how we can be saved by grace and not by works, but at the same time why works matter so much. This is the duality that is so prevalent throughout God’s word. Some would call it contradiction, but it is just our western minds trying to place a “this is true and therefore”, when so much of the time it is, “this is sometimes true, but sometimes the other, and other times both.”  It speaks so much more about us than it does about God. God loves us even before we know him, as a father loves children. As our love for God builds through faith, we become less and less like children. Our relationship with God is now not a one-sided relationship based on one giving and one receiving; on punishment and fear. The relationship is now based on  both giving and receiving, and on respect and bilateral love. This relationship is for adults.

The other thing about lovers is this; lovers sometimes do things that make no sense to anybody else. 1st Corinthians says, “Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.”  This to me is the most awesome and profound thing. How many songs have been written with words like “I would die just to be with you one more moment”?  At face value, this sounds, well, stupid.  It also sounds short sighted, naive, foolish, and probably mentally deranged. What could be that important?  But this is what lovers do. This is the relationship that causes the missionaries from 100 years ago to travel on ships with their casket in their luggage. (seriously). This is the relationship that causes people to give up everything and follow God; to put themselves aside for their Lover because, yes, it’s just that important to them. They do it because they find the place where they end, and their Lover begins. They find that the less of themselves there is, the more of their Lover there is, and foolish as it is to those who don’t understand it, it makes perfect sense to them. This is the kind of relationship that missionaries are built upon, and by God, this is the one I want. 

Fear, greed, guilt, and love.

Well, it’s official. I’ve been called back to Ethiopia. I’ll be there in April this year. This will be my third trip to Africa in eight months, which for me is a lot. So why do I do it? This is the question I was thinking about this morning. For me there are a number of reasons; to see the love of Christ come to people, to see captive people set free, to see people lifted out of poverty, to see the sick healed. Then there are other, less noble reasons; the desire to travel, the desire for adventure, the desire to meet new people and see and take photos of new things.  These and many other reasons are why I go. So I could go any number of directions with this, but the subject I want to talk about today is poverty alleviation, because the desire to alleviate poverty for most people is not a desire in itself, but is driven by other factors.

What are the basic human motivations?  I believe they can be broken down into four basic categories. Human decisions are based on fear, greed, guilt, or love. You might balk at this idea, but I believe if you look around and put this idea to the test, it will play out.

In the United States, politically speaking, there are basically two attitudes toward the poor.  (I know I’m generalizing, so you’ll need to forgive me for that.) The first is that if you increase the number of jobs, the poor will naturally be lifted out of poverty as less people are out of work. It’s a completely supply-side equation for poverty alleviation. The other side says that if you just give the poor enough financial assistance, they’ll be better off. This is a completely demand-side equation.

Let’s go back to the four human motivations. Do you think either of these methods of poverty alleviation are done out of love for the poor?  I would argue absolutely not. Why?  Both of these methods are by design completely arms-length transactions. They both exclude getting your fingernails dirty and actually engaging with the poor or looking them in the face. I believe the first view is based on greed, and the second on guilt. Greed because there is a desire to get rich, and if crumbs fall to the poor, that’s great, too. It fails to recognize that there are other reasons people are poor besides a lack of jobs. The second group feels guilt over their own success, so throwing money at the poor without actually dealing with the underlying causes helps them feel better. This side fails to realize that when you give a poor person everything without making them work for it, you break their spirit. Both views think of poverty as a purely economic phenomenon, but fail to address the mental, spiritual, and social aspects of poverty. Neither side actually wants to look a poor person in the eye. The attitudes these two groups have toward each other drive me nuts. Guess what? You’re both wrong, so put the condescension aside.

There’s a quote from the book, “When Helping Hurts” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert . I’ve quoted it before, but I believe it’s worth quoting again.  “The god-complexes of the materially non-poor are also direct  extension of the modern worldview. In a universe without God, the heroes are those who are the best able to use their reason to master the material world. In other words, the materially non-poor are the victors in the modern worldview, the gods who have mastered the universe and who can use their superior intelligence and the material possessions they have produced to save mere mortals, namely the materially poor.”

The only true way to alleviate poverty is to actually love the poor. It says in the book of Isaiah, chapter 1, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing of the finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”

So this morning I had to ask myself again, “What is my motivation?” If it is out of greed or fear or guilt, I have no right to go back to Ethiopia.

Lack of money is not the only reason for poverty.
Lack of money is not the only reason for poverty.

The Snake Woman And The Blind Man

A couple of years ago, I was in Juba, South Sudan. I heard of a recent ‘event’ that had happened in the city. The story was, that there was near panic in part of Juba, because a woman had reportedly turned into a snake. How this was supposed to have happened and why, I don’t know, but the fact was there that in addition to the panic, there were apparently a large number of people that came out to see the snake woman. Ridiculous we would say. To add to it, we’d probably go on to say that it was simple-minded people believing in superstition, if we were to speak out loud what was going on within our heads before we remembered it’s not politically correct to pass judgement on what anyone believes.

Now let me tell you another story. The same year, there was a semi-homeless man that I would run into frequently as I’d walk my dog in my hometown. I would occasionally speak to him, and got to know him a little. One day, I saw that he had a patch over one of his eyes. I asked him what had happened. He said that his retina had detached, and his doctor told him he was losing his vision. I asked him if I could pray for him, and he agreed. I prayed that God would restore his vision to him and heal his eye, and we both went on our way. About a week later, I saw him again, and he was no longer wearing the patch on his eye and could see out of it.  I asked him about his eye, and his response was, “My doctor says he misdiagnosed it.”

One culture believes in all things spiritual, the other believes in nothing spiritual. While faith is the evidence of things unseen, what do you call it when you see something with your own eyes and still manage to rationalize it away? We in the supposedly Christian west write off all things spiritual as superstition or the figments of simple minds.  The fact is, that in my experience, it’s only in the caucasian west that we manage to convince ourselves that all things spiritual are such figments of a desperate imagination.

Go to Africa, and you’ll find that even the educated believe not only that God is able, but that he WILL intercede if we pray and act on the authority given to us in the Holy Spirit. Most of the book of Acts, and a good bit of 1st Corinthians deals with the subject of spiritual gifts. Jesus says in the gospel of John, “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”

“Greater things than these” are the words used. So as Christians, do we believe this, and if not, why not?  I’ve seen things that would blow the minds of such deniers. We don’t believe, because we don’t want to believe. We would have to live differently. We would have to take God at his word on a lot of things we currently ignore. I hear the question a lot, “How do you know which religion is correct?”  When an entire Muslim family in Ethiopia is instantly and miraculously healed, they know what is correct.

When a doctor tells a man he is going to lose his vision, the doctor has to be pretty sure about his diagnosis. When I see a man’s vision restored anyway, I know what’s correct.

If we profess to be Christians, it seems to me that there is the choice to take the whole package or nothing at all. Why would we want to follow Christ if what he said was a lie?  There’s any number of liars I’m free to follow, and most of them don’t require such things as abasing the human nature and pride, or putting others before yourself, or any of the other myriad of unpalatable things Christians are called to do but rarely do. In fact, most of them tell you to follow your heart and do what feels good. The book of Proverbs speaks directly to this and says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” On the other side of things, if everything Jesus said is true, then why WOULDN’T we want to follow him? Yes, it requires a lot of you, but it’s so much better a way than the half-hearted, half-believing version of following that the church generally does now in America. Jesus says in Matthew 10, “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.”  That is the version of following Christ that I want.

A woman who received her sight back after two years of blindness while I was in Ethiopia.
A woman who received her sight back after two years of blindness while I was in Ethiopia.

Anfechtung

“Mama told me, be good, work hard, and love Mr. God. Every Sunday I lie, trying to realize why. Ain’t nothing more to say, your honor. Don’t look at me like that. The truth is; I am a free man, but I can’t enjoy my life.  I came to a standstill, with lies and hopes inside my head. Always seemed to late to turn, and too soon to understand.” These are song lyrics from the band, Riverside. They cut to the core of the human condition.

This week I have been studying the concept of “anfechtung”. I would give you an english word, but unfortunately there is no direct translation. Translated literally, it means a trial or conflict. It is so much more than that, though. It is all the doubts, panic, turmoil, and desperation that invades the spirit of man. It is the isolation man feels; the need to be one with eternity while at the same time running from it. The source of the dichotomy is mankind being born depraved but created for the divine. It is the hole in the spirit that longs to be filled. I suspect that most of the readers here have some idea of what I’m talking about, unless you’re very young, in which case you’ll find out soon enough.

Anfechtung comes from man’s natural inclination to be one with God, but can be made worse by a number of things. Two of these things come from the church, and those are the things I am going to address. On one hand, you have a church that says, “Come on in as you are, bring your baggage with you. We love you, and who are we to say what is right and wrong? You feel free to stay the way you are.”

The other church says, “Feel free to come, but we have a strict set of guidelines, and a list of things that you’re going to have to take care of before we accept you into this body.”  One kind of church is permissive, the other is legalistic. One ignores truth, the other ignores grace. Note the line in the song, “it always seemed too late to turn, too soon to understand.”

1st Corinthians 13 finishes with “and now these three remain:faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” There is a reason these things are grouped together. They are like the ingredients of a recipe. Without all three, the other ingredients are useless.  Love without faith is a hippie, in the original sense of the word.  Faith without love is a terrorist. Either love or faith without hope rots the bones. Without faith, there is no hope.

A teenager in our community died recently, and his funeral was held at (we’ll call it a church). It was one of these churches where they hold no core beliefs. Your idea of who God is is as valid as anyone else’s. When the rubber hit the road, the only thing they could talk about were all the things this boy was destined to do, but now never would. There was no hope, because there was no faith. In an effort to not be offensive, the message of hope was lost. Love without faith leaves no hope. This is one place anfechtung comes from.

Anfechtung is an inclination in the human spirit to drive man to God. The church takes anfechtung and drives man farther away from God. It may not be intentional, but that is the effect.  Jesus words in Luke 17 say the following; “1He said to His disciples, “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to him through whom they come! 2“It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble. 3“Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. 4“And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”

People who experience anfechtung are looking for answers. They recognize their own brokenness. They recognize their own aloneness. They recognize their own separation from God. Jesus further says in Matthew 23, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.”

People say that faith is a crutch. I fully take ownership of that. For those who think that, I challenge you to take ownership of your crutches as well, because everyone has them. In Ethiopia recently, one of the doctors I was with was thrilled to be able to treat so many different kinds of illnesses for the poor there. The reason he was happy to treat all these different maladies was that at his own practice, the most common complaint is, “Doc, I can’t sleep. Can you prescribe something for me?”

You can’t sleep because you are struggling with your own anfechtungen. Do you drink your crutch? Does your doctor prescribe it for you? Do you eat it? Do you buy it? What is your anfechtung’s name? If faith is a crutch, I am happy to live with it.

What I would like to see is churches that recognize the struggles, the anfechtungen that people have. I would like for people to be able to enter Christian fellowship knowing that they will be accepted the way they are, but that they, through the Holy Spirit, will be helped not to stay that way. That they can bring their baggage in the door and hopefully drop it at the altar and not leave back out the door with it. It’s time to get back to the basics, to put moral pablum and platitudes aside. It’s time to put permissiveness, relativism, and legalism aside and stop standing between people and God.

man in Sudan