Sunday, March 15, 2015

Mission First

In January 1944, a corps of American and British troops landed on the Italian coast between the towns of Anzio and Nettuno.  The assault was designed to end a stalemate in the mountains of Italy further south and open the road to Rome for the Allied armies.  The landings were a bit of a gamble, requiring fast movement from the beachhead to keep German forces from gaining the high ground nearby and trapping the American troops in the marshy land near the beaches.  In command of the operation, and ultimately responsible for the outcome of the battle, was Major General John P. Lucas.

General Lucas was a veteran of the First World War and already had commanded his corps in combat for several months.  Yet when chosen to command the Anzio landings, Lucas harbored doubts about the ability of his forces to prevail.  Furthermore, and perhaps most debilitating, General Lucas had another handicap for a general:  he hesitated to risk his men for the mission.  He told his diary during the fighting before Anzio, "I think too often of my men out in the mountains.  I am far too tender-hearted ever to be a success at my chosen profession."  As he prepared for the invasion, he added, "I must keep from thinking of the fact that my order will send these men into a desperate attack."  When his troops landed at Anzio, Lucas spent too much time consolidating the beachhead to protect his men from the Germans time to recover from the shock of the invasion and fortify the high ground overlooking the landing beaches.  Lucas' corps would languish in the beachhead for months taking casualties, and Lucas himself would be relieved of combat command.

As journalist and historian Rick Atkinson notes, "Empathy might ennoble a man, but it could debilitate a general."  Lucas had a mission to accomplish:  land at Anzio, take the high ground, and open the road to Rome.  Instead, in a spirit of caution and with the lives of his men on his mind, Lucas failed to lead his men forward.  What resulted was a bloody stalemate; men died each day with nothing to show for their sacrifice.  Lucas' empathy cost many of his troops their lives, and failed to accomplish his mission.  Historian John Keegan offers a succinct, and accurate, judgment:  Lucas' actions "achieved the worst of both worlds, exposing his forces to risk without imposing any on the enemy."  It is even likely that General Lucas would have lost less men in the long run if he had attacked swiftly, taking the high ground before the Germans could fortify it and rain death down on the beachhead.

Leaders must care for the people they lead, particularly in the church.  Yet the leader who forgets that he or she has a mission to accomplish because they are so busy taking care of individuals risks failing at both.  This is a tremendous temptation, of course - but it is the point at which ministries can derail and churches can stagnate.

I learned this lesson best from listening to Paul Maconochie, former pastor of St. Thomas' Church in Sheffield, England.  In the late 1990s, God was doing some amazing things through the ministry of this church in Sheffield.  People were coming to faith, and significant gains were made for the kingdom of God in a highly unchurched city.  Then God called the church in a new direction.  Things were changing...and while most of the congregation was on board, not everyone was.  Paul and the leadership team was faced with a choice:  proceed with your mission, even thought it might mean leaving some people behind, or set the mission aside to keep everyone happy.

Paul and the church chose to move forward.  Some folks did not choose to make that transition, and they eventually left that congregation.  But the church continued to be a beacon for God in the industrial heart of England, reaching people with the Gospel who would never have darkened the doors of the church St. Thomas' had been.  Paul's word of encouragement and challenge to the pastors and church leaders at the meeting I was at was this:  if people are willing to travel with you (the church leadership) through a time of transition, even if it is at an incredibly slow pace, you have to wait for them and bring them along - but if they won't budge at all, then you have to let them go.  You cannot let one person (or a few people) hold back the entire church from fulfilling the mission of God.

This was a hard word for me to hear, and it was for many of the other pastors there that day.  We loved our people, even the stubborn ones who made us pull our hair out.  We cared about them.  We wanted them to come along, and we didn't want to see them get hurt.  Yet Paul's word was one we needed to take to heart - because God calls each of us pastors to lead his people forward in his mission.  God calls each church to fulfill his expectations:  make disciples, bear witness to the Gospel, and build God's kingdom.  If we're not doing these things, then we're kind of like that Army corps sitting on the beach in Anzio:  we're going nowhere.

God doesn't need any General Lucas' filling the pulpits of his churches.  He needs leaders who will care for their people - but fulfill the mission of the kingdom of God first.  When we do that, we'll find that we are actually caring for our people better, giving them a purpose, helping them find the blessings that come from serving God, and finding support and encouragement along the way.

"Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."  Matthew 6:33, NIV

In Christ,

Print it in Moleskine MSK format
Friday, February 6, 2015

Fear Not!

Fear Not
My wife and I had friends from my church over for the Super Bowl this year.  I was excited to see the on-field matchup between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks.  Other than the outcome of the game (I was pulling for Seattle), the Super Bowl exceeded my expectations.  My wife, though, doesn’t watch the Super Bowl for the game; she watches it for the commercials and the halftime show.  In fact, everyone gathered in our living room that night had high expectations for the commercials that aired during the game.

By and large, those commercials failed to live up to the hype.  Sure, the Budweiser puppy ad was cute, and we all particularly enjoyed the Doritos commercial where a pig flew across the sky, but most of the other commercials just did not measure up.  This was particularly true of one Nationwide ad.


In the not-quite-week since the ad aired during the Super Bowl, it has drawn criticism from almost every direction.  Monday morning, my Facebook wall was covered with posts about the ad, and blogposts I read Tuesday and Wednesday mocked the company’s decision to use the commercial.  And why not?  It is an ad that is morbid and employs (not so subtle) scare tactics to persuade parents to buy insurance.  The ad is misguided at best.

Yet when we are honest with ourselves, the ad is quintessentially American, at least for the 21st century.  Think about it:  at this point in our culture’s history, we are ruled by fear in pretty much every area of life.

This hit home for me while I was listening to a radio interview this week.  NPR’s Here and Now radio program interviewed Lenore Skenazy on Tuesday, and I happened to catch the show as I was driving home from a hospital visit.  I had never heard of Lenore Skenazy before, and I certainly had never heard of her television show on the Discovery Life Channel, “World’s Worst Mom.”  Apparently, it is sort of a reverse “Supernanny;” instead of dealing with bratty kids, Ms. Skenazy deals with terrified parents.  Why?  Because many parents in our country are completely afraid that any and every conceivable evil will befall their children, even the most wildly ludicrous or the least likely.

During the radio program, the host played segments from Ms. Skenazy’s show and asked her to elaborate.  One family from the show had five children; the oldest was a 13-year-old boy.  The mother in this family was so afraid for her children that they were not allowed to go anywhere without her.  Even her 13-year-old son had restrictions that were wildly inappropriate, including not being allowed to use the men’s room at the mall.  He had to go to the ladies room with his mom.

Ms. Skenazy said during the interview, “I feel like we’re living in a society that is shoving fear down our throats every single second.”  As I thought about it, the more I realized that she is right.  We are afraid for our children, in part because of what companies and media tell us.  Just look at the Nationwide ad or the ongoing debate over vaccines.

And it doesn’t end with our children.  Dr. Atul Gawande, from Harvard Medical School, recently published a book looking at the reality of death and dying in the American medical community.  One of the most intriguing insights from this book is that we value freedom most – but we value safety for our loved ones.  This, Gawande says, is why most nursing homes are built with safeguards in place to limit patients’ mobility and control their diet.  Yet Gawande details nursing facilities that are introducing such innovative concepts such as pets for residents, being located on the same grounds as a private school and interacting with children, and having an apartment building for seniors with a building nurse.  In all of these cases, and many others, Gawande points to data that shows a quantitative and qualitative improvement in the lives of the residents.  Yet such relaxed atmospheres are not what most Americans want for their aged parents; we want safety in triplicate.  Why?  Because we are afraid.

It should come as no surprise that people are cashing in on our penchant for fear.  Companies make lots of money playing on our fear of what might happen (remember the Nationwide ad?).  News channels – like CNN, Fox, and MSNBC – devote hour-long program after hour-long program engaging in fear-mongering, because they know that we’ll tune in.  Politicians of all stripes grab power by stoking our fears of anything and anyone who is different, whether they are immigrants or Muslims or homosexuals or minorities or…the list could go on.  Our society is built, in large part, on a foundation of fear.

All of that worries me – but it doesn’t worry me near as much as when I look from our society into the church.  I have been a pastor for ten years in October.  I have friends who are ministers, and friends who are ex-ministers.  I have friends and acquaintances in the churches I’ve been part of, and I have other friends and acquaintances in churches across the country.  I read blogposts and news articles reporting on the condition of the church.  And do you know what unsettles me the most?  The church is operating under a cloud of fear.

We’re afraid of what is going to happen when people stop attending our church.  We’re afraid of what is going to happen if the wrong people start attending our church.  We’re afraid that things in our church are going to change.  We’re afraid that nothing in our church is going to change.  We’re afraid that the pastor or the deacons are going to have too much power.  We’re afraid that the pastor or the deacons aren’t going to have enough power to do what they need to do.  We’re afraid that the tithes and offerings aren’t going to cover our expenses or meet our budget.  We’re afraid that God might just ask us to do something new and different…but we’re also afraid God is going to pass us right on by.  We, the church of Jesus Christ, are afraid.

I thought about that this week.  And then, one word came unbidden to my mind:  WHY?

You see, when we turn to the pages of Scripture, to the sacred book of the Christian church, we find from beginning to end a story that denies the power of fear in our lives.  When the Israelites were heading into the Promised Land, Deuteronomy 31:6 records Moses’ words:  “Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.”  The prophet Isaiah shares God’s word of promise in Isaiah 41:10:  “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.”  Even the psalmists, who were never shy of pouring out their deepest pain, declared a reliance on God in the face of fear:  “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” (Ps. 56:3)

The New Testament continues this story of hope and courage when fear tries to worm its way into our lives.  Jesus, in his famous Sermon on the Mount, challenged his listeners to set aside worry and fear, trusting instead in God’s care and love (Mt. 6:25-34).  The writer of 1 John teaches that “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 Jn. 4:18) And, in a word that today’s church leaders and congregations need to embrace, 2 Timothy 1:7 declares, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”  God has nothing to fear, and neither do we.

So why does the church operate with so much fear?  In large part, it is simply because we are human beings.  We worry about the future and about the people and things we love.  Yet our humanity is no excuse to try to move past fear, because through Jesus Christ, we are more than human.  We are being transformed, the Scriptures tell us, into people who are more like Christ.  With each passing day, God is giving us more courage, more hope, more peace in the face of the world’s fear.  But he can only do it if we will let him.

The church should be the leader in conquering fear in our world today, and Christians should be the least-afraid people ever.  Why?  Because through Christ, we don’t have to let fear carry the day.  In fact, through Christ, we have hope in the darkest of times.  Shouldn’t that make us brave?  Shouldn’t that make us adventurous for the kingdom of God?  Shouldn’t that empower us to try new things and accept new challenges?  As the church, let's try to be a little more courageous, no matter what life brings our way.  After all, what have we to fear?

In Christ,

Print it in Moleskine MSK format
Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Getting Our Feet Wet

In my final semester at Virginia Tech, I found myself taking a couple of philosophy classes.  One, called Knowledge and Reality, was on Tuesday and Thursday nights.  I took it because my friend was the TA, and he encouraged me to take the course; it didn't hurt that we were exploring philosophical themes through movies!

The other class was called Morality and Justice, and I found it much more interesting than the course on Knowledge and Reality.  In Morality and Justice, we explored Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mills, among others.  To be honest, I've forgotten the majority of what we studied in the class, but I remember that I found the class to be a challenge (in a good way!).

One conversation that stuck with me, however, was a hypothetical situation.  The teacher invited the class to consider a child who was drowning in a fountain in front of us.  As a passerby, was it our responsibility to save that child?  Yes, of course, the class answered.  What if you were wearing $150 shoes?  Yes, we would still have that responsibility.  Then the teacher asked, "What about the child in Africa dying of malnutrition?  Would it be your responsibility to save that child?  If so, wouldn't the responsible thing to do be to sell your $150 shoes and use the money to feed that child?"  This got the class involved in a much more dynamic discussion of morality and what the realm of responsibility is.

This example stuck with me, even though I cannot remember the philosophy we were discussing that day.  Why?  Because Jesus speaks about it himself.  I'm not saying Jesus challenged his followers to sell their $150 shoes, but he did challenge a rich man who wanted to follow him to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor (Luke 18:22).  His cousin John encouraged those who came to listen to him to give away their extra coat to someone who has none (Luke 3:11).  And after Jesus' death and resurrection, his followers gave freely of their possessions to meet the needs of others (Acts 2:44-45; see the example of Barnabas in Acts 4:32-37) Throughout the Gospels, the way of Jesus is portrayed as the way of generosity, and it was lived by Jesus' earliest followers.

Yet the question often arises in church, "Who do I help?"  There are needs all of over the place:  near and far, big and small, deserving and not, and there are only so many resources (money, time, talent) the church can provide.  How does the church prioritize?

I've been part of 5 churches in my life, and each approached this question in a different manner.  Some chose to concentrate on local missions, caring extravagantly for those in the community who were in need and only sending money and resources elsewhere if they were leftover from local ministry.  Other churches chose to concentrate on evangelizing the lost and providing relief in far-off places, with little invested in the needs of the immediate community.  Most churches I've been part of and known about try to do some of each, yet that can become tricky if budgets are tight and giving is down.  So what is the church supposed to do?

We find our answer, I believe, in Acts 1:8.  As he prepared to return to heaven, Jesus gathered his disciples around him.  They asked all sorts of questions, but he wanted to leave them with a promise and a task.  "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

First, notice what Jesus wants them to do:  bear witness.  We bear witness to Christ, and to the kingdom of God, in many ways.  We bear witness when we proclaim the Gospel message.  We bear witness when we live out the way of Jesus Christ.  We bear witness when we work to bring a little bit of the kingdom of God to earth.  And we bear witness in how we live as a community of faith.

That witness, Christ said, is to be shown and proclaimed in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  For his disciples, that meant they had a responsibility to bear witness near and far, and to friends and enemies and strangers.  It also meant that they were to bear witness in all of those places; Jesus makes no priority here.

He does, however, note a second element of this bearing witness:  they are to receive power through the Holy Spirit.  Jesus' disciples are to do their part, yes, but God is also going to do his part.  They will receive power - whether that is power of talent, power of resources, power of spiritual will, or power of relationships and opportunities to bear witness.  Those things will be provided, and his disciples are to use that power to bear witness.  That is their job.

The church of today has the same challenge before it:  to bear witness in the power of the Holy Spirit near and far, among friends and enemies and strangers.  As God gives us opportunity and resources, we are to make him known and live out the life of his kingdom as a witness.  Along the way, we are to do what we can to challenge the works of evil in our world and bring the kingdom of God into being as much as we can, everywhere we can.

So would Jesus have saved the child in the fountain, even with $150 shoes on his feet?  Yes...but he would have also sold those shoes to feed the child in Africa, as well.  What's on our feet - will we get our feet wet to help others and bear witness to our Lord Jesus Christ?

In Christ,

Print it in Moleskine MSK format
Monday, January 12, 2015

Faith Beyond Surety

Tonight, I join college football fans across the country when I tune into the inaugural College Football Playoff Championship Game.  Ohio State and Oregon are facing off with great pageantry to claim the title of “best college football team of 2014.”  It promises to be a great matchup – but it was one almost no one predicted would happen.


This was the bracket for the first College Football Playoff.  First, there was supposed to be no way that the #4 Buckeyes would topple the Alabama Crimson Tide, truly the #1 team in the land…except, they did just that, and with a third-string quarterback, no less!  Then, despite their #3 ranking, many people picked undefeated Florida State to outlast #2 Oregon.  I tuned into that game in the second half, just in time to watch the Jameis Winston-led Seminoles self-destruct.  Thus, I tune into ESPN tonight to watch the 13-1 Ohio State Buckeyes and the 13-1 Oregon Ducks square off for the national championship.  (By the way, the one Ohio State loss?  My Virginia Tech Hokies!)

At the start of the season, almost no one would have predicted this matchup.  In fact, just two weeks ago, almost no one predicted this matchup.  Yet tonight, the improbable has happened.  Who could have guessed?

Sports are a constant reminder to me that there are almost no sure things in life.  Take two teams, put them on the same field or court, and usually the favored side will win.  They won’t win all the time, though – in fact, as Malcolm Gladwell suggests, underdogs win a disproportionate amount of the time.  There is no sure thing in sports, just as there is no sure thing in life.

Jesus knew this.  He told a parable once about a rich man whose fields produced an overabundance of grain, found in Luke 12.  The rich man was making plans for the future as he went to bed that night – but Jesus called him a fool.  It would have been better if he had been rich towards God.

Jesus went on to share words about worry that seem a bit strange to our modern ear.  We worry about everything.  We make plans for every hour of the day, every day of the week, and every week of the year.  Yet Jesus reminds us of our impotence to find surety in life by asking the rhetorical question, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”  (Luke 12:25)

The answer, of course, is no.  There is no sure thing in life.  We live in a world where planes can crash unexpectedly, cancer can strike an apparently healthy person, investments can plummet overnight, and underdog teams can beat juggernauts of the game.  So what can we do in such a crazy world?

Jesus says that we can concentrate on the work God wants us to do.  “Strive for his kingdom,” he says.  Show people love.  Help your neighbor.  Stand up for the weak.  Give sacrificially for those in need.  Proclaim what you know about Jesus.  Strive for God’s kingdom.  That is the formula, Jesus says, to make sense of this incredibly unsure world.  Why?  Because, as he says a few verses later, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  (Luke 12:34) When we make God’s kingdom our focus in life, all the things that seemed so sure (but weren’t) in life fade into the background.  We begin to look to the only sure thing – God – as our guiding light in life.  Then, Jesus says, it doesn’t matter what happens – we will be okay, because we are in the care of God, no matter what happens to our wealth, our health, or even our life.  God will take care of us, in this life and the next, because we are striving and seeking his kingdom.  Even when nothing else is sure, God is.
In Christ,

Print it in Moleskine MSK format
Monday, January 5, 2015

Be It Resolved...

Ah, 2015 - a new year filled with new possibilities!  It's exciting!  It's refreshing!  It's...daunting? 

Yes, every year, we turn the calendar page.  A fresh, wide-open field of blank days stretches ahead of us.  We are challenged to fill them with things and events and choices that will make this year a year that matters, a year where we make a difference.  So we pull out our pens and start marking up those blank spaces.

We also pull out sheets of notebook paper and write boldly across the top, "Resolutions for 2015."  If we go back, we'll probably find similar sheets that say "Resolutions for 2014" and "2013" and so on.  They are lists of promises or challenges we have made for ourselves.  Probably, at least one resolution will include something about our weight, one will include something about our family, one will include something about our job, and one will include something related to having more fun.  They are a list of things we want to see happen in the year ahead, a roadmap we can follow to achieve our goals, at least for now.

The problem is, rarely do we achieve those resolutions.  There are many reasons:  they may be hard, they may be irrelevant to what life throws our way, they may be frivolous, they may be things we find we really don't like.  That's unfortunate, because it means we rarely succeed in achieving our goals.  Yet we still need to make plans for the future and work to meet those plans.  What are we to do?

What we need to do is what we should always do in life:  align our outlook with God's.  If we say we follow after Christ, then everything in our life should be in line with Christ's will.  Yet I can honestly say that many times, my New Year's resolutions have little to do with the kingdom of God.  Moreover, even when they do, they are goals I have set for myself; I have done little to see if they are what God would want me to choose.  If I want to succeed in life, I need to align my ultimate goals in life with God - and then make sure my choices along the way, including my New Year's resolutions, point in that direction.

Fortunately, we find guidance on how to do this throughout the Bible.  First, we have to trust that God wants us to plan for the future, because he has a plan for our future.  God consistently tells his people this, as he does in Jeremiah 29 ("For I know the plans I have for you...").  God has chosen to work in this world through his people.  He has a plan.  Our task is to figure out where we fit into his plan.

Then we have to make sure that our priorities are in order.  There are many things in life that distract us and confuse us.  These things can lead us away from God's plan...unless we get prioritize properly.  Jesus himself addressed this when he said, "Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matthew 6:33).   Of course, this doesn't mean that if we serve God's kingdom, we'll get everything we ever wanted and all of our problems will be solved.  It does mean that when we put God and his kingdom first, everything else will become secondary - and we will trust God to see us through.

Finally, we need to approach life with less concern about success...or rather, a redefined notion of success.  In the book of James, the author speaks of a person making plans for his or her business.  James scoffs at this plan - because we human beings do not know what the future will bring.  Instead, he says, we "ought to say, 'If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that'"(James 4:15).  When we reorient our lives to place God's will and God's kingdom first, we will redefine success.  Whatever promotes the kingdom of God and accomplishes the mission of God will be our yardstick, not how much money we make or how many countries we travel to or how many people know our name or how many pounds we lose.  It doesn't mean those measures of success aren't important or shouldn't be a goal - but they have importance and worth only in how they move us towards health and wholeness in our relationship with God and towards fulfilling our divine calling.

So this New Year, what resolutions should we make?  Careful ones, thoughtful ones, achievable ones - but above all, faithful ones.  God has a plan for you in 2015.  What do you need to do to accomplish it?

In Christ,

PS  One of my resolutions (that I pray is in line with God's will for me) is to increase my frequency of blog posts.  I plan to write every Monday, but I hold that loosely - because God's calling may shift.  For now, though, look for my blog updates every Monday!

Print it in Moleskine MSK format
Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Why I Go

I have been very blessed in my life.  I was raised in a good and loving home.  I was able to receive a good education.  The churches I have served in ministry have been caring and devoted to God.  My wife is amazing and beautiful, inside and out.  I am in reasonably good health, I have friends who make life enjoyable and who support me, and I even have a dog who loves curling up next to me on the sofa.  Life is pretty good.

One of the other blessings I’ve had in my life is to go on several short-term mission trips to other countries.  In the past sixteen years, I have been on mission to four other countries (Panama, Honduras, South Africa, and Ghana) on a total of 9 trips.  This does not include several mission trips I have been able to take within the United States, and ongoing mission efforts and projects in the community.  I look forward to leading a team from my church to Panama again in July, in partnership with the Baptist General Association of Virginia and the Panama Baptist Convention.


Each time I go on mission to another part of the world, someone will ask (in some form or another), “Why do you go?”  Why would I want to pay money and take time away from my home, my family, my job, and my comfortable life to travel somewhere else to do work for God?

When I began going on mission trips, my answer would have been much different than it is now.  I went to Panama for the first time when I was 15, and I went for a variety of reasons:  I had seen my father go on mission trips, and wanted to emulate him; I was excited for the opportunity to travel and see another country; I was looking forward to getting out of school for two weeks(!); and I thought that going on a mission trip was what God would want me to do.

Now, as I look back on 16 years of short-term mission experiences, and contemplate another trip in a couple of weeks, I have some different thoughts.  I’ve had more time to consider the benefits and costs of short-term mission work, both to myself and to those I go to serve amongst.  I’ve also had conversations with other ministers who I respect and admire, classes in seminary on what the meaning of mission is, and friendships with Christians in other nations and cultures.  Some of those conversations and encounters have called the efficacy of short-term mission work into question, while others have confirmed that it is a vital part of God’s kingdom plan.  After considering all of this, I feel better prepared to answer the question, “Why do you go on short-term mission trips?”

1.       The Great Commission/Acts 1:8 – In both the Gospel of Matthew and the book of Acts, Jesus leaves his disciples with marching orders.  In Matthew, he tells his disciples to make more disciples as they go in life – disciples of all nations.  Acts records Jesus telling his disciples to be his witnesses everywhere – even to the utter ends of the earth.  If I believe that I have received the same charge that the first disciples did (and I do believe that), then I have to take his command seriously to go forth into the entire world and bear witness to Christ.

2.       Personal faith – I have heard it said over and over by people who return from short-term mission experiences:  “I received the blessing,” or some variation of that statement.  That has been my experience, as well.  Going out on mission increases my faith in God, exposes me to new understandings of Christ, and gives me the opportunity to see the Spirit at work in different ways.  I always return rejuvenated and challenged to be more committed to my Lord.

3.       Making a difference – On every short-term mission trip I have been on, I felt like I was doing my best to make a difference.  Whether that difference was helping with a medical clinic, passing out mosquito nets, preaching a sermon about Jesus and salvation, or building a relationship with a local pastor or family, I tried my hardest to do my part to help.  Not only that, I tried to help in a way that respected the dignity of the individuals I met and honored the work and commitment of the local church I was working with.

4.       Bearing witness to Christ’s kingdom work – It is far too easy for any church to get self-centered, only aware of its own work and witness.  Yet Jesus didn’t call a church, he called the church.  All around the globe, God’s people are doing amazing things as they proclaim the Gospel and work to make this world more like what God wants it to be.  An important part of my mission, then, is to bear witness when I return home:  to share what God is doing in other places, to relate how our Christian brothers and sisters in other cultures are connecting with God, and to challenge myself and my church to learn from the work of others.

There are probably additional reasons that I go on short-term mission trips, including those I held as a 15-year old.  However, these four reasons are how I would answer the question, “Why do you go on short-term mission trips?”  I believe they are reasons that honor Christ and respect my Christian brothers and sisters as partners in the kingdom mission of God...and they are the reasons I will continue going on short-term mission trips whenever the Lord calls me to go.

Print it in Moleskine MSK format
Wednesday, May 21, 2014

An Alternative Society

My computer homepage is a MSN compilation of news, sports, weather, and entertainment stories that are currently trending.  I don’t know who exactly decided this should be the homepage (it is my computer’s default setting), but it isn’t too bad.  I can have a snapshot (in visual form, even!) of what popular stories are right now, every time I open my internet browser.  It’s a good way to stay abreast of what is going on in the wider world.

Unfortunately, what’s going on in the wider world is often not all that encouraging.  I’ve noticed that, over the past month, probably 80% of the mornings I turn on my computer, the lead story is something tragic or disturbing.  Today, for example, the first story that pops up is, “Mother suspected of killing 3 daughters.”  Some days it is something relatively localized, like today’s story.  Other days, it is something widespread, such as when tornadoes touch down in the Midwest or wildfires ravage California.  And, of course, a large percentage of the stories bemoan missteps by politicians and media personalities.  The only conclusion I can draw from my MSN feed is that the world is falling apart, and we see evidence of it continuing every single day.

This cannot be what God wanted or intended when he made the world.  Scripture tells us that God finished creating the world and said “This is very good.”  Those are words that cannot be applied very often to the world as we know it, at least not without a qualifying statement.  And it has been this way for a long, long time!  In Isaiah 3, the prophet calls out the leaders and merchants, the men and women, the old and young of his day.  Leaders are failing, elders are greedy, youths are oppressive, and women are haughty.  Things are, in Isaiah’s mind, falling apart!  Is there any hope?

Yes, there is!  Isaiah goes on in chapter 4 to describe a segment of his society that is seen as a shelter from the storm and a place to recover true identity, peace, and purpose.  That segment of society:  the community of the faithful people of God.  Whatever form it took in that day, the gathering of God’s people – small though it was in relation to the wider society – was an alternative to what was being offered in the mainstream.  Not an angry alternative, not a clannish alternative, and not a semi-alternative that rejected one or two things vehemently but otherwise embrace the values of the surrounding culture.  Instead, it was a true alternative society, governed by different values – God’s values! – and sustained by a different concept of what was good, right, noble, and worthy.

Flash forward 2500+ years.  All around us, we see evidence of the decadence and self-centeredness of modern Western life returning a cost on most of human society that is far too high.  The vast majority of scientists state that we are killing our planet.  War and strife run rampant in our world.  Economic insecurities leave billions in precarious circumstances.  People are skeptical that our leaders can make a difference.  It’s the world of Isaiah 3 all over again.

And where is the shelter that Isaiah saw in his day?  Who is the alternative society or community now that can be a place to recover true identity, peace, and purpose?  It is the church, the gathered people of God committed to living according to the values of God’s kingdom – this is the community that is supposed to be the shelter in the storm of life.  This is the place where all of us can find an alternative to the world.  This is the fellowship that lives life differently, more meaningfully…when we actually do.  Far too often, we try to live according to what we learn is the way of life in the world:  that money is what matters, that appearances are most important, that comfort is more vital than effectiveness, and that safety trumps obedience to the commands of Christ.

We as the church need to repent when we find ourselves falling back into the same habits as the world – because we were called to be something else.  We are called to be a colony of a different kingdom, a different world, governed by a different law and held to a different standard.  Our central command shouldn’t be “he with the most toys wins;” it should be “love God with everything you have, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  We shouldn’t demand what is rightfully ours, but rather be sacrificial and generous with what we have.  And we shouldn’t act shocked when non-Christians act in a way contrary to the way of Jesus – we should be honest and admit that often what passes for religious behavior in our own lives and in our own community can stand in serious conflict with the teachings of Christ.

God has called us to be different than the world, to hunger for something more, something greater than fame or fortune or power or influence.  God has called us to be ambassadors of the kingdom of God, because we have accepted a way of life that so different from the world – but it is what the world is desperately longing for.  Let’s be that shelter in the storm of life, a place that says, “You were made for something more – and we want to help you find it.”

In Christ,



PS.  Many thanks to my good friend, John Chandler, whose devotional thoughts on Isaiah 3-4 in “Praying the Prophets” sparked my thinking in this blog post.

Print it in Moleskine MSK format
| Top ↑ |