In the image of Jesus…or is that my image?

If you think about the painting you see, you often quickly flip through the photos in your brain’s multi-layered organizer and see dozens of images of a Jesus that looks more like us than how he accurately could have looked.

In America, we have surfer Jesus with his loose fitting robe for comfort and an over coat. He has the trendy sandals on. (This reminds me of when I ran, and lost for class office in Bible College, I had a top ten list that included the fact that I wore sandals like Jesus did.) The same idea of picturing Jesus through our cultural lens goes for all cultures.

Philipino churches have an Asian Jesus; African churches have a dark skinned Jesus in their art. In my class on communicating in cultures, our prof showed us images of Jesus at the beginning of class that depicted him in the eyes of different cultures.

Ultimately, we can criticize this reality that we make
Jesus into a character we can relate to as a narrow view of our Lord rather than a more precise picture of the creator of the universe. We have had lots of good work done in video over the past years remaking some of the films with meek Jesus that looked more like effeminate Jesus and redubbing the words for humors sake to make the point that Jesus likely had more of a backbone and strength of persona than that. However, we will always imagine Jesus as one of us. We cannot escape the present reality that we are drawn to people like us, and when we see Jesus as different as us…well…that creates barriers that makes us uncomfortable.

Yet this same Jesus even as he does relate with us better than anyone, also must stand in contrast to us as only he fulfilled the destiny God designed for us. Only he lived out life as perfect and devoted to God above all other things. At some level Jesus should disturb our status quo and pull us from where we are into where he wants us. He is not just buddy Jesus to pull from a crass film knocking the Catholic Church and looking for a better way to Market Jesus. He doesn’t just hang around us dining and drinking with us until we finally get it and turn around to follow him.

We see him walking a balance of living in the world and standing out as different and attractive as alternative to living life the way we think we should. We see Jesus in the homes of people with less than ideal backgrounds, or even in the home of a well respected man when a prostitute comes in Jesus had a way of accepting people where they were, so much so that this prostitute did not care that everyone would see her and be repulsed. She walked in with her hair down advertising that she was not a respected woman of society. She even used her long hair to wipe Jesus’ feet with the perfume she poured over it (Luke 7).

On the other hand, people came out of the woodwork wanting to follow Jesus while keeping some prerequisites. One guy wanted to bury his father (meaning he wanted to receive his inheritance first), and others wanted to hold onto their property (Mark 10). Jesus looked them dead in the eye and said follow me with everything or don’t bother. John 6 shares a story when many walked away from Jesus, and he didn’t go running after them trying to explain his story of the kingdom better. In fact, he turned to his closest allies and asked if they too would abandon him. Jesus stood firm, without wavering, as he lived out God’s mission to redeem humanity, example God’s incredible love and give us a glimpse of the invisible God (Col. 1:15).

Now, let’s hold in tension the idea of Jesus, the one we imagine, and Jesus, the one who walked the dusty roads of Galilee as we wrestle with how we know God. This understanding hit me fresh recently in talking with our Thai teacher. She told a story of how as a new Christian she remembered being so angry with Jesus. I said, why? Why, could you be so angry at Jesus? I was thinking of the typical person that blames Jesus for something going wrong in their life.

I couldn’t have been more surprised when she meant a she became angry at Jesus after reading the gospel account of his life. I thought in stunned amazement, what he did in the pages of those narratives that could get a kind, gentle hearted Thai girl so worked up. Don’t get me wrong, all cultures have their fits of anger, so even if the Thai people are generally sweet natured, they can still have their moments. Nonetheless, I couldn’t imagine how Jesus could make her so angry.

She went on to tell the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree. When she read over that story, she thought Jesus was so mean. From her perspective as a gentle person who lets frustrating circumstances roll off her back, she saw a powerful man misusing his power. He cursed that fig tree in Mark 11:12-14 and didn’t even give a second thought to it. Again, being visibly angry in a culture like Thailand is a terrible offense.

When she saw Jesus curse the tree for not bearing fruit, she saw an angry and unjust man. That is until she talked to her pastor and learned the culture and geography. She thought why was he so unkind to the tree and angry. Why not just go find another tree for some figs. When she understood more and saw that Jesus was giving a living parable to his disciples about the importance of bearing fruit, she saw Jesus in a new light.

Sometimes our impressions can cause us to have a misguided image of Jesus. We might not realize it at first, but if we never do, the Jesus we picture ends up being the Jesus we follow. I admire my teacher for being brave and asking her pastor to explain the story of Jesus better. She wanted to understand Jesus, the real Jesus and not just have her misconceptions guide how she thinks about Jesus.

Let’s be careful that we don’t make Jesus like us, rather, let’s strive to be made like Jesus as God works on our lives. What is one misconception of Jesus that jumps to your mind as you read this?

At Second Glance

On second glance, we realized our mistake and swallowed our pride for laughing at them. Here’s the story. Shortly after moving to this part of Bangkok, we spent a good portion of our time walking the streets to get a feel for the area. We noticed a cool little coffee shop called Postcard…or was it? I started to hear conflicting reports.

Kathy, Tina’s sister, told me the name was Pastcord as we rode the bus by the shop on our way home  while she was in town helping us get settled in our new digs. Now I was confused as some told me the name was Postcard. Which was it? Apparently there are two signs, with one sign flipping the vowels, reading Pastcord, not Postcard.

We often see odd signs in English as the people writing them don’t have a good grasp of our language. We figured this shop did the same, and mocked the messed up name. We got plenty of laughs as we thought about a coffee shop messing up their name. Well, upon further examination, we discovered the name was Postcard. On the second sign, the shop inverted the vowels so it reads “Pastcord Ceffoe.” The coffee shop was trying to be cute and funny, and we mistakenly took that as a hilarious misprint.

This made me think about misperceptions and people’s reactions to them. How many times to we intend to be creative and cute with our presentation only to fall flat on our face? We may never know that people are laughing at us for making a bad sign or communicating something completely silly. I am not meaning when we make cultural blunders that we unwittingly make before we know what all the hand gestures mean. I am talking about the foot-in-mouth syndrome. We usually get in trouble by doing things with the right motives but with limited perspective. From our point-of-view what we are saying is spot on, but from the other side, we come off looking silly. Let’s remember to keep the other’s perspective in mind as we go about life.

Missional Vs. Attractional 6

Balance and tension are two keys in the discussion of attractional and missional ministry. Too often we get stuck defending a point of view and fight for one way at the expense of seeing the other side may have a valid point as well. Invariably we paint an extreme portrait of the other side to make our side look better. Yet, Jesus had a way about him that caused his critics, and hopefully us, to pause and moment and hold our positions loosely.

If we paint with a broad brush the missional view or the attractional view, neither looks so great, but if we hold them in tension and walk a balance of both as we in the church touch this world at all corners, we can begin to see dynamic things happen around us. Jesus, the ultimate in paradox, used missional and attractional approaches from the beginning as he called his disciples.

Let’s dive into how Jesus held in tension missional and attractional in how he called the apostles. Jesus came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10), but he couldn’t leave until the future of God’s people was in good hands. And if the real crux of the argument has little to do with missional or attractional but with discipleship, let’s take a gander at how Jesus connected with these disciples in which hands he left the future of God’s mission.

We don’t know all of their stories, and some have more drama than others. Some Jesus found and called, like Phillip (John 1:43), while others came from a third way after John the Baptist pointed him out. One of those, Andrew, grabbed his brother Peter and connected him with Jesus (John 1:37-42). Still there are two narratives from the disciples first connecting with Jesus that can help us balance our view of missional or attractional, and these are stories of Nathanael and Matthew.

Nathanael embodies the classic seeker or attractional philosophy of ministry. This type of church builds a ministry around Phillips answer to Nate’s skepticism when he first hears that his buddy Phillip has found the one they have all been waiting for. The messiah is here, and sheepishly Phillip adds that the son of David hails from Nazareth. Raising an eyebrow, Nate asks, can anything good come from that place? The classic cynic has put his friend off and now feels that he can go about his day with no more of this messiah nonsense being talked about. That is until Phil lays on him the epic line, “come and see”. John lays out a great description

Nathanael encountered Jesus and forever was changed. In Thailand, the Thai people refer to coming to faith as literally knowing God. Before they did not know him, but now they do. At some point along their journey to faith, they encounter God either through answered prayers, miracles, or a feeling of his presence with them.

If Nathanael came to Jesus, because his friend somehow attracted him enough to check him out, another guy connected with Jesus in quite the opposite way.

Matthew, reviled in his community for his chosen profession of greed, becomes a great antihero as Jesus sees beyond his flaws and calls the tax-collector to follow him. The Jewish people despised these Cretans as the lowest of the low for selling out their countrymen as they chase the almighty dollar…oh I mean denarius. They worked for the evil empire of Rome and were characterized by their pure greed and manipulation. Now enter Jesus. Rather than avoiding the tax-collectors booth, Jesus walks boldly up to the swarthy extortioner and calls him out of his current lifestyle into a new way of life (Luke 5:27-29).

Jesus captures something that we all could practice a little better, and let me add a big thank you to our Lord for this one. Jesus has an ability to see us for whom we can become and not limited to who we have been. A reputation matters, but with Jesus, we can have a golden opportunity to start again.

As we serve in ministry, some of our best disciples will seek us out as they learn about who we are, while others must be found. We often like to look at the cream of the crop from each year’s Bible College grads to find the next person to mentor, but maybe our future reside in our community. All we need to do is start seeing them how Jesus does.

A Name to Remember

Our daughter has three first names: her full name (Eliana), a nickname (Ellie) and a Thai nickname (Ah-ree-ya). Why does she have a Thai nickname, you might ask. Well sit down and enjoy your chocolate milk as we explain.

Familiarity is the key to a name. I know that celebrities today think a special name equates to a special child. Most famously is Gwyneth Paltrow’s child named Apple, and recently Mariah Carey who said she didn’t want to name her kids something strange, but one of her twins was named Moroccan. Aside from odd celebrities, most of us look for a name that has a sense of familiarity, of normalness.

Yes, Eliana may not be the most familiar name, but since Ellie was born we have heard of a handful of other babies with that name. Our Thai friends have a difficult time with pronouncing Eliana. That is one of the reasons Ellie has a Thai nickname. They have a much easier time saying Ellie.

Beyond familiarity with pronunciation in a name, we wanted familiarity in association. People who are not good with remembering names like to associate the name of a new acquaintance with a family member or friend’s name. When we came to Thailand, we had an outrageously difficult time remembering the names of our new Thai friends. These names were “simple” nicknames, usually only 1 syllable long. Thais typically have multiple syllables in their full name, so they pick a nickname to help other Thai people remember their names more easily. Even with this, we still had trouble locking their names away in our memory.

Recently, we were spending time with one of our Thai friends who asked us again, what is Ellie’s name? We answered first with her English name. The confused look on his face told us he was cautious in pronouncing her name. We then added her Thai name. He smiled giving us the sense he could say that name and remember it as he knows others in his world with that name.

When we decided on her Thai name, we kept thinking of names that sounded cute and had a good meaning but couldn’t come to any consensus until a friend helped us with a tip on how Thai’s pick a name. He told us that often a nickname can be picked, because it sounds similar to the real name. Therefore we picked “Ah-ree-ya” which has a similar sound and means gentle.

Interim and the Missionary

When I think of a word that defines missionary, I now think of the word interim.

As we unpack the role of a missionary in our imaginations, one thing that continues to come back to mind is that the role never intends to be terminal. Often missionaries go into a place to begin a new thing, William Carey entering India when no others were leaving Europe for the vast unknown land of India and Hudson Taylor who founded the China Inland Mission jump to mind. In wanting to begin the China Inland Mission, Taylor wanted to get beyond the coastal cities and ventured up the river to where foreigners had never gone.

However, not all missionaries are trailblazers, forging a path where one previously did not exist. They often come to continue a work and continue deepening the impact, whether a social project or a place of education. Yet, no matter the purpose, one thing ties together the role of a missionary—the understanding of “interim”.

As a current missionary, interim means we are not holding our position forever. We are working in the temporary to create an opportunity for someone else, the local. We are only here in the interim.

Interim can come from many angles. I think of the legendary broadcaster Chick Hearn, who indelibly left his mark calling Lakers games for over 40 years and giving us slam dunk and air ball now as common vernacular in basketball. When he passed away, who could replace him? The next announcer was not tagged interim, but everyone knew that he would not be the long-term replacement. No, he just was a place holder to give space between the one announcer whose colorful descriptions would be missed and the new long-term guy who would make his own way with new catch phrases not to be compared with the former brilliance and ‘Chick-isms.’

Often “interim” caries a negative or less than desirable connotation, but in the world of mission, I want to mine the gold that exists in this understanding of our role.

Whether working in a relief project or planting churches as, translating Bibles or in education, the goal of a missionary is to fill the void until the local people can sustain the work on their own. When I first started thinking of my role as temporary, I became concerned about many things, not the least of which was where I am going to go next. I thought about a potential big change ahead as my mind raced to figure out what to do with my future. Then I caught my breath and held the word from God over me as potentially helpful.

Interim is exactly what we are doing. We cannot work with a sense of possessiveness over the ministry we are doing or even with a long-term view of what we are doing here. We work with the long-term view of what the Thai people will one day do with what we are helping begin. As a church planter, we are hoping to break ground and plant something that grows and reproduces again and again. Taking from Donald McGavern’s understanding of reproducing, we want to see an apple planted that doesn’t merely reproduce more apples, but reproduces apple trees. We want to imbed something into the future, indigenous leaders that goes on long after we are gone, whether that is next year or in fifty years. Interim means working with transition in mind. This ministry is not mine, and we always know it is Jesus’ church, but it is not even in my hands for any big picture purpose other than to hand it off to others.

How does working with transition in mind help us see our legacy better?

Missional Vs. Attractional 5

Last week, we took a look at Jesus both/and approach to mission through mapping where he went and where people came from. We saw Jesus employ whatever methodology was needed at a given time to help people cross any barrier or obstacle to getting into the kingdom of God.

Now let’s zoom in a bit.

In this post, we’ll briefly look at two narratives that tell the same story. Jesus’ primary goal in seeking and saving the lost was to connect them with God, whether he crossed cultural barriers to get to them or gave space for them to cross barriers to come to him. The two stories come from Matthew 8 in detailing Jesus, a cross cultural worker, on mission and in attraction to those who yet do not know God.

In the first narrative, we see an example of attractional force through the life and ministry of Jesus as we meet a mercenary soldier, likely hired by Herod for “peacekeeping” in the region. He is a Gentile and a ruler over 100 tough-as-nails fighters. Yet, he has a heart to know God. In Luke’s account, we see him employing great cultural sensitivity (something we have learned living in Asia) in sending an advocate to Jesus on his behalf. He sends some Jewish elders to let Jesus know that he is a good guy, and in fact the synagogue here in Capernaum exists because of his generosity. Basically, Jesus, he is worth your time.

Whew, isn’t it a good thing that we don’t need an advocate to give God reason to listen to us?

Jesus sincerely listens to the centurion’s request. The tough military man comes with concern for his sick and dying servant, likely someone he considers like family. After hearing the plea, Jesus immediately responds by desiring to go to the Gentile soldier’s house, but the military leader stops him. He explains how he understands authority and asks Jesus to just say the word, which leads to one of Jesus’ greatest attractional statements regarding the Mission of God.

“I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt 8:11-12)

In the same way, we should allow space for people to come to us and interrupt our routine. It is not about creating a space that attracts them, but creating a presence in who we are as a church and ministry that draws people to see what God is doing in this community of faith. I know when people in Thailand change their life, sometimes their friends and family are so curious about what took place in them, they want to come and check out this thing called church.

The second narrative illustrates Jesus crossing barriers to get to those that are pushed far to the edges of society. Here he is on his way to the Decapolis, a Greek haven comprised of ten small cities. When he disembarks with the disciples from their boat, they are on the fringes of this area in a place known as the Gaderenes. Here Jesus encounters two demonized men who are confined to the tombs and even the chains cannot restrict them. No one wanted to walk near them afraid of the fanatics living in the shadows among the spirits. As my imagination runs with the story, I picture a setting that could birth a super scary movie. It is in this context that Jesus crosses barriers to help the Gentiles who are far from God. He casts out the demons, giving them new life, but due to the pigs running off the farm into the sea and drowning, the town’s people demand Jesus go.

However, later when they realize who Jesus is and what he can do, they mob him wanting more of what he has the next time he travels through their area (Mark 6:53-56).

What Jesus shows in crossing barriers to get to all the people of his world, is that some may never cross the threshold of a place of worship or join a gathering where Jesus might teach and minister. Even if our churches work to peak capacity, we will never get all the people God wants us to reach to enter our world. There are times, and more than seldom times in which we have to get onto the streets of our communities or even cross over into other communities to bring God’s love and transforming power to people desperate for a touch of the divine.

How do you see the both/and principle of missional and attractional working in your life? Or where is it lacking?

Ellie’s learning new things

I love watching my daughter, Ellie, grow and learn new things. She is a watcher, an observer. She loves to go for walks and peak out of her carrier to see people and everything else go by. But while she loves getting out and being a part of the busy-ness of the world, she wants to be a part of it also. She wants to be like the people around her. If she hears talking not addressed to her, she will join in and try to drawn you out. When she sees us eating, she tries to grab and eat also. She is constantly trying to do new things.

Recently, she figured out how to balance herself so she can sit. She went from being able to sit for 30 seconds one day, to sitting for over 10 minutes the next day. When I saw her just sitting there, I ran and got my camera. Ellie was so proud of herself that it was easy to get a good picture. She had the biggest smiles, smiles that said, look at what I can do.

The day after learning how to sit, Ellie wanted to learn new things. She is all about trying to crawl now. She gets so frustrated that she can’t propel herself forward. So right now, it is a fussy, but determined baby. Soon it will be one of excitement as she proudly moves across the room.

Watching her has made me think about how we view ourselves. Ellie is so proud over something that is so easy for us to do. She couldn’t be more excited when she gets to hold a spoon, or place her feet on the ground and pretend to stand. I think that we do the same things in our lives. We get so excited, even proud, when we can do something good for God. We want God to join in our excitement and praise us. Praise us he does, but he really wants us to be doing things much greater than “sitting” or “crawling” around in this life. He is happy when we gather for Christian fellowship and read our Bibles every day, but he is looking forward to seeing us do much greater things. Just as Ellie can’t yet conceive of jumping and dancing around, I can only imagine how awesome our lives will be once we have matured fully in Christ. Until then, I will keep striving to grow. Just like once Ellie learned to sit, she started trying to crawl, I want to keep growing in my walk with Christ. I never want to grow content to just sit or crawl and think I have reached maturity in Christ.

What do you think makes God smile?