My Father is Bigger than Your Father

If any of us did anything as children, we believed that our dad was a superhero with super powers. My dad could beat up your dad.

Now, as an adult, I am comforted to know my father in heaven can beat up anybody. I don’t have to cower in fear before evil spirits, overwhelming circumstances, or difficult situations. My God is a great Father, and I love being his child.

The Bible draws several word pictures of what the church is, or rather who the church is. The church is the bride of Christ, the church is the body of Christ, Again, Peter tells us how the church is living stones, Paul teaches Timothy, and the church is the household or family of God. Businesses, a common ministry model for church today, are not great at producing disciples. They produce products pretty well, but families, bodies, living stones, intimate connections with Jesus produce real disciples.

More importantly, family creates an identity of who we are. When we know who we are as the children of God, and that we belong to the house of God, we know what we can become. I love how Ephesians 2:19 puts it. We are no longer strangers, or aliens as Paul pulls on the former verses that say how we formerly were far from God. Jesus changed everything when he came to bring peace to us. We belong to the family of God not because of anything we do or how the family feels about it, but because of what Jesus did. I love belonging to God’s family. I know he will take care of me, watch over me, and lead me in his path.

We have the ultimate Godfather.

How does knowing your identity shape your behavior?

From Radical to Conventional

Contextualization, let me say happy birthday to you on this your 40th birthday.

I feel like we have been together so long. They way your name gets bandied about makes me feel like you are as tried and true as the gospel itself. It is hard for me to believe you have only been around since 1972.

Contextualization, you came from such former terms as enculturation, adaptation, accommodation and most recently indigenous. We now use you to defend our style of worship, or how we want to shape the church in a given context. We know you are important as you help us make Christianity connect at a heart level to the people who speak thousands of languages around the world. You bring together the church in fascinating ways, so that one day we will see the actualization of Revelation 7:9-11.

After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

Contextualization, you work so hard to insure that the gospel, planted in the soil of each culture, never has to feel foreign. Sometimes you succeed, and other times it just cannot be helped.

How far you have come in such a short time…in the scheme of ideas, you jumped ahead from radical to conventional in a rather short amount of time.

I am amazed how just a short 40-60 years ago, the idea of the indigenous church, and local leaders taking the reins seemed like such a radical idea, but today, you, along with the indigenous church, have become such conventional wisdom that no one even questions its validity. Give the airlines another few years, and people will never ask, why don’t we get meals on our flights from Chicago to LA? They will expect to pay for their luggage. These things will work their way into our mainstream thinking, just like you did.

Contextualization, the move by many to move into sociological and anthropological thinking to embrace you has been helpful. The move to creating an indigenous church came as a right reaction to the paternalistic and colonial methods of previous generations. Missionary thought needed to recognize the same Holy Spirit works in the lives of the local people. As one essay, I recently read put, we moved from one extreme to another after WWII to giving complete independence to local churches. The past generation has seen a partnering and working together with the indigenous churches.

Finally, Contextualization, I stand back and observe the historic trends and wonder what is next…will there be a reaction to modern methods…or have we found the most complete way now after 2,000 years of missionary efforts?

Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In

Last week I shared the story of my mom’s perseverance that shaped my world as my mom dealt with the circumstances of life. Life knocked her down plenty, but she kept getting up and marching forward.  Even as she battled severe depression, she never gave in as she always wanted all of God’s best for her and her family.

I wanted to come back to how my mom’s life shaped my story of getting up again. I wanted to flesh out more of what I touched on in the last post when I broke the news to my mom about my eyesight beginning to fail.

I caught her one morning and matter of factly told her what was happening to my eyes when she burst out in tears, tears of compassion and heartache.

Compassion for her son, but heartache to God, almost asking God please no more for my family. My two older sisters had passed away at an early age, and one of my older brothers, George already went through the same genetic condition that I was now facing with Leber’s Optic Neuropathy.  Of seven children, four came down with severe physical maladies, I was the last.

Perhaps at the moment when my mom cried out in front of me, I was in denial of what was going to happen, or perhaps I watched a family model toughness in the face of difficulty. My mom’s dogged perseverance to never give in when life knocked her down, helped me mentally prepare for what laid ahead. The matter of fact way in which I told her what was happening probably belied a bit of denial mixed in with my assuredness that nothing was too difficult for our family. God would help us make a way.

Now with 15 years of hindsight in the rear view mirror, I know the denial existed, but the lessons learned from watching my mom handle adversity also prepared me to overcome any of the obstacles that would come ahead.

  • I went through rehabilitation school to learn independent living skills in three months, when usually two terms were the minimum necessary.
  • I entered the school within a year of losing my sight, when all of my classmates had dealt with their struggles for years before facing the reality that they needed to learn skills to survive. Not one other classmate had lost their sight as recent as four years.
  • I went back to school, attending Life Pacific College and graduating in four years.
  • Now, I am serving as a missionary in Bangkok, Thailand. Bangkok is not known for their handicapped accessible sidewalks and public transportation.

But before any of this, I remember my mom advocating for me. She went to people unsolicited by me to let them know I could do anything. She did not want me to be left out just because I could not see. I was given an opportunity to be a youth camp intern that first summer of blindness. The camp director did not know what to expect from me, but took my mom’s advice to heart. He did not hold back from asking me to participate in all the duties of an intern. Maybe I couldn’t do the cool stuff like drive the riding lawnmower, but I cut back weeds in the woods, cleaned bathrooms, washed dishes, prayed for students, led Bible studies, and fully participated with everything, even as each week of camp, my eyes went from bad to worse.

I learned a spirit of overcoming from my mom. I knew my problem was tough, but my mom had been through a bunch more already. The life she lived illustrated the humanity in all of us with a yearning to never accept our circumstances. How did she overcome? She kept a clear view of who God was in her life. She knew the goodness of God always came present to us in our pain. My mom taught me a lot, but she really taught me most of all how to climb over those barriers that life throws at you.

Who helped prepare you to overcome life’s difficulties? How did they do that?

Contextualization: Some More Thoughts

Okay, okay…I am getting back to this polarizing discussion on contextualization. It took a little longer than I hoped. I decided to wait until my class with Dr. Scott Moreau came, so I could get a little grounding into my musings.

When we contextualize our faith, we want to make sure we do not end up with something altogether different in the end. The key to this effort begins with scripture. All contextualization must stand firmly rooted in scripture.

So let me dive into a phrase that often says more than people intend in contextualization. Far too often I hear people say, we need to contextualize the gospel.

Some use this saying innocuously, while others clearly come with an agenda behind that saying. They say things like, we need to ask what is good news to these people. In beginning this way, they inadvertently say the good news can be changed to capture the imaginations of an audience.

If you cannot tell yet, I get uneasy with the term contextualize the gospel. Are they saying that the gospel can be bent, pulled, squeezed, or even twisted to fit into another shape? Does the gospel morph or have an opportunity to be reinterpreted? I dare say, no. The gospel that Jesus preached, the teachings that Paul passed on to Timothy that he implored Timothy to pass on to good men who could in turn pass it along, II Timothy 2:2 remained static yet found dynamic expression within each local context. The unchanging gospel of the unshakeable King Jesus gets lived out in our faith and worship in varying forms and customs. This is what we contextualize. I loved how Dr. Moreau framed contextualization. He put it as contextualizing our entire faith.

In his upcoming book on the contextualization as seen in the evangelical landscape, Dr. Moreau brilliantly describes the gospel as an anchor for contextualization. When we attend to contextualization, we must be anchored in the gospel. When we keep our anchor in scripture, we can begin on firm footing.

What do you think of when people say they are contextualizing the gospel?

What I Learned From My Mom

It is Mother’s Day in Thailand today. As I prepared for the special sermon for today, I got to thinking about how special my mom was, and what I learned from her.

First and foremost, the perseverance of my mom jumps to mind. I learned how to overcome obstacles and barriers in life from watching my mom’s dogged determination. I can remember hearing her say to friends, “some call it stubborn, but I like to think of it as determined.” She just wouldn’t give up or give in when life knocked her down. And she got knocked down plenty.

A single mother for a few years, she found a second chance with my dad. Well, years before he was my dad. Their love story is well worth another blog series. But as young people serving in ministry, their marriage got rocked, not once, not twice, but many times. Their tragic circumstances started when their first daughter, Angela came down with severe brain damage as a baby. Around eight month-old, Angela no longer could do anything for herself. She lived in this state until she was six when mercifully, God took her to heaven. I still hold faint memories of playing with her when I was around Ellie’s age, 1-2 years-old.

While their world was still upside-down, my parents were graced with their second daughter, Melinda. But, the celebration lasted only a short time as she was born with a heart defect. The doctors did what they could with the medicine of the day, but she only lived about 40 days. Who would blame this family for crying out and cursing God? They were serving in ministry, and this is what reward they get. It just is not right. But they did none of that. They clung to God through it all. Rather than running from God, they rallied their faith and pressed closer to him. Sometimes numb to the world, they knew the only place they needed to be was in the church with God’s people. Here they were touched as they worshipped. The clung to each other as they held onto God with all them had. One memory pops out to me from when I was a teenager running the sound board at the church we attended. The other guy up there with me looked down at my mom and dad, arm-in-arm with their opposite arms raised high in worship, and told me how fortunate I was to have parents that loved Jesus like that. My mom knew how to love God, because he met her through so much.

So much that seemingly never let up. Now a few years after Angela passed away, George, her second son, came down with Leber’s Optic Neuropathy which led to him losing his sight at the age of 17. How much calamity can one family take? It makes me think of John Wesley’s mother who had 19 children, but only 9 who reached adulthood. Yet my mom kept loving her family and giving each of these circumstances to God.

When I went to my mom at 19 years-old to tell her that my eyesight was going the same as George’s did, she burst out in tears. Tears of love and compassion. I still contend to this day that my mom took it harder than I did. She loved so much and cared so deeply.

She always wanted the best for her family, and never gave up on that. She kept putting her obstacles before God. I learned from my mom to persevere and push on.

The Reluctant Missionary

I get asked many times, how did you get to Thailand.

My story as a reluctant missionary begins with a girl. A cute girl came into my life and started me in a whole new direction, or if you read the previous post, onto the correct path meant for me all along.

Since I totally rationalized away the calling God put on my life to be a missionary to my people, I avoided the things that could get me entangled in overseas stuff. Namely, I kept clear of girls in Bible College who told me that had a calling for missions. Ironically, I am in missions now, and am not sure how many of those girls are. I did great to stay away from the girls planning a life in another culture. I made it four years through Bible College, not getting caught in any of their traps. So what happened?

When I moved to South Orange County to lead the student ministries at New Life Christian Fellowship in Laguna Niguel, a cute yet reserved girl caught my attention. Even though she started to fall for me, she kept rock solid in her life goals. She did not want any guy…no matter how cute, to sidetrack her from her calling. That is why she sat me down early on in the relationship to say that she was called to missions. She said, we had three options.

  1. We could date while she served for 1-2 years overseas.
  2. We could get married and serve for a short time together before coming back to pursue my calling in church planting.
  3. Or we could break up.

Did I say, she was determined, firm in her way, strong, oh yes, I did say that.

Well, fast forward to getting married, and going overseas, choosing option 2. After we begin sending back updates and photos, people that went to youth group with me responded with excitement. They were beyond thrilled to see me fulfill my calling. Wait a minute, my calling? Maybe they did not understand, I was following Tina’s calling. Well, they explained more. They told of how I stood up at camp. They still had the pictures of the group of us from our church that stood at the camp together. There were 14, and I was the only one doing it, they said. Finally, finally…it all flooded back to me. I was following God’s calling too…

Wow, talk about a realization that completely blows your mind.

Now, I see the faithfulness of God. Even when we forget our calling, as long as we keep following God, he will get us where he wants us to be. Pretty awesome.

My Specific Calling

As I look back over my childhood, I easily see God planting seeds of a calling in my life. My heart lit up when I listened to the missionary stories my dad read around the dinner table. Stories of sneaking Bibles into China, stories of aged men serving behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, and stories of sacrifice from all parts of the world. Other stories from newsletters written to my parents rooted deep in my soul as I grew in appreciation of those who stuck in the trenches despite attacks and violence.

The missionary mind began to take shape in my life early on, but soon I understood that to be a heart for missions. I grew in respect for the missionary but had little inclination that I might be one when I grew up. Yet the missionary fervor burned inside of me.

Yet there was one point of certainty, or was it. Along our journey, we get these signposts or mile markers that help us understand better where we are going or at least where we have been. Even then, we still have ambiguity and confusion.

For me this moment came during a camp meeting. I worked my way out of football practices for one night of camp, so I drove up solo to meet up with my youth group and participate with one day of the week-long camp. That one day happened to be mission’s night for the camp. I loved missions, but did not look forward to this night. Don’t tell anyone, but I heard the speaker as he spoke at my church the Sunday before camp. I was the sound guy, so I got an extra special privilege of hearing him twice already. Shhh, but I might have fallen asleep during his sermon.

I fell asleep until he started to set up the response. He began talking about ducks and beavers, the famous animals from his state. Ducks represented missionaries. He made the call, and even though I wanted to be a pastor, was compelled to go forward. I quickly rationalized that the pastor story was to continue to illuminate my calling but with a bent. I would be on mission in my own country. This continued when I heard the stats that the US was now receiving more missionaries than they were sending for the first time. I had the ammo in my tool belt.

About a year later, another sign post popped up when I received a prophetic word. Our church had Helen Volonis speaking, and she always brought a word for some of the people in the room. Now, I was in one of the quandaries when a prophet comes through the church. Part of me wanted to duck down. Don’t pick me out, don’t embarrass me in front of everyone…I don’t need everyone looking at me for this. But on the other hand, I was always overlooked in these meetings…doesn’t God have anything for me…

Well, that day, he did.

She spoke over me that she saw me travelling overseas like a missionary. She went into more detail, but I quickly dismissed the word as way off base. I thought, really, I wanted a word, and this is what I got. I couldn’t fully accept or reject the word, so I put in my back pocket to see what might happen.

Yet, in that back pocket it remained as callings turned into rationalizations and words disappeared into the deepest regions of my memories. I still loved missions, but did not see myself crossing borders.

All of that changed when I met a girl.