Stay Off The Grass

This post will take me back to my new series on things that make you go hmmm. And this one not only makes me go hmmm, but also makes me shake my head.

We must be living in a society that has solved all the big issues. We no longer need to worry about poverty, racism, fatherless children, war, terrorism, the threat of a nuclear winter, famine, drought, the outbreak of an incurable disease, or an alien invasion.

Why?

We are able to use our free time to make and enforce laws that keep dogs off the grass of public areas in our suburban cities.

dog-on-lawn

Yes, the grass. No, I am not talking about keeping the droppings picked up. I am literally saying, they cannot step on the grass with their doggy feet. Not even one foot.

We love to take our dogs for walks around the neighborhood and even down to the beach. Our daughter, Ellie, loves getting out as much as we do, and she even loves walking the little dog, a black & white Bichon-shih tzu hybrid mix. Sometimes this little dog walks our daughter. She is trying, but the dog has a lot of heart and energy.

This really becomes a problem when we get to the little grassy patch between the street and the parking lot in front of North Beach by our house. This patch includes a trash can and a picnic table, oh and a small stretch of grass. I want to say decoration rather than grass with the zeal in which it is protected from getting denigrated.

When we walk the sidewalk that touches this grass, we have to be sure that Ellie keeps her dog from touching the grass which prompts her to ask the famous three-year-old question, why?

We try to remind her that we could get in trouble, big trouble.

This all goes back to one day. One day as we were walking along this path, and the dog stepped “over the line”, we were warned. Yes, warned against allowing our dog on the grass. I was shocked. I wondered if there was a practical joke going on. I wondered if video cameras would come out to say I was punked.

This is how it went down. At that exact moment, the pet patrol was driving by. I am not sure the actual title of this nice, middle-aged man. He was so gracious, almost as though he really did not want to enforce this ridiculous city ordinance. He told us we would have to pay $150 if our dog even steps foot on the grass. That is right. It is not a matter of defecating on the grass that would get us in trouble. Nope. Just the threat of making a mess will get us in trouble. And, no I am not talking about some cranky miser living next door who wants us off his grass.

This is public grass. Did I say grass. This is not a marble floor in the foyer of a mansion. This is not a plush carpet in the living room. This is not some posh neighborhood. NO, this is grass next to a picnic bench and public receptacle for trash. And if a little dog even steps on the grass, we could receive a ticket, a pretty hefty ticket.

Just say this out loud. We do not want dogs walking on the grass. Say that again. How does that sound coming out of your mouth? It almost feels inhumane. But let’s protect this grass, this precious grass from doggy paws.

This makes me want to bring a character from late night TV down here to my neighborhood to protest with me. I am reminded of the Conan O’Brien sketch of the insulting dog who would take things and insult them by saying this is good…good enough for me to poop on. But in fact, this grass is exactly that to a dog.

 

Maybe that is why dogs are prohibited from the soft place for their furry paws. Why not insure their doo-doo gets picked up? Nope, lets draw the line bright and distant from anything resembling sanity. Now, the strong arm of the neighborhood posh patrol has extended once again into silliness. Well, it is what it is, so we insure that our daughter and little dog stay clearly on the sidewalk and not the grass.

I am just curious, what person is so worried that a dog’s feces could be the undoing of society that they pass a policy that needs to be enforced. Are we really without a backbone to stop such invasions of our freedom?

I am not saying that I want dog doo all over my neighborhood. Is it not good enough to enforce people picking up after their dog? Now, we must enlist more draconian laws to keep dogs off of public grass.

What is next? No smoking in public?

But seriously, Could we do something about the foul language that gets spoken in public? Now, that filth gets into my daughter’s ears when she walks in the parks with me. That is hard to  clean out once it has gone into her ears.

For real, what is next?

No dogs in public?

What did these nice dogs do to mess with these people? Dogs are man’s best friend. Dogs are so kind, and in tons of YouTube videos just being cute as can be. Can we please have some sanity, and let our dogs walk on the grass once again.

What are some of the crazy ways that your neighborhoods have exercised their authority?

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Questions And Answers And More Questions

I can’t get into too many details, but I had one of the most rad experiences of my life recently.

handofgod1I got to be a consultant for a new TV show coming out next year on Amazon Prime, “Hand Of God”. This show stars the incredible Ron Pearlman as a morally corrupt judge who goes through a mental breakdown after his sons (PJ) suicide attempt. We find PJ on life support.

The twist: The judge, (Pernell) found God in the midst of losing his mind, and now he feels compelled by visions of God to seek out the mystery killer of his son. The show includes a shady pastor (Julian Morris) and others who have questionable motives. This show delves into the deep waters of faith, morality, ethics, hearing God’s voice, and much more. With the judge as the main character, they will look at how we like to find ways around the rules.

I am stoked for my cousin, Ben Watkins, writer and creator of the show. Formerly, he wrote and produced the fast-paced drama, Burn Notice. About a year ago, I was at dinner with my cousin and asked what was next for him as Burn Notice wrapped up. He was excited to share some of the projects on the horizon, but unsure about saying something about all of them. The controversy of Hand of God caused him to feel the nerves of telling his cousin, the pastor/missionary about this one, which was his brainchild. But he went for it, unpacking the plot and drama of the show.  Immediately, his pitch grabbed my attention. I loved the fact that this show would deal with issues, ask questions that don’t often get asked in pop-culture. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up with anticipation and hope that this show might get off the ground. You never know.

As my insides spilled with excitement for his idea, I said something to Ben that stuck with him as he went to work on the show and pitching it to the studios. What I loved about this idea is that it asks questions when most shows that deal with religion give answers, simplistic answers, this concept begs us to think and ask questions. This story will give compelling drama, while drawing us into the narrative and cause us to ask questions we don’t often feel comfortable asking. This show will walk a razor thin line of entertaining and disturbing us.

Oh, and I am a big fan of Ron Pearlman.

As Ben told me about his show, and we talked about the God issue in the show, he suggested I might be able to help down the line as things unfold. And things did unfold, slowly as they do in LA. The show got pitched, green-lighted for a pilot, and eventually picked up by the studio.

Fast forward a little more than a year. Now, they are working on writing nine episodes for the first season. This is where I received an invitation to help them in the creative process. The writer’s had questions about Theology, ethics, and the practical nature of building a church. Ben asked me to come talk with the writers about upcoming storylines, those lines that dealt with the issues of God, the Bible and the young preacher.

I had the privilege of dialoguing with some bright, energetic and super creative folks developing a story. I got to see behind the curtain of how something gets brought to life from that place in the ether, the void of our mind’s eye to the TV. I was like a kid in a candy store wanting to ask so many questions. But I was there to give answers.

My job: Talk to the writer’s room about this show. I felt like this was “ask the blind pastor” on steroids. I had no idea what I was getting into or who I was going to talk too much like when I first started this thing that spawned the name of this blog on a community college campus. Apparently, I have not told that story here. Note to self: Write a story or two about the origins of this blog title.

I came to find a few minutes before going into the writer’s room that of the seven writers including my cousin, only Ben was a Christian. The others were primarily Jewish in background with one being a former Christian and now a Buddhist. This gave for a beautiful pallet of diverse views when it comes to the God topic.

Since,  I did not know them, and they did not know me, we needed a common place to begin. And with the backdrop of this show dealing with religion, why not start there. I decided to get these guys and gals looking at the Bible with questions about what the Bible says about violence, marriage, divorce and more. I hoped for more, but the first two questions sparked plenty of conversation points including curiosity, the provocative, and the sublime. I loved one guy who said he had read the Old Testament, the Jewish Bible , but it had been a long time. He is reading the Bible again for the show. He quipped, don’t tell me how it ends. And that made me smile.

At one point he brought up a section he had been reading in Genesis 34 when Jacob’s daughter Dinah was defiled. In response, her brothers, the patriarchs of Israel tricked the people of the city into all getting circumcised. While recovering in pain, the brothers of Dinah took out the people. This writer asked about violence. What do we do with a story like that? On the one hand, it is brutal, devious, conniving, and so wrong.  But those people did rape Dinah, the sister of Jacob’s 12 sons, so they got what they deserved, he thought. We were talking about the Bible, the ethic of God, and really digging in. It was fantastic as we dove into our session of sticky topics that often get treated as black and white while we live in a grey world.

As things progressed, we moved from the open dialogue which helped me get a sense of their background to talking about the storylines. We had great questions and interchange of discussion. The 90-minutes flew by in the blink of an eye. It felt like we ended as soon as we started. So much ground had been covered, and yet so many more questions were hanging out there waiting to be handled. Would there be more time, another opportunity?

Questions led to answers which led to more questions. I love the mystery and the open space the Bible gives us. I also loved the opportunity to share God’s heart behind the designs he has on us, the grace he has and love for all peoples. In every way, I took the opportunity to paint God as one who loves the world and wants us to know him deeply.

But the end was only the beginning as we sat down and talked more over lunch. Here, I really got to answer questions about my faith. Whatever went on in the writer’s room must have opened their hearts to more questions. I sat with one of the writers and a writer’s assistant at lunch as they dialogued openly and vigorously for another hour plus. I loved when  this writer said to me that he had never met a pastor before. What a privilege for me to be the first pastor this witty, smart writer could meet.

As we sat talking over lunch, one of this writer’s first questions to me was do many people in my field have a similar interest in the arts like I do. Sadly, I thought, no. In between taking bites, I told him that most in my field either uncritically consume the arts of movies and television or condemn it as filthy or unfruitful. Pastors often talk about the stuff of TV as unedifying and ask their people to stick with things that build them up. In fact, until the last 10-15 years, the arena of the arts was often completely overlooked by the evangelical church. We did not dialogue over the stories of the movies, the meanings, the messages, the questions raised in this medium. We did not talk about ways in which we could engage the culture around us through conversations about film and TV. We did not talk about the shows that brought us flawed characters like House, Batman in the latest installment of Christopher Nolen’s version, Clint Eastwood’s cranky character in “Grand Torino”, and many more. We have not often found ways to use the arts as a platform to talk about faith.

In fact, as I grew up in the church, I often felt an aversion to the arts, to the discussions of metaphor and symbolism. I felt uncomfortable in the ambiguity of questions and possibilities. However, over time, I have enjoyed getting into conversations about story. I have enjoyed how story can capture our imagination and open space for discussions about so many more things. I felt thrilled that I could now be on the inside talking about story and how story can shape how we see the world. I had the chance to help shape a small part of this series and the story undergirding what will come of this show. I sure enjoyed the time I had with these writer’s and wish them the best with their new venture. I look forward to more opportunities to contribute as more scripts are being written.

I would love to come back here and there to this experience as a fertile ground to dialogue further about their questions–What is a pastor? Why do we try to get around the rules, what does the Bible say about slavery, violence and so much more.

What are your thoughts about the arts and faith?

Short Term Teams

Mission-TripsRecently, I was talking to a missionary friend who echoed my sentiment with a little more force.

He said, I don’t really like 90% of what teams do. Now, missions is awesome. I love missions, and I teach missions, and I am leading a team to Russia in the summer of 2015.

So why would I say, I don’t like a lot of what teams do. Why, indeed?

Let me preface by saying, I still see a valuable place for teams, just (and that should be read with a long drawn out pause), just as not as much place as they have been given.

Some say, Mission trips help us a lot more than they help the people we are going to help. Granted. And that is okay. That doesn’t say it helps the local people not at all. And why would we expect anything else. Why would we think we could go through with a mission, even a short mission and think we won’t be changed as we serve God. To think we will stay the same and loads of other people will be dynamically changed makes us more the savior and Jesus more the instrument of our saving work.

Of course we will be changed. Why not?

We are saving our pennies, nickels and dimes and praying for months. We are getting on a plane and leaving the mundane for the otherworld. We are stepping out of our comfort zone into a spiritual warzone. If we are not changed, and maybe changed for a lifetime, I don’t know what else could change us.

Note: To the jaded person who doesn’t get changed through this, or forgot how impacted you were, peel back some of the layers covering over your heart to let the light shine in a little.

But we should be doing some good for the people we are coming to serve. Here are some questions that help us assess the good of a short trip.

  • Are they feeling served?
  • Is there more prework by the local ministry than worth the good in the trip?
  • Is there more follow-up/cleanup after the trip that distracts from the daily and weekly rhythms of the local ministry?
  • Do we make the local ministry look boring when we are gone?
  • Are there strong relationships with the people we connect with and the local ministry that can lead to fruitful ongoing relationships?

There are more questions, but the ability to do some good, some invaluable good is possible. It just takes balance and thoughtfulness beyond what we are thinking about from our vantage point as the team.

Now, I often hear people over react and say that we are going too little for the purpose of the trip. To this, I say, slow down. Hold up a moment. Maybe we get our expectations out of whack a little too easy as Americans who feel we can change the world by simply showing up. We did in WWI and WWII, we did in a lot of things. We landed on the moon for crying out loud. But we are only human, and only so much can happen in a two-week trip in which we don’t know the language, our cultural understanding is limited at best, and our relational equity is minimal.

I guess, I will lean on a life axiom: Happiness is when reality and expectations meet.

All we can really aim to do is plant a few seeds. Isn’t that what Paul said his ministry was. And that turned out pretty powerful. Oh, but that is because he worked in partnership with the local people and other missionaries like Apollo’s. And he knew that God did the real work. If we think we are the ones who do it, then we are sadly mistaken.

There can be a value to short term teams. Teams can help supplement what is already happening. Teams can add encouragement. Teams can be a short in the arm at the right time. Teams can illustrate what serving means as Americans come to serve on the other end of the world where hierarchy matters, and the rich Americans are getting down and dirty. Teams can play a role in mission as long as it is the right role. Short term teams have their place, but we must know what that place is–partnership.

Partnership tends to be an easier word said than done. As mission trips have grown in popularity and possibility the world grows smaller, and the mission to reach the world seems closer.

The past 20 years or so has seen an emergence, no a revolution in how we pursue mission and being involved with mission. IT is as though with the advent of technology, we think we can do anything and everything including save the world with a short term trip somewhere. Many times we end up leaving a wake of disaster as the local leaders have to clean up the mess and apologize for the arrogant, self-absorbed Americans who came on a Jesus vacation and not an opportunity to serve and learn. Why spend the big money if we are not going to do the hard pre-work to make partnerships that last.

I don’t know why, but way too many teams just go. Sometimes, they do not even call ahead. They just show up. Other times, they think they are working in partnership when really they have worked out a plan that works for them. A lot more strategy, planning and talking was done when a lot more listening and praying needed to be done.

An African saying says working with teams from the West, mostly American, is like dancing with an elephant. Everything gets stomped in the process. We are big, we are bold, and sometimes we don’t even realize what we are doing.

However, many teams do a good thing. Many teams do the hard work of listening, investigating and matching skill, talent, calling and local need of the host people. They do this through relationship which leads to partnership. This can happen and happen well. This is what should happen. But way too often in this revolution of Short term teams, we feel like doing a trip is doing missions. A trip is such a small slice of missions.

The big deal is the follow up. This is why it is important to find people who know how to do this part of ministry and partner with them.

This is why I am excited for the trip to Russia we are doing. We get to partner with some super cool people who love Jesus and know how to disciple. We get to impact young people, and see lives changed for a life time. We get to make long-term impact even if it is only a glimpse of what we see from our limited time and effort. We can have confidence that we are simply one piece in a larger puzzle of Great Commission ministry. We can see our work as simply one of the threads in the gospel tapestry God is putting together. We can be a paragraph in the incredible story God is writing. We just need to find where and how we fit in as we come alongside local ministry in true partnership.

If more teams could put in the pre-work, the ground work, and build long-lasting relationships, we could see the revolution of short term m
ission trips turn this world upside down. Yet how do we get there?

Maybe you can help answer that in the comments.

Exploiting The Pain

divided1-300x225After reflecting on the Ferguson story that once again has arrested the attention of our nation, or at least the 24-hour news cycle this week, I have some thoughts, some deeply felt thoughts.

On Tuesday, I was riding home from the class I teach at Life Pacific College. On my ride, I like catching up on the news of the day, at least the news that KNX, the am radio wing of CBS which broadcasts pretty straight down the middle news has to say. What would the news be on this day? Well, a lot of coverage of the Ferguson story, or the boiling protests and bubbling anger within the black community.

What made me more than a little frustrated was not a sense of reporting, but a sense of exploiting I picked up from the news. And this is not the sensationalistic, splashy, frenzied Fox News or MSNBC. No, this is the straight-laced, professional, broadcast news. They had multiple reporters on the scene covering the several hundred protesters marching around South Los Angeles through much of the city. On Monday, these protesters marched for three hours.  On Tuesday, they were prepared for the same thing.

But our attention spans are so limited, we don’t have time to have our news actually listen to both sides and have a conversation. We don’t have time to listen to the concerns of what people are feeling. We get sound bites. We get the most loud, bombastic, and impassioned people to talk for a moment. We don’t get the news asking the black families what has them so scared, angry and disenfranchised. Why is this case in Ferguson creating a spark that spreads from Time Square to Martin Luther King Jr. boulevard in LA? Why is a nationwide movement taking place. Nope, we don’t have time to ask those questions or to connect the dots. But we do have time to be on the scene in case things go south. We’ll be there for the big story, the ratings, the gossip.

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We get the news in there to play their part in drawing out the extremes on both ends. The extreme finger pointing on both ends. The most divisive on both ends. We have the news ready to report when the story gets juicy enough, but not there to give us the back story, to share the depth of pain that people feel over this story which is just one more in a long line of injustice, or at least perceived injustice. And perception is reality.

But we have the news on the scene.

These reporters kept talking about how polite the protesters were, how civil. It was almost disappointing to the reporters as if they were hoping for a better story, more drama, something that would bring ratings.

This quickly made me relate in my mind the awful nature of our news which is more about ratings—if it bleeds, it leads. We are an exploitive society. And that saddens me. It was like we had cameras and microphones as close to these hurting people simply waiting for a match to be lit and a firestorm to start. I thought of the humanitarian organizations that take pictures of children in slum communities to raise money for the organization. The poor children get splashed across the internet, social media, and into fund-raising newsletters in order to bring in more money.

To me this smells of one word. Exploit.

And all we are doing is perpetuating a problem. The black community feels not only hopeless and stuck, but without a voice into the process. They are not simply poor, but have little power to affect change. They feel like they are getting the short end of the stick once again. They have so much pain and frustration, and yet all we can do as journalists is to escalate a difficult situation into a worse story. We as the American media racing to keep up with so many channels and an oversaturated sense of content and information to tell a bigger and more dramatic story. Yet, the powerless and hurting people in the inner-city continue to be disenfranchised and have the faces played across our television sets.

At the same time, those that have not walked in their shoes shake their heads with disbelief. They ask, what is the big deal? Why are there so many angry black people?

I was talking to one of my friends, who pastors a church in the inner city. He said, he just doesn’t understand why people don’t get what they don’t get.

This makes me sad. We have a segment of our society that doesn’t get it and another that is simply hurting and wishing they could make it clear. Now, we end up having a lot of seething, white hot anger over this situation. We can get camera’s onto the most outspoken on either side to show how divided, how far apart we are from solutions. It simply saddens me.

We have a tragic story, a story that should not have happened. And now what is lost in the middle is the actual truth. No one will accept a real story. Now, we have perceptions, misperceptions, and lots of emotion. Rather than truly being heartbroken as a nation over a tragic story, a loss of life, a precious life no matter what is said. We as Christians should know that more than anyone. Every life matters to God, and his redemptive nature is always working to make something beautiful out of our story.

But rather than a nation moved to tears, we are moved to anger.

If you have a friend who comes from the black community, simply listen to their story. Ask them what they hear from all this noise. Ask them what they see. Listen. Cry with them.

I know I am, and my heart breaks for a community that has been looked at with prejudice for far too long. I pray that we do not simply keep an endless cycle of sensational stories that remind us of the divide. I pray that the next time something tragic happens, we can find healing in the waters of misunderstandings. I pray that we can be proactive and go across racial and socio-economic lines to befriend one another. I pray that rather than extending the divide with story after story, we can find ways to reconcile.

For me, I will start by listening more? I want to know what they see, what they feel, what hurts them? I want to feel their pain more. I want to empathize. I want to see the humanity in their story, their life.

I feel hopeless at times, but I know there is hope. I know we can do better.

What are some of your thoughts from this overly public story?

Real Faith

Hudson Taylor famously said, “God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supply.”

I know a man who embodies this. Maybe a Hudson Taylor sized biography that has to be written. Nonetheless, I want to share one of the miraculous stories that illustrates the supply God provides to his people doing his work.

This man I am talking about is the pig farmer turned pastor/missionary, Ted Olbrich. Yep, this guy who was called to ministry while studying to be a pig farmer. A man who became a pig farmer at one point. A man who first stepped into the mission field at the age of 52 in 1998. The one who God put to work with his skills in farming and people skills…and his passion for the fullness of God to change a nation.

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In 16-years of serving as missionary to Cambodia with Foursquare, he has seen a move of God sweep the nation. The Foursquare church is the fastest growing church in the world in any nation, any church. In 16 years, Ted has seen 6,000 churches/home meetings planted, 106 church/orphan homes established, 18,000 orphans raised, 1 million+ salvations, and the miracles mentioned in the book of Acts over and over again. Yes, that includes the dead being raised, demons cast out, the sick healed and much, much more.

I can speak with some authority that this man is a man of faith. I don’t mean the “faith” teachers that spoil the term. I don’t mean the name it and claim it type of faith. I mean the Hudson Taylor type of faith. The man has always had incredible vision for what God can do. He could see it even as my pastor in a small, rural Chicago suburb. He saw things that no one else did and worked in partnership with God to see them come to fruition. Now, what happened on the scale of a local church in middle America, he is saying on a grand, nationwide scale in this little Southeast Asian country which at the time he arrived was the poorest nation in the world.

He was my pastor, the pastor that sent me to Bible College. I owe my spiritual growth and incredible faith to him in large part. He is a true hero of mine. You know the kinds of heroes that you actually know. They are close enough to you that you know them for the good and bad—not those heroes that are so distant and elevated on pedestals, the people who allow you in and enter your life with mutual benefit.

One reason he is my hero is the incredible strong, raw and sincere faith he has. He lives it. He walks it, and it often stretches him thinner than humanly possible.

In a ministry that cares for thousands of orphans at a time and no constant income stream to count on, the dependency on God to take care of the orphan is faith. Oh, dependency is one of the missiological things we try to avoid. Yeah, avoid like the plague. But how does one avoid this when babies are placed on your doorstep? When this is such an issue in God’s heart, how do we turn away the most dependent the world can offer?

Sometimes dependency is simply unavoidable. And to be honest the ministry in Cambodia is breaking all the rules, or maybe making a whole bunch of new ones, depending on your perspective.

It takes a lot to feed and clothe kids. But they do a fantastic job of working to avoid dependency as they have started 100’s of micro enterprises such as fish ponds, rice fields, pig farms, tractor repair shops, and on the list goes. They are developing these kids into an army of Cambodia’s most fervent followers of Christ. They are meeting urgent needs, and producing a mature person in the process.

But this takes money.

All of this takes money to fund ministry that rescues kids from poverty and much worse. Money to mobilize a church that is growing exponentially. Money that supplies such amazing ministry. This is the exception to the rule of dependency. But where does the money come from.

It comes from the one Hudson Taylor said would supply it.

The best story that illustrates how God is in this came a few years back in this endeavor. Money was thin, and hungry mouths were plentiful. Ted was beside himself on how to keep this ball rolling before the bottom fell out of this dynamic and huge mission that was transforming Cambodia, just read about what kind of nation this was 16 years ago compared to what it is today.

Ted was at the end of his rope, the end of his faith.

The end nearly came when the phone rang.

He picked it up not knowing who was on the other end. Even after talking a moment, he did not know. The man explained that he had recently been on a trip to Cambodia to observe the homes and the ministry happening in the country. This man then went on to explain who he was. Keep in mind, as a missionary who sees many teams come through, it is hard to keep everyone straight. People come and go, and there is no way to keep them all straight, especially when the urgent needs arrest your attention as the bills pile up.

This man who came with a team from Hong Kong explained that he was the Vice President for the Asia branch of the largest bank in the world at that time. He would have called a day earlier but wanted to confirm the funds in the deposit first.

That is right, funds. That magical word. So one starts hoping for a significant number as they continue to listen to the story.

The VP went on to explain what happened the previous day, the day after he returned from Cambodia.

One of his wealthiest clients came for her monthly meeting a few days later than normal. She came later since she had to wait for him to return from his business out of town. So she started asking what it was that the VP was up to.

He explained how he joined a trip observing a ministry that cares for orphans in Cambodia. Her interest was piqued. She thought this was a wonderful place for her philanthropy. You see, this wealthy client was a Singaporean with significant real estate holdings.  She wanted to help the children.

The VP objected saying, you see I am a Christian, and we were visiting a Christian ministry. You are a Buddhist. I am not sure you really want to do this. She insisted. The VP went on to describe Ted. He is a crazy man, doing incredible things like taking Buddhist kids and converting them into Christians. She said, stop it. I want to help.

The VP went on saying this man is wild. He wants to save the whole nation of Cambodia. He wants to destroy your religion.

She started to get a bit more insistent, you know the kind that makes the VP of a massive bank start to get antsy. This guy started to worry that he might lose his client, so he changed his posturing. He made sure that she was sure of what she wanted before working out the details.

Now, he is on the phone telling this story to Ted. He says this wealthy woman from Singapore who has no relation to the gospel, no relation to Ted, and has never seen the ministry wants to help.

Help is good, Ted thinks as he waits to hear how.

The VP said how. She is immediately sending one million dollars.

You could have blown Ted over with a feather. Even a man of faith gets blown away from time to time.

There was one condition. The VP relayed to Ted that she never wanted to have her name given or to have to come to Cambodia to meet Ted.

As Ted tells the story, this stuff doesn’t happen, it is unbelievable. But it did happen. He is the recipient of God doing it. This kind of story is meant to build faith, and sometimes it seems to only overwhelm those of us with normal faith. We say, this will never happen to us.

I am not telling this story to set up some kind of formula for God’s blessings. I am telling this story to encourage the hearts of those that follow a missionary God. I want to say what Hudson Taylor said.

“God’s Work Done in God’s way will never lack God’s supply.”

What are you believing God for?

The Season Of Giveaways

Good-Christmas-Gifts-For-Your-BoyfriendAs the holidays stretch around the corner, we often get the charity season revved up.  And this can cut many ways.

Prepare to be generous as charity workers come looking for support. Also: Look for ways that we can be Jesus to people, offering a drink, a meal, an extra coat, and more. Let’s be generous for the right reasons.

Often churches aim to leverage the holidays as an opportunity to draw people in if they give something out. It might be toys for Christmas, meals for Thanksgiving, clothes, shoes, backpacks at the beginning of school and many more ways to give things away in an attempt to win people to the faith. We end up mixing two aims into one—the aim to love and the aim to witness become seen as the goal to grow our church.

I was recently talking to the pastor of an inner-city church that our church, The Connection Church partners with on a regular basis to see both churches extend their reach and the mission of the Church with a capital C. We were talking about the plan to help them with a toy drive and giveaway over Christmas. The fact we are working toward a Christmas event that includes giving away toys should demonstrate that our perspective includes a value for giving and showing love.

Pastor Perades, a long-time veteran of serving in the inner-city of South Central LA, shared his straight talk with me. Let me pause to say, I appreciate straight talk, especially when it comes to partnering. We cannot have true partnership if one side is holding back. This straight talk helped articulate the problem with mixing goals.

Pastor wanted me to be aware that we can give toys away, and they would be glad to receive them for a Christmas event. He said we can fulfill the mandate to love our neighbor in this way. As he talks to his people, we must have an attitude of generosity, to give as we have been given so much. In this, however, he wanted to caution me, and I believe more than only me as we look toward being the church, filled with compassion, mercy, generosity and love at Christmas. Why are we doing what we do? There are plenty of good, Biblical, and laudable reasons to participate in charitable activities at Christmas. Let’s just stay within these reasons and not hope that what we do will also turn into new salvations.

His caution came to limit our expectations. We can be a people that loves our neighbor or those less-advantaged. We can aim to bless others, but let’s not see this as an evangelistic opportunity. He went on and on to say he hasn’t seen these giveaways as evangelistically fruitful. He just hasn’t seen people come to Jesus because of a freebee. Maybe that happens, but more as a consequence of the church being the church, and the Holy Spirit doing his work.

Why?

In today’s society, He explained, people are sophisticated enough to find the giveaways and show up for the free stuff. People know how to get what they want and not stick around for more than that. People know how to see through the façade that the giveaway is the carrot at the end of the stick. They know how to go through the motions to come away with what they want. Pastor shared his conviction that he has not seen these acts of charity to double as an evangelistic tool. The savvy person sees easily through ulterior motives. It is sad to put it in these terms, as a person who wants everyone to know the love of God and finds it hard to see that as a negative. But we can be clear with love and don’t have to be sneaky about evangelism.

Yes, we should love, we should be generous to those less fortunate, we should give. If I could say it in my own words. Let us be loving and giving people with no strings attached.

Maybe this can be a good reminder as the season of giving comes. Let’s give not to feel good about who we are. Let’s give without an expectation that our giving will translate into new converts or new members into our church. Let’s give and give sacrificially simply to be an extension of God’s love to this broken and desperate world.

Have you seen this kind of giving? Where have you seen it done well?

Getting “Saved” Pt.2

In my last post, I began to talk about this thing called salvation and how we expect the good news of God’s saving grace to affect people. You can catch it here.

Here goes the next thoughts with a story to illustrate my question.

Why has the church or large portions of the Christian community in the Western world gone to a place of almost enticing people into salvation? It is as though we are saying, pretty, pretty please just accept this guy Jesus into your life. C’mon, it will make me happy, and maybe you too. Yeah, yeah, smile, ‘cause Jesus loves you.

He certainly does, and his love compels us to a new life. His love drove him to great lengths that he could take our old life, the sin, the darkness, the bitter misery, the blasted state of our being and exchanges that sorryness for joy, beauty, hope, newness, and far more than a few words could even say.  His love wants to reach into our soul and make it alive, make it sing like never before of the glorious things he will fill our life with.

Some talk about faith being a journey, both a journey to faith and a journey to growing in the Lord. I don’t see this as mutually exclusive with the distinct conversion experience.

I am all in on the journey analogy and finding milestones or markers along the way that draw us closer to God, but I also know there have been far too many examples of an instantaneous conversion moment like Zacchaes had. A moment that says, he got “saved”.

Why don’t we expect this anymore as we witness of Jesus’ goodness in our life. Why do we feel a need to make it almost wimpy. I remember a student in one of my Bible classes in Thailand asking if we bait and switch people when we take them from a decision to the story of the Cost of Discipleship. Do we tell them how wonderful this decision will be, so they will say yes, and then give them all the gory details later? Why not tell them how wonderful life with Jesus is and expect the depth of our conviction, joy and authenticity to pull them into a place of conversion. Why not expect the grace of God to be at work as it calls people to a place of repentance. Why not believe that people can be touched by God in a powerful way. Why not from our vantage point, decidedly hope for people to get “saved” from the old, dead self into a new, alive self.  I don’t know. Maybe our faith in what God can do for a person is too low, and we feel the need to help him out a little in this business of salvation.

I am not saying, we need to beat salvation over people’s heads. I am not saying we should move back to the Bible-thumping, fundamentalist days. What I am saying, we need to take a posture of confident expectation of what God can do in a person.

At the same time, we should still be keenly sensitive to where people are coming from, and work hard to insure the only offense people receive from us is the offense of the cross. It is not easy, mind you. I get that there is a delicate balance of how we communicate with care and believe with fervor for God to work in people’s lives.

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I recently read a short story that reinstilled this conviction in my heart. This story comes from the mid-point of the last century in a small, Dutch town. A young man who believed God had the missionary call on his life decided to make his workplace his mission. First, he needed a job, so this uneducated, son of a black-smith and veteran of an unpopular war to defend his nation’s interests in Indonesia started working at a chocolate factory. The environment of his workplace was as foul of a place to work with crude language, abusive co-workers (girls who treated him hostilely), and simply poor conditions. But this was his mission field. He was sure that God had him here for a reason.

This missionary in training, Andrew, connected with another Christian, a teenage girl working behind a booth in another part of the factory. Together, they began witnessing, starting prayer meetings and taking people to evangelistic meetings.

The workplace did not change immediately though. One girl, Amy, blind and working the conveyor belt with Braille, routinely made mistakes. Her  situation was such an invitation to mocking to the point where the ringleader of these nasty girls who worked the factory floor, Gretchen, laid into Amy for dropping her materials. She picked on her ruthlessly and routinely.

At this point, Andrew, a shy Christian trying not to receive the brunt of the cut downs piped up felt the voice of God prompting him to speak. But he was not sure he should say what he heard, yet he did.

He spoke up with boldness saying, “Shut up!”, and I mean shut up for good. Stop putting everyone down. Stop being so cruel to everyone.  And not only that. I want you to go with us to our meeting Saturday. The bus leaves at 9 am; be there. I want you to  be there with us. And she listened. She showed up for the bus to the meeting.

She went along with the Christians, less than excited, but she was there. After sitting through the meeting nonplussed and partially checked out, they returned to the factory where the bus let them off. Now, everyone would go their separate directions. However, Andrew wanted an opportunity to follow up with Gretchen in the moment.

A thought came to him. He invited Gretchen to go home with him on his bicycle. He could easily take her on his way. She hesitated but acquiesced after some gentle urging. On their ride, he thought he might give her the final push into salvation, but again he heard that voice prompt to do something, something that again seemed like nonsense. However, he began to know this voice was the Lord’s and he should listen and follow what He says.

He felt urged to say nothing, nothing about the gospel of Jesus, but only to talk about the scenery. He did, and they enjoyed small talk on the way home.

The next morning at the factory, Andrew’s Christian friend asked him what he said to Gretchen on the way home. He said, nothing… why, nothing at all?

Then he looked across the warehouse floor to see Gretchen beaming with joy, and even helping Amy pick something up off the floor. He went to investigate and ask Gretchen what gives.

Gretchen explained how the previous day went in her mind and her apprehension to get a ride home from him. She feared that Andrew would push the Bible on her. She had her walls up, her barriers, but he simply showed care and consideration for her. She began to think about the whole day and the joy that exuded from the people at the meeting, the testimonies, the story of Jesus. She reflected and thought what if God is real. What if she was wrong. She prayed to God and thought if he is real, he could come and give her that joy too.

She explained how God came and flooded her heart and changed her bitterness for goodness, and complaining for mercy and kindness. God came into her life and completely transformed her from one night to the next day. Not to say the sanctification process was complete, but the conversion was sudden and distinct.

I read this story in God’s Smuggler, the story of Brother Andrew who smuggled millions of Bibles behind the communist’s Iron curtain. His story was incredible, but this story of a girl in the factory caught my attention. She got “saved”. And I thought, why don’t we expect the good news to do this in people today? What changed in our approach, our posture before God, our desire to see people changed?

There is not an easy answer, but it makes me think. Does it make you think?