Reflections, Resolutions

LAST YEAR,
I gave thanks for teamwork and sharing,
neighborhood faces,
time-earned trust,
homes,
new starts,
the nearness of God,
and the closeness of the human family.

I loved the women and children
and the lessons they taught me
and the arms to come home to
and the people who loved me
and the God who was calling.
My Jesus I love thee.

THIS YEAR,
I want to be patient and watchful and ready and here.
The soul-searching companions – may they hear you explaining.
The teenager lowlifes – may they see you intervening.
I want a
lowered
life.

My family – served
My friendships – preserved
My ministry – working
My spirit-eyes – searching
My Jesus I love thee.

take-home lessons from Honduras (pt. 3): devotion to street kids

Street boys at the Peter Project in La Ceiba, Honduras

“Street boys” at the Peter Project in La Ceiba, Honduras

In the last two posts (this one and this one) I described what I learned in Honduras about who missionaries are, how they think, and one of the most important things they do, which is hospitality. This final post has more to do with what I learned about how missionaries feel.

“Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.” -Charles Spurgeon

As we think about this together, ask yourself where your own mission field is or could be, and who the target people group in your life is or could be to which you want to devote yourself as a missionary.

Paul said to the people in one of his mission fields,

My little children, I am in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! Galatians 4:19

Dedication to a people group or mission field–such as the streets we live on–always starts with prayer: prayer in the Spirit, in the will of God, for those people, like the prayers of the apostles for their churches and Jesus for his disciples.

…we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding… Colossians 1:9

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your heart enlightened… Ephesians 1:16-17

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment. Philippians 1:9

What begins to happen as missionaries pray for the spiritual enlightenment and redemption of their people groups is miraculous. The deepest longing of their hearts becomes to see those people see the beauty and desirability of Jesus Christ, and to be transformed by the vision. Like Paul in the “anguish of childbirth,” missionary devotion becomes deep and dedicated. Their devotion becomes so sharply powerful that they can begin to lose themselves in an endless search for the perfect program, strategy, curriculum, or ministry model that will finally open the “eyes of their heart” and bring true change to their people group.

One of two things follows: emotional “burn-out,” or a re-centering of each missionary’s life and ministry around Christ’s gospel. The truth is that the beautiful paradox of Christ on the cross is the only persuasion strong enough to melt a stony heart, and the only argument cogent enough to convince a skeptical one. Wise missionaries realize eventually that their only task, ultimately, is to display and explain Jesus Christ, and to affirm and sharpen the vague but universal sense we all have that everything is wrong and that we need a Savior. In other words, it is to tell people to “repent and believe,” making sure they know what that means.

In Honduras, I learned a lot about “street kids” and children (and grown-up children) from abusive homes. If they get rescued from their environments and are put in loving and healthy settings, they tend to follow a pattern. They get the “itch” to run away from home, usually back to Mom, as if to check if anything has changed with the people supposed to love them. Usually, nothing has. Then, they run back to the streets, too ashamed to face their caretakers or adoptive parents, until street life becomes so unbearable that they sheepishly come back home and repeat the cycle.

Every missionary is persuading spiritual street kids and prostitutes to come home, be loved, sleep in real beds (as it were), and not run back to their natural father, the Father of lies, only to discover again that he only binds and steals from them. We are persuading them, and our own selves, that our adoptive Father really will meet us, running to us, with open arms, again. The lies in street kids’ minds about love and God go very deep–as they do in every human heart.

Praise God, because transformation really happens. It is not a myth, though it is usually undramatic. People slowly begin to think about what God wants when they make decisions. They start learning to appreciate the beauty of Scripture. They are moved to prayer by the story about Jesus dying. They feel hope from the story about him resurrecting. They run away from home less often. They start praying for other runaways. They talk about grace and are startled to find, after a while, that they too have become devoted. They are missionaries.

take-home lessons from Honduras (pt. 2): hospitality

The hospitality of Abraham

The hospitality of Abraham

In the last post I outlined what I learned in Honduras about who missionaries are, and how they think. This post is about hospitality, because hospitality is what missionaries (read: Christians) do.

Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. 1 Peter 4:9

Hospitality means including people, especially lonely people, in your life. That is the best definition I can invent, anyway. In the passage containing the “least obeyed command of Christ,” Jesus shows us what hospitality really looks like:

[Jesus] said to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” Luke 14:12-14

Hospitality means being family to the family-less, and friends to the friendless, and giving homes to those without any place to go for love and unconditional welcome. It includes spending money on those whom you do not expect to return the favor. Acts 4:34-35 describes the effects of the early church’s hospitality, explaining that “there was not a needy person among them.” Imagine if we practiced that again!

Our modern American lives are deeply isolated from each other, with our family members, co-workers, social contacts, church friends, and neighbors typically occupying entirely separate aspects of our lives and rarely interacting. The following quote, though referring specifically to singleness as a marital status, describes this phenomenon:

“‘Singleness’ as we conceive of it in our culture is not the will of God at all. It is representative of a deeply fragmented society. Singleness in America typically means a lack of kinship connectedness. This was not the case…with Jesus who was not married. He never lived alone. He went from the family home to a group of twelve close friends who shared daily life with him until he died…. In contrast, singleness in America often refers to a person who lives alone or in non-permanent, non-kinship relationships.” –Karen Keen

Spectrum of individualistic vs. collectivistic cultures

Spectrum of individualistic vs. collectivistic cultures

Such isolation–the logical end of our bizarrely individualistic society–is totally foreign to the depth of community experienced by Jesus and his disciples and the early Church. Hospitality cuts away at our isolation, involves us in each other’s worlds, and brings “the [physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually] poor, crippled, lame, and blind” to a place where trust and restoration become possible, perhaps for the first time. Hospitality introduces the lost and lonely to the God who welcomes them into his family.

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. 1 John 3:1

We are communal by nature. Being in other people’s environments and routines naturally involves us in their lives and takes us to where their hearts are. In your context, I see you as yourself: as another human remarkably similar to me, with needs just like mine. The artificial barriers we can keep up in public come down in our places of comfort and habit, and that is the only way significant relational connection and communication happen.

It is not complicated. It is taking people along with you in your life, and “hanging out” without any kind of agenda. It is creating environments where people can be who they are and be satisfied to be with one another.

In Honduras, where hospitality is a cultural cornerstone and people sit all day in their hammocks and are happy to talk about nothing, or not talk at all, as long as they are together, hospitality as a ministry model was easy and made sense culturally. In America, with our fragmented social groups, frantically busy schedules, and intolerance for silence or stillness, sharing even our external lives with one another is difficult, much less our hearts and souls. Here, hospitality still makes sense as the best ministry model–the best way to imitate the Incarnation of Christ–though it may take more logistical effort.

It works, though, and Jesus left us with a pattern to follow. He was and is the very best host.

Blessed are those servants who the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, [the master] will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. Luke 12:37

May the God of endurance and encouragement of the Scriptures grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. Romans 15:5-7

take-home lessons from Honduras (pt. 1): who missionaries are

Abuelita

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us… John 1:14

Jesus the divine Son of God, the logical principle which governs the universe, broke into our dimension, entered a womb, was born, lived, and died as a man. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Incarnation was the longest missionary journey ever undertaken, the most extreme cross-cultural interaction ever experienced. It is the lifestyle model for all missionaries, and all Christians.

“Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.”Charles Spurgeon

For me, I’m “home”–back in the town I grew up in, anyway–after spending 10 months as a missionary in Honduras. God taught me there about missionary life, and about the paradigm for life that the Incarnation creates.

He taught me that this is a missionary’s heart:

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews… To those under the law I became as one under the law… To those outside the law I became as one outside the law… To the weak I became weak… I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

He taught me that missionaries are lots of things, especially foreigners, students, advocates, and prophets.

They are foreigners. Naturally, they do not share all the thought patterns, habits, interests, or customs of their target “people group.” Since they are coming in from the outside, many things do not captivate them in the same way as they do for those from the foreign culture around them. That is what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 9 when he said he was “free from all.” Because Christ’s gospel defined Paul’s fundamental sense of himself, he found himself completely spiritually free from every sub-culture with which he interacted. Jews under the law, pagans outside it, rich and poor, weak and strong–being none of them in any fundamental sense, he could be each of them fully, while maintaining an underlying detachment from all the groups in their particularity. He remembered what Peter called all Christians:

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles… 1 Peter 2:11

Missionaries are students, by necessity. They are learners of new languages, cultures, societal systems, lifestyles, mindsets. Good ones never stop trying to understand their people groups better, by studying them. Better understanding, better parroting, makes for better communication, and missionaries know they are communicators of a foreign message–not from another nation but from another Kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven. Missionaries experience their host culture not as passive consumers but as active students. They analyze everything that comes at them: automatically, because everything is different, but also studiously, so that they can be “all things to all people.”

Missionaries are advocates for the overall well-being of their people group. They resemble Levitical priests, bringing people before God and God before people. Sometimes they defend the well-being of their people group to oppressors or to people in power, and sometimes to the people themselves. They advocate for justice on behalf of their people even when those people do not know what that means, being devoted to a God himself profoundly passionate about justice. They pray like priests, interceding for the people, and they think like prophets, strategizing for the renewal of every aspect of their people’s life.

Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy. Proverbs 31:8-9

Finally, they are prophets. That is, they are voices of God’s truth–and praise be to God, the truth about God is that he is full of grace. God told Jeremiah the prophet, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth,’ for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak… Behold, I have put my words in your mouth” (Jeremiah 1:7, 9). God equips missionaries in the same way. They are vehicles of communication for heaven’s proclamations. They are otherworldly message-bearers. Paul said in the New Testament, “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20). And what is “God’s appeal”? The next verse tells us: “Be reconciled to God!” That is the essential prophetic message missionaries communicate with their lives and voices.

Consider these things. Jesus sends all of us out–to our campuses, workplaces, neighborhoods, cities, and to all the nations and tribes of the world–just as his Father sent him.

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” John 20:21

First Names

After I looked you in the eye that first time,
When I stated my mantra, and parroted my lines,
And asked for your name, and forgot it moments later,
I realized I had sinned against both you and your Maker,
Who remembers your first name and never forgets.

After I looked you in the eye that second time,
At a gathering composed of your acquaintances and mine,
I wondered to myself where your line of vision had been,
Where it had elected to go and where it had gone at God’s whim.
Is not he who formed the eye quite able to see?

When the third occasion of our eyes meeting happened,
I felt myself to have a smaller soul than I’d imagined.
A world of a person had three times come before me:
A living creature, a sacred image, a breathing history,
Eyes I can see into, and a hand I can hold.

I’m told there’s a gathering or some event next week.
For a fourth time I will look into your eyes, and see
The windows to the human soul that’s standing there,
With all that has come in and out, the wants, the cares.
Again I’ll see your eyes, and I will want to peek behind them.

And I will look at them with love, and without pretense,
And I will speak your given name with proper reverence,
And I will plead the God of First Names give you mercy,
And he will tell you his first name, and then his story.

…God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” …And [God] said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” Exodus 3:4-6

Jesus said to her, “Mary.” John 20:16

“see how the farmer waits”

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. James 5:7-8

It’s the “information age,” the “age of technology.” Technology is fast and easy, and it makes things fast easy, and if using it requires patience, it’s bad technology. As a result, we as a culture are obsessed with instant satisfaction.

God, meanwhile, is the God of eternity. He never began, and will never end. Patience is an elemental part of his character. It’s not surprising, therefore, that nearly all the Bible’s metaphors for ministry and living as a Christian are agricultural – rather than technological.

Not long ago, everyone easily understood farming metaphors. In today’s America, only farmers, or people who garden, have even a sense of the patience agriculture requires (although when compared to the work of ancient farmers, their idea of it is relatively small, too). Farming means backbreaking labor, careful planning, long periods of waiting, and dependence on many uncontrollable factors. It’s an organic and messy process, and growth is slow. Imagine plowing, then planting, then waiting for, then harvesting crops on dozens of acres of land, without any kind of technology. Try watching a single seed grow, even.

The fact that the Christian life is like agriculture is good news for all of us, especially us ordinary people. The work of ministry and evangelism is called “planting seeds,” and the process of growing in holiness is called “bearing fruit” ; we can expect them to be slow. God is not like your boss, demanding instant results, and firing you if you don’t turn them in on time. He is not the CEO of the corporation, he is the “Lord of the harvest” (Matthew 9:38). God is beautifully, and incredibly, patient with us, the laborers in his vineyard.

It is good news, but it ultimately requires much more effort. It means that evangelism, relationships, and life in general as a follower of Christ need care, work, and attention over long periods of time. Lifetimes, even. There is no room for quick, clean, “talk to my pastor,” “come to this conference,” or “read this book and you’ll get it”-type ministry. Dealing with people means working hard to build trust, and getting to the core of real issues. It means intentionally pursuing people with whom relationship is not easy and not giving up on them when they do not produce quick results. The same goes for how we deal with ourselves.

The fact that agriculture is the common metaphor for Christian life and ministry means that we cannot succumb to our culture’s “instant satisfaction” mindset. Patience and diligence are crucial in applying the faith. God’s character of  unchangeability, patience, and trustworthiness is what makes our effort worth it, and our hope reasonable. Without that, we are blindly plowing fields and planting seeds with no reason to imagine that the rain will ever come, or that the seeds will ever grow.

And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Mark 4:30-32

The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully… He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 2 Corinthians 9:6-10

“being there”

When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. Job 2:11-13

If you’re familiar with the story of Job, you probably remember how greatly he suffered. Within a few days, raiders murdered all his employees and servants, destroyed his livelihood, and stole all his possessions; a house collapsed and crushed all of his children to death; he contracted a horrible, painful disease; and his wife left him. You may also remember that his friends kind of sucked. They told him he must have done something to deserve everything that happened to him. They presumed to have a handle on his problems, and they responded mostly by offering explanations, solutions, platitudes, and even accusations. God later rebuked them for their presumption (Job 42:7).

Yet, his friends were not all bad. God rebuked them but did not punish them, and forgave them soon after. These verses from Job 2 demonstrate the depth of their friendship with Job. Can you imagine sitting beside someone, silently, for an entire week? A few minutes of silence go by and I can hardly hold myself back from speaking, if just to break the quiet. In that way I am even more presumptuous than Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. They came to Job with a deeply felt respect for his pain, a deeply shared grief, and an amazing solidarity with him as his friends. Seven full days went by, and still, they allowed him to be the first to speak.

There is something beautiful about just “being there” for someone. It says: I’m not here to fix you. I am hurt by what’s hurting you but I don’t fully understand what you’re going through, for ‘each heart knows its own bitterness’ (Proverbs 14:10). You are not a project to me. All I want you to know is that I’m here, I love you, I respect you. I want to help carry your burden (Galatians 6:2).

That kind of friendship can speak volumes more than a flat “don’t worry, God is in control” or “what do you think God is trying to teach you?” Is God in control? Yes. Is he using our circumstances to teach us about himself? Yes. Is it real love to respond to someone’s pain with an easy generality, which, if they are anything like me, they will promptly ignore? Not so much. That’s just the way Job’s friends let him down. Does God oppose the wicked and bless the righteous? Indeed. Is that the truth Job needed to hear be extrapolated upon for some 40 chapters? Certainly not.

In hard times, I don’t want friends who run, and I don’t want friends who preach. I don’t want friends with all the answers. What I want is friends who love me “steadfastly,” as the Bible puts it. I want friends who mourn with me while I mourn, and who let me grieve with the kind of honesty of a Psalm 88 or 137. I want friends who, through their own rock solid trust in God’s goodness, remind me who my King is.

Outside Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus was one-hundred percent confident of his own power and glory. He knew exactly what he planned to do. Yet when he saw Mary’s weeping, he felt her grief deep in his spirit and wept right along with her (John 11:32-36). He did not preach at Mary and Martha, though he did gently remind them of who he was (vs. 26-27). He gave great dignity to their sorrow simply by sharing in it as a friend. The King of Glory felt the pain of the human condition more deeply than any of us.

That is the kind of friend I want to be. I want my faith in God to be so unshakable that a suffering person can see it even when all they are thinking is “why me?” I want my compassion to be so real that they take my faith seriously. I want to refrain from quoting Bible verses or sermons long enough for the person to actually desire the wisdom found in them. God help me to know how to point to the Redeemer not with a finger, or a lecture, or a cliché, but with the steadfastness of faith expressing itself through love.

At this,  Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;
may the name of the LORD be praised.” Job 1:20-21

Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. 1 John 3:18