Working on book # 5

My wife sometimes reminds me:

You can’t edit a blank page.

As is often the case, she’s absolutely right.

Such maxims have encouraged me in the past and helped me move from “some day” to “now.” My doctoral thesis on prevenient grace was published in 2010. Next came a short book about hell, appearing in 2013. In 2014, I published a daily devotional book in French, then followed that up in 2016 with a book on the church’s mission. In case you’ve noticed, that puts me (more-or-less) on an every three years schedule for the writing of a new book. So, since 2018 is already half gone, here’s to kicking off the 2019 project:

Excellent Generosity: Ten Principles for Giving Living

The book is based on a Clergy Development seminar that I’ve given three times in Africa (Zimbabwe, Angola, and Kenya). All three times, it was very well-received. So, my intention is to expand each of the principles into one chapter of the book, with (of course) an introduction and conclusion to-boot. I hope to end up with something in the range of 100-110 pages, which is about what people seem willing to read these days.

As in the past, this blog will serve as the platform. Writing a chapter seems daunting; writing a blog post, less so. Here goes!

 

 

 

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Solving the riddle of the 10-40 window

Lifeflight_Trust_Westpac_Rescue_Helicopter_-_Flickr_-_111_Emergency_(1)Warning: This post contains a graphic image that readers may find disturbing.

A father and his young son were driving down the highway. Suddenly, they suffered a terrible crash. The father was instantly killed, but his son survived. Severely injured, they helicoptered the boy to a nearby trauma center. As the medics rushed him into surgery to save his life, the trauma surgeon arrived, took one look at the victim, and concluded:

I can’t operate on him. He’s my son.

How can this be?

Maybe you’ve already figured out the solution to this riddle. (Pause reading if you need more time to think). The answer?

The surgeon was the boy’s mother.

Many people struggle to solve the riddle, even though female doctors have been commonplace for decades. The story illustrates that long ingrained patterns of thinking or assumptions about reality are not easily set-aside.

I’m an American missionary who has served for 22 years, mostly in Africa. I grew up in a Christian denomination that believes in missions, but until recently, “missions” always meant North America (or sometimes, the United Kingdom) sending missionaries “over there” to “the mission field,” i.e. Asia, Africa, South America, or remote islands. That missonaries were Westerners was an assumption, an ingrained way of thinking that we rarely openly acknowledged. But just like solving the riddle about the surgeon and the injured boy requires a new way of thinking, so solving riddles related to missions may require a new way of viewing the world and the role God wants us to play.

1040-window3

Take the so-called “10-40 window.” In the 1990s, missiologist Luis Bush dubbed the belt with the world’s most unreached people groups the “10-40 window.” It runs between 10 degrees and 40 degrees north latitude and contains countries in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia that remain resistant and the most unreached with the Gospel.  Among these countries, Islam, Buddhism, and Hindu are the dominant religions.

The Joshua Project provides a rationale for this emphasis:

The focus of the Christian missions community 200 years ago was for the coastlands of the world. A century later, the success of the coastlands effort motivated a new generation to reach the interior regions of the continents. Within the past several decades, the success of the inland thrust has led to a major focus on people groups. Today, followers of Christ are concentrating their efforts on the unreached peoples of the world, most of which are in the 10/40 Window.

Missiologist Howard Culbertson promotes the 10-40 window idea as a way to encourage prayer for “a dying world” and “unreached people groups.”  Besides prayer, his website encourages readers to donate to missions efforts, to join groups that promote missions and to enlist others to catch a global vision.

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What difference does the Resurrection make?

sunriseNote to reader: I preached this sermon on Sunday, April 1, 2018 at University Church of the Nazarene on the campus of Africa Nazarene University, Ongata-Rongai, Kenya.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the Common English Bible.

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Scripture reading: Acts 2:22-36 (CEB)

–prayer–

I. INTRODUCTION

Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed]. Several times today, we’ve repeated those words. But what would we say to a child who asks: “What difference does the resurrection make?” By the end of this messsage, we’ll know the answer to that question.

II. LIGHT ALWAYS FOLLOWS DARKNESS

Traditions have grown up around Easter that have little to do with the meaning of the day. The word “Easter” itself is of obscure origin. It may have come from an old English word referring to the goddess of Spring.

As a child, Easter meant wearing new clothes, a special outfit bought just for the day. Easter was also the day for the Easter Bunny who would deliver chocolates in a basket that we had to find hidden somewhere in the house. Or maybe there was an Easter egg hunt, children dashing about, looking for colored eggs.

These activities are fun for children but have little to do with the meaning of this day. And so instead of “Easter” we often now simply say “Resurrection Sunday.” For Christians, Resurrection Sunday is the surprise ending in a story that could have turned out much different, much darker. The joy and celebration of our living Christ is only meaningful when you linger at the foot of the Cross and behold the shame of a naked, lifeless Jesus. Only then does our Lord – clothed in glory and majesty, powerful and alive – stand magnificent in contrast. The bright light of Resurrection Morning is to us so precious because we have known the utter darkness of Holy Saturday.

And so here is the first answer to the question, “What difference does the Resurrection make?” It gives us hope that no matter how dark our lives may seem, light always follows darkness. The words of the song by Bill and Gloria Gaither ring true:

Hold on, my child!

Joy comes in the morning.

Weeping only lasts for the night.

Hold on, my child!

Joy comes in the morning.

The darkest hour means dawn

Is just in sight.

Christ is risen! [He is risen, indeed!]

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He cares for me: Stories of God’s providence

The old saying rings true: “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation will suffice.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than when discussing God’s providence. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “providence” as the “foresight and care which God manifests for his creatures.” This post will convince no skeptics, but for people of faith, you may find yourself nodding your head in agreement.

512px-WTC_New_York_1992_Sander_Lamme

On September 11, 2001, 2,763 individuals of various nationalities died when the Twin Towers collapsed following being struck by two commercial airliners commandeered by terrorists. Many have told stories of how they should have been there or on one of the commandeered planes, but for one reason or another, their plans changed that day. These included Patti Austin, who would have been on United Airlines 93 that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, fought over by heroic passengers who stormed the cockpit. Instead, Austin had changed her flight to a day earlier when she learned of her mother’s stroke. Champion Australian swimmer, Ian Thorpe, was on his way to the observation deck of the World Trade Center when he realized he’d forgotten his camera. He took a cab back to his hotel to retrieve it, then turned on the TV to see the horrific news of the first jetturned on the TV to see the horrific news of the first jet slamming into the North Tower.

I don’t want to get bogged down in the intricacies of the Open Theism debate, of whether and in what sense God knows the future. (For those who are interested, a good place to start is Gregory Boyd’s God of the Possible). In most instances of God’s providence, it’s enough to believe that God has a comprehensive knowledge of the present, and an ability to see the trajectory of events. Even this knowledge is more than sufficient for our loving God to act in favor of human beings.

If we were to know every instance in which God acted to avert tragedy in our lives, we would fall immediately to our knees in gratitude. When it comes to divine providence,  God’s intervention resembles the iceberg, where only a fraction is visible and the rest is hidden below the waterline. But that tip of the iceberg – the providences that we know about – is impressive enough.

Often when people ask how they can pray for our missionary work, we’ve responded by asking for protection during travel. Not surprisingly, both of my stories of God’s providence have to do with traveling in a vehicle.

Our first home assignment was in early 1997. We’d left Kansas City and were making good progress on a three day trip to Seattle. Pulling into Nampa, Idaho – where we planned to spend the night – I noticed that the car’s left rear tire was mostly deflated, so I pumped it up again and fueled the car for the next day. Coming out of the hotel the next morning, I was frustrated to see that the tire was deflated again. The bright side was that the crew at the Chevron station was efficient. They found a nail in the tire, patched it up, and in 45 minutes we were back on the road.

A few hours later, driving the south-north highway through eastern Oregon, conditions grew treacherous from a snowy winter whiteout. Authorities closed the highway, and we took shelter from the storm in a small diner. When the waitress came to take our order, we asked what was going on. “They closed the highway because of a pile-up,” she confided. Around 21 cars and trucks were involved, victims of the poor visibility and slippery roads. Upon further questioning, we discovered that the accident had occurred less than an hour ago. Suddenly, my nail in the left rear tire didn’t look like a curse; instead, it looked like a Godsend.

1024px-Car_wheel_round

Some years later, in 2002, we were on vacation in northern Togo. It’s a hilly part of the country, with steep grades in the road and treacherous drop-offs. While there are guardrails, they wouldn’t stand up to the rapid descent of an out-of-control truck or car. As we navigated yet another sharp turn coming down a mountain, I commented to my wife and sons:

This is one place you really wouldn’t want to lose your brakes.

A few minutes later, now on a straight-away, I tapped my brakes and was suprised when the pedal went to the floor! Gearing down, I managed to roll to a stop, then got out to see what was happening. The Toyota Forerunner’s brake line was ruptured, and the last of the brake fluid was bleeding out on the ground. It turns out (unbeknownst to us) that we had just completed the last of the sharp downhill curves. If my brakes had gone out 5 minutes earlier, who knows what sadder outcome might have been?

Jesus taught about God’s care for his creation. God clothes the grass of the field (Matthew 6:30) and knows when a sparrow falls to the ground (Matthew 10:29), so how much more does God care for us? The Lord even speaks of angels who watch over children (Matthew 18:10) and an angel of the Lord freed Peter from the jail where he awaited likely execution (Acts 12:6-19). These are just a few examples from Scripture of God’s loving care for his own, of his provision and protection.

One song that speaks eloquently of God’s care is Jimmy Owens’ “He Cares for Me.” The chorus reminds us:

His power is great and will ever endure.

His wisdom is peacable, gentle and pure.

But greater than all these glories I see

Is the glorious promise, that He cares for me!

Watch Daniel Choo sing a guitar cover of this song by clicking here.

What stories would you like to share of God’s care for you? Add them in the comment section.


 

Image credits

World Trade Center: By Sander Lamme (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Tire: By Md.Mijanur rahman Mijan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

God’s plan for marriage and sexuality

rings.jpgGenesis 1:27, 2:24

I. INTRODUCTION

The amazing thing about the Bible is that it addresses nearly every area of human life. Money? It’s in there. Death? There’s plenty about death in Scripture. Sickness? The Bible talks about it. Joy? Sadness? Friendship? Salvation? God talks about those, too. Today, let’s talk about a biblical topic that preachers often avoid. Today, let’s talk about marriage and sexuality.

II. MARRIAGE AND SEX: THE ORDER MATTERS

The first thing you’ll notice is the order. I could have said “sex and marriage” and that’s often how people address it. Sex first – our world says – and then maybe we’ll get around to marriage. But God’s plan is the other way around. Marriage is to precede sex.

In the Bible, the Song of Solomon is a celebration of sexual love. But notice it’s sex within a covenant, within the bond of marriage. It’s a bride and a groom longing for each other. Some want to overlook the obvious and make that book a parable of Christ’s love for the church, but I think that is reading the Bible backwards, imposing the New Testament upon the Old. Instead, the Song of Solomon should be seen for what it is, a long poem celebrating the God-given physical aspect of married love. So today, the Christian ethic draws on the Jewish ethic, and affirms that God made sex very good, so good that it is worth protecting as something sacred, and that’s exactly what the covenant of marriage does.

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Loving the world, forsaking the world

worldBurt Bacharach crooned: “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.”

Jesus would have agreed. At the last supper before his arrest and crucifixion, he taught his disciples:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:34-35, NIV).

The Lord was only asking them to do what his Father had already done. It was because God “so loved the world” that he sent Jesus (John 3:16). And Jesus in turn showed his love for the world, laying down his life for the world (John 1:29). It follows that what the Father and Son have done, we are called to do, loving the world in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Yet there’s an interesting tension in the New Testament books attributed to John. While there is a positive love of the world that fuels our service to God and others, there’s a negative kind of “loving the world,” one that chokes off our zeal for God and withers our concern for others. John warns:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them (1 John 2:15, NIV).

So which is it: Should we love the world or not? The answer is: BOTH.

Make no mistake: Our call is to love the world – all that God has made – wholeheartedly and unreservedly, in order that the world may be reconciled to God. We long for the day when heaven and earth will be one (Revelation 21:1-5). God has a loving concern for creation, the cosmos. What God has created, God longs to salvage and to renew. To this task God calls us, to partner with heaven to redeem the earth, including humans who have rebelled against God. If we do not love what God loves, how can we cooperate for its restoration?

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The Jesus question

768px-Circle-question-blue.svgThere are many intriguing questions in Christian theology, but one matters most. It’s the question Jesus asked his disciples:

Who do you say I am? (Matthew 16:15, NIV).

Simon Peter replied that Jesus is the “Messiah,” the “Son of the living God” (v. 15, NLT). This simple fisherman saw in Jesus of Nazareth the One anointed by God, the Christ. This confession of faith – Jesus as the Son of God – is the rock upon which Christ builds his church (v. 18).

It’s the Jesus question.

In math class, our teacher taught us to simplify fractions. Instead of 4/8 – she patiently explained – find the largest whole number that divides into both the numerator and the denominator. The anwer is 4, and when divided by that number, 4/8 becomes 1/2. It’s easier to work with simplified fractions.

What is true for fractions is true for theology. The Jesus question keeps us from getting lost in a maze of valid but ultimately less important questions; it simplifies things.

The Jesus question is helpful both corporately and individually:

Corporately — It’s a church, but is it a Christian church? Look past more complicated issues and determine what they think about Jesus. If a given church teaches that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, if they believe that he is the Savior of the world and is himself God, that he died for our sins and rose again to reconcile us to God, then they clear the minimum bar. But if Jesus is in some way demoted or held to be a great teacher or prophet but not himself God, that church may be many things, but it is not Christian.

Individually — The Jesus question confronts each of us. Jesus wasn’t content to just know what the crowds were saying about him. He turned to his disciples and to us:

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say that I am?” (v. 15, NIV)

We must decide who exactly this Jesus is, not only for others, but for us. Peter concluded: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Then he moved beyond words to action. He continued to follow Christ. For many of us, to respond positively won’t be a continuation of a journey but the beginning of a new one. To us and to all, Jesus says: “Follow me.”

Christian theology asks many questions. Theologians offer a wide variety of answers, but on the question of Jesus, voices unite. Only he is God’s eternal Son, God’s anointed, our hope for this life and the life to come. How have you answered the Jesus question?


 

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons