Posted in missions & evangelism, sermons & addresses

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus: An Advent Homily (Luke 2:22-38)

Charles Wesley (1707-88), penned the moving words to "Come, Thou long expected Jesus"
Charles Wesley (1707-88), penned the moving words to “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”

Note to the reader: I preached this homily at the Maraisburg Church of the Nazarene yesterday (15 December 2013) near Johannesburg, South Africa. We celebrated worship on the same morning that the nation buried former President Nelson Mandela, following a week of memorial services and loving remembrances.




Have you ever waited so long for something that you wondered if it would ever come about?

Perhaps some of you are now past the average marriage age, and you wonder if you will ever find “the one.” Or in a tough economy with high unemployment, you’ve been searching for a good job for what seems like forever.

It’s Christmas time, and with Christmas childhood memories flood back. One year, my grandma sent a big box in the mail several weeks before Christmas Day. We opened it up, and inside were many packages carefully wrapped, one for each of us in the family. Dad put the gifts under the tree, and of course my brothers and I did what children do. When our parents weren’t looking, we’d pick up our present, shake it to see what noise it made, anything to help guess what was inside.

It seemed like we waited so long for Christmas Day! Finally, the wait got the best of us. Very early on Christmas morning when Dad and Mom were still asleep, I heard noise coming from the living room. Quietly, I made my way down the staircase, and found my two older brothers shining flashlights around the room! Of course, I opened mine up, too, and joined in the fun. Then, we carefully wrapped them up again and put them under the tree. The next morning, when it came time to open presents, we opened the gift from grandma. “Oh look! A flashlight!” we said, pretending like we hadn’t seen it before. It was hard to wait all the way to Christmas.


Whether it’s waiting for marriage, employment, or just opening up a Christmas present, one thing is sure: Waiting can be tough. That was certainly the case for Israel. There was about a 400 year silence between the close of the Old Testament and the opening of the New Testament. Malachi was the last Jewish prophet upon whom the spirit of prophecy had rested, and he wrote around 350 b.c. In those closing words of the Old Covenant, Malachi 4:5 spoke of Elijah the prophet coming “before the great and terrible day of the LORD” (CEB). Luke clearly considered John the Baptist an Elijah-like figure. In Luke 1:44, we even have the story of Mary visiting Elizabeth, her cousin. Both women were expecting babies, and the yet-to-be-born John leaps for joy when he hears the voice of Mary.

And now after this long silence, the spirit of prophecy is back in full force. The Holy Spirit is speaking again, and this time it’s to an old priest, Simeon, and to an old prophetess, Anna. The Spirit says to them that the long wait is almost over. Look at Luke 2:26:

The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.

The term “Christ” comes from the Greek word, Christos. It means the “anointed One.” In Hebrew, the equivalent term is maschiach, the Messiah. Simeon and Anna were about to see the Saviour for whom they had waited so long!

Continue reading “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus: An Advent Homily (Luke 2:22-38)”

Posted in missions & evangelism

Comfort or hardscrabble? Comparative views on evil and suffering

Young boys in the Muthare slum of Nairobi, Kenya

If you want to chew up a church in America, hire a missionary who has just returned from Africa. When you’ve witnessed abject poverty and the resilient spirit of many who live in it, you may be tempted to ask a well-off U.S. church member complaining about petty things:

Would you like a little cheese with your whine?

As a theology teacher, I often include a section on theodicy in courses I teach pastors here in Africa. Theodicy is the doctrine of evil and suffering, especially attempts to justify God whom we believe – despite all evidence to the contrary – is both Almighty and good. It’s the old question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” But I’ve noticed across the years that theodicy doesn’t cause the angst in my African adult students that it causes in me. In fact, I’ve yet to come across a book written by an African theologian on that topic, though it’s a perennial favorite among American Christians, including the latest by Pastor Tim Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (2013).

Why is this the case?

Many Americans I know (including myself) are accustomed to comfort, growing angry at God when difficulties unexpectedly arise. In contrast, many Africans I know are accustomed to a hardscrabble life and praise God heartily when they receive unanticipated blessings.

My wife and I went to the Muthare slum in Nairobi for church a few years ago. Eighty of us were packed tightly into a small room with a tin roof and a dirt floor. We sat on wooden benches in their humble church. At the end of the service, they wanted to celebrate Christmas early since the children in their church-run primary school were at the end of their term and would soon scatter. Two women brought out a white 12″x 12″ frosted cake. Before that day, I wouldn’t have thought it possible to cut such a small confection into eighty slices, but they masterfully pulled it off, gingerly wrapping each morsel in a napkin and passing it to the children. The young ones’ eyes lit up in delight at the sugary treat! I thought how as boys my five brothers and I easily devoured a birthday cake twice that size and with a fraction of the gratitude that those Kenyan children showed.

What was the difference? My brothers and I expected comfort as life’s default setting and so took cake for granted. As for Muthare churchgoers, they seemed to expect tough times as the norm and so were elated to find an exception to the rule.

Regarding theodicy, the apostle Peter lived closer to the dominant African view than the dominant American one. In 1 Peter 4:12-13 he writes:

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as through something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed (TNIV, italics added).

How can I who have received so much so easily fall into a complaining mode? My prayer is that God will help me to see the world with new eyes, as a place where tough times are normal and good times are a serendipity. Then, let me as I am able and directed by God’s prompting, be a channel of God’s good gifts.


Photo credit: Journey of Hope

Posted in book reviews, missions & evangelism

African voices

African Voices, by Mark and Nancy Pitts (Nazarene Publishing House, 2010)

Mark and Nancy Pitts spent 3 years at Africa Nazarene University in educational administration. During that time, they opened up their home to a variety of Nazarene students and leaders from a swath of the African continent.  African Voices (CDs available here) presents profiles of eight leaders and the impact they are having as they serve Christ.

The Pitts did a good job presenting a variety of stories. Two of the leaders interviewed were women clergy (Jackie Mugane and Agnes Ibanda), a reminder that the Church of the Nazarene without apology believes that God calls both women and men to all roles of ministry in the church, both lay and ordained. Other profiles underscored the sacrifices that those whom God calls are willing to make (with their families’ blessing) in order to equip themselves for service. This came through in the story of Chanshi Chanda, who sold his business and for several months lived in humble conditions, awaiting their move to Malawi to begin ministerial studies.

But in all the stories, the emphasis on changed lives and holiness shone through. Sometimes this included the social impact that holiness should have. Ermias Choliye from Ethiopia observed:

“The message of holiness helps in corruption in the government, and it helps in the community to do away with individualism. Some preach prosperity, some preach tradition…but they don’t live like true Christians. When we bring in this living strategy from the teachings, then they accept, [and] the community now opens the door and gives licenses to the Church. So holiness is the full message that we need in life.”

African Voices does raise a question. One leader interviewed (p. 23) claimed 400,000 Nazarenes in a single field. Can this be accurate when the entire Region is composed of just over a half million?

Yet overall, African Voices effectively helps the reader get a glimpse of the passion for Christ that animates many of our African Nazarene leaders. Readers will be inspired to pray for them individually as they push out the boundaries of the Kingdom.

Posted in missions & evangelism, reflections

Is Evangelicalism Platonic and Gnostic?

blakecrIt’s a classic entry from The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass, Aged 37 3/4:

Sunday December 22nd

Guest speaker at church today, dressed in a monk’s habit. He said that God is nice and he likes us. Everyone looked at Edwin to see if we agreed. Difficult to tell as he was grinning like a happy little boy. Speaker kept quoting Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who is, of course, a Roman Catholic!

Afterwards, Richard Cook whispered to us, ‘Ah yes, but is she saved?’

Gerald whispered back, ‘Ah yes, but how many filthy beggars have you washed this week, Richard?’

Get the book. Read it all — it’s a hoot, and has kept our family laughing at times we’d rather cry.

Like all good comedians, Plass knows how to have us laughing and thinking at the same time. For lying just under the surface of a farcical scene is an important point: What is the relationship of things spiritual and things bodily? Is our job just to get people “saved” (ready to meet God) or does this whole Christianity business also involve rolling up our sleeves and pitching in?

It’s funny how our view of reality may have an unintended effect upon how we answer that question. It’s an old discussion, one that came up in the earliest centuries of the Church. The term Gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge.” Some claimed that salvation was attained through special knowledge. It was an esoteric system that included a pure God far removed from Creation, with “eons” (or emanations) radiating from Him, and only the “demi-urge” (a far removed from God, intermediate being) indirectly bringing the universe into existence. God was spirit and pure, whereas matter was evil.

Importantly, Gnosticism contained a strong element of escapism. The Catholic Encyclopedia explained:

“This utter pessimism, bemoaning the existence of the whole universe as a corruption and a calamity, with a feverish craving to be freed from the body of this death and a mad hope that, if only we knew, we could by some mystic words undo the cursed spell of this existence — this is the foundation of all Gnostic thought.”

Gnosticism was shaped by many religions, so It is debated how much Gnosticsm was influenced by Plato’s thought, but some influence is accepted. Plato had taught that the soul is immortal and would outlive the temporal body. In this sense, priority was placed upon what was eternal (“Ideas” or “Forms”) vs. what was only an earthly shadow.

Whatever the degree of Plato’s influence upon Gnostic belief, Gnosticism has had an influence upon Christian theology and practice. Monasticism grew up in early centuries of the Church, some forms of which treated the body harshly. Others reacted differently to the mix of Platonism and Gnosticism, believing that the soul (being pure) could not be negatively affected by bodily behavior. Hedonism was the result.

Past ideas can echo down to the present. Evangelicalism is the brand of Christianity that became prominent in North America (and to some extent, in the United Kingdom) in the mid twentieth century. Billy Graham was its most notable leader, emphasizing people “making a decision for Christ.” The most important thing in life was to be “born again,” to be “saved.” (Thank the Lord for the many thousands who found hope in Christ through Dr Graham!)

Much broader than Graham himself, in most Evangelical preaching, the emphasis was placed upon heaven as the place where our “never dying soul” would go to be at death, but only if we had “accepted Christ.” Those who presented the Gospel (Good News) in this way were called “soul winners.” In my own denomination, there was the mid-20th century “Crusade for Souls.” Long-time Nazarene Theological Seminary Professor of Evangelism Charles (Chic) Shaver taught a modified form of the “Kennedy Plan,” which begins with the question:

Have you reached the place in your life where you know for sure that if you died tonight you would go to heaven?

Note where the emphasis lies. The concern is for the next life, not this one. Underneath the little word “you” is the dualistic assumption, that the real “you” is the one that leaves when you die. The word “soul” is not explicit, but it’s there nonetheless.

We must ask: For all of its positive fruit, to what degree was this understanding of the Gospel influenced by Plato, or perhaps Gnostic-like ideas? By 1987 when I took “Personal Evangelism,”  some students at NTS had begun questioning Dr Shaver. It was difficult, after all, to be learning about Gnosticism from Dr Paul Bassett in Church History I and not see shades of Gnosticism in the “soul winning” language used down the hall. To his credit, Shaver recognized the problem, but kept the language, explaining that he could “spend the next 50 years on that cause” and be distracted from the task God had given him, which was introducing people to Christ — fair enough. To this day, I appreciate Dr Shaver and the way he made us concerned not just about “souls,” but about people. Still, the “soul” language can be problematic.

A second question relates to the moral ramifications of Gnostic teaching. Earlier, we saw that one possible reaction to the “soul matters more than body” idea was monasticism. Twentieth century Evangelicalism built no monasteries, but I wonder if a monastic spirit isn’t behind some of the more legalistic expressions of the movement? If what matters is eternal souls being one day in heaven with God, then necessarily everything else that is “earthly” pales in comparison, especially if what is earthly is by definition corrupt. And what’s more, if there’s any question whatsoever that such pursuits could keep the soul “missing heaven” (as evangelists used to say), then those things must be eschewed as “worldly.”

Finally, Gnostic pessimism shines through in some versions of the End Times. The Left Behind series of books and films encourages disengagement from the world, presenting a dystopic vision. Only the “rapture” (and later, the Second Coming of Jesus) will bring bliss for those who escape the Great Tribulation and the claws of the Anti-Christ to go to be with Jesus in a better place. This is the default view of most Evangelicals, yet the escapism it shares with Gnosticism is real.

So what do you think? Realizing the overall good that has been done by emphasizing evangelism, have we sometimes been Platonic or even Gnostic in how we speak about our Christian faith?


Photo credit: Sullivan County

Posted in Christian ethics, missions & evangelism

When compassion and purity embrace: Lessons from James 1:27

Cup-Cold-WaterI’ve always liked the New Testament book of James. Yes, James is my first name, so that’s a point in his favor, but it’s more than that. James knows how to marry compassion and purity. Take for instance James 1:27 (NIV):

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: To look after orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Some emphasize purity, contained in the last phrase of the verse, “to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” This is an essential part of the Christian ethic and is as old as the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). Commandments 6-10 are all phrased negatively:

6) “You shall not murder.”

7) “You shall not commit adultery.”

8) “You shall not steal.”

9) “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”

10) “You shall not covet…”

Jesus himself ratified the Ten Commandments as still in effect (Matthew 19:16-22). How many of the cases that clog our court system can be traced back to a non-respect of these basic principles of conduct? Eighty percent of divorce lawyers would be out of business if the seventh commandment was obeyed. Likewise, the corruption so rampant in many countries reflects a fundamental disregard of the tenth commandment, where the “little guy” is the victim of extortion, the prey of government bureaucrats determined to fleece the public. As for the sixth commandment, if followed by all, debate over the death penalty would be unnecessary since murders would be no more.

I am part of the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. We have  been quite comfortable with the Ten Commandments and other Scriptures that apply to personal morality. As for preaching, the importance of being “saved” and “sanctified” is our stock-in-trade. While this has sometimes morphed into legalism – a piling up of rules not clearly taught in Scripture – more often there has been a positive note of the transformation God the Holy Spirit makes in our lives. That’s an outcome we can celebrate!

Where we have done less well is applying the earlier part of James 1:27, i.e. the looking after orphans and widows in their distress. This phrase symbolizes the positive aspect of holiness, that righteousness is more than what we don’t do; it is what we do. The order of the phrases is important. James calls us to positive action before he calls us to purity. The proverb affirms: “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” It’s not enough to outline the things from which the believer should abstain. Rather, when we pour our lives compassionately into others, we may very well be too busy to be distracted by the “sin that so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1a, NIV).

The old debate over whether we should emphasize compassion or purity is a false one. James 1:27 shows that the two go hand-in-glove. May the Lord show us opportunities to put our faith into loving action!


Photo credit: Truth Endures

Posted in missions & evangelism, reflections

On haircuts and fundamentalism

barber-shopLike many words, “fundamentalist” can be a slippery one. At the turn of the 20th century in the United States, the word was made popular by a series of books called The Fundamentals, a 1910 work including 90 essays outlining orthodox Christian teaching. In recent years, however, the term has come to represent more an attitude than a doctrinal stance. Fundamentalists are those who seem focused on why they are “in” and others are “out.” It is a combative approach that emphasizes doctrinal purity over loving God and neighbor.

Nothing crystallized this sour-faced, narrow approach to religion better than our Gospel concert at the Temple. (The name of the church has been changed). My family was a Gaither rip-off, “The Croffords: Musical Messages with Warmth and Love.” Our high water mark was in ’75/’76 when my dad, mom, my five brothers and I recorded albums at Pinebrook in Alexandria, Indiana, the studio owned by Bill and Gloria Gaither. Usually we sang only on weekends, but this was at the time of Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority.” A meeting of pastors was being held during the week at the Temple, and – not knowing the political agenda – my dad agreed for us to come and present a mini-concert for those gathered.

We pulled out all the stops. Dad took off work, as did my oldest brother. Very exceptionally, my parents released us from school a few hours early that day so we could perform. Before the concert, we had changed into our outfits in the men’s room and had to step around a barber chair. Yes, they were giving haircuts in the men’s room of the church! That was odd, to say the least.

Now this was the day of polyester leisure suits, extended sideburns, and (for boys of any age) long hair. After the concert, we were packing up the sound equipment when one of the men from the local church came up to talk to my dad. “See those sons of yours?” (He pointed to two of my little brothers, aged 6 and 7 at the time). “You really need to get their hair cut. They look like girls. Don’t you know that the Bible says that ‘It’s a shame to a man to have long hair'”?

My dad is soft-spoken, but this man had captured his attention, and not in a good way. “Really?” he countered. “Where exactly does it say that in the Bible?” The accuser left and huddled with a few others in the back of the sanctuary. In a few minutes, he returned and confidently intoned: “1 Corinthians 11:14 – ‘Does not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man has long hair, it is a shame unto him?” Nonplussed, my dad replied: “And what does ‘long’ mean? I have a friend whose hair is very short. He’d say that your hair is too long!” “Oh, no” he answered. “My hair is just right!”

Seeing that the conversation was going nowhere, my dad concluded: “You know, I took off work today. So did my oldest son. Exceptionally, we even pulled our other sons out of school so we could come today as a family and sing this concert because the Temple asked us to do so and we hoped to be a blessing. And after all that, did you come up to tell me that you appreciated the concert, that you had been blessed? No – instead, all you have told me is that my sons’ hair is too long. I think that’s pretty sad.”

That story happened 37 years ago, yet in some quarters, little has changed. There are still groups of sour-faced fundamentalists in churches whose mission is finding fault with other believers. They criticize professors who try to clothe the gospel in terms that will resonate with the current generation, even though the essence of the timeless Gospel message they present remains unchanged. Rather than penetrating the culture in winsome ways, sending out our young people to change the world, fundamentalism is the “pull up the drawbridge” mentality. It is always “us” vs. “them.” It has forgotten that the most effective evangelism is not hiking up the hems of our holy robes so as not to be sullied by the “world.” Rather, it is finding areas of common humanity with all people, then using these to build relationships with those who so desperately need Jesus. If all we ever read are Christian novels, listen only to Christian music, and limit ourselves to “churchy” things, what springboards for conversation will we have with those who have no interest in all that?

Can’t do the “Harlem Shake” – that’s demonic.

Can’t read (fill in the name of popular fun book) – that’s “worldly.”

Can’t listen to this music, or that.

Can’t, can’t, can’t…

And then we’re surprised when we’re unable to sustain a 5 minute conversation with a non-Christian?

In the Garden of Eden, God told Adam and Eve that they could eat of any of the many trees in the garden, except one (Gen. 2:16-17). So why are we hanging “don’t touch” signs on so many trees, wholesome activities that God has made for our enjoyment?

There was a time when I was ready to do battle over a long list of things. Maybe it’s just that I’m growing older and realize that life is only so long, but my list of “non-negotiables” has gotten a lot shorter. Yes, there are things we should avoid. Some activities are not wholesome and – if persisted in – will begin to cut off our relationship with God. But we should be careful in our world that has lost its sense of moral direction not to over-react, erring in the opposite direction, placing out-of-bounds many of the good things God intended for our benefit.

Paul gives us helpful advice:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things”(Phil. 4:8, NIV).

What an amazing world God has gifted to us! Let’s shake off the fault-finding, narrow spirit of fundamentalism. Let’s turn our young people loose; let’s send them out to affirm all that is good in God’s creation, modeling a wholesome life centered around loving an incredible Saviour, a love that can’t help but love others. Now that’s Good News!


Photo credit: Gene Juarez

Posted in book reviews, missions & evangelism

Jonny Steinberg’s Tale of Two Liberias

little-liberia-an-african-odyssey-in-new-york-cityIf you’re looking for a whimsical read, then steer clear of Jonny Steinberg’s Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York City (London: Vintage Books, 2012). But if you crave a journalistic style that ably presents riveting episodes from Liberia’s two civil wars (1989-96, 1999-2003) along with their ripple effect upon “Little Liberia” (Liberians refugees exiled on Staten Island in New York City), then Steinberg’s account is for you.

Full disclosure: I cannot read Little Liberia without seeing it through the eyes of my own visits to that country. It was during a lull in the fighting in the Spring of ’95  that I first touched-down in Monrovia, to teach a theology class to twenty pastors. Subsequent visits have confirmed for me the resiliency of this people, a determination to stick together through tough times. To visit Liberia is to love Liberians, a gregarious and hard-scrabble people.

This same enduring spirit imbues Steinberg’s book, narrated through the eyes of two Liberian refugees living in New York City. Rufus Arkoi was a soccer coach and organizer who left Liberia in 1986. His path later crossed with Jacob Massaquoi, whose foot had been badly mangled in a shooting in Monrovia during an outbreak of fighting. Through their childhood stories, we catch a glimpse of the historical dynamics that laid the tragic groundwork for the gathering storm.

What is it that made Liberia prone to such brutal civil wars? Part of it – according to Rufus Arkoi – is the “suspicion and jealousy” that permeates society. When asked where that comes from, his answer is polygamy (p. 149-50):

I always say it is because of how our families are structured: one man, four wives, four sets of children, four sets of goals, not one set of family goals. Jealousy among the four sets of children. This mother is only looking at the interests of her children and is wishing that those children from the other mothers do badly in life. That’s the family structure. That’s the society.

And yet the amazing thing about both Rufus Arkoi and Jacob Massaquoi is that – whatever the cause of suspicion – they both are most of the time able to rise above it, contributing to the good of their fellow Liberians in important ways. Theirs is an optimism that sees not only what is but what can be, both working to help Liberian youth on Staten island get the education that will keep them out of gangs, enabling them to build for a brighter future.

In connection with economic development back in their homeland, one assumption that that author never challenges is that salvation must come from outside of Liberia. It is Liberians working in New York City who – much like Haitians – send a significant portion of their salary back to their country of origin. On the one hand, this is admirable, a sign of solidarity that should be applauded. On the other hand, it perpetuates a cycle of dependency, blinding citizens to local resources. Of course, this is the dilemma of all foreign aid. How can legitimate human need be met without creating in those helped a sense of entitlement? To use the words of the late Jack Kemp, how can assistance be a “hand up” and not merely a “hand out”?

In the last chapter of the book, Rufus Arkoi returns to Liberia and makes promises that he will go back and raise money from American donors, that he will send American soccer scouts to Monrovia to recruit Liberian players for foreign teams (p. 241). One more time, he works from an old paradigm, that someone else from somewhere else will solve our problems. What is lacking is a strategy for developing local resources for long-term sustainability. To borrow a political slogan, how can Liberia move from “Yes, they can” to “Yes, we can”?

For those who have never traveled outside of North America, Little Liberia it is an excellent introduction to dynamics that operate not only in Liberia but across sub-Saharan Africa.  Truly, this is a continent with huge potential and where most of the solutions to most of the problems lie close by, not far away. A pastor from South Africa put it well: “We are a rich people with a poverty mentality.” Yet it is more than outlook; it is also values. Solutions are short-circuited by individual greed, through misappropriating for oneself funds that were intended for the common good. (And lest we Americans get too self-righteous on this score, Google “Bernie Madoff.” Pot, meet kettle.)

As Christian educators, our task remains to inculcate in the young the integrity that will prevent the corruption that has tainted the past. Economic poverty is closely tied to moral poverty, no matter where in the world one is working, Africa included. It is righteousness that “exalts a nation” (Proverbs 14:34). Truly, holiness is Africa’s hope; indeed, it is the world’s hope!

Whether describing the depressing ravages of civil war or the optimism of re-directing youth through sports and education, Jonny Steinberg is a gifted writer well worth the reader’s time. I highly recommend Little Liberia.


Photo credit: Angus Robertson

Posted in Bible, missions & evangelism, sermons & addresses

Three lessons on the lost – Luke 15

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773), by Pompei Batoni

Here’s a sermon I recently wrote, based on Luke 15’s lost sheep, lost coin, and lost sons.

Some speak of Jesus’ “preferential option for the poor.” But I wonder if that isn’t too narrow a reading of Scripture? I would argue that Jesus had a “preferential option for the lost,” regardless of their socio-economic status; for him, that was irrelevant. Jesus sought out lost people from all walks of life.

In gratefulness for God’s grace toward us, do we do the same?



“Jesus responded: ‘Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a son of Abraham. And I, the Son of Man, have come to seek and save those like him who are lost.’ ”

– re-tell briefly the stories of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost sons (Luke 15)



It’s hard to admit you’re lost. More than once, I’ve said to my wife when driving:

We’re not really lost. I just don’t know where we are.

Jesus, on the other hand, was not afraid to speak the truth. He cared enough about the lost to label them as such. That wasn’t hateful; that was loving. He understood that only when we acknowledge that people are lost will we do whatever it takes to rescue them.

Do we really believe that people without Jesus are hopelessly and finally lost?

I believe it because Jesus believed it.

When Zaccheus the tax collector repented of his sin, paying back up to four times as much as he had cheated from his victims, Jesus declared:

“Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a son of Abraham. And I, the Son of Man, have come to seek and to save those like him who are lost.” – Luke 19:9-10 (NLT)

Four chapters earlier, in Luke 15, Jesus spoke to a crowd of tax collectors and “sinners,” plus some Pharisees and teachers of the law. In that context, in no uncertain terms, Jesus spoke of the lost. From the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons, we can learn three lessons about the lost:

1. The lost matter greatly to God;

2. The lost can be found;

3. God calls us to join in searching for the lost.

Continue reading “Three lessons on the lost – Luke 15”

Posted in missions & evangelism

A classic: Shoemaker’s “I Stand By the Door”

Sam Shoemaker (1893-1963) served as a pastor in New York City and Pittsburgh. He was instrumental in establishing the spiritual foundation for Alcoholics Anonymous, particularly the need to turn to God as a way of coming out of alcoholism.

Rev. Shoemaker, toward the end of his life, wrote “I Stand by the Door” (aka “I Stay Near the Door”) as an apology for his ministry. I first heard the poem in 1983 during a devotional time at the beginning of Church History class at Eastern Nazarene College, taught by Joseph Seaborn. The poem struck me that day and ever since by its simplicity and vision; what’s more, I’ve found it crosses cultures.

The version of the poem below is from an online tract. The only change that I have made is to update the language, making it gender inclusive.


I stand by the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out,
The door is the most important door in the world—
It is the door through which people walk when they find God.
There’s no use my going way inside, and staying there,
When so many are still outside, and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where a door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like those who are blind.
With outstretched, groping hands,
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it . . .
So I stand by the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
Is for people to find that door—the door to God.
The most important thing any one can do
Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands,
And put it on the latch—the latch that only clicks
And opens to one’s own touch.
People die outside that door, as starving beggars die
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter—
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live, on the other side of it—live because they have found it.
Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find Him . . .
So I stand by the door.

Go in, great saints, go all the way in—
Go way down into the cavernous cellars,
And way up into the spacious attics—
In a vast, roomy house, this house where God is.
Go into the deepest of hidden casements,
Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.
Some must inhabit those inner rooms,
And know the depths and heights of God,
And call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.
Sometimes I take a deeper look in,
Sometimes venture a little farther;
But my place seems closer to the opening . . .
So I stand by the door.

The people too far in do not see how near these are
To leaving—preoccupied with the wonder of it all.
Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door,
But would like to run away. So for them, too,
I stand by the door.

I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not even found the door,
Or the people who want to run away again from God.
You can go in too deeply, and stay in too long,
And forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him, and know He is there,
But not so far from people as not to hear them,
And remember they are there too.
Where? Outside the door—
Thousands of them, millions of them.
But—more important for me—
One of them, two of them, ten of them,
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch,
So I shall stand by the door and wait
For those who seek it.
‘I had rather be a door-keeper . . .’
So I stand by the door.


Photo credit: All Addicts Anonymous

Posted in missions & evangelism

From “over there” to everywhere

It was a contest I just had to enter. Mrs. Vera McKim, our Upstate New York District missions president, announced the children’s essay topic: “The work of a missionary.” My 11-year-old imagination kicked into gear, as I thought of stories I’d heard about missionary heroes like lifelong missionary to Swaziland Fairy Chism, Scottish surgeon David Hynd, and pioneer missionary to Peru Esther Carson Winans.

At the top of my paper, I carefully wrote: “S.A. on missionaries by Greg Crofford.”

“A missionary,” I began, “is a person God calls to leave the United States and go to the mission field. They are gone for many years, and preach about God. Sometimes they start schools or hospitals. When the church is strong, they say goodbye and go somewhere else to begin all over again.”

That was 1974. Much has changed in the intervening 37 years. The NWMS (Nazarene World Missions Society) is now Nazarene Missions International, but much more than a name change has occurred. Let us consider three shifts in thinking and methodology applied in carrying out Christ’s Great Commission to go and His Great Commandment to love.

The mission field: From “over there” to everywhere

Missionary work by definition is cross-cultural. In Acts 1:8, Jesus called his disciples to begin spreading the news about new life in Christ in Jerusalem, continuing to all Judea, going on to Samaria and to the rest of the world.

As Jews, the disciples first preached to fellow Jews in their own city and country. Next, they went to the Samaritans, distant cousins with some key cultural and historical differences. Finally, the disciples became apostles (“sent ones”), evangelizing cities with peoples radically different from themselves.

Though the Roman Empire had laid a thin veneer of Hellenistic (Greek) culture all around the Mediterranean basin, this masked divergent and enduring local cultures. The Church sent out Paul, Barnabas, Silas, John Mark, Luke and the other Jews to proclaim Christ crucified, risen and coming again in places drastically different than their homeland.

Ralph Winter

The founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission Ralph Winter (Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: a Reader, 3rd edition, p. 341) has labeled these three gradations – from a shared culture between messenger and listener, to a somewhat different setting, to a radically different culture – as E-1, E-2 and E-3. The second and third levels usually involve learning the language of the host culture, and always include learning new customs and norms.

As a denomination born in the United States, the Church of the Nazarene began primarily with E-1 evangelism accomplished through revival services and camp meetings. Yet from the beginning, there was a concern for E-3 efforts.

The Church sent missionaries to far away places like Cape Verde, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and Peru. The “mission field” in the popular imagination was “over there,” a place far from home where American Nazarenes – and sometimes Canadians and British – went to plant the church and spread the message of holiness.

But as the denomination matured around the world, the vision for cross-cultural ministry captured the imagination of Nazarenes globally. The “mission field” is now to everywhere, from everywhere. Missionary work happens everywhere E-2 and E-3 evangelism transpires. A Congolese pastor teaches theology at a Bible college in Malawi and learns the local language, Chechewa. He is engaging in E-3 cross-cultural ministry regardless of whether he bears the title “missionary.” Indeed, most missionary work on the African continent is carried out not by official Western missionaries but by Africans who cross cultural and linguistic barriers.

In the same way, the diaspora of South Korean Christians means the gospel can penetrate places off-limits to traditional missionaries from North America or Europe. Missionary endeavors are no longer unidirectional but multidirectional. In the words of Thomas Friedman, the “world is flat.”

Continue reading “From “over there” to everywhere”