The Great Role Reversal

28ae36946daf05c6172d09cad9686435-2Every married couple has to figure it out.

At the end of a long day when you’re both exhausted, it’s better to “divide and conquer.” Who will cook and who will wash the dishes?

Once in a while, it’s helpful to trade places. Do you normally cook? Tonight, clean up instead. If you typically wash the dishes, try your hand at cooking. Besides increasing versatility, role reversals let us walk in another’s shoes. Nothing fosters empathy more effectively.

Jesus modeled the Great Role Reversal. Paul captured this well:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty you might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9, NIV).

Christ, the Eternal Word, identified with us by becoming one of us. God put on skin. His name was Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:14-31) exemplifies role reversal. A man of wealth lived in luxury, oblivious to the plight of Lazarus, a sickly and hungry beggar.

[Note the subtle role reversal. Normally, everyone knows the name of a rich person, and poor people remain nameless. In Jesus’ story, the poor man has a name, and the rich man is nameless. Things work differently in God’s Kingdom!]

Jesus said that Lazarus “longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table” (v. 21, CEB). He lay at the pitiless rich man’s gate, where at least the dogs came and licked the poor man’s sores.

The rich man never saw the role reversal coming.

After death, Lazarus was comforted, carrried to Abraham’s side by angels (v. 22). There he found solace, while the rich man – who had also died – was tormented in the flames.  During their life on earth, Lazarus had longed for crumbs from the rich man’s table. Now, the tables are turned, and the rich man longs for a drop of water from Lazarus (v. 24). Abraham denies the request, reminding the rich man:

Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things whereas Lazarus received terrible things. Now Lazarus is being comforted and you are in great pain (v. 25, CEB).

Likwise, at the close of a different parable about the coming Kingdom, Jesus concluded: “So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last” (Matthew 20:16, NLT).

But I wonder:

Why do we need to wait until the end of time to live the Great Role Reversal?

How much closer to reflecting the Kingdom of God would our world be if those who bear Christ’s name (Christians) were willing to switch things up now?

 

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Two street children in Antananarivo, Madagascar, circa 2010

 

Gavin Rogers, a pastor from San Antonio, Texas, joined a caravan of Honduran immigrants that has been making its way north through Mexico. For five days, he chronicled the kindness and humanity he witnessed along the exhausting path. Rogers concluded: “The only Christian response to immigration is ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” He learned by coming close to people that every need has a name.

Stories like that of Lazarus or pastor Rogers and the Honduran immigrants challenge me. Unlike the rich man, I am not wealthy, yet am I not also attached to my “creature comforts”? How might God be calling me to step into the shoes of another, to journey alongside them, to see things from their point-of-view?

Jesus was the master of the Great Role Reversal. May we together learn to follow in his ways.

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Image credit: pngtree.com

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A more excellent way: An open letter to my fellow clergy

clerical collar.jpgI opened my e-mail today and found a message from my state Board of Elections. In less than 2 months, Americans will go to the polls and cast their vote for many elected offices. These range from local Sheriffs, city council members, state representatives, governors, judges, the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate.

Politics has always fascinated me, since the day in 1974 that the honorable Rep. Barber Conable came to my 6th grade class in Spencerport, NY. Later, his opponent visited as well. At the end, we had an unofficial in-class vote, and Rep. Conable was handily re-elected. To this day, I’m not sure how my social studies teacher managed to get such a high-powered duo to come visit, but it left a deep impression on me:

I learned that voting was something every good citizen should do.

But as much as I appreciate the importance of taking part in the democratic process, with time, its many flaws have left me hungry for a better way. Maybe it’s because Jesus taught his followers to pray:

Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10, NIV).

With each attack ad, with each half-truth or outright lie uttered by candidates, all in a bid to gain or keep power, I become more anxious for the day when King Jesus will return and take his throne (Rev. 19:4). He is the one who is “true and just” (Rev. 19:2). We can count on him to lead us with integrity and love.

But meanwhile we live here on this earth. How shall we as members of the clergy carry ourselves in the run-up to elections? Here are two suggestions:

  1. Maintain political neutrality. There’s an increasing tendency among my fellow members of the clergy to speak out for candidates of one party or another. In so doing, the danger is that we will be seen as operatives of the GOP or the Democratic Party instead of (like Paul), an ambassador of the Gospel (Ephesians 6:20). This unwise taking sides shows up in various ways. It may be allowing for the distribution in church of a “voters’ guide” which is really no more than a thinly-veiled means of pushing one party’s candidates. Or perhaps we used to pray regularly during worship for the nation’s highest official. But now? We never pray for the new leader. People notice the subtle signals that we as their spiritual leaders send.
  2. Use social media wisely. Today, the “pulpit” is no longer limited to the piece of furniture that sits at the front of the sanctuary. Choosing to bash politicians online lowers us to the level of partisan hacks. Instead of using our social media megaphone to encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thess. 5:11), we loudly condemn the latest comments from high elected officials. The danger is that by routinely criticizing every remark, we become nothing more than background noise, easily tuned out. When the key moment comes when I as a messenger of the Lord must speak a prophetic word, I no longer have the ear of my listeners because I’ve foolishly forfeited it long ago. If a sermon is carefully prepared and prayed over, why should it be any less for a Facebook status or a Tweet? Whether during an election season or other times, ask yourself:

Will this comment attract people to Christ or drive them away?

Jesus opens his arms and invites us: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, NIV). His invitation is non-partisan. It is extended to one-and-all, regardless of political persuasion. As preachers, when we maintain political neutrality and use social media wisely, we commend all comers to the only One who can unite us, our Christ who breaks down walls (Ephesians 2:14). In troubled times, is that not a more excellent way?

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Image credit: Test Everything Blog 

Profits, but at what price?

 

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Armies commonly use missiles and guides bombs as supposedly precision instruments, but targeting can go badly wrong.

CNN reports that the guided bomb that killed 40 schoolboys on a school bus in Yemen on August 9 was manufactured by Lockheed Martin, a U.S. Defense contractor. In the same article, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis noted that the targeting was done by Saudi Arabia, not by the U.S. Apparently, that excuses us as Americans from any responsbility in this tragedy…or does it? This appears to be nothing more than a “guns don’t kill people, people do” NRA-type argument, just applied this time to another nation.

 

I’m not a big fan of firearms, but last summer, I tried out several borrowed guns at a firing range. When I later priced a.380 Smith and Wesson, I was suprised to see that it cost nearly $ 400.00 USD. (That’s more than twice the annual income for a family in Malawi). The gun itself is of a durable plastic but the mechanisms aren’t particularly complex. I can’t imagine that it would cost Smith & Wesson anywhere close to that to manufacture, so there’s likely a big profit with every sale.

Walter Rauschenbush observed: “When fed with money, sin grows wings and claws.” If there’s hefty profit in a single handgun, imagine the profit in a guided bomb like the one that annihiliated the hapless schoolboys in Yemen.

At the end of my work day, I want to know that my labor helped make the world a better place, even if in the smallest of ways. Everyone has to live with their own conscience, but if I were an employee of Lockheed Martin and woke up to gruesome images like those from Yemen, I’d find another job.


 

Image credit: By Thomas Quine (Missiles) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

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.

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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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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.

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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

 

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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Swimming upstream

512px-Salmon_fish_swimming_upstreamQ – What do salmon, coho, and rainbow trout have in common?

A – They all swim upstream for reproductive purposes.

Biologists believe that odors of the home waters where they were spawned remain wired in their brain. Sciencing.com explains: “At maturity, they are instinctively drawn back to the place of their birth.”

These three species of fish hold a lesson for Christianity:

Reproduction requires swimming against the current.

Going with the flow is easier, but spawning the next generation of believers mandates a counter-cultural approach. We are upstream Christians in a downstream world.

The words of Paul to Titus have a timeless quality though they were written 1,900 years ago:

For the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people. And we are instructed to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures. We should live in this evil world with wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God, while we look forward with hope to that wonderful day when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed. He gave his life to free us from every kind of sin, to cleanse us, and to make us his very own people, totally committed to doing good deeds (Titus 2:11-14, NLT).

They, too, were to be upstream Christians in a downstream world. In a society that was “evil,” Paul called Titus and the flock he shepherded to lead lives characterized by “wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God.” Their attention was to remain hopefully focused on the future, the day of Christ’s return. Meanwhile, there was no place for idleness. In the same way the twelve-year-old Jesus insisted that he must be busy with his Father’s work (Luke 2:49), so Paul reminds Titus to commit himself to God’s good work in the world (v. 14).

What is striking about Paul’s advice to his young protégé is that living in an evil world never justified jumping out of the stream. Upstream fish remain in the stream but are strong enough to swim against it. To succeed in this counter-cultural feat, believers must remember three things:

1) Remember that our help comes from the LORD. Isaiah 26:3 reminds us:  “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you” (Isaiah 6:3, NIV). The would-be crushing pressure from our surroundings must be matched by an internal spiritual force that pushes back. Andrés Filipe Arias knows this well. Caught up as a pawn in a geo-political chess game, this former Columbian Minister of Agriculture now sits in a Miami detention center. His petition for assylum in the U.S. hopelessly delayed, he faces 17 years of wrongful imprisonment if extradited to his home country. Such a force would have crushed many, but the husband of one and father of two has deep faith in God. When asked how he is coping, he replied: “I feel strong and at peace. Of course, every second I long for my home, my wife, and my kids. But I’ve learned to accept God’s will no matter how mysterious are His ways.” As to his sanity, he testifies that God sees to it.

2) Remember to swim together.  The salmon, coho, and rainbow trout swim upstream together. In the same way, resisting the downstream pull of our culture is best done when we stick together. This is the strongest argument for the church; there is strength in numbers. It’s no accident that it wasn’t a single Hebrew but three Hebrews brothers who together refused to bow before the idol of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:16-18). Ecclesiastes 4:12 (NIV) teaches that a “cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” Jesus calls us to be like the light set on a lampstand that draws people in from the darkness to the warmth of the light (Luke 11:33). We shine best when we shine collectively.

3) Remember to keep on loving. Being counter-cultural is no excuse for aloof disengagement. Jesus told of a time when evil would increase. What would be the result? “The love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12b, NIV). Our love for God and for others is the ultimate measure of holiness (Mark 12:28-31). If our churches are shrinking, could it be that would-be seekers coming in from the cold – in the words of evangelist Charles “Chic” Shaver – never found enough love to keep them warm? What kind of “love” inscribes “all welcome” on the church sign but freezes people out once they step inside?

Like Paul and Titus, we live in a world that too often is evil, yet this is no excuse for downstream living. With the strength that comes from the Lord and banding together, followers of Christ model a different path, a better way. May our love never grow cold! Instead, let us open our arms wide to all, inviting people to join us and our Leader in this epic swim upstream.


 

Image credit: By Robert W. Hines, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons