Monthly Archives: February 2014

Go Share Jesus

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” – Matthew 9:36-38

Jesus cares about people. Is that news to anyone? Even most non-Christians, so long as they believe a teacher  called Jesus walked around in Galilee 2000 years ago, agree that he was generally a pretty compassionate guy.  He healed constantly and fed those who interrupted his grieving over the death of His cousin (Matthew 14:13-21). He rarely turned away a cry for help and even when He initially denied a request, He proved persuadable (Matthew 15:21-28).

It’s not surprising that Jesus observes the crowd and has compassion. What makes us think twice is how He teaches His disciples out of His compassion. Here’s a guy who, by all accounts, has the ability to meet all their needs, yet He essentially delegates to a group of people who hadn’t displayed consistent compassion (Matthew 19:13-15) or aptitude for care (Matthew 17:14-21).

There’s a lot to learn from Jesus’ life and ministry on Earth. The gospels reveal much about God’s will and character. God delights in allowing us to bring His kingdom on earth.  Jesus tells us it’s better for us to have the Holy Spirit than Himself incarnate, because the Holy Spirit empowers us to do greater things than He did in His three years of ministry (John 16:7, 14:12).

God wants you and I to be involved in redemption. There’s no theologically sound place to hide from this truth. Our salvation and sanctification is not for ourselves alone, but to be a light in a dark place and a city on a hill.

Shortly after He calls the twelve disciples (according to Matthew’s chronology, which may or may not be the historical sequence of events), He sends them out: Come to me, go to them. The Great Commission is a commissioning address after three years of ministry training, but the challenge to go began long before Matthew 28 in Matthew 10.

Are you called? Yes. Are you ready? Probably not. Yet after five years of sharing the gospel in my involvement with Power to Change, I’m convinced that evangelism is something we become ready for only by doing it. All the training in the world will only make you an armchair critic until you begin to put it in practice. Driving in Kampala, I’m frequently accosted by roadside evangelists yelling about repentance with a large black leather-bound bible held open in their right hand, left hand free to gesticulate wildly to emphasize the urgency of their tirade. I cringe every time, but I genuinely believe they will receive greater commendation from their saviour on the day of accounting than their disparaging yet inactive brethren.

Jesus doesn’t wait for them to be ready before sending out His twelve. He gives a few basic instructions, tells them what to expect, encourages them and cuts them loose. I’d like to highlight some of His words and challenge you to do out. In sharing Jesus, you WILL make mistakes, say the wrong thing, offend people needlessly, accidentally preach bad doctrine, misunderstand people’s felt needs, commit cultural faux pas, insult other religions and Christian groups, get side tracked by conversational rabbit trails, contextualize the message inappropriately, and those are just the errors I commit. Knowing all that, Jesus sends US out as His ambassadors. If He wanted it done right, He would have done it Himself. Instead He delights to see us trusting Him to work even in our most fallible efforts.

So without further introduction, here are Jesus’ instructions on evangelism from Matthew 10

  • The message is simple: “The kingdom of God is at hand.” God is near to you. He wants to enter into relationship and cure your sin problem. He wants to be your Lord, your father, your deliverer.
  • “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons.” These reflect God’s heart to meet physical as well as spiritual needs. In some contexts, the gospel is not enough (did he just say that!?!?). People need to see God’s love in God’s ambassadors.
  • “Acquire no gold nor silver nor copper for your belts… for the labourer deserves his food.” Lots of debate on what this means. I suggest it’s an allowance for full time evangelists to allow the ministry to support them, rather than feel the pressure to save up to go. Even for those not considering ministry as a vocation, this is an invitation to simply go with what we have right now and let God provide the rest.
  • “And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town.” Some people don’t want to hear. That’s okay. There are many people who are willing to listen, to engage and to accept.
  • “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Some people are not content simply to ignore you, but will try to trap you, confuse you, misrepresent your words. It’s okay to ask, “Why is this person listening to me?”  Sharing the gospel will sometimes cost you more than you bargained for.
  • “For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” So don’t stress too  much about what to say. Success in evangelism is simply taking the initiative to share the gospel in the power of the Spirit and leaving the results to God.
  • “Brother will deliver brother over to death…and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” Even your family might be against you. In some cultures, family members will murder a person for talking about Jesus. Expect people not to like you because of what you’re saying and keep going. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
  • “Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” God’s got you. Believe it!! (Naruto reference, anyone?)
  • “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” Phrased differently, “One life to live, will soon be past. Only what you do for Christ will last.” – Jim Elliot, martyred missionary
  • “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives Him who sent me.” People will support you and you will feel unworthy of their support. Don’t worry, it’s the ministry of Christ through you that they are supporting.

Just a few words in closing. These neophyte evangelists went out and had an amazing experience sharing Christ. I haven’t had the smoothest time life sharing Jesus in Uganda (which is demographically a Christian nation, but you know…), but this year will definitely go down as a highlight in my life story.

So stop worrying about it and just go tell someone about Jesus.

What Would It Take to Fall From Faith

What would it take for me to walk away from my faith? I pride myself on being a logical thinker, someone who objectively weighs all evidence and proceeds with the most reasonable course of action. I’m not actually that kind of person but I like to think that I am and so this issue has real significance to me.

The nature of Christianity somewhat hinders an honest exploration of this question. Our doctrine relies strongly on faith in a Sovereign God who’s working in everything even when we can’t see how. We don’t ever get a satisfying answer for why good things happen to bad people or, more painfully, why bad things happen to good people

When we turn to the Bible, we see an amazing breadth of variety in the experiences of people who walked with God. Abraham became rich and finally got a son, Joseph was sold into slavery and thrown into jail before he was set free and promoted, John the Baptist served faithfully and briefly before getting beheaded.

Hebrews 11:32-40 affirms the inconsistency of outcomes in following God. Some faithful people got to conquer kingdoms, hang out with lions, have a party inside a furnace, etc; others were mocked, imprisoned, stoned (not the kind that’s legally enjoyed in Colorado), and live in deserts and mountains. One of the godliest people I knew died at the age of twenty while I get to have an international adventure preaching Jesus.

“Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, not favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all” – Ecclesiastes 9:11

Even more, God doesn’t seem to be interested in making too many flashy miraculous appearances. The ratio of miracles recorded versus years covered in scripture isn’t very encouraging. I wonder how many of God’s people went their whole lives without receiving a dream or vision from God. Millions of pages could be written about those who followed God without a burning bush moment.

Today, God still does wonders, but some people definitely get the short end of the stick. I can remember two times when I felt clearly that God was calling me a particular assignment. The rest of the time I deduced what was likely His will through logical assessment of the options. Last week, I heard from a pastor who hasn’t ever had to guess where God wanted him to go; he gets a lot of dreams and visions.

Even the eternal hope we have sometimes feels like nothing more than that: hope. Death is so final and those few people who come back from it go on to write best-selling books of which I’m highly skeptical.

It turns out that my faith is not built on objective evidence. I believe because I have faith and I have faith because it helps me believe. Go figure.

“Cast me not away from Your presence, and take not Your Holy Spirit from me” – Psalm 51:11

I was reflecting on the Psalms this week on campus and as I read this I thought, “That’s it!” I started following Christ because I had a sense that He was calling me to fulfill the purpose for which He created me. I felt His Spirit then and I have ever since . It’s not logical or sensible; it’s just there. And if I ever had the sense that I was without His Spirit, I doubt I would have any choice but to turn my back on Christianity and all I’ve built my life around for the last seven years.

It’s scary to think about. It’s even more scary because I turn 22 today and in the next few weeks, I’ll be making some decisions about where to go from here. I will be making a commitment of a significant amount of time to serving God where I believe He is calling me and I can’t help but wonder what’ll happen if I’m left high and dry after a little while. If that were to happen, I would have to rebuild my whole life from scratch with not a lot to put on a secular resume.

It’s unnerving to realize that the future of my faith is not in my hands. I can’t make myself any more or less Christian by willing myself to be so or reasoning my heart to belief. I’m basically jumping into the dark with no choice but to trust God won’t walk away mid-fall. Like Abraham did. Or Moses. Or Gideon. Or Jesus’ disciples.

“Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” – Jesus, Matthew 28:20

 

 

Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?

Every once in a while I read a book that really changes my perspective on life and faith. The first case of this was on my first mission to Uganda in May 2011 when I borrowed someone’s copy of Crazy Love by Francis Chan. God used the contents of the book and the atmosphere of project to ignite a spirituality grounded on loving God and choosing to experience His love.

Since then other books that have made an impact on my faith are Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God by John Piper, Godspace by Doug Pollack, The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis, Spiritual Leadership by Oswald Sanders and The Finishers by Roger Hershey and Jason Wiemer. You would likely be able to track the trajectory of my spiritual growth by reading these books.

By God’s grace and the generosity of a friend from Life Ministry Kenya, I recently finished Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference by Philip Yancey. I strongly recommend it to anyone who’s ever struggled with the value of prayer. More than that, I believe it has value for anyone who believes God exists and is actively working on Earth but wonders how.

What is prayer? Yancey observes that most Christians struggle with their prayer life. We have an expectation of what we should be experiencing in prayer. Very rarely is our prayer life up to par. We lack consistency in the discipline of prayer, or feel selfish for the content of our prayers, or wonder at the absence of intimacy in the experience of prayer. Often, we have the added burden of unanswered prayer. Do we fail to see results because of lack of faith, wrong prayers or some other reason?

He also points out a feature of many testimonies that I myself have struggled with. In October, a pastor shared a sermon illustration of a time he missed a bus between cities in Uganda. He caught the next bus, frustrated at the delay only to pass by an accident scene involving the first bus. Bullet dodged, God is good, right? But what of the people who were on that bus? I’m sure many of them were Christians who had likely prayed for protection before leaving their houses. For every testimony of miraculous healing, there are many believers who are left asking, “Why them and not me?” How does God choose who’s prayers to answer and when?

There are also a number of philosophical questions that prayer raises. Like, it is reasonable to expect a perfect God who knows all things to change events because finite creatures ask for it? Does prayer change God? If it does, then that leaves us in doubt about God’s perfection. If it doesn’t, then why pray?

In Genesis, God gives man a responsibility for tending the earth. This isn’t because God needed the help in caring for His creation but rather, in sharing agency with man, He invites us to relationship with Him. Prayer, first and foremost, is an avenue of relationship. God works in us when we pray. He uses it to align our perspective with His will, to develop our character, to test our perseverance and to spur us to action in a broken world.

Prayer is imperfect because we are imperfect. Yet even in its imperfection it is valuable for us because it strengthens our relationship with God. Sometimes prayer feels like nothing more than showing up. I confess many times I might spend an hour “in prayer” probably only a few minutes of that time are directed toward God. Does that time count? Absolutely. Sometimes our prayers feel like words spoken at empty walls, yet we return because of the discipline of relationship. Sometimes the act of prayer is the end itself.

Perhaps the closest relationship I have is with my mom. Sometimes we spend a whole evening watching TV or reading separate books, but we are together. It’s quality time. We might not always have something to say, but we talk. We have our ups and downs, and yet our relationship remains valuable and presence is key. Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of our relationship is how much more meaningful our conversations have become at a time when she’s most distant. What if it’s the same with God. If our human interactions are so variable and require so much work, why are we surprised when relating with a God who is so unlike us isn’t always smooth or easy?

More than working in us, prayer makes a difference in the world. God allows us through prayer to participate in governing the universe. We know He does because He tells us He answers our prayers. He knows all things and doesn’t need our help to see what needs to be done and yet invites us to join Him in the process. Yancey relates a story of a pastor whose five year old daughter asks to help him installing stone steps in the backyard. He admits that the work was slower and more complicated because of the girl’s involvement and yet both were proud of the finished product. “Me and daddy made steps,” she announced at dinner and he couldn’t agree more.

God invites us to pray because He loves us. He wants to fellowship with us, to participate in our trials and share Himself with us. No, He doesn’t answer every prayer but He does answer prayer. He transforms us and the world in our prayers. It isn’t perfect, but it’s how God has chosen to interact with us.

I feel that sheds much of the guilt that’s often associated with prayer. I don’t pray like I know I should and sometimes it feels so empty when I do, but for God prayer is all about friendship. The more I see it that way, the easier it becomes to pray.

Jacob and the Beauty of Election

The life of Jacob is one of many stories in the Old testament which shows God being more interested in forming the character of His elect than handing out a series of blessings and punishments. To fully understand Gods grace to Jacob, one would need to observe how God deals with him over the course of his life: any one chapter of the story would be insufficient.

Jacob was called and chosen by God before his birth. God planned to reveal Himself to Jacob in a way Esau, by all accounts, wouldn’t be privileged to experience. Why Jacob? Certainly not because he comes out of the womb with superior moral fibre compared to his brother: Esau is violent and impulsive; Jacob is clever and deceitful; both are flawed and sinful.

The actualization of Jacob’s election over his brother is at best a morally ambiguous tale; at worst, a reproach on God’s character. The blessing of Isaac is obtained by deceit and God honours it regardless. Genesis records no statement condemning Jacob and Rebecca’s scheming. God actually uses Jacob’s sin to bring about the status prophesied during Rebecca’s pregnancy. This goes against much of our theology of morality. Could it be that God is actually okay with our sin so long as we use it to bring about His will?

What if we look at this as one story in the larger narrative of Jacob’s life. In the next chapter, Jacob meets God. If any insight can be gained by Jacob’s reaction, I would guess this was Jacobs first encounter with the God of Abraham and Isaac. Or maybe it wasn’t the first, but it was certainly a turning point for the young deceiver. He expresses dependence on God and builds an altar of worship.

This brings to light two perspectives on blessing-gate. First, it becomes evident that God was working in Jacob’s life, even through his sin, before he came to worship God. Instead of a reproach on God’s character, it becomes a witness to God’s sovereignty. C.S Lewis speaks of two ways in which we serve God’s purposes, in which “the first man serves God as a son, and the second as a tool.” (1). Nothing is outside of the realm of His providence. Even before we voluntarily submitted to His Lordship, He skilfully worked the fruits of our rebellious free will in alignment with His glorious plan.

A second thing that comes to light is that after Jacob comes to know and worship God, God still allows him to bear the consequences of his past sin for a time. He is still exiled from his family and in fear of his brother. Even more, there’s an interesting exchange between Jacob and Laban when the two men meet.

“As soon as Laban heard the news about Jacob, his sister’s son, he ran to meet him and embraced him and kissed him and bought him to his house. Jacob told Laban all these things, and Laban said to him, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” And he stayed with him a month.”

Not sure what Jacob told Laban, but it made Laban identify with him. Laban then proceeds to cheat Jacob into seven extra years of labour for the woman he loves. Would Laban have conned his nephew if he had seen him as an honest victim? It’s difficult to say. Yet, it’s very clear that God doesn’t spare him from being duped.

God was working in Jacob’s life even before Jacob knew Him and He allows Jacob to feel the consequence of his actions even after Jacob begins to walk with Him. Why?

Because it was good for Jacob.

Because He loved Jacob

Jacob prospers in the house of Laban and grows fruitful. Twenty years later, he leaves with two wives (not really a good thing from what I hear), 11 children, and a wealth of property. More than that, however, he leaves a changed man. He remains clever, yet maintains integrity in his contract with Laban. On the road, he wrestles with God, receives a new name, and the promise of his forefathers is given to him. Jacob’s story is full of mistakes, bad parenting and unfortunate circumstances, yet honesty and walking with God mark his life through the end of Genesis.

The biblical narrative would have been much neater is God had simply punished Jacob gaining a blessing through deceit: if God had cancelled the blessing or at least made him re-earn it in a more honest manner. What we see instead, is God remaining faithful to his promise and taking Jacob through a sanctification process, even giving him a new name. He does this because of love.

I often wonder why God often seems to let my mistakes go, even when it takes me a while to repent. I’m so aware of some of the areas in which I fall short of His standard. I occasionally question why He wants to use me in some of the roles He’s placed me in. I can think of friends who would have a much better time in Uganda and probably be more effective in connecting with the culture. Why me? Why here?

I think He chose me because He loves me. I think He’s working, even through my sin and weakness to make me a more worthy object of His love.

His pace is often slow. Only after twenty years did Jacob shed his old name. God’s track record of success is pretty good though.  He chooses, He calls, He molds and refines His elect. All we ever do is respond, imperfectly but inevitably. His love is that powerful.

 

(1) C.S Lewis, The Problem of Pain p. 73