Thursday, January 26, 2012

Remembering Today...

I was just reminded by a friend that four years ago today, one of our dear friends and co-workers was taken by armed men in a Central Asian country. Since that time and the two to three weeks immediate following, we have never heard from her again.

Thinking about this, I remember once again how fragile and precious life is. I also am mindful that those who choose to live their lives for the sake of a higher calling, are not immune to suffering, sadness or trouble in this life.

I still pray for our friend who was abducted even though I have no idea or clue to where she is or even if she is still alive. Perhaps she is more alive now than ever! I do pray that wherever she is, she stand well and strong in her faith before the Father and before all those who are near her. Knowing her, I think this is probably one of the most safest and surest prayers that I pray.

The Kingdom of God is ultimately the most glorious place inhabited by the most glorious Being. And we are invited to become citizens of that Kingdom and under the rule of the Great and Loving King. As we move towards the culmination of time and the coming in fulness of the King and His Kingdom, we continue to live and breathe in a fallen and sin filled world. It is a paradox that causes our very being and even all of creation along with us to groan and long for that day. But until then, we can only live our whole lives for and in obedience to the King and accept all the joy and all the suffering that may come.

In honor of Cyd. May she continue to stand well before the Father...

Monday, January 23, 2012

Hungry For God?

In the book of Deuteronomy, God tells His chosen people, Israel, that He let them go hungry so that they would learn to depend on Him. The story goes something like this...

(Deuteronomy 8:2-4) "Remember that the Lord your God led you on the entire journey these 40 years in the wilderness, so that He might humble you and test you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep His commands. He humbled you by letting you go hungry; then He gave you manna to eat, which you and your fathers had not known, so that you might learn that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord..."

God humbled Israel with hunger. Then he gave them manna so they would learn to depend on Him and "every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord."

I wonder today what are the things that God uses to make us hungry for Him? I have not experienced hunger, poverty or hardships as many in the world do. I also confess that my hunger for God and His Word are at times pretty lukewarm. All in all, I consider myself to be one of the most blessed peoples on the earth (out of the small fraction that I know). So, why do I continue in God's blessing when my hunger for Him is not what it should be?

I really don't know the answer but I do know that as God blesses and "feeds" us from His hand, we should never take it for granted.

A country preacher in West Tennessee once asked me (literally), "Preacher boy, where do you get your desire for God from?" And before I could answer, he said, "You can only get it by asking God to give it to you." Pretty wise words from a fellow wearing overalls.

I pray in this early part of the new year that God gives me the grace to have a deep hunger in my soul for Him. I pray that just as I would experience physical hunger without eating, may I experience a constant spiritual hunger that nothing satisfies outside of a close walk with Him, time in His word and hours in His presence.

Anybody hungry out there besides me?

Friday, January 6, 2012

God's Kingdom and Kingdom Building...

When we talk about community development in God's Kingdom, we sometimes refer to it as, "Kingdom Development." This is not to say that what we do, humanly speaking, actually adds to or even takes away from God's Kingdom. It does not. For God's Kingdom is something that exists wherever He reigns and rules in the hearts of men and women submitting to His Lordship.

It also doesn't imply that our efforts at helping the poor, feeding the hungry and making the world generally better hastens or delays the coming of God's Kingdom. His Kingdom is fixed and appointed to come in fullness at the time of His choosing, no matter what our efforts (or lack thereof). Paul says that creation will one day be set free from its current bondage but that until that day, creation will remain subjected to futility and decay (Romans 8:21-22).

This might cause one to pause and ask, "then why are we concerned with, from a Christian perspective, making the world a better place through relief and development ministries?" If it is all subject to decay and His Kingdom will come in fullness when He so desires, aren't all our efforts "futile" along with creation?

From a Biblical as well as missiological stand point, I view our efforts at "making the world a better place" as a "means" of making Christ known to that same lost and dying world. When we do good community development, in the Name of Jesus, and when we help feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, we do so because of God's love. And in doing so, we reflect the nature and the heart of God to a world that is broken and fallen. With our actions, and with our voices, we proclaim, "This is not how life was meant to be!" In short, we live to make Jesus known in our words we speak and in the deeds we do.

Jesus said that we would always have the poor with us. He could have equally said that we would always have the lost with us as well. Neither statement or thought should lull us into complacency, or worse, inaction, to not do something about them both.

When I tell someone about Jesus and make a disciple, I do so because it is God's command. Whether I use words or deeds is pretty much irrelevant. I know that my feeding a hungry person doesn't make the King return any sooner. I also know that my verbally sharing the gospel doesn't hasten His return as well. I do know that when the King does return, I pray He finds me faithful in loving others in both word and deed.

To make Him known...

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Thoughts About God's Kingdom...

A second book that I'm reading in this new year is, "What is the Mission of the Church: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom and the Great Commission." It is by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert and is a very well thought out and well written book.

About the middle of the book, they devote a whole chapter to the Kingdom of God. They encourage us to think of the kingdom in terms of an "inaugurated eschatology" which was promoted originally by George E. Ladd among others. This thought line regarding the Kingdom of God posits that, "God's kingdom has already broken into this world but has not yet been fully realized." The theme permeated the Old Testament but only comes to fulfillment in the New Testament with the advent of Jesus, His birth, life, death, burial and resurrection. In short, we have gone from the promise of (Old Testament) to the inauguration of (the cross of Christ) and are heading to the full manifestation in (the return of the King and establishing of His eternal Kingdom).

Summarily, we can see that God's Kingdom is not of this world but something far more perfect that is foreshadowed by this world. The Kingdom of God does not refer to castle, an army or a kingdom as we understanding from an earthly point, but rather the reign and the rule of God through Christ in the hearts of those who submit to Him.

DeYoung and Gilbert describe it as...

"...the kingdom isn't geographical. Rather, it is defined relationally and dynamically; it exists where knees and hearts bow to the King and submit to him. And therefore you cannot 'expand the kingdom' by bringing peace and order and justice to a certain area of the world. Good deeds are good, but they don't broaden the borders of the kingdom. The only way the kingdom of God - the redemptive rule of God - is extended is when he brings another sinner to renounce sin and self-righteousness and bow his knee to King Jesus."

Applying this to our ministry of and heart for community development, it helps us put things in proper perspective. When we help feed the hungry, clothe the poor, take care of the widows and orphans, we are not expanding God's Kingdom. Rather, we are giving a glimpse of and making manifest His plan for humanity in a way that ultimately brings glory to Him and His Kingdom. True "Kingdom" only comes when a knee bows and a heart turns to God and His Son, Jesus.

Our acts of compassion...could they as well be acts of proclamation? Absolutely! If done in His Name, causing knees to bow and hearts to turn, and in a way that brings glory to Him.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Charity with dignity...

I have been reading an interesting book by Robert Lupton called, "Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life." In his book, Lupton has much to say about our responsibility to help people in need and more importantly the way we truly help people. He discourages well-intentioned welfare and says, "...welfare depletes self-esteem while honorable work produces dignity." The core thought is that if we do for others what they can do for themselves, we, in many cases unknowingly, make them the objects of our pity and deprive them of human dignity. Lupton expands this thought in saying, "A relationship founded on one's giving and the other's need never yields healthy outcomes."

Could it be that when we stop "handing out to" and "stepping in to save" the poor and needy, we give them the God ordained opportunity to take charge of their lives and situations in a way that gives dignity a chance? We do understand that poverty brings limitations especially in the area of capacity. However, poverty does not change the fact of responsibility and the need for the poor to own their situation and the determination to do something about it.

I believe that our desire to help others is given by God to all people, not just the "religious" or the good people. Some cultures, government systems, and societies do their best to suppress this desire or basically deny it. The key for me is "how" we act on this desire. Do we truly help in a way that builds people, communities and dignity or do we simply take the easy way and resort to dependency building handouts?

Lupton discusses four levels of charity in Hebrew wisdom. They are listed from the highest to the lowest and with the lowest to be avoided if at all possible.

1. The highest level is to provide a job for a person in need without him/her knowing that you provided it. In this way, you meet a need, preserve dignity, avoid dependency, and return the person in need to a working state as God intended.

2. The second level is to provide work that the needy one knows your provided. While helpful to the person, it falls short of the first level in that it brings attention and possible dependency issues to the provider.

3. The third level is to give an anonymous gift to meet an immediate need. This is a level below number two for the simple fact that it provides a gift but not the dignity of the person "earning" their way out of their problem.

4. The fourth and lowest level of charity, again to be used only as a last resort, is to give a poor person a gift with his/her full knowledge that you are the donor.

So, how do we help people in need without communicating to them that something is deficient in them and that something is superior in us? It is not an easy thing.

Charity with dignity...

Monday, January 2, 2012

Feeding the Hyena...

Recently, I made a trip to Ethiopia and during the trip, we visited an old city where there is an ancient tradition of feeding the hyenas. Hyenas are huge, ugly, smelly creatures with powerful shoulders and jaws. They also have small hindquarters. They are scavengers by nature and in this case, live in the mountains surrounding the city we visited.

They come to the city at night to scavenge for food. Years ago, in order to appease the hyenas so they would not attack and drag off their children and elderly, the townspeople began to feed the hyenas every night about dusk time. This worked so well that it continues until today. If you go to this city (which we did), you can go in the evening and help feed the hyenas (which we did as well).

You actually kneel down on a mat, hold out a piece of raw meat on a stick and the hyenas come up (rather aggressively) and snatch the meat from you. The guide will even hold a piece of raw meat over your head so that the hyenas will climb up your back in order to reach the meat. This is a weird feeling to say the least.

As I fed the hyenas (I had to, some single ladies did it before me and I couldn't turn down the challenge), I observed some potential problems with the process. For one, it is dangerous for the one feeding the hyena. They are wild animals. They are big and powerful. They could turn on those feeding them at any time. Secondly, and even more troubling, is that once you start feeding the hyenas, you have to keep feeding them. How do you stop? What if they came to the town at evening and there was no food? Third, and again disturbing, the more you fed them, the more they came and the more that they brought their friends. We started feeding with a couple of hyenas surrounding us. By the time we finished, we had a whole herd!

As I start the new year, I wonder what kind of "hyenas" I have in my life. What are the things that I have unnecessarily fed over the last year that I would do much better with by not feeding at all? Are there issues of pride, lust, character flaws, etc., that would be much better off if I starved them or completely removed them from my life?

I pray that God shows me my "hyenas" in this new year and that He also gives me the courage and grace to quit feeding them.

Happy New Year!