Monday, August 31, 2015

Let patience have its perfect work

It’s hard to see a problem and not rush right in to try and fix it. Especially, when that problem packs a promise to take hundreds, even thousands of lives. Don’t get me wrong: sometimes waiting is the absolute worst thing you could do. Like last week when three young Americans thwarted a potential terrorist attack on a high-speed train in France.

There are other times when waiting for just the right time to act is clearly prudent. The Normandy Invasion on D-Day took months to plan, but the delay was worth it, as it hastened the end of the war and the Holocaust. When a plan is being put in place that will stop the wholesale slaughter of millions of innocent lives, patience is a virtue.

Queen Esther faced a future holocaust, as the King had decreed that in 11 months the Persians were to strap on swords and slaughter every Jew in the empire. Instead of rushing into the throne room and protesting or pleading for mercy for her people, Esther was patient.

We see patience in her decision to wait for three days before she went in to see the king. She fasted and prayed, as did all the Jews in Susa. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and Esther was no fool. I can relate to the fool, though, as do some of you. We get an idea and immediately act on it. Or we see a problem and rush to fix it, often making the problem worse because we go in half-cocked and unprepared in our minds or our spirits. There’s much in the Bible about waiting on the Lord and letting “patience have its perfect work.”

Notice, however, that Esther didn’t wait three months, as that would have illustrated procrastination. She knew she needed to act with deliberateness but not with haste or with sloth. She understood the importance of timing.

After three days of praying and fasting and planning, Esther went in to see the king. Again we see her patience, because she did not point her manicured finger at the king and tell him that his top advisor Haman was a snake and a liar and the king must be a fool not to see that. No, she simply invited the king and Haman to come to a feast that she had prepared. Get that? Esther did not come asking for something, but with something she wanted to give. This powerful play won the king’s heart and put Haman off his guard, setting him up for his big collapse.

We also see the patience of Esther in the second request she made of the king. Sometimes, half the battle is won by waiting for the right time. Wise wives learn that the moment a tired and hungry husband walks in the door after a long day is not the time to ask him to do something, or think about something or fix something or make an important decision. That’s just bad timing. Esther waited until the seven-course meal was done and the king’s belly was full, and he was enjoying a glass of wine. He asked her again what she wanted. Esther knew that the only thing a man liked more than a big feast was another one (that may not be completely true), and just to make sure she had the king’s full attention, she asked if he and Haman would be the guests of honor at another banquet the following evening.

The patience of Esther’s plan required one more day. Read the book to find out why.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The heart of Jonah and the heart of God

The day was extremely hot and muggy. It was the kind of day that makes me regret only owning a push mower, a decision I made under the pretext of forcing myself to get more exercise. So there I was two weeks ago, dripping and grunting my way back and forth across my lawn, when a strange "ka-chunk!" came from beneath my mower.

Oh great, I thought to myself, I've run over one of my daughter's toys. But as I pulled the mower back and killed the blade, my stomach sank. Instead of a mangled mass of cheap Disney plastic, I saw fur and blood. As I crouched to investigate, small squeaks began emerging from what was clearly a shallow rodent's den. They were so young that I still don't know whether they were rabbits or something else but as I pulled them out, each was bloody and dying.

One.

Two.

Three.

Four.

Five. Five helpless animals that I knew had no hope of survival. Their nest had been destroyed. Their mother would not return. Two were already dead from the shock and trauma of the mower and the other three were close behind. As I deliberated how to most humanely dispose of the other three, tears began to form in my eyes. I've always been a bit of an animal lover, but the mingling of guilt and pity that was welling up inside surprised me.

And then it hit me like a ton of bricks. God nudged me and reminded me of the story of Jonah—not the part we all read about in the kiddie Bibles, but the very end of the book. After God had mercy on the people of Nineveh, Jonah sulked outside the city waiting and hoping for God to change his mind and—as my pastor would say—"bring the whomp" on the city. As he stewed, God caused a plant to grow up that gave shade to Jonah, and then just a quickly caused a worm to come and kill the plant. At this, Jonah's attitude soured all the more. And in God's response to Jonah, I heard him speaking to me as well:
“You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?" (Jonah 4:10-11a)
Jonah's response to the plant's death was pity and anger, mine was pity and sadness. But I immediately knew that God's charge against Jonah was equally true against me. I grow calloused and comfortable with the lostness around me. I get so caught up in the day to day, the mundane routine of my own life, and I forget that hell is an ever-present threat and reality for billions across the globe and in my own neighborhood.

In all the talk of church, it's easy to get caught up in systems and strategies, programs and podcasts, books and buildings. And all these things are good, but what are we doing to impact the lostness around us? Do we even notice it anymore? All too often, I know I don't. I celebrate that God has saved me from the stomach of the proverbial whale, but I forget that God not only saved me out of something but also to something:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:17-20) 
We have been given the ministry and message of reconciliation, we are representatives of Christ in this foreign country. Will we sit outside the city grumbling about our comforts, or will we run into the city with this plea: "Be reconciled to God."?

Mission trips change us

One of the biggest shocks was how cold it was. Don’t get me wrong—we were happy to leave the sweltering heat of North Carolina for a few days, but we were not prepared for temperatures that dropped into the 30s. Especially since the houses we stayed in were not heated. But we were in South Africa, and it’s winter there. I checked one Sunday morning and it was 39 degrees inside the church. I told the folks it was the coldest church, with the warmest hearts, that I had ever been seen.

Eight of us traveled to Cape Town, perhaps the most beautiful city in the world, for twelve days in July. We went primarily to spend time with two ministries that Antioch supports. The first is called East Mountain, and Mark and Marcie Harris serve there with their two children. East Mountain exists to develop Christian leaders for global missional service, and we had the opportunity to help. Cindy spoke to a gathering of missionary wives, and I, along with two other men, spoke to a group of pastors, missionaries, and ministry leaders. The young people helped put on a soccer tournament in the nearby village, and shared their faith in Christ in between matches.

East Mountain is a multi-ethnic ministry, where blacks, whites and coloreds in Cape Town work and serve the Lord together. It reminded me “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Racial barriers are man-made and from a different spirit.

Imagine a township (we would call it a slum) where one million people live, and more than 50% of them don’t have jobs, and more than 70% of the homes don’t have fathers living there. In that environment twenty years ago, “Learn to Earn” was founded. With their motto, “A hand up, not a hand out,” Roche van Wyk and his staff give people an opportunity to learn a marketable skill so they can provide for themselves. Thousands have been through the program and have learned sewing, graphic design, baking, culinary arts, business administration, or cabinetry. They even provide training for those who want to be baristas, and open their own shop. We got to sample their coffee drinks and enjoy a delicious lunch prepared by a former student.

Roche is proud of the jobs this ministry has provided, but even more so of the lives that have been changed. At the same time the students are learning their craft, they are required to take a course in life skills, which includes introducing them to the good news of Jesus Christ. Their website states, “Through a holistic approach to development we look at the whole person - spiritually, emotionally, socially and economically - so as to purposefully put right the injustices of apartheid. As an organization we focus on relationships and practically bridging the educational, social and economic divides in our society.”

An added blessing to this trip was that it was the first time my wife was able to join me on the continent I have been talking about since my first of many visits in 1999. Since then I have taken each of my children to somewhere in Africa, and this was Susanna’s turn. Why go on short-term mission trips with your children? It helps make them world Christians, broadening their vision of what God is doing. It opens their hearts to pray. It opens their pocketbooks to give.

We go as often as we can, and we do so as much to be changed as to change others. No matter how cold it is.

Monday, August 17, 2015

For such a time as this

It was not a joke. Even though she was his wife, Esther knew there was a chance she would lose her head if she went to see the king without his personal invitation. The Persian monarch had men around him who carried axes for that very reason. He was protected at all times, and no one could just saunter into his presence. Not even the queen. So when she was told by Mordecai that she needed to intervene on behalf of all the Jews in Persia, Esther balked. Didn’t her cousin know the deadly risk he was asking her to take? He did, but he also knew that God would deliver His people. He told Esther that if she refused, relief and deliverance would arise from another place. Then he said the words that would change the heart of a young woman and the destiny of a people: “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

It is vital for Christians to see the difference between what Mordecai did and didn’t know. He did know that God would deliver His people. That was true then, and it is true now. He did not know how God would do it. He did not know whether God would use Esther to change the heart of her husband, the king. Therefore, he did not tell her that if she had “enough faith,” God would act. Neither did he say that if she told God whatever she wanted, God would have to give it to her. Mordecai did not believe in the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ any more than you or I should. That false gospel puts people in bondage and pushes them away from the church and from God when He doesn’t perform the way He is expected to. One friend of mine lost a sister-in-law a few years ago to cancer, but up until the last day she and her husband were being told by their church in California that if they had enough faith, God would heal her. Even after she died, the elders of the church told her husband that if he had enough faith, they could pray and God would raise her from the dead right then. When his older children heard about this, they walked away from the church and even from faith in God.

Esther had a choice to make, and let’s be clear about what she did and did not know. She did not know whether the king would let her live. He hadn’t even wanted to see her for thirty days. For all Esther knew, she had fallen completely out of favor, and walking into the inner court without an invitation would be just the excuse the king needed to get rid of her and find himself another beauty queen. She also clearly did not know that she could command God with her words, and that the force of her will combined with the confidence of her faith was powerful enough to move the hand of providence and control the Creator. She did not know that God is mankind’s heavenly bellhop…because he isn’t.

Esther knew that whether she lived or not, she had to obey God, and nothing in life matters more. That very moment of decision, I would argue, is when she truly began to live.

In these challenging days for followers of Jesus, who knows, reader, but that you also have been called to His kingdom for such a time as this?

Monday, August 10, 2015

She was one of a kind

One of her granddaughters said she was classy and sassy. I would agree with that. Martha Orcutt was one of those older ladies who could grace a good Easter hat, and the pictures prove it. She was also feisty and funny. Many times when I got up to leave after a visit I would tell her to be good. She would shoot back with a frown, “That’s no fun!” One of my favorite Martha-isms happened nearly two years ago, when she was a mere 92. She was grieving about the times we are living in now and the way young people seem to care more about their gadgets than anything else. She told me that the Lord must be coming back soon.

When I asked why she said, “Because of all this technology, this Tweeter and this My Face.” I must have cracked a grin at that because she laughed and said, “I don’t know, Mark, I don’t know any of this stuff.”

She didn’t. But she knew Jesus, and loved to talk about Him. Until her short-term memory began to fail her, she would tell me every week about what she had read that morning in the Bible. Or the devotional book that she loved. Inevitably she would ask about my family, and tell me she was praying for us. Then we would talk about others she was praying for, and the list was long. She prayed for friends who live at Twin Lakes. She prayed for her neighbors. She prayed for her granddaughter Sarah and her husband Josh, as they and their two little ones serve the Lord in Nepal. She prayed for all of her children and her 22 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She prayed for her beloved Moravian church, and wished she could be with them in worship.

At some point in every conversation, Martha would lean back her gray head, close her eyes, and say, “Oh, the Lord’s been so good to me.” Often she would sing one of her favorite Moravian hymns, or her favorite chorus, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” It was not just a song or a Bible verse to Martha. It was a lifestyle.

I always called and yelled in the phone to her that I was on my way for a visit. By the time I made the five-minute drive from the church building, she was seated in the parlor dressed in something green or yellow or red. I often commented on how pretty she looked, and she would take off her glasses and tell me that I needed them more than she did.

The last visit I made was the day before I left for a mission trip to South Africa. She was tired, and struggling mightily to keep her thoughts together. When I asked her if she wanted to pray for anyone, she kept saying that she was thinking of somebody but couldn’t remember who it was. But when I asked her if she had sung to Jesus that morning, she hesitated for a moment, closed her eyes, and then sang in a strong, clear voice: “Be not dismayed what ‘ere betide, God will take care of you.” And He did.

That was the last time I saw Martha. The next Tuesday, I was on another continent, and she was preparing to be in the presence of the Lord. I will miss her; she was one of a kind.

But I will see Martha’s face and hear her song again.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Racial prejudice can be overcome

We traveled in a 7-passenger van from Florida to Connecticut and as far west as Upland, Indiana where we performed at Taylor University, and to an Air Force base in Michigan. I remember setting up our instruments and singing in the inner city of Bridgeport, Connecticut. It was a hot day and the people were outside, trying to find a cool spot to pass the time away with friends. I remember a concert in a maximum-security prison in Maryland. The Chaplain’s name escapes me but I can still see his face and hear the compassion in his voice for the men there. I remember a concert in Blanche prison, just up the road in Milton, NC. The chaplain told us before we went in that each of these men between the ages of 18 and 21 was sent to Blanch either for his own protection or for the protection of others. We walked each cellblock, singing songs and sharing a brief message of hope. I remember many concerts in churches and nursing homes and schools. It was during this two-year period that God did some very important things in my heart and in my family.

Cindy and I were part of a ministry team in the early 1980’s called “Damascus Road,” which was under the umbrella of New Directions International. The other team members were Joel and Sonia, a couple who had been a part of the New Directions for many years before we showed up on the scene. Joel was the leader of Damascus Road, and he and Sonia were the primary musicians and singers. Cindy and I sang back up and worked hard at trying not to mess up the songs.

My job was to help line up the bookings for the group, to help Joel with the equipment at each concert, and to give the message. It was during these two years that I cut my teeth in preaching, and learned many lessons the hard way. I remember Joel sitting me down after a trip to Columbus, Georgia. He told me what the pastor of the church there had said about my preaching: “You’re not good at it.” I was crushed, but thankful that my friend Joel would speak the truth in love. During a period of soul-searching and prayer, God reconfirmed his call to me to preach, but he also showed me how I had depended more on my ‘abilities’ than on his.

I also came face to face with my own prejudice during those years, and God did a marvelous thing. As we traveled and sang and prayed and ate and lodged with Joel and Sonia, who are black, we saw how much we were alike. We also came to understand and appreciate our cultural differences and to love each other through them all.

Cindy and I started having children when we were still traveling with Damascus Road, and Joel and Sonia were our first teachers in the area of child-rearing. We learned as much about loving and disciplining our children from them as we did from the books that we read at that time.

The prophet Amos asked, “Can two walk together unless they are agreed?” I look back to those days when we walked together with Joel and Sonia with great fondness, and thank God for using them to change our hearts. Perhaps the best way to overcome racial prejudice is to work together on the same team.

Tom Skinner used to say that racism is a sin problem, not a skin problem. That’s why only Christ can heal the divide.