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.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The times, they’re not a’changing

What if you were the vice-regent of an empire and the command of the king was that everyone should bow to you? And what if one man in the capital city, a Jew, refused to bow? What would you do? That was exactly the scenario in Susa, circa 478 B.C., when Mordecai would not bow to Haman. Haman was filled with fury at one man’s actions, so he plotted to destroy every Jew in the empire. What?

That would be like having your foot smashed by an overfilled grocery cart pushed by a little old lady at Aldi’s, and because she doesn’t even turn around or say she’s sorry, you make it your goal to eliminate every little old lady in the state. A counselor might call that an “inappropriate response.”

What was Haman’s problem? Let’s cut to the chase, here. He was a racist. He had been raised a racist. He came from a long line of people who were racists. He was taught as a child to hate Jews, perhaps hearing his father say often, “Jews are different, Jews are not the same as the rest of us, Jews are not good people.” In fact, maybe he was taught that Jews were not really people at all. Listen, racial prejudice is as old as mankind, an ugly sin with incredible power to destroy.

What seared the conscience of a 21-year-old man to the point that he could sit for an hour and have prayer with the nine people he was about to murder in cold blood, simply because they were black? How could Dylann Roof get to the point, even while so young, to write this in his journal: “I have no choice. I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is the most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”

How could Dylann do this? The same way Haman could. They gave themselves over to the power of darkness. You want to know the scariest thing of all? It could happen to anyone not walking in the power of God’s grace. The Bible says about each of us who are now believers, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of the world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.”

Haman was a son of disobedience, seeking to do the bidding of his father, Satan, and to destroy the seed of the coming Messiah. He was not satisfied in just a personal vendetta. He wanted to institutionalize his racism. He sought to use the political machine at his disposal in Persia to make genocide a matter of public policy. He even said to the king, “it is not to the king’s profit to tolerate them (the Jews).”

Chilling words. I wonder which groups in our world have become “unprofitable?” Which religions, or races, or ethnic groups, or even age groups, from the womb to the walker, are in the crosshairs of those who seek to institutionalize their removal?

Sorry, Bob Dylan. The times, they’re not a’changing.