Spreading the Word in the Amazon

The Presbyterian Church of Manaus is in the heart of the Amazon Basin. The church sits on the banks of the Rio Negro, the largest tributary to the Amazon in Brazil. For more than 20 years the people of the church have had a growing ministry to villages up and down the rivers of the Amazon system. A small fleet of flat bottomed ships travel the rivers with medical teams, clothing, training in food production, and the Gospel of Jesus. This ministry of compassion has opened numerous doors for sharing the truth of Jesus and as a result people are giving their lives to Him. Many of the villages are less than 100 people and the converts are the only Christians in them.

Eventually a leader will emerge from among the group of new Christians. That person then begins to be discipled and trained to be the pastor/leader of the fledgling church. I had the honor and privilege, along with Alan Chantelaue, to train more than 60 of these leaders. Over a three day period we taught six sessions that gave them basic skills in how to do their own Bible study and then lead and teach the people under their care. It was incredible to see these people, none with more than an 8th grade education, soak up the truth of the Bible and apply what they learned. Our times of worship with them were inspiring. They poured out their hearts to Jesus and sang with passion. At the end of our three days with them we saw 15 more converts get baptized and then participated with them in The Lord’s Supper.

One of the things that struck me during my time in the Amazon was that the ministry of the Manaus church reminds me more of the Book of Acts than anything I have ever encountered. People who have never heard the Gospel are being brought to Christ by the traveling missionaries, mostly volunteers, from the Manaus church. In short order someone is raised up by God to lead the new converts and the Kingdom expands. There are more than 85 churches like this all up and down the rivers. They have been started by missionaries on the boats. Only 30 of the congregations actually have a building dedicated for worship, what we usually think of as a “church”. Most of them meet as the church in a home. Some of them actually have a tree in the center of the village and that is where they meet to worship each Sunday morning.

Their love for the Lord is compelling and contagious. That love extends to their neighbors whom they serve with an abandon that only comes from the Holy Spirit. With medical help usually only available every few months when the ship comes from the church, they often are forced to pray for healing. They expect such prayers to work and they do. Their prayers for healing for non-Christians in their villages result in healing, conversions, and more worshipers of Jesus.

Now here is the really cool thing. You can be part of that ministry. Nearly every time the ships travel the rivers, there are people from other churches and countries who join the work. A week or two heading up river and down with stops along the way to share Jesus, pray for people, provide medical care, and show the love of Christ will change you as much as it will change the people you serve. It will draw you closer to Jesus and increase your commitment to Him and His mission.

“Stuff” and the Lost Art of Christian Contentment

George Carlin did a comedy sketch about “stuff”. In essence it was a brilliant commentary on how our possessions actually possess us. Of course he did it from a decidedly American point of view. Having spent some time this morning walking around the city of Manaus in Brazil, I can tell you that “stuff” is not an exclusively American problem.

The streets here are packed with vendors of every conceivable type. And I mean packed; dozens of stalls selling purses, thousands of purses, followed by remote controls, toys, underwear stalls, flashing nick knacks, thousands of shoes, and assorted what nots beyond description. And it goes on for block after city block. I have seen the same thing in the market at Manzini in Swaziland and in Mexico City. It is a universal condition. We humans are enamored with stuff.

I am struck by the thought that all this stuff is like so much Turkish Delight in “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis. Turkish Delight was candy offered by the evil White Witch. Is was pleasing to the eye and very tastey when first eaten. But it had the unusual property of never leaving you satisfied and always quickly wanting more. For Lewis, it was symbolic of sin in general. So much of our desire for “stuff” is a hunger for something that appears pleasant and enjoyable. We are tempted to believe it will meet some deep inner hunger. Sadly it more often leaves us unfulfilled yet strangely thinking that if we just had a little bit more, that would do the trick. This in spite of the fact that every single time we have had just a little bit more, it did not do the trick and we are left wanting still.

The Apostle Paul in stunning contrast to our hunger for stuff said, “I have learned in whatever situation I am, to be content” Philippians 4:11 When he was rich or poor it was the same for Paul. When he was healthy or sick, free or imprisoned, homeless or housed in splendor, Paul learned to be content. When he wrote to his young protege’ Timothy he said, “Godliness with contentment is great gain”. Paul was able to be content in all things because he found his fulfillment not in his possessions, but be being possessed by his Lord Jesus. Being a slave of Christ was all Paul needed. It was where he found his purpose and security. He had one Lord; Jesus. His “stuff” didn’t matter.

Oh to be so focused and so content that Jesus is my all in all.

Provocative Love: Why Believing in God is NOT Enough

“You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” James 2:19

Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. 1 John 5:1,2

Augustine was raised by a godly Christian mother who loved Jesus and prayed unceasingly for her son to come to faith in Christ. In the early years of his life at the end of the 4th century Augustine seemed to do everything he could to avoid having God answer his mothers prayers. He tried various religious options other than Christianity. He made a habit of looking for fulfillment in sexual exploits. He tried finding significance through fame in the world of ideas and rhetoric. He tried everything but Jesus. But that does not mean that he refused to believe in a divine being who could be called God. Like many people in our post-Christian era, Augustine “believed” in God. He believed that there was something higher than himself that he needed to acknowledge and believe it existed.
Augustine spent several years in his young adulthood as a devotee of the early Christian heresy known as Manichaeism. In short the Manicheans held that the spiritual world is what is good and it is trapped for now by the physical world that is evil. The goal for a Manichean was to rid oneself of the evil by coming to know yourself as a soul and be rid of the influence of evil. The Manichean idea of God is bound up in the two equal forces of good and evil. There is a Living Spirit responsible for creating, but there is not a single, omnipotent, holy God. Think of the two sides of the force in Star Wars, one of light and beauty and the dark side of evil and turmoil. The side of good was basically spiritual and the side of evil was basically physical. Eventually Augustine abandoned his experiment with the Manicheans and looked for spiritual fulfillment elsewhere.
Following his time with the Manicheans Augustine continued his search for some connection with the Divine being that he sensed was out there. The next stage of that search led him to study and teach rhetoric as a part of the Neo-Platonism of his day. That philosophy sought to understand the divine within all of us as an expression of the ultimate divine being whose spark or essence inhabited each person. In many ways it was just a variation on his Manichean days. And like that failed quest, this too ended in a feeling of emptiness.
Both his Manichean and Neo-Platonist years proved to be fruitless in Augustine’s search for a relationship with God. He was convinced that there was something out there, some divine being to know and understand. But he kept looking for that divine being in places other than the Christian faith he had been taught as a child. Fortunately his mother’s years of prayer were about to find their fulfillment and answer. Augustine eventually came to faith in Christ after years of searching for some fulfillment in his spiritual life. But Augustine recognized that he arrived at more than an intellectual understanding of God. In all his previous “spiritual” seeking he focused a concept or idea. You can’t have a relationship with a concept. The change for Augustine was that God became real. God became the one who loved him and demonstrated that love through the sacrificial death of Jesus. No longer did Augustine settle for head knowledge. He now had a heart knowledge. He came to love God. In Book X of The Confessions he says:
“Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you! Lo, you were within, but I outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong.” From “Late Have I Loved Thee: Selected writings of St Augustine on Love” Edited by John Thornton and Susan Varenne Vintage Books.

Augustine came to love God. He gave himself completely and totally in service to God through Jesus Christ. In part that love came as a result of Augustine understanding that he in fact was a sinner who was hopeless on his own and that his only hope was in the grace of God and the blood of Jesus Christ. Loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength comes when we experience the love of God on the Cross. The more we understand the depth of our sin; the more we will understand the price paid on the cross; the more we will love God.

Provocative Obedience: The High Cost of Loving Jesus

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” John 14:15

In 1976 Pittsburgh was still a very strong blue collar, union town. My friend Howard worked at a manufacturing plant that had a very strong union. One day there was a wildcat strike. Basically that means that the union members went on strike illegally. They did so in violation of their contract. Hundreds of workers were picketing outside the plant when Howard showed up for his scheduled shift. Crossing a picket line is not something you want to do everyday. Howard was planning to cross.

His reason for crossing the picket line was simple, a wildcat strike was illegal and he was bound by Christ to keep his word and honor his contract. Howard stood before the picketers and spoke for everyone to hear. It was a small enough plant that they all knew him. It helped that he was one of the few black men who worked there. And given Howard’s penchant for telling people about Jesus, they all knew that he was a Christian. So in front of that crowd, Howard made his case. He must be true to his God and he needed to report for work.
No one was happy that he did this. His fellow union members were outraged. They were so angry that before Howard made it from the gate to the inside of the plant, his car was overturned and on fire. Management at the plant was furious because now they had an even graver situation, how to get Howard safely out of the plant and send him home. The only person who was pleased by all of this was Jesus. But then, He is really the only person who matters.

Howard got home safely. Someone from management had to drive him there, (remember the burning car) hidden on the floor of the backseat. It was the last day he ever reported for work at that plant. He lost his job and his car in one unselfish and courageous act of obedience that was motivated by a deep love for Jesus. Indeed, if we love Him, we will obey Him. But the price can be steep. Howard could have easily not shown up that day. He could have kept his mouth shut and waited for the strike to be over and report to work when things returned to normal. No one would have had a second thought about it. Everyone else would have probably commended him for exercising discretion and not making waves. Everyone that is, except Howard. He knew that sometimes there is a price to be paid for loving Jesus. It is the price that the world extracts from us when we obey commands that the world dislikes. Howard’s love for Jesus was so real and so strong, that he was willing to pay the price of obedience.

To hear much of what passes for preaching the Gospel these days you would be convinced that there is absolutely no cost to loving Jesus. We are told, “come to him and all your problems are solved, your health is restored, your checking account will overflow, your spouse will love you, your kids will respect and obey you, and your teeth will become straight and white”. Don’t get me wrong; there are abundant blessings that come from following Jesus. But there is also a price. Jesus made that pretty clear himself. I had only been a Christian for a few months when I learned that lesson in real life from Howard.

The Unanswered Prayer of Jesus

“I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” John 17:20, 21

As a pastor I can not count the number of times that I have had people ask me why some prayers go unanswered. Falling back on my biblical and theological  training provided me with the standard responses, either the prayer was not in accord with the will of God or the timing was not right, the answer would come later, or the answer would come in a way that we do not expect but that in God’s wisdom will be far better than we could have hoped or asked for. I still am convinced that those answers are in line with what the Bible teaches. But those answers don’t suffice in all situations. The text from John 17 is the most glaring of examples.

Unless I am completely oblivious to something that is obvious to the rest of the world, this 2,000 year old prayer from Jesus the Son to God the Father is so far unanswered. For the life of me I struggle with why. Clearly Jesus knew the will of the Father when He prayed this prayer so and can’t be that unity among Christians is out of God’s will. It also seems that God would want that unity to be manifest sooner rather than later. Afterall that unity is supposed to be evidence of our relationship to God, a way for Him to be glorified, and a means for lost people to give their lives to Jesus. So God would seem to want to answer that prayer. If so then why do the followers of Jesus still stab one another in the back, mistrust one another, gossip about other beleivers in the name of prayer concerns, attack one anothers motives and integrity, and generally not love one another very well? The only answer that I have come up with so far is that we are not cooperating with the Lord. That’s a nice way of saying that in our sinfulness we are refusing to love one another as He has loved us. We are refusing to give one another the grace that he has given us. We are refusing to serve one another as He has served us. Bottom line, it’s us.

What really grips me is the realization that we must be breaking God’s heart. Jesus cries out to the Father for us to be unified. He does so in the shadow of the crucifixion ready to face it’s agony in submission to the Father. His prayer for unity comes from the core of His being and we ignore it and even actively strive against its fulfillment. “Love God”. “Love your neighbor”. “Do good to all men, especially those of the household of faith”. “Show forbearenace to one another out of love for Christ”. “As far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men”. Those are only a few of the places in God’s Word that come to mind. How many more exortations do we need to realize that Jesus is serious about our unity in Him?

Unity does not mean uniformity. We are not called to all be exactly like one another. Having different ideas and practices is not only acceptable, it is essential. The ealry church often wrestled with the issue of uniformity. It especially came out when they debated the implications of Gentiles coming to Jesus and bringing a whole new culture. The bottom line repsonse in Acts 15 was that the leaders of the church acknowledged that God was doing something that lead some of them in different directions. But that no matter those God given differences, they needed to honor and love one another in Christ.

I think about the implications of this for house churches and mega churches working together, for followers of Jesus who support Obama and those who support McCain, for sprinkling baptizers and immersion baptizers, for Calvinists and Arminians, and on and on it could go. I am not saying that we all need to believe and do the same things all the time. What I am saying is that we need to respect the other parts of the Body of Christ. We need to be willing to learn from one another and disagree with one another, yet love and honor one another in Jesus.

Someday, when heaven and earth become one, I know that this prayer of Jesus will finally be answered. I just wish that when that day comes, we will have been so united in the love of Christ in this life, that we will have a hard time noticing the change in the life to come. Now that really would be an answer to a prayer, “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done. On earth as it is in heaven”.