Just days before we boarded a plane for South Sudan, another fight broke out along the boarder between Sudan and South Sudan. Three days and five flights later we arrived in Malakal, a boarder town that just a few months ago witnessed two days of street fighting between rebel infiltrators from the north and South Sudanese militia. It was just one more of countless such battles that have taken place during the decades long civil war that ended with independence for South Sudan in July of 2011. The war, which claimed more that 2 million lives, has officially ended, but the fighting has not. In fact Sudanese President Bashir has recently declared that he intends to retake South Sudan and incorporate it back into Sudan. I have no doubt that the South Sudanese will resist that prospect with all they have. The latest round of fighting was set off when Sudanese planes bombed a town in South Sudan. The south retaliated and actually captured Heglig, a town in Sudan’s oil fields. Since then the sabers have been rattling overtime. Security in Malakal is a constant concern as I learned when I opened the door of the SUV we were to ride in and found that I was literally riding shotgun. An AK-47 was placed between my seat that the middle arm rest. A bullet hole was in the windshield in front of me at forehead level.
The root of the problem in Sudan and South Sudan is that Bashir has declared that Islamic Sharia law is to be imposed on all Sudan. He originally was content to let the Christian south secede so that he had little or no interference with his plan. It seems he hoped to also drive out Christians from Sudan and force them to move to South Sudan. Yet, hundreds of thousands of Christians remained in the north and continued to live out their Christian faith and witness. Despite threats, loss of jobs, destruction of homes, and numerous other hardships, they remain. Not only do they remain, but their service and love of their Muslim neighbors has resulted in continual conversions from Islam to Jesus. So Bashir’s latest statement is that the conflict will end either in Jubba, the capitol of South Sudan or in Khartoum, the capitol of Sudan. His meaning is clear. One country or the other will have to conquer and impose it’s will militarily.
For three days in Malakal, Pastor Gus Davies, John Tardonia, Alan Carpenter, and I had the blessed honor of working with some of the most courageous and gracious people I have ever met. I have been to numerous countries over the last several years and encountered people in all sorts of situations. Never have a met a group of people who have endured so much, for so long, with such grace, courage, and even joy. The pastors and leaders that we are working with in Sudan and South Sudan have known nothing but war for their entire lives. They all know people, including family members, who are among the 2 million dead. Yet, they see nothing but opportunities to love their neighbors and their enemies. Often those two groups, neighbor and enemy, are one and the same. It seems that they view this fact as being convenient. Instead of needing to love a neighbor and an enemy, they get to love both in one person, half the effort.
Not only is the war part of daily life, but so is poverty, sickness, and deprivations that we in the west would find shocking. Consider two numbers. First, 95% of South Sudanese will never finish primary school, or what we in American call elementary school. Second, 50 out of every 1,000 women giving birth will die doing so. One person told us, “If you are sick and go to the hospital you will die. If you are healthy and go to the hospital, you will get sick and then you will die”. Yet as these wonderful people speak of the hardships in their lives they do so with a smile as they talk about all the doors such hardship opens for sharing the Gospel and loving the needy. They don’t seem to knotice that they are among the needy.
At Northland Church we talk about the Church Distributed. By that we mean, every follower of Christ takes the church with them, everywhere, everyday, and that a gathering of two or three people in Jesus name is the church gathered. You don’t need buildings to love and serve people for Jesus and you can start churches anywhere, in a home, a business, under a tree. In Malakal we completed the second level of Distributed Church training for 74 pastors and leaders. In the 5 months since they attended Level 1, nearly 1,000 people have come to faith in Christ because of their efforts, and churches are being started in homes and numerous other locations. Among the trainees were fourteen from Sudan. At the end of the training we gathering them together to pray for them as they were returning north to an uncertain future. There was no fear, anxiety, or consternation in any of them, only the anticipatory joy of heading back into the lions den in order to conquer the lion with the love of Christ. One of them told me of being threatened with his life on numerous occasions. With a laugh he told me that his response is always the same, “I say to them, if you kill me I just get to go and be with Jesus in heaven that much more quickly”. I know that he says it with all sincerity and with a joyous smile on his face. The response is always the same. They either walk away or get this puzzled look on their face which opens the door to talking about the Jesus he loves so deeply.
During the time in Malakal we also met with the head of the Roman Catholic Diocese, the Anglian Bishop, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Sudan and the Minister of Health for Upper Nile State. Each of them demonstrated the same courage, faith, and joy that had become so common in our time there. All four are desperate for us to work with them in changing the culture of South Sudan. From training their pastors, of the 475 Presbyterian pastors less that 40% are trained, to providing medical care and clean water, the doors are wide open for ministry that will glorify God and change lives.
Since returning to Florida several people have asked if we were frightened to be there. The fighting going on was about 100 miles from Malakal. Pastor Gus and I have spoken often on this subject and the conclusion is always the same. When you know that God wants you to be someplace, then the safest place you can be is in that place. The most dangerous place you can be is someplace, anyplace, else. That doesn’t mean there is no danger. Things could go badly, quickly. But that is where one must trust that the Lord of the Universe, who called you to that place, has a better perspective than you do. Additionally, the South Sudanese are not nameless, anonymous people. The pastors we trained are our brothers and sisters in Christ. They are family. Our being there, if only for a few days, was a huge encouragement to them. They were reminded that they were not alone, that Christians from as far away as Florida were standing with them in the furtherance of the Gospel and the changing of the world. How could we possibly stay home in our comfort, knowing that family needs us? Putting up with a few days of no running water, 100+ temperatures with no A/C, and bed bugs that made my hands look like I stuck them in a fire ant mound, was not even worth fretting over if it meant being able to witness the grace and courage of these amazing saints.
Pray for them. Pray for Sudan and South Sudan. Pray that these pastors and leaders are able to change the culture and change their world. Pray that God will in deed supply all they need through the riches available in Christ Jesus our Lord. When you hear a news report or read a magazine article that mentions Sudan and South Sudan, don’t just gloss over it because it it over there, somewhere. Instead let that be the reminder that you too are connected with people there. Stop your reading if only for a moment and ask God to continue to bless them with grace and courage. While you are at it, ask Him to increase those things in your life too.
I love this post from my friend Cristal. She has a very refreshing and challenging perspective on following Jesus. Once you read this post you will also see that she has an amazingly wise and provocative 12 year old son named Caleb who has a better perspective on Jesus, faith, and religion that most adults I know.
I am not great at sound-bite theology. You know the kind I am talking about. It’s those pithy little sayings, often in 140 characters or less that seem so spiritual, deep, and insightful. They are easy to remember getting passed on time and again until they become accepted as a given, collective, cultural, truism. To oppose such massive wisdom makes one appear to be as out of touch as your basic Neanderthal. Worse yet, in Christian circles it makes people think you are certainly not spiritually mature and may not even be a true follower of Jesus.
The latest of these maxims drives a wedge between following Jesus and being connected to the church. I cannot count the number of times I have had people say, things like, “I don’t want to get caught up in all that church stuff. I don’t need all that. I just want to follow Jesus”. On the surface it sounds so pure, so right, so spiritual. But is it really? Is it what Jesus calls us to? I dare say that every time Jesus hears one of His followers jettison the church in favor of some personal, individualistic, walk with Him, He has to at least wince, if not weep, or even get a bit ticked. Why do I say that? Simply for this reason. Jesus says that the church is His Bride and He loves His Bride. He loves His Bride so much that according to Ephesians 5:25-27 He gave up His life for her, was willing to die under the excruciating pain of the Cross for her, was willing to sacrifice it all for her sake. Make no mistake, Jesus absolutely loves the church, more than we can imagine. It is His Bride who He intends to perfect and beautify so that on a great wedding day, at the end of this age, that Bride will be presented to Him, holy, pure, beautiful, and spotless. That Bride will be His glory and joy. Jesus loves the church. Why don’t we? Saying that you Love Jesus but can’t stand the church is like telling me that you think I am awesome but my wife is a complete loser. Sorry pal but we are going to have some words over that, and maybe a bit more than just words. You can’t have me and disrespect my wife. It is no different with Jesus.
The current issue of Newsweek Magazine has a very provocative article titled, Forget the Church Just Follow Jesus. In the article Andrew Sullivan does a masterful job of explaining this growing phenomenon. Sullivan points out that a major reason people are taking to this road of abandoning the church, yet still trying to follow Jesus, is because of the ways in which denominations, leaders, and local congregations have abused their positions and been drawn to power rather than servanthood. As a voracious student of history and a pastor for 30 years, I clearly understand the abuses, problems, and damage that is so often found in various expressions of the church. The history of the church is littered with heartbreaking examples of exactly what Sullivan writes about. On an emotional, psychological level I understand why people bail and want to go it alone, or nearly alone, with Jesus. It is simply easier. You don’t have the messiness of dealing with people. You don’t have the debates over theology or the practical out-working of it. You don’t have to deal with leaders who have gone off the deep end. It’s just easier. But it also breaks Jesus heart.
All of the problems that you see in the church are just like problems you see outside the church. People abuse power, from presidents of countries to presidents of home owner associations. People argue and divide over the smallest disagreements, from political parties to married couples. Since the church is made up of people we should not be surprised to see the same sinful behavior. But what we should see in the church is the people of Christ responding differently to those things. In the world we argue, attack, and vilify and then we take our ball and go home convinced of our own righteousness and everyone else’s depravity. Incredibly that same cycle has become part and parcel of life in the church. There will always be such struggles because we are still people beset by a sinful heart. But it should and it must be different in the church. It is the Bride of Christ that must show the world how to wrestle through those disagreements and struggles. It should be the church that shows the world what it means to reconcile with your brother or sister who has sinned against you. It is the church that should show what a redeemed community looks like. It is the church that needs to live out what it means to love your neighbor. Loving one another does not mean we always agree and get along. It means we continue to forgive and serve one another in spite of not always getting along. You can’t do that in isolation. It must be done within the context of this community we call The Church, the Bride of Christ, His Body.
Now the minute I say church, many people immediately go to the local congregation on the corner. They think of the organizational structure, a denomination, they think dead orthodoxy, religious legalism. They think of the pastor who hurt them or the church split that so devastated them. I am not talking about how a church is organized on a local level, or the various groups that have had such tragedy in their midst. I am talking about the church universal, what the Apostles Creed means when it says, “I believe in one holy, catholic, apostolic church”. That has nothing to do with the Roman Catholic church or any other particular structure. It is about the Bride of Christ throughout history. The Bride Jesus loves. I love that church. Right now she is a battered and disheveled bride. Her hair is a mess, lipstick smeared, gown torn, vail askew, one heal broken, knees scraped, and nylons full of runs. But she is still His Bride and He adores her!
The answer to the woes of the church is not to point out all her flaws and then retreat into isolation saying you don’t need or want the church. The answer to the flaws is to ask, what can I do to make that Bride ready for her wedding day? What can I do to help present her to Jesus as a beautiful, perfect bride who will bring glory to Him? To do that you absolutely must be in community with other followers of Christ. You must be willing to work through the hardship and struggle of community in order to experience the joy Jesus takes in His bride. I am not saying you have to be a part of any particular structure, denomination or group. People will make decisions to disconnect with local churches for many reasons. I am not debating that. What I am saying is that the sound-bite theology of forgetting the church altogether and just following Jesus is in the long run, dangerous! It is dangerous to your spiritual growth and well-being because you cannot grow in Christ with out being connected to the Body of Christ. It is simply not possible. Any part of the body that is connected to the head is by default connected to the rest of the body. Cut yourself off from the rest of the body and you cut yourself of from much that the head wants you to experience.
Jesus loves the church. It is the worlds best hope. For all its flaws and dysfunctions, the Bride of Christ is the worlds best hope. Rather than cast stones at her and flee into an individualistic, pietism of just me and Jesus, we must embrace the Bride, give her a hug of encouragement and then do all we can to prepare her for her wedding day. Idealistic? You bet it is! But that is because Jesus always places the ideal before us and says, reach for it, run to it, strive for the best that God has for you and the world. Failure is not an option and neither is giving up on the Bride. I love the church for a simple reason, Jesus loves the church so much that He gave His life for her. Can we do anything less?