Of Refugees, Politics, and Jesus

If there is something sad that characterises how we approach difficult or controversial issues in the age of internet memes. It is that the extremes move to center stage and gain all the attention. The pithy, mic-drop sound bite becomes the be all and end all in the debate. Emotion packed retorts push out any chance for real dialogue and the process of using our brains to do the hard work of thinking becomes replaced by visceral, knee jerk reactions.

Nowhere is this more evident today than the argument over the fate of Syrian refugees in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris that resulted in the deaths of more than 120 people. On one end of the spectrum is a view that sees every Muslim as a Kalashnikov toting, bomb vest wearing, destroyer of the western world. On the other end of the spectrum is a view that sees every refugee as an innocent child, or elderly woman, on the verge of starvation being left to die by heartless, angry racists. Those positions either focus on the need to protect ourselves from terrorists by keeping all refugees somewhere other than where we are or the need to supposedly be like Jesus and welcome all of them without hesitation. Those on the protection end of the spectrum are castigated by the other side as being hypocritical, unchristian, violators of Jesus command to love others. Those on the welcome them all in end of the spectrum are castigated as being foolish, weak, idiotic, and naive.

At the risk of being run over from both directions and castigated by each end of the spectrum, let me suggest that both are wrong and both misunderstand the teachings of Jesus.

First, both are wrong in thinking that memes, sound bites, 140 character tweets, and Facebook postings are the way to have a dialogue about this issue. Those things may make us feel like we stuck it to the “other” side and allow us to puff out our chest and claim the moral or intellectual high ground. But that is a fantasy and self deceiving. It does nothing for the refugees.

Second, both are wrong in thinking that this is an all or nothing issue. It has become normative in the debates of today’s issues, whether they be political, moral, social, or religious, to make a simplistic either/or argument for a complex problem and leave no room for a both/and solution. I have a theory that the reason this is a growing trend has to do with us becoming intellectually lazy. It’s just easier to make something an either/or issue and entrench ourselves in our ideologically or emotionally driven position than it is to actually engage our brains, look at the bigger picture and acknowledge that the other side may have a point or two worth considering.

Third, as this discussion enters the religious world and invokes Jesus I find that there is a major failure to wrestle with the totality of what Jesus taught. Calling people to embrace all refugees with open arms because Jesus was a refugee may tug at emotional heart strings or promote guilt but it is hardly presents a viable biblical answer for dealing with something as chaotic and even terrifying as several hundred thousand refugees on the borders of your country. Telling people they are unchristian for being afraid in that situation does nothing to help them get over their fear. On the other hand, the calls for no refugees what-so-ever fails to take into account that Jesus was serious when He said to love our neighbors and our enemies. He made those statements knowing full well that such love was dangerous and risky and yet fully expecting us to obey Him.

So what is the answer? I think it is to be found in the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:16 when He sends the disciples out into a dangerous world to do ministry. He said,“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”  Jesus acknowledged that the world is dangerous. That did not mean we withdraw and hide for our own safety. Rather, He intento On the other hand He did not advocate naively rushing off willy-nilly without considering the danger and taking some precautions. Jesus did not propose and either/or solution. He proposed a both/and solution. What He proposed was that we be both gentle and wise.

So how does that apply to the current crisis? Be gentle by taking every step we can to care for refugees, provide shelter, food, clothing, medical care and as followers of Christ, bring the message of the Gospel, make disciples and plant churches among refugee communities. It also means be wise, do what is necessary to make sure, as much as we can, that wolves in the midst of those sheep are prevented from using this crisis to make their way into our midst and spread greater evil.

It is equally easy to say either, “welcome them all” on the one hand or on the other hand “welcome none of them”. Both positions are in my mind, lazy, simplistic, and only make things worse. The hard answer is to think through what it would take to be wise and gentle at the same time and then do that. Governments need to do the work of protecting their people. Paul makes that clear in Romans 13. Followers of Christ need to do a better job of loving people. Do I even need to quote chapter and verse for that? Both need to find a way to work together better which, in a time of hyper-separation of church and state, may be the hardest part of all. As governments do the work of finding the wolves in the midst of the sheep, so the sheep can be taken in and cared for, there needs to be a place for the church to come and help provide some of the love and care that refugees need. But that means Christians must be willing to take the risk of serving those refugees and possibly being confronted by a wolf in the process. Now that is something I am confident Jesus would do.


A World On Fire

Freedom always comes with a price tag. The sad and tragic fact is the price is often shed blood. My own country’s struggle for freedom 240 years ago was a struggle soaked in blood. This morning as I read the news from around the world I see that same struggle happening in country after country. This is nothing new yet in recent days it has struck me in a far more personal way. I have personal connections in many of the places where people are striving for and in some cases dying for freedom.

Freedom Square in Kiev, known locally as Maydan, is a place I have visited many times. I have numerous friends who have been in the square making their voices heard, not only for freedom but for the Gospel. They have had a prayer tent in the middle of the square since day one and they have served the broken and wounded, both the physically broken and spiritually wounded. Scores of people have been killed and hundreds severely injured. Venezuela is following in the footsteps of Ukraine. Reports are that paramilitary bands are roaming the streets on motorbikes shooting anyone who looks like they are going to protest a government that has increasingly oppressed huge portions of the population. Torture and death have become commonplace but still people are massing to protest the brutality. Venezuela is on our minds because one of our daughters-in-law’s family is from Venezuela having been forced out under Chavez. In the South Sudan cities of Juba and Malakal there is gunfire in the streets with rebels and government forces battling. With a team from Northland I trained 100 church planters in those cities a year ago. They and their children go to sleep at night with the percussion of gunfire and explosions of grenades as their lullaby. Bangkok is barely in the news but I have paid close attention, having been there recently and knowing a team of people who are there now training church planters. Then of course there is Egypt which continues to boil. Once again a place in my heart. I have been there 8 or 9 times over the years. My middle son lived there for the first year of the revolution and we have a close partner church one block from Tahrir Square. That church, like others in Kiev, has served as a makeshift hospital in the midst of bloody turmoil.

These places are not far off distant lands to me or my family. They are very real, tangible, close. We can hear the sounds, see the sights, and smell the unique aromas of each of those places. We hear the voices of friends there and see their faces, hear their laughter, feel their anguish. We have talked about the fact that as a family we have a connection to each of these places, about how our hearts ache for our friends. I honestly wish I could be there with them. I long to be there to stand with them, to let them know they are not alone, that others around the world have not forgotten them. But how do you go to half a dozen places at once? You don’t. But even going to one is not an option. Not because of the danger, but because I know my friends. In one moment they would be thrilled and encouraged by my arrival and in the next their amazing love and hospitality and concern would kick in and they would end up focusing their time and energy on me and not the task at hand. So I stay on my back porch and think of them, pray for them and write to all of you about them. I pray for Oleg, Anatoly, Nadia, Olena, Fayez, Nader, Sarah, Matta, Patrick, their families and many others who yearn for freedom and are paying a price in its struggle and are at the same time being a witness to others of the love of Christ, risking their safety so others may know Jesus.

Know Jesus. That’s really the point isn’t it? Even in thinking about freedom and the price paid for it, one cannot escape the Gospel. I said that the price of freedom is often paid in blood. I wonder, should we really be surprised by that when the price of our ultimate freedom was also blood? There is a great passage in John 8:31-6 where Jesus says that the truth will set us free and that in Him we have true freedom. The religious leaders argued that they had always been free and didn’t need Him to make them free. But as He usually did, Jesus meant something far deeper than physical or even political freedom. He was talking about being spiritually free, which is the most important of all freedoms. He was talking about the fact that we are all enslaved to our sins and desires but that He came to pay the price, the blood price for our freedom. We say that our freedom as Americans has been purchased by the blood sacrifice of countless others who died so we might live. Jesus is the premier example of paying that price for our freedom. He shed His blood so that all who believe and trust in Him might have freedom from guilt, freedom from sin, freedom from the bondage and slavery of our broken human nature. I can’t think about Kiev, Bangkok, Juba, Malakal, Cairo, or the friends I have in those places without thinking about Jesus who gave everything that I might be free. As He said in John 8, “If the Son has set you free, you are free indeed”.

So I pray for my friends, that they would know Jesus presence and freedom even in the midst of suffering. I pray that they would know they are not alone, that He is with them. Yet I wonder perhaps if they don’t already know His presence in the midst of pain far better than I do from the comfort of my back porch. I suspect they really do, for Jesus makes Himself known to us in the midst of the furnace in ways not possible in the midst of comfort.

Finally I ask that you pray for them as well. Pray for Jesus to show up in those places and change hearts as only He can. As you pray for them, pray for yourself also. Pray that Jesus sets you free and makes Himself known to you as never before.


The Pain Possibilities of Africa

I am coming to the end of a week in Burundi in Eastern Africa. I don’t know how many times I have been to Africa in the last 6 years. It is probably approaching twenty. I do know that I have been to eleven different countries from Egypt to South Africa. Without fail I am struck by the extreme contrasts one finds in Africa. It doesn’t matter which country I visit, or what leaders or everyday folk I speak with, the story is the same. This is a continent of incredible beauty and massive ugliness, abundant resources and crippling poverty, gracious hospitality and violent division, widespread Christianity and rampant paganism, sacrificial generosity and selfish corruption beyond measure. It is not unusual in the least to one minute be in awe of the natural beauty of Africa and the next be heartbroken at the ugliness of civil war and genocide that often overtakes parts of Africa. I regularly meet people who are eager to serve a guest and give the best of what they have but also hear unending tales of politicians and other leaders who stuff their pockets to overflowing, siphoning off foreign aid meant for their people, only to put it in off shore bank accounts.

More than once I have been asked what the answer is to the problems of Africa. My answer is the same time and again. Everything depends on leadership, and for Africa to realize its true potential everything depends of leadership from the church. As I see it, only an African Church that has leaders who live the radical faith of a follower of Christ, can begin to point the way out of the current state of affairs. With corruption being at the heart of economic problems in Africa, there is a desperate need for leaders in the church to first live above that corruption themselves and then be in a position to model and call for a new way of doing business. But if pastors can be bought off by politicians then they lose their credibility and their power to bring about change. Pastors and other church leaders must become servant leaders, serving others as Jesus did, not living as the chief who expects others to serve him. That kind of servant leadership then gives them the standing to be able to call other leaders, business, academic, and political, to also be servants of the people.

On a more corporate level, pastors need to begin to work together and not care who gets credit, or benefit from the work. The division among pastors in Africa is epidemic. I suspect that some of it is left over from the days of colonial missionaries who did not always cooperate with one another. But there has been fifty years of independence in most of Africa and it is time for Africans to work together, along with the rest of the Body of Christ around the world, so that together we can do more. The need for schools, hospitals, businesses that provide jobs and job training are beyond what any one or a few churches can do. But if pastors begin to set aside their own ego and pride and fear, then maybe, just maybe, they will be able to provide leadership that results in a partnership and synergy that really does begin to tackle the problems of Africa on a large-scale.

I realize that I am writing this as a westerner, and a white American to be specific. As such there are some who will immediately discount what I have to say or even react against it. I can live with that, in the hope that there are some, both in the west and in Africa, who will read this first with eyes of faith and not eyes of culture and colonialism. What I would hope is that what any follower of Christ says will be taken on its merits by any other follower of Christ and not cast aside because of cultural or ethnic bias. You see, we followers of Christ need each other. We are brothers and sisters in Christ first, and then somewhere further down the list of importance we are American or Burundian or Egyptian, or Kenyan, or white or black or any of the other distinctions we use to separate one from another. We need to see those distinctions not as things that divide us, but as blessings that together make us more than we could ever be apart from one another. That is the lesson of 1st Corinthians 12. We are all different by the will of God and those differences should make us stronger and more dependent on one another, not weaker and divided from one another.

I look for the day when Christian leaders, not only in Africa, but from every continent will rise above division and self-promotion and instead live for the sake of others and work together for the Glory of God.

A Witness to Grace and Courage in South Sudan

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.

Riding shotgun, well actually riding "AK-47"

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.

One of many South Sudanese pastors who inspired me with his joy.

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.

Pastors having a tea break in Malakal, S. Sudan

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.

When Gifts Destroy

It is in the culture of America to give to people in need. I have been on enough short-term mission trips to see countless examples of American generosity. People have always been willing to share whatever they have with people in need. Whenever there is a natural disaster anywhere in the world, Americans do all they can to give to others. Most times, as in the case of a natural disaster such giving can be a good thing. But the indiscriminate giving that typifies so much of aid to the developing world has arguably destroyed more than is has helped. A series of events over the past few years have led me to the conclusion that in the long run the harm done by much of our giving is beyond what we have ever imagined.

A recent trip to western Zambia brought this lesson to light in a tiny village of less than a dozen thatch covered mud huts. A 30-year-old Zambian by the name of Kennedy became a follower of Christ. In the process of getting to know him it was clear that he was both a thinker and a leader in his village. I talked with him, through Bonny our translator, and encouraged him to also be a leader for Christ among his people. He agreed that he wanted to do this but expressed that he had a problem with the Bible.

Me: “Bonny, could you ask him what the problem is with the Bible”

Bonny: “He says he doesn’t have a Bible. But he does have a chicken”

Me: “Ummm are you saying he wants to trade a chicken for a Bible”

Bonny: “Yes”

Me: “Give me a moment” I then quickly spoke to Paul the leader of the mission in Zambia and he assured me that this is how it is done.

Me: “Okay Bonny, Kennedy can take this Bible and when he comes back tomorrow he can bring the chicken”

Bonny: “Kennedy says to keep the Bible and when he comes back tomorrow with the chicken then he will take the Bible”

The next morning it was quickly determined that even though cutting the head off the chicken to make dinner that night sounded exciting, plucking feathers for an indeterminate amount of time was not. Bonny had a further conversation with Kennedy that day making it clear that the white people weren’t sure what to do with the chicken. (I would have loved to have overheard that) So they settled on a small hand-made axe instead. So we exchanged a Bible for an axe.

Now some of you are wondering why we didn’t just give him the Bible. There are two very important reasons. If we would have given him the Bible it would have caused a serious amount of jealousy in the village and created more problems for the Gospel than we could have managed. Secondly, in Kennedy’s culture it is simply understood that you trade for things that you value. He was saying that he highly valued owning a Bible and was willing to sacrifice for it. We needed to honor that.

On the other end of the spectrum, ministries that have gone into places like Zambia and handed out lots of stuff have found that unless they keep giving away stuff, people don’t want to listen to them. A friend reported to me a similar situation on the border between Mexico and Southern California. Ministries from the USA have gotten into a routine of doing weekend mercy ministry trips across the border. These have become so popular that unless you come bringing lots of cool new stuff, you have no audience. It is even reported that some folks don’t even bother doing laundry because a new load of clothing will be given away every weekend.

On a bigger scale, I recently finished reading the book Dead Aid by Dambiso Moyo. http://www.dambisamoyo.com/ Moyo is a Zambian woman with a Master’s Degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. in Economics from Oxford. In 2009 Time Magazine named her one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. That’s the whole world people! Suffice it to say she has the academic chops and the life experience that should make people pay attention. Bottom line of her book is that the forty years of sending aid to the developing world has actually cause it to be less developed than it was prior to all the aid and actually made people’s lives worse. Just one small example gives us an understanding of why. A big time rock star rightly decides that thousands of children can be saved from death if only they had a mosquito net. So said rock start does a concert, enlists some of his buddies,and calls a press conference. They raise money for a million mosquito nets and promptly work a deal with Acme Mosquito Net Company in the USA and send the nets to children throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. They all feel good about it and move on to their next cause. Meanwhile, within a few years, the mosquito nets are worn out and ineffective. The celebrities have moved on and so now the kids need to find their own new nets. But here is the rub. New nets extremely hard to find in Africa even if you have the money and the price has gone way up. Why? Because the influx of a million or more nets a few years ago put all the little mom and pop net makers out of business and they are now having to receive aid from the World Food Program just to survive. Before they had a nice little business employing a handful of people and keeping three or four families alive. How different would it be if the nets had been bought, a dozen or so at a time from all the little mom and pop mosquito net makers in Africa?

What we need to come to grips with is the difference between relief and development. In the old cliché about it being better to teach a man to fish than give him a fish, there is a certain truth. But look, if the man is starving to death you don’t have time to teach him to fish. Give him a fish for goodness sake. But as soon as he is healthy, start the fishing lessons. Additionally, make sure the fishing lessons use equipment and techniques that work in his environment. Don’t show him how to fish with a fancy $400 fly rod that if it breaks he can never fix or replace. Just because that’s what you would use, doesn’t mean that’s what he should use.

But back to the gifts. It is interesting to note that the Bible says in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” There is a principle at work here. It has to do with the dignity of people and the value of working for something. When we always give to people we run the risk of creating a feeling of helplessness and dependency or worse, entitlement, that becomes a vicious cycle that sucks the life out of people. God created us to be people who worked, achieved, strove, and accomplished things in the world. Kennedy understood that even though he had yet to read the Bible.

So do we never give gifts? Of course not. But we must make sure that they are in the context of a relationship and not simply a way of making ourselves feel good, thinking we have solved a problem when in fact we may have made it worse. God gives the gift of eternal life through Christ. The “through Christ” part is critical. It is through a relationship that we receive such a precious gift.

Me and Kennedy


By the way, you may be wondering about the axe Kennedy traded for the Bible. I exchanged 20,000 Zambian Kwacha (about $5) with Paul in order to pay for the value of the axe. It was well worth the trade and it is in my office as a reminder of the value a new follower of Christ placed on having God’s Word to read and study as he seeks to lead his people.

Why You Need to Pray for Sudan: NOW!

In 1989 Sudanese Colonel Omar al-Bashir led a coup against the president of Sudan. Shortly after he began to institute Islamic Sharia law and took his armies into the largely Christian Sudanese south in order to enforce his will. War raged for the next fifteen years. One of the effects was the suffering in Darfur, western Sudan. A peace accord was finally reached in 2005 that allowed for a referendum to take place in the south so that they could vote to become an independent country. On January 9th that vote will take place. It is a vote that has huge global implications as well as great implications for the Christians in northern and southern Sudan.

I have some friends who live in Sudan. They are wonderful followers of Christ who have put everything on the line in order to honor the Lord. They and other Christians in Sudan have been asking Christians around the world to pray for their country. They are asking for safety. They are asking that the outcome of the vote be honored by the north. They are asking that Christians who live in the north will be safe after the vote.

Colonel al-Bashir eventually made himself the President of Sudan and has systematically persecuted Christians. He has already said that once the vote takes place and the south becomes it’s own nation, he will institute a radical version of Sharia in the north. Omar al-Bashir is a bad dude. Last year The International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest on war crimes for genocide, rape and a host of other crimes related to Darfur. It is the first time ever that the court issued such a warrant for a sitting head of state.

What may seem amazing to many is that in spite of, or maybe because of, the persecution by al-Bashir, the church in southern Sudan has grown larger and more vibrant. Christians have been involved in major ministries of mercy in Darfur. Pastors have been geting more training and churches are getting planted with more people coming to Christ. No one really knows what will happen. That is all the more reason to pray.

I hope you will join with me and take time over the next few days to pray for Sudan. Pray for a safe day of voting. Pray that the results will be honored by everyone involved. Pray that Christians will be a light of Christ-like love and respect for the world to see. Pray for Omar al-Bashir to come to faith in Jesus.

Death, Destruction, and Dedication in Eastern India

In the fall of 2008 the Indian state of Orissa was rocked by a shocking wave of violence. Tens of thousands of Hindus went on a month-long rampage against local Christians. By the time the violence ended more than 60 pastors were killed, mostly beaten to death by mobs, and 100 churches or church related buildings were burned. I have just returned from doing 3 days of basic ministry training for 130 pastors and other leaders in Orissa. It was the most difficult trip I have ever taken. Not because of the forty hours of travel to get there, or the large furry rodents running at my feet as we ate in the hotel restaurant to go with the two others the kitchen staff had just killed and swept out the door. It wasn’t because of the garbage and filth that lined the streets and choked every lake, pond or canal. It wasn’t the smell of raw sewage flowing in the gutters or stepping in one of the countless cow patties left by the animals that roamed freely, everywhere. It wasn’t even the concern for my safety that my hosts had after a gang of men tried to disrupt our training. (From that point on I was not allowed to be on the street and was never alone expect when I got back to my hotel room.) All of that I expect as part of the deal. I have traveled enough to know that’s how it is and that someplace has to be the worst yet. You simply have to learn how to roll with that.

What made this so difficult was seeing the video tape from the news station that showed people being beat to death because of their faith, seeing the homes and churches that were burned, talking to pastors who hid in the woods for a month while people brought them food. Seeing all that and then seeing that these Christians continues to press ahead, longing for ways to reach out and serve the very neighbors who attacked them and then comparing it to our own situations in the west, THAT is what made it so difficult and painful. No matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t, and still can’t, shake the words of Jesus out of my head, “to whom much is given is much required”.

You see, even though these pastors have theological degrees and are well-educated in doctrine, church administration, preaching and the like, they have received no training in basic disciple-making, community outreach, the pastors family life, or multiplication through church planting. The training we did was the only known training conference for pastors EVER in this area. The average evangelical church member in the USA or England or South Africa has tons more training and resources in basic ministry than these pastors of churches in India. On top of that a single pastor there typically oversees 6 or 7 churches at the same time. They have nothing. Yet they press ahead in the face of life threatening opposition, seeking to learn how to love and serve their neighbor, their enemy. They are doing more with nothing than most in the west are doing with everything.

When I finished a session on The Good Samaritan and told them you do “What You Can, With What You Have, Where You Are”, a number of them said that they felt guilt and shame because they had no idea that ministry was supposed to be about reaching out to those God puts in your path, those who are clearly in need. They had a time of repentance right there.

The typical reaction when hearing about this is for western Christians to express how grateful they are for the blessings God has given us, our freedom, resources, safety, etc. But as we are prone to do, such sentiments, while a good start, fall woefully short of what is really needed. What we  need to do is ask, “God, what do you require of me in light of all my freedom, blessings and resources”. Again I say, “to whom much is given is much required”. It simply will not do to stop with a recognition of our good fortune. We must go the next step and ask how that fortune is to be used by God so that others will come to know and love Him. In Orissa, Christians are asking that question in spite of the fact that the answer could lead to their death. How much more should we be asking that question ourselves?

It’s Still Dangerous to Follow Jesus

You probably remember something from a history class somewhere in your past that during the first few centuries after Christ, that His followers were periodically arrested, beaten, thrown to the Lions and under Emperor Nero, covered in tar and set on fire as street lamps for the city of Rome. But you probably have the opinion that such persecution and danger for followers of Jesus is a thing of the past. Surely in 2,000 years we have progressed as people and there is a tolerance for people of other faiths. Live and let live.

In spite of our optimism, some reports claim that more people have died as martyrs for Christ in the past 100 years than in all the 1900 years prior. Such statistics can leave you overwhelmed and staggered, searching for some way to block out their significance and more one in life pretending that it doesn’t impact you. Such a notion runs totally counter to what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 12:16, “When one of us suffers we all suffer”. Every once in a while such numbers get personal and hit a little closer to home. That happened on April 17th 2010 in the town of Selaiya in central India.

For me it started in November of 2009 when I was at a conference in Delhi hosted by Rod Gilbert. Rod is an Indian who loves Jesus and is a leader in the House Church Movement in his country. He is a gracious man who is sold out for Jesus along with many members of his extended family. On April 17th the persecution of Christians struck very close to home for him. Rod has a cousin whose family follows Christ. On that day, Amit Gilbert, a member of that family was attacked by members of Bajrang Dal. These are Hindus who worship the Monkey God. Amit had been sharing the Gospel in that town and these men did not like that. So that beat him to death and threw his body down a well. That is not an isolated occurrence. Christians around the world are having their homes burned, being beaten and threatened, as well as kid-napped never to be seen again.

Two things come to mind when I consider the persecution of Christians around the world. First is that Jesus promised this would happen if we followed Him. 20Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me. John 15:20-21

Certainly there are Christians who invite suffering simply because they are obnoxious and argumentative. That is not persecution for following Jesus. That is a just reward for being Un-Christ-like. But there are those who do follow Jesus, loving their neighbor, reaching out to those in need, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, setting people free with the life changing message of forgiveness. Those people are being persecuted and killed all around the world. It is just as Jesus said it would be. Following Jesus is not for sissies.

The second point that comes to mind is this. If you are following Jesus and never been ridiculed, laughed at, rejected, or mocked, are you really following Jesus? You may believe in Him and have knowledge of Him that includes things like going to church. But if you have never faced anything close to the rejection that Jesus promised, are you really walking in His footsteps? Again that doesn’t mean you go out and make a nuisance of yourself. But trust me, if you decide to go feed some homeless people, or use your vacation for a mission trip to New Delhi instead of a beach trip to New Smyrna, if you tell people you believe in a God of absolute truth, or that Jesus is the only way to heaven, you will find opposition and rejection. You will be persecuted as Jesus promised and if you are not that maybe you need to reassess how closely you are following Jesus.

Lest you leave this all bummed out and depressed let me share this final thought. Many in the west think that Christianity is on the decline. We look around us and think the influence of Christians is less than ever and fewer people are following Christ. Maybe, maybe not. What I do know is that around the world, Christianity is growing like a weed. It is growing in places like India, China, all over Africa and South America. It is growing in spite of a lake of resources and in spite of, or maybe because of life threatening persecution. Maybe the persecution exists in those places because more and more people are truly following Jesus by being loving, gracious, hospitable, committed to the poor, sacrificing for their neighbor in ways the west does not. And so as more people follow that kind of Jesus, the opposition grows and so does the church. Maybe the lack of persecution in the west and the decline of Christianity are linked. When it is so easy to follow Jesus, few people see the need and few people do, so few people bother to make Christians suffer.

Some Things I Learned in Egypt

In the time I spent with my friends in Egypt recently I was humbled by their ability to live for Jesus while under the constant strain of being a minority that is not trusted or appreciated and is always being watched. I am sure that for some the strain of feeling that you are always under scrutiny would be too much to take. Yet it seems that for these followers of Jesus they view it as an opportunity. Instead of being resentful they express the feeling of being blessed. When a vast majority of the people around you are not Christians and probably mistrust Christians you have an amazing ministry opportunity. How you live your life in such an environment will speak volumes. In that situation you are faced either with the temptation to fold under the pressure or to use all you do as a chance to show others that following Jesus is the way to live. These people have decided on that later of the two. As a result they are serving among the poorest of the poor, among outcasts, among the sick and the forgotten. And their lives are being a light for Jesus.

I also learned that there is an important role for others to play in helping them to serve. I was surprised to find out that ministry among much of that poor population is only possible when people from other countries, ESPECIALLY from America, go with them to serve. In an unexpected way the presence of American Christians opens doors that would normally be closed. There are two benefits that result from this. One is that it gives these followers of Jesus the chance to reach others for Jesus. But the second is that it speaks to people, telling them that Americans care about them and begins to build bridges of trust and friendship on an international level. If we want to really change the world it will require us to get outside our comfort zone and be in places where people will be able to see that as followers of Jesus, we really are different. We are different because we are willing to love and serve them no matter what.

After each of the four training sessions that I taught there were many people who wanted to speak with me. I was reminded of another truth in those times of one on one conversations. People are the same no matter the country, or culture, or language. I prayed with people for things as varied as problems with a boss, concern for a pregnant spouse, illness in a family, and problems with church leaders. There was not a single concern that I heard or prayed about that I had not heard before in the USA. The language might be different. The food might seem strange. Some of the customs may vary. But people still have the same basic needs at heart. They want to be loved, accepted and appreciated. They need to connect with the God who made them. They want to know that they are not alone. They want their families and those they love to be safe. Parents worry over the same things and they are overjoyed over the same things. Spouses argue over the same things and are blessed by the same things. Maybe we need to begin to look at others through a different lens. Not through one that notices all the differences first but one that highlights the similarities, what we have in common as we are made in the image of God and need a savior they same as they do.

Christians in Ukraine: The First Generation Grows Up

As a republic of the former Soviet Union, the people of Ukraine lived under the forty-year domination of a communist system that worked relentlessly to destroy the church and any belief in Jesus Christ. With the fall of communism and the break up of the Soviet Union, Ukraine suddenly found itself free to determine it’s own future.

In the midst of that new freedom, the Gospel of Jesus began to flourish. Tens of thousands began to give their lives to Jesus. The result is a growing church in Ukraine that is filled with first generation Christians. These are people who have no history of a cultural Christianity. They were taught from birth that there is no God and that their first allegiance is to the communist party and the state.  Now they are learning what it means to love God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength.  They are learning what it means to be the church. They are learning what it means to be a fist generation church that is in many ways a spiritual teenager.

During the past week I was able to meet some of the most remarkable members of that adolescent church. At a missions conference outside Kiev for three days I was both a teacher and a student. I taught them about a God who at His heart is a missionary who sent His son into the world to seek after us so that we could find our fulfillment as worshippers of Him. I also taught on how the local church, and every member of it, needs to see itself as called to that mission. What I learned was far more rich in many ways.

I learned again that God is a sovereign King who will do what it takes to reach us with His love. A young woman named Marina who was raised in a very poor Jewish family in Ukraine taught that to me. She told me of being in young teenager with not much more than rags to wear and the embarrassment it caused her. One day she cried out to a God who she was not even sure was real and asked for just one set of new cloths to wear to school. Ask she literally finished her prayer a knock at the door announced the arrival of four large boxes being delivered from America. For the first time ever, relatives who immigrated a few years earlier, sent gifts to her family. Included in the boxes was not just one new outfit, rather an entire wardrobe for young Marina. Suddenly she knew there was a God. Three years later she was one of 22 students chosen from more than 700 to spend a year as an exchange student in America. She ended up living with a Christian family who demonstrated the love of Christ. In short order she was added to the family of Jesus. Today she is a missionary to her mother country helping start churches all over Ukraine.

Nadia, one of our translators, reminded me that worldly success means nothing when you have the chance to serve the poor and broken in Jesus name. She too is in her late 20’s and came to faith in Jesus out of a non-Christian family. She has a Masters Degree in English at a university. It is a secure life that many in her country dream about. But Nadia dreams only about serving Jesus. She is more than willing to give all that up for Him. She tried to spend a year in India among the poor, being the hands and feet of Jesus for them. However God seems to have other plans. She was recently turned down in her visa application. Many would have taken that as a sign to keep her comfortable and secure God or been discouraged and given up; not Nadia. She kept her eyes open for another door to serve and give her life away. Now it looks like God may be leading her to serve orphaned and vulnerable children in Swaziland and other parts of southern Africa.

Nine out of every ten Christians I met in Ukraine are first generation followers of Jesus just like Marina and Nadia. A majority of them have been following Jesus for less than 15 years. That includes most of the pastors and church leaders as well. Truly the church in Ukraine is in many ways an adolescent still trying to figure out who she is and what she will be when she grows up. But in the midst of that teenage search for identity there is an inspiring freshness that is in many ways far more spiritually mature than much of the church in places like America and Great Britain.

They are not “experienced” enough to know that they should not be so excited and sold out for Jesus. I for one hope they never are.

Christianity in the Land of the Pharoahs

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect on my first visit to Egypt. I had been well briefed by my son J.T. (short for Justin Thomas) who has spent a lot of time here recently. But there is always something about being in a place yourself that opens new horizons and understandings. His time had been mostly with teenagers as a counselor in a sports camp. My time would be with more than 500 pastors from across Egypt. They were coming to receive two days of leadership training from me and Dick Wynn, another staff member at Northland.

My first thought was, what business do I have teaching leadership to men who lead churches in a predominantly Muslim culture. My second thought was, are there really more than 500 pastors and leaders of churches in Egypt? The answer to the first question remains to be seen. The answer to the second was that this was just a small even select group of Christian leaders who were chosen for this training. Each one of them has committed to taking this training and over the next six months, they will train five more leaders. At the end of that time they will return for round two of what will eventually be six conferences on leadership.

Two things have stood out to me as I have interacted with these leaders. The first is their incredible joy. The smiles, and laughter, and enthusiasm that they display is contagious. You cannot help but have your heart lifted being around these people. There is no moaning about being a minority. Not excuses made due to their circumstances. They are simply excited to be following Jesus in this place and in this time. As a result they are doing more, with less, than most Christians in the west would ever dream of doing. Big lesson to be learned on that one.

The second thing that has stood out was their hunger to learn and grow. In Brazil a few weeks ago I saw that same hunger among church planters in the Amazon. But for them, they had very little formal education and the hunger was understandable because they had so little training. Here is Egypt it is different. These are all well educated leaders. Many of them with Masters degrees and seminary training. Yet here they are still hungering for whatever learning and skills they can gain. I contrast that with much of Christianity in the states in which people are becoming almost anti-intellectual. We seem to have forgotten the words of Paul to Timothy that we are to “study to show ourselves approved as a workman who rightly divides, (understand) the Word of Truth” 2 Timothy 2:6

My time with these brothers and sisters in Christ has encouraged me in ways I did not expect. The faith is alive and well here. They have figured out how to be a serving witness in their community. They pour their lives out for the sake of the Gospel. They are growing in unity, more than a dozen different denominations were represented in the group. They love Jesus and their neighbor with a reckless abandon.

I came here to teach but I knew that I would be a learner. I did not know that I would be so inspired and encouraged. Jesus you are good!

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.