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.


Three MUST HAVE Relationships in Your Life (pt. 1 of 3)

John Maxwell wrote the book 360 Degree Leadership. The title is from the idea that in any organization you can and should provide leadership to those above you, below you, and around you on the org chart. We need to think of 360 degree relationships as followers of Christ. I see a model for this in the biblical relationships of Paul, Barnabas, and Timothy. In looking at what the Bible tells us about these three men and the experience of my own life I am forced to ask myself some very important questions. First, who are the people in my life to whom I play the role of Paul, and Barnabas, and Timothy. The second is the other side of the coin. Who are the people in my life who play the role of Paul, and Barnabas, and Timothy for me?

You may be wondering just what those roles are? I think each can be summarized fairly easily. Paul is the spiritual leader/mentor who helps another become all that Christ has for them. Barnabas is the encouraging co-laborer with whom you share life and who strengthens you along the way. Timothy is the follower who is looking to a Paul for guidance and direction in what it means to live this life for Jesus.

Now before we get to far into this I know there will be some people who immediately respond by saying, “Don’t look to men! Only look to Jesus” or some variation on that theme. As highly spiritual as that may sound it is actually a violation of what Jesus Himself said. So I am left to wonder if such folks are actually even looking to Jesus. You see Jesus commanded that we are to go and make disciples. We are to follow the pattern He set by investing ourselves in the lives of other people so they begin to follow Jesus and grow to maturity. That is why Paul did what he did with someone like Timothy. Jesus was also the one who sent people out in pairs to do ministry. He followed the time-honored Biblical principle that it is not good for people to be alone, work alone, even walk alone. As the Bible says, “when one falls down the other is there to pick them up”. Clearly Jesus thinks we are to be in relationships in which we encourage one another, care for one another, challenge one another and in general share life together in order to become more like Him. In fact that is what is at the root of the Biblical word for fellowship. It is KOINONIA and has its roots in the Greek word for “common”. Fellowship is sharing our common lives together in order to exhibit what the Body of Christ is all about. It is about breathing the same air, facing the same challenges, exalting in the same joys and living life, together.

Let’s take a look at the examples of Paul, Barnabas, and Timothy and see what we can learn. First, what about Paul? Here is the big question. Who are you pouring your life into so that they become more like Christ? Who are you guiding into Christian maturity so they can use their life and gifts in service to God and others? That is what Paul did with Timothy. Most people shrink back from this thinking that they are not worthy enough, smart enough, or holy enough to lead someone else in following Christ. Well I agree. None of us are. Yet Jesus expects us to do just that. Actually Jesus is the one who makes it possible for us to do that as He lives through us. We are ALL called to make disciples. We are all called to lead someone else closer to Jesus. If you are a parent then you are called by God to disciple your children so they become more like Jesus and serve Him in whatever they do. If you are married you have that same responsibility towards your spouse. If you know someone who is not a Christian, you are called to be Paul to them by living out your Christian faith in such a way that they want to also follow Jesus. No one is exempt from this. If you have been following Jesus for two weeks and you meet someone who has been following Him for two days, guess what. You are twelve days further down the road than they are and you can and should be a Paul who helps them navigate their next twelve days. Of course you should still be growing in your relationship to Christ so in theory you are always twelve days ahead. The reality is, if you really invest yourself in being Paul to someone else, your growth in Christ will accelerate even faster. The call to make disciples is for all followers of Jesus. So in a sense we are all called to be Paul to someone else.

But that also brings up the question of who you are looking to as that Paul in your life. Who is your role model? Who is the person who is following Jesus in a way that you think you should? Who could help you go to the next level in your relationship with Jesus? You see, in addition to being a Paul to someone else, you need a Paul or two in your own life. When I first came to faith in Christ a guy named Scott Jones was the local Young Life leader. He was my first Paul. During my Senior year in High School, Scott would meet with me and a handful of other guys once a week before school. We read and studied Paul’s Letter to the Romans together. But that was not where Scott made the biggest impact as my “Paul”. Every few weeks he would pick me up before school and we grabbed a couple donuts and a cup of coffee at a local donut shop. We talked about life, both of our lives. We talked about how following Jesus applied to our lives, both the easy and the hard parts. Scott also spoke into my life with all the wisdom a 25 year had to give a 17-year-old. It was huge for me.

I am convinced that one of the most glaring weaknesses in the church today and in the lives of individual followers of Jesus is the stark absence of “Paul” relationships. When you take seriously the call to invest your life in another, there is a huge payback in terms of your own spiritual growth and maturity. When we fail to make that investment, the payback is nil.

At the end of part three I will share some practical tips and resources for developing not only healthy Paul relationships but also the Barnabas and Timothy ones as well. In the meantime I would encourage you to be praying for God to show you the people to whom you are already supposed to be “Paul” and look back on your life and see who has been Paul to you then and now. If you don’t have anyone who fills the role of the Apostle Paul, then in your prayer time start asking God now to show you to that person.

Are You a Success or a Failure?

How would you answer that question? What criteria do you have for measuring success? For some, success is measured by their income. For others it is measured by the size of their office or home or car. One popular measure of success today is simply that you are famous. I am reminded of a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean. British officer to Captain Jack Sparrow, “You are possibly the worst pirate I’ve ever heard of” To which Sparrow responds, “Yes, but you have heard of me”.

Within Christian circles we know that the measures of success that are found in the secular world are not our measures. it is easy to say that having lots of possessions, popularity, or power are not the answer. Yet in churches we often still measure success in concrete, numerical terms. Successful churches are the ones growing the fastest or with the biggest budgets or the most popular. Maybe in some of our better moments we say that success is found in the number of baptisms, or people in a Sunday School Class or on short-term mission trips. In families we might say that is it having your children all believing in Jesus and a healthy marriage. While those things get closer to what success for Christians and ministries needs to look like, they still fall short. And in some ways because they are close yet so far away, they are perhaps more dangerous because they make us think we are successful in the right way.

If you watch little kids playing soccer for the first time it looks more like a giant amoeba moving up and down the field chasing a ball than it looks like soccer. On one occasion the ball ended up in the net, more by accident than by any intent. It was the first goal scored. Parents on the sideline screamed and clapped and cheered. From the reaction it was obvious that the children playing the game were stunned. The coach saw recognition dawn on the faces of his players. Putting the ball in the net is what the game is all about. The coach had assumed that they understood that. The kids had missed that point. They saw success as running up and down the field, kicking the ball around. Although that is part of the game it is not the whole deal. Success is putting the ball in the net.

Going to Bible classes, having people come to church, meeting budget and all the other things we associate with ministry are certainly part of the deal. Having your children believe in and follow Jesus is certainly a part of what it means to be a successful parent. But they are not, “putting the ball in the net”. Those are more like the running up and down the field part of the game. Jesus gave us what success looks like. He said “going into all the world, make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you, an I will be with you to the end of the age” Matthew 28:19-20. Success is living a life that shows other people what it means to follow Jesus. It is an ongoing thing. He literally said, “as you go”, meaning that as you go through life, live out the truth in radical ways so others follow too.

This is not a new concept with Jesus. In Deuteronomy 6 it says that we are to speak of the truth of God, as we walk along the road, as we rise up and lay down, as we eat, we are to tell it to our children in all these cases and even as we enter and exit our homes. In other words, you pass on the faith to your kids by being a living demonstration of what it means to follow God.

All of that is well as good and certainly many would say that they are doing just that. Many churches would say that they have programs that are accomplishing all this through evangelism and discipleship. But this is often just more, “kicking the ball up and down the field”. There is one more passage that we need to focus on that ultimately defines success for the Christian. In 2 Timothy 2:2 Paul says this to Timothy; “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others”. It was at a conference in India that I was confronted with the power of this verse like never before. As I spoke with Christians who were having incredible impact among Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists I heard this verse over and over again. What they said was that you are not successful unless your ministry goes to the fourth generation. You are the first, those you train are second, then there are those who they pass it on to who in turn pass it on to others.

Far too much of what we do as Christians is a “one-off” dead-end. Preachers give the message to a congregation and we think we have scored. Parents see their children confess faith in Christ and they shout, “GOAL”. The real test of success is not that my kids all have faith in Jesus. The real test is have a demonstrated a faith that they then pass on to others who pass on to others? The test is not did the message impact the congregation and inspire them. The test is, are they taking it to others who are passing it on to others?

The kind of four generation success that real discipleship produces requires investing your life in people everyday. It is as you are going. It is not a program. It is a passion. It pours out of you and into others and it overflows from them to the next generation and beyond. Christians in India are reaching hundreds of thousands of the most resistant people on the planet. They are doing it to the fourth generation because they have marked that as real success.