Walk Alongside

A leader in East Africa approached me, asking if we would provide training for about 35 Westerners who desired to share the Gospel with Muslim people.  There was only one problem; none of them had ever met a Muslim before coming to the African continent!  They offered to meet with us for one day so we could orientate them in their efforts to reach out to Muslim peoples.

One day!

My brain was frozen in trying to discern how to reduce all that we knew about ministry and Islam into a one-day drive by shooting teaching opportunity?  I tried to negotiate for more time but was unsuccessful.  Today I would probably refuse to participate in such a small slice of training because, as my father used to say, “They know just enough to get themselves hurt.”

But from somewhere within the spiritual realm, inspiration struck.  I agreed to meet with them for a full day, but instead of instructing them concerning the tenets of Islam and ministry, I engaged the assistance of three brothers who were followers of Jesus from a Muslim background.  I informed those we were teaching that I would simply interview these three brothers on stage concerning their cultural settings of their families, their faith, and their persecution in order that we might use this teaching opportunity to its fullest.

It was a fantastic day as these 35 Westerners listened, often in shock, to the stories of their brothers from Muslim backgrounds that live daily in the grips of persecution and the possibility of being killed for their faith.  It was such a holy time the participants were reluctant to take breaks or to eat lunch, as they wanted to soak up as much knowledge and expertise possible.  These three brothers described faith in environments that can only be described as biblical, mostly Old Testament.  At the end of the day the leader of these 35 foreigners posed a very discerning question.  He asked,

“If you have accurately described what your world is like, what is the role of the Western worker?  What can we possibly do which will aid the development of faith while not causing you to be persecuted simply due to our presence?  What can we do to help?” One of the believers from Muslim background proposed a suggestion that rocked the very core of my being.

He said, “We live with trials and persecution every day.  Here is what I would suggest to you.  If you can come, and walk alongside of us, then come.  If you cannot come, then send someone on your behalf to encourage us.  If you cannot come, nor send anybody in your place, please write us a letter, send us an email which describes your love and support for us.  Write to us possible suggestions on how we should live out our lives in the midst of an Old Testament environment.”

Lightning flashed through my brain as I listened to this brother’s reply.  In a few short sentences he had captured the entire relational ministry of the apostle Paul in the New Testament.  When he could go-he went.  When he could not go himself to visit new believers and churches-he sent someone on the behalf of himself and the Gospel.  When he could not go nor send anyone he would write them letters of encouragement and instruction.

Our brother, a first generation believer from a Muslim background, captured a large portion of the life of Paul in a few sentences.  I will never forget hearing him say,

“If you can come, come.

If you cannot come, send someone to walk with us.

If you cannot come yourself, nor send us someone, then write us a letter of encouragement.” It captures the relationship of one believer with others who also follow Jesus in tough places.

This is not brain surgery.  Any one of us can fulfill these requests.  This is the relational essence of the New Testament and evidence of how the Body of Christ provides care for one another.

Why would I waste the truth on you?

Perhaps it’s not what you would expect from a faith-based person who had entered Somalia for the sake of the kingdom of God but I was severely tempted to put my hands around the throat of my Chief of Staff and do him bodily harm. Why such behavior?

He almost got me killed.

Our small relief organization was now up and running.  It was my job many days to survey parts of Mogadishu and the surrounding towns and villages to discover where we were most needed but also where there was enough security so that we could work.  Early in this life-changing, destructive environment I asked my Chief of Staff concerning surveying a certain portion of Mogadishu.  I had indirectly heard that it was still very dangerous and I wanted to double check with my Chief of Staff, Hassan, before traveling to that part of the city.  He assured me that everything was okay and that I should go.

So this Kentucky boy, a product of a denominational based college and seminary training-a sometimes fumbling pastor, was now an overseas worker trying to apply faith in a mostly faithless and dangerous environment.  I got in our pickup truck with the driver and four guards and went to the portion of Mogadishu were my Chief of Staff had assured us it was safe to visit that part of the city.

We almost were killed.  Entering this embattled section of Mogadishu, outlaws tried to drag us from our vehicle, threw blocks of concrete at the truck, and sprayed bullets towards our pickup truck with their ancient AK-47s.  It was a terrifying encounter and we were lucky to get back to our compound with my life intact and my pants dry!

I stormed up the stairs of our headquarters until I found my Chief of Staff.  Working through my fear I grabbed him by the shirt front and demanded of him, “Why did you lie to me?  You almost got me and the others killed!”  He was very affronted and incredulously replied to me, “I don’t know you well enough to tell you the truth.  Why would I waste the truth on someone like you?”

I was struck dumb and walked away.  In what school or seminary was I supposed to learn how to serve Jesus in an environment that was dominated by barbarians with world views such as the Roman Empire?  Oh yes, what I needed to know was in the Bible but I had never seen such godlessness lived out in present active tense.  I realized, perhaps for the first time, that indeed I was a sheep among the wolves.  But for the first time the wolves were in the majority.

Over the next seven years Hassan saved my life 4 or 5 times.  We are close friends today.  But he taught me a valuable lesson.  Don’t expect the Fruit of the Spirit in places where few people know Jesus.  Don’t expect nonbelievers to waste the truth on someone whom they do not know, who are not part of their clan, culture, or country.  Do not transfer Christian attributes to people who do not know Jesus!

Yet bullets directed at you accelerate one’s learning and cultural adaptation.

Where was I supposed to learn what it was like to be a cross-bearer in a Roman environment?  Who was supposed to have taught and modeled for me the Bible in present active tense.  How was I to know that the Old Testament still defined globally many people groups and countries?  Was it okay for me to heavily dislike being a sheep among the wolves where the wolves had the upper hand?

Persecution is Hard

The table in his one-room house is still imprinted on my mind after many years.  There was a low wattage bare light bulb hanging above the table.  On the table’s surface was a well used metal plate, a large spoon, and a knife.  Covering most of the table above these utensils was a huge family Bible; opened, well used, with all the margins filled with hand written notes in Chinese characters.  There was a small closet which held one change of clothes, a pair of sandals, and a box of papers filled with his rambling thoughts.

He had been imprisoned for 31 years.

What went into prison was a healthy man with a wife and children.  In prison, because he refused to deny his faith in Jesus Christ, his persecutors forced his wife to divorce him and sent his children far away to be adopted by communist-friendly families.  They never charged him with any crime but locked him away in prison for three decades…just because they could.

They had used him up.  He was just a shell of a man.

There is an inclination in the West to dress up persecution; make it palatable, as we remember the faith that sustains our brothers and sisters in persecution more than imagining the blood and the tears and the separation and the psychological abuse.  Frankly speaking, persecution is very hard and we should never treat it lightly.  Thirty-one years later, having never charged him with any crime, they released him without explanation.  Having nowhere to go, almost everyone he knew were dead, he was now living in a one-room apartment just three blocks from the prison.  He had sent for me to visit him at one o’clock in the morning allowing him to tell his story; recalling his persecution and his faith.  I discovered that his week was well ordered.  Every day he went to the prison and demanded that they apologize for imprisoning him without cause, reminding them that they had cost him his wife and children.  Every day the prison officials laughingly refused to apologize.

He would fast four days of each week spending most of those days praying and reading his well marked Bible.  It became evident to me that he was more comfortable talking to God than to his fellow human beings.  He would share long narratives of his life with me and then, seemingly, forget that I was even in the room.  After 30 or 40 minutes he would look at me and say, “Oh are you still here?” and then continue his life story.

He taught me so much about suffering and about communicating with God as one’s best friend.  As I watched and listened to him I had a mystical awareness that what I was seeing in the middle of the night, inside a one-room apartment, were the remnants of a man.  He had suffered so much, had been dependent upon only God for so long, that he was a shadow of a man on the Earth, becoming more solid each moment in heaven.

Don’t let anyone ever deceive you; persecution is hard.  Yet God does often use persecution to begin a process of making us more like citizens of heaven than sufferers on Earth.

Lay Your Lumber Down

It was so hot that, when our truck broke down and I had to walk about a mile for help, the bottoms of my feet blistered through the soles of my tennis shoes and socks.  Malawi in the 1980s had one paved road, almost completed, from the very north to the south of the country.  Breaking down, and having to leave my wife and two small kids stranded in the truck on the side of the road while I went for help, was not my idea of a good day.  Yet we found the assistance needed in order to get our vehicle moving again.  It was well over 100°F and I had allowed myself to engage in one big pity-party, bemoaning my sacrifice and sufferings to God.

 I spent much of my devotional time later that day in listing before the Lord all the burdens and troubles that we had humbly (with some sarcasm) placed upon our frail shoulders for Him and the kingdom of God.

Two weeks later we were driving down the same road, in the same un-air-conditioned heat, and passed a man walking barefoot on the blistering tar road.  Sweat was pouring down his face as he walked with about eight pieces of lumber, 10 feet in length, weighing well over 100 pounds, balanced on top of his head.  We immediately stopped the truck and helped him and his lumber climb into the bed of the truck.  He told me where he was going and we were thrilled to carry him to his village about 5 miles away.

After driving about a mile I looked into my rearview mirror and was astonished to see the man, legs spread far apart, swaying, attempting to balance himself in the back of the truck with the lumber on top of his head!  I quickly stopped and insisted that our new-found friend lay his lumber down into the bed of the truck.  He looked at me in astonishment and said,

“Sir, it is enough to ask you to carry me in the back of your truck.  How can I ask you to carry my lumber also?”

I was astonished and then broken.  As I convinced this brother to lay his burden down in the back of the truck and rest for the next 4 miles, I recalled my whining before the Lord.  How many times had I recently recounted to heaven all the burdens I was carrying for the sake of the kingdom of God, while the entire time I was being carried?  I was so much like this man, swaying in the back of the truck, legs spread far apart, and carrying with great difficulty what God had already taken upon Himself.

Jesus said it best, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  Matthew 11:28. Or it could be said this way.

“Lay your lumber down.  I’m already carrying you.”

The Dirt of Compromise

“If you will not,” said Naaman, “please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the LORD. But may the LORD forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I bow there also-when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the LORD forgive your servant for this.”  “Go in peace,” Elisha said.

2 Kings 5:17-19 NIV

Imagine that you are the first believer in your family, your people group, or your country?  Additionally you are Naaman, the General of the Army, the strong right arm of the king of Rimmon.  It is a thrilling story as recorded in 2 Kings 5 denoting how the leper Naaman was eventually healed through heeding the advice of a young Israelite girl taken into slavery and placed within his household.  Because of her testimony, Naaman traveled a long distance to seek advice from the prophet Elisha who commanded him to bathe seven times in the small and insignificant Jordan River.  After some heated discussions with Elisha and his servants, Naaman obeyed Elisha, bathed seven times in the Jordan River and was healed.  In expression of his thanks, and his new faith, he offered expensive gifts to Elisha, which Elisha refused.

Naaman prepared to return to the service of the King of Rimmon. He knew his brand new faith in the God of Israel and his service to the kingdom of Rimmon, with its idol worship, would result in an acute conflict for his new, one-person faith.  Therefore he suggested, recalled in the verses above, an ingenious compromise that would allow him to honor his newborn faith while apparently worshiping in the Temple of a false god.  Understandably he tried to get Elisha to approve this creative compromise.  Yet Elisha neither said “yes this is okay” nor did he say “this is a terrible idea.”  He simply said, “Go in peace.”

In environments of persecution exercising one’s new faith is tough.  It is hard to be a brand-new, flickering light from God in an overwhelming, Old Testament darkness.  Many workers from the West encountering new believers who are the first to accept Christ within their family, city, religion or country rush to solve all of the new believer’s problems.  After hundreds of years of believing in Jesus we think that we have all the answers for problems that we have never encountered.  I wonder what advice we would have given Naaman if we would have been Elisha?  With years of religious experience; churches, Bible colleges, seminaries and field savvy, we might be tempted to tell Naaman exactly what to do? We would solve his problem from our vast experience of being from “Christian” countries which entitles us, we think, to know all the answers to the Old Testament problems which we have never encountered, nor lived in.

Naaman knew not bowing with his King in the pagan temple could result in his no longer being the General of the Army and could result in the death of himself and his entire family.  What was the prophet’s advice to Naaman? “You are the one living there brother and you need to live with the tension of new-born faith within a pagan environment.  Work out your own salvation.  Trust God and his Holy Spirit to lead you to embrace faith and the possible persecution that often accompanies new faith in God.”  Elisha did not have all the answers for every new set of problems.  He left the decision in this potentially life-threatening situation up to the free will of the one who had to live out his faith as the only known believer within his culture. “Go in peace,” said Elisha, neither agreeing with Naaman’s solution nor condemning him for being a coward.  The prophet allowed Naaman to live within the tension of his new faith while standing beside the king. What advice might you give Naaman? What advice would you have willingly received?

But let’s not forget the believing ,Israeli slave girl whom God had planted inside of Naaman’s household!

Creating a Space for God

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Genesis 1:1 NIV

One of the most gripping and mysterious passages in the Bible is found in Genesis 1:1.  How is it that God can take a dark, empty nothing and create something from it?  He could separate the light from the darkness, dry land from the water and finally, with the dirt He had created from nothing, He molds Adam with His own hands.

Believers who thrive, not just survive, within environments of persecution grasp what it means to believe in a God who can create something from nothing.  Persecution is generally perceived as being overt acts by the persecutors upon the flesh of the persecuted.  When you ask westerners what comes to their minds when you say the word “persecution” they will quickly talk about beatings, torture, imprisonment and even death.

But persecution is more sinister and evil than overt acts upon one’s body.  Often persecution leaves scars that can never be seen.  Often the persecutors use tools which are more psychological than a physical assault on the bodies of believers. Often the worst persecution is to put the believer in a cell, alone, surrounded by an ocean of non-believers.  There you remain one small, flickering light in an ocean of lostness, totally alone.

Three brothers were put in prison in China.  They were thrilled because they were arrested and thrown into prison together.  They were thankful that they were not jailed by themselves.  Their tormentors used their entire arsenal of physical, psychological and emotional abuse to force the three brothers to deny their faith in Jesus.  One of the more dehumanizing tools that the bad guys used was taking the three brothers to the squatty potty.  These are commodes which are flush with the floor and it does not take too much imagination to visualize the condition of squatty potties in a Chinese prison.  These three brothers would be marched to the squatty potty, forced to bend at the waist with their faces virtually inside of the toilet.  Their arms would be twisted behind their backs, with the persecutors “adjusting” the believers arms painfully as if they were TV antennas with the squatty potty being the TV.

While the brothers related the story to me they spontaneously began to reenact what the persecutors had done to them over the last three years.  As they demonstrated this inhumane treatment, they took turns being the persecutor or the persecuted.  As they twisted each other’s arms above an imaginary squatty potty they would ask the one playing the role of the persecuted, “Oh, you are unlucky today because your television is only in black and white.”  Or the persecutors would say, when there was a particularly foul toilet, “You are so lucky today because you have color TV!”

What amazed me the most was how these three brothers laughed with joy as they role-played their persecution which had ended a few weeks before I met them.  What astounded me was how they created a holy space, a place where they could laugh at their persecution and a space where God could create joy in their hearts….in an environment of utter darkness.

They understood that they belonged to the God who could create anything He wanted to, out of nothing. Today you might find yourself in what seems to be a hopeless, a totally dark situation. Bind yourself to the One, Who can help you create something beautiful, hopeful and holy out of nothing.

Called

I can remember reading the Bible for the first time.  I came to Christ at 18 years of age in a Kraft Food’s cheese factory.  My father had negotiated a job for me at the factory the last nine weeks of my senior year in high school.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is I had to work nights those last nine weeks of my senior year in order to go to college.  I worked from 7 PM to 3:30 AM five days a week and never missed a day of school.  Of course I was too exhausted and I remember the embarrassing day when I went to sleep in an 8 AM chemistry class and woke up in a different chemistry class at 2 PM for another group of students!  I found out later that the teacher had threatened her other classes with death threats if they were not quiet in order to allow me to sleep after discovering that I was working nights in the factory to make enough money to go to college that fall.

One night as I was working by myself in a remote corner of that factory, I heard the voice of God speaking to me. I did not recognize His voice until the third time I heard Him speaking audibly in my ear and to my heart.  That night I gave my life and any career to the Almighty.  As a redneck from rural Kentucky all I knew about Christianity was that if you were saved and called by God you had to become a pastor.  I found this such a depressing thought because I felt that my salvation call would chain me to rural Kentucky churches the rest of my life.  I gave up a scholarship to the University of Kentucky and my lifelong dream to be a veterinarian.  Added to my despair was the discouragement I received from my parents, sometimes pastor, and peers to fulfill what I had heard God demand of me.

Finally I received semi-godly counsel from a young pastor in my rural county who took me to Lexington, Kentucky to visit a Christian bookstore.  There he helped me purchase a 7 pound, annotated, Scofield Bible-it looked like and weighed as if it was meant to be on a coffee table.  It had more footnotes than it had Bible.  He also purchased for me seven sermon outline books which severely hindered my ability to understand the Bible on my own and creatively develop messages that might have been worth listening to.

Once I arrived at college, and having announced that I was a pre-ministerial student, I felt the time had come to read the Bible.  I can remember reading Matthew chapter 28 and coming to what I would later be told was the Great Commission.  There I read these powerful words, “Go ye into all of the world.”  I was captivated by the thought that the Almighty had commanded us to go everywhere, at all times.  I confess I had no clue how to leave Kentucky, let alone go to other countries of the world.  So I sort of shelved this Go Ye into the back of my mind where I could retrieve this command if and when they became actually doable.  During my second year of college a doctor who had served as a sent out one for 20 years in Thailand spoke in a chapel.  As I listened to him, my heart soared with the possibilities of a different future.

I ran up to him after his devotional and asked him, “Do you mean to say that I can serve God anywhere in the world and your mission agency will pay me to do that?”  He laughed and said, “Well I have never been asked a question like that before but I guess the answer is yes.  We will pay you and you can take the gospel anywhere in the world.”  I said to him, “Where do I sign up?”  Amused he informed me that it wasn’t quite that easy, before sharing some of the hoops that I needed to work through before serving overseas was a possibility.

Finally the day came when now my wife and I were being interviewed by a mission board in regard to our service overseas.  Ruth is the epitome what mission boards would want in a candidate for overseas service.  She grew up in a pastor’s home.  She came to know Jesus at an early age.  In the sixth grade she wrote a class paper on Africa and knew then she wanted to spend her life in Africa.  She could articulate a call to missions second to none, and the interviewers were so deeply impressed with her.

Then they turned to me.

They asked me about my call to missions, and I simply replied, “I read Matthew 28.  They looked at me strangely and replied, “You don’t understand.  To be appointed by this mission board you have to have a special call to missions.” “You don’t understand,” I shot back at them, “I have read Matthew 28 which told me to go to all the world and I’m just trying to go.”  These kind, godly men, dressed in such immaculate suits proceeded to give me a 30 min. sermon on the concept of being called.  They shared about a call to salvation, a call to ministry, a call to missions, and then a fourth call to a special place in the world.  Then they looked at me with pride and asked me what I thought about what they had shared.  I was still naïve enough to think that when they asked me for my opinion that they actually expected me to reply!

So I looked at them and said, “It is my opinion that you Baptist have created a call to missions that allows you to be disobedient to what God has already commanded you to do.”

That went over really well.

I looked at my wife to discover tears slowly sliding down her cheeks.  I realized at that moment that these Baptists have a secret code or password that you must know in order to go on the mission field and no one had ever told me what that password was.  I thought that I had ruined my wife’s chance to fulfill her childhood dream of going to Africa and that the search committee would dismiss us as candidates for the mission field.

Now 28 years later I still believe the same thing.  Honestly I don’t believe there is a call to missions.  There is a command to missions.  No one who is a follower of Jesus gets to choose whether they are called or not.  We just get to choose, through sense of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, where God wants us to live out our witness at this time.  Being a daily witness for Jesus requires obedience to the command from Christ himself.  A calling to a specific place of service always follows the command to go to all the people groups in the world; whether across the street or across the globe.

Do you want to know if you are called to missions or not?  Read Matthew 28.

My Son Died Today

It was 15 years ago when I watched my 16-year-old son die in Nairobi, Kenya, as a result of a severe asthma attack.

His death on an Easter morning wounded the hearts of an entire community.

People asked me, How can God allow your son to die on Easter? You were only seeking to serve and praise Him among peoples unreached and untouched with the Gospel. How can a father handle watching his son die long before his child’s dreams could be realized?

I imagine God’s thoughts when Jesus died on the cross could have been similar to this:

My Son was a skilled carpenter, but I knew that He was made for something more than shaping wood with His hands. He was made for shaping lives with His words, with a touch or even with His tears.

His life’s work was that of doing the miraculous — He healed the sick, fed thousands, allowed those without worth and unclean to touch Him and to be touched by Him.

He could weep over the death of a friend and almost in the midst of a sob call him from the grave to life again. People were enamored with the miraculous things He said and did. A few people begin to discern that it wasn’t what He did that was miraculous.

The real truth, they began to discover, was not that He did miracles but that He was The Miracle.

Others feared what they did not understand. I saw my Son arrested and ridiculed. Their spit ran down His face, their jeers rang in His ears and their tools of torture caused blood to disfigure His countenance.

Cheers from the days before when He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey turned to the jeering of a mob as they watched my Son drag His own cross up to a hill of death, where they raised His mutilated body, nailed upon a wooden cross, to the sky.

Today, I watched my son die.

The political and religious leaders of His day thought this was the end of the threat. Those who had followed Him believed their hope was dead, so they denied they had ever known Him. Both sides deeply believed this was the end of the story, this death, this killing of My son — once praised now, once and for all, crucified to death.

And here was everyone’s mistake, their misunderstanding. They believed that crucifixion was the end of the story, that death ended all things — the threat to the reigning government and the people’s hopes for an earthly Messiah.

Everyone was wrong. My Son was not to be defined by the waving palm leaves of the adoring multitude or by the shouts of the jeering crowd. Neither would He be defined by a crucifixion.

There was more to come — more to the story. This was my plan. The crucifixion by man was a prelude to the resurrection by the Father. I allowed and watched my Son die, to be crucified, to demonstrate my love and forgiveness for all people, for all times.

But I am not only a Father of love, I am a Father of power.

And while my love allowed for the crucifixion of my Son, my power would not allow Him to stay dead because I had determined that crucifixion was just the prelude to the resurrection.

For my family, the anniversary of my son’s death at Easter brings this bittersweet reminder — There is no shortcut, no easy way out, no way to avoid wounds made inevitable by living in a broken, imperfect world — but that isn’t the end of the story.

My family knows that this earthly life is just a prelude to the eternal life we can have through and with Christ because of His sacrifice for us on the cross. Jesus’ crucifixion was for a moment in time. His resurrection is forever.