Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Remembering Mom

Sunday morning, December 5, 1999, was a day I will never forget.  At 3am that morning, the lady who ran the missionary boarding house in Manila where Debbie and I were living pounded on our bedroom door, “Dave, your dad is on the phone!”  That call changed my life.  As I went to take the call, I vaguely remembered that dad said he was taking Mom back to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for more medical tests.  On the way, they decided to stop and visit my younger brother, Tom, and his family.  Dad’s troubled voice pierced my sleep addled mind, “Dave, Mom has had a stroke.  The doctors don’t expect her to live.”  Nine agonizing hours later he called back to say that she had gone to be with Jesus, and we flew home for the funeral.

Eleven years have passed and the grieving process, while much easier, continues.  Since Mom died during the holiday season, this time of year provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on her legacy.  My mom taught me a lot about God and life. 

By her example, she taught me to love God above all else.  Mom loved God, her husband, her children, her church, and her fellow man, in that order.  The Psalms were her favorite part of the Bible, and I learned to cherish them as well.  Mom taught me that the greatest truth I could ever learn was that “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  She played the piano by ear and loved the great hymns of the church.  Her piano still sits in my dad and stepmother’s house, a now mostly mute but beautiful memorial of her.  Her love for playing the piano never caught hold with any of us kids, but the hymns resonate deeply in my spirit today.    

She was a devoted wife and mother, working hard daily in the home to care for us.  Mom taught me to respect my father and to see his working to provide for our needs as an expression of love for us.  She also taught us to respect others, especially our elders.  The little things in life were important to mom.  She constantly reminded us to say please and thank you and to wipe our feet off on the doormat when entering the house.  She also made me button my shirt, comb my hair, and brush my teeth, which was never important until I discovered girls!  She also taught me to love my brothers, Steve, who was older, and Tom, the youngest of the clan.  It seems that I needed to be reminded often because whenever there was a fight between us, I was almost always involved and usually the instigator!  She insisted that I share the rocking horse with Steve, and that I be nice to Tom.  Apparently I wasn’t perfect! 

Mom also taught me to love reading, a real asset when I entered Bible college and then seminary.  I am a passionate reader and this has contributed to my commitment to being a lifelong learner.  In this regard, I will always be in school!

Like Dad, Mom believed that sparing the rod would only spoil the child.  In our house, the line between right and wrong was clearly drawn, and I crossed it often!  On the other hand, she modeled the idea that the rod of judgment could occasionally be meted out with mercy and sometimes not meted out at all.  Once in awhile we could even get away with bribing her with promises to behave better the next time in order to escape the impending doom of imminent judgment! 

But life was hardly perfect.  Mom also dealt with a bi-polar disorder known today as manic-depressive and was hospitalized for it at least fifty times, from anywhere from two weeks to ten months at a stretch.  The unintended effect was that it destabilized our family—although Dad’s faithfulness and heroic efforts went a long way towards mitigating the loss.  We dealt with it as best we could, although, while I’m not sure I was totally conscious aware of it at that time, I had to deal with feelings of abandonment—which have had consequences in my own search for significance and contributed to my own battle with depression.  Like Mom, I, too, have found grace and healing in Christ—a healing that is still in process to this day.

The positive fruit of her struggle was that Mom learned to care deeply for others and touched many lives in a way that perhaps not many others could have done.  During her hospitalizations, she met several women who became lifelong friends—and they knew that she loved them dearly.  During this time, she learned the powerful value of a kind or encouraging word, and she used that lesson to minister to others who were hurting.  Throughout the course of her life, she sent hundreds, if not thousands, of cards to people when she thought they needed an emotional lift or to celebrate a birthday, anniversary, or for no particular reason at all.  Hallmark loved my mom!  In short, she taught me that people matter.      

In reflecting on my mother’s legacy, I have learned many lessons. But the greatest lesson I have learned is that unconditional loving with all of one’s heart is what truly matters in life.  I can only hope that I have learned that lesson well.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

A Missionary's Perspective of the Incarnation (Galatians 4:4-5)

The Incarnation of Jesus Christ.  God in human flesh.  What a marvel!  We know the story of Christmas well.  My purpose here is to give a cross cultural perspective of the Incarnation, to describe the birth and life of Christ through the eyes of a missionary.

To do this, the terms of missionary and culture must be defined.  First, what do we mean by culture?  One online dictionary describes culture as “a shared, learned, symbolic system of values, beliefs and attitudes that shapes and influences perception and behavior” ( December 16, 2010).  The culture in which we are raised is like a pair of eyeglasses through which we see the world.  The challenge is that since these eyeglasses begin to form on our face the moment we are born, most people go through life without even being aware of them.  Furthermore, both the missionary and the person from the other culture are wearing different prescriptions in their cultural glasses.

The second term to be defined is missionary.  While numerous definitions of the term abound, the classical definition of a missionary, which will be used here, is one who crosses cultural and sometimes linguistic boundaries in order to proclaim the gospel, just as Jesus himself did.  The first missionary was God himself.

The compelling basis of missions is that God sent his Son, for the purpose of redemption, across a number of boundaries.  The first one was cultural.  Think about it.  The Bible doesn’t tell us much about heaven, but one can be sure that no one who has ever been there would want to leave, even if they could.  Yet Jesus left the splendor of God’s presence and entered the squalor of sin.  He swapped the throne room for manger and ultimately a Roman cross.  He traded the care of angels for the nurture of a woman.  He said goodbye his heavenly Father to come under the tutelage of an earthly man.  This particular cultural chasm was so large only God could cross it.

Galatians 4:4 says that he was “born under the law.” What does this mean?  Every society has a matrix of laws, customs, traditions, and behaviors that serve as a framework for everyday life.  When God put on human flesh, he became a first century Jew and was subject to its laws and traditions.  Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem in obedience to Caesar’s degree that they register for the purpose of taxation.  Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day and participated in the Jewish feasts in accordance with Jewish law and custom.  His itinerant teaching style with disciples following was common in his day.  In every sense of the word, both in his personal life and the way in which he ministered, Jesus was a Jew. 

In similar manner, missionaries are called by God to leave their home cultures and enter cultures that are strange to them in order to be Christ’s ambassador.  Crossing cultural boundaries as a child is relatively easy since children easily adapt to changing circumstances.  For an adult, however, the situation can be quite different.  For many new missionaries, culture shock is a common result.  Culture shock can be defined as “a condition of disorientation affecting someone who is suddenly exposed to an unfamiliar culture or way of life or set of attitudes” (, December 10, 2010).  Culture shock is normally experienced in several stages.  In the first stage, everything about the new culture looks great, perhaps even better than home.  Going deeper into the new culture, the newly inducted discover that not everything is perfect and suddenly the home culture looks better.  In time, one learns a more balanced approach, recognizing that there is good and bad in both the new and home cultures, and they learn to roll with the punches.

When I first moved to the Philippines in 1994, I took the submarine approach to the new culture and language and dove right in.  Single at the time, I lived with a Filipino family, ate what they ate, and went to work on learning the language and culture.  At first, it was an odd fit—about as easy as pounding a square peg in a round hole.  From driving in Manila’s traffic jams, which are among the worst in Asia, to learning the ways Filipinos that relate to each other, I had to stretch and grow—complete with all of the exhilaration and frustration that this entailed. 

For example, I noticed that pastors would not approach me directly when they needed to discuss a problem.  They preferred to talk to my assistant or some other mutually trusted individual, who would bring the problem to me.  This made me angry, since I was raised with the idea that problems should be confronted.  This approach was supported by the Matthew 18:15 principle.  But I eventually reasoned that since I was a guest in the country and that Filipinos had a right to be different, and that being different does not mean being wrong.  As I began to adjust my attitude and use the same mediator to send my response back to the pastors, both my stress and conflict levels decreased.  Later on, I recognized that when God wanted to resolve the greatest conflict in history, the one between man and God, he did not use the Matthew 18:15 principle!  He used a mediator—the same one I was preaching to the Filipinos!        

But not only did God send his son across cultural boundaries, he also sent him across linguistic and boundaries.  Think about it, when Jesus came to earth, did he come speaking the language of heaven, whatever that may be, or did he communicate in the languages of his day—Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic?  The answer is obvious from the fact that people understood him.  In many countries missionaries have to learn the language to communicate with the people, so the case for learning the language is easy to make.  In the Philippines, however, the situation is not so easy because English is widely spoken.  Debbie and I have many friends that speak English quite well but, in spite of this, prefer to speak to us in Tagalog, the national language.  The reasons are quite simple.  First, they are more fluent in Tagalog and so are more at ease with it.  Second, language is the window of the soul.  When it comes to talking about spiritual things and sharing what is on their hearts, Tagalog is normally their language of choice.

 Language learning comes easy for a child, but adults tend to struggle. Mistakes are common and sometimes hilarious.  One time, I wanted to tell a lady she was honest but instead I told her she was fat!  I was deeply embarrassed and apologized profusely.  But she wasn’t offended because fat is seen as a sign of health and wealth.   And besides, she really was fat!  On another occasion, Debbie failed to make the distinction between the Tagalog word for heart, puso, and the word for cat, pusa, and preached a whole sermon about having Jesus in your cat!  Her listeners still remember that message in which, fortunately, they discerned the correct message.  But practice led to proficiency and, over the years, by the grace of God, we have preached hundreds of times in Tagalog, prayed with thousands of people to receive Christ and raised up men and women to pastor them.

Not only is learning the language critical to communicating God’s message, so is understanding the thought processes of the culture we are called to serve.  The ancient Greeks, like most Americans and other Westerners, for example, were linear thinkers.  Paul’s message to the philosophers on Mar’s Hill in Acts 17 is an excellent example of using the principles of Western logic to preach the gospel.  The outline of this article follows much the same line of thought.

On the other hand, the first century Jews, like a majority of the world’s population today, could be described as concrete-relational thinkers.  In short, they thought in terms of narratives or stories.  The ancient Hebrews were master storytellers, as one can easily see from the written accounts of the patriarchs and Joseph in Genesis and Moses’ own autobiography in Exodus.  As much as seventy percent of the Bible uses narrative for teaching doctrine.  Jesus embodied this tradition well, as the stories of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), the Prodigal son (Luke 15), and his penchant for teaching in parables clearly reveal.  Jesus also used simple methods to teach large contents of truth.  He used things they did understand, like his analogy of the mustard seed, to explain abstract ideas that they didn’t readily grasp, like the Kingdom of God.  He also normally taught in small words, no more than two to three syllables, to teach major theological doctrines—an example that today’s theologians often do not follow!  In other words, when God put on human flesh, he communicated not only in the languages of his hearers, he also conveyed God’s revelation of redemption in thought forms and concepts that his hearers could understand.

Missionaries and, for that matter, anyone teaching the Bible, need to follow Christ’s example.  Filipinos, like the hearers of Jesus, are concrete relational thinkers.  They think in terms of concrete images, like stories, rather than in abstract ideas.  This means that preaching through storytelling is much more powerful.  In Bible school, I was taught that stories or illustrations should be used to support the points of my message, which reflects the Western tradition in which I was raised.  But among Filipinos, I am much more effective when I reverse the process and preach the story and extract biblical principles from it.  A good example, and one of my personal favorites, is the account of Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel in I Kings 18.   Since many, perhaps most, Filipinos are involved in witchcraft at some point in their lives, this story of the power of God over the Old Testament witchcraft practitioners, the prophets of Baal being only one of a number of examples, presents the biblical message in a potent, relevant, and vividly clear manner.  Also, like Jesus, I need to make sure I express these truths clearly and simply, not an easy task for a man with three academic degrees in theology and missions!

Motivated by indescribable love, God sent his son across cultural, linguistic, and thought process boundaries.  But to what purpose?  Galatians 4:5 explains that God’s reason was redemption.  From the manger to the resurrection God was in Christ, reconciling this world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).  In order to provide for our forgiveness, God had to become man, and he did so gladly, crossing the boundary of heaven and earth, following Jewish custom and law, speaking the languages of the day, and teaching God’s redemptive message in concepts and thought patterns familiar to his audience.  Missionaries are commanded to do likewise.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Process of Discipleship

Not long ago, I was in a convenience store and saw a woman who was wearing a beautiful Christian T-shirt that described the reality and necessity of Christ’s death on the Cross.  Both the theology it expressed and the artwork truly glorified God.  I thought about complimenting her on it but, before I could do so, she stepped up to the cashier, bought lottery tickets, and left the store.  I stood there wondering if she had any idea that the message she wore on her body totally contradicted the one she held in her hand.  
What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ—a true disciple worthy of being called by his name?  The apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5:17 calls for a change of allegiance, renouncing the past in terms of its worldview, which lies at the core of our being as well as our values, attitudes, and actions, and a full embrace of the new life that Christ offers.  This new life calls for a total and drastic change of allegiance and embraces all aspects of life.  Far too many believers fail to understand the radical nature of Jesus’ claim on their lives.
Allegiance is an issue of the heart (Proverbs 4:20-23). A true change of allegiance will greatly impact our worldview.  Worldview can simply be explained as a pair of eyeglasses in the core of our being through which we perceive reality, define values, and decide actions.  Since our worldview begins to develop the day we are born and is strongly conditioned by the environment in which we grow up, most people don’t even know it is there and seldom question it.  But because our values and actions flow out of our worldview, having a biblical worldview is a vital component of discipleship.  Without it, our cultural environment will define our values and actions. 
Although many issues could be mentioned to demonstrate what worldview is, one example will suffice.  At the core of the Anglo-Saxon American worldview is the sovereign identity of the individual person, apart from their family or peers.  The old phrase “I gotta be me,” and Frank Sinatra’s hit song I Did It My Way express this worldview assumption quite well.  From this worldview comes the values of individual rights, such as the right to do my own thing, regardless of the impact it will have on my family, friends, or society as a whole.  Actions are based on values, and the particular value of individual rights has had an enormous impact on the American church as many believers feel that they serve Christ without being a part of a local church or rise up against authority in an unrighteous manner when they perceive that the church does not meet their needs.  They may also think, consciously or not, that the church exists to serve them—the individual.  Other cultures have different worldviews, from which their values and actions flow.  Everyone’s worldview has been marred by sin—there are no exceptions. 
Since our worldview reflects the core of what makes us who we are, the implications for discipleship are enormous.  Unfortunately, much of what is called discipleship today does not go far enough and many, perhaps most, American Christians, like the lotto lady mentioned above, have a bifurcated, or two-tiered, worldview, living according to God’s values when they are around other believers and going by society’s standards the rest of the time.  The result is a compromised discipleship.  If we recognize that our actions reflect our values and that our values flow out of our worldview, we must raise the question, “how can we change our worldview in order to follow Christ more completely?”        
The first step is to pray, asking the Holy Spirit, who alone knows our hearts, to reveal God’s truth to us.  He can and will lead us into all truth (John 16:13).  Second, under the Spirit’s guidance, we need to do some self-analysis.  Why do we do the things we do?  Why do we do things we shouldn’t and not do things we should?  Don’t be satisfied with cheap answers.  Seek to know your motives.  Actions are easy to observe but motives are not so easily discernable.  This is where the Body of Christ is so critical.  We all need a trusted, mature brother or sister in Christ to speak into our lives and help uncover our blind spots.
Take the lotto lady in the story above, for example.  Since I did not talk to her, I have no idea why she bought lotto tickets, nor am I judging her.  If she bought the tickets for her own use and stopped to think about it, she might ask herself what the Bible has to say about gambling, how money should be handled, or what it teaches about God’s ability and willingness to provide for those who trust him.  If she bought the tickets for someone else, she might ask what the Bible teaches about her being a good example of what it means to follow Jesus.  But, again, we need to go beyond actions here, and discover what motivates us.  She, or a trusted Christian friend, might ask if her motivation was it the desire for riches?  Anxiety over finances and concern about meeting basic needs in the present and future?  Was it a lack of trust in God?  She or her friend might dig a little deeper and ask, “Who is really in control of the universe, God, me, or the impersonal force of Lady Luck?”  When questions like these are honestly faced, we have gotten down to the inner core of who we are at the worldview level.  Unless our commitment to God reaches the core of our being and impacts every aspect of our lives, our obedience will be inconsistent, superficial, and fall far short of the full and enriching life that God wants us to have (John 10:10).
But since the way we handle money tells more about us than we would care to admit, let us follow the example of the lotto lady a little further.  Let’s assume that she prays over the matter of buying lotto tickets, and the Holy Spirit convicts her of her sin.  Let’s also assume that she presses in further and examines why she felt the need to buy the tickets and discovers that her motivation was fear about the future.  Now she has gotten to the heart of the matter.  She begins to ask questions like, “What is the truth about God, and what is the truth about me?”  Answering these questions demands that we read, study, hear, memorize, and meditate on the Word of God.
As she continues to study she discovers that God is all powerful and that he is the owner of everything.  She then discovers that as a believer in Christ, she is entitled to the promises of God regarding his provision and that she can trust him for her future.  Her worldview begins to change and she no longer feels the need to take matters into her own hands by buying lotto tickets.  Since our worldview part of the foundation of our lives, building the foundation on the secure foundation of Christ enables us to face life without fear, and we can begin to experience a change in our values and actions.
As she prays and studies further, she will encounter passages such as Malachi 3:8-11, which teach her to act on what she now believes and begin to tithe.  She understands that tithing indicates her new understanding that God is the owner of everything, including the money she used to invest in lotto tickets, and she begins to realize that she is a steward, not the owner, of the resources that God has invested in her.  She may also realize that giving and gambling are the antithesis of each other, one being an act of obedience that places her financial needs in the hands of God and the other following the worldly system of taking the future into her own hands. 
As she studies Malachi 3:10-11 further, she also recognizes that God will cause her to prosper through working, whether on the job or caring for her family at home.  When she discovers this, she has uncovered the heart of what has been called the Protestant Work Ethic.  When she sees that all honest labor is honorable to God and she begins to see her work as something more important than simply earning a paycheck or the receiving the appreciation of her family, she will then seek to be more industrious, conscientious, and honest—doing it for God rather than men (Colossians 3:23-24).  She will then recognize that not only is buying lotto tickets wrong, it is unnecessary since she has seen that God has a better plan.
She, as an accountable member of the Body of Christ, has now come full circle on this issue.  Her actions have changed because her worldview and values have changed.  She now gives rather than gambles because she recognizes that her loving, all-powerful God, holds her in the palm of his hand, and her future is safe with him.  She is not alone.  The Lord is with her and the Body of Christ supports her.  The lotto lady has become a lady of the Lord.  Then she prays and the Holy Spirit identifies another issue in her life, and the process of discipleship continues.   

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Discipleship Through Local Church Ministries and Church Planting: A Divine Imperative

Sarah (not her real name) was sitting outside her home with her mother and sister when they heard music playing down the street at the outdoor community plaza, and they decided to check it out.  What they discovered was a children’s program being conducted by our evangelistic team as the opening part of a gospel rally designed for everyone.  Curious, they stayed for the entire event which consisted of singing, a gospel film, and the preaching of the Word.  Drawn by the power of the Holy Spirit, they came to know Christ that night.

Sarah was a well respected leader of the local youth organization in a community entrenched in the traditional church.  In reaction to her profession of new found faith in Christ, the whole community snubbed and harassed her.  One man publicly humiliated her.  But the Assemblies of God pastor discipled her and together with the support of the church, her mother and sister, she was able to stand strong against the opposition and joyfully witness for her Lord.  Today she has the favor of the town leadership and is employed at the city hall.

Sarah’s story provides an excellent example of what it means to become a disciple of Christ through the ministry of a local church.  The biblical basis for local church discipleship can be found in Matthew 28:16-20, one of the many biblical passages that deal with this subject.  Here, Jesus clearly states that the commission he is giving his disciples is based upon his own authority and that all is to be done in his name. The focus of the Great Commission is to make disciples, not mere converts, baptizing them as a sign of identification with Christ and teaching them to obey what Jesus had commanded.  Both public identification with Christ and walking in obedience to his Word are marks of a true disciple.

But how does discipleship happen?  From decades of personal experience, I can testify that it is a process that begins when we first come to Christ and lasts a lifetime.  What are the components of discipleship?  Simply put, the components of discipleship revolve around the practice of various spiritual disciplines, which help us understand and put in practice the teachings of Christ.  These include prayer, fasting, reading, studying, hearing, meditating on, and memorizing the Word of God being the most common.  As we practice the spiritual disciplines within the context of our churches, homes, work, or school, God builds his character us by the power of the Holy Spirit.  We grow in Christ together.     

God intended that most of the spiritual disciplines be done within a community of believers called the church.  God’s plan is that, in the local church, we would find fellowship and draw strength from one another as we face ups and downs of life together.  Every church must then provide teaching and mentoring opportunities for discipleship to take place.  In the past, Sunday School, mid-week Bible studies, prayer meetings, and children’s programs provided structure for discipleship and growth. Today, the Holy Spirit has provided some new strategies, such as small groups and mentoring.  The type of ministry is not nearly important as its content.  That so many churches have done away with such structures for growth is lamentable, but the lack in our churches today does not change God’s command.  To claim to be a New Testament church means providing opportunities for people to grow and mature in their faith and to be a follower of Christ calls for participating in the discipleship process in a local church.

If someone leads a person to Christ, bringing them to their church is natural.  But what is to be done as the Kingdom of God expands into areas where there is no church, or where the existing church does not preach Christ? If there is no church, new churches must be planted.  In the Philippines, where my wife and I serve, the dominant religion is folk Catholicism, and there are thousands of communities, many of them small, that have no gospel preaching church.  If we intend to reach the Philippines for Christ and since the local church is the best place for discipleship to take place, thousands of new churches must be planted in order for the Great Commission to be fulfilled.    

But simply starting a new church is not enough.  These new churches must provide opportunities for people to grow and mature in their relationship with Christ and one another.  To do this, a trained pastor must be provided, which is the reason why the Assemblies of God now has around 900 Bible schools all over the world.  In our district in the Philippines, we have a Bible school that has a three year training program.  That eighty-five percent of its graduates over the last forty four years have found their way into the ministry indicates that the school has done its job.

The problem is that our Bible school cannot provide enough pastors fast enough to meet the need for new church planting in all of the places we need to go.  To meet this need, God spoke to Debbie in 2007 to pioneer church planting schools, which were designed to train laymen and women to plant house churches in their own locale.  Since these people cannot get away from their jobs and families to attend Bible school, it was imperative that the church planting schools be held in a nearby location and for a shorter duration of time.  In the beginning, three schools were started in local churches and the training sessions lasted one and one half days per month.  About twenty students attended.  Today, there are now seventeen schools with about 200 students.  Specific statistics are hard to come by but there appears to be about eighty houses churches now open in our district.  While we rejoice because of the growth, great care must be taken that good teaching and mentoring, which are key components of discipleship, are taking place.  Additional tiers of training are needed—an issue we intend to address when we return.  These lay pastors, in turn, must put discipleship structures in place for these new believers to grow in Christ.  A church with an ill-trained pastor is a breeding ground for heresy, but a new believer without a church to provide love, instruction, and encouragement is a tragedy. 

A pastor, no matter what his or her background, must be committed to bringing new believers to maturity in accordance with 2 Timothy 2:2.  Sarah, her mother, and her sister came to know Christ through the ministry of an evangelistic team that was working with a local church.  The pastor of that church incorporated them into the local body and discipled them.  All over the world the Assemblies of God is planting new churches for this purpose.  Millions and millions of people, like Sarah, still need to be brought into relationship with Christ and his body.