Thursday, December 29, 2005

60 New Years

This will be my 60th New Year celebration. I obviously don’t remember my first one, as I was only two months old. That first New Year Harry Truman had just become the 33rd U.S. President after the death of FDR; I was living in California. My earliest memories of New Year’s Day is watching the Rose Parade on our black and white television and then spending the whole day glued to the tube watching college football. Those were the days when there was only the Orange, Sugar, Cotton and Rose Bowl’s, spaced out to end that afternoon on the west coast as there were no night games in the mid-1950’s. For an eight-year-old boy, it was about the best day of the year.

When we moved to Arkansas our standard of living dropped dramatically and one New Year’s Day was spent helping my dad on a construction job. I thought it was criminal to be working instead of sitting in front of the one-eyed monster eating Fritos and bean dip.

I preached my first sermon on New Year’s Eve, 1967 at what they called a “watch night” service. A tradition in our little Baptist church where we would gather at 8 p.m. to sing, eat and pray the New Year in. It was also a good time to let lay preachers and seminarians speak. I was a first year student in a Bible college and so they let me give it a try (after all, they had four hours to kill). I preached the whole book of Revelation in under thirty minutes.

New Year’s Day in Kenya was a bit dull. The kids were home from boarding school and Sandy usually made biscuit’s and chocolate gravy. No place to go in the small town we lived in. I’d listen to football games January 2nd on Armed Forces Radio.

Ten years ago I was in London with my friend Woody Phillips. He was living in Hungary at the time and we met there to look at a piece of property that the organization wanted to buy for a training school. The property was worthless but the time was well spent as I made a dear friend on that trip. We walked through Piccadilly Circus, found a quaint restaurant and watched fireworks. Woody and I had a lot in common and I valued his friendship. Wonder what we would have talked about if we knew he would be dead six years later?

This New Year’s day I will be in Seoul speaking at the Bul Kwang Dong Bible Baptist Church in Seoul, which has been a supporter for over twenty years. It will be cold and I don’t have winter clothes. Though a bit anxious, I count it a privilege to be asked to be the main speaker for their conference. I won’t be going through the events of Armageddon in a half an hour, but I will be just as excited to talk about my Savior as I was thirty-eight years ago.

A New Year. New opportunities. I wonder where I’ll be six years from now? If I live to see my 70th New Year’s, I wonder what the world will be like? The years really don’t matter, but each day that God gives me. I’m blessed. Happy New Year.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Merry Christmas

T’is the night before Christmas and all through our Delhi flat,
It’s so dang cold here, not a creature is stirring, not even a rat.

I look out the window, as the fog settles in,
And wonder if Jesus will be remembered in this world of sadness and sin?

With all the other gods the people do pray,
Will anyone remember why even celebrate this day?

I think of my kids, as they gather around their tree,
And pray for God blessing on them as they worship our Savior without Sandy and me.

We celebrate His birth with fellow believers tonight,
But I am reminded that our colleagues around the world are facing our same plight.

Grateful to God for His marvelous Grace,
It will be a wonderful Christmas without seeing jolly St. Nick’s face.

A poet I’m not, you no doubt agree by this time,
But it’s the thought that counts, not the uneven rhyme.

I just wanted to send out a greeting to all those we love,
And remember again our wonderful Lord and King above.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Why Jimmy Quits

Years ago growing up in Los Angeles we use to play sandlot football. I stood in line, along with other kids, hoping to be picked to be on a good team. I liked being on the same team with Johnny Odom, a fat Japanese fifth grade kid, as he was almost unmovable. He was slow and clumsy, but if we needed short down yardage we would always give the ball to fat Johnny who, with his shiny blue and gold LA Rams helmet (the envy of us all), would squash the opposing team with ease.

Denny Dietrich was also a good guy to have on our side as he was wiry and strong. I liked playing against Chucky Green as he was as light as a feather and I could toss him around with ease. Jimmy Farmer was a bit of a whiner and usually got hurt every game we played. Jimmy was always the last kid to be picked. No one really liked him, but when you have to have enough kids to play a game you take whoever shows up.

On my walk this morning I thought about Jimmy as it relates to overseas teams. I have noticed that usually in every team situation there is a guy or a family that the rest of the team doesn’t really like. Maybe they are whiny or they have an irritating personality. Or, perhaps, they just don’t have that indefinable chemistry which determines if they will be insiders or outsiders within the group. Whatever the reason, there seems to be a Jimmy Farmer in every group.

Like Jimmy, this odd guy (or couple) volunteers for an assignment and the organization usually picks them, with reservation. Jimmy goes to the field and the team leader doesn’t like him and never really gives him the attention he gives to others on the team. Attitude always shows up, and even Jimmy knows he was picked out of necessity, not because they want him around. Before long, either by Jimmy or the organization, a decision is made to release him from the team. Jimmy goes home and everyone points fingers on whose fault it was that he didn’t make it. Sadly, someone usually blames God saying it was His will or they missed understanding His will. It’s common in Christian circles that when things don’t go according to plan we can always cover our mistakes by attributing the failure to a higher power.

So who is at fault for Jimmy’s failure? Certainly Jimmy bears a lot of the responsibility. If he is not gifted to play ball (or be on the field) he shouldn’t try. He should look for another game. If he insists on playing the game then he needs to work on not being such an irritant and work on his interpersonal skills.

The team and team owner also shares in Jimmy’s failure. If you don’t like the guy, don’t pick him to play on the team. If the team is going to accept him, then treat him like a full fledge member, don’t make his life so miserable that you force him to quit. In fact, given his difficult personality, the team will need to go the extra mile to make sure he does succeed. Anyone can coach a talented team. The coach of the year is the one who can take a less than talented group to the playoffs. It’s disingenuous to take the credit when things are going well, but blame Jimmy when the wheels fall off.

I wonder where Jimmy is now? I know he never played in the NFL, but bet the guy ended up doing all right playing another game. I’ve seen a lot of Jimmy’s leave the game overseas and though there are a myriad of reasons why they didn’t make it I’m certain it wasn’t God’s fault.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Daily Reminder

It’s 7 a.m. when I step outside for my daily walk. My rounds are always interesting, but even more so this time of the year. I live in a city of 12 million people and in the midst of the masses we live in a colony. Not really a suburb, nor a separate township, but a thirty square mile area of privately owned three story apartments. On my walk I pass the Hindu and Sikh temples, a few Hindu shrines and a park. The streets are not yet congested, but there are a few buses picking up school kids, auto rickshaws loaded with vegetables head for the market and cows eating from garbage bens. There are a few old people like me, getting their early morning exercise and servants walking the dogs of their owners. The street sweepers are out, usually women with straw brooms stirring dust as they rake up yesterday’s trash, which is considerable as everyone throws their trash on the ground

There is a film over the city this time of the year and the fog is thick. Plane and train travel is delayed because of the haze that has descended and between the pollution, dust and smoke from the fires of the homeless who try to stay warm through the night, if the sun shines at all it won’t break through the smog until noon.

Though I like living here, there is nothing aesthetically appealing to this place. My morning walks does not lend to spiritual inspiration, except for the reminder of God’s grace. Each morning I am reminded of man’s fallen condition and what an ugly place we have made of His creation.

I am reminded how blessed I am to have spent the night in warm bed instead of the cold concrete in a plastic tent next to the open sewer that I see every morning on my walk.

I’m reminded how shallow so many of us are in the West who measure life by the house we have or the one we would like to have and how that our service to Him are the leftovers. We would like to do more, but we just can’t afford it right now.

And, I’m reminded that, even though I am grateful for what I do have, whether it’s a modest flat or a mansion, in God’s eyes, it’s still a dump.

I long for that morning walk my Creator intended for me. A place where there is no fog and a river that is not polluted.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

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Tending Sheep

In the late ‘70’s California Governor Jerry Brown, and his then girlfriend Linda Ronstandt, visited some tribal’s in northern Kenya. He observed the Samburu herders in the desert who, from sunup to sundown, just follow their grazing herds.

“Is that all they do everyday,” he asked in astonishment?

Well, yes, that’s all they do. Illiterate bushman have no book to read or cassette’s to listen to and their only activity is guarding their herds and leading them to grass and water.

This week I am tending sheep. That’s code for doing the mundane things of my work; preparing a paper I have been asked to submit to group of academic’s next month, putting in order messages for a conference in Korea in a couple of weeks, doing financial book work and reading. These projects are tedious for me. I was raised with a mindset that emphasized action and so if I’m not moving I’m not working. These days I don’t feel engaged, like I’m not doing anything significant.

On my daily early morning walk I was thinking about the life of shepherds. It’s indeed a monotonous life, looking at the same goats every day, herding the same cattle, looking at the same terrain. Their days are punctuated with excitement in throwing rocks at birds, practicing their skills with the bow and arrow and catching up with the latest gossip from fellow herders. On a really big day they may have to chase away a jackal or carry a newborn kid back to the kraal.

Such was the life of a guy named Abraham, Moses and David. Though the Scriptures highlight their rise to prominence, great faith and lasting reputation for all succeeding generations, prior to fame, they were just herders of sheep. The shepherds, 2,000 years ago, were just watching the flocks at night. No kraal for them, just open field, when the angelic host of heaven announced that the Messiah had been born in a barn in Bethlehem. Talking about breaking monotony!

Most of life is sheep tending. It may be a housewife taking care of the kids, a grad-student preparing for an exam, a carpenter doing a remodeling job. Much of life is mundane and sometimes tedious. But it’s in the droning of life that God does His best work. Not all shepherds end up leading His people out of Egypt. Not all caretakers of sheep kill lions and bears and grow up to sit on a throne. There were a lot of shepherds tending their flocks that night, the angels only appeared to few.

What will be the headline of my next newsletter to our supporters? “The Lion Didn’t Eat Me--Successfully Tended Sheep,” might work…but then they have to read this blog to understand it.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Time/Event and Christmas

The discussion on whether U.S. churches should have services on Christmas Day is interesting. I am torn between those who are unyielding to the world (secular, non-Christian) and maintain that they will have services; versus those who say they will yield to the reality of the day we live in and find Christmas alternatives. My Christian worldview tells me one thing, my missiology tells me something else. When you spend everyday trying to make the Gospel relevant in the context in which you live, I am uneasy about saying, “Forget about culture reality, the message is more important than the context,” because without context the message is irrelevant. However, I am equally uncomfortable with saying, “Ignore the ritualism of one day, as the message of Christ is more than once a year and must be lived daily,” because ritualism is a message that can transcend context. Both are right, both are wrong.

The reality is that both sides have a good argument. You can make a strong Christian witness statement by holding church services on Christmas Day. A faithful few will show up, partly because of their desire to be in the Lord’s house on that special day; partly so they can self-righteously feel superior to those who don’t show up. Those who will not have Christmas services will do so because they feel it is only an issue if we make it so, will have celebrated Christmas with the church members before the 25th in many other forms, and partly because they, too, don’t want to be inconvenienced by splitting up their day between family and a religious gathering.

Of course, in many parts of the world, the matter on whether to meet is simply not up for debate. For most Christians in developing countries, or where followers of Jesus are in the minority, there is only one place a Christian will be on Christmas day, whether it falls on a Sunday or a Thursday, and that’s in church.

One reason Christmas is viewed differently is cultural perception of time and event. In the West, Christmas is time activity. To take out time to get the kids dressed, drive to church, have a one-hour service, breaks up the time day. When will we open presents? Will we make it over to Grandma’s house for dinner? Christmas is a time dilemma; it’s an inconvenient time for a church service.

For event-oriented cultures, Christmas is not confined to a segment of the day but is an all day happening. When you are a minority group it’s an event to be noticed, even if that means further persecution. It would be unthinkable NOT to go to church on the special event celebrating Christ’s birth.

So what’s the answer, to have church services or not to have church services this December 25th? There is no universal answer. It’s a matter of personal preference, conviction and culture. I know what I will be doing on that day, but I wouldn’t assume to dictate my preference onto others. It’s negotiable…not an issue I will die for, nor break fellowship with others who hold a different view.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Brick and Mortar

As I toured the campus I was impressed with the complex. This national institution has been around for many years and has significant funding. As I spoke to the chapel of 1,000 students it is clear that the vision of the founder is unquestioned and I have nothing but admiration for this brother who has made a significant contribution for the Kingdom. On closer inspection of the premises it was apparent that perhaps the vision is maybe a bit of overkill as many of the massive structures are underused. But, this brother keeps building because people from the West are enamored with construction and continue to fund an already impressive ministry.

There’s something uniquely human about the need to build edifices. From the days of the Tower of Babel, Pharaoh’s pyramids to Saddam’s many presidential palaces, we seem to have a lust for building monuments to ourselves. The Church has always had a love affair with brick and mortar as it something people can see and touch. One of the motivations for buildings, as Gluckman wrote about 40 years ago (Politics, law and ritual in tribal society) is because of status… “Particular kinds of property are valued in terms of their roles in status relations.” Whether it is the car we drive, the house we live in or the church we attend, our worth is derived from property status.

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with property as long as it is balanced. There is, however, something unseemly about conspicuous production. In some cases production is about power and the desire to move upward in community status. Envy is another motivation for property. Dominated by the “market,” people around the world labor to lift their status and keep up with the Jones’s or the Jain’s. Sometimes the Church also tears down barns to build bigger barns motivated by envy and to maintain a presence of status, either in their communities or among their peers.

A pastor friend of mine was in the process of a one million dollar capital campaign but confided in me, “I’m uneasy about this project. We need some more classroom space, but our church really isn’t growing and I wonder if it is really wise to go into this kind of a debt just to have a new facility?” He eventually compromised and built for the congregation’s need, not its wants.

The fine balance between use-value of property and symbol-value is an interesting study. Since the erection of monuments has been around since time began it’s not something that is going pass away, until, of course, time itself passes.

Monday, December 05, 2005

This Fleeting Life

A few weeks back I mentioned on a group e-list that I was reading a biography on the life of Bishop J. Waskom Pickett. A pastor wrote me asking where he could find a copy saying, “When I was a young man in ministry I worked in a retirement home and met the Pickett’s. I didn’t know much about them, except they lived in India. They were always very kind to me.”

Admittedly, I, too, had no prior knowledge of Bishop Pickett, but having read his life story I am struck by how fleeting life is and the contribution on this earth, though significant, is quickly forgotten. Pickett, who arrived in India before WWI, was a contemporary of E. Stanley Jones, was the inspiration of Donald McGavran’s work on church growth movements, was a personal friend of Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. Though Waskom did not agree with Mahatma Gandhi, he had intense discussions with the Father of India and met him, at the request of Nehru, two days before his assassination to warn him of the dangers on his life. Bishop Pickett raised millions of dollars for schools, the building of churches and food aid for those starving on the sub-continent in the early ‘50’s. He met several times with President Truman and Eisenhower as a good will ambassador for India.

In today’s market Christianity, where present worth is determined by the size of one’s contribution as a pastor, missionary or layperson in the church, accomplishing great things so that we might receive great credit, often sidetracks us. In his time, Pickett received his just reward, but in the end he and his wife, Ruth, were just nice old people living in an Ohio retirement home.

I am sure the pastor who wrote me now wishes he had appreciated that elderly couple that was nice to him. An opportunity to sit and learn from living history lost forever. Well, not forever, for we will have eternity to listen to their stories and countless thousands more that faithfully served our Lord.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

More Than Religion

In a recent newspaper article it stated that India was one of the most religious countries in the world. 86% of the population, according to the report, has a religious belief. This is only second to the Philippines, which claimed to be 91% religious.

The issue of being religious or, the new term, being spiritual, is of course not the point. One can be a devout Christian and still commit the atrocities of ethnic cleansing in Rwanda; a pious Hindu and burn the trains that Muslims ride in; a passionate follower of the Koran and gas Kurds (who are also Muslims). The issue is not religion, but the object of one’s faith. For those who follow Christ, it is never about the institution of religion but what it means to be a follower of Christ. Our emphasis is having a personal and intimate relationship with a personal and living God. Our desire is that people would see the Christ of Christianity, not the religious structure that does not always represent who He is.