Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Educating the Church

Neither rain, snow nor a blizzard can keep me from my appointed fund raising rounds. Last week I got caught in a “white-out” between Kansas and Colorado as the 50-mile an hour winds and blowing snow closed I-70. Like a mother cow trying to find a hole in the fence to reach her bawling calf, I headed south trying to find a highway that was open for me to cross into Colorado. Talking with my brother on a cell phone, he scanned Doppler radar guiding the best he could. I continued south until I ended up in New Mexico attacking the allusive Rocky Mountain State border going north on I-25. The twelve-hour journey ended after eighteen, but I made it, for which the host pastor was grateful.

The next morning I taught the combined Bible Study class and in the evening spoke on the importance of cross-cultural communication with my lecture on “Being a Bridge of God.” In the Q and A there was some interesting enquires of terms I used throughout, such as defining what it means to serve cross-culturally and explaining the meaning of contextualization. After services I interacted with many who said, “I have never heard of these things before.” Amazing, since many of these people have been in the church for over forty years.

The next morning over breakfast the pastor said to me, “I learned more about missions yesterday than any class I have ever taken.” This comes from a pastor who has been in the ministry for over thirty-five years and who has led his church to support missionaries for all those years.

Why was there such an awakening in the congregation about missions? Is it because I am such a profound expert on the subject that I presented new information that is just now hitting the church? Not at all. I believe there are essentially two reasons for such a reaction. (BTW, the reaction from this congregation is not isolated as I experience this response in many churches I visit).

First, most missionaries when they visit a congregation spend more time on inspiration and little or no time on education. Most missionary presentations are filled with pictures of the country, their family and ministry. With the technology that is now available PowerPoint presentations are slick with video clips, testimonies and music. The appeal is made for reaching the lost that have never heard or an anecdote how someone came to Christ and was delivered from evil spirits or idol worship. Good stuff, but designed to reach the emotion of the heart rather than informing the mind.

Second, there really isn’t that many missionaries who have a desire to educate and many more who lack mission education in their own lives. It’s difficult (impossible) to talk about contextualizing the message when in your own ministry you are still using a western method and model for your ministry overseas. If one has never wrestled with the issue of Hindu or Muslim secret followers of Christ, it’s not going to be a part of the missionaries presentation. Since the western church is focused on church planting, how does one report on what God is doing if it isn’t easily identifiable? (And how can we possibly raise forty-thousand dollars for a church building if the converts are not yet ready to openly declare their faith?)

In my talk yesterday I said that ninety-five cents of every Christian dollar given is dedicated to those who have already declared they are followers of Christ. Less than one cent of every Christian dollar given goes to the effort of reaching the two billion people who have never heard the message of Christ. In spite of this reality we are still supporting projects home and abroad that will not have any impact on the masses that have never heard the Good News.

This stuff isn’t new, it’s just seldom talked about. Churches need less inspiration and more education in world-wide outreach.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Unexpected Encouragement

The church office doors were locked, so I rang the doorbell. Sharon, the church secretary, saw me from me from the security camera and came down stairs to let me in.

“I know you,” she said with a big smile.

“Really?” I replied with surprise.

“Twenty years ago,” Sharon continued, “you preached here and it changed my husband’s life. Some people thought we were going to end up on the mission field. Obviously we didn’t, but that night had a profound impact on my husband.”

The following Sunday the pastor at another church began his introduction of me by stating, “Seventeen years ago Richard gave us some advice on how to structure our missions conference differently. Instead of the traditional approach of having services at the church each evening, he suggested we have home meetings where people could get to know missionaries on a more informal setting. It was the best advice we’ve ever received and we have been using that model every year since.”

I always resist taking time away from my “ministry” of teaching and training to visit churches in America. The stated goal for my visit is to report to our donors and hopefully find new churches and individuals who will partner with us. It’s painful for me to turn down invitations to teach as that is my passion as well as my calling. However, I realize that visiting churches is a necessary part of the job; raising support comes with the territory of taking on the profession of a career missionary.

God has blessed me in many ways, but one of His gracious acts this past two weeks came in the form of unexpected encouragement. Comments from a church secretary and a pastor were God’s way of reminding me that no matter what the venue, my service for Him has no geographical boundaries. Whether I teach in a classroom or from a pulpit, whether the location is in Delhi or Downey, the message of world evangelism and the need to take the message of Christ to every people in every cultural context is ministry. To think that God used anything I said twenty years ago is humbling. To think that anything I say on this trip may have eternal value is sobering. And so it is with all of us. No matter how mundane or even distasteful the task may seem God can use it for His honor and His purpose.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Land Of Free Refills

As the guy who lives and works in Denmark said the other day, “It’s good to be back in the land of the free refills.” Great line. There are so many things about this country that is unique and interesting. For those who live in this country it is hardly noticed, but for those who are based outside the U.S., it’s always a of bit fun to experience the land of our birth, though not the land of our residency. Here are a few luxuries that I am taking advantage of while stateside.

W/O Bucket - It’s hard to beat a good shower. I’m not talking about the refreshing feeling one has after a good scrubbing, I’m talking about exquisite sensation of standing under running water. In India my daily ablution require that I fill a five-gallon bucket with water, squat and pour water over my head. I must admit that I fill a bit guilty standing in a shower as I wonder how much more water I use under the five speed spigot (regular pressure, pulse, low rinse, etc.), but it’s an extravagance I truly enjoy.

The bonus of a shower goes beyond water pressure but also includes regulated temperature, both of water as well as room temperature. My flat in India has only one pipe running into the washroom and the water supply comes from a large tank that sits atop the flat roof of our three-story building. In the summer, when it’s 115 degrees, it’s best to fill the bucket when it is reasonably cooler. In the winter I have to guess on how long to keep the electric geezer (hot water heater) on. Too long and it’s scalding; too short and I’m taking a lukewarm bath with the air temp hovering in the 40’s. Can it get any better than standing under regulated flow knowing that when I turn off the faucet the bathroom air will be as delightful as the water itself?

Cheap Gas - I know that it’s outrageous to pay $2.50 a gallon for gasoline. I’m old enough to remember when five dollars filled up the tank. I’m also old enough to remember when petrol was four dollars a gallon in Kenya and that same gallon is now over six in India. With the profits Big Oil and the Saudis continue to make, I’m guessing over two dollars is too much to pay at the pump, but filling the tank here is less painful than other parts of the world.

One Stop Shopping - What does one do when they have jetlag and wake up at 2 a.m.? How about going to Wal-Mart? I still find it fascinating that no matter what I need I don’t have to travel all over the city, like on a scavenger hunt, to get things. To think I can get a wood screw without going to a hardware store, or a writing pen that isn’t sold exclusively in a stationary shop, or bread that is available in the same place that I can purchase a tire! And not only can I find these things under one roof but I can have a variety of choices with each item. Amazing.

If life was judged only by price index and convenience it would be hard argue that there is a better place to live than the land of the red, white, blue and dollar green. Like all countries, the U.S. has its good and bad points. But it’s still fun to be in the land of free refills.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Journey To Holy Land

Yesterday I made a trek to holy ground. As I passed the big donut sign on the corner, which was there when I was a kid, my heart picked up pace. As I drove slowly past the white building a flood of memories surfaced. The neighborhood had changed, but surprisingly remained intact. On the corner of Marine and Gramacy was Chapman Elementary where I first fell in love with a first grader, Rochelle Arnold. Amazingly, I can remember her name and face but can’t remember people I met last month…a true sign of old age. Two blocks south I turned right on 149th St. I looked at the little matchbox houses in the neighborhood that was my home nearly sixty years ago. I take another right and back to the white building that I consider sacred space.

I knocked on the door that at one time led me to the Sunday School wing. Scott, the pastor, was waiting for me as I had called the day before. After a few minutes in his office he gave me the tour. He told me that after the “fire” in the ‘70’s they remodeled the whole church, but it looks basically the same. I told him that there was a fire in 1959 as well that gutted the main auditorium and we had to meet in the back where he now has an office. As we rounded the corner I recognized the room where Dr. Loys Vess preached and my father walked forward to become a Christian. I remembered how that on that day I was perplexed as my dad didn’t cry or show any emotion when making his decision for Christ. I thought everyone cried when they became a believer, but not my dad. It was as though it was business transaction and shaking the pastors hand was like signing the deal.

When Scott led me into the auditorium my mind went back fifty-two and half years. Of course the hard wooden pews no longer existed and the concrete floor was now carpeted. I told Scott about that day, Friday August 19, 1955. It was the last day of VBS and my brother, Bill, and our friend Ronnie was sitting on the left side of the auditorium. I can still remember walking down the aisle and kneeling at what we called an altar. I cried and repented of my sins as though I was a hardened criminal, though I was only eight years old. After the service I ran back to our little home on 149th to tell my mom I got saved. A few weeks later I was baptized. The baptistery was actually a tank and the pulpit was built over it. The day I was baptized they didn’t put enough water in it and I was barely dunked. But my pastor, Gilbert Thomas, made sure I got all the way under.

Without question a humble beginning of a long and interesting journey. An obscure little boy attending a little known church led by an unheard of pastor and yet it had universal significance. The neighborhood around the Bible Baptist Church in Gardena, California may just be the inner city to some, but for me, it’s holy ground.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Worthless Rage

We live in such a fast pace world that when things slow down or doesn’t move as we think they should it’s a catalyst for stress. For some it’s a recipe for rage.

In the hustle and bustle of the New Delhi airport, standing in the British Airlines check-in line a man was yelling as loud as he could, shaking his fist and causing quite a stir. Turns out that he was told that he was going to have to pay a considerable amount for overweight baggage and he was outraged. The little girl behind the check-in desk was the object of his scorn, though he was sharing his wrath her supervisor and BA in general. His conclusion was that he wasn’t going to pay, and told his family of four that they would just go home. As they were escorted from check-in he continued his tirade and I stepped into his spot, still warm with fury.

The girl smiled and said, “Sorry about that. But he’ll be back?”

“Really,” I said, “how do you know?”

“They all do,” she answered. “They make a scene and make threats, but they won’t miss their flight.”

Sure enough, before boarding I saw the irritant man with wife and two children in-tow. I wondered if airline gave him a discount on the baggage fee? I find it interesting that some people seem to barter for anything and everything. I could as easily see this guy yelling at the vegetable vendor or the rickshaw driver as to the BA attendant. Does he really think he can negotiate the price of luggage as lettuce? Perhaps.

Our departure from Delhi was delayed over an hour. Snow and low visibility in London caused another holdup. Backlog of getting flights in and out of Heathrow caused a traffic jam and our plane wasn’t able to park at its gate. I had just forty-five minutes before my next flight but felt that I could still catch my connection. One hour later, we were still stuck on the tarmac and the natives were getting restless. In desperation/frustration a French passenger lost it and stood up to take his bags down from the overhead bin. Surrounded by three flight attendants they tried to restrain him and moved him back to his seat. I’m not sure where he thought he would go if he got his bags, open the side door and jump off?

Once off the plane rather than standing in the long line at the transfer desk I opted to go to my gate and see if the flight to Chicago was also delayed. The door to the jet way was literally closing when I arrived, but I was able to catch it before it locked. I made my flight, but assumed my bags wouldn’t. I was right.

When I started writing blogs I wanted to call it “Lost Luggage” as it seems to be my lot in life. On arriving at Northwest Arkansas Regional airport, the second thing I did after hugging my daughter and granddaughter was to tell them, “I need to file lost baggage claim.” My daughter just moaned having to go through the familiar and time-consuming ritual. Twenty-four hours later my bags arrived, a mere ten hours before my flight to Los Angeles.

I have been traveling for more years and miles than most people. In the process of time, partly through observing others, I’ve learned some crucial life lessons that help, not only when in transient, but also facing everyday challenges.

First, there are some things we can’t control. I wish it hadn’t snowed in London causing the backlog inbound/outbound traffic. But snow is one of those things that God does, not man. To pour wrath on humans for a non-human circumstance doesn’t make sense. Not only does yelling not do any good, it makes the screaming manic look like a two year old throwing a temper tantrum. I’m not impressed with those who scream at employees to vent their frustration. They just look like idiots and they solve anything.

Second, when bad things happen to good people, me, the best thing to do is rise above problem -- yeah, be better than the situation. Why? Because I still can’t change anything and if it can be changed I probably can get the same mileage in making it right by being civil rather than being hostile. I must have called American Airlines five times in one day inquiring about my lost luggage. They were courteous and so was I. Yelling at the person on the other end of the telephone line, whose only job is looking at the computer screen, wasn’t going to get my bags to me any faster.

My daughter reminded me that I wasn’t always so laid back and non-aggressive. But she also admitted that she likes this dad over the old one. Wish I had learned these lessons years ago.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Program Notice

From February 9th until April 5th I will be in the U.S., visiting friends and reporting to donors. I usually try to post something on Blue Passport a couple of times a week and I expect to continue that practice. However, plane/car travel, schedule of meetings, Internet access may play havoc on when the posts go out. Because some of you are regular readers, which I appreciate, I wanted to give you a heads-up on the possible irregular postings.

If I am in your area, let me know and we’ll see if we can work out a time to visit. Present itinerary is:

Southern California - February 10 – 19
Colorado – February 25 – March 5
Ohio – March 11-14
Texas - March 17 - 21
Kansas – March 23 – 27

My base will be NW Arkansas, Eastern Oklahoma and when not on the road in-between these dates I am available. Sending me an Email is the best way to get in touch with me.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Teaching The Salt and Light

This past weekend I had the privilege of speaking at a retreat for DevPro, a group of Christian professionals working in India. Most of these people are associated with the Emmanuel Hospital Association but they are not limited to just medical work and have members with accounting, software development, teachers, social workers and people with other workplace skills. The purpose of the retreat was standard, spiritual refreshment as well as to hear reports from DePro members throughout the country.

Why did they invite me to speak at the retreat? I’m not a business guy; I’m a culture guy. But, as I continue to tell anyone who will listen, I believe EVERYBODY in every work environment needs a concentrated course in cross-cultural studies. Why? Because every social environment, where there are more than two people working, is a setting of communication; the larger the group in that workplace environment the greater the need is for cross-cultural studies.

In the secular marketplace, where Christian professionals are in the minority, to effectively be “salt and light,” it’s important to know how to communicate a witness that is both relevant as well as non-offensive (the Cross will always be offensive to some, but that doesn’t mean we should be). My goal for this retreat was to give some guiding principles to use in the situation God had placed them and to encourage them in their vital role in the Kingdom.

What I gained from our two days together was significant. I met some incredible people, some working in some very difficult situations. Many of these good folks are underpaid, understaffed and their work environment is stressful and often times lonely. To many unbelievers in the world, these do-gooders are perceived as foolish, setting aside good careers and retirement to work with the marginalized of society. As often is the case, the teacher was taught more than he taught, and I’m obviously the better for it.

To those interested, I encourage you to visit DevPro and Emmanuel Hospital websites.