Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Measuring Meaning

Rich Strahm, who invited me to teach a class on “Response To World Religions,” asked me how I felt about teaching so few students? A former missionary to the Philippines, he and his wife have been working in Ukraine for the past 10 years. His vision is to mobilize Ukrainians for cross-cultural work and the missions program at the Kiev Theological Seminary is relative new. It’s a work in progress, but he is involved in a noble calling.

Before I made the commitment to teach I was aware it was not a large class. Unfortunately it was smaller than expected as some of the students in the program didn’t show up. How did I feel about teaching to a small class?

First of all, the size of a class or meeting has never been a criterion for me. I realize that many pastors in the states thrive on big numbers; it gives them meaning. I remember an Indian pastor who told me that if I moved to Chennai I could have big seminars. I told him I am more interested in finding the place of need, which to me, was in Delhi where the church was much smaller and I was not interested in a hall full of those who have ample opportunities to attend seminars. My colleagues in Kenya criticized me when I decided to work in the bush among two tribal groups, Turkana and Pokot. They thought the size of those tribes, about 250,000 each, spread over a vast desert was not strategic; they preferred working in the cities where the numbers were greater. However, I countered, no one was working among the semi-nomads whereas there were plenty of mission activity in their region. Numbers is not always a gauge in who and where one should work.

Second, the quality of those attending is more important to me than how many bodies there are. People preparing for cross-cultural work will always be a smaller group, but they are usually the most dedicated. I am not suggesting that those who take the theology courses are less godly or committed, but those who seek to serve Christ in another land among a different people than their own, usually, not always, have a depth about them that is unique and profound.

Third, though I never know who God will use in His work, I believe my teaching is a part of moving people toward His purpose. In the short time I have been working in Ukraine, one brother is now serving in Syria and another is working among the Gypsies in his country. It’s how God surprises that is more important to me than the guarantee of an audience.

Do I wish I were teaching before 50 rather than 5? Certainly. But consider those who were in my class: One lady and her husband are working in the Far East part of Russia, near Japan and North Korea. Another girl is from Kazakhstan, whose family came out of Islam. One guy is studying Mandarin and has been working with Chinese students in Kiev. He plans on moving to China after his studies. Another young lady has a desire to serve in India.

The measure of meaning cannot be only the expense of a plane ticket or the size of the class. For me it’s the heart of those I am privileged to teach, not how many listen to my words.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Repent, Believe, Follow: Worldview In Words

If you ask a Russian about his conversion he/she will generally talk about the day they “repented.”

Ask that same question to a North American and they might very well say it was they day they believed, got saved or trusted in Christ. (Interesting thought…you “trusted”?)

Muslim background Christians in Iraq might frame their conversion as becoming followers of Isa (Jesus), meaning that they might maintain much of their cultural belief, but rather put their emphasis on following Jesus rather than Muhammad.

The difference in Russians, Americans and Iraqis in their confession of faith is more than mere semantics. The distinction lies at the core of who they are as a people and how they express their decision of faith. Russians and Americans are “guilt” cultures. For a Russian or Ukrainian, salvation is less about faith than it is about repenting for one’s sins before a Holy God.

Individualistic Americans, while guilt driven, take a softer approach to their conversion, as though they were doing God a favor in “trusting” in Him. Trusting is a good thing for Americans as it acknowledges that we trust God more than we do ourselves and, for a self-sufficient driven society, that's a big deal.

Muslims and Buddhist are “shame” cultures. Family and clan ties run deep. It’s the holistic dynamic of the society that is all-important therefore being a follower of Jesus is done with deliberate hesitation. Being baptized, while a big deal for guilt cultures, is seen as bombastic to those who want to maintain harmony and equilibrium in shame cultures. To cause shame on family members for ones individual decision is not seen as courageous but rather selfish and arrogant, two offences that is unpardonable in such societies.

Words have meaning within context. In studying culture, learn what words mean to those who speak them. Repent, believe, trust, submit…these are the keys to understanding the worldview of others.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

What Matters Most

In speaking on science and religion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes stated, “Science makes major contributions to minor needs whereas religion, however small its successes, is at least at work on the things that matter most.”

As I prepare for another two weeks away from home to teach a small group of missionary students in Ukraine I need to be reminded that, no matter how small the task may seem, what we do as missionaries does have meaning. In this world of materialism, even the church is caught up in that which they can seen or touch. As I pack my bags I think of the countless hundreds of my colleagues who are laboring with little fanfare under difficult situations. I am thinking of a brother in Uzbekistan, who wrote,

“The day before yesterday I was driving home and my wife called and told me to come quickly. There was a crowd of people at the gate who wanted to come inside. My wife shut the gate and would not let them in and they acted like they were going to break through the gate. They started yelling at her and shouting threats against her. Only a couple of these men presented identification. It was at this time that I arrived home and saw what was going on. They told me to open the house and I asked the police officers to present a warrant before I would let them inside. After a few minutes one police officer showed me a written complaint from people in our neighborhood. The complaint stated that there was a Christian family in the neighborhood and that the Christian man was poisoning the rest of the neighborhood with his beliefs. It said that they didn’t want a family like this living in their neighborhood. I could not see who filed the complaint and when I asked for a copy of it I was denied.

Later, Shukurov, the head of our neighborhood, came to our house and began shouting that in this neighborhood it is unacceptable to not be Muslim. When I tried to calm him down he started swearing at my wife and children. Then, he began to threaten us with eviction from the neighborhood.

Please pray for the safety of my wife and children. Every two months the police check my passport and documents and I notice them writing down information about my wife and children. They confiscated my passport as well. Pray for wisdom and also for my court date. Thank you very much for your prayers and encouragement. This is now the most difficult time: the period of waiting.”

To you who pray and support missionary endeavors, may I encourage you to remain faithful in the vital role you play in world evangelism. To my fellow cross-cultural workers, may we take courage in what we do, knowing that even though the successes may seem small, we are working on what matters most.