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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Paul's advice: Look around for reasons to Hope

Former U.S. first lady Laura Bush visits with Karen Refugees
in Thailand (Aug 2008).
I can't wait to tell you a (true) story. But first, a little context to help grasp its relevance to our lives. This Sunday under the big top, I had the privilege to continue to preach through Paul's letter to the Colossians. Paul reminds the Colossians of how good judgment day will be if they continue to with a rooted and steadfast faith "not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard" (Colossians 1:23b). One of the most reliable evidences of a genuine faith is an ongoing hope in the gospel over performance. When you mess up, screw-the-pooch, jump the shark (a.k.a "sin against a Holy God"), the habit of how you respond is perhaps the most critical inward series of decisions one makes in the Christian life. 

Really there are two roads to take: Hope in the person & work of Jesus Christ expressed through the gospel to forgive you of sin, restore you to God, and change you OR hope in anything else (your own performance and so in failure spiral into guilt & shame; next time - as in convincing yourself to work harder next time; plans & checklists you make so it won't happen again; the rationalization that "everyone makes mistakes")? 

Look Around for Hope. But hoping in the person and work of Christ can be challenging so Paul follows up "not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard" with an interesting statement:
which [the gospel] has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister (Colossians 1:23c-d).
Seems to be one of those verses you just read, acknowledge and go on. But having studied this a bit, I believe what Paul is doing here is saying: "Here's how you can begin to reinforce and access hope. LOOK AROUND and see the gospel spread before you. It made me - the persecutor/killer - into a someone who loves it & would give his life for it and it's influence is spreading universally ("in all creation under heaven")." It's for hope that Paul mentions 500+ persons who witnessed the resurrected Christ (1 Cor. 15:6 - Paul mentions this for those who doubt: "Hey, they are still alive, go ask 'em yourself"). It's for hope that 10 out of 12 apostles - simple men from different backgrounds die for the gospel (the 11th is permanently exiled...and the 12th, well, after betraying Christ he dies a death worse than anything in the opening scene of "Saving Private Ryan"). We garner a little hope in the fact that their are an estimated 2.5 billion persons in the world trust the person & work of Christ as we do.

"But Christianity is the norm." One of the major objections I hear to all of this, especially by folks from the UK, U.S., Canada, South Africa, and Cayman, is that we were merely "born into it." Christianity is the dominant religion in each of the cultures and so we were culturally conditioned to adopt and accept that "Jesus Christ died for my sins." The anomaly, the radical act is when people choose not to believe that into which they are born. That's a fair point. However, it overlook the hundreds of documented cases in which people from cultures/tribes/societies who previously had little to no Western/Christian contact were radically, supernaturally, & providentially prepared to both hear & receive this gospel. I didn't get a chance to share an example of this on Sunday and it's what I wish to share over the blogosphere today. This particular story (though there are, remarkably, many like it) radically reinforced & breathed new life into my hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ and is an example of what Paul means with regard to the gospel's influence "in all creation under heaven" (Col. 1:23c). May it likewise renew or reinforce your hope.

The Karen of Burma: People of the Lost Book. (Recounted from Don Richardson's book, Eternity in Their Hearts). In 1795, a British diplomat was visiting Burma (In 1824, Britain would launch a series of attacks against this country which borders Southeast China and for about a century ruled this otherwise closed and reclusive nation as one of its colonies). While in the more rural parts of Burma, the diplomat ran across a different group of people known as the Karen (pronounced "Carian"). The Burmese hated the Karen because they had stuck with their own "folk religion" and refused to adopt the national religion of Buddhism. 

The Burmese guide explained to the British diplomat, "This is most interesting. These tribesmen think you may be a certain 'white brother' whom they as a people have been expecting from time immemorial!...This 'white' brother is supposed to bring them a book. A book like one of their forefathers lost long ago." Upon returning, the diplomat reported this bizarre experience to his superior, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Symes. Symes in turn mentioned it in a manuscript entitled An Account of an Embassy to the Kingdom of Ava in the Year 1795, published 32 years later in Edinburgh, Scotland. 

In 1816, a Muslim traveller happened upon a remote Karen village about 250 miles south of Rangoon. He was "light-skinned" and thus, according to this 'prophecy,' examined thoroughly. In a bizarre twist, he ends up giving them a book he claims contains writings about the true God ("What?! The Koran???!!"...wait for it...). The village sage kept the book wrapped in a muslin and it was venerated. Years later a anthropologist named Alonzo Bunker would live among the Karen and he reported that their sages would teach the people ancient truths through songs/hymns and stories. First, an example of a hymn:
Y'wa formed the world originally.                                                                             He appointed food and drink.                                                                                    He appointed the "fruit of trial."                                                                                  He gave detailed orders.                                                                                    Mu-kaw-lee deceived two persons.                                                                                               He caused them to eat the fruit of the tree of trial.                                                         They obeyed not; they believed not Y'wa...                                                                        When they ate the fruit of trial,                                                                                               They became subject to sickness, aging, and death...                 !  They believed that because of the people of Karen transgressed the commands of Y'wa (I mean how much closer can you get to Yahweh?!), they were specifically cursed with no books. So all of their sacred truths are passed on through centuries of oral tradition. Listen to another such truth that involves the temptation of Mu-kaw-lee. Having gone through a scene already strikingly reminiscent of Genesis 3: "Then Mu-kaw-lee replied: 'It is not so, O my children. The heart of your father Y'wa is not with you. This is the richest and sweetest...If you eat it, you will possess miraculous powers. You will be able to ascend to heaven." 

There are also songs of hope. Here's just an excerpt from one (think the Book of Isaiah): 
When the Karen king arrives,                                                                                There will be only one monarch.                                                                                        When the Karen king arrives,                                                                                          There will be neither rich nor poor. 
Despite the ubiquitous, pervasive and sometimes violent influence of Buddhist idolatry in Burma, the Karen held fast to the hope of these prophecies fulfilled - of a Book & a King.

In 1817, an American Baptist missionary, Adoniram Judson, journeyed and settled near Rangoon, Burma. After diligently learning the Burmese language, he found little response to his attempts to share with them the gospel. One day, a tough-as-nails Karen man approached the household where Judson was staying. Gradually Judson began sharing with him the gospel. At first, he didn't seem to be able to make sense of it all. But then this man, Ko Thah-byu, began asking questions about the origin of the gospel and these "white strangers" who had brought the message (and the book that continued it) from the West. Suddenly, it all fell into place for Ko Thah-byu, and he trusted his life to Christ. Concurrently, a newly recruited missionary couple - George and Sarah Boardman, arrived to assist Judson. George Boardman opened a school for illiterate converts. Ko Thah-byu quickly enrolled. Soon he realized he was the first among his people to read "the lost book." When the Boardmans were to leave for southern Burma, Ko That-byu begged them to take him with them. There, they baptized Ko That-byu and immediately commissioned him for a journey into the hills of Southern Burma.

Villages flocked to hear Ko Thah-byu until finally he and the Boardmans encountered that sage who had received that precious book from the 'light-skinned' Muslim just years before. They carefully unrolled the Muslin and opened the cover of the book, which proved to be: The Book of Common Prayer and the Psalms. Turns out it was the only book the Muslim man happened to have on him. "It is a good book," remarked Boardman, "I will teach you to worship the God whom this book reveals and of the greater book from which this is written." The sage consequently became a humble, godly man, having trusted his life to Jesus Christ. 

Well, you can guess what happens from here. Having clearly but mysteriously prepared a people to hear and receive it, God spread His gospel like a brush fire among the Karen. Hundreds of thousands trusted their lives to Christ. Within 90 years, 250,000 Kachin people (neighbors of the Kachin people) professed to trust Christ. 

A really cool "little-thing-through-which-God's-reminds-us-of-His-awesome-soveriengty-over-all-things," happened to me this past Friday -- I received in my inbox an update about the Karen people from Voice of the Martyrs Ministries. The email came to my inbox before I learned about the Karen people but didn't open and read the email until after learning about them. A local Buddhist monk recently drove 300 Christians from their homes after they refused to participate in Buddhist-sponsored activities & rituals. Voice of the Martyrs has helped them buy land, pay taxes, and already build five new homes. Seems that this is a people whose faith has endured, "not shifting from the hope of the gospel" (Col. 1:23c).

So when you begin to doubt the power of the gospel and start to hope in people, plans, pleasures that seem to provide at least a temporary balm amidst a cruel world, remember the gospel isn't just for Westerners, for the country of which you're a citizen, for the church which you grew up in, or the family in which you were raised, it is, in the Paul's words, "the power of God for salvation" (Rom. 1:16) and is effective everywhere - even in the most remote place - you might look. It goes far beyond anything our puny hearts or minds could dream up as a reliable hope - it was global before globalism and the age of internet and it will be the only global message when all is said and done. 

To the praise and glory of Jesus Christ!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Leaders that Lead, willing 'followers' and everyone in between

Let me immediately open by saying, one, the concept of leadership in the Christian setting has been exploited for so many ill-gotten purposes that we should first remember that the greatest leader is the greatest servant (see Mark 10:43). Second, any good leader is a good follower. As the apostle Paul exhorted one church: "Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1). The best leaders are those who follow Jesus while happening to be in the midst of others. To put it another way, you can't be a good shepherd until you're a good sheep.

But I ran across a verse and chapter in Scripture yesterday that made me grateful for both faithful leaders and equally as faithful non-leaders amongst the people of God, in families, and especially in local churches. I wanted to share it. It's from the Book of Judges. Deborah - the acting judge - and Barak - Israel's acting military leader - have just been used by God to achieve a great victory over the Canaanites in this new land. Having won, Deborah & Barak release a patriotic duet on LP and the following is the opening line:
That the leaders took the lead in Israel,                                                                    that people offered themselves willingly,                                                               bless the LORD!   (Judges 5:2).
Grateful for the faithfulness of "non-leaders." Remember, at this point, God's people have just inhabited this new land and really began to identify with this "each tribe gets a piece of the pie" thing. Was like everybody being in a new little clubs with fancy rights & privileges and then left to figure out how not to be "clique-ish." Isn't this so easy to do as a Christian? We throw around terms like "child of God" because we are through trust in Christ. Also terms like "heir," "priest," "gifted" because we are in Christ. However, we begin to worship the status, prize it above all possessions to the point where we can, frankly, act like spoiled brats (yours truly included). We don't just want the privileges of being part of a family (and its primary expression through the local church) but we want to receive the privileges the way we want (most preferable, most comfortable) and without cost. Many, however, take time to grapple with a leader's vision and, most importantly, take time to look to Christ - the leader - and are thus able to recall the burden and responsibility of leadership that stems from Him. That's what happens here in Judges. Many among the tribes band together to ally & defeat a force and culture which perniciously threatened their faithfulness to Yahweh. How easy it would've have been to stay home playing with their new toy! To take their gift and stay home. I'm so grateful to God for Sunrise Community Church where, for the most part, people have by-and-large taken the time to listen to, grapple with, & get excited about the vision God has imparted for our context and look to Christ, whereby they are able to sympathetically pray and support myself and other leaders. People rarely ask: "Why should I serve?" but, "Where can I be most helpful?" So willing! 

Grateful for leaders who lead. Bless Yahweh for leaders who take the lead! That seems obvious, right? Leaders lead. But reality is that there are many who call themselves "leaders" but don't step out to make the hard choices and endure pain as well as criticism along the way. They issue their informal version of a "gallup poll" & each time take the path of the prevailing tide. I remember Stuart Briscoe once saying, "Every pastor needs to have the mind of a scholar, the heart of a child, and the hide of an elephant." It's true. I'm grateful for leaders who keep plodding along especially in the midst of pain and, at best, partial success (as all ministry is - not everyone will trust Christ, not all marriages will be saved, not everyone will get 'on board' in love & unity, and, for families, not every child will soon respond in faith & obedience). Deborah and Barak endured this. There were some tribes who decided to play with their new gift and stay home when their brothers were at war. Deborah & Barak wonder: What happened, Reuben? Where were you? (see vv.15-16). They pine: Gilead, Dan, Asher, what gives?! (see v.17). I can't tell you how many times as a leader where significant persons didn't show up - yes, I've been tempted to text/call the person: "where are you?" and have even given into this temptation. But, oh, for the leader who carries the pain as a response to Christ's carrying his pain and keeps moving forward and then encourages those present who do step up (as Deborah/Barak do - see especially v.9: "My heart goes out to the commanders of Israel, who offered themselves willingly among the people"). 

Response. The threat for Israel both grave and obvious. The Cannanites had wealth, cities, politics, art which were far superior to the Israelites all of which was under the guise of worship that promoted materialism and sensuality. What's the grave & obvious threat in your context? To your church? To your family? Let's be grateful for, pray for, and plan for (what do I need to do/change?) leaders & faithful people who exemplify the first line of Deborah and Barak's hit track:

That the leaders took the lead in Israel,                                                                    that people offered themselves willingly,                                                               bless the LORD!   (Judges 5:2).