Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Barnabas and Paul

My pastor, Bill Cook, recently preached on one of the saddest chapters in missions history. He recounted the time when Paul and Barnabas disagreed so vehemently that they parted ways. His sermon on this very familiar passage touched me deeply because some dear, and I believe godly, missionary friends of mine have recently done the same painful thing. It is often said that your biggest problem on the mission field is not the language, government red tape, culture shock, or stomach bugs; it’s other missionaries. Something about putting visionary, passionate, self-denying, radically committed men and women in close proximity for long periods of time is like putting tin foil in a microwave; sparks are going to fly. Sadly, I have known of many missionary teams through the years that have parted company and broken fellowship, and sometimes amid accusations or harsh insinuations that resulted in long-standing bitterness.

Returning to the sermon, of all the events that the Holy Spirit could have inspired the biblical authors to include, here we have this story of committed co-laborers parting ways, and at least in the biblical record never speaking or serving together again. Try to imagine the close bond of their friendship. Remember how Barnabas sought Paul out when no one else believed in him or knew where he even was, how he included him in the work, and traveled with him in the very beginning of pioneer missions? Their separation was tragic and should move us to tears. Was Barnabas trying to do the same for John Mark that he had done for Paul years before? Couldn’t Paul see that or at least give him the benefit of the doubt?

The Greek word that the Holy Spirit used in Acts 15:39 to communicate the separation, ἀποχωρίζω, means “to rend apart or sever,” and has the connotation of ripping away. It signifies a painful, tragic, and apparently bitter breaking of fellowship between them. While the Bible does not specifically say whether the sin or fault was Barnabas’ or Paul’s, it seems that Paul is the one who came around later . . . but maybe as long as 15 or 20 years later.

Their sharp disagreement was over whether to continue taking John Mark with them as a member of their mission team after he had deserted them during their first missions trip. Their positions were so extremely opposed that Barnabas took John Mark with him and went his way, while Paul took Silas and went another. God does not tell us why John Mark had returned home during the missions trip, nor what Barnabas later saw in him that made him argue so strongly for his reinstatement (or perhaps saw of himself reflected in John Mark). Neither does God tell us why John Mark even sought reinstatement to the team, nor why Paul was so adamantly opposed to the idea. All we know is that it was a bitter disagreement that separated the members of the first missionary team. Sad. Tragic. Painful. But not the end.

Paul wrote many years later in Col 4:10 and Philemon 23-24 that Mark “the cousin of Barnabas” had regained his confidence. Peter also counted on John Mark in later years, calling Mark his “son” in the faith (1 Peter 5:13). You will remember that Peter painfully knew what it was like to sin greatly, humbly repent, and be graciously restored. Finally, as Paul nears the end of his life in prison he writes his last letter to Timothy and tells him, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.” They are friends again. Missionaries and co-ministers on the same team again. What amazing grace!

May I speak for a moment to my missionary friends? I know that you see what you believe to be sin in the life of some around you. I know you see them as sandbags keeping your ministry from getting off the ground and soaring with eagles. They may be. But please be patient. Remember that while we see in this passage the beautiful story of John Mark’s restoration, we never clearly see Paul and Barnabas reconciling and embracing as friends again. There is much speculation about whether they decided to forgive and forget or simply appreciate one another from a distance. Please don’t let things end that way on your team.

Our Lord Jesus prayed in John 17

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

Jesus prayed that we would be one. No, not uniformity but unity, so that the world would know that the Father sent Him. The world is watching, and they will know we are Christians by our love.

When I was a young believer we used to sing a version of Ephesians 4:32, “Be ye kind to one another, tenderhearted forgiving one another, even as Christ also has forgiven you.” Stay together. Forgive, reconcile, restore, and try again. Missions’ advance needs the powerful testimony of your forgiveness and unity.

Monday, January 26, 2015

10 Reasons to Stay on the Mission Field

A couple months ago I wrote a blog post listing ten reasons that many have used to excuse themselves from missions service. Although they feel called to missions, one of the listed reasons seemed insurmountable to them and they had not pursued missions. I appreciated those missionaries who are now serving on the field somewhere who emailed after the post saying that they were living proof that some of the reasons I listed were not deal breakers to answering God’s call to missions.

Ironically, about the time that I posted that blog my international travels led me to interact with some missionaries who were discouraged and, sadly, some had reached the point of burnout and were returning home. Others were devastated because a key family on their team had just resigned and gone home. Others felt tossed about in rough emotional seas, wondering whether they should return home also, already mentally packing their bags, and thinking through the steps required to go home. Often the resigning missionaries list dropping financial support, struggles with the language, a child’s educational needs, or a parent’s health as the reason they are returning home—and sometimes it is for one of those reasons. But even legitimate reasons leave behind coworkers who are confused, hurt, and grieving. A former student of mine who had witnessed some families return home from his field of service desperately wanted to know how he could ensure that the same would not happen to his family.

As I deal with those questions I am always painfully aware that I was also one who went to the field, but later returned. Taking that step was not done casually. We sought God’s will as much in the decision to leave as we had in the decision to go to the field in the first place. I learned in that process that although the call to international missions and the burden for the nations is a lifetime calling, God’s guidance to fulfill it is dynamic; it changes throughout the seasons of life. I learned that walking in step with the Spirit of God means we must never stop singing “Wherever He Leads I’ll Go,” rather than, “Wherever He Led I Went.”

But discerning God’s guidance and leadership is not a clear, logical, or obvious thing; we must seek His guidance and leadership. History is replete with Christian leaders and missionary giants setting aside time for prayer and fasting to seek God’s guidance for a new step or direction in ministry. They believed in both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. I know that you do, too. If you are very sure that the step to return is clearly God’s guidance for you, then follow His leadership. But do not leave without that sense of His hand directing you. Since the emotional turmoil and devastation of lives is so huge, don’t break camp and return home without His unmistakable redirection. Let me plead with you who are in the throes of your decision making to keep in mind these ten reasons to stay.

1. Faithfulness to God’s Call

It is wise for missionaries to sit down from time to time and remember what you’re doing there and why you came. Remember that season when you felt the almost palpable hand of God to answer the call and take the step to go. I have counseled many heartbroken missionaries who only remembered their call after they had left the field and turned their family’s world upside down again and returned home. Some will say they never needed a call because they “have a verse.” Well then, remember your verse. Still others have said that they have never been able to articulate the process in their own life as some define a call. For them it was simple obedience, commitment to what they believed was right, and agreeing with an inner sense of “shoulds and oughts.” Before you leave the field, or even begin packing to leave, spend some time with the Lord and recall that reason. Ask Him if you have finished what He brought, called, or burdened you to do. Remember until it stirs your heart again.

2. Language

There are 6,913 languages in the world, many of which have unique dialects or such distinct accents and idioms that each one is almost nonsense to one who hasn’t learned how that group uses that language. One team of Bible translators lived in the jungle among a people group for ten years before they knew the language well enough to begin evangelizing the tribe.  You may argue that language is one of your frustrations, but you are miles ahead of where a new missionary would be. The fluency you have attained is a gift of God, your talent; how will you invest it until He comes? That question isn’t about guilt; it’s about stewardship.

3. Culture 

Just as it takes years to learn a language well enough to communicate clearly, be taken seriously, and argue persuasively, there are many other aspects of “the rules of the game of life” for people groups that require a learner’s perspective and patience. At last you finally know how to buy food and local recipe substitutes to enable you to cook it. You appreciate the music—well some of it—and you even know some of the better musicians. You could give a visitor a brief overview of the history of the country. You can get where you need to go by taxi, bus, or metro—and better yet, you can even get home again. You know when the roosters will start crowing (and you know it’s not at daybreak!). You know how to flow in the rhythm of life and swim with the current. You understand the logic that was once so nonsensical. You know that when an event is announced to start at 10:00 AM that this has nothing to do with a clock. As hard as life may seem sometimes, these life skills you have learned cannot be used anywhere else. You been there long enough that you can do this.

4. Religion

Missionaries have learned by painful experience that a failure to understand the religion of a people you are seeking to reaching and teach will also fail to recognize when they are simply putting a cross on top of what they believed before the missionary arrived. The resulting syncretism may require years to correct. Learning and understanding a people group’s religious beliefs and practices is much more complex than merely reading a book about it before you arrive. You have learned their subtle nuances of honoring departed loved ones and when someone is crossing the line into veneration and worship. This aspect of your target group is the most crucial to the missionary task. You get that.

5. Discouragement is temporary

Too many missionaries leave the field during a time of personal discouragement—culture shock, after a national falls away or betrays them, or when an unthinking missions supervisor (who may be experiencing his own struggles) treats them harshly. Perhaps family at home is going through struggles, or your child is sick with a tropical disease that is unknown at home, or you cannot get past the grief of not being able to go home when a parent passed away. Discouragement is real, and it has long been a favorite weapon of the enemy, but it is only temporary. When you are tried, you will come forth as gold. Stay through it.

6. The needs that brought you there, and the additional ones you have found

The need is not the call, but God may use it to stir you into action. Maybe you heard a missions sermon in your church where the preacher painted a detailed picture of the spiritual needs, or you responded to human needs after a natural disaster or war, or maybe a short term trip opened your eyes to all that needed to be done. Since you have been there, these needs have been confirmed repeatedly, and you have found many more. It’s just that now you are tired and so the need seems overwhelming. Never forget that the numbers have faces, and the faces have names. Let these needs stir your hearts again.

7. Relationships

While you may have a passport, financial support, family waiting for you at home, and maybe even a job lined up, remember that you are not simply going to something, you are also leaving and going away from something—someone(s). The multiplicity of options in the assets column of your balance sheet affords you the ability to leave when you want to leave. But you may be the only missionary some of your contacts know personally. I have found that the relationships we make with nationals and other missionaries are some of the most precious we will ever have. Perhaps that is part of what Jesus meant when He said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”

8. Seeds planted and watered

For most who return before they had planned, it is not because they had finished their work. Do not think lightly of the hard-won gains that have been attained. A good beginning has been made, but think of the untouched communities, the unevangelized areas, the undiscipled new believers, the churches planted but not fully formed, and the pastors untrained. Is it time to go? Consider this work that you have begun with sweat and prayer and remember that many are like newborn babies who still need parents to nurture them.

9. Your kids

For many families that have been on the field any time at all, their sending country is more the parents’ home more than it is the MKs’. Missionary kids grow attached to new cultures more quickly. The missionary community becomes a surrogate family complete with aunts, uncles, and cousins. Your kids are able to minister with you on the field in a way they will not be able to do should you return home. Indeed, in most churches back home you will part company at the Sunday School hour and see each other again after church—they have their own age-graded classes and worship time that is totally separate from the adults. When we were going through a time of discouragement due to lack of visible fruit, I shared with my wife that it occurred to me that our life on the field might have very little to do with us. Perhaps He just wanted our kids to grow up on the field because of what He planned to do through them. Your kids are watching you to learn many wonderful things. They are also watching you go through discouragement, opposition, and faithfulness when you lack necessary resources, and learning how they should handle it in their own lives in the future.

10. What is it that is not being done, that ought to be done, that you could do, and if it were done would result in greater advance of the kingdom and glory to Christ? 

You are the only you that God has ever made. You are a unique mix of flesh and blood, life experiences and education, relationships and preferences, etc. As you consider all of your difficulties and discouragements, please take a few moments to lift your eyes to the horizon and look beyond them. Ask yourself this question above. There is a task you have been uniquely created to perform. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:10

You could come up with a list of a thousand reasons to return home, and in the midst of your discouragement cannot find even one to stay. Stay anyway. That line of reasoning would have kept you from going to the field in the first place. If you are having a hard time focusing on the task, let me remind you that your labor for the Lord is not in vain. (1 Cor 15:58) For those who are sick and tired of being sick and tired, for those who are discouraged and cannot come up with a single good reason to stay, take these ten. They are yours along with my prayers. Stay the course. You are heroes. Run hard and finish well. Grace, mercy, and peace be yours in abundance.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

10 Reasons to Expect Great Things and Attempt Great Things

William Carey was a Baptist pastor in England toward the end of the 18th century. Reading Captain Cook’s journals, he was profoundly moved by the spiritual needs of the world. Specifically, he was burdened about the need to convert the peoples of India. However, Carey found that some of the other Baptist pastors in England believed that God would save the heathen in His own time without their help. Carey could not accept the decision to leave them in spiritual darkness. He challenged them through a sermon entitled, “Expect Great Things, Attempt Great Things.”  He led the way by sailing to India in 1792 and launched such a remarkable missionary effort that he became known as the father of modern missions. In that day when many English Baptists considered the work God had given to them to do at home to be sufficiently challenging, going to another continent to minister among peoples of different languages, worldviews, and religions was too great a challenge.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because that mentality is alive and well and sometimes resides within us. Perhaps you wonder why should we go elsewhere when there are still lost people among us, indeed even in our own families. Why invest elsewhere when our own buildings need improvement or expansion? Why go to preach truth in places where people already have a religion and don’t want us to come? Why attempt such an audacious task? What hope do we have of success? What should we expect? The same Bible that spoke to Carey still speaks to us today. Why should we expect great things from God and attempt great things for God?

There is no danger that attempting what our sovereign God has commanded His people to do will fail. I do not mean that every plan we devise will succeed in ways that we measure as success, but when we are prepared instruments in His hands seeking to bring Him glory, there is nothing that will prevent Him having His way in His world. Never be afraid that the Enemy’s gospel-hostile mean people will prevail against the sovereign hand of God. When you’re sure that that hand holds you, never fear to step out and walk by faith.

The mission we set out to accomplish is not our own, it is His. The mission Dei, encompasses more than we can fathom, but He shares a part of it with us. When you attempt great things, you are not inventing a missions idea and asking Him to bless it, you are joining Him in His mission. His mission will not fail. You are joining the mission of the invincible, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent Creator and Ruler of all that is

In Matthew 28:18, Jesus said that all authority has been given to Him. With His authority He commands us to go to all peoples and obey all the Great Commission. Because He has all authority, no earthly pretender to authority can deny us or stay His hand. There are creative access countries in the world, including some that are mistakenly labeled as closed countries. “You can get into any country, but you may not be able to get out. There is no such thing as a closed country to one who does not care if he gets out again,” famously responded Bible smuggler, Brother Andrew, to a warning that his work was too dangerous to do in Communist countries. Brother Andrew understood that because Jesus Christ has all authority, no government ruler and no human heart can thwart His mission.

Many of us live our lives wondering what Jesus would do in various situations we face. A better guide for us would be to look in to the Bible to see what Jesus did do, and then seek to imitate Him. In 1 Corinthians 11:1 Paul said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Christ cleansed the Temple when the court of the Gentiles had been appropriated for the ease and profit of the Jews, He healed those outside Judaism, and said that when He was lifted up that all kinds of men and women would come to Him. Jesus was and is concerned for the nations. Christ came to seek and to save the lost. Imitate Him.

Holy Spirit
We can attempt great things for God expecting Him to do great things through us because of His indwelling Spirit. The Holy Spirit of God lives within us to guide us, empower us, endow gifts, encourage, and bless our efforts to glorify Christ. Christian workers who seek to obey Christ’s command and walk in step with the Holy Spirit go forth in Jesus’ name and authority and in the power and fellowship of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are children of God. Such knowledge provides hope when discouraged, the needed word when we do not know what to say, and insight into all the truth we are to teach to others.

Everyone is not to be a mega-church pastor, serve in a soup kitchen, plant churches, be a pioneer missionary, or teach in a seminary. The unique and God-given mix of gifts and burdens, life experiences, opportunities, and His guidance leads each of us to the paths we walk in our Christian life. Some are more zealous to know and fulfill their role in God’s plan for the world than others. But no matter how God calls you to serve Him, you can serve Him with all you are to attempt great things. If He has called you to be a housewife in suburbia you cannot glorify Him more by being martyred in Somalia. The highest and best use of your life is to do what He has called you to do in the place He has called you to do it. When you know His calling on your life, embrace it fully in faith and obedience. Jim Elliot challenged the called ones in his generation, "Wherever you are, be all there. Live to the hilt every situation that you believe to be the will of God."

The world is in desperate need of the gospel, of hope in the midst of hopelessness, and light in darkness. Lost and dying people need to hear the Good News that though God hates sin He loves us and gave His Son to save us. Over half of the world has not heard the gospel. Just in the Americas there are 999 people groups, with over 2/3 of them unreached and over 1/3 unreached of them unengaged. The numbers of peoples who do not know Jesus is heartbreaking. Many others may have heard but have no Christian churches with trained pastors to teach them the truth of God’s Word and help them apply it to their lives. Other crises are growing as well. Flesh trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry around the world. Tens of thousands of children die of starvation and hunger-related diseases daily. Thousands of people die from the lack of clean drinking water. Globally, millions of orphans live in the streets. Amy Carmichael said, “Missionary work is a grain of sand, the work untouched is a pyramid . . . Face it.  Look and listen, alone with God.  Then go, let go, help go. But never, never, never think that anything short of this is being ‘interested in missions'” There are so many needs, so little time, and so few responding to help.

When asked to identify the greatest commandment, Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” If you love the Lord with your heart, soul, mind, and strength, you will want to see the peoples of His world bring Him honor and worship. And if you love your neighbor as yourself, you will want to see them find forgiveness and enter into eternal life, and be at peace with God through Christ. John wrote in his first letter, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” Let us attempt great things and expect great things because of the love of God that the God of love has put in our hearts—love for Him and love for others.

We say we love the Lord. But to step onto a plane to leave the land of Walmart, family, friends, and all that is familiar seems a giant leap. Who would do that? Why would they do that? Because He commanded and true disciples obey Him. Prompt obedience has been a characteristic of God’s faithful servants since the days of Noah built the ark and Abraham offered up Isaac. The first disciples Jesus called left their nets and boats and obeyed His call to follow. Sometimes His call to us seems a bit too radical in a world that promotes comfort zones and safety. The last command Jesus gave us was the Great Commission. His word to His church is clear. Is our obedience as clear? Remember that you can say “No,” and you can say “Lord,” but you cannot say “No, Lord.” The minute you do, He’s not; you are. Prompt obedience is a mark of a true disciple. Jesus asked, “Why do you call me, Lord, Lord, and do not do what I say?”

We should expect great things and attempt great things in full assurance that success is certain. Isaiah 11:9 prophesies, “for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” And a confirming repetition comes in Habakkuk 2:14, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Notice the absence of even a hint of “maybe” or “hope so.” I love the scene that John describes in the Revelation, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”’

We may expect and attempt great things because a successful end is certain.

God’s people make choices daily. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s Decision magazine reminds us of the reality of Joel 3:14, “Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision.” What a cause for praise and thanksgiving we would have if the whole world had heard the gospel in a way that they can understand and now dwelled in the valley of decision. But they haven’t. And the sad truth is that God’s people have read the Great Commission, the Great Commandments, and the great compassion of Jesus in the Bible, and many have heard the call to give or go, spend or be spent, yet they remain in the valley of decision. Don’t waver any longer in indecision, if God is the Lord of all, commit today to expect great things and attempt great things. Here are ten reasons to do so. Hundreds more could be presented. Only one is needed. Who will expect and attempt great things for the glory of Christ and the advance of His kingdom?