Sunday, March 29, 2015

Desiring to Justify Myself

Location: Quảng Ngãi, Quang Ngai, Vietnam
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” -- Luke 10:29
It is easy to scoff at the arrogant lawyer who prompted Jesus' parable about the Good Samaritan, this insolent jerk who wanted to find excuses for his hatreds--or at least his indifferences--and thus challenged the teacher to clarify the reasonable limits of love. It is easy to scoff, because most of us see more of the Samaritan in ourselves than we do the lawyer.

But if I'm honest, far too much of my life is spent desiring to justify myself.

This pursuit is not restricted to holding up my arguments as superior to others', though that is certainly part of the picture. No, this goes to the very core of my sinful psyche. Every pursuit of accomplishment, fame, respect, power, and love seems tainted by a desperate, faithless craving for self-justification. 

You see, while God clearly tells me that my life is supremely valuable based on His work in me, Satan tells me that I must make a name for myself. Satan insists that I must prove my worth. Satan mocks that if people do not think that I am wonderful, then I must be a failure.

I therefore set myself frantically to the task of demonstrating that my dirty rags can be cleaner than yours, or at least clean enough. The very hopelessness of the cause ought to drive me to the cross for a fresh outpouring of divine grace, yet time and again I prove too weak even for that. Rather, I pathetically plunge these rags back into the muddy waters of my own life and vainly scrub, defying both belief and reason.

Jesus' parable not only destroys my own self-justification, it demonstrates the healing life I am constantly shunning. The grace of the Samaritan is fully available to me at every turn, outstretched in the compassionate hand of my Father. All that is required is for me to stop striving to justify my life by my own merits, lay still, let him bind up my wounds, and take me home.

* Note, thank you to my friend, John Cheek, for inspiring this post.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Relevance of Strangers and Exiles

Location: Quảng Ngãi, Quang Ngai, Vietnam
This week, the headlines shouted and celebrated another high-profile example of the American church bending to accommodate the values of our prevailing culture. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whose membership has declined 47% since 1967, has once again updated its constitution ... this time to embrace same-sex marriage. By doing so, it has doubled down on its bet that "relevance" is achieved when the church molds itself to more closely resemble the world around it.

But is "relevance" where this quest actually leads? No, this kind of relevance is a chimera, as attested to by the collapse of the PCUSA's membership. In fact, it is worse than that, for while it draws on our deep desire to fit in with our culture, the quest for the world's good regard is really poison to the church. This leads us into an astonishing place, for by pursuing relevance at all costs, we are gradually slouching into irrelevance.

This is because we don't understand what is supposed to make us relevant.

The church's relevance is born not of our identification with the world, but by our love for the world while identifying with Christ. Until we stop trying to be the church the world thinks it wants, we cannot be the church the world really needs.

How shall we then live, now that the culture has decided en masse that our views are no longer merely quaint or weird or puritanical, but hateful? Surely we must change?

Well, yes we must, but not in the way we seem to have decided. First, we must understand that our supreme example, Jesus Christ, wasn't crucified for his irrelevance, but rather for the way His extreme relevance threatened the culture's arbiters of what was acceptable. His relevance was built not on the compromise of his principles, but rather on his commitment to them, which was enveloped in a life-giving gospel of love.

What we must do, therefore, is much, much harder than simply repudiating the values and principles of our forebears in favor of the enlightened, modern, accepted truths of our contemporaries. Nor is it profitable to simply rail against the culture in favor of what was "traditional", a clumsy and loaded word that ensnares many into a sinister trap of arrogance and judgmentalism.

What is required of us is a bold love--one that risks rejection, isolation, stigmatization, and even real persecution for the sake of clearly speaking the truth about God's salvation--yes, including the hard parts about His wrath and coming judgment--to this lost and dying world in need of a Savior. This is the gospel of the faithful, of those who paid the last full measure of devotion:
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.
The relevance of the church is tied up completely in the inherent relevance of the gospel ... a gospel which does not seek to minimize sin, but rather to maximize Christ and His grace. It means moving boldly but lovingly into the lives of those who reject Him and His truth, in order that they may see Him in us, receive His love and message and Spirit, and thus be saved.

Living the reality of the "stranger and exile" means that we recognize the sinfulness of what the Bible clearly identifies as sin, but do so with compassion instead of condemnation, because we are so keenly aware of the truth of 1 Timothy 15:
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.
Deciding to live this way will hurt, both because of the world's rejection, and because we will pour our hearts out for so many who will respond with indifference, ambivalence, and sometimes even rage. But Jesus did not promise that He would deliver us from pain in this life--in fact, quite the opposite. Our promises are anchored primarily in the hope of the indescribable happiness that will come with eternity in God's glorious kingdom, and also in the supernatural strength, comfort and joy that He provides us here, in the land of our sojourn.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Because Slavery is Not Over

Location: Hanoi, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanh was 17 when she was kidnapped to China. Invited by a classmate to a nearby town to shop, she was sold by her “friend” to a sex trafficker. For the next 6 months she was trapped in the hell of an underground brothel.  
Fortunately, this brave and resourceful girl was able to get a message to her family and explain her desperate situation. The Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation was alerted to the case and went immediately into action to find her.  
After painstakingly tracking her down, the team engineered a dramatic rescue. They then raced back to Hanoi, where Hanh was reunited with her family. Two of her traffickers were also arrested that day by Chinese police. Hanh is still recovering, but will soon return to class, and hopes to finish high school next year.
Hanh's story is the reason why two months from now, my son and I will be riding Russian motorcycles for ten days through northern Vietnam. 

Because the scourge of slavery didn't end in 1865 ... it has just mutated into a worldwide, $32 billion industry that feeds on a human toll of 2.5 million people per year. The problem is especially acute here in Vietnam.

And because we can do something about it. 

Rally Indochina 2015 helps raise money and awareness for Blue Dragon Children's Foundation,  which through direct action rescues Vietnamese kids from Chinese brothels, illegal sweatshops, and off the streets, then helps the police go after those who stole their childhood.

You see, my son the engineering student is on a leave of absence from college this term, and has been spending his days volunteering down at Blue Dragon's Hanoi headquarters, helping them with many of the technical tasks associated with running a foundation. He picked this cause based on the way they are directly involved in helping save people in dire need.

When I say "directly involved", I mean they physically send people on rescue missions, whether it be out onto the streets of Hanoi, into sweatshops in Saigon, or to brothels deep inside southern China. Sometimes the missions can be quite harrowing. 

Just two days ago, in fact, Blue Dragon posted this news item on their Facebook page:
For the past 10 days, Blue Dragon's Rescue Team has been communicating with a 17 year old Vietnamese girl who was trafficked and sold to a Chinese brothel. Desperate to escape, she had an opportunity yesterday to run away and has done so with 2 other girls. They are in hiding and waiting for our team to find them, so they can get back to safety in Vietnam. The girls have been incredibly brave to take this risk; it shows that they will do anything to escape the horrors of sex slavery.
That is what they do. This is how it works:

I first became aware of Blue Dragon through my work at the US Embassy in Hanoi, and believe me, this is one group that is even more impressive the more you get to know them. While many human trafficking groups focus on awareness and government action, Blue Dragon focuses on kids: rescuing them, returning them, and helping them recover.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Who am I? Identity and Idolatry

Location: Hanoi, Vietnam
Look around you and you will see a world in search of identity. Each of us carries within us a fundamental need to have significance in the universe ... some existential impact greater than the collection of chemicals that makes up our human form.

This need was actually one of the first forces I remember that drove me out of my adolescent agnosticism toward a search for deeper truths. Evan as my public school teachers taught me that my life was little more than a cosmic accident--and even as I accepted it at first--I eventually ran up against a problem that their science books could not begin to resolve.

What made me ... me?
Why do I have an individual consciousness, and why is that consciousness wrapped up in this particular body? Why was I not someone else, or indeed something else? Why was I born into this life, and not that of, say, Phil Collins? Or Phil Mickelson? Or King Philip or Dr. Phil or even Punxsutawney Phil for that matter?

I was trying to understand the existence of my soul. I was trying to figure out if I was more than just a random assortment of cells passing through the galaxy on its way to oblivion.

I think in many ways I still struggle along this quest for meaning, and as I look around me, it's clear I'm not alone.

We seek to address our identity hunger in a host of ways. Think back to high school, when each of us searched incessantly for our place. Even where we didn't quite fit in, we made an identity (and established relationships) based on this nonconformity. Why? We wanted the comfort of friendship, sure, but we also wanted to find some environment where we could feel significant, even if this was within a very small circle. We changed our clothes and our speech and our hobbies so that we could find some sense of reality in which we were recognized by someone--even ourselves--as important.

News flash ... that quest didn't stop after high school.  It just became more sophisticated.

Well, that is, for most of us.

As we get older, most of us continue to pursue our quests in more subtle ways. We find something we're good at or a group that accepts and validates us. Perhaps we identify ourselves by our careers, or our family connections, or our sports loyalties. Maybe we come up with some obscure online identity, perhaps even complete with a clever cartoon character, that ... well ...

Um, not that there's anything wrong with that.  Is there?

Seriously, there can be, and this brings us to where the danger lies. The quest for identity can lead us into some idolatrous and ultimately soul-killing places. This is how young men utterly lose themselves in online pornography or gaming; or how mothers selfishly obsess over their children's successes and failures; or how middle-aged professionals attempt to squeeze life out of their careers.

In extreme cases, it leads even the most outwardly successful people into excess and despair and self-destructive behaviors, to include suicide.

The fact is, significance is a hard-wired psychic need--part of our true nature as bearers of God's image. Each of us will each seek to fill it in our own way, because we simply must. The question is, will this quest move us toward the God who gives ultimate meaning and eternal purpose and true identity, or will it move us into an outwardly attractive but ultimately hollow counterfeit?

It is only by seeking God that I find an identity worth investing my life in.

In Psalm 139, David, despite being Israel's greatest king, discovers how an authentic quest for God leads him to discover his true self, and to find great comfort and satisfaction there.
For you formed my inward parts;
   you knitted me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
   Wonderful are your works;
   my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
   when I was being made in secret,
   intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
   in your book were written, every one of them,
   the days that were formed for me,
   when as yet there was none of them.
This is also why David's son, who for a time appeared to have eclipsed even his father in temporal greatness, discovers that his pursuit of life's temporal satisfactions left him only with the crushing conclusion that they were all meaningless--a mere "chasing after the wind"--that left his soul barren.

This is also what my friend Sharon discovered, and why she later wrote this:
... I find I am finally content in knowing this simple truth: I am a child of God, and I am saved by His grace. I can say it now: I am ready to die ... which means now I can truly live.
Idolatry takes many forms, but the self-idolatry of identity is perhaps among the most insidious. It takes us captive and teaches us to try to squeeze a little temporal life out of that which is dying, rather than to find life eternal in Him who is by nature eternal.

Who am I truly? Dare I say it?

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Foremost of Sinners

Location: Hanoi, Vietnam
And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. -- Acts 2:42-47
Much has been said--some of it by me--about why today's church seems so depressingly distant from the ideal of Acts 2. She has strayed from sound doctrine, from prayerfulness, from belief in the God of Wonders, from true generosity, from disciplemaking. In fact, none of these critiques seems entirely unfair. The church seems to be on her heels and falling backwards.

Yet as I get older and (maybe) a little wiser, I find myself faced with simpler and more personal truths:

I am the problem.

I increasingly find it difficult to point a finger at the church's failings without seeing those remaining fingers pointing back at myself. An honest assessment of the way I spend my days and my energy returns me to this galling fact: I am much too highly committed to fulfilling my appetites.

Sure, maybe I have cleaned these up over the decades to make them more publicly "acceptable" among the brethren. Still, the bottom line remains that by most objective measures (i.e., how I spend my time and energies), I am far more interested in my own comfort and near-term gratification than I am with God's glory, His gospel, or His children.

God sits on the throne of my life, yet I can't find time for His people or His priorities. I stand by His grace before a dying world in need of that same grace. He has rescued me from destruction and despair, invited me into His holy presence, and entrusted me with the most noble and amazing of missions--the salvation of my neighbor's eternal soul.

But I can't be bothered, because I've got stuff to do.

So where does that leave me?

In desperate, daily need of mercy.

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. -- 1 Timothy 1:15

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Our True and Proper Worship

Location: Hanoi, Vietnam

This blog has had much to say on the topic of corporate worship.  Some of these posts have sparked a degree of consternation among the brethren, for many of whom the new, "contemporary" conventions have rapidly become as sacrosanct as the old "traditional" ones once were.

These discussions are important, because it is vital to know what exactly we are seeking to accomplish when we come together as a body.  It would be foolish to hand-wave the issues away under an easy cliche of "freedom", for if we accept that worship is truly about God, we must also believe He has something to say about the matter:
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”
Yet the intensity of the debate over style and methods can turn the very idea of worship into a caricature, wherein certain high-profile aspects are further exaggerated and distorted.  When this happens, other crucial features are lost.

For example, for many of us the de facto definition of the word has devolved into a corporate activity that takes place between roughly 10:30 and noon on a Sunday morning.  But even this may be too broad ... perhaps for many of us, "worship" has basically come to mean that part of the service involving music.

Nobody would admit to such a narrow definition as this, of course.  But honestly, if we were to word-cloud of our normal language patterns about worship, what would really stand out?  "Service"?  "Liturgical"?  "Contemporary"?  "Team"?  "Band"?

Perhaps we need to take the entire line back to formula and ask the fundamental question:  What exactly is "worship"?

Well, let's start with this:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.  (Romans 12:1-2)
In his Readings on St. John's Gospel, Archbishop William Temple unpacked a definition of worship along these lines that is as magnificently poetic as it is mind-blowing:
Worship is a submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of mind with His truth; the purifying of imagination by His Beauty; the opening of the heart to His love; the surrender of will to His purpose – and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centeredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin. 
Now that's a pretty tall order for any pastor or worship team!  But of course that's the point, isn't it?  There is no ecclesiastical figure or institution created under the sun that can produce in its congregants this kind of whole-life surrender within the span of three praise songs or a 90-minute service.  Or as John Frame makes clear in his book, Worship in Spirit and Truth:
Redemption is the means; worship is the goal. In one sense, worship is the whole point of everything. It is the purpose of history, the goal of the whole Christian story. Worship is not one segment of the Christian life among others. Worship is the entire Christian life, seen as a priestly offering to God. And when we meet together as a church, our time of worship is not merely a preliminary to something else; rather, it is the whole point of our existence as the body of Christ.
I really like this definition, with one caveat:  our congregational worship is certainly not merely "preliminary", but nor is it the "whole point".  Our corporate worship is an essential expression of the all-consuming "priestly offering" that is to mark our entire worshipful existence before the face of God.  When we come together on the Lord's Day to worship our risen Savior, it ought to be the culminating event of one week and preparation for the next, each moment of which is then to be spent in God-glorifying obedience ... which is itself our "true and proper worship".

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Those Who Mourn

Location: Da Nang, Thanh Khê, Da Nang, Vietnam
Recently I have been blessed and challenged through a series of conversations with someone who is not a Christian, but who has patiently and attentively heard my testimony about Jesus, and why I follow Him.  Our talks have ranged a number of issues:  social, cultural, philosophical, theological, and personal.  Perhaps more importantly, they have involved a series of interconnected vignettes about my Savior and me.

Because my friend did not grow up around Christians, I have had to consciously abandon my assumptions about what people understand about Christ and His gospel.  This has been good for me, since such assumptions are generally wrong anyway.  Even more personally, carefully explaining how my belief forms the basis for my life, thought, and principles has been refreshing, insofar as it has also helped me to recognize in a new way how integrally such core principles as love, grace, devotion, purity, loyalty, sacrifice, etc. spring from the seed of simple faith in the Author of my salvation.

At the same time, these conversations have laid bare the deeper loneliness of the Christian's peculiarity.  My friend, who is much younger than I, appears to respect my faith and admire my family, while at the same time seeing me as an anachronism:  a nice man with some old-fashioned and outdated ideas.  While this is an improvement over, say, a perception of cold judgmentalism, it still leaves me sad ... and my friend yet lost.

This is a hard form of evangelism, because it requires sincerely caring for someone who may simply never respond to faith with faith.  It is so much easier, for example, to go "street witnessing" with friends among people you will likely never see again, and for whom you feel little real compassion.  When I share the gospel with someone I honestly care for, I then have to honestly feel the pain of their rejection, or at least their ambivalence.

At the same time, I think I have come to appreciate the value of sorrow in my life, insofar as it reawakens my soul.  Ministry is--in essence and with rare exception--loving and giving to those who will not respond in equal measure. The pain of that reality must be felt, lest we become cold and calloused.  The pain of gospel ministry ought to drive us further into gospel dependence on our Savior, but it cannot do so if we refuse to experience it.