So there I am standing on the train as it sways back and forth with some significant regularity and I'm looking out the window. As far as the eye can see and in every direction, there are people. Mostly small villages of just a few homes built of cement and standing together in the midst of small farm fields. From a distance these villages always look peaceful and clean. Up close they're usually filled with the sound of dogs barking, chickens clucking, pigs oinking, and children screaming. They have a the stench of a village lacking a real sewage system, and even the human waste is often shoveled from the back of the outhouse in to buckets and used as fertilizer.
I didn't know all of those details at the time. I just knew these villages represented a China I wasn't experiencing in the mega city where I lived. I'm not sure I ever wanted to live in a place like this, small little villages like these, but I know I found them fascinating.
So there I am, looking out the window and, as I always do when passing through the country side, I'm soul searching. Praying about this huge country and the sheer volume of people who had never heard the gospel. I'm dreaming about how Hudson Taylor himself may have travelled the paths we're passing and I'm wondering what the Lord has in mind for this country.
I'm picturing a future day where I'm running through these rice fields carrying Bibles to people who are waiting on their front steps to receive them. I didn't tell them I'm coming, the Lord just tells them a messenger is bringing good news. Or at least, that's how it plays out in my head. I'm that messenger. I'm playing the central role.
In retrospect I see a shocking amount of personal ambition in my desires for seeing this country reached. And wrapped up in that ambition—at the center of all of my fantasies of how China would be different in ten years—is me. I wanted to be the savior of China. It is often still the case that my ambition is at work and while I know it's foolish, somewhere deep down inside of me I still sometimes believe I am the savior of China. This place has been just been waiting for me to arrive, and now I'm here! Just wait until all the missionaries watch me do what they never could. I assume I'll accomplish bigger (more important) things than them because they weren't brave enough, bold enough, and their walks with the Lord were nothing compared to mine.
Years later I know a lot better. I know that very little has changed as a result of my work in China. I've worked my tail off and these people are not yet fully sanctified, in fact I can say with some certainty, not a single one of my friends is. I figured by now the government would have had me pegged as the biggest problem in the whole country, the guy who was most fearlessly preaching the gospel and seeing innumerable converts. I would have at once been kicked out for being so effective, and have been allowed to stay behind because the change was so positive even the communist party couldn't deny the good I had done for China.
These thoughts are embarrassing to have written down for others to witness. But somehow they're play a central role in what kept me overseas. It's a big part of why I like to run. Even in America, when I'm running for exercise, I see a disturbing part of my heart come out in my runner's-high delusions of grandeur. About three miles in to any run I begin to "realize" I'm the fastest runner in the whole world, 'they' just haven't discovered me yet. I know I can win any marathon, run farther than anyone has ever even tried before, and the Lord was so lucky to have me in China because if I had just stuck around any longer in America I would have been huge in the um, running world. See, you can tell they're delusions of grandeur because I'm not even sure what the word is for the kind of people who should have discovered me by now.
Running in China the delusions are just as embarrassing, but far different. There I imagine how great of a runner I am, and how useful of skill it will be when the government begins more intensely persecuting the best evangelists. Again, I obviously would be at the top of their list and one day, with very little notice, I would be required to run—Jason Bourne style—all the way to Laos and across the border to avoid a martyr's death.
Starry eyed and fresh off the boat these are some of the thoughts missionaries have, or at least some of the thoughts this missionary had. Years on when we have seen a small handful of people convert, seen pastors leave their church because they're having an affair with one of the younger girls in attendance, or watched countless missionaries come and go, our perspective begins to change. Now my delusions of grandeur involve me being gainfully employed ten years from now in a way that can actually continue to provide for my family now that I've left the field.
When running and dreaming about fleeing to Laos I worry about my some tendons in my feet and knees which have been bothering me lately, and how I would carry all four children on my back. Something which, even on an intense runners high, I'm now painfully aware I probably couldn't do for even a hundred yards.
My ambition and real desires get slowly peeled away over time and they become more and more shameful over the years.
A German missionary who has was in China for twenty-five years and planted the biggest network of churches in the whole city is someone I both look up to, for their faithful service, and someone I look down on (because I'm a prideful fool), twenty-five years and just one church network? I run in to these Americans who have been in the field for thirty years and I probe in to what they're doing. I want to hear their strategy for changing the country or changing the city they live in, or at least for reaching their neighbors. Often when asked these kinds of questions they smirk slightly and give a very vague answer I can't possibly accept as sufficient. I now recognize this behavior in myself when a young and bright eyed missionary wants to know how I'll change China and I no longer believe I'm going to.
None of the longer term folks ever try to talk the young ones out of their ambitions, they know from experience it would never work. They just hope the drive for significance leads to some wonderful friendships, some conversions, and a softened heart which will keep them around long after they've realized they're mostly worthless. And why does the Lord pull people in to the mission field for as long as he does just to point out how little he needs us?
Why do we labor through painful experience after painful experience just to find out China wouldn't really be that different without us. God could have accomplished this without any missionaries, he just is blessed by our presence. And why does this not cause us to crawl home weeping? Some do I suppose. The others stick around, and though it appears some stay just because they're now afraid of ever moving home, they actually stay to see the Lord work significant changes in the little fruit they witnessed.
I often wonder if missionaries are just the creme of the prideful crop whom the Lord sends overseas because he has no use of such pride. He sends us to be missionaries, not so we can reach a people, but so he can reach us. Because it takes cross-cultural pain, awkwardness, and years of seemingly worthless service for us to realize we aren't as awesome as we initially believed we were.
I stayed as long as I did because I wanted to see significant change in the little fruit I witnessed. I wanted to see my friends stand up and pursue the Lord passionately. I would hope they all would become like Paul and plant church after church, but I no longer see it happening unless they're pushed by a younger "more strategic" missionary to do so despite their calling. They're probably just called to stay and be faithful believers at their jobs in the oil industry. They're probably just called to stay and humbly serve the Lord in their hometowns in the way I, the cocky missionary, would never have let the Lord use me.
In everyday life, things have changed dramatically in my move from missionary to middle-class American.
Questions I used to ask: 1) Have you decided whether or not you’ll notify the government of your church’s existence? 2) Has anyone else been brought in for questioning lately? 3) Were you able to find a place to live? 4) If we need to meet secretly, and the last location is no longer safe, where should we meet this time? How can we safety notify everyone? 5) So you’ve been in ministry for a couple years now, what kinds of sin are driving you crazy?
Questions I now ask: 1) Do you have any confidence your country can be wise enough to elect a leader who isn’t a racist sociopath? 2) Are you still surviving your mind-numbingly boring job? 3) Did you get your carpet put in? Did you get your kitchen redone? How did you get your lawn so green? 4) How many services does your church have? Is the kids program any fun? Is the VBS paid or free? 5) So you’ve been in ministry for a couple years now, what kinds of sin are driving you crazy?
So, you left the mission field, and now you’re back “home” in America trying to adjust to a life most of your friends got used to in their early 20s. Suburbia has taken over as you needed parks, a yard for your kids, and decent schools. Everything is different. Things are expensive here. Recycling is something you pay for, rather than folks paying you.
You cut down a bush or a tree in your new yard (partly because it’s ugly, partly just because you can) and stack it on the street by your house but you have no idea how to dispose of what’s left. Standing on top of a pile of it, you try to tie some twine around it (you’ve seen this before), and you start to wonder what the hell you’re doing.
Anyone can care for a lawn. A 13 year old paid $15 per week can care for a lawn. But now this is your lawn. You’re used to caring about thing like talking about Jesus with your neighbors. You’re used to spending late nights in secret places with groups of people illegally talking about the gospel. But you’re not used to caring for a lawn. And you’re definitely not used to caring about a lawn.
Somehow this is your lot. Somehow this is exactly where the Lord has you. But you miss the high rises, though they were rat infested, at least you understood them.
You miss noodles, chopsticks, speaking another language, and being surrounded by broken lost people. Probably your new suburban neighbors are just as broken and lost, but they drive fancy cars and park an RV in their backyard they never use. It’s harder to have sympathy for their lost-ness. You’re not used to having to see Americans through the same eyes as the Lord.
Why the hell do you own a lawn mower? Why the hell do you pull weeds? What the hell is going on.
And somehow, this is exactly where the Lord has you.
The Lord has called you to care for this lawn. And He has even called you to care about the lawn. But goodness is this a big shift.
How many years has it been? When will this feel normal?
Everyday when I woke up as a missionary, my work (as in my actual employment) was to go out and attempt to do what I thought was the will of the Lord.
Now I work in the tech industry in white collar America. Daily I have to remind myself in prayer, “Lord, I belong to you. Not to (company).” And it’s still an adjustment. It used to be I could be completely caught up in work, and it was directly in line with what I thought the Lord wanted me doing.
Now my identity cannot be my company. Cannot be my role. Because my role (as in actual title) is no longer essentially, “servant of the Lord.” I absolutely believe the Lord has me right where he wants me, and allows me to play roles that are clearly in line with his will for me at this company, but it’s an adjustment for sure.
I’m Yours Lord. My work, my successes, my failures, and my job security are Yours. Not mine, and definitely not (company)’s.
There is a lot of strange teaching about praying with “enough” faith. For most of my life I’ve wrestled with thinking, “If I have enough faith, I’ll convince God to do this thing I really want Him to do.”
But I think faith is almost entirely for our sake, after all God does not cease to work just because we are utterly faithless (thank goodness, er… praise Jesus for that). Instead, now I think, “God, give me enough faith to believe you will do this, or if you don’t do it the way I expect, give me the faith to believe you’re at work. Give me the faith to believe the wind and the waves still know your name and obey you. This thing I’m asking for is small for the one who still commands the world He created. Give me faith to believe you are more than powerful enough, you care deeply for me—don’t let me grow disheartened.”
Really I realize at the root of my fears is the thought that maybe God isn’t powerful enough to do this one thing at work. Or to repair this one broken relationship. Or to save me from this one oppressive person. But he absolutely is. It’s nothing for him.
Just to put a face on what it could have been like (and I don't imagine any of this is true... it just helps paint a different picture for me), I've drawn up some suggestions, as though I was there, noticing all the small little things:
Peter picks his nose... with some regularity. He either then flicks these, or eats them. Both get really old in close quarters over long periods of time.
Andrew is the guitar guy, busting it out at every stop and playing partial songs he never completes or actually sings. But he hums a lot, keeps practicing that one riff he can't get right.
Speaking of which James is the one who always sings off tune during worship sessions. For whatever reason he feels compelled to do so very loudly. The other disciples both secretly laud his bravery in this matter, and long to beg him to just sing quietly.
John refuses to bathe as much as the others request, he keeps insisting it isn't natural.
And speaking of smells, Philip daily has a strong reaction to the lentils that are a regular part of the diet.
Bartholomew is a close talker.
Matthew always carries a coin with him, rolling it between his fingers, and flipping it, yelling "Caesar's head" or "Caesar's rear" and trying to catch it with the correct side up.
Thomas has a really annoying habit of refusing to allow any sarcasm or hyperbole. He says things like, "Really guys? There were millions of them? Let's not exaggerate, there were *maybe* 5000 eating there with us. Let's not get carried away."
James is painfully quiet. And when you ask him a direct question he seldom answers loudly enough to be heard, and you have to just keep asking until he gets upset enough he yells the answer.
Simon is the conspiracy mongerer. Telling stories about intricate plots being carried out by the Romans to keep the Jews down. Even if some of these are true, there are just so many stories, it becomes hard to listen without an eye-roll.
Finally Judas. Well, he doesn't really need to be characterized.
And there you have it. None of this is probably actually true, but I bet there was disfunction and awkwardness socially amongst each and every one of these guys. They were saved, and they were as close to Jesus as you could get, but that doesn't mean their robes were bleached white, their hair was clean, and none of them ever confused a nose hair for part of their mustache.
They were probably just like us, in more ways than we normally imagine.
They mean the church. You can't love God and hate His church. I'm in agreement with the premise. I am not, however, in agreement with how it is interpreted. God's people must be loved. If we don't love His people we don't love Him, plain and simple.
But you can love God and hate how his bride has forsaken itself for the sake of great programs, worldly fame, and vain glory.
Great programs run on time, they have flashy lights, and everyone smiles on stage no matter what.
Worldly fame tells the world how much better your Sunday service is than everyone else's. How many more places your missions department sends High School teens in florescent t-shirts than anyone else.
Vain glory says you're a big deal because of how many people you've attracted to your gatherings. Your teaching is so amusing you've won a book deal or three.
And suddenly you've forgotten what you're supposed to be about. It's okay to hate that.
When the law is taught, or any of the Word is taught, without love as it's central goal, then it misses the point.
Love is the reason the Word of God exists. Love is the reason the Gospel is good news. Love is what we, as believers are called to do towards the world. We're not called to create division because of our theology, we're not called to alienate folks for their race, gender, sexuality, or eschatology.
Yet there are an awful lot of us defining ourselves by who we are not. When we meet people who fall in to whatever category we dislike, we push back, and don't love. We push away and hurt. I've done it. I still do it.
It is entirely about love. We're called, as believers, to bless the world. We're God's chosen people so that we can be a blessing to the world. And we do that by loving. Not by correcting "wrong" theology, convicting people of sin, or alienating the lost.
Now we’re on the hunt and can’t find a church we can handle more than a few weeks in a row.
Here are some reasons this has been almost impossible (all from different churches):
1) The worship pastor is actually a minority. Amazing (This place is pretty white, but not as white as it’s churches). He plays great worship. Unfortunately the head pastor feels it’s his role to pace around the front of the auditorium with his hands in the air during worship. I’d hate to think we should focus on God instead of him for a few minutes.
2) The pastor manages to touch on the gospel about once every month. And preach a straight up “if you act good, you’re a good Christian” message just about as often. Can’t do it.
3) The preaching begins this morning with the phrase, “I’ve recently been convicted that I’m not reading enough biographies.” Because lack of biography reading is clearly forbidden by Paul’s writings. It’s strange, I’ve been convicted about how few donuts I’ve been eating lately.
4) The church is so big we walk in and out without talking to a single person. We try, but there is no time set aside for it, there are kids here, but no parents come to get them from the classroom. There are only 3 small groups throughout the week, all in the same neighborhood a long way from us.
5) It seems like we’ve found a great one and when we ask how we can get connected, the adult pastor tells us there really isn’t anyone from the church who lives in our part of town. Sorry.
6) The pastor says, “This really is the best church in the Kingdom of God isn’t it?” And the whole church screams and whoops as though attending a Trump rally.
7) The worship leader stands up from his piano and dances while playing, grabs the microphone and skips across the stage screaming. His music would have been incredibly great in the late 80’s. His showmanship would have been excellent at a concert.
I feel like Jerry Seinfeld finding small things to nitpick about girls.
Is a church that preaches the gospel, has livable worship, and a decent childcare program so hard to find? Why when it looks like we find them, do they all have head pastors who want to be the center of attention (at the expense of the Lord)? Am I doing it wrong?
Goodness, what I’d kill for some good community (we have, thankfully, met some great people along the way, many have turned in to friends).
Our God is a God of patience because His people are the kind that require it.
They (we) do eventually sometimes get to where they intend to go, but often they’re bogged down in pretty overwhelmingly insignificant details. Yet the Lord can wait. He can and will wait on them.
“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” - 2 Peter 3:9
Martin Luther (I’ve been getting a kick out of reading his stuff lately), when writing on church says the following if you patience to read:
“The Scriptures speak of the Church quite simply, and use the term in only one sense; these men have added and brought into general use two more. The first use, according to the Scriptures, is this, that the Church is called the assembly of all the believers in Christ upon earth, just as we pray in the Creed: ”I believe in the Holy Ghost, a communion of saints.“ This community or assembly consists of all those who live in true faith, hope and love; so that the essence, life and nature of the Church is not a bodily assembly, but an assembly of hearts in one faith, as St. Paul says, Ephesians iv, ”One baptism, one faith, one Lord." [Eph. 4:5]
Thus, though they be a thousand miles apart in body, yet they are called an assembly in spirit because each one preaches, believes, hopes, loves, and lives like the other. So we sing of the Holy Ghost: “Thou, who through divers tongues gatherest together the nations in the unity of the faith.” That means in reality a spiritual unity, because of which men are called a communion of saints. And this unity is of itself sufficient to make a Church, and without it no unity, be it of place, of time, of person, of work, or of whatever else, makes a Church. On this point we must hear the word of Christ, Who, when Pilate asked Him concerning His kingdom, answered: “My kingdom is not of this world.” [John 18:36] This is indeed a dear passage, in which the Church is made separate from all temporal communities, as not being anything external.
And this blind Romanist makes of it an external community, like any other. Christ says even more clearly, Luke xvii, “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: neither shall they say, Lo, here, or lo, there! for behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” [Luke 17:20, 21] I am astounded, that such strong, clear words of Christ are treated as a farce by these Romanists. For by these words it is clear to every one that the kingdom of God (for so He calls His Church) is not at Rome, nor is it bound to Rome or any other place, but it is where there is faith in the heart, be a man at Rome, or here, or elsewhere. It is a nauseating lie, and Christ is made a liar when it is said that the Church, is in Rome, or is bound to Rome—or even that the head and the authority are there by divine right. Moreover, in Matthew xxiv. He foretold the gross deception which now rules under the name of the Roman Church, when He says: "Many false prophets and false Christs shall come in My name, saying: I am Christ; and shall deceive many, and show great signs, that if possible they shall deceive the very elect.
Wherefore, if they shall say unto you: Behold, in the secret chambers is Christ, believe it not; behold, He is in the desert, go not forth. Behold, I have told you before." [Matt. 24:24–26] Is this not a cruel error, when the unity of the Christian Church, separated by Christ Himself from all material and temporal cities and places, and transferred to spiritual realms, is included by these preachers of dreams in material communities, which must of necessity be bound to localities and places. How is it possible, or whose reason can grasp it, that spiritual unity and material unity should be one and the same? There are those among Christians who are in the external assembly and unity, who yet by their sins exclude themselves from the inner, spiritual unity. Therefore, whosoever maintains that an external assembly or an outward unity makes a Church, sets forth arbitrarily what is merely his own opinion, and whoever endeavors to prove it by the Scriptures, brings divine truth to the support of his lies, and makes God a false witness, just as does this miserable Romanist, who explains everything that is written concerning the Church as meaning the outward show of Roman power; and yet he cannot deny that the large majority of these people, particularly in Rome itself, because of unbelief and evil lives, is not in the spiritual unity, i. e., the true Church.
For if to be in the external Roman unity made men true Christians, there would be no sinners among them, neither would they need faith nor the grace of God to make them Christians; this external unity would be enough."
In full agreement of all said points. We’re so very confused in our understanding of the word “church”.
Luther wanted to reform the Catholic Church. And he thought this would happen if he just got the Bible in to enough hands. If people just heard the truth through teaching and preaching.
I identify with his optimism. But also see it as foolishly underestimating how tightly people in power will maintain a grip on their positions. Failing to see the truth if it smacks them in the face because of what’s at stake for them.
I’ve heard it said, and I fully agree, that the vast majority of evangelical Christians live their lives as though they believe the Holy Trinity consists of God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Bible.
That is, there is a near denial of the Holy Spirit. Or the Holy Spirit can be a thing that exists, but it can’t be a person of the Godhead who lives, breathes, acts, and speaks today with any kind of real power.
This belief and reaction is partly our loss of mysticism since the enlightenment, we simply don’t buy the supernatural anymore (even if He dwells right inside of us). And another part is the widely held belief that “God doesn’t work that way.” Sad. But a lot of people truly believe this.
What if the Lord does use His word to reveal Himself to us (He does), but also put an actual living breathing helper inside of us? What if He wants to talk and we deny Him the right. Instead saying in our hearts (or God-forbid outloud), “Well, God doesn’t work this way, so… This must not be from the Lord.”?
Alternatively. What if we believe that God Himself dwells within us, in power, like He did in the Temple? And what if we believe that we are cleaner than the High Priest ever was through the sprinkling of animal blood because we’ve been sprinkled with the blood of Jesus? And what if we believe that we can enter the Holy of Holies and interact, first hand, with the Creator of the Universe? Whenever. Whenever. Right stink in’ now.
Because we can. And we’re foolishly denying God to think otherwise. What is He trying to say? And are we open to hearing Him?
Buddhism - I can cleanse myself of my shit through washing away the impurities in my mind and body.
Taoism - If I meditate long enough, I can figure out how to empty my mind, and free myself of my shit.
Islam - If I pray five times a day, fast, do a pilgrimage, give to the poor, and give testimony, my shit will be good enough for heaven.
Hinduism - I can get my shit together if I try hard enough to accomplish the four proper goals of human life.
Mormonism - What Jesus did was cool, but I also need to get my shit together. Others might believe if I hide my shit.
Summary: Every religion in the world (except Christianity) - I’ve got shit, but if I work hard enough, I can get my shit together.
Christianity - Oh God look at my shit, I need a savior.