Now before you get your undies all bunched up, let me clarify what that means. Cursing more means using "cuss words", the kind I grew up believing no Christian would ever mutter. The kind I spent a week feeling terrible about when I said "shit"—to my own surprise—in sixth grade. It does not mean using the Lord's name as a curse word. That is something else entirely, with which I'm wholly uncomfortable. However, most four-letter words have become completely acceptable amongst my generation. So much so, I've noticed them being used in job interviews. Saying "shoot" today is the equivalent of wearing a sign around your neck that says, "I don't know how to interact with society."
This is a loosely held belief, not a conviction. Your mileage may vary.
And for drinking, I determined I would partake more regularly, not the point of drunkenness.
Both of these decisions were related to my reaction against the very tight religious rules under which I lived for a decade as a missionary. The organization I worked for often held these things in wonderful tension, but towards the end, people were confusing priorities and the freedom of the gospel. I'm not saying they got it entirely wrong, just that they swung the pendulum far enough the one direction, that I reacted when I left and chose to swing it back the other (again, probably a bit far).
Now that I'm a non-full-time-missionary I find myself wrestling with just diving full on in to hedonism. Or at least desiring it. Partly because I've now, for the first time in my life, not been living entirely for the purpose of holiness.
For most of my life, I was seeking to be holy, seeking to eradicate each and every sin and making that the laser focus of my life. As I preached the gospel repeatedly in China I realized early on that the Gospel is not about sin management, it's about a savior who has already solved it for us. Our lives should be about keeping our eyes on Jesus, not laser focused on zapping our every remaining sin (a vain life-goal if there ever was one). While I knew, even early on, that life was not about sin management, I was under a religious system where it was difficult to live any other way.
But in embracing the freedom of the Gospel, in reacting—as strongly as I have—to the religious foolishness (the same religious foolishness I think Jesus would have reacted to, and did react against with the pharisees), I feel a little lost.
My life was about holiness. Now it's about keeping a business afloat. My life was about praying for people, and helping guide them spiritually. Now it's about keeping clients happy and managing co-worker relationships.
I don't believe there is anything less holy about what I'm doing now, but it sure feels less holy—or at least less meaningful. I am certainly less-often reminded about the kingdom importance of what I'm doing. And I'm also certainly praying for people less often. Though the Lord regularly tells me this is exactly where He'd have me, it doesn't mean I "get it".
At it's core, I think I've reacted thinking, "If I'm called to be a missionary in China, I'm going to chase God and His holiness with all my worth. But, if I'm called to be a white-collar American worker, I'm not sure I want to serve this way. I'm not sure I'm willing to see it as an equal calling. And I'm not sure I'm willing to put in the same effort for the holiness I previously sought."
And goodness am I stuck with no resolution, just wrestling with this.
The grace of God and the joy we have in Him and the excitement we experience in salvation is great—however you approach it. That said, without really stopping to dwell on the absolute misery of hell, and eternal separation from God, it’s difficult to realize just how great that salvation is. We will probably never understand it, this side of heaven.
When we preach the truth to people, when we call them to the Lord things like hell, condemnation, and eternal damnation are things we try to avoid because it’s been used in fear tactics where Christians have “preached” against those we believe have committed sins that are unforgivable. But no sin is unforgivable. With the blood of Jesus everything is redeemable. Literally everything. And the damnation we avoid, the separation, the hell we avoid both in the next life and in this life, are so profound that our salvation is worth more than we can imagine.
Therefore calling others to truth—now—is calling them out of damnation. Out of separation. Out of hell, even in this life. Salvation is great, and the Lord can enter in to even very sinful situations without convicting a person of every sin all at once. But the glory we’re promised, the joy we can experience, is so much greater than the separation we previously had, that it is profoundly worth communicating clearly.
Call your friends out of sin, where you can, where you have authority to do so, where you can do so in love. Because the night and day contrast between the hedonism of this world, and the joy of a life lived in Christ is just that—profoundly different. It’s worth pursuing right now. Heaven awaits now.
Don’t accept sin when heaven is promised. Don’t settle for sin when salvation is free. Don’t avoid the truth when joy is literally standing at the door ready to be let in. And don’t deny those around you the truth when you think it’s love to ignore it. It’s a hard line to walk (balancing truth and love). But an essential one nonetheless.
I am a pipe smoker. I have shared that before, but it’s an important detail for the rest of this.
I am a pipe smoker, and as such, I have often fiddled with my existing pipes. If you don’t smoke a pipe, you probably don’t know that a slightly larger hole in the shank of the pipe makes for a much better pipe-smoking experience (in my, and other’s, opinion). In fiddling with reshaping and re-drilling, I found out about the world of pipe making and relatively early on I became interested in the idea of one day having a lathe to make pipes of my own.
Now, as you know if you read this blog, I spent most of the last decade in China with my four children in apartments barely big enough to hold my pipes. Actually, the apartments were too small for my pipes, but my wife was insanely accommodating and allowed me to store pipes at home despite the small-ness of our apartments. The idea of ever keeping a lathe in our apartment, however (no garage, often on the 6th floor or higher), was pure foolishness. So I just always assumed I would never own a lathe.
Fast forward to today, I live in relatively-suburban America (it’s been a huge adjustment, trust me), and I have an oversized garage where my pipe collection fits just fine. A few months ago my Uncle sold his house of 35 years and moved in to a small apartment. In his old house, he housed a metal lathe originally belonging to my grandfather who passed away about 15 years ago. He called me, when cleaning out his basement, and asked if I wanted a lathe. My father was even willing to drive it out from my Uncle’s place to my new place.
I do not need a lathe.
I always figured it would be nice to play with one a few times, but then I’d probably make a pipe or two and decide I wasn’t really in to it.
But, now I have a lathe. In fact, tonight I turned my 5th pipe on that lathe. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in learning, and I have a long ways to go, but I really enjoy standing out in my garage and working on a pipe. I don’t need a lathe. I figured I’d never have a lathe. Lathes like this one cost about $1500+. I got his lathe for free.
Tonight as I turned this pipe (the first one I’m really pretty proud of), I was standing there thinking about how good the Lord is to me. He knows I don’t need a lathe, but he found a way, without my digging around, to get one to me for free. And I’m thoroughly blessed by it, the immense space in my garage for it, the fact that I ever have time to play on it, etc…
This is an example of the Lord just blessing me above and beyond. It is an unnecessary desire of my heart, but it’s been a desire for a long time. Getting a lathe for free is only and just a big blessing—that is all.
I was standing in my garage thanking the Lord for it tonight, thinking, “The Lord has provided this home, this place in America, this oversized garage, and even a lathe to boot. Goodness He has taken care of me. Thank you Lord for taking care of a job, a life and home for my wife and kids (things I truly care about and have fought for), and even a toy above and beyond that. The Lord really can and does take good care of me.”
Then immediately after this, I thought, “Oh no. I’m thankful for this right now only because God is about to take my job away from me and I’ll need to remember how He provides for a job, a home, a life, and even unnecessary toys, just so I don’t panic when it’s time to look for a new job.”
That’s ridiculous, but somewhat portrays something I think many of us think about God. We think, “Yes he does take care of us, but He might take it all away just to remind us He’s in control and we’re not.”
But I think that’s a terrible misconception. God does not see us a foolish to whom He wants to teach a lesson. Now we are foolish, and He does teach us. But He loves and delights in us, He even wants to (and does) see us as His children.
I hope I can accept the Lord’s delight, without fearing it’s conditional or only there temporarily to teach me a lesson of some sort. I want to delight in His unnecessary but much appreciated gift, and His care of all my other things.
Lord, help me to delight in you. To trust you, and to trust you aren’t out just to take things away so you can teach me a lesson. And thank you for providing, above and beyond what I could have imagined.
What does it mean to be an artist and a Christian.
Almost by mere nature of being in the art world, you are seeking fame. Your name must be well known whether you are a writer, potter, painter, musician or sculptor. Well, in theory you don’t have to be well known, but if you want to make a living doing what you love then you sure as well need to be.
The problem is, it is the Christian’s job to make the name of Jesus great, not our own. So how do you reconcile these two?
I genuinely am asking. And if anyone has a great answer I’d love to hear it.
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.