Why I Smoke a Pipe

About three years ago I took up pipe smoking in earnest. I had been smoking a pipe with occasional opportunity since when I was with a few friends, every night around midnight my freshman year of college.

Now I don’t get back to the states but once every three years or so, and thus my dental hygienist was a bit surprised at what she saw. Knowing what I do for a living she said, “I’m really surprised at the amount of stain I see in here. It almost looks like smokers stain, but I assume it must be coffee.”

Nope, it’s smoke.

This, well, I’m not sure she had a box to put smoking in. And now I’m personally out of her missionary box and in some “other” box. Can’t win them all.

The reasons I have continued smoking a pipe are many. But here are a few in no real order.

  • Email will someday be the death of me. But you know what makes doing email really shockingly bearable? Headphones with loud music and great tobacco in a big pipe. Suddenly I’m dining instead of just responding to another organizational email about which I couldn’t possibly care less.

  • Playing outside with my kids is awesome. But I do wary quickly. In extreme heat or cold this is intensified. A pipe makes me the one encouraging them to stay outside, “Just until daddy is done.”

  • William Makepeace Thackeray said, "The pipe draws wisdom from the lips of the philosopher, and shuts up the mouth of the foolish: it generates a style of conversation, contemplative, thoughtful, benevolent, and unaffected.” I firmly believe the pipe is helpful in shutting my mouth.

  • Men need something else between them. Maybe this is a modern American thing, but we can’t get together just to talk. Well, we can. But only if we tell each other it’s actually to enjoy a pipe, or a beer, or something of the sort.

  • I smoke a pipe because I thoroughly enjoy it. And as a believer, I not only have the freedom to do so, but I can even enjoy it to the glory of the Lord.

The Biggest Problems in Missions Today

It may be these issues apply to all ministry and not just missions, but missions is what I know and so that is the focus. This is not an exhaustive list of the problems in missions, there cannot be one because the people who do missions are, well, people. But these are the things I see most often, even in myself.

1. We desire our own name to be glorified instead of the name of Jesus. 

This is by far the biggest issue and has many negative fruits.

We complicate this by heroizing old missionaries instead of the work God did through them. We make these people out to be super-saints, and no doubt they were not wimps. But we whitewash their history of neglecting their families and sin. These people rise to a standard no longer achievable (partially because we have no record of their foolish tweets or boneheaded blog posts). We then desire to be famous like them, and to do the great works "they" did, when really it was the Lord who did great things through them. Even when these missionary histories are written in a God-honoring way, we still read them the wrong way.

Then when our focus is on our own name being glorified, we forsake the true goal of honoring the name of Jesus and we therefore operate by own strength instead of the Holy Spirit.

With our eyes on ourselves we hope to plant a church. And build a church. And we want our church to be the biggest best church around. We aren't working to build the church, the body of Christ. Rather we want to build our church with our theology, our people we can call our own. This, we figure, brings honor to our sending churches (which is true, but it's the wrong kind of honor) and makes our supporters write bigger checks.

When we have our minds on impressing the world back home, or being super-missionaries we prefer any means by which we can in increase our numbers (of converts, or church plants, or coffee's sold to non-believers). This leads to all kinds of strange methodology and is (in my opinion) what leads to things like insider movement methodology. We'd rather have ten pseudo-Christians (I know, it's not a real thing) stuck in the slavery of Islam than one true convert who is free indeed.

Finally, this all leads to the missionary desire to be the savior instead of point people to the one who actually has the power to save.

2. We teach cultural bias and cultural theology instead of the gospel

This one is short, simple, and self-explanatory. Yet, it is very difficult to do correctly, and for the most part we're doing it wrong.

3. Neglecting the unreached for sexy people groups

See previous post for details on this.

If we really care about the lost we need to be investing as heavily in Italy, New York, and Japan as we do in Africa and the Middle East. The lost are not limited to third world countries, yet it's a lot easier to raise support to go to such places.

Alcohol and Tobacco Policies as Bad Missiology

(This has been re-written, or at least edited... hopefully for the better).

For the nine years I've been in the field I've been watching the folks from the IMB (the Southern Baptist missions arm), among other organizations, send people overseas with strict No Alcohol and No Tobacco policies.* Apart from feeling bad for them and how often they're missing out on fellowship with other missionaries, I only occasionally gave the issue much thought. I do know that many abstain from both tobacco and alcohol and have good reasons for it, and I think I always assumed those would be the type of people who would join the IMB.

But now I've heard my organization is soon to pass similar policy. I suppose I've mentioned once, or a bunch of times, that I partake of both alcohol and tobacco products. Often this is with others and, increasingly I allow it to intersect with my ministry.

tl;dr
Creating or having policies which outright (or situationally) ban the use of tobacco, alcohol or other substances (besides those which are illegal) causes unnecessary difficulty in appropriate preaching of the gospel and is thus bad missiology.

Sometimes it looks better on paper that your missionaries don't smoke, drink, and chew, or go with boys who do. But I'm increasingly convinced it hinders the teaching of the gospel when it is universally applied.

Here I should say I will primarily be addressing the arguments about alcohol, because I cant think of any good arguments against the use of tobacco. Yes, it's not good for you, but neither is Coca-Cola and only the Mormons have proved theologically consistent enough to outlaw that. Yes addiction is bad, becoming dependent on something other than the Lord is a problem; but  we blind our eyes to caffeine, video games, etc...  Many partake of these things because the benefits outweigh the negatives. And because some can properly handle their substances and game playing, even enjoying them to the glory of the Lord (like the pipe I'm smoking while writing this), all without becoming addicted.

1. An argument from convictions 

There are lots of good, even Biblical reasons not to drink. However, it's very very difficult (and bad exegesis) to make an argument that drinking is Biblically sinful.

That said, if you are convicted personally not to drink, then not drinking can be a great way to preach the gospel. You can talk about how you're abstaining because you have a personal conviction against drinking and the Bible tells us not to sin against our conscience. This is honoring to God. (Romans 14:23).

If you choose not to partake just because of a policy (rather than your convictions), this confirms in the mind of others that our religion is primarily about rules. When actually this is the precise point which makes belief in Jesus so different from the rest of the world's religions. Living our freedom in Christ is one of the most important things a Christian missionary can do. Not abusing that freedom, living it (Romans 14:13-23). Because openly living out our freedom in Christ is preaching the gospel.

When Peter shied away from his convictions in Antioch, Paul opposed him to his face. Submitting to a law when a law is not required for salvation is teaching religious weirdness in place of the gospel. (Galatians 2:11-14). Now, I'm not saying you shouldn't submit to a policy that asks you to not smoke and not drink—you should submit to your authority. We're called to and must. What I am saying is the policy itself is actually a detriment to the gospel being fully preached.

2. An argument regarding reputation

Sometimes the problem is simply that an organization is fearful of the reputation it would have should it's staff be seen drinking alcohol. If reputation is an issue, we need to remember we do not represent an organization, we represent Christ. This then begs the question why was Jesus not concerned with this reputation? (Matthew 11:19). Part of the reason is He wasn't actually drunk. We know He was drinking (John 2:10), but he wasn't drunk. If our organization has people getting drunk in it that is a problem (Ephesians 5:18), but if they're just drinking we need not be worried.

Followers of Christ were not called to be ascetics, or pharisees. Buddhism, Taoism, and even Islam (and just about every other religion in the world) are about following rules, and following them well enough to find salvation. The gospel of Christ is the opposite, this is something we must be boldly proclaiming with our lifestyle.

Another reason Jesus wasn't concerned about others seeing him or his disciples drinking is because wine (and I believe it's safe to extrapolate to other forms of alcohol) is a gift of God. Alcohol brings joy and makes the heart glad (Psalms 104:15, Eccl 10:19). Gifts from God are meant to be enjoyed for His glory. A missionary using alcohol in appropriate settings for building fellowship with others is a good and right thing to do. It is also important that missionaries, more perhaps than anyone else, proclaim there is a right and good place for alcohol. The same way we don't ban sex, we just teach it's made for certain situations and not all situations.

Not all missionaries are discerning. But a blanket policy means the discerning ones will no longer have opportunity to preach these things. It also means the discerning will not have opportunity to teach the undiscerning when and how to properly enjoy such things.

3. An argument from experience

About six years ago, I had an opportunity to take a crowd of about seven locals out to do some evangelism. That night we shared with a homeless man under a bridge. This man was obviously drunk and very excited to have people to talk to. He offered each of us all that he had—a cigarette. My friends, in order, each turned him down. I was second to last and I took the cigarette and let him light it for me. My friend's were shocked.

Now keep in mind, I hate cigarettes. I don't understand why anyone on earth smokes the things. But I do not believe cigarettes are inherently evil, or even sinful to smoke. I also believe this was a situation to be all things to all people (1 Cor 9:21). The same way I eat pig brain when offered to me, I often smoke a cigarette with people when I believe they will then give me their ear.

That night this man refused to hear from anyone other than the one guy who accepted a cigarette. I was the only foreigner and my gospel presentation was, without question, the least clear that could have been offered that night. Yet this man heard us. He believed. And I have good reason to think that cigarette was essential to the transaction.

This is one very black and white situation, but there are many like it regarding alcohol. When those who are comfortable having a drink have the freedom to drink with non-believers it can open the door to talk about the gospel. Again because of rules; people believe all religions can be boiled down to rules. And it is true. For everyone except us. Our God fulfilled our rules, so we don't have to. Because we can't. This IS the heart of the gospel message.

This kind of policy  doesn't reflect the gospel. The gospel is about freedom and when we're with a disciple we can't preach freedom and yet live our lives following a rule we don't have conviction in. This confuses those we're discipling. Policies like this also close the door on the (admittedly) occasional opportunity we have to open doors through clear-conscience partaking with non-believers.

Rules which are not Biblical rules cause us to live in a manner conforming to things which we cant back up with doctrine—for missions this is foolishness. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying abstaining will ruin all missions work. The gospel and our God are bigger than these rules. But it is our job to preach the gospel. Period. Even as it relates to enjoying alcohol and tobacco.

4. An argument from culture

Just about anywhere in the world that has any issue with drinking or smoking learned it from Americans. Not from their reading of the Bible. But from American missionaries.

South Korea is a nation which learned of Jesus, but every South Korean I've ever met never learned how to enjoy alcohol appropriately because the missionaries we sent there didn't teach it. And to this day many Koreans live as though this one thing is a special sin. They know the gospel, but also kind of think in their hearts they might be in some special trouble with God if they have wine at their friend's wedding reception.

I spent some time recently with a small people group who have a similar culture. They believe Christians cannot under any circumstances smoke or drink. Sadly many believe this what makes them a Christian. They think you call Jesus your God, and then stop smoking or drinking and you'll go to heaven. That's a bummer, but it is what happens over time when hardline rules— instead of gospel freedom—are taught. Our hearts like rules because they are black and white and we can try our best to follow them. Naturally we will revert to such thinking, and naturally we will forget the gospel, unless the gospel is consistently taught in the face of rules. A policy makes this difficult to do.

The missionary who went to this minority people a hundred years ago taught them not to drink because their culture was one which only drank to get drunk. He did not model that drinking does not have to lead to drunkenness. He simply made a rule. But a rule has no power over fleshly desire (Col 2:21-23). A man who models submitting his desires to the Lord is far more powerful in the long run, and is lot a less likely to lead to false teaching—because alcohol consumption does not send you to hell.

Conclusion

There will always be people, even in the mission field, who abuse substances. But the solution is never a policy against them. If staff are handling these things incorrectly, refusing them alcohol or tobacco will not solve the problem. It may help the "reputation of the organization" for a brief period of time, but we should be more concerned with the reputation of Christ (and he wasn't worried about these things). We also should be concerned with helping those who are abusing these things to figure out how to use them appropriately. Otherwise we get immature staff who never learn how to properly handle alcohol and tobacco, they return home from the field and go and use them foolishly.

If you want to model appropriate use, do not make a policy against using such things, make a policy encouraging younger staff to learn from older staff. It might be a better idea to make a policy which says your new staff can only partake of these things around seasoned staff for their first year or two until they learn when and how to drink and smoke appropriately. If addiction is the issue you have bigger problems than a policy will solve, and it should begin with a conversation with leadership rather than a set of rules.

If people have messed up, while not fun, it's not the end of the world. One of the best things we can do as missionaries is respond appropriately to our sin. We can demonstrate to locals how we confess our sins, repent, and lean on Jesus.

--

I always wondered if I would choose to stick around should my organization pass such a policy, and I've heard this is about to happen. I believe too much in what we're doing to give it up just for the freedom to use alcohol and tobacco. But that’s not all that's at stake here. What’s at stake is the preaching of the gospel (and man's ability to misunderstand it), and I’m not sure I’m okay with being subject to such a policy for very long.

I will mourn the loss of the fellowship I have with other missionaries and local pastors over beer and tobacco. I will mourn the loss of opportunity to speak the truth and talk about why a drink will not condemn me, and how I can partake freely because of what Christ did. And I fear the future and our disciples forsaking the gospel for a law they believe we followed.  I'm afraid they might end up like a friend of mine who believes the Lord might never forgive him for the tattoo he got on his arm before he became a believer.

But as locals take over our ministries, I realize I want to stick around long enough to help them understand why such policies are not only unhelpful, but actually detrimental to the preaching of the gospel. I want to be there as they run in to this issue, when they wrestle with policy for ministers and missionaries. I want to help them learn what kinds of things are worth spending their time worrying about. And I hope I can convince them that there is an appropriate response to missionary use of alcohol and tobacco.

But new policy isn't it.


*There are lots of organizations I could pick on, but the International Missions Board is the easiest just because of how big they are.`

Removed.

I haven’t pulled a post from this blog in a while. But I pulled the last one after some feedback that gave me pause. It’s being reworked and will be reposted. The last time I pulled a post it was because someone pointed out it was in conflict with the gospel. Ouch.

Hopefully this one is less of a problem and is just a matter of better or clearer wording to better express what I meant. But as always, I reserve the right to say, and I’m saying right now, “Please disregard what you might have just read. It was foolish of me to publish it for any number of reasons. Hopefully the next thing to be posted will be better. Sorry. And thank you.”

Neglecting the Unreached for the Sake of the "Unreached People Groups"

We are neglecting the unreached for the sake of unreached people groups. Sadly while the former is black and white (people who don’t know Jesus), the latter has an arbitrary definition. Some folks in a committee one day decided how to define a “people group”. And what percentage of believers defines a “reached” or “unreached group”.

You might be surprised by the number of people who believe once each of these “people groups” hear the gospel and have one believer amongst them, Jesus will return. And somehow these folks goal has become to bring Jesus back. They’re actually calling this, “finishing the task.”

Sadly, there are huge cities and countries in this world filled with people groups considered “reached”, but with basically no believers in their ranks. In fact, by the definition used they should be considered unreached, they’re just part of a bigger, technically “reached”, people group. We have neglected these places for the sake of going where the “unreached people groups” are.

The problem with our definition and our understanding of the implications means that when each of these people groups is reclassified as reached, people will be shocked that Jesus hasn’t returned. And then we’ll have to reclassify and start over “finishing the task.” But our neat definitions of percentages and languages or culture are not necessarily how God sees things.

A lost person is lost. Whatever his ethnicity. And God isn’t just looking for a believer from one more people group so he can add one to his charm bracelet of believers.

Jesus cares about the lost. Period. So should we. Our missions programs and strategies should reflect that.

We need to go to cities with no minorities just because they’re lost. We need to go back to Europe. Just because it’s lost. We need to seek the lost. Period.

For His Name's Sake (Isaiah 48:9-11)

This morning I was reading Isaiah 48:9-11 which says, "For my name's sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off. Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another. "

God could cut us off entirely. Though he says this of Israel it's true of us too. But He doesn't cut us off because we are his chosen people, and He wants to bring glory to His name through us.

For His name's sake, He doesn't cut us off even though we deserve it (gospel, gospel, gospel). 

For His name's sake, He refines us through the furnace of affliction. I think the Lord likes those who represent Him to be the broken of spirit and calm, gentle before Him. The smile of the man in utter dependance on the Lord because he nearly lost everything but the Lord brought Him through. That's probably the smile we're all headed towards if we keep on for him. Because affliction does wear you down, it wears you down until you finally understand your need for the Lord. 

For His name's sake, and for the glory of it, He makes us who He wants us to be. Not who the world desires us to be. 

For His name's sake we will be broken of spirit, humble servants, rather than powerful famous people. For the sake of the name of Jesus, he will make us who he would have us be, so that he has the glory, for He has no intention of sharing it.

For His name's sake He will not share His glory with the superstar missionary, or superstar pastor, or superstar businessman.

For the name of Jesus. 

Of Money, Judgement, and Thankfulness

My family has been on the road for the last three-and-a-half weeks. It’s been a long trip and we’ve been through ten states and driven four thousand miles. We also saw a lot of friends, family, and folks who support our ministry. Some of these people have a lot of money.

Whatever you imagine a lot of money to be, double it. I mean bigger houses, larger tracks of land, stronger air conditioning, more elaborate showers and bathrooms, and more boats. It was awesome.

I have a confession to make though, I have coveted these things in a way I don’t recall ever coveting before. Part of it is being hit with a reminder of the enormity of the city we live in overseas, and the way it contrasts with the vastness of space available in America. Part of it is just how uncomfortable we are and just how comfortable America can be. But part of it is definitely that there are a lot of people in this world who make A LOT more money than me, and sometimes I wonder if I’d rather be earning that kind of money instead of being a missionary.

I also have another confession to make, I often judge these people and their “fortunes”. My natural response to this much money is to believe that people must have lost their souls to get it. They must be slaves to work and have terrible marriages. They must value all the wrong things in this world. These people are clearly sinners because the righteous all live overseas as missionaries or in tiny houses living humble lives in America.

I don’t really believe this in my head, but sometimes this seems to be what comes out of my heart.

This then begs the question, “Just how big is a humble home?” Three bedroom in the city or four in the suburbs? Or is a trailer a humble home? Can it have a backyard? What about a swimming pool? Why do I have specific lines in the sand that I use to judge others? And why am I comparing folks to me and my economic situation as though I were the perfect example for all to follow? Because I’m acting like a Pharisee.

I knew in my head that there were people with thousands of acres of land, but I never saw it with my eyes until now. I knew in my head that there are people who own (multiple) lake houses in country clubs with golf courses and private air strips, but this is my first time experiencing what that means.

And seeing it with my own eyes has been shocking to me. But there is another thing which has been shocking on this trip. These people who seem to me Loaded with a capital L, are also Generous with a capital G. They share their boats, their houses, their food, even their beer, and often their money with missionaries like me—some of whom they don’t even know. I was blessed incredibly with rest and comfort by an outrageous number of people who did things like take me on carts through cattle ranches (and even let me drive). I was blessed by huge beds with lots of blankets in the middle of summer with completely unnecessary air conditioning.

I was blessed by the Lord, via these people, with good gifts of outrageous comfort and as a bonus I was able to be humbled in the process. All the money in all the earth, and everything in the earth is the Lord’s. Why do I assume anyone using it differently than me is a sinner?

I’m so thankful these people have more than me and are willing to bless me with it. I need to learn how to use what I have to bless others better. Because I tend to be willing to share my house until the first time someone puts a stain on my carpet, or moves a measuring cup to the wrong cupboard.

My prayer is that I can maintain a posture of humble thankfulness for the opportunity to experience and enjoy this wealth. That is, instead of my natural reaction of covetousness and judgement. Give me the grace Lord!

The Only Thing in the Blogosphere Ever Written on the Topic of Writing

I’ve been writing with some consistency since I was in early High School. Back then a friend of mine pressed me in to writing poetry and I loved it. Though, I still have those poems and they’re pretty embarrassingly awful. Thankfully we get better with practice, of which I’m still in need of a lot.

Writing is fascinating to me because the written word, different from the spoken word, allows for careful contemplation and the ability to arrive more precisely at that which I’m trying to express. I consider myself a relatively well spoken person. And if there is ever a time I feel I don’t express myself well when speaking English, I only have to compare it to my second language speaking to suddenly feel very confident. When speaking English I feel like I have a funnel of words hovering above my head and the ability to think quickly enough to grasp with Swiss-made-watch precision the exact word I want to best express myself. When speaking a second language it’s more like a thin pillar than a big funnel. There may be ten words for thief but I only know 3 of them; or five words for lonely, but I don’t fully understand the nuance of difference between them.

When writing in English I get the luxury of the huge funnel to start, and then I also get to come back and revise to be even more precise.

I imagine it’s something like how I view a master painter. On my very best days I can draw stick figures that look like people. I always am jealous of folks who can paint something which looks exactly how they want. Even if it’s impressionism and not realism, it still blows my mind that an artist can create on a canvas, that which is in their head.

Perhaps better than many, I can express myself in written word precisely in the way I desire. But at the end of the day there is often still some dissonance. Something in my head which still doesn’t come out quite as elegantly on the paper as I would like. Often times I edit something five or six times and still manage to miss a simple spelling error. Or I wrack my brain for days and end up publishing something insufficient because I can’t ever bring from my mind to my fingertips exactly the word or phrase I want.

Literary theory taught that a concept cannot even exist in our minds until we have a word to express it. Once the word is there we can begin to fill it up with meaning. Love has meaning only because there is a word which we associate with that specific feeling. If this is true, and I have no idea if I even believe that it is, then there must be a word already in my head. The idea must exist in there already formed in words. Writing would just be learning to transmit ideas clearly from my head to the page via my fingers.

All of these leads me to wonder if even the master painter is frustrated with the differences in what is in his head and what ends up on the canvas. Or if the composer never fully gets exaclty what’s in his head out on paper.

I hope that’s the case. Because if I’m the only one still needing to work at it, I’m not sure I could handle that.

I write because I have an idea that will never be fully made clear until it’s expressed in this exact medium. Because the written word is the closest I can get to a representation of what’s in my head. Because I think in words, not pictures or music. And I write because I think someday I just might write a piece entirely imperfect, but perfectly expressing my mind’s imperfections.