OK, I know. I’ve been on a blog sabbatical. Sorry. I’ve been up to my ears and just haven’t been able to get back in the groove. But I couldn’t resist sharing some truly profound stuff I heard late last week from a very special brother from Bangalore, India.
Some of you know that I serve on the board of a fine organization called Christar based in Richardson, Texas (metro Dallas). Our mission is establishing churches among the least-reached where none exist. Each year our board sets a learning objective, reads selected books and articles and invites an expert or two to speak to us. This year’s objective is to examine the biblical nature of the church.
What is the church in its most basic and biblical form? Why is this important? How does this information equip us to do a more effective job? We invited Dr. Chris Gnanakan as our expert to speak into the nature of the church from a non-Western perspective. His education has been primarily in India, the United States and the UK, and he has great experience church planting in his native India. He currently is a professor at Liberty University and lives in the Washington, DC area.
The Western mind focuses on issues such as the meaning of ekklesia, the Greek word normally translated as “church” in English and meaning “assembly.” In the West we point to the two ordinances of the church, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and we debate different forms of governance and who should be leaders in the church. These are all important issues, of course, but fresh eyes are always welcome. Hearing a non-Western perspective was something I found very refreshing. Beginning with this post, I hope to share a few gems of wisdom with you that I gleaned from Dr. Gnanakan and my own responses and reflections from prayerfully meditating on this fascinating conversation.
Dr. Gnanakan began his discussion of the nature of the church by pointing to the Fatherhood of God. For him the key issue of the church is that we are a community, a family headed by God whom we dare call Abba, Father. Raised in India and surrounded by Hinduism, Islam and many other religions, he points to the this family nature of the church as perhaps the most profound characteristic of the church. Some have calculated that Hindus have some 330 million gods in their pantheon (though many Hindus would be quick to say they believe in one god who cannot be fully known or understood and the gods they speak of on earth are infinite manifestations of him). Yet none dare think of him as Father. Muslims recite the 99 names of God, yet none dare call him Father. Because of the Sonship of Jesus Christ, you and I dare call God our Father, a Father who has adopted us as sons due to finished work of Jesus Christ in his death, burial and resurrection.
Individualism permeates the American worldview. There are times to stand strong as individuals, of course, but even God IS community: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That we need to build community is non-negotiable. If there is no community, there is no church. Church starts with the basic unit of society, the family, the family of God. It was another non-Westerner, Bishop Tutu, who said, “I am because WE are.”
In the East, most people do not debate the existence of God as they do in the West. In the East the question is not if God exists, but rather who is he and how can I know him. I am thankful that not only can I know who he is and how to know him, I can actually call him my Father.
I hope you are not so inoculated to the news that you fail to pay attention to what goes on around us. One of the thorniest challenges on the current world stage is the unraveling situation in Iraq. What’s happening?
Even though I was just there last month working amongst Syrian refugees in a camp not that far from Mosul (biblical Nineveh), epicenter of the current conflict, I will not pretend to understand or explain what is happening. This ancient area of the world is torn by literally centuries of war, distrust, intrigue, politics and religious divisions, even within the same religions!
I’ve been reading through the prophecy of Isaiah lately and was reminded of something that gave me a bit of perspective. In the material covered in Isaiah 44 God absolutely smashes idolatry. This may, in fact, be the strongest denunciation of idolatry in the Bible.
Then, Isaiah 45 opens with God speaking to an idolater, Cyrus king of Persia, and calls him his anointed! The word used is the same word translated elsewhere as Messiah. Not only that, God calls him by name 150 years before he is born! What?? How can this be? God is calling a pagan idolater his anointed one, his messiah!
God is not contradicting himself, but rather declaring his sovereign power over the nations to use whomever, whenever and however he wants. Ironically he will use an idolater to bring Israel face-to-face with the consequences of their rebellion and idolatry. Just about the time we think we have everything all figured out, God reminds us that we do not.
My question is see how God will use this horrible situation in Iraq and Syria in order to accomplish his will. Perhaps this brings us back to the good old Lord’s Prayer – He is our Father, and his name is to be glorified above all else. We pray for HIS kingdom to come, not for the United States to be like the Cavalry cresting over the ridge to save the day – though he may USE the U.S., or whoever, in order for his will to be done on earth as it is in Heaven.
So, if God ever uses you to do something really powerful, don’t get all puffed up in pride. Remember that he is not very picky in whom he chooses to use. The Bible is full of low-life characters that God used despite themselves. And, remember that whatever you may see on the surface, God is doing plenty more beneath the surface that we do not yet, and may never understand.
Just some thoughts.
Everyone has a story. That was the focus of my previous post based on experiences during my recent visit to Turkey and Iraq. Here, in this final post related to this trip, I’ll share a few of the stories of people to whom we had the honor of ministering in Jesus’ name.
Remember that we were ministering in a refugee camp for Syrians fleeing that neighboring country’s civil war.
Our very first patient was a college professor, a teacher of Sharia law. Sharia law is the moral and religious code of Islam. How I wished I could converse with this dear man in his own language! He possessed such a gentle spirit and carried himself with great dignity. He was so grateful that we were helping him to hear again.
I had already mentioned a man of approximately 40 years of age and how he heard for the first time in his life. His wife and young son were with him, and the expression on all of their faces was priceless. He just kept repeating with a huge smile that he could hear everything. He was very thankful and asked that we all pray for him. The next day two of his brothers showed up, both with hearing problems, though not as severe.
One morning two sisters brought their grandmother in a wheelchair to be fitted for hearing aides. One of the sisters was in her early teens and I guessed the other to be around 10. That same afternoon, the little sister returned with her father and another sister about a year younger than she. Dad was using a large homemade crutch and obviously had other physical issues that we supposed to be consequences of the violence in their home country. None of that could contain his huge, yet gentle spirit. That same spirit clearly has been passed on to his girls, any of whom we would have adopted on the spot! The middle daughter in particular had a spark in her eyes and a personality that had no trouble crossing cultures. She even helped to administer her dad’s hearing exam.
Another case that stood out to us was a woman who brought her young son to be examined. From first impressions, one might have concluded that he suffered from some sort of learning disability or even autism. Upon closer examination, it became evident that he was struggling from not being able to hear well. His mother possessed an elegance and was obviously well-educated and from a background of privilege. He also had a quick mind and communicated easily with his mother in both Kurdish and French.
As I mentioned in a previous post, a refugee camp is an equalizer of social classes and backgrounds. We treated the poor as well as those who lived lives of comfort in their former homes. Several we treated were obviously suffering from PTSD and some, like the father I just mentioned, bore obvious signs of the civil war across the border.
One gentleman was a political leader in Syria. He had been imprisoned and beaten on his face and head daily for over 3 months. Following that, he was not allowed to sleep for over 100 days. A hearing problem was merely one of his challenges.
We take things like hearing aide centers for granted. In that part of the world, the ability to help people improve their hearing through the use of electronic devices struck all of us as being almost biblical in nature. People clamored to get in. Word traveled quickly that foreigners were helping people to hear. The camp authorities had done an excellent job of organization, yet people still showed up clamoring to be seen. “Miracles” in one life quickly drew friends and family.
On two evenings our key partner on the ground had asked us to visit homes of friends who had hearing difficulties. On both occasions when our team arrived, other members of the extended family had also come, and we ended up fitting several hearing aides both evenings in a single house.
Coming back to the hotel on our final night some had learned where we were staying and sought us out. Late one night a couple came with an autistic son, desperate to know if a hearing problem might account for some of his strange behavior. Sadly, it did not, but at least the parents had the peace of knowing what they were dealing with.
The hard work of physicians and scientists have made possible great advances in being able to treat various hearing disorders. What we did was merely to apply some of the technology available. The audiologist who led our team in this efforts was able to quickly train the rest of us to administer hearing exams and fit hearing devices. This was not hard to do. We had a single variety of a Chinese-made device that had to fit anyone we thought we could help. Some of people we examined had hearing loss too profound for us to help them on this trip. We’ll be prepared with a better variety of devices next time.
The point is this – we did nothing complicated. We simple gave of our time and energy to help people in need and made a significant difference in many lives. We didn’t need special education, training or skills as long as we worked under the supervision of someone who did have those things.
You don’t need to travel to Iraq to make a difference in people’s lives. Graceway has some open doors to touch lives and we partner with some wonderful organizations locally that are doing the same type of life-altering ministry. Some of you have recently reached out with donations to R.E.A.P. and Community Linc. Your generosity exceeded our expectations. Thank you. Some of you gave last Sunday for immigrant children to play in our soccer league. Others will give some of these kids and their families their very first opportunity to meet a follower of Jesus on a personal level as you coach and perform other necessary functions for our league to operate.
Let’s go make a difference in Jesus’ name!
Cheryl and I would like to thank you for all the outpouring of love in the services this morning and to those of you who sent messages and other remembrances on the occasion of our 30th anniversary of service here at Graceway. I was happy to share a bit of our story this morning. Thank you for being an important part of that story.
Everyone has a story. This was a thought impressed upon me in a recent visit to a Syrian refugee camp in Iraq. I promised earlier this week to share a bit more of that experience. Certainly one of the highlights for me was to hear some fascinating stories from some of the refugees we were honored to serve.
Forget the stereotypes! The knowledge of refugee camps of those who live in the comfort of the United States and other stable places is often limited to news clips or promotional videos for fundraising purposes. We might be tempted to imagine that refugee camps are mainly for those who didn’t have much to begin with, people like nomadic shepherds, poor farmers and those used to living in slums.
Before going any further, let me just say that the lives and stories of nomadic shepherds, poor farmers and slum dwellers are just as real and important as those of the rich and famous. Everyone has a story.
Here’s the thing about war – it is a great equalizer of society and no respecter of persons. Bombs and bullets are not programmed to avoid VIP’s, ,the highly educated and their families. When entire neighborhoods collapse, everyone loses.
Jay, myself and three Mexican partners recently returned from giving hearing exams and fitting hearing aides in a Syrian refugee camp of about 60,000 in a neighboring country. One of the first things that struck me was how important it was for people to establish their human dignity by telling their story. I can imagine that finding yourself suddenly living in a refugee camp could be particularly dehumanizing. People were so intent to inform us that living in a refugee camp in no way defined their life. They have not always been refugees and someday would no longer be.
We treated attorneys, college professors, engineers and other professionals. Some, of course, were of scarce resources before the war, but they, too, had lives and families uprooted, It was just as important to them that we know that. Despite the rather gloomy living conditions, some people went to great pains to dress stylishly and be as presentable as possible.
I am reminded that every human being has a story, everywhere, anytime. We all have the desire that our story be heard, that someone care about our story. I don’t know about you, but I find that sometimes I am so bent on telling MY story I don’t listen very well to the stories of others. Sometimes, not at all. The more I became aware of those individual and family stories of those we treated, the more compassionate I became toward them and more interested in doing all possible to help. I thinking there is a principle here to take home.
War is not the only great equalizer of humanity. War is the symptom of the ultimate equalizer – we all possess a terribly flawed human nature as the result of sin. We are all aware that something is inherently wrong, and we all struggle to find purpose and significance beyond the spiritually squalid conditions that engulf us. We want to be heard and treated with dignity.
Jesus Christ came to redeem and restore. Taking our sin upon himself, through his death and resurrection he makes purpose and significance possible in the context of the life he give to those who follow him.
Unfortunately, the church (not thinking of any one in particular) often views people as targets, potential members, statistics, part of a demographic, or worse. If we could only learn to see people as individuals created in the image of God and take time to hear their story and genuinely care for them, just maybe we might be a bit more effective in sharing our faith, instead of sometimes coming off as though we were recruiting for some multi-level marketing plan.
I’ve never been much of a picture taker. Maybe I didn’t have the patience to learn the equipment, lenses and lug it all around. The ubiquitous cellphone, though, has given everyone opportunity to point and shoot with fair results. During our time in the camp we documented our work by taking a picture of each person we treated. I made a point of not just snapping a picture, but trying to genuinely capture the person, the person God created and loves. In a few cases I got surprisingly good results. I hope to get much better and more consistent – and not just at picture taking. How about you?
Can you imagine the stories behind these pictures?
Now that I am back, I can tell you that Jay and I along with three of our Mexican partners had the opportunity this month to explore the possibilities of working in a Syrian refugee camp in Northern Iraq. All of us have been moved by the horrific war going on in Syria. Having lived through a civil war myself, this was very personal for me.
The particular camp where we visited is inhabited by several tens of thousands and growing constantly. This is one camp of many in several countries where Syrians are fleeing. The United Nations, international NGO’s and local governments are involved. It’s a massive job, and at present there is no end in sight.
We wanted to explore the possibilities of organizing international medical teams from among our circle of contacts. Before mobilizing such teams, we needed to see things first hand, make the necessary contacts and get an accurate assessment of needs and resources. We took advantage of existing contacts, including our three Mexican friends, all in medically-related fields. One is the Mexican distributor for a large international hearing aid company. Another distributes major medical equipment all over Mexico, and the third is a hospital administrator. Our doorway on this particular trip would be fitting people for hearing aides. The rest of us would gladly participate in this process while observing and assessing logistical demands, needs and resources if a decision is made to send medical teams in the future.
All five of us worked as a team to give hearing exams and fit over 100 hearing aides in two days at the camp. We had no idea of what to expect, only that we had gone through months of vetting through our local contacts to gain permission for entry. Bringing order to a small city of tens of thousands is no easy task, and such conditions often draw well-meaning volunteers who cause more confusion than good. The authorities are naturally very picky about who gets in.
We were impressed with the structure and administration of the camp. Over 100 people had signed up ahead of time for hearing exams and space was reserved for us in the gynecological sector of the medical complex. We could have used another translator or two and another room, but by noon the first day we were making things work with what we had.
The camp medical staff saw that our contribution we made was genuine and not just a token, and they were impressed with our professionalism. You can imagine our delight the second day when the doctor in charge of the camp medical facility came to visit with us and we discovered that he is Mexican! Communication has already been established with him for future possibilities.
Some of you may not know that I have a hearing problem myself and have worn hearing aides for years. So, this is another layer of personal investment for me. I was very pleased to be able to show my own devices to patients whom I was fitting in order to put them more at ease. That physical gesture seemed to communicate as well as words in a situation where I was unable to speak their language.
In a short time we had some fascinating experiences that will leave us all changed in certain ways. Shortly, I’ll add another installment here on the blog to share some of the stories of people and lessons learned.
Jay, myself and three of our global partners from Mexico passed through Istanbul early last week on our way to Iraq to assist Syrian refugees that have fled a horrible civil war. One of the most iconic images of this city is the Blue Mosque, a must-see for any visitor. We actually stayed within walking distance and I took this shot on my cell phone on the way to lunch.
Right across the street from the Blue Mosque is another far more significant building that is now a museum. it has also been a mosque, but prior to that it reigned for over 900 years as the world’s first and largest “meg-church.” Today it is called the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), and it is still awe-inspiring. Many of the early Christian images are being painstakingly revealed from under centuries of other layers. Walking through this ancient site and considering some of the truly historic events that transpired here was overwhelming.
How must the transition have been from church to mosque? I can’t begin to imagine. I am reminded that in recent history some of Western Europe’s historic churches have also become mosques, Hindu Temples or museums (among other things). Might our great-grandchildren in America one day visit the Willow Creek Museum or the Saddleback Mosque? Might Seattle’s Mars Hill be converted into a speaker’s forum?
Some of my take-away thoughts:
- The church is not a building. The New Testament word is ekklesia meaning assembly or congregation. Buildings don’t congregate or assemble. The believers that once assembled here went to minister God’s word all over Asia. In some way we have been influenced by their faithfulness, courage and sacrifice. Buildings usually have a relatively short shelf life. The church is indestructible.
- When churches resist change and consider it their sacred duty to keep things the way they have always been, change is thrust upon them, often forcibly or when least expected. And you think change is hard now?!
- It only takes a generation for the visible church to disappear or retreat into spiritual deadness. This entire area of the world is filled with biblically significant sites and place that were once might centers of the Christian faith. The issue is not size, whether a house church or mega-church; the issue is faithfulness to God, his glory and his kingdom. What will be our part in the ongoing legacy of the church?