Category Archives: Christian Life

Life in the Pit

****Spoiler alert****

Joseph organizes a nation and saves the world from famine through a clever food program.

****Spoiler alert over*****

Joseph saves the world from famine and reunites with his brothers.

How many of you would want to join Joseph in that operation?  I know it sounds very worthwhile. If you only knew the ending you might just sign up for the assignment.

Save the world?  Sign me up.  I am totally in . . . the pit that is.

But if you knew how Joseph got to that place would you sign up to join him?  He was hated by his brothers, thrown into a pit, sold into slavery after they decided not to kill him, taken to a foreign land to serve as a slave, falsely accused of rape, thrown into prison, and betrayed and left there 2 years longer than necessary.

Count me out.  No wait, I am supposed to say, “Whatever your will, Lord.”  Honestly, it doesn’t sound fun.  Thankfully, I have not been called to this (“Lord, please don’t call me to this.”).  But there are a few things (or it could read – But there are at least 3 things…) we can learn from Joseph’s story that will help us whatever God has called us to do.

  1. God’s purposes are accomplished through difficulty

To say Joseph had it hard is an understatement.  Any one of the things that happened to him would be enough by itself.  Take them all together and whoa…that is a lot.

God had a purpose in all of it.  Genesis makes clear that God had a purpose for Joseph.  Genesis 45:4-8 says God sent Joseph into Egypt.  Genesis 50:20 says that God meant for all of this to happen to Joseph.  Why?  Because he wanted to save many people.  He means to bring blessing to the nations as He promised Abraham.

That God intends to save through turmoil is a picture of Genesis 3:15.  This verse states that one would come to rescue mankind from the work of the serpent at great cost to himself.   Now we can see the parallels to Christ.  He came and was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23).  God had a plan to save many through the suffering of Christ.  The blessing of the nations promised to Abraham has come to fulfillment.  However, the salvation won by Christ does not come without the suffering.

God can use an unwanted foreign slave to bring about His purposes.

Wonderful.  Jesus suffered so I don’t have to.  Right?  Well yes and no.  Certainly the ultimate suffering we avoid because of Christ.  But today, before He returns, we still experience suffering.  Does God have a plan?  Most certainly.

Romans 8:28 tells us “that for those who love God all things work together for good.”  God is in the business of taking everything that happens to us, including our own suffering, and working it for good.  We must define this good because many, especially in Africa, twist what this good means.  They teach that God is out to make us healthy and wealthy this very day.

The good God has for us is defined by the next verse.  It is that we might be “conformed to the image of his Son.”  God wants to make us more like Christ every day and works all things to that end.  He wants to build our character (1 Peter 2:21), our hope (2 Thessalonians 2:16), our joy (Hebrews 12:2), our peace (John 14:27), and our love (John 13:34), among many other things.

We should pray that our suffering ends.  But that is not our only prayer.  We should pray for God to work his purposes in our lives through any suffering we endure.

Going through great difficulty to accomplish saving the world shows us that. . .

  1. God is sovereign in salvation

If you want to win a championship, you pick the best players.  Much money is spent analyzing NFL prospects for the draft so they can pick the best players.  The school playground is example enough to know the best players are picked first.

God doesn’t operate by normal playground rules.

You don’t pick the worst players to win championships.  That is why I am not in the NFL.  Who would pick an unwanted brother serving as a slave in a foreign land?  Not me.  But God picks such an unlikely person to bring about His salvation.

But why does God pick the unlikely Joseph?  It is to show He is sovereign in salvation.  God is in control and will bring it about.  It depends not on any person (Romans 9:16).  It does not depend on good works.  It is 100% from God.

God chose to use Joseph to show His power.  He wants to show that He alone can bring about salvation.  The salvation of many people through the food program of Joseph points us to how Christ brought salvation.  People thought Jesus wasn’t the man for the job (John 1:46).  People thought dying wasn’t the way forward (Mark 8:31-33).  But God brought salvation and demonstrated His power through the resurrection (Romans 1:4-5).

This brings us great hope because our salvation does not depend on us.  It depends on God.  We are to believe in Christ.  We are not to earn salvation in any way.  We simply trust in God who brought about salvation.

What God wants from us is. . .

  1. We should be faithful even in hard circumstances

The one thing Joseph did was to be faithful.  He had the opportunity to have an affair.  Potiphar’s wife pursued him to do just this.  Yet he refused.  He fled when she tried to force the issue.

The next part blows my mind.  Joseph is rewarded for his faithfulness by being thrown in prison.  Then he uses his God-given gift to interpret dreams.  His reward?  To be left in prison for two more years.

Yet the whole time he was faithful.  He was faithful to Potiphar’s dealings.  He brought great increase to Potiphar.  He was faithful to the prison guard as he was given responsibilities in the prison.

We know that God was faithful to Joseph.  He was keeping the covenant He made with Joseph’s great-grandfather, grandfather, and father.  God promised to be with Abraham (Genesis 21:22), Isaac (Genesis 26:3), and Jacob (Genesis 28:15).  Genesis 39:2 makes this plain by saying God was with Joseph.

Can God be with Joseph (or us) in hard circumstances?  Is God there?  He is and He is accomplishing His purposes. We tend to think God is absent in the hard circumstances.  But He is there keeping His promises.  Hard circumstances are not a sign that God is not with us.

Being in the pit, like Joseph, is not a sign that God doesn’t care for you.  It is a sign that God has something better for you.  As seen above, that something is Christ-likeness.

Christ has promised to be with us.  The Great Commission ends with a great promise.  That promise is that Jesus will be with us always, even to the end of the age.  Ah, what comfort to us and the apostles who first heard it.  They certainly would face many hard circumstances.  Their part was to remain faithful to Christ, which they did.

There are many times life seems hard, unfair, or difficult.  Our job is to believe God and remain faithful.  We may be tempted to think it doesn’t matter, that this situation is too hard.  But our faithfulness does matter.  Our faithfulness is better than much gold (Psalm 119:72).

There are no little circumstances, only little faithfulness.  We must realize, that we are responsible for responding to God with faithfulness, even in hard circumstances.  We know it is worth remaining faithful for we have a heavenly reward (Romans 8:18).

Conclusion

A pastor I know likes to say that you are either going into a hard circumstance, in one, or coming out of one.  Life is hard.  But God is good and has good things for us, our growth in Christ.  He often uses hard circumstances to bring them about.  He is sovereign and faithful through it all asking us to trust Him.  Let us respond with faithfulness even though it may seem hard.

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The Nativity Message

The December night was chilly and a crowd had gathered with anticipation. We had sheep and a donkey and I think a few other animals at a live nativity we performed at our church when I was in high school. In it was a particularly memorable moment, not when the angels spoke to the shepherds nor when the wise men arrived nor baby Jesus’ entrance. No the most memorable moment was when a sheep ran off with a youth holding tightly to the rope. The crowd laughed and had a bit of concern and we youth were aghast and trying to figure out how the show would go on. I can’t even remember which part I played but I do remember the sheep dragging a friend for a few yards.

Among the many Christmas traditions and decorations, the nativity stands as one of my favorites. I love how they remind us of Jesus, God incarnate, as a baby and how they show the people who came to worship Jesus. This is not just in America, in my travels I have found it fascinating to see how each country has different materials and methods of constructing nativities. Every area of the world makes them in their own way. Each one displaying the meaning of Christmas – that Immanuel – God with us – has come to save the world (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23).

When you see a nativity scene this Christmas, you can thank St. Francis of Assisi. Well, of course we should thank God for sending Jesus. But, St. Francis made the first nativity or crèche in 1223 AD. That first nativity featured live animals and people. It quickly gained popularity and spread throughout the Roman Catholic world. They featured all the characters of the Christmas story found in the birth narratives of Luke and Matthew – Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the wise men, shepherds, angels, a star, and even animals.

Brooke and I at the traditional site of Jesus' birth

Brooke and I at the traditional site of Jesus’ birth


But who should we include in the nativity? This has been a question I have heard more and more and perhaps you have even heard it.

Should the wise men be put into the nativity with the shepherds? Growing up, of course they all went together. More recently I have learned that many think the wise men came about two years after the shepherds. They were both there but not at the same time. Are our nativities wrong? Should we correct them? I have heard it suggested – both tongue in cheek and more seriously – the wise men should be on a different shelf. How should we think about all this?

Why do people question if the wise men should be there with the shepherds? Well this is because of the story of the wise men as found in the Gospel of Matthew. They show up and ask the king of the land, Herod, where the one born king of the Jews, Jesus, was to be found. Herod wasn’t too keen on having another king so he set out to kill Jesus. Herod had all children two years old and under heinously murdered.

This time frame suggests to some that Jesus would have been about 2 years old when the wise men came calling. But nothing in the text makes this conclusion necessary. Herod could have just been overly cautious. If Herod is anything like me then he is not too keen at identifying the ages of younger children.

How long did Joseph and Mary stay in Bethlehem, a city they were visiting for a census? They didn’t have a return bus ticket for a specific return date. But would staying 2 years in a place that wasn’t their home be probable? Two years seems like a long time.

Regardless of when the wise men were there, the shepherds were there for opening night of Christ’s life on earth. God, as a proud Father, announced the birth of His Son to the shepherds. They were there for one night only, at least as given by the text. So the likelihood of the shepherds and the wise men being there on the same night doesn’t seem so great.

But does this mean we should separate them in our nativities?

Here is a nativity at my mom's house

Here is a nativity at my mom’s house


The nativity tells this one story so very beautifully. Though we have four Gospels we have to see them telling the one story of Jesus but with different perspectives or emphases. I think when St. Francis made the first crèche he had the gospel story in mind not just the historicity of one moment. Think of a nativity as a portrait and not a snapshot. It portrays so well the Christmas message of God with us. The nativity demonstrates so well the ‘us’ in God with us.

If you want a Matthew nativity then you should include only the wise men and the shepherds should be on a different shelf and the baby would be a little bigger. If it is a Luke nativity that you desire then perhaps the wise men should be on a different shelf. But if you want a Gospel nativity then they should be together.

But what does the nativity communicate to us? Taking the Matthew and Luke accounts together is good and tells a story about Christ as God and who He came to save. In each account we have two sets of very different people coming to see the baby Jesus (see Chart).

The wise men of Matthew were not Jewish people but Gentiles. Gentiles were kept out of the temple and generally avoided when possible by Jews. The wise men were also rich bringing expensive gifts to Jesus. They traveled from far away to visit Jesus’ homeland. Their title in the text as well as their ability to gain an audience with King Herod suggests they held respected positions. The text of Matthew also tells us that they knew of some prophesy about Christ and knew that the star they saw meant that the king of the Jews had been born.

The shepherds of Luke are quite different from the wise men. They were Jewish and thus the very people to whom Christ had been promised. They were poorer than the wise men and most likely poor themselves as they had the night watch on some sheep. They lived in Jesus’ homeland and were very near to where He was born. Their occupation was not the most respected in that time. The text tells us that they were surprised by the birth announcement from the angels.

What they have in common is part of the greatest news of all time. They both respond in faith and with worship. Imagine if they lacked faith and did not visit the baby Jesus even though told about him in their differing ways. The wise men knelt down and worshiped the infant Jesus. The shepherds, like the angels who told them, glorified and praised God for what they had seen. Praising and glorifying are a form of worship so their experience caused them to worship God. Both groups respond if faith and worship. Experiencing Jesus should result in worship. This is the desired outcome of the nativity and Jesus’ birth.

The 'Us' of the Nativity

WISE MENSHEPHERDS
GentileJew
RichPoor
FarNear
RespectedLowly
AnticipatedSurprised
RESULTRESULT
FaithFaith
WorshipWorship

Today many fear they are or may be excluded from Christ. But all are welcome to respond in faith and worship. The wise men and shepherds teach this. Each group has something that suggests they are not expected to be the ones to come and worship. To be sure the Jew/Gentile division is the main one. For the Jews, the Gentiles (or those who were not Jewish) were not part of God’s people and the anticipated Messiah was largely thought to be exclusively for the Jews. But even within the Jewish community, one might expect religious leaders or priests or those of high esteem to be told first by God. The nativity blows these expectations out of the water (Isaiah 9:2, Psalm 86:9, Isaiah 61:1-2, Luke 4:18-19).

The wise men are Gentiles and far off. Who would guess they would come and worship. But they are rich and respected which many take, especially in that day, as signs of having God’s blessing. Also they were looking for Jesus. So these may be inferred as characteristics we look for in worshippers.

The shepherds on the other hand are Jewish and live in Israel. Of course they are welcome by this criteria. But also they were poor and of a lower occupation and were not even looking for Jesus. By these we might not expect them to be invited to the party.

But the good news is, and we see it so clearly in the nativity, all manner of humanity has been called to worship God through Jesus Christ. It does not matter your background, occupation, status, financial assets, or whether you are even looking for God. His call does not extend only to Jews or the rich or any other category. Jesus came to save people from all stripes – whether you are being drug by a sheep or have it all together. All people are welcome to respond to in faith and worship Jesus.

This Christmas season, when you see a nativity let it remind you to worship Jesus. It is all about Him. Let it remind you that all are welcome to respond in faith and worship Jesus. Who are the people in your life who need to hear the good news of Jesus? Who needs to hear that they too are welcome? Like God, the proud father, told of the birth of His Son to the shepherds, let us too tell of the birth of Jesus and call ourselves and others to worship Him.

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Unwrapping Up

Our time in Kenya is coming to an end. But that didn’t stop us from unwrapping some gifts from God. We taught our last full day and then headed out to greet some people.

So what exactly have we been doing here? Why are we in Kenya teaching on church planting? Good questions. Let’s back up and look at that.

That's me teaching.

That’s me teaching.


We are here in Kenya teaching at a MINTS center. MINTS is an organization that provides sound reformed biblical teaching material to those areas where that kind of teaching is not available. MINTS does this in two ways.

The first way is to collect biblical classes that various people have written. They make them available for anyone to take and teach on at the various centers (with the writer’s permission). This makes what to teach simpler for a lot of teachers.

The second way is to empower local believers to run centers. Running a center takes minimal resources because they don’t have buildings but ‘borrow’ existing buildings for a week or two at a time. The local who runs the center helps recruit students and teachers to come for the selected times during the year. I have been to several now and its simplicity is beautiful and of course easily reproducible.

MINTS believes in the locals and the quality so much that they grant degrees for those completing the work. This makes it very attractive to local pastors. It also makes getting good teaching and degrees a lot more affordable. Because the centers only run a few weeks at a time it also helps answer some of the issues faced with residential schooling.

Visiting with a student and his family.

Visiting with a student and his family.

Bruce teaches and works at a residential Bible college/seminary. Yet he also travels to these centers to help teach in other parts of Africa. He does this because the two models work well together. As a matter of fact Abraham is a former student of Bruce’s. Abraham graduated from Westminster Theological College (now known as Westminster Christian Institute of Uganda) and moved to his home area with the vision to bring the kind of teaching he received to local pastors.

The class we are teaching on this week is church planting. This is a topic of particular interest to me. I want to see lots of churches planted because churches are beacons of God’s glory (Ephesians 3:20). Thus to shine this light to a lost world, the best way is to plant churches where people do not know Jesus. That’s why I pray these students go back home and plant more churches with more biblical insight.

After class on Thursday, we had the opportunity to greet a student in his home and then 350 widows and single mothers gathering for a conference. It was a wonderful tour of rural Kenya. It was also a very encouraging time getting to meet with them.

First we stopped by a student’s home. Hospitality and welcoming people into your home, especially visitors, is a big deal in Africa. Some of the students have come from far away and some closer by. This student fits into the latter category.

Of course tea was offered. I am told that there are 3 tea times in England. But Abraham says that in Kenya, every time is tea time. Also chapattis were consumed. Yum. Apparently the kids outside were laughing at me. I went into the kitchen to see it and to greet the wife. Kitchens are separate from the main house in this part of Kenya (as well as much of Africa). The husband told me the kids were laughing because white people don’t go into kitchens. I was unaware. But apparently that is the perspective of white people here. Who knew?

We had heard of a widows and single mothers conference taking place nearby. So we decided to stop by and see it. We should have known better but ‘seeing it’ turned into speaking to, greeting, and praying for them.

This is what a room full of widows and single mothers giving a thumbs up looks like zoomed in!!!!!

This is what a room full of widows and single mothers giving a thumbs up looks like zoomed in!!!!!

As we entered the building we stood in the back. That wasn’t good enough. They escorted us to the stage to sit up there. On our way up there you would have thought I was a well-known speaker. Everyone was offering a hand to shake. But it is very important to greet visitors – especially obvious visitors from far away (we’re looking at you white skin). It was a privilege to greet so many widows.

When it was my turn to speak I butchered a greeting in the local language. I then told them that their bright smiles – and to be sure they were smiling wildly and expressing amazing joy – were a testimony to me. Being a widow or single mother is difficult for many reasons. Hence the special instructions to care for them in the Bible. Being a widow or single mother in Africa adds a lot of other challenges. So their joy despite any issues they may be facing is a testimony to me.

I also had them sing ‘Mambo Sawa Sawa’ which is a song in Swahili that we sang often at church in St. Louis. It is a simple song but says that things are already better because Jesus is on the throne. Hearing this from widows makes its meaning much more rich!

We left that time and commented on how encouraging it was. More for us than them. But Abraham said they were very glad we stopped by to greet them. Whether or not they were blessed I can’t be sure. We sure were blessed. Please pray for these women as their conference continues until Sunday. Then next August they will meet again. Amazing! I told you we got to unwrap some of God’s gifts.

Saying goodbye.  Thumbs up from our hosts and their guests (and a neighbor).  Bruce, Abraham, Kendrick, Concillia, Judith, relative, neighbor, Steven

Saying goodbye. Thumbs up from our hosts and their guests (and a neighbor). Bruce, Abraham, Kendrick, Concillia, Judith, relative, neighbor, Steven

Then came our last night and morning at Abraham’s. He and his family have been a real blessing. Judith made chapatti mayai (pronounced like ‘my eye’). That is an egg mixed into the chapatti batter and then cooked normally. It is the Kenyan version of the rollex. Since the egg is mixed into the batter perhaps it could be called a ‘rollin’. You’re welcome for that. But we had to say goodbye to this wonderful family. We will then teach for a bit and then head back to Uganda. Pray for safe journeys and that the Lord would use our time here in Kenya for His glory. Oh and this is the last dispatch. Let the jeering or cheering begin as fits.

Another picture of Abraham, Judith, and children.

Another picture of Abraham, Judith, and children.

What a cute house!!!  I love the flowers!

What a cute house!!! I love the flowers!

This is what a room full of widows and single mothers giving a thumbs up looks like!!!!!

This is what a room full of widows and single mothers giving a thumbs up looks like!!!!!

It's a crane convention.

It’s a crane convention.

We met at a primary school during vacation.  The teachers, as usual, work during vacation to make teaching materials.  These ladies were next door to us.

We met at a primary school during vacation. The teachers, as usual, work during vacation to make teaching materials. These ladies were next door to us.

Thumbs up from our wonderful host family.

Thumbs up from our wonderful host family.

Our living quarters for our week in Kenya.  Good bye.

Our living quarters for our week in Kenya. Good bye.

What a view!!!!  God is good!

What a view!!!! God is good!

This is what a room full of widows and single mothers giving a thumbs up looks like!!!!!

This is what a room full of widows and single mothers giving a thumbs up looks like!!!!!

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How to Love a Murderer

Just how powerful is the gospel of Jesus Christ? I know a textbook answer but I must admit I doubt it frequently in the real world. Several weeks ago I was floored by its work in one woman’s life.

It all started from here.

It all started from here.

Luwero is a small town in Uganda about 64 km outside of Kampala (that’s about 40 miles for people like me). It is the home of Luwero Presbyterian Church where we spent some time. My teammate Ben Church and I were invited to go out into the community with some of their members to do some evangelizing.

The very first day Ben and I arrived late to meet the others. But it would turn out to be perfect timing for the Lord to work. We met Shadrach and Gladys there and prayed before setting out. We first came to an Anglican woman’s home and spoke with her and found out she already believed in Jesus. Praise the Lord.

Next we went not 100 yards behind her house where four Ugandan men were doing some construction. They were working on a small brick building with a roof but no doors or windows and a dirt floor. Among the four men was a guy wearing a kofia, a brimless hat worn especially by Muslims here. He was leaning up against a wall overseeing the other three men. One of the other men was inside plastering a wall and the other two were outside mixing the cement with shovels and bringing it into the plasterer.

We went up to them and began talking with them. Ugandans are especially friendly and love visitors. If you show up at dinner time then you will be given a seat at the table and given first dibs on the food already prepared. Also it can take hours to go a short walk because it is custom to greet and talk with those you know and see on your way. Americans can be more task oriented but Ugandans love to visit.

When we arrived, Shadrach did most of the introduction. He then had Ben talk to them about the good news of Jesus. He gave a timely illustration about how God is building the world and using various pieces to do it. The pieces have rebelled and need help and forgiveness. Jesus is the only one who can offer this. Then I followed that up with something similar using his building illustration.

After some time the plaster mixers moved inside to further help the other guy and it was just the kofia wearer outside. It turns out he is a Muslim and his name is Medi. It wasn’t long until Gladys and Shadrach were speaking to him in Luganda even though he spoke English. I think it was because it was easier for them. Ben and I stood there silently praying because we had no idea what they were saying.

Ben and I went out evangelizing and saw God work powerfully.

Ben and I went out evangelizing and saw God work powerfully.

Ben and I had to leave so we had to interrupt them. As we were concluding, Medi said through interpretation that we had spoken a “good word” to him about Jesus. He wanted to know more and we gladly discussed talking with him again. The other three men also wanted to hear more and Shadrach and Gladys also discussed another meeting with them.

It wasn’t until we got back to the car that Ben and I realized just how powerful the gospel had been in that encounter. It turns out Gladys knows Medi. You see, Medi is the man who murdered her son 7 years ago. Medi is the one responsible for taking her beloved son from her. My jaw hit the floor when I heard this. I had no idea they knew each other yet alone the current situation of the relationship from our time talking with him.

Her son was 26 years old and fell sick for two hours and died. Medi had bewitched her son. Here in Uganda, when something unexpected like this happens it is often blamed on the spirits or bewitching. I asked another Ugandan about the situation and he said it was definitely a bewitching.

If you are a Westerner reading this then you probably have a very skeptical view of this interpretation of events. If you are an African reading this then you probably believe it was a bewitching. Regardless of the position you hold, what you cannot deny is that Gladys believes Medi is responsible for the death of her son. This is the important fact here. She believes he murdered her son. And Medi apparently feels he did too.

After her son died, that night Medi fled his home. Since then whenever he is about to walk past Gladys on the road, he runs away to avoid her. His wife and daughter have both come to Gladys to express remorse for him bewitching and killing her son. It seems both parties believe that Medi killed Galdys’ son.

I was eager to find out more and hear what Gladys said to Medi. There are many options for how this could go. Did she curse him or utter vicious words or tell her how much she hates him? No. What she said demonstrates the gospel so very well.

She told him, “I forgive you.”

Gladys knows gospel forgiveness

Gladys knows gospel forgiveness


Those are three little words that take gospel power to say to the man who killed your son. I shudder to think what I would say in that situation. No wonder Medi said we had good words. The grace Gladys showed him had power.

That is the gospel power I need in my life. That is the power I need to love my family yet alone my enemies. I need that gospel power every day. It is on offer through the grace of Jesus Christ. His death and resurrection are the means to that power.

Gladys demonstrates well one of my favorite verses Romans 5:8, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” While Medi is the murderer of her son, she chose to forgive. She can only do that because the truth of Romans 5:8 has found its home in her.

Pray for Medi. I am sad to say that we did not get to meet again with him. I am not sure if Shadrach or Gladys were able to meet with him. But I pray he would believe in Jesus and know His forgiveness and power. Also pray you and I would know the power of the gospel in our lives every day.

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A Challenge to Love the Poor and the Orphan

Being challenged can be, well, challenging.  It can be a challenge that helps sharpen where you stand or it can be a challenge that is unfruitful.  The Urban Halo by Craig Greenfield provides the former kind of challenge.

Read this book and thank me later

Read this book and thank me later

This book seeks to challenge Christian believers in two areas.  The first is to live incarnational lives among the urban poor.  The second is to reevaluate how we do orphan care.  These challenges come at a very opportune time for me, as I am about to move to Kampala, the capital and largest city in Uganda.  I am moving there after spending time at a children’s center studying for 5 months.  So I am the perfect audience for this work.

Greenfield was a well to do New Zealander who gave up his plush job to live in a slum in Cambodia with his wife, Nay.  The book tells the story of this journey giving the rationale for his radical move.  It also depicts how he came to work with orphans.

The stories told make one lift his eyes to heaven and praise God for His power and His love.  The author’s heart to serve Christ was gripping.  The story of his wife’s childhood escape from the murderous communist regime in Cambodia was especially moving.  There is no doubt the author has striven to serve Christ with his whole life.

Greenfield also writes with an authenticity that identifies with the reader.  For example, when he had just moved to a slum in Phnom Penh, he was frustrated with some aspects of life there, and so he wanted to punch anyone who annoyed him.  This honesty can only come when you realize Christ is sufficient for you and you do not need to seem perfect to others.  Christ’s grace is sufficient.  This dependency on Christ’s grace is refreshing and encouraging.

The author’s quest began when the options he saw for ministering to the poor in Cambodia seemed insufficient.  The options he saw other missionaries attempting were:

  1. Ignore the poverty and “preach the gospel of salvation from eternal damnation”
  2. Combine preaching with ministering to physical needs and creating “rice Christians”[1]
  3. “Carry out social work. . .without using any words about Jesus”

He wanted a “more integrated spirituality where proclamation and demonstration went hand in hand” (p 12).

These observations led Greenfield and his wife to move into the slum of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  He had discovered a ministry, Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor, which encouraged missionaries to live among the poor.  So he joined their work in Cambodia.  This decision was also fueled by his view of Jesus’ incarnational ministry.  If “Jesus left his privileged position to join us in our human condition, suffering alongside us,” then this would be the model for ministry for believers (p 37).  I discuss the validity of his conclusions below.

While serving with Servants he became familiar with its ministry to people with AIDS.  He began to realize that the children of those with AIDS would soon be orphans.  So he thought he and Nay would start an orphanage.  However, as he researched the issue, he found that having an institutional orphanage was not the best model for caring for orphans.  His research included numerous studies of the various models for caring for orphans including community based orphan care.  Greenfield’s conclusion is that community based orphan care is the best for the child.  More on this model below.

So this book offers two challenges.  The first is helpful but ultimately falls short.  The second is a wake up call to all those working with orphans.

DOES LIVING INCARNATIONALLY MEAN LIVING IN A SLUM?

This is the premise of the author’s first challenge.  Certainly Jesus’ ministry was by definition incarnational.  Jesus did leave a position of privilege and came to live in a low estate.  However, does this reality merely describe Jesus’ ministry[2] or does it prescribe[3] how believers are also to minister.

Would you live here?  The author did.

Would you live here? The author did.

Greenfield asks this very question.  He answers that, in fact, it does prescribe our ministry methods (p 37-38).  He believes his living in a slum was “modeling a kingdom way of life that values the poor and underprivileged” and his prayer was others to follow him live like he did (p 53).  The author admits to having to repent for feeling superior to other missionaries not living in a slum (p 42).  If he is just presenting one model for believers then that is one thing.  However, he wants others to follow his example which he bases on Jesus’ example.  So this book serves as his challenge to most if not all believers.

But just what does incarnational mean?  Does it mean that you must find a poor[4] area and live there like those there live?  I think it does not for 3 reasons:

    1.      The criteria are arbitrary
It is one thing to say you should live among the poor.  I agree with the author that to ignore them would be sinful.  But how does one decide who are the poor and who are the not poor.  Where is the line drawn and who draws it there?  For example, why does the author not live as the homeless do?  They are surely poorer Cambodians than those that lived in shacks near him in Cambodia.  If Jesus’ ministry is a literal prescription then believers should also live without homes just as Jesus did (Matthew 8:20).

2.      The Bible’s view is for the rich and poor to live and serve together, not for all to become poor
Had it not been for rich and poor divides we would not have one of the two passages about the Lord’s Supper outside of the Gospels.  In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Paul chastises the richer Corinthians for hoarding and not sharing their food with the poorer brethren.  He does not chastise them because they are not living like their poorer brothers and sisters.  In 1 Timothy 6:17-19, Paul charges the rich of the world to be generous and ready to share.  He does not command them to live among the poor.

3.      It is a non sequitur to say that you must be like those to whom you minister
One of Greenfield’s arguments is that you must be like the poor in order understand and effectively minister to them.  His wife had a ministry to prostitutes in Cambodia.  Must she become a prostitute in order to understand and minister to them?  Of course not.  What it takes to minister is a willingness to understand where they are coming from and how the gospel impacts their life.  It would be helpful to listen to them, to be near them, to read about that lifestyle, and many other things.  But being exactly like them is not necessary.  Besides, he had money, a guest house to escape to rest, and many other accommodations that his neighbors would know nothing about having.

We Should Live Incarnationally!
I say all of this because I agree with the author that we should live more incarnational lives. I agree that the current ministries to the poor largely seem insufficient.  Too many people ignore the poor or just throw them a handout.  Instead, believers should engage the poor and live with them and alongside them.  They should bring the good news of Jesus Christ in a relational and holistic way.  But this does not mean Christians should necessarily become poor.

Incarnational living is being able to identify with others so as to bring the gospel to them in a way they will understand.  This is why Paul can say that he became as one under the law but was not under the law himself (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).  So we see Paul able to identify with some but did not actually become like them.

Rightfully, Greenfield laments that the problem is that the church is “preferring instead to keep the poor at arm’s length” (p 169).  This actually supports my view of incarnation.  Instead of keeping them at arm’s lengths we should invite them and welcome them with open arms.

With this in mind I concur with Greenfield that more should be done in ministry to the poor.  I agree with him that ministries of “word and deed are inseparable” (p 169).  I agree that there should be more interaction between the poor and the rich.  Churches should be intentional to invite the poor into their midst.  People should not consciously or unconsciously avoid the poor or distance themselves from them.  But this does not necessitate living as a poor person in a poor area.  To be sure it is more than drive by mercy ministries.  However, the biblical call is not to act poor but to be “generous and ready to share” (1 Timothy 6:18).

ARE WE HURTING OR HELPING ORPHANS?

The author’s second challenge is important for the care of orphans in the coming years.  The fact that the Bible commands the care of orphans is not in doubt (James 1:27).  But how does one go about doing this?  He answers this question well.

Greenfield goes on a mission to find out the best way to love orphans.  He scatters the research and findings throughout the second half of the book.  His conclusion, after sifting through copious amounts of research, is that no matter how you slice it, community based orphan care is better for children than institutional based orphan care.

This is a very helpful discussion for a novice like me.  I just assumed you put all the kids in a big building and call it an orphanage.  However, it is not quite that simple.  For sure, some orphan care works like that.    But the other end of the spectrum is to find a home for the orphan to become a member.  Usually this home is that of the nearest relative but could be someone else from the community.  There is a continuum of models between these two options.

Greenfield’s team in Cambodia oversees this finding of relatives and homes for the kids to live.  They also provide encouragement, training, and a little financial support to the adoptive families.  This model has several positive features:

  1. The child gets to know his family
  2. The child gets to know her heritage and culture
  3. The child has a lifetime support network and does not “age out”
  4. The cost is significantly reduced
  5. Studies show kids are better adjusted to life in this model

The research is impressive.  Being ignorant of the different options for orphan care this community based model strikes me as very biblical in that it emphasizes family.  It is also a low investment but high impact way to love orphans.

The author and his family left the high life to serve the poor

The author and his family left the high life to serve the poor.

Since reading this book I have come across two articles (this one and that one) arguing for something similar.  Greenfield takes a more graceful tact than the articles.  He praises God for those loving on orphans for the fact that they are at least doing something to care for those in need.  He even provides some steps for those wanting to move towards the community based approach and away from the institutional approach.

CONCLUSION

While I will not live in a slum when I move to Kampala, I will visit one and get to know poor people.  I will also know how to think about caring for orphans.  This book will help move the discussion forward on how to care for those without parents.  The call to live incarnationally should be heeded by all believers everywhere.  Besides being a good biography of a faithful servant of the King, the book is a must read for anyone working with orphans.  It serves as a good challenge to check our methods and our heart when we serve others.  I praise God for Craig Greenfield and thank him for his service to our Lord!

 


[1] Those that get “saved” in order to continue receiving the free handout
[2] And thus giving principles for believers to follow but leaving the methods open
[3] Giving not only principles but also the methods
[4] Poor is being defined here as those who have few material possessions and might not have all basic necessities met.
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Wasting Time on the Gospel

Cow on a Boda

On my second Saturday in Uganda, I was going to ride the boda-boda (or simply boda) into Kampala to do some shopping.  Bodas are motorcycles that gives a person (or a person & a TV, a person & a chicken, or up to 5 people) a ride to the destination of choice.  They work like a lot like taxis. 

Being unfamiliar with how to get around, a Ugandan friend was coming to meet me and help me navigate the system.  We were going to meet at the boda stand and ride one into town.  Getting there first, I had some time to waste.  So I sat down on a bench with some Ugandans.  I immediately tried the two phrases I knew in Luganda.  Laughter ensued.  My Lugandan was not polished.  Well, it still isn’t but now I have more phrases that are unpolished.

Fortunately, the guy closest to me spoke English and so we chatted.  He asked me how long I had been in Uganda and if I liked Uganda.  I told him that I love Uganda and have only been here for one week. 

As we talked he inquired as to why I was in Uganda. Now I could give the extended version but time and language barriers prevented this.  So I told him I was there to proclaim the gospel.  It was at this point I volunteered that the good news about Christ coming to die for our sins and offer forgiveness to those who would believe in Him was worth sharing. 

That was it. We eventually got to introductions and I found out his name was Sula (this is my best guess at spelling what I heard).  I asked him where he went to church. Turns out that Sula is Muslim.  I thought I was talking to a Christian all along.  But my quick and inserted mention of Christ and His victory switched from teaching/encouraging to evangelism in my mind. 

I had prayed for opportunities to share the gospel in my time leading up to coming to Uganda.  I expected sermons or intentional times of outreach to be those opportunities.  But God is much more savvy than me.  He provided an opportunity in an unlikely way.  Here I was with time to waste.  Turns out the Lord can turn my wasted time into invested time.  Pray the Lord would convert Sula.  Also pray that He would enable me to continue to be bold in investing time in the gospel.

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Ref Rage

REF RAGE angry fansThe advent of the new baseball season brings to mind last season’s playoff game in Atlanta.  It was my first playoff baseball game ever and it would turn out to be Chipper Jones’ last game ever.  This game is marked more for the fans’ reaction than about the game itself.  The fans reacted to one of the most egregious umpiring mistakes that took place in the eighth inning.

With two runners on, Braves batter Andrelton Simmons hit a high blooper into left field.  The shortstop for the opposing Cardinals was running out to left field to try and make the play while the left fielder was running in to catch the ball.  It was then that the left field umpire called the infield fly rule.  This is the rule that states that on a fly ball in the infield with runners at least on first and second, the batter is out.  This is a good rule that protects the runners.  However, it was misapplied in this instance.  Instead of having runners on all bases with one out,REF RAGE trash pic there were runners on second and third with two outs and the Braves would go on to lose the game. Of course the manager came out to object.  The fans, not to be out done, made sure everyone knew their objection as this footage from my friend sitting next to me points out.  They spent several minutes hurling food, drinks, and even mustard bottles onto the field out of rage for such a bad call.  Never in my life have I seen such a reaction to any sporting event.

I might be a biased Braves fan but that really does not come into play for the reasons I bring all of this up now.  It struck me that this is an example of people wanting justice.  They want what has been made wrong to be put right.  Every Braves fan there that night felt the pain of being wronged.  They certainly made that clear.  While it is not too classy to hurl bottles and such onto the field, their indignation was very real.  This points us to something bigger.  Our Creator has made us in His image and part of that is a sense of justice.  This instance is minor compared to some other great injustices in the world today.  But this instance shows the outcry of people when they are wronged as well as the desire for things to be put right.

Because we all have this sense of justice, we long for wrong things to be made right.  There is good news.  This is what Jesus came to do.  When He hung on that cross, He took injustices of the world upon himself.  So when you or I do wrong to others, we can ask God to forgive us and He will.  However, the punishment for our wrongs is put onto Christ.  But Jesus did not stay on the cross.  He rose again from the dead which is a foretaste of all things being put new.  The wrongs will be put right again someday.  So let us participate with Christ in putting things right.  We should value justice and work for justice in God ordained ways.  But we must look to the One who brings ultimate justice if we are to have hope in the fight.

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Olympic Glory

I got my wife back about a month ago.  That is the same time the Olympics ended.  She loves to watch the Olympics and this was our evenings for two whole weeks.  Now, I too love the Olympics but I draw the line at rhythmic gymnastics.  She watches all she can.

She is not alone as NBC issued an ad in the USA Today thanking everyone for making this Olympics the most watched event in American television history.  What makes the Olympics so intriguing?

Every year, there are world championships where you can find many of the most popular events and athletes competing.  Yet, these events do not garner half of the attention of the Olympics.  My wife has never watched them and neither have I.  The reason the Olympics are much more popular than the world championships is the fact that the athletes are not competing just for themselves but for their countries.  Charles Barkley, a hall of fame NBA basketball star that played on the 1992 Dream Team, said that there was nothing like playing for his country.  So, the connection to something bigger than the individual makes the Olympics compelling.

There is a longing everyone has for something larger than themselves.  Lest you doubt, would you want to be accused of being a narcissist?  One of the most popular recent movies, Iron Man, has Tony Stark take his self-serving talents and turn them into others-serving talents

It is the call of Christ, the Christian life, which realizes this bigger-than-self ideal.  This call is to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:29-31, Matthew, 22:37-40, cf. Leviticus 19:18).  Only when we are connected to Christ can we receive the power to make this others-serving love a reality.

There is nothing bigger than God, in any sense of the word bigger.  Thus, to love Him is to be connected with something bigger than ourselves.  It connects us to His love and His eternal plan of redemption.  When Adam and Eve rebel (Genesis 3:6-7), He promises to make right what they have put wrong (Genesis 3:15).  God even offers them animal skins to cover their nakedness which is a direct result of their rebellion (Genesis 3:21).  The rest of the Bible is an unfolding of the promise of Genesis 3:15, that the seed of the woman would bruise the head of the seed of the serpent.

This promise of ultimate victory finds its fulfillment in Christ, the seed of Eve, who crushes Satan and his minions.  He wins the war by dying on the cross and rising again from the grave.  In this act, the plan of God to redeem the world is ultimately displayed.  The power of Jesus’ resurrection is the power that gets us out of narcissism and into loving our neighbor as ourselves.

We cannot be part of something bigger than God and He is concerned about us.  He demonstrates this by sending Christ to die for us while we are rebellious.  Taking hold of this truth by faith in Christ is the only way we can be a part something truly bigger.  Everything else is self-love.

Loving God is the beginning of the call to living for something bigger than ourselves.  Jesus says the second part is like the first: to love our neighbor as ourselves.  This is how we tangibly participate in the larger mission of God.  However, we will not practice others-love unless we are “          looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).”  If Jesus were only concerned for his own wellbeing, safety, and comfort, then he would not be the Savior of the world.  Yet because he took joy in the bigger picture of loving others, He died for our rebellion and rose again that we might have life.

How might this impact our lives?  I can name a few.  The first is what many refer to as “me and Jesus.”  Too many times I have heard people say all they need is Jesus.  This is true on its face.  But as an excuse not to be part of a church (i.e. others-love) or otherwise live the life they want, it only short circuits their participation in God’s grand redemption.  Another way is with our marriages.  We have a cause outside of ourselves to join.  Not only that, but we should see our spouses as someone to love and nourish, not fill our needs only.  The last thing I will mention is for those that are not followers of Christ.  If you feel empty or that you were meant for more, then talk to a Christian or find a Bible and read it.  Christ wants to make you part of something bigger.

There is something in all of us looking for something more, something bigger.  We don’t have to participate in the World Championships only.  Christ is calling us to compete in the Olympics.  In Christ we have this fulfilled.  He has shown us the way.  By trusting in Him alone, we are part of the biggest thing possible.

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