Tag Archives: Bible

Humble Obedience

Jesus wants us to obey to glorify Him - not ourselves

I sat in the pew, the Ugandan heat swelling inside as I listened to the sermon at New City on Sunday.  The sermon was on Matthew 23:1-12.  As I listened and read the text, some thoughts came to me about the passage.

In the text, Jesus shares His thoughts on some common practices by the religious leaders – the scribes and Pharisees.  He points out the poor actions of those many considered to be the holiest.  What does Jesus criticize and what does He want instead?

Jesus is against hypocrisy

He says the scribes and Pharisees taught good practices but “they preach, but do not practice” (v3).   Even if they teach good things, they are not doing them.  They are not obeying God.  They are disobeying.

Jesus wants obedience

Interestingly, Jesus does not dismiss the things they were teaching.  Rather, He wants everyone, including the religious leaders, to “do and observe whatever they tell you” (v3).  Just because the scribes and Pharisees don’t do what they preach does not mean they don’t preach the right things.

Jesus is against self-exaltation

He criticizes the religious leaders for doing things only in public.  The scribes and Pharisees want the recognition of being very religious.  However, they do it to exalt themselves and not to glorify God.  The religious leaders put on a show when in public so they might receive titles, honors, and recognition.  They seek value in man’s opinion and not from God.

Jesus wants humble obedience.

Jesus wants humble obedience.

We too seek to put on a show, seek the praise of others, and find value in how others view us.  We find value in how people view our job, money, car, house, family, church, or whatever.  It is hard work to show our best self.  This is true for many on Facebook, Instagram, and the like.  Facebook has its purpose, but don’t let the number of likes define you. If God says we are His, we are loved, and we are forgiven, then the opinion or likes of others do not matter.  Let us seek His opinion and not others’.

Jesus wants humble obedience

He instructs his hearers to obey for the right reasons.  They should reject the titles and honors the religious leaders seek.  Jesus wants authenticity.  If we are humble, and we value God’s opinion, then we can be free to admit when we fail, when we struggle, or when we doubt.  We run to Him because we are already weak.  Our strength comes when we trust Him (2 Corinthians 12:8-9).  We boast in Christ, not in our accomplishments or ourselves.  That is why Jesus says that the humble will be exalted by God and the one who exalts himself will be humbled.   God wants us to know our need of Him at all times.  He will give us the strength and grace to carry on in obedience.

Jesus calls us to humble, authentic living and obedience.  He calls us to recognize we need Him at all times.  It is tempting exalt ourselves and rely on the opinions of others.  But Jesus wants us to obey, not for the praise of others but because our Father in heaven already loves us where we are.

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The Spirits

A biblical look at a common belief in Uganda

How does the world work? What forces guide the everyday events we see? How you answer depends on your worldview. A worldview is a set of assumptions about the fundamental workings and realities of the world. Everyone has one whether they know it or not. A worldview answers questions like: what is the purpose of life? what is good? what governs the world? and what is real?.

Different regions of the world have different worldviews. Africa is no different. While not uniform, there is a shared basic worldview in much sub-Sahara Africa, if not all of Africa.

What happens when an owl hoots in a tree at night? Is it just a hoot or is something more happening? In much of Uganda, it is believed that this is a signal of bad things including death. So, they chase owls away. Owls are viewed as evil and harbingers of death. They are not a symbol of wisdom as in the West. They are not painted on walls nor are backpacks made to look like owls.

I was with a group touring an orphanage in Uganda. We got the part of the new building where the babies are housed. There were several cribs lined up along the walls in a fairly big room with high ceilings. The walls had a nice paint job with a mural. The mural was a bunch of those cute owls with pointy ears. I speculate that it was painted by someone from somewhere other than Africa.

Basics of Spirits in Uganda

Many of the Ugandans hearing about an owl hooting in a tree assume the work of spirits. Westerners hearing the story assume it is just a bird with no spiritual significance. Africans assume the spirits are active. Westerners assume atoms, molecules, and instinct are doing their thing. Your worldview will determine your thoughts on this matter.

The outside of a small typical shrine.
Credit: not me

In Uganda like much of Africa, it is the spirits who guide and direct everything. They are behind many of the objects and events in everyday life. Hence the term animism, as the spirits animate things. African Traditional Religion (ATR) is how people relate to these spirits. The spirits are everywhere. Belief in them is ubiquitous. There is a spirit of the lake. Trees, animals, and earthquakes have different spirit influences and/or causes. The owl has a spirit that announces bad tidings.

I had a student tell me that many in his village leave some matooke behind in the field when harvesting. This is to appease the spirit that governs such things. Another student told me, in order to have a successful gathering, you must put food for the spirits out the back door with your right hand with your back to the door.

On a side note, this African animism informs my working theory about African/Ugandan art. Most if not all of the art I have seen in Uganda is not what would be called realism. It is not postmodern make of it what you will. You can tell it is a giraffe, elephant, or a person but there is something stretched or just out of place for it to be a more realistic image. This is neither good nor bad, but just the way art is done by most in Uganda.

African art is not quite realism

Most in Uganda believe in spirits. Spirits are ubiquitous. The question is not about whether there are spirits. The question is how to deal with them. A Ugandan Christian asked, in a cultural training class I was a part of when first arriving in Uganda, how to handle the spirits and new cars. He said that he knew it was wrong to take a new car to the witchdoctor so he could bless the car so it would be protected from attack by spirits on the road. This blessing usually involves sprinkling the car with blood from a chicken. His proposal was that the elders of the church should lay hands on the car and pray for protection from the spirits. Some people even have bumper stickers that read: “This car is covered by the blood of Jesus.”

Notice how he assumes the spirits are an issue. He assumes the spirits have control over cars and roads. There are many spots on various roads that many think there are spirits that can bring an accident.

But how can you get these spirits to help you instead of hurt you? Enter the witchdoctors. They have a special ability to communicate with the spirits. They can tell you what the spirit(s) want in order to be appeased. In return, they give you some request. They ply their trade at shrines. This is a large part of ATR.
When people go to the shrine, the witchdoctor asks for some sacrifice. They ask for money, chickens, or many other things . . . including humans (and while it may be uncommon, humans are still sacrificed today). The bigger the request from the spirits, the bigger the sacrifice. The witchdoctor knows the proper sacrifice because he alone can communicate with the spirits. Some come to the witchdoctor to ask the spirits to curse another person. This is done for jealousy, revenge, or a host of other reasons.

A shrine in Uganda.
Credit: matookerepublic.com

The spirits are seen as capricious. They do as they please and sometimes bless and sometimes curse. This is why you need the witchdoctor to help secure the blessing. All events are interpreted through this lens of the spirits acting. Did someone die unexpectedly? Then was it spirits? Hooting owls, earthquakes, and many other events have a spirit acting giving some message. The spirits have the power and authority to act as they please upon the earth. Many realize this and try to get the spirits to work on their behalf.

Because of the prevalence of the belief in spirits, it should not come as a surprise that many consult witchdoctors. Yet it does surprise me. Many attend church on Sunday and visit a shrine during the week. Articles discussing this can be found here, here, and here. Apparently, voting season is the time for politicians to pray to God and visit shrines in hopes of getting a favorable outcome.

Biblical Analysis of Spirits

What should we make of spirits? How does the Bible treat them? Is it ok to visit the shrine? It is important to understand the culture and evaluate it in light of Scripture.

If the spirits are as Ugandans/Africans believe, then they are made by God. They would have some authority to bring blessing and curse. They would need to be appeased to bring the desired result. It would mean that prosperous living is simply a matter of the spirits acting in your favor. We will deal with these claims below.

If we assume the Ugandan/African view of spirits then spirits are different from demons. Demons are evil forces of Satan (Matthew 12:24-29). They are only acting for evil against God and his people. Demons are always portrayed negatively and are dealt with by casting them out. Spirits, on the other hand, are capricious and, as far as I know, answer to no higher authority (though some believe in a distant creator god). They may be appeased to bring a blessing for the supplicant or a curse on someone else. They act for random reasons. I will argue that where spirits are acting, they are in fact demons. But more on that below.

I have taught the book of Genesis to theology students in Uganda several times. It is foundational for a worldview. It is the book of beginnings. In Genesis 1 we see many of the things God created. He created light, stars, land, sky, plants, animals, and humans. The spirits are not named as something God created and thus have no authority. I like to ask the students where are the spirits mentioned as being created. To be fair, angels are not mentioned as being created in Genesis 1. But they are mentioned elsewhere and mentioned as created beings. Spirits are nowhere mentioned in the Bible, at least in the form of African spirits.

As a matter of fact, it is humans that are given dominion on earth (Genesis 1:26-30). All things God created, save for the sun, moon, and stars, were put under the dominion of man. Therefore, it is not the spirits who have dominion/authority on earth. It is mankind.

The Bible must define our worldview

In Genesis 1, God gave His blessing to humanity. Mankind was to take the blessing of Eden and extend it to the whole world. After blessing mankind, God commanded them to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). We see here that the dominion and blessing of God given to mankind has a global application.

Also in Genesis, Abraham is given the blessing of God (Genesis 12:1-3, 7; 22:18). There God says that all will find blessing in him and his seed. Ultimately we know this seed is Jesus Christ and blessing comes through Him (Galatians 3:14-16). So blessing is found nowhere else save in and through Christ. It cannot be found in spirits or any other entity.

So the spirits, as offered in Ugandan/African animism, are not in the Bible. Though unclean spirits are mentioned, these are the same thing as demons as Matthew 8:16, Luke 4:33, and Luke 8:29 show. What is interesting to note is the similarities between spirits and the other idols/gods in the Bible. The idols/gods are capricious, there are many of them, and you need to bring a sacrifice to the priest who is the mediator between the god and the supplicant. The other gods were an alluring draw to Israel. One of the most often repeated sins of Israel in the Old Testament is chasing after these gods.

We know these other gods are no gods at all (1 Corinthians 8:4). Yet they held sway over many. Certainly, they held some sort of power. It is my contention that their power was from demons. A couple of verses show that sacrifices to these so-called gods were sacrifices to demons:

Deuteronomy 32:17 – “They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known, to new gods that had come recently, whom your fathers had never dreaded.”

1 Corinthians 10:20 – “No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.”

A statue of Baal.
Credit: Wikipedia

So as many flock to witchdoctors to entreat the spirits to act on their behalf, they are actually flocking to demons. They are flocking to sworn enemies of God. Spirits are not neutral nor benign. In fact, they are evil and we should fight against them.

So what shall we do about this? “But what if someone curses me?” This is a real question from a real student. We need to know some biblical truth in order to deal with this issue and bring comfort to our souls.

1. We have to know God is sovereign over everything, including spirits. They cannot act independently of God. God is not powerless to stop them. God governs any power they may have. Satan himself must ask God’s permission to sift Peter like wheat (Luke 22:31). So there is nothing spirits/demons can do that
is outside of God’s control.

2. We must know no believer can be possessed by spirits/demons. Also, the demons in the Bible come out with a word from Christ and even His apostles. There is spiritual warfare but God gives us the armor to deal with it (Ephesians 6:10-20).

3. We need to know God is working for the believer’s good (Romans 8:28). Can bad circumstances befall a believer? Most certainly, yes. Is that the work of a spirit? You just cannot know. But God is bringing good out of it.

4. You should pray for protection. You should, like Jesus did for Peter, pray that your faith not fail.

Many seek witchdoctors and the spirits in order to gain something. Mostly they seek financial or health-related gains. Christians pray for these very things from God, and they should. But the Bible makes clear that God’s ordinary working is through ‘normal’ events. That is why Paul instructs people to work so they can provide for their families and others (Ephesians 4:28). It is also why Paul tells Timothy to take wine for his stomach (1 Timothy 5:23). He recognizes that God uses ordinary means. If we think the only way we can get rich or well is through the spirits then we have missed plain biblical teaching.

What about the Ugandan Christian mentioned previously? He was wondering if he should take a new car to the elders for them to lay hands and pray for it in order to gain protection from spirits. Is that something that should be done? Since the spirits in the Ugandan sense are not real, then I would say no. But they should pray for it that the passengers be kept safe and that it would be used for God’s glory.

Conclusion

I say all this not because I don’t believe in spiritual realities we don’t see. I do, in fact, believe in them. Analyzing a big part of African society from a biblical worldview is my goal. Is there room for the spirits? Are they as ATR says they are? What is really going on?

Spirits, in the Ugandan sense, are not real entities from a biblical worldview. There are demons, however. These spiritual entities use the belief in the spirits to gain a powerful stronghold. We must seek God’s Word for guidance in dealing with demons/unclean spirits.

We need not be beholden to an ATR worldview. Instead, we need to seek a biblical worldview. We see the Bible does not discuss or acknowledge the spirits as presented in ATR. Instead, the Bible presents an ordered world with one God who is sovereign and has given mankind, not spirits, dominion and blessing. We must seek this God and live in light of His truth.

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Is Genesis 3:15 the Best Verse in the Bible?

Some time ago I was speaking with another pastor and he said he was preaching on the best verse in the Bible.  Having just finished teaching a class on Genesis in Uganda I asked if it was Genesis 3:15.  That’s not what he had in mind but said that it was a good one.  Ranking Bible verses would prove a daunting and tricky task.  It really cannot be done.  However, if one did rank them I would submit Genesis 3:15 for consideration as the best.

Why do I think so highly of this verse?  On the first reading, it is cryptic and usually glossed over.  That’s how I treated it until I learned better.  Gen 3:15 is a great verse because 1) the context brings great hope, 2) it is programmatic of the rest of the Bible, & 3) God makes a promise that we know has been fulfilled.

The ContextGenesis 315 [mobile-1262x1262]

In Genesis 1 & 2 God has created the world very good.  He has made Adam and Eve, male and female in His image.  God has given them food to eat and a garden to live in and the noble task of spreading the blessings of Eden to the rest of the world.  He dwells among them.  Life is good.

Yet Adam and Eve quickly throw it all away in order to be like God.  It only takes until chapter 3 where we read about their sin.  They were aware of God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit.  They were aware of the consequences should they disobey God and eat of the fruit.  Yet they were deceived by the serpent and ate anyways.

When God visits them in the garden He confronts their rebellion against Him.  He begins with the serpent and gives him a curse.  Then God moves on and tells Adam and Eve what curses come because of their sin.  It is important to note that God doesn’t curse them directly.  Rather the pain of giving birth is increased and the ground is cursed.

See we have already skipped over Gen 3:15.  It is here, in the midst of the curses, while cursing the serpent that we read: “I (God) will put enmity between you (the serpent) and the woman (Eve), and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

Here God promises that he will start a war between the offspring of the woman and the offspring of the serpent.  God is promising to deal with the sin Adam and Eve have just brought into the world.  It will be the battle, at the injury of the offspring, which will eliminate the serpent and his work.  It is hope in the midst of great trouble.  Here, in the middle of the curse, is the promise to make right what has gone wrong.  This is what we call grace.

It was hope for Adam and Eve and it is hope for us.  Though we sin and take for granted all God has given us, we know that there stands one who has dealt with our sin on the cross.  It is a message of grace for us.  Just like Adam and Eve, we need faith on the promised one, Jesus Christ.

The Program

If you have ever wondered what the Bible is all about, let Genesis 3:15 be the guide.  Humanity has sinned and God will deal with that sin through a chosen offspring.  The Old Testament (OT) looks forward to the work of the promised offspring.  The New Testament (NT) looks backward to the work of the promised offspring.

The search for the promised offspring begins in Genesis 4:1 when Eve has Cain and says, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.”  The text is making it plain that she is looking for this promised one.  The search continues in Genesis 5:29 when Noah is born and his father, Lamech, says of him, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.”

Neither one was the promised offspring.  But the search has begun.  Listen to Lamech’s words and how they point to the fact that the promised one will end the curse brought on by sin.  Jesus is that promised offspring.  But the whole OT looks forward to His coming.  Jesus says as much in Luke 24:27.

The NT looks backward to this promise and speaks of Jesus’ work in these terms.  Romans 16:20 and Hebrews 2:14-15 provide discussion of Jesus defeating the serpent.  Revelation 20:1-3, 10 also discusses the final fate of the serpent – that is Satan.  He is defeated by Jesus.

Simeon is one who got this through the power of the Holy Spirit.  In Luke 2 he sees Jesus as a baby and “took him up in his arms” and says he can depart in peace because “my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.”  God’s salvation is in the form of the person Jesus Christ who which He first promised in Genesis 3:15.  The Gospel of Luke also points to this fact by giving the genealogy of Jesus all the way back to Adam – and thus also Eve.

Theologians call Genesis 3:15 the protoeuangelion which simply means the first gospel.  This text is the gospel in seed form.  But it is the promise of good news for humanity through the suffering of the seed of the woman.  Redemption is promised through the act of the seed.  Far from the OT being ignorant of grace and Christ’s redemption, these topics appear here first and are clarified in the NT.

The program of the whole Bible is that one will come to deal with sin and the curse.  The OT looks forward to it and the NT looks back to it.  Today we look back to Jesus’ work and trust it alone as the hope for our sin and to deal with the problems brought on by the first sin as well as our own.  The cure for the curse is Christ’s work.  Period.  The cure is not man’s obedience (as is commonly thought & taught).

The Promise

We see by God’s promise, and its subsequent fulfillment in Christ, that nothing can stop God from bringing this about.  In the OT there are bad people, kings, and deeds.  There are world powers who oppress Isreal, unfaithful Israel who is exiled, and the destruction of the temple.  Even the good guys do some terrible things – like David and Bathsheba as just one example.  In the NT the religious leaders work against Jesus.  Even the disciples try to stop Jesus from accomplishing His mission.  However, nothing stops God from delivering on His promise.  Nothing.

Christ crushed the head of the serpent on the cross

Christ crushed the head of the serpent on the cross

At the end of the 3rd chapter of Genesis, we have a beautiful scene of God showing grace and mercy to Adam and Eve.  These are first fruits of the work to come.  They were naked and had no shame but because of their sin they realized their nakedness and were ashamed.  We might expect God to say they should deal with the mess they have made.  Yet he doesn’t do that.  Instead, he fashions a loincloth of animal skin to cover the nakedness and shame brought on by their own sin.

God is beginning to point to the work of Christ from the very beginning.  He is showing a tender love that meets people where they are.  He is dealing with sin and its effects in a real way but not in a permanent way.  God knows that loin cloths don’t save people.  They do cover nakedness and shame and point to Jesus who will remove shame permanently.

The specifics of the promise also point to the way in which the offspring will bring about redemption.  God says that the serpent will bruise the offspring’s (as we know now that is Christ) heel and that the offspring will bruise the serpent’s head.  So at great cost to himself – bruising of his heel, the offspring will achieve total victory over the serpent – bruising his head.  Christ fulfills this by dying on the cross to completely and totally save people from their sins.

In Matthew 1:21 we learn why Jesus’ name is Jesus.  It is because He will save His people from their sins.  He came to deal with sin and its effects.  When Adam and Eve sin, the first promise God makes is to deal with that sin through an offspring.  Sin is the fundamental problem in our world today.  Thus Jesus is the fundamental solution to that problem.  We won’t know the full and final effects of that until Jesus returns.  Now we have a wonderful foretaste.

That is why we endure in this life.  We know that the serpent is still around deceiving people.  The Bible tells his ultimate fate is defeat – Rev 20:1-3, 10.  But even now Jesus provides the forgiveness for sin and the power to overcome sin.  We look to him as the saints of old did and rest in Him for deliverance in this life and the next– Hebrews 12:1-3.  If we want hope, the only place to turn is God’s promise.

Conclusion

Genesis 3:15 is a theologically packed verse.  Its context, sin, provides the backdrop to the redemption Christ brings.  Its message helps read the Bible in the right light.  It teaches us that the redemption comes through Christ’s work and not though humanity’s obedience. Its promise is fulfilled and gives hope to endure.  Is it the best verse in the Bible?  I don’t know.  But it sure is a great one.

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Teaching Theology

Oh How I love Thee

This past week, I had the opportunity to teach a class at Westminster Theological College. Our team leader Bruce Sinclair teaches there and paved the way for this wonderful opportunity. I taught 13 students a course on New Testament (NT) Survey. We covered topics such as the NT canon, the story of the Bible, and how the NT is the realizing of God’s promises made in the Old Testament.

I do love to teach and have the hand motions to prove it.

I do love to teach and have the hand motions to prove it.

The students are from different parts of Uganda and a few were from Kenya and South Sudan. They are involved in some ministry in their home areas. They have each come to study at Westminster in order to further their understanding of God’s Word. One student told me about a prison ministry he helps organize near his home. Each one is on the front lines for our Lord Jesus Christ. They bring a variety of experiences and backgrounds to the class.

I gave quizzes, written assignments, and a final exam. To be on the other end of the exams was very strange. Part of me would rather take the exam and do the homework. But honestly, I really tried to let those assignments serve as learning tools.

My mother was a student for one day and enjoys the wonderful view from the college.

My mother was a student for one day and enjoys the wonderful view from the college.

It is said that Christianity in Africa is a mile wide and an inch deep. I am finding this saying to have some truth to it. One of the biggest challenges I have seen in Uganda has been the lack of quality biblical training for pastors. Westminster serves the needs of Christ’s church in Africa very well and I get to play a small part in that.

In the movie Chariots of Fire, the main character is a runner and says that he feels the pleasure of God when he runs. One day, I came home and told Brooke that describes how I felt when I taught. Teaching is such a privilege and I praise God I get the opportunity.

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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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Ox Plowing 101

The last time I ox plowed, I got a biblical lesson. How many of us can start a sentence with “the last time I ox plowed?” Well I can now.

On my way to plow

On my way to plow


In case you were unaware, and I hope you weren’t, Brooke and I are doing 5 months of training at the New Hope Institute near Kiwoko, Uganda. We have the going to class every day part down pat. Another part of the class is to work with one of the seven families that are homes to orphaned children. We work with the family known as the Calvary family. We visit and lead devotions some times and other times we work in the garden (more devotion leading than garden work for me) or let them braid our hair (more for Brooke).

One of the requirements of the Institute (and this might be the best one) is to ox plow with, well oxen. Only I am not sure they are actually ox oxen. They are more like cow oxen, for whatever that’s worth. I grew up mowing lawns and maybe working in a garden here and there. But farming or working with live animals was not a real requirement for me. I have been around a lot of farms, but mostly to get lost in their corn mazes.

So just before rainy season began, I made an appointment with my family to do some ox plowing. This required getting up early and skipping breakfast time but being back in time for class (remember I have that down pat). Real man stuff, especially considering there were pancakes for breakfast.

Plowing behind live oxen seems like real hard work. I mean I have seen movies where people have struggled at it. So it was good for me that the guys of the family were there to show me how to do it.

Ox plowing in Uganda

Ox plowing in Uganda

I must admit I was a little nervous. I had visions of wild oxen running wherever they wanted with me hanging onto the plow for dear life & yelling at them to stop. Meanwhile I would have plowed the road and other places that did not need plowing.
But when we got there the guys quickly showed me how to do it. You walk behind the plow and tilt it right to go left and tilt it left to go right. However, the object is to go straight. When I started it felt like I was doodling curved lines everywhere. Going straight is definitely the hard part. Holding the plow upright is not the hard part. I did not have to drive the oxen for there is another guy to do that.

It is at the turns where the hardest physical labor comes into play. When the oxen turned I had to pick up the plow and get it in line behind the oxen for the next plow line. The plow is heavy and a little awkward to carry. It only caused me a little struggle (just don’t ask me to define little).

The turns are also where the biblical lesson was learned. One of the best commands in the Old Testament is, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain” (Deut 25:4). We were not treading grain and were using cow oxen but it was close enough. In the New Testament, Paul quotes this verse not once but twice. You didn’t know just how important not muzzling an ox was, did you?
But never did I think I would ever have to apply the verse in its original sense. When Paul quoted that verse, he used it to show that a pastor should be paid. If you have ever wrestled with this issue, then let the oxen settle it for you.

When I had thought about this verse previously I just assumed the oxen ate as they walked. No big deal. No time or energy lost but maybe some food is lost in the process. It really is a neat command by God for the Israelites to show concern for the oxen and then pastors. Yet, I think I was right in how I thought about it. In my experience on that morning, the oxen took forever to make the turn because they were eating the grass on the edge of the field. I just stood there as the oxen driver tried to encourage them to move along. At least in my experience time and energy were also lost and so it was an inconvenience not to muzzle the oxen. So I learned something about the Bible while plowing behind oxen. I may have also decreased their yield by doodling in their field. So I am praying the Lord will multiply their harvest.

Doodling in the fields

Doodling in the fields

I never did get to eat those pancakes for breakfast. I am still looking for the verse about not muzzling the ox plowman while plowing. If you find it let me know.

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How Sweet the Sound

Amazing Grace

When I was in 7th grade I was asked my favorite song for a class project.  While some were saying “Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice I was saying “Amazing Grace.” Now mind you I wasn’t very spiritually inclined. After hearing others’ answers I wanted mine to be “Ice Ice Baby.”

Now that I am more spiritually inclined, “Amazing Grace” is still my favorite hymn and song.  It is simply beautiful.  The music, lyrics, and memories all move me.  I want the song played at my funeral.  But please play the John Newton old school version.  I do not care for free chains or other choruses added into it.  I can handle them but I want the plain jane version.  It was the plain version that was played as my bride walked down the aisle on our wedding day.  Needless to say this song has some significance for me.

Why are we discussing my favorite song?  Today was my first Sunday in Uganda and we spent it at Zana Community Presbyterian Church in Kampala.  Believe it or not, the first song of the worship service today was “Amazing Grace.”  About a verse in and I look at Brooke and she has teared up.  I was moved by this.  It was God’s reminder of His amazing grace. 

Looking back on all that transpired in order for us to get to Uganda shows God’s grace at work.  Raising support – God’s grace; Having our second child – God’s grace; Getting ordained – God’s grace; Having needs met after quitting job – God’s grace; getting to Uganda with all our bags – God’s grace.  His grace has sustained us and enabled us to take this bold step for Him. 

I know God’s grace has gotten me thus far.  Now my flesh wants to take over and do the rest from here.  But this would be disastrous. Perhaps the song itself is a good reminder for me:

“T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far…
and Grace will lead us home.”

I need God’s grace every second of every day.  It is free and available.  It flows like a sprinkler on a desert lawn.  I often reject it and try my own way.  It takes His grace to overcome my rejection.  I am thankful He gives His amazing grace to unamazing people like me.  And I am so glad He took spoke this gentle reminder to me today that the amazing grace that has gotten me here will be the same thing that will carry me on. 

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I Am Afraid but I Will Not Fear

I am a missionary and I am afraid.  In just a few days my family and I will leave all that we know and love.  We will leave for a foreign country.  We will be gone for two full years.

I am a missionary and I am not afraid.  I am not afraid for the reasons most others mention.  I am not afraid of a lack of modern amenities.  I am not afraid of wild animals.  I am not afraid of political unrest.  I am not afraid of local crime.  I am not afraid of disease.  I am not afraid of the food, water, or language barrier. I am not afraid this is not God’s call on my life. 

I am a missionary and I am afraid.  I am afraid that I will fail.  I am afraid my ministry will fail.  I am afraid I will not make an impact for Christ.  I am afraid that I will make a mockery of Christ.  I am afraid temptation may overcome me.  I am afraid a besetting sin will cause me to stumble.  I am afraid my family will struggle.  I am afraid the team will struggle.  I am afraid the locals might not accept me. 

I am a missionary and I know.  I know God says He will never leave me nor forsake me. I know that whether all others’ or my worst fears come to fruition that no tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword or height or depth or anything else in all creation can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus my Lord.  I know God numerous times in His Word tells His people, “Do not fear.”  I know I must trust Him who sends me and nothing else.

I am a missionary and I am afraid but I will not fear. 

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Can We Just Pick and Choose?: A Response to Clay Travis

Travis PicWhen Chris Broussard, an NBA analyst, said on ESPN that he thought homosexuality was a sin you just knew a firestorm would erupt over his comments.  Broussard said he got his view from the Bible.  This only adds fuel to the fire.

So Clay Travis, a radio host out of Nashville and the proprietor of the website outkickthecoverage.com, took to his website to voice his opinion of the matter.  In the process he takes shots at the Bible, heaven, Pat Robertson, baptism, pastors, churches, Southern Baptists, and God.

In the article Travis asserts that when he was twelve he read the entire Bible.  He also says he grew up going to church.  All of this has left him with questions and concerns.  I can appreciate this.  Most people who criticize the Bible have not read it all the way through.  Also he raises honest questions about God and how these questions left him insecure with God.  While his article touches on various issues, my main aim in answering him is to deal with the interpretive issues he presents when he dismisses the Biblical prohibition of homosexuality outright.

This is especially important because his rationale for dismissing the claims of the Bible is a common one today.  I mainly hear this argument used when discussing homosexuality.  This is presumably because the biblical prohibition against homosexuality is so clear you can’t say that the Bible doesn’t prohibit it.  So another line of reasoning is needed.  The argument goes something like this:  “The Bible says homosexuality is wrong but it also says some crazy thing is wrong.  We do that crazy thing without bother so that must mean homosexuality is ok.”

A Case Study

The “some crazy thing” that is prohibited in the Bible is usually a verse found in the Old Testament.  Let’s use one I have heard often – the prohibition of shellfish.  This prohibition is found in the Old Testament in Deuteronomy 14:10.

This law comes just after Israel was rescued from being slaves in Egypt.  God gives them laws to constitute them as a people and to show them how to live now that they are a redeemed people.  The laws were meant to teach Israel about God and who He was.  Two things must be remembered: 1. These laws were for the nation of Israel 2. These laws were for the working out all facets of life, the moral, civil, and religious functions.  Israel was not only a civil entity but also a religious entity.  In America today, we do not have religious laws.  We have only civil laws.  Therefore, many of Israel’s laws seem out of place.  But they were designed for Israel to live out their lives before God and before men in holiness.  God gave them these laws for their good.

So when Jesus instituted the Church He did not also institute a civil entity.  That portion of life was gone.  Also gone were the religious portions of the law, namely concerned with sacrifice and the temple.  All that was left was the moral aspect.  So when Jesus tells Peter to eat foods previously forbidden Peter reacts with surprise.  The message is clear.  This portion of the law has served its purpose to lead to Christ.  It has no more direct force.  The principles of holiness are still there.  But the direct prohibition of eating shellfish has been done away.

Christ did away with the dietary laws in Acts.  The church since then has known that most of the laws in the OT are not directly applicable to the church.  Rather they were for a specific time and place, namely the people of Israel before the time of Christ.  We may find some of these laws intriguing, confusing, or maybe even wrong for application today.  However, they are not racist, sexist, or wrong for Israel in their day as Travis claims.

So what do we do with these Old Testament laws?  We follow them as they are intended to be followed.  The moral commands are in force just as they were for Israel.  However, the other laws serve as case law and to be used to guide us or give principles.  They are not meant to be followed in a literalistic fashion today.

So what of the commands against homosexuality?  They fall in the moral category and are still in force today.  Besides that, the prohibition against homosexuality is repeated in the New Testament.  So it is still wrong to practice homosexuality.  God means this for our good.

Other Claims of Travis

In Travis’ case, the “some crazy thing” is slavery.  He says the Bible was used to say slavery was ok.  However, this is patently false.  1 Timothy 1:9-10 clearly prohibits enslaving other human beings.  While it is true that some used the Bible to make the claim that slavery was ok.  This is utterly regrettable.  In fact Travis mentions the Southern Baptists who repented of this practice.  This does not show that they now disregard this portion of the Bible.  Rather they repent of misinterpreting the Bible.

Travis says, “The Bible says tens of thousands of things that are. . . impossible to follow in today’s modern society” and “Let’s be clear, the Bible says all sorts of crazy things that every Christian has agreed not to follow.” We both come to this conclusion for different reasons.  He thinks we just know better now.  I don’t dismiss the Bible just because I don’t like what it says.  Rather I follow sound hermeneutical logic to come to my conclusion.  Here is another instance of someone using Travis’ unbiblical logic to unfruitful outcomes.  So Travis can say they are impossible to follow today but most of the things he is talking about are not to be followed today as I have described above.

Something that Travis says about his five year old self breaks my heart, “Why did he [God] also need me to constantly acknowledge his superiority over me?”  He sees God’s laws as arbitrary and that God has low self-esteem and needs others to worship Him.  This is tragic because it precludes Travis from seeing how awesome and wonderful God is.  He has the issue backwards.  He thinks God needs us.  In reality we need God.  It is for our benefit that He has spoken through His Word.  It is for our benefit that He has given us laws.  It is for our benefit that He offers Himself for worship.

Travis’ fascination with Ezekiel 23:20 shows that God is concerned with justice and holy living of His people.  Also, his description of the Southern Baptists officially apologizing for slavery shows that Bible is concerned with real people in real life.  They realized they had gotten it wrong and are now doing what they know they should do – repent. This is the beauty of the gospel message found in the Bible.  It offers real people, who do real sinful stuff, forgiveness.  It offers them hope and a new life.  It can do this because of the death and resurrection of Christ.  Those sins were heinous enough for Christ to die so that they could be forgiven.  So when we think ourselves guilty or shamed we should not seek to dismiss the action as being ok.  Rather we should repent and trust Christ for forgiveness.  God has meant this for our good.

Conclusion

This is how Travis ultimately sees the issue:  “Using a single Bible verse to justify an opinion that dehumanizes another individual is.”  This is unfortunate especially because this is how the culture at large thinks.  However, the issue is not that the Bible or Christianity or Broussard dehumanizes homosexuals.  This is evident from Broussard’s own friendship with a homosexual as he described it in the article.  No one says the Bible dehumanizes adulterers or murders when it prohibits these actions.  On the contrary the Bible humanizes every person by saying they were made in the image of God that we should love every person.  Saying you think an action is wrong does not dehumanize the person who might practice that action.  Wherever the church has dehumanized homosexuals or anyone else for that matter, and unfortunately it is guilty in some respects, it should repent.  But the fact remains that this dehumanization is not the result of saying that an action is sinful.  I hope he does not think I am dehumanizing him by disagreeing with him.

The church will not look back on this time and regret saying that homosexuality is wrong.  There will be much repentance over the treatment of homosexuals and how the matter was handled.  I myself have repented of how I have handled this issue.  More love is certainly needed in the matter.  However, more love does not mean less truth.  The Bible makes plain that homosexuality is wrong and the true church will stand by that for the rest of its history.  More people will spring up and use the logic Travis is using.  I pray they see that God loves them and offers His Word for their good.  Only when we repent of our rebellion against God and trust Christ will we find the real humanization we all long for.

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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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