Stories and Storytellers

Our past is sedimented in our present, and we are doomed to misidentify ourselves, as long as we can’t do justice to where we come from. -Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 29.

We want to live now – with reference to little else but the now and with reason based solely in the now.  We ask – “Why spend time studying thinkers, movements, or events of the past?  That’s just dead, dry history.  Isn’t life about me, my life and what is in front of me?”

And yet, can we really escape the past?  Everything we see, touch, and experience is full of the past.  No matter how we might wish to dismiss or ignore it, the past is with us, defining our present.  Charles Taylor is right – if we fail to “do justice to where we come from,” we will misread our present and thus “misidentify ourselves.” Continue reading

The News

As big news stories grind endlessly on, common, small people perform unusual and courageous acts of love and grace.  The news cycle continually draws our attention to the big events, such as the vice president debate, the awarding of the Nobel prizes, the post-season baseball playoffs, and litigation between Apple and Samsung, while right before our eyes men and women offer grace, love in unusual and courageous ways, and live faithfully and sacrificially toward others.  Because we are taught to admire and even desire large, celebrated, noticed lives, we consume and vicariously live through the news of politicians, athletes and celebrities.  And yet, true significance and meaning are played out unnoticed in obscure corners of our cities, classrooms down the hall, at breakfast tables, and in quiet, courageous words.  Elections, technological developments, international disputes, and even baseball are important, but let us not miss what might be the most significant, immediate, and really real news close at hand.  Let us not miss the people who challenge us to live toward love, faithfulness, and grace.

Wright Stuff

Christopher J. H. Wright set many us on our heels in 2006 with the publication of his massive The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (IVP).  In a post of nearly a year ago, The Mission of God, I encourage friends to work through this 535 page book.  In athoroughly biblical manner, Wright helps us to understand missions as being much broader and comprehensive than most of us have imagined.  I said then and still believe that “of all the things you might do in the next six months, reading Wright might be the most formative and impactful.”  In about two weeks, I will start my fourth reading of The Mission of God, along with a class of 19 students.

Well, more Wright stuff is on its way.  His new book, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (Biblical Theology for Life) (Zondervan) is due to be released later this month (August 20, 2010).  It looks as though he will be addressing ecclesiology from the perspective of missions.  I have pre-ordered my copy and will be working through it this fall.  Look for my review in an upcoming post.

Mark your Calendar

Join us at Truett Theological Seminary, Waco, Texas for the Parchman Endowed Lectures, October 13, 14, and 15 (2009).  Our guest lecturer will be Lamin Sanneh, D. Willis James Professor of Missions & World Christianity and Professor of History, Yale Divinity School.  Born in Gambia of royal African lineage, Sanneh is an editor-at-large of The Christian Century, contributing editor of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, series editor of Oxford Studies in World Christianity and the author of more than a hundred articles and several books, including the recent Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West (Eerdmans 2003), Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Orbis 1989), and Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity (Oxford 2008).

Dr. Sanneh will lecture at 9:30 am each of these days under the general theme of Connecting World Christianity: New World Parameters.  This is a rare opportunity to hear a leading voice in the interpretation and shaping of world Christianity.

Steadfast hope

Two weeks before he was burned at the stake in 1415, Jan Hus penned these words in a letter to friends…

O holy Lord Christ draw near to us, we cannot follow Thee.  Give us a strong and willing spirit, and when the weakness of flesh appears, let Thy grace go on before us, accompany and follow us, accompany and follow us. For without Thee we can do nothing, least of all suffer a cruel death for Thy sake.  Grant a willing spirit, a fearless heart, true faith, steadfast hope, perfect love, that for Thy sake we may, with patience and joy, surrender our life. Amen. (cited in E. Schweinitz, The History of the Church Known as the Moravian, or the Unitas Fratrum …,1901, 70)

I am not in a prison cell this morning awaiting execution, but Hus’ prayer reminds me to have a fearless heart, true faith, steadfast hope, and perfect love in the midst of whatever is outside my door or in my heart.  Whether I die a cruel death or suffer through difficult change, perplexing relationships, or disappointments, a surrendered life and the accompanying presence of Christ is my only hope.

The temptation to be relevant

Henri Nouwen reflects on the nature and way of Christian leadership in his brief book, In the Name of Jesus.  He recounts the experience and profound lessons he learned while living in a house for mentally challenged people.  It seems that they were not impressed with Nouwen’s multiple degrees, accomplished skill as a priest, or his years of work.  The experience caused him to reclaim his “unadorned self” and rediscover his true identity.  He says …  

I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.  That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love.  The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God’s word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.

Relevancy or the desire for significance in this world can quickly trumph the love of God toward us and our ability to love others.  True leadership cannot be built on self-confidence or dominance and control of others.  Nor is it made complete by our financial resource and ministry technique.  Instead, we are called to lead in the Jesus Way.  Jesus embraced the brokenness around him and took upon himself the suffering of humanity.  In the Jesus Way, leadership is love revealed.

A Dead Teacher

The majority of my teachers are dead.  They lived, wrote, and died  – long before I ever lived.  As I handle the pieces of their lives that remain in words, stories, and actions, I learn how I might speak, think, and act.  It is a privilege to listen to and observe the acts of Robert de Nobili, Matteo Ricci, John Amos Comenius, Adonirum Judson, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu, Sophi Scholls, David Bosch, et. al. 

Outstanding among these teachers is Lilias Trotter.

Lilias Trotter left a legacy of a life lived in service to her Saviour and the people of North Africa.  Born July 14, 1853 in London, England into a well-to-do family, she dared to take a path different than what society might expect.  She was blessed to have financial means, and thus opportunity.  On top of this she had exceptional talent.  And yet, means, opportunity, and talent do not distinguish her life.

When Lilias was 23 years of age, she and her mother traveled to Venice.  There, she was noticed by John Ruskin, a leading artist of her day.  He was so impressed with her talent and unique style that he took her as a student and begin promoting her work.  After some time with Ruskin, she decided that this was not to be her path.  She later wrote: “I see as clear as daylight now I cannot give myself to painting in the way he (John Ruskin) means and continue still ‘to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness’.” 

Her resolve set her on a path that led first into the nightlife of London where she sought to help women trapped in prostitution and provide shelter to young ladies in trouble.  This path eventually led her at age 35 to move to North Africa to work among Muslims of Algeria.  During her 38 years there, she cared for widows and children, created booklets of stories and parables in traditional style and pictures for illiterate women and children, championed a place of women in leadership roles, and founded the Algiers Mission Band, which later became Arab World Ministries. 

From Lilias Trotter, I have learned …

  • faithfulness to one’s calling no matter the cost
  • courage to live contrary to the expectations of others
  • power of persistent prayer in the face of insurmountable odds

And yet, above these lessons, I am struck with the power of God in the helplessness of this saint.  For her, real power was to be realized only in her weakness not in strength or talent.  Of helplessness, she wrote

[God] needs that helplessness as truly as the negative pole is needed to complete the electric circuit & set free the power. And so when one can only lie like sort of a log, unable to even frame the prayers one would like to pray, His Spirit will find the way through that lowest point which He so strangely needs, & lift them up to the Throne (Diary, 21 May 1923, cited in Rockness, A Passion for the Impossible, 298).

She saw failing health, conflicts, sadness, and challenges as openings for God’s power and the possibility of God’s mysterious work.  This was her supreme hope, especially during the final three years of life, when she was confined to her room because of a heart condition.  During this period, she wrote The Way of the Seven-fold Secret, a book for Sufi Muslims, probably the most important work of her life.  And during this period, she prayed fervently for the expansion of the gospel among the Kabyle Berbers.  What seemed to be impossible then is occuring today among the Kabyle Berbers. 

Often in my desire to serve God, I rely almost exclusively on my own competency and resources.  I do not seek the place of helplessness before God, nor do I wish to model this before others, because the last thing I really desire is to be seen as weak, helpless, and dependent.  I want to serve God from a position of power and self-resource … not helplessness.  Oh, I may mouth the words of dependency and weakness, but the reality of my life and service demonstrate an unwillingness to go there.  Thus, I serve God but only in my power, mental capacity, and resources.  If my health were to fail, my reputation became spoiled, or if I suffered mental anguish or distress, I would see my service as being over or severely limited.  And yet, while this might be the end of my work, it could be the beginning of God’s work.

Lilias anticipated more than what her competency and resources might produce.  So, she challenged those around her-

Let us dare to test God’s resources …. Let us ask Him to kindle in us and keep aflame that passion for the impossible that shall make us delight in it with Him, till the day when we shall see it transformed into a fact.

Lilias Trotter lived beyond her means, opportunity and talents and toward the impossible.  May you and I seek true helplessness and thus find God’s power and possibility. 

Among the books written by Lilias Trotter, see Parables of the Cross, Parables of the Christ-life, and The Way of the Seven-fold Secret.  For books about Lilias Trotter, see I, Lilias Trotter (A. F. Pigott, 1929), Until the Day Breaks (Patricia St. John, 1990), and A Passion for the Impossible-The Life of Lilias Trotter (Miriam Huffman Rockness, 2003).

Dream, Laugh & Witness

I performed a wedding this past weekend for two dear friends.  When I asked what scripture passage they wanted to use in the service, their response was Psalm 126.  At first I thought ‘how strange and different’, but given who this couple is and their unusual commitment to live in service to God’s mission, Psalm 126 is perfect.  Below is the text of what I said.

Psalm 126
This is the end of the beginning – a beginning that is more than just the two of you meeting, the trip to Indonesia, and your proposal.  This beginning has been the years of love, care, and prayers of family, teachers, friends, and mentors.  All of us who have been part of this beginning are gathered to witness and launch you into this next half of the journey.

The Psalm you have chosen is about people on a journey – its a pilgrim Psalm.  It was read or recited as Israelites ascended to Jerusalem and the temple.  Its purpose was to remind them of certain things along the way.  In it we hear lament, as they recall the hardship of captivity.  But it is also a Psalm of great joy – their mouths filled with laughter, and with joyful shouting.  As they journeyed, they wanted to remember both the lament and joy.

This is not the normal wedding passage.  Usually we hear about love, or how wonderful life will be together.  But then, you are not the normal couple, are you?  By choosing this passage, I believe you want to say some particular things about who you are and what you want your marriage to be.  You are making three choices:

You choose to be like those who Dream.
In the Psalm, the children of Israel were returning from 70 years of captivity in Babylon.  They were returning to ruined homes and empty fields.  They were living with the reality of loss of power, possessions, and status.  But they were also dreaming of what could be.

In the same way, you have decided that you will not live with what is, or what others might define as normal or expected, or with the fears you might put on yourselves.  Instead, you choose to live like those who dream.  The fact is – God has already done something beyond your wildest dreams.  So, why not believe him for even greater things? – his promises, his best, his purposes!

As witnesses to your union, we want to say – Dream!  Dream of what God could do in your lives and through your lives.  My guess is that it is beyond your wildest dreams.

You choose to Laugh.
The Israelites knew they were returning to a mess – walls needed to be re-built, fields prepared and replanted, homes re-established.  They knew this was going to be hard and difficult work, but they also knew there would be joy in the end.  So, with the mess in front of them, they laughed.  The Psalm says “their mouths are full of laughter and their tongues with joyful shouting.”

You have already said … we want to walk off the beaten path, in far away places, and we know it will be tough.  In fact, I think you are saying we want it to be tough because we want to reap a great harvest.  And knowing this … your mouths are full of laughter and you are shouting for joy!  You are saying we want to live contrary to a mindset that hoards and protects.  You want to give much, so that you will see much fruit and joy.

Jesus says the same thing in John 12:24:
‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’

As those who know your commitment to the difficult places and hurting people in this world, we say go with confident to those places, give yourselves completely so that you may be full of joy.  As you journey to these places and endure the hard sowing, anticipate the joy.

You choose to be Witnesses.
The Israelites were aware that as they returned, the nations were looking on, wanting to see how the Israelites would live and what their God would do for them.  In the Psalm, they are saying – we hope the nations take note of how our God carries us in the midst of ruin and destruction, and say ‘The Lord has done great things for them’. 

Ashley and Jayson, your ultimate hope is not marital bliss, a two-storied house with a white picked fence, or even old age.  Your hope is that in your marriage, in your work, and in your bodies, that the power and glory of God might be made visible and clear.  Your hope is that friends and family, Burmese and Indonesians will take note that Ashley and Jayson’s God has done great things.  Your hope is that God is glorified through your lives.

I charge you, from this first day of your married life to the end of your days – be dreamers, joyfully hope in God’s power, and give witness to his glory.

Pastor Yuan’s Hope

When I am discouraged, tired, or near despair, I look at a small photograph pinned to the wall over my desk.  In this photo, Pastor Allen Yuan Xiangchen and I are seated at a small table in his Beijing apartment.  A friend of his had taken me down backstreets and alleyways to a nondescript building and a tiny, ground floor apartment to meet him.  There was no appointment secretary, plaques of honor, pictures for sale, or adulating followers.  What I found was a rather small man and his wife – two saints. 

Pastor Yuan began his ministry right after the Japanese surrendered in 1945.  He opened a prayer room in Beijing where he baptized new believers.  Because he refused to join the state-sponsored, national church, he was arrested in 1958 and sentenced to life in prison for “counter-revolutionary crimes.”  He spent the next 22 years of his life in prison doing forced labor.  He had no Bible and no contact with his family during these years.  Upon his release in 1979, he immediately returned to what he had been doing when arrested.  People would pack his small apartment to pray and to hear Pastor Yuan teach from the Bible.  He did not conceal what he was doing nor did he consider it to be “underground.”  He said he no longer feared what the authorities might do to him.

During my visit, he asked one question after another about my faith and how he might pray for me.  He was concerned that I live as a faithful witness to Jesus in my country and among my family and acquaintances.  Toward the end of our visit, I asked him how he kept from losing hope during the years of hardship and separation from his family.  He immediately responded by quoting the opening verses of Psalms 27-

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the defense of my life; whom shall I dread?  When evildoers came upon me to devour my flesh, my adversaries and my enemies, they stumbled and fell. Though a host encamp against me, my heart will not fear; though war arise against me, in spite of this I shall be confident. 

The face of this saint glowed with confidence as he spoke these words.  In this frail body and watery eyes, I witnessed strong and vibrant hope.  Years of abuse, privation, and cold had not crushed hope.  His testimony was not that he had overcome his oppressors but that he had decided to hope in the Lord.

Pastor Yuan died on August 16, 2005 but his testimony lives.  His testimony of hope gives me hope.  His picture reminds me to choose to be confident in the One who has defeated evildoers, adversaries, enemies, and even death.

Come be My Light

Mother Teresa witnessed the power of God’s Light shining in darkness.  Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the ‘Saint of Calcutta’ (Doubleday, 2007) exposes the inner life of Mother Teresa and gives fresh explanation for what motivated her.  She recounts that on September 10, 1946, while traveling by train from Calcutta to Darjeeling, she encountered Christ.  He simply said to her, “I thirst.”  She took this to mean that Christ was the diseased and dying of India and that she was to give water to them, and thus to Him.  And then she said that Christ invited her to join him as “a victim of India.”  She was to take to herself the suffering and death of those abandoned, left to die.  And then toward the end of this encounter, she heard the words, “Come be My Light.” 

Her years of service in Calcutta were not a call to become a saint or a Noble Laureate.  Her call was to suffer and to be light in and through that suffering.  Her victimization led her to embrace the diseased and dying and to stand in solidarity with the poor.  She did not stand at a distance to offer consolation and pity, but shone as light from within the prison house of death and darkness.  Her letters and diary entries repeat over and over that the darkness is real, brutal, painful, lonely, difficult – it is dark!  Her calling was to be God’s light in its midst.

Boldness and confidence in ministry and proclamation arise from weakness.  While God uses our sharpened skills and trained minds, in the end it is by his grace and mercy that any of us are used, and it is through his power that our words have effect.  The problem is that too often an acknowledgement of my honed skills and my mind turns into a triumphalism that lauds my abilities to accomplish much for God.  Or I rely on my gadgets, technologies, and technique to bring in the kingdom of God.  Or I elevate my national or cultural achievements above the ways of God.  In the end, I turn the mission of God into my mission. 

Worst of all, in this triumphalism, I fear the darkness.  I am unable to confidently confess Christ because I am afraid of becoming victim to others who might inconvenience me, use me, or trample me.  I have to fear the darkness because it might engulf me, and I become unknown and pass into obscurity.  Triumphal mission and ministry cannot go to prison, will not embrace those dying, and must not suffer as a victim.  Because the darkness scares us to death, we run from it and thus as well from the power and purpose of the Spirit.

The witness of Mother Teresa and many others is that we can trust the Spirit’s power and purposes.  In fact, in this kind of trust there is great freedom to believe God and to witness God’s power.  The good news is that the mission of God does not rise or fall on my skill or mind.  The good news is that God meets us in the dark and difficult, uses our weakness, and thereby, shines his light.