April 2011


This next week I have the opportunity to spend a couple weeks in Uganda, Africa.  People ask me if it is a missions trip, and the answer is … sort of.  You see, my brother and his family work at an orphanage in Jinja, Uganda and a couple of us from the family are going over to visit.  You can learn more about the orphanage here.  So while in Uganda, we will have the opportunity to work on projects around the orphanage and bring supplies for the kids.  Additionally, I have the opportunity to teach in a couple local churches.  We will also be going on safari and, of course, spending time with family.  It’s going to be a great trip!

So while this may not be a “missions” trip (though shouldn’t every trip be seen as an opportunity to be “missional”?), there are some things I have learned from from previous experiences in places like Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Rwanda.

  • A chance to unplug from the Matrix.  Trips such as these are an opportunity to step away from our tech-driven culture of iPods, laptops, smart phones, video games, cable TV, and other gadgets.  Ok, so I’m taking my iPod.  But when I am forced to unplug from my world, I find I am much more engaged in the real world around me.  I have come to believe that our tech-saavy minds crave distraction.  When we pull the plug on the constant noise, we begin to engage at a deeper level.
  • Wrestling with my own lack of contentment.  I am often struck by the level of joy and contentment I see amidst a lack of material possessions and sometimes, outright poverty.  Certainly, when we encounter places of poverty, there are thing we can do to meet tangible needs.  We should strive to clear economic hurdles and bring more opportunity to these places.  But I contrast this with the glut of possessions and opportunities most of us live with, which is often accompanied by a lack of contentment and an absence of joy.  I feel the restlessness in my own spirit and wonder how it can be so prevalent when I have been given so much.
  • Good intentions gone bad.  It isn’t fun to talk about in church, but I have also, at times, seen the best of intentions cause more harm than good in the name of missions.  A 200-machine computer lab in a remote village school comes to mind, of which only one or two computers were actually operational.  Once the group that funded and set up the project went home, there was no one around to service the simplest of technical problems.  I remember speaking to a man waiting for his home to be built.  All the supplies were gathered and the village was more than capable of constructing the house, but the project was put on hold several months so that a youth group had something to do on their missions trip.  These stories and more remind me to test my motivations, making sure that real needs are being met as opposed to engaging in activities that make me feel good, but offer little tangible help for those who need it.
  • An opportunity to serve … and be served.  Of one thing I am confident, that I am served and ministered to by the people I meet on these trips far more than I serve or minister to them.  I usually enter into these opportunities focused on ways I can help or the supplies I can bring; I usually leave feeling like I was given far more than I gave.

If you remember, please pray for us over the next couple of weeks.  I’ll write about the trip when I get back!

Peace

The following is another excerpt from the third chapter of Ten Essential Words.

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Idolatry is anything we do to try to capture God.  It is now time to move beyond carved images and piles of rock.  Idolatry is anything – an action, an image, or a belief system – in which we try to capture God.  As God explained to Job of the Old Testament, we can no more capture God than we can try to subdue a wild hippopotamus with a net or catch a crocodile with a fishhook.[1] In both cases, if we naively strolled up to the powerful beast thinking we will just slip a rope around its neck and domesticate it, we would quickly find ourselves in a world of trouble (have you ever seen the Crocodile Hunter on TV?)!  As was said about the Christ-like character of Aslan, in C.S. Lewis’ book The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe, “He is not a tame Lion.  But he is good.”

Yet we can do this very thing when we approach God.  The French philosopher Voltaire has noted, “If God created us in his own image, we have more than reciprocated.”  The most common way we attempt to capture God today in our churches is when we reduce God to a set of tenets.  Do not misunderstand me; I am not saying that creeds and doctrinal statements are idols – when they are used to help us understand God.  Many throughout history have grown in their awe of God through reciting the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed.  And doctrinal statements can help clarify where a community stands on important issues.

But when creeds and doctrinal statements are used to assert that our God is the right God (and therefore, yours is the wrong one), we begin to reduce God to our version of God.  God can be summed up in six easy statements or ten essentials of the faith.  As we use tenets to narrow instead of expand our view of God, God goes from being the God of humanity to the Christian God[2], to the Protestant God (or Catholic), to the Baptist God, to the God of a specific denomination in the Baptist tradition, even to the God of a specific church within a specific denomination of a specific tradition.

From time to time, a person has visited a church of which I was a part and asked for a statement of faith.  I have heard them comment that they really liked the service, but just wanted to make sure the church is sound and not some kind of cult.  So I would hand them our statement of faith (evidence that I’m not against doctrinal statements).  But I often wondered if they actually read or understood any of it.  I have to confess that I believe just the practice of handing over a document with a lot of writing on it is enough for most people.  A good friend of mine once admitted to me that when he came to the church for the first time, he asked for a statement of faith simply because it was what he was told to do when checking out a new church – but he did not really know what he was supposed to look for.  Are we teaching people to value the fine print of a belief system over the actual experience of God’s presence in a spiritual community?

And speaking of the fine print, have we made it more difficult for people to come to God today than it was when Jesus walked around Israel inviting people into the kingdom of God?  Notice how Jesus did not use four spiritual laws, a bridge illustration, or the sinner’s prayer on anyone he came across.  In fact, Jesus did not use any kind of formula in his interactions with people.  Each invitation into the kingdom is different with Jesus.  To one he said, “You must be born again” and to another he said, “Your faith has saved you.”  Evangelistic tools are not necessarily bad, unless they begin to assert that our way to God has usurped God’s way to himself.

When our tenets and doctrines reduce our view of God instead of expand our view of God, we may be trying to drop a fishhook in the water hoping for a nibble – only to find ourselves tangling with a crocodile!

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[1] In the book of Job, these are referred to as the behemoth and the leviathan.  No matter what those terms refer to, the point is made clear from these examples.

[2] This is not meant to be a relativistic statement that all paths equally lead to God.