Can I Find Belonging in the American Church? {Wrestlings of an Adult MK}

by Jessi Bullis

As an adult missionary kid (MK) who grew up with a fairly mobile childhood, “home” and “belonging” have been tricky for me. I remember being as young as five years old and responding to the question “Where are you from?” with deer-in-the-headlights style anxious sputtering. 

As I’ve grown, I’ve spent oodles of time processing how each different country I was raised in has impacted who I am as a person, and I’ve learned to weave them together to make up the mosaic of my personal cultural complexity. Nowadays, I have a ready-made answer for the “Where are you from?” question. But just because I’m prepared to answer doesn’t mean that internal confusion and childhood longing aren’t sometimes set off. 

Over the years, digging into scripture and falling even more in love with Jesus, I came to know Him as my true Home. And since Christ’s bride is the Church, I desperately wanted the Church to be my earthly home.

Afterall, that was the one consistent “location” in my life. In England we attended a church with 300 members, while in Turkey we went to a house church that fluctuated from 20-30 people depending on the week and in whose apartment it was held. Visiting Tanzania, we worshiped in a mud structure, and in Germany church was held in the school auditorium. Each might have looked different, but the underlying feeling was the same.

So when I returned to the exotic, frightening, and magical land of the United States of America for college, my hope was that in the midst of my hardest transition, I would find a home-ful belonging in the Church.

However, while there was hope, I’ll admit there was also a bitter pessimism. 

The American church has often felt like an unsafe place for me growing up. As a child, whenever we would return to the U.S. on home assignment and enter the church circuit, raising support felt like a job requirement to be filled rather than a place to be known and loved.

I felt like a hidden immigrant in the church — misunderstood, but also laden with high expectations to be “the perfect MK.” It was assumed that I would know all the ‘right’ answers to any biblical questions thrown my way, while at the same time I was confused by the jokes and cultural references made in conversation. I learned to play the part, but internally I felt like an outsider.

I also noticed that it sometimes seemed like American patriotism and Christianity were intertwined. 

While my passport country is the United States, and I am legally a citizen, I have struggled to wrap my head around what that means. For many of my mono-cultural friends raised in the U.S., this has meant that the American flag elicits an emotional response, and July 4th comes with life-long traditions of celebration and reverence for American history. Because America was born from the drive for religious freedom, for some it seemed that being patriotic was the most Christian thing they could do.

I, on the other hand, didn’t know the words to “America the Beautiful” or even the Pledge of Allegiance. Whenever I attended sporting events (which I’ll admit wasn’t often), I moved my mouth around hoping it looked like I was saying the same thing as everyone else. 

So when I attended churches where I heard pastors talk from the pulpit about how “America is the best country in the world” and where church members discussed how great a blessing it is to be American, I felt like an outsider. Many cultures have informed my faith, and the global perspective I have impacts how I read my Bible. I love that about myself and my story, so hearing words of American patriotism in the church feels to me like a sucker punch. Suddenly the separation between me and my fellow American believers seemed even wider. 

In these church sanctuaries I found myself questioning: If I didn’t “feel” American, would I be fully accepted as a sister in Christ? Are we not brothers and sisters in Christ first – before our cultural backgrounds? If I voiced concern about patriotism and Christianity being conflated, would my character and faith be questioned? 

In the New Testament, I saw that Jesus spoke with Gentiles as cultural equals. On days when the fear of not belonging has felt strongest, I’ve turned to Philippians 3:20 for comfort (“we are citizens of heaven”). And I always drew hope from Revelation 7:9, where we see people from every tribe, tongue, and nation worshiping together in blessed harmony. 

As I considered these scriptures, I began seeing my own assumptions and prejudices arise. Sometimes my own religious comfort has been built from my cultural experiences, and I have had to repentantly unwind them at the feet of Jesus.

Culture impacts how we interact with God and how we worship. Sometimes this is beautiful and glorifies God in the diversity of His creation. But at other times culture becomes an obstacle to the true message of scripture. I have learned beautiful things about God, His creativity, the depths of His love, and so much more from every culture I’ve worshiped in — including in America. 

I write this article not as someone with all the answers, but as someone who has so very many questions: for myself, for my fellow believers, and for the American church. Questions like:

  • How does national culture play a role in my relationship with God? And with my fellow believer?
  • Do I have opportunities to view Christianity from different perspectives and cultures? If not, do I need to find them?
  • Could I have blind spots towards my faith due to my national culture? 
  • Do I feel closer to a believer from a different country than to an unbeliever from my own country? 

It’s important for all of us to consider questions like these. I pray that each day we, the Church, become more and more like the Bride of Christ that will meet God at the shore of eternity.

“…there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” (Revelation 7:9-10)

A great resource on navigating God and culture is the Perspectives Course, and if you’d like to know how to support missionary kids in their walk with God, I recommend Tim Sanford’s book I Have To Be Perfect, along with this training for Churches Supporting Missionary Families.

Photo by Josh Eckstein on Unsplash

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Jessi is an Adult MK who grew up in Singapore, England, Turkey, and Germany. She has a heart for TCKs and the unique struggles they face. She received her undergraduate in psychology and a seminary degree in counseling for the purpose of caring for TCKs well. Jessi loves getting to walk through the repatriation journey with Adult TCKs, as this season can be especially difficult to navigate. Her deepest passion is for TCKs to know and feel the love and goodness of God.

Churches, We Need You! (Why the Church is a Critical Piece of Missionary Care)

By Jessi Bullis

John Piper has famously mobilized Christians for international missions by saying, “Go, send, or disobey.”

In this well-known statement, Piper acknowledges the truth that not everyone was created to be an overseas missionary. God has blessed millions of people with giftings that would be under-utilized if they were to move internationally and try to fit into a role that God didn’t call them to. This is not a downfall. It is an incredibly beautiful part of the tapestry of the great commission (Ephesians 4:11-13). We need goers, and we also need faithful senders – those who make it possible for those being sent to serve with health and longevity.

God designed the Church to be positioned on both sides: the going and the sending. Throughout Paul’s letters we read many accounts of his gratitude for the believers’ communication, faithfulness, and prayer, along with his requests for both tangible and spiritual support (Phil 1:3-5; 2 Thess. 3:1-2; 2 Cor. 9:10-15; 2 Tim 4:9). 

God gave people in the Church different giftings to carry out the great commission. There is so much beauty in this diversity of calling, because it glorifies God: His creativity, His knowledge, His grace, His faithfulness, and more (1 Cor. 12:4-6). 

Both accepting the gifts of others while simultaneously offering our gifts to the Church is a necessary key to the coming of God’s Kingdom, because it is how we glorify God daily, and it is how we present God’s beauty to the rest of the world (John 13:35). 

So today I’d like to speak to those of you who are not going or who perhaps did go and are now back on the sending side. How can you do the sending with as much zeal and excellence as the ones going?

Yes, this often means financial support. We see this all throughout Paul’s letters. He used his trade of tentmaking to provide income for his missionary journeys, but he also heavily depended on the financial support of those in the Churches he was ministering to. 

However, the Church’s role in sending missionaries does not end with financial support. 

Time and again we hear Paul asking for support in other ways — fellowship, communication, and constant prayer. 

Often, a family spends six months to a year raising their financial support, having countless dinners and church events, are “sent off” with fanfare, and then that’s it. They are suddenly cut off from tea times and dinners with friends. From mentoring chats with older believers. From a village of believers pouring into their kids. Sometimes they are even cut off from access to worship in their own language.

And those are just the church-specific things. 

Suddenly they’re learning to cook things from scratch, trying to do life in a new language, navigating new schooling situations for their children, and raising their children with a brand new set of cultural and environmental challenges. 

All without their church and the people who were preparing them to go. 

The family did not change overnight to suddenly not need regular congregational support. If anything, the opposite is true. They’re thrown into one of the hardest transitions of their life, all without their support systems. They haven’t become “holier than thou.” They’re still human. They still have needs. And they still fall into the Lord’s plan for the interdependence of the Church. 

A missionary friend of mine recently told me that once she moved overseas, she rarely heard from her friends back in the United States. In the midst of her biggest life transition, she felt forgotten.

When they would return to the U.S. and they would visit their sending church, throngs of people wanted to speak to them. And many of these same people would tell them how much they loved seeing her Facebook photos of her children in the jungle or their bamboo house. Yet these friends had never even hit the “like” button. She had no idea they’d even cared that she posted photos.

Instead of feeling encouraged by their exclamations, my friend was frustrated, confused, and hurt. For the last few years on the field she’d felt abandoned and alone. Something as easy as pressing the “like” button had not occurred to these friends. Something so small, yet so impactful. 

Most of the time I find that believers want to know how to support their missionary friends, but they simply don’t know how. I’ve spoken with believers around the world who’ve said they didn’t want to write too often and make their missionary friends homesick. They loved them dearly, but they just didn’t know how to transition to long distance support. 

Churches need to know how to support missionaries beyond finances, and they also need to educate their congregations how to do it well. 

As a missionary kid who grew up my entire life away from my parent’s home town and sending church; as someone who now works with hundreds of missionary families; as someone who has dear friends all around the world, I want to leave you with some practical ways you can “send” and continue supporting the missionaries in your life:

  • Schedule regular time to check in with the missionaries you have a connection with. Put a recurring date on your calendar and send a message of encouragement or reach out to plan a phone call. Ask about their children or even say “hi” to their kids. Give them permission to talk about the hard things. Be present and listen even when it doesn’t match up to your expectations of a missionary. 
  • Send a letter or care package. Fair warning: it may get lost in transit or be opened by national authorities to check its contents. But I can guarantee the missionary will know they are loved if you are willing to send them snail mail. (Check with them on what’s best to mail and whether they’ll have to pay import tax so you can cover that cost.)
  • Be trained in debriefing so you can effectively help missionaries and their children to process the good and hard parts of their time on the field. 
  • Instead of waiting for a newsletter, reach out to them to ask them what you can be praying for. And then be diligent in praying. Oftentimes missionaries do not know if anyone is even reading their newsletters, much less interceding on their behalf. 
  • Develop a formal team that checks in with each missionary on a monthly basis and train the team in knowing what to ask, what to look for, and how/when to recommend additional care resources. 
  • Plan a trip to go see them. Not for a short-term mission trip that they need to plan and lead, but rather a trip just to support, encourage, and love them. 
  • Consider putting on an MK camp abroad for the Missionary Kids in the area. We’ve found that these camps are often deeply impactful on MKs, who are rarely on the receiving end of care. (Check out TCK Training’s retreat curriculum created expressly for this purpose.) 
  • Learn about what resources are available to them, and consider gifting those to them. You can find a list at the end of this post. 
  • Encourage your church to receive training on best practices in missionary and MK care. This Churches Supporting Missionary Families Training would be a great start. We also have a page dedicated to equipping churches to send and care for missionaries well.
  • “Like” their pictures on social media. It means more than you know. 

There are many ways that churches can come alongside missionaries; when they do, they contribute to the health of the missionary and their ministry. This is an important role for the church. Let’s learn to do it well. 

 

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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Jessi is an Adult MK who grew up in Singapore, England, Turkey, and Germany. She has a heart for TCKs and the unique struggles they face. She received her undergraduate in psychology and a seminary degree in counseling for the purpose of caring for TCKs well. Jessi loves getting to walk through the repatriation journey with Adult TCKs, as this season can be especially difficult to navigate. Her deepest passion is for TCKs to know and feel the love and goodness of God.

Welcoming Broken Missionaries Back

John Chau’s death in November raised a complicated and important conversation about the role of Christian evangelism. I’m going to let that debate rage on Twitter and the New York Times and the Failed Missionary podcast. I want to launch a different conversation. I believe Chau’s dream, work, and death forces the church to consider what the push of evangelism will require not of those who “go” but of those who “send.”

There is a missing piece in that go-send picture because the one who goes out will eventually come back. How will be they welcomed back? What kind of support systems are in place? Who will be the “receiver” of the returned missionary?

This question is especially relevant in the context of evangelism among what are known as unreached and unengaged populations like the people on the North Sentinelese island, (“An unengaged unreached people group (UUPG) has no known active church planting underway,” the Joshua Project) because missionaries who go to these places are also often missionaries who return broken. How will they be supported?

There is a reason groups of people are unreached or unengaged. They are sometimes hostile to outsiders, remote, living in places of poverty or disease or isolation. They tend to live in areas not considered comfortable, beautiful, or safe. They may speak languages that are not written down, difficult to learn. Their cultures might be radically different from the Western culture out of which many missionaries come. They want to be left alone.

Reaching these people is hard. Slow. Discouraging. And it comes with risks. There may be bodies buried on beaches, like Chau’s. There will certainly be brokenness, pain, and grief. Those who have gone out rejoicing will return weeping. I’m not sure the sending church is ready for that.

The call of the church to raise up Christians who will go to the unengaged is not a triumphal call for heroes. It is a call to suffering and death and brokenness. Churches which actively promote this kind of mission work need to be prepared to receive their people back, along with all their sorrow, pain, and anger.

There needs to be strong support systems in place to help those who return.

Counseling, intensive therapy for all members of the family, marriage help, help in finding jobs, financial advisors, medical assistance, physical space in which to recover, nonjudgmental and safe ways for them to ask all the deep, hard, scary questions about God and faith that rocked their world while living abroad, opportunities for them to be angry. Time. I don’t mean a week or a month. I mean maybe a year, depending on what a person has walked through. Community, people willing to welcome the returned into their families and holiday traditions and Bible studies, even though that person doesn’t have a shared history other than a yearly visit or monthly newsletter.

And grace to recognize that while living abroad, the person sent out from the church has changed. Is the Church ready to welcome that kind of changed person back into their arms with tenderness and acceptance?

I have seen missionaries ask for prayer as they grieve the death of their child and the prayer request is rephrased as, “Pray for their work.” I have seen missionaries told to move on quicker after a family accident or to stop being afraid when death threats or sexual harassment bombard them.

The church dare not, dare not, pray for the unengaged to be engaged while in the same breath refuse to face the tragedy that will come with that engagement. This is dangerous and irresponsible, if the church is not prepared to deal with the consequences.

People who live abroad get broken there. Then they come home and their wounds go unacknowledged. They are heroes. They are brave. They are warriors.

Fine (sort of). But guess what? They are also weak, lonely, confused, shattered. Their marriages are damaged, their children have depression, their bodies are fragile and filled with parasites, their resumes have unexplainable holes, their job skills fail to translate. They are lonely, their faith has been pushed sometimes to the breaking point. They have seen poverty and the global realities of politics and their own ideas on these topics have been transformed. They are no longer welcome, when they speak from what they’ve learned, in the places which sent them out.

I certainly see churches ready to send people triumphantly out.

Please, dear Western Church, be willing and ready to welcome them brokenly back.

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Written by an anonymous worker

10 Life Lessons That Leading Worship 600 Times Taught Me

It just sort of happened.

As a teenager growing up in an a cappella church with an a cappella youth group, I sang a lot. In a non-instrumental church, any guy who can loosely carry a tune will be asked to carry that tune. And so I was. Over and over. And over. No guitar skills necessary.

In college, our inter-denominational student ministry needed a band leader. I still lacked all guitar skills, but no matter, they tagged me and I became the de facto leader for our Thursday night gatherings.

And then I actually started working for a church, leading the youth and worship ministries. I led worship nearly every Sunday for about six years. And that’s how we get to 600 plus.

I recently sat down to ponder what life lessons those experiences taught me. And as Elizabeth and I enter our 8th year of living and ministering across cultures, these “life lessons” have begun to look a lot like “cross-cultural ministry lessons” too. So I hope they are an encouragement, a blessing, and perhaps a challenge, to you as well, wherever you find yourself on this great planet we call home.

1. It’s not about me. 
Whether I’m standing before a group of 15 or 500, it’s not about me. It’s about the struggling mom of littles, the financially-strapped couple wondering how to make ends meet. It’s about the widower who feels his loneliness deep in his bones. It’s about the teen who’s trying to figure out who she is — and who God is.

Of course, it’s not about me.

And of course, it’s not primarily about them either. It’s about the Father who is longing to connect with his beloved people through moments of communion and community. It’s about the presence of the only One who is worthy; it’s about what the Spirit is saying to his Church.

 

2. Sometimes, you just have to show up, even when you don’t feel like it. 
When you do anything over and over and over again, even if it’s a good thing, there will come a time when you don’t feel like doing it. Well, what’s a worship leader (or missionary) supposed to do? Is it inauthentic to stand before people when you’ve had a crappy night’s sleep, or when you’re in the middle of a big fight with your wife, and pretend that things are OK?

I really had to wrestle with this. Every Sunday is not a glorious day, and there were many Sundays where the last thing I wanted to do was go to church, much less lead people in worship.

Showing up and doing your job, even when you don’t feel like it, isn’t inauthenticity. It’s actually maturity.

One question that continues to help me with this is, “Who is benefiting from my NOT revealing everything?” Am I hiding my true self from people in order to protect myself? In order to avoid intimacy? Or am I not revealing EVERY THING IN EVERY SINGLE MOMENT to get myself out of the way and help people meet with God? Is it for me or for them? If it’s for them, then it’s probably OK. (Of course, this assumes that at some point, and with some people, the leader will be authentic and vulnerable.)

God is worthy of worship whether I feel like it or not, and sometimes I need to stand before him and worship not because of my feelings, but in spite of my feelings. This is true about leading worship, and it’s true about leading life.

 

3. Smiling matters. A lot.
Effie was a kind old lady who became The Great Encourager of my 16-year-old self. When I was just starting out, someone told me, “Locate the few people who are smiling; look at them often.” I looked at Effie a lot.

It’s pretty good life and ministry advice too, “Locate the few people who are smiling; look at them often.”

 

4. Eye contact matters.
I’ve seen worship leaders who never look at a single person in the audience. That M.O. can look super-spiritual, and maybe it is. Maybe they’re lost in total adoration, caught up in the moment. Or maybe they’re just super disconnected from the people their leading.

In life abroad too, I’ve seen people who never notice the people in front of them. So look at people, look at their eyes, wonder about their stories, ask about their stories. If you do, you will impact people very deeply; for when it comes down to it, we are all longing to be seen, even if we’re desperately afraid of it.

 

5. Church people are the worst.
Some people at some churches hated me. They disliked my style, my music, and maybe even my face. It’s just the way it is. Some people will not like you no matter what you do. That does not necessarily mean you’re doing something wrong or bad, but it does mean that you (and they) are humans.

 

6. Church people are the best.
It was church guys who painted our house when my mom was sick with terminal cancer.

It was the “casserole ladies” who fed us.

It was inter-generational trips and Bible studies that showed me how to be a Christian adult, not just a Christian teen.

It was a man, a leader in the church, who came to my side when I couldn’t finish leading God Moves In a Mysterious Way. The cancer-induced tears were drowning me. He stood with me, shoulder to shoulder. We were two men at the front of a church, one young and crying, unable to voice anything. The other, older, an elder, choking tears and singing through empathy.

I will never forget that moment, because in that moment, standing vulnerable before God and his people, I was not alone. I was joined by a man thirty years my senior, and I was saved.

 

7. Complainers complain.
It’s what they do. But it is possible, sometimes, to maintain a positive relationship with complainers. And when it’s possible, it’s also extremely valuable.

But sometimes complainers are just toxic and keeping relationship with them is inadvisable. One key difference? If the complainers really want what’s best for you and for the church, they just really disagree with you, it’s probably best to try to maintain a friendship. If they’re out to control and dominate, manipulating through pressure and threats, to meet their own twisted needs, yeah, run away.

 

8. Every minute leading people requires two minutes NOT leading people.
At least.

The times that you’re NOT leading are more important than the times when you are leading. It may not look related, but sabbath has a direct impact on Sunday. Hong Kong news directory

 

9. Displaying authentic emotions, even tears, in front of people, may be the most “leaderish” thing you ever do.
We live in hard times, and my current job as a pastoral counselor has convinced me (again) that most people do not feel free to really feel their feelings. They feel societal, religious, familial pressure to “keep it all together,” whatever that means. By showing emotions, leaders can help change this. We must change this.

 

10. If at the end of the day, people only remember your skills (or skinny jeans), you’ve failed.
When it really matters, people won’t care about your vocal ability. People won’t care about your flashy .pptx or Prezi or Keynote. People won’t care about your hair style or flannel shirt or your perfect DMM strategy. At the end of the day, people will ask, “Did he care about us? Did he care about the Church?”

Basically, what matters when the sun sets are these three things:

  • Was I a person of faith, even in my doubts?
  • Did I demonstrate hope, even through my despair?
  • And in a world gone mad, did I love like Christ?

May God help us all to live towards that.

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As I drafted this article, I wept. I remembered my church, the Red Bridge church of Christ, and my breath caught.

You see, as I pondered, I realized something: I needed them way more than they needed me. That’s just the truth. I was in front of them, but they were leading me. I taught them new songs, but they taught me what Jesus looked like with skin on. I cried in front of them, and they joined their hearts with mine and embodied those beautiful people who mourn with. I got frustrated with them and I’m sure they got frustrated with me, and yet, we stayed friends. I’m so very glad we did, for those dear saints showed me what a “long obedience” could look like.

I’ll forever be grateful for the group of God’s people who invited a scrawny teenager with a pitch pipe to stand, to cry, to lead. They taught me so much, and I will never forget them.

 

The Gift of Grief and the Thing I Heard in Portland

“If we honestly face the sadness of life in a fallen world, then only our hope in Christ can preserve us from insanity or suicide.” – Larry Crabb

That’s an intense statement, and I sort of choked when I read it for the first time. But the more I chew on it, and the more I ponder my own life with its episodes of emotional and intellectual crisis, the more I think it’s correct.

Honestly
I spent three years working as an ER/Trauma nurse in an urban hospital in the States, and that bloody, chaotic trauma room forced me to “honestly face the sadness.” Those were dark days indeed; I was ill-prepared, psychologically and theologically, to deal with the darkness and the depth of the pain I witnessed. I was far outside of the Christian bubble, and reality bit hard.

For many people, moving across cultures, often to developing places, serves as their wake-up call. Missions becomes their trauma room, where they see suffering and poverty and grief up close and personal. People often move to Cambodia bright-eyed and in love, and then after a few months, or perhaps a year, the accumulation of the poverty and the corruption and the darkness forces them to “honestly face the sadness.”

Have you seen that happen?

Of course, the sadness was present in their affluent passport countries too, but money and familiarity have a way of disguising and hiding pain, like gold lacquer on cardboard.

But when the suffering is really seen, honestly, it does what Martin Luther wrote about nearly 500 years ago; it “threatens to undo us.” Of course, it doesn’t have to undo us, but it certainly threatens.

 

The Gift of Grief
“[W]hen we are able to maintain the fiction that life is tolerable at worst, and quite satisfying at best, we sacrifice an appreciation for the two center points of our faith: the Cross of Christ and His coming. The Cross becomes the means by which God delivers us from something not really too terrible, and the Coming is reduced to an opportunity for a merely improved quality of life.” – Crabb

In other words, when we blind ourselves to grief and the real sadness of the world, we risk turning the glorious reality of Eternity into a nice upgrade instead of the radical salvation of the universe and the epic righting of all wrongs that it certainly is.

Now, I hate grief. I really do. I don’t like being sad and I don’t particularly like listening to peoples’ sad stories. But for whatever reason, God has brought me to a place where I now regularly get e-mails from people that say, “Hey, I was told that you were the guy to talk to about my recent traumatic loss.” Awesome.

I think it’s because I don’t flee the feelings. And I don’t flee the feelings because I know that God can do amazing, restorative, centering, maturing, focusing, healing work through them. Not after the feelings, not around the feelings, but through them.

I am absolutely convinced that grief is a gift that the Church needs to learn to deal with. Grief has the potential to refocus us on the Eternal, if we’ll let it. Grief and loss guard us against the temptation to degrade Heaven into a distant and entirely non-applicable theory, instead of the life-altering reality that it is.

“When hints of sadness creep into our soul, we must not flee into happy or distracting thoughts. Pondering sadness until it becomes overwhelming can lead us to a deep change in the direction of our being from self-preservation to grateful worship.” – Crabb

Worshipful grief is potent and eyes-open.

It’s also evangelistic.

Worshipful grief communicates to those outside the Church that we’re not morons whose faith completely disconnects from reality. We are, in fact, in tune with the way things are precisely because of our faith. And because of our faith, we can grieve with hope, something that secular philosophy and humanism simply cannot provide.

What Happened in Portland
Portland is a beautiful city in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. It’s also where my sister lives, so last year I left a very hot and dirty and brown Phnom Penh and landed in a cool and beautiful and green Portland.

I bought blueberries by the gallon and ate them by the handful.

And I was angry.

Why do these people get to live here? In this place that’s so safe and gorgeous? Why do they get berries and public services and English? And why are they all in shape and appear to have just disembarked from a travel magazine?! (To be clear, I realize that not all of Portland fits this, but my sister lives in a suburb, and yeah, it pretty much all fits.)

There’s a public park close to her house, and they’ve got a fully shaded state-of-the-art playground with grass and towering pine trees. The whole place smells like a pine forest because the whole place is a pine forest. And did I mention it was also just a small city park?

Anyways, there was a trail around the lake and I of course took it. I passed picnics and happy people on stand up paddle boards. I passed ducks and geese, and I swear they’d all read the book “How to Pose for a Postcard.” I heard laughing kids.

And I was angry.

And then I got to a waterfall, clear and sharp, loudly mocking me with its falling waters. It was astoundingly beautiful and embarrassingly infuriating. And so I cried.

I cried to myself and I cried to God.

I mourned the loss. I grieved the fact that I lived in a concrete box with bars on the windows and karaoke and neighborhood cats that liked to work out their differences very loudly and very after-hours.

I did what I counsel people to do.

I named the losses, I felt the losses, and I talked with God.

And in one of those rare occurrences when I sense God speaking back to me, I felt God say, “Yes, you have lost something. Yes, you have given up some stuff. But what I have asked you to sacrifice I have not asked you to sacrifice forever. I have asked you to postpone.”

Now I was listening.

“I will bring you back here, on the New Earth, in Eternity, and all that is good and lovely and beautiful about this you will experience again.”

And then I cried some more, but different tears.

Sweeter tears.

His words, had they been preached to me by a hard-nosed theologian, would have grated and rubbed raw. But on that day, in a city park somewhere north of Portland, his words were like falling water, cooling and calming and stirring in me deep peace.

And his words still resonate.

His words reminded me of Truth my heart desperately needed – all is not lost. There will be a resurrection and the restoration of all things.

 

Why it’s a Gift
This oxygenating reminder, this reminder of Eternity, did not happen in spite of my grief. It happened because of it. It didn’t come through an attempt to erase grief or diminish loss. It came through mourning and boldly naming the loss.

And although I do not like it and I wish it weren’t so, grief is often the mechanism for drawing our hearts and souls back to God and the eternal intimacy he’s promised.

 

An Unforced Gift
Don’t miss out on the focusing ability of grief. It is a gift. But remember, like most gifts, this gift is best received without force. These are not truths to preach at someone in pain.

There are times for non-preaching, when grief bleeds and souls mourn. For these times, I still just recommend a gentle hug, quiet presence, and the often ungiven gift of silence.

Preach heaven to the Church. Preach Hope to the Church. But watch your timing. Preaching to someone in pain is an awfully cheap and cowardly substitute for simple incarnation.

 

The Gift of Music
Music can give voice to the soul, especially in the areas of grief and Eternity. In fact, mourners and poets often instinctively connect feelings of grief with longings for Heaven. One researcher, in his essay entitled “Recovering the Theology of the Negro Spirituals” showed the connection: “The eschatology of the spirituals emphasized heaven. Roughly forty percent of the compiled spirituals dealt with heaven as a primary theme.”

Likewise, for me, music is often a balm and lifeline. Here are a few songs about heaven that have ministered to me in my grief.

 

“We are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives.  And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior.”  Philippians 3:20

“I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, ‘Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.’ And the one sitting on the throne said, ‘Look, I am making everything new!’ And then he said to me, ‘Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.'”  Revelation 21:3-5

“My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”  John 14:2-3

The Gaping Hole in the Modern Missions Movement {part 1}

I think something’s missing.

It’s something that Jesus loved (and studied) a whole lot.

It’s missing because it doesn’t really fit into our Discovery Bible story sets. It doesn’t seem to add value to our NGOs or leadership trainings. It doesn’t offer an immediate return on investment or accelerate the planting and growing of churches.

It’s the Psalms. We’re missing the Psalms, and it’s hurting us.

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I grew up reading the Psalms. Our family did the “read a Psalm and then add 30 until you can’t go any further” thing. For example, on the 12th of the month we’d read Psalm 12 and Psalm 42 and Psalm 72 and so on. It was boring and predictable, but also transformational.

I began re-reading the Psalms in earnest about a year ago. I bought a commentary. I started reading books and articles. I began teaching them, singing them, and preaching them. And I started noticing their conspicuous absence.

And I’ve come to believe that my country of origin (America) and my country of destination (Cambodia) desperately need the depth and breadth of the Psalms. We need more Psalms in our families and our agencies. We need more Psalms in our church plants and Bible schools. We need to steep our discipleship strategies in the Psalms. (Many of our more liturgical siblings never really stopped reading the Psalms, and for this portion of their orthopraxy, I’m very grateful.)

But we don’t spend much time in the Psalms. We really don’t. The prayer book of the Bible, the book most oft-quoted by Jesus himself, gets relegated to the background with an occasional nod to the pastoral Psalm 23 and a sideways glance at the beautiful Psalm 139. But that’s not enough.

Full immersion is needed.

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Making the Case for the Psalms
We need the Psalms; not because the Psalms will teach us how to be super Christians, but because the Psalms will teach us how to be human Christians. I know that sounds silly, but there are a lot of dissociated folks who are trying to follow the Son of Man divorced from their own earthy humanity.

The Psalms teach us what it means to live and breathe and feel and follow. Here. Now. What does it look like to follow Jesus and still FEEL all this stuff? Life’s a freaking roller coaster. Just like the Psalms.

Author N.T. Wright describes the Psalter Coaster like this:

The celebration is wild and uninhibited; the misery is deep and horrible. One moment we are chanting, perhaps clapping our hands in time, even stamping our feet. … The next moment we have tears running down our cheeks, and we want the earth to open and swallow us.

Sounds a bit like life. Basically, the Psalms identify (and make allowance for) our humanity. In fact, the Psalms allow more raw humanity than many churches. Again, Wright illuminates:

The Psalms not only insist that we are called to live at the intersection of God’s space and our space, of heaven and earth, to be (in other words) Temple people. They call us to live at the intersection of sacred space, the Temple and the holy land that surrounds it, and the rest of human space, the world where idolatry and injustice still wreak their misery.

How do we live at that intersection, connecting worlds, without being ripped apart? The Psalms will show us.

 

The Full Spectrum of Emotions
The Psalms speak to core human needs and feelings without resorting to cliché. There are more than enough platitudes floating around already; we need the Psalms to teach us how to care about people without adding to the detritus.

What emotions is a believer allowed to have? What feelings are against the rules? The Psalms show us, and the answer is shocking: they’re pretty much all allowed. That’s not to say that all actions are allowed, but pretty much all the feelings are. In fact, the Psalms teach us how not to avoid uncomfortable feelings.
Whatever the emotion, keep talking to God. The Psalmists sure did. We are to pray with (maybe because of) our uncomfortable emotions. We enter our prayer closets with all of our hearts. There’s no need to cut pieces off before initiating a conversation with our Papa. We don’t have to “make ourselves presentable” for God. Jesus did that already.
Many people have a hard time identifying and allowing emotions; some countries and cultures (and denominations) struggle with this more than others. But wherever we’re from, the Psalms draw back the curtain and help us to see things as they really are.
The Psalms provide emotional nomenclature.

Furthermore, the Psalms can help people to acknowledge the presence of pain, an important first step towards healing.  This is especially crucial in honor/shame cultures; the Psalms give the reader permission to feel negative emotions: “Well hey, he felt this and he’s in the Bible! Maybe it’s OK if I feel it too.”

Once, after watching a young believer read a Psalm that discussed “unacceptable” feelings, I simply asked, “Have you ever felt that?” The resulting heart-level conversation would not have happened without the ice-breaking action of the Psalm.

 

Letting Others Make the Case for the Psalms
Are you tired of listening to me talk about the Psalms? How about these guys?

Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian church.”  Bonhoeffer went so far as to say that “The Psalter impregnated the life of early Christianity.” — Dietriech Bonhoeeffer

I used to read five psalms every day – that teaches me how to get along with God. Then I read a chapter of Proverbs every day and that teaches me how to get along with my fellow man.”   — Billy Graham

The Psalter promises Christ’s death and resurrection so clearly – and pictures his kingdom and the condition and nature of all Christendom – that it might well be called a little Bible. In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible.” — Martin Luther

And yet we hardly ever read or teach or preach them! Could we change that, please?

 

Letting Jesus Make the Case for the Psalms
You know, Jesus really loved the Psalms. In fact, Jesus quotes it more than any other book in the Old Testament. These are the four Old Testament books that Jesus quoted the most:

#4 Exodus
#3 Isaiah
#2 Deuteronomy
#1 Psalms

Kind of makes me think they’re important. But here’s the kicker, when Jesus quoted the Psalms, it was almost ALWAYS in a difficult situation. That is to say, when Jesus was in a stressful situation, he fell back on the Psalms. Here are some examples:

  1. Jesus outwits angry, accusing, scheming, educated guys (aka Pharisees) with the Psalms on several occasions (Ps 8:2, 110:1; Mt 21:16, 22:44; Mk 12:36, 14:62; Lk 20:42–43).
  1. He quotes the twenty-second Psalm while dying on the cross (Ps 22:1; Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34).
  1. Jesus is hated without cause, which he says the Psalms foretold (Ps 35:19, 69:4; Jn 15:25).
  1. He quotes the Psalms when talking about his betrayal (Ps 41:9; Jn 13:18).
  1. When the Jews want to stone him for claiming to be God, he responds with a line from the Psalms (Ps 82:6; Jn 10:34).
  1. He quotes Psalm 110 when Pilate asks if he is the son of God (Ps 110:1; Mt 26:64).
  1. After having his authority challenged, he quotes Psalms to the chief priests and elders, calling himself the chief cornerstone (Ps 118:22–23; Matt 21:42; Mk 12:10; Luke 20:17).
  1. He references the Psalms when foretelling Jerusalem’s destruction (Ps 118:26; Matt 23:39; Lk 13:35).

So basically, when Jesus quoted the Psalms, good things weren’t happening. In stressful situations, when he was under duress or attack, Jesus referred back to the Psalms. Maybe that’s when we need to remember the Psalms too.

And for what it’s worth, it’s not a great idea to pack for a trip after the trip started. (Although, with this audience, I’m sure some of you have tried!) You know life’s going to be crazy. You know it’s not all going to be smooth sailing. Pack your bags now. Read the Psalms now. Soak in the Psalms now.

Repeated exposure to the Psalms etches into the hearts of young believers (and old ones too) a Biblical response to pain and suffering. The Psalms show the new way.

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Theologically, we need the Psalms.
Emotionally, we need the Psalms.

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Looking for Balance
The Psalms balance Paul’s head with David’s heart. We tend to idolize Paul, valuing an intellectual (rational) approach that prizes productivity and aims at “finishing the task.” But if we’re not careful, we become automatons on an assembly line to salvation. We show up, clock in, put a rivet here and a prayer there. The Psalms protect us from heartless evangelism and cold workaholism, modeling integration and allowing the mind and heart to be simultaneously present.

The Psalmists weren’t scaredy cats, but they were sometimes scared. They weren’t sobbing piles of emotion, but they sometimes cried. They weren’t angry men, but they sometimes demanded sovereign revenge. They got depressed. They sang. They wept. They danced.
And they prayed.
Closing Argument
We’re working in hard places in dangerous times; we need the Psalms.
We’re working among people who’ve suffered tremendously and endured courageously; they need the Psalms.
Jesus knew the Psalms and used them. A lot. So should we.
How? Read them. Sing them. Pray them.
Especially when you have no words to pray, pray the Psalms. Have you ever been there? Wordless but hurting? Bonhoeffer said, “That can be very painful, to want to speak with God and not to be able to.”
We need the Psalms to be deeply planted and carefully cultivated. In Part 2 we’ll look at some quotes and resources to help you as you journey into the Psalms. We’ll also discuss what this might look like in a Muslim context.
Until then, check out the links below, and maybe go read a Psalm.
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The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms, Tim Keller

The Case for the Psalms: Why They are Essential, N.T. Wright

Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Radical Spiritual Art of Staying Put

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By Stephanie Ebert

If any group of people has a long and convoluted history with evangelical church traditions, it’s missionary kids. Like pastor’s kids, the emotional baggage around church is piled higher than the lost luggage corner at the Johannesburg airport. We tend to camp out either around the “wounded/bitter/cynical” baggage claim belt, or the one labeled “guilt-ridden/never question anything/just be good.”

But then, of course, since we were missionary kids, we carry more cultural baggage as well. Because unlike our pastor’s kid peers, we were always hyper-aware of the cultural trappings of the “Industrial Church Complex” (as author Sarah Bessey calls it). The difference is while we were “outside” the church enough to criticize it; we weren’t “inside” enough to be a part of making any changes. And besides, the churches paid our bills. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

When people ask me to talk about my church tradition, I have a hard time answering. My “church-culture” story has its foundation in the Zulu church we attended in South Africa, but also has strong threads of the American evangelical Christian sub-culture that came through from my parents, other missionaries, and our trips back to the States.

I grew up going to a Zulu-speaking church where we were the only white people. I could understand most of the songs and smatterings of Zulu, but services were long, hot meetings that ran from morning to well past lunchtime. The world’s best singing and the world’s longest sermons. My friends would whisper translations of the sermon (or whatever they wanted) to me. We met in an old, dusty school building, and our Sunday School curriculum was flannel-graph from 19-something left behind by some other missionaries. My mother spent hours re-coloring Jesus so he wasn’t white. As I got older, I saw church as a place you went to serve not a place you went to ‘get fed.’

When I read things written by people a generation or two ahead of me about their evangelical upbringing, I can relate to so much of it. The time-capsule of life overseas means culture gets preserved. Through hand-me-downs from retiring missionary garage sales I absorbed a lot of pre-1970’s Christian culture. Missionary biographies, books about angelic kids who invite other children to Sunday school, and a handbook on being a good Christian woman (that involved diagrams on how to walk, appropriate hair-styles, and the contents of a good Christian girl’s purse). Our home-world was early 1980’s American Christian culture. Because, you know, that’s when my parents left the States, so that’s what was in our time-capsule. We sang choruses as a family from my parents’ grass-roots “getting back to Acts” church they left behind in Austin, Texas, along Dennis Jernigan, Amy Grant and Second Chapter of Acts (all on tape, of course).

Then every four years we’d go to the States and encounter the American Industrial Church Complex. Our furloughs home were like snapshots of the changes American church culture has gone through in the past two decades:

Fourth grade: Love it. Love it, love it. Anywhere where I can get animal crackers, walk into a brightly colored room smelling of whiteboard markers, earn badges for memorizing Bible verses, and be done in 45 minutes is my kind of church! Dad, why can’t we move to America and go to this church always?

Seventh grade: Hate it. Who invented middle-school Sunday School classes? Torture chambers. Oh, and all our supporting churches are having church splits over music now. What’s their problem–who cares if it’s hymns or a rock band, it’s all in English right? Can’t they all just sing along? And everybody is canning their old sanctuaries for convention centers in the name of seeker sensitivity.

Eleventh grade: Why are these churches building more and more buildings but only sending the youth group on short-term missions trips, and cutting funding for long-term missionaries? Why are there graphic designers employed by churches to make glossy bulletins that everyone just throws away? The high school group serves coffee and bagels, and they go to Florida for Spring break missions-trip-vacations. I call them all “cookie-cutter churches” this year. I enjoy making cutting critiques of it all with my siblings (while smiling and talking about God’s work in South Africa to everyone else, of course).

College: I’m in rural Indiana at a Christian college, and I stumble into an African-American church. Best of all possible worlds. It’s English, but they know how to sing, and they don’t have a massive building fund campaign. It’s long enough that I feel like I’ve “been churched”, but not so long that I’m fainting from hunger. My soul has room to breathe again. For the first time, I go to church not to serve, or because I have to, but because I want to.

When my husband and I move back to South Africa, we attend an English speaking church. All my friends have moved on from the Zulu church I grew up in—and besides, my husband knows less Zulu than I do. The people are very friendly. But the disjunction of going to an English church that caters to white, upper-class families when we’re working in an impoverished community just minutes away sometimes feels as painful as peeling off my skin with a cheese grater. I find myself getting more and more frustrated by so many of the ways we “do church” in western culture, but again I don’t feel like enough of an insider to voice what I think.

We hike El Caminio del Santiago in the north of Spain for a month on our way back to the States for my husband to start a two-year masters program. No church, no responsibility, no commitments, wandering in and out of Catholic mass in Spanish. I don’t even speak Spanish. But we memorize the Lord’s Prayer, and follow along with the Gospel readings in our Bibles. Spring-time in the Basque country. I could live like this.

Now we’re in small-town Texas, where there are 33 Baptist churches in a seven-mile radius, and we’re church hunting once more. And once again I’m asking myself, “Why do we do this?! We’re not missionaries. We don’t have to get these people to like us so they’ll send us money. Can we just opt-out for the next two years? I like Jesus, it’s just churches that drive me nuts.” (Yes, I know these thoughts are dysfunctional, but this is the way I think sometimes).

And then, my husband reminds me that we’re the church. As a TCK, I like wandering, I like putting myself on a pedestal and looking down my nose. I like opting-out. I like sarcasm. That’s easy. That’s my default.

In her chapter on church in her book Out of Sorts, Sarah Bessey says she came to realize that, “I didn’t need to pretend allegiance to everything, but I did need to be part of a community…I practiced the radical spiritual art of staying put.”

That’s what we’re focusing on right now. Community. Staying put. We haven’t been in here that long, and knowing we’re on our way out in a few years sometimes makes me question the effort of trying. Small-town Texas is probably the biggest cultural adjustment we’ve ever faced, and church in this context feels just plain crazy at times. I can’t pledge allegiance to the cowboy boots and the gospel of evangelical-political-power that’s preached on Sundays. But maybe I don’t have to. That’s some baggage I don’t need to carry.

But I do still need community. I need the body of Christ no matter how weird I think it is. So we’re attending a Sunday school class but skipping the country music worship service for an online Tim Keller sermon. It’s not perfect, but it’s something. That’s what we’re trying to figure out with church right now: how to give ourselves permission to sort through and let go some of the baggage (after all, we don’t need to pledge allegiance to everything) so that we can practice the radical spiritual art of staying put.

 

square faceStephanie Ebert is a TCK from South Africa and America. Married to a Minnesotan, she and her husband David have spent the past three years working in South Africa for the non-profit iThemba Projects. Right now they are experiencing the cultural shock of moving to a small Texas town for David to complete his masters degree. Steph continues to work for iThemba Projects online. She blogs about social justice, missions, race, and finding hope at bridginghope.wordpress.com

To the ones who think they’ve failed

photo-1448067686092-1f4f2070baae1So, you failed to save the world.
You failed to complete the task of global evangelism.
You failed to see massive geopolitical change in your region.
You failed. Or at least you feel like it.

Good-hearted people in your organization (maybe) and your churches (hopefully) tell you you’re not a failure. But you still feel like one. You came home before you planned. Maybe for health reasons. Maybe for burnout reasons. Maybe you don’t need reasons. You were done, so you finished. You came “home.”

But now you’re finding home’s not home anymore. You knew for sure you didn’t fit in there, but now you’re very much afraid you don’t fit in here anymore. You failed there, and now you feel like you’re failing here. You want to believe that some good came of it. Or will come of it. Or something.

For now, though, you mourn. And you should, because you lost something. You lost dreams, maybe, and years. You lost relationships. Some of those relationships you wanted to lose. Others, you didn’t. And still other relationships you thought you’d regain, you haven’t.

So mourn. Mourn well. Jesus is near to those who mourn. Feel the loss. Welcome it, even. It is a bitter pill that you should swallow as often as needed.

You’re still part of the team. You’re not a washed up, has been, burnt out, broken down, used up, person. You are a child of God, dearly loved. Cherished. And you are still needed. The Church still needs you. The Father still wants you. Jesus still loves you. And the Holy Spirit is still near to you.

The Church still needs your voice. You’ve seen things that many folks “back home” haven’t. Your voice is different. Weird, maybe. But it’s so needed in the Church that sent you. Don’t let them forget the global nature of the Kingdom of God. The Church still needs you.

The foreign mission field needs you. You can counsel, caution, and console in a way few people can. Those still serving abroad need you. Be a voice for them. Be a voice to them.

May you find God to be the great Restorer. The One who heals.
The Great I AM at both departure and destination.
The King who knows you’re always en route.

May you find Peace. May you realize that God’s love for you was never conditioned on your performance. Ever.
He loved you then. He loves you now.
He asks you to love him.
He asks you to obey him.
Today.

So whether you’re here or there,
Whether you feel like a wonderful success or an abject failure,
May you remember His love.

May you believe His love, shining most eloquently through his Son, and may that belief lead to obedience. Here, there, everywhere.

And in the middle of it all, may you hear the Father calling you.
Home.

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A Christmas Prayer

“Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose,

and we have come to worship him.”

The Star of Bethlehem had a point, an important point. But the star was not the point.

The star fulfilled its role of leading across cultures and religious paradigms, down dusty roads and around a paranoid prince, to the Child. He was the Point, this Son, and he shone brighter. He, the Child-King, deserved adoration from all peoples, in all languages, for all of time.

And the Church, like the star, has a point. But the Church is not the point. Jesus is.

The star inspired a journey, away from comfort and the great “known.” So may the Church.

The star led through danger and politically dicey situations. So has the Church, historically, and so does the Church, presently.

The star challenged prejudice, inviting outsiders in. So may the Church.

The star incited worship, but not of itself. So may the Church.

As we celebrate the incarnation of Hope, 

the birth of the Lamb who was slain before the foundations of the world, 

let us pray for the Church, his glorious Bride, who waits expectantly for his return

and the restoration of all things.

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May your Bride, O Christ, rise like the star, guiding people to their King.

May your Church remember that, in leading people to You, it may lead them into danger, both before they find you and afterwards.

May your Church inspire people to start journeying towards Jesus, no matter how long or treacherous that path might be. May the Church show a clear path to you. Not necessarily safe, but clear.

May your Church encourage people to do things they weren’t planning to do, like forgive, or give, or go.

May your Church draw people from distant lands, astrologers and pagans from cultures distinct and different. And after introducing the Savior, may your Church allow them to return to the places they’re from, knowing that when they return, they go forever changed, having bowed to the King.

May the first Star of Bethlehem shatter into a million pieces, not breaking, but multiplying into galaxies of stars that light up the world, churches calling men and women from every corner of the planet, to come and see this thing you have done, this story for the ages.

May your Church be ever diverse, with layers of cultures and languages, colors and fragrances, incomes and social standings, shepherds and sages, all circled around Jesus, giving their gifts. May they be One, Father.

May your Church revel in the joy of others as they bring their gifts to Jesus.

May your Church, the Bride of Christ, stand strong as a bright and pure witness to the passionate Love of God, made clear through the Son, Jesus. A guiding light to those who would seek you, their King.

May your Spirit, O God, be with your people. Amen.

 

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Matthew 2:1-12

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”

King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:

‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah, are not least among the ruling cities of Judah,

for a ruler will come from you who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”

After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.

 

*photo credit

My House Shall Be Called

Photographing weddings got me through college. It also taught me about the Church. Sometimes, your day is spent with really happy people. Sometimes, it’s spent with really stressed out people. Sometimes, the really stressed out people turn into the really happy people.

You get to be around radiant brides, people who dance but really shouldn’t, and people who sing but really can’t. And you get to photograph all.of.it.

You and your camera are invited behind the scenes. You’re paid to capture the excitement, the preparation, the emotion, in pixels and jpegs.

Oh, and there’s usually good food.

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I really like weddings, and I think God does too. In fact, I think God’s planning one.

In his book, The Prodigal God, Tim Keller says, “The climax of history is not a higher form of disembodied consciousness but a feast.” He’s talking, of course, about the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, vividly described in Revelation 19:6-8. The Church is the Beloved, the Bride.

During the Last Supper, Jesus pointed to the Great Supper and said, “I will not drink wine again until the day I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.” (Matthew 26:29) Mere hours before his crucifixion, Jesus points us towards that day, the day of his Wedding.

How we think about that day greatly impacts how we live this one. And what we talk about when we talk about the Church (the Bride) has tremendous bearing on missions. If we’re embarrassed by the Church, it’s sure going to be hard to plant it. If we see the Church as optional and only vaguely connected with the Gospel, we’re neglecting something that is very close to the heart of the Father. We’re also ignoring something that enthralls the heart of the Son.

What do we think of when we think of Church? Are we a group of people longing for a party? Are we longing to see our Beloved, face to face?

When we speak of the Church, do we speak of beauty and mystery and the Bride of Christ? Do we speak about God’s Kingdom, here, now, as a great force for good in a desperate world? Or do we speak of something else entirely?

The truth is that the Church is a gloriously magnificent idea straight from the heart of the Father.

The Church is a strong entity that will not lose, even against the full forces of hell itself.

The Church is the Bride of Jesus, stunningly radiant.

The Church carries the priceless message of salvation in Jesus alone, proclaiming that everyone’s invited to the imminent feast.

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But if you’ve been hurt by the Church, by people in the Church, those last few sentences were hard to stomach.

I’m convinced that one of our main obstacles to loving the Church like Jesus loves the Church is that we’ve been hurt within the Church. (And for the record, we’ve probably hurt people too.) Pain from within the Church sours the whole idea and tempts us to run away. It makes us angry at the Church. It makes us ashamed of the Church.

Sometimes the pain comes from rude comments and mean spirits. Sometimes it comes from rejection. Sometimes the pain comes from outright abuse.

This should NOT BE.

If you’ve experienced pain from within the Church, I.Am.So.Sorry.

Please, hear the voice of Jesus, clearly, and with great compassion, as he says, “My House shall be called a house of PRAYER, not a house of PAIN. Those people did NOT represent me. They were thieves and robbers.”

Look at this picture of a loving Bridegroom defending his Bride, and may it be to you a source of solace and comfort and healing. After showing up in Jerusalem to die, “Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out the merchants and their customers. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the stalls of those selling doves. He said, ‘The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a place of prayer,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves.’” (Matthew 21:12-13)

People are still thieving and robbing in the House of God. They turn a place of prayer into a place of pain. They’re messing with the Bride and ticking off the Groom.

But here’s the thing, Jesus doesn’t just kick out the bad guys and tell everyone to stay away from the Temple. He shows up in the place of pain and turns it into a place of peace and healing.  Right after he expels the “thieves,” we’re told that “The blind and the lame came to him, and he healed them there in the Temple. (Matthew 21:14)

Right there in the Temple! Why would he do that? Because he is passionate about His people, His Bride.

If you’ve been hurt in the Church, may you also find healing in the Church.

May our churches and teams, mission orgs and NGOs, be full of healed people who heal people. May they be full of loved people who love people. May we be so satisfied in Him, so amazed by Him, so filled with joy because of Him, that we are longing for that day as much as He is.

The day of our Wedding is coming, made possible by the passionate pursuit of a dying Savior who didn’t stay dead. Alleluia. Come Lord Jesus. Come for your Bride. 

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What does the idea of the Church as the Bride of Christ mean for you? What do you do with negative experiences within the Church?

College was a long time ago, so these photos are by my friend  Cherish Andrea and used with permission.

Their Purpose is NOT to Give Us Money

There is a subtle mindset which can creep into our thinking as missionaries and social activists.

We can begin to think that there are those who are called to go, and those who are called to give.

Jesus himself said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Matthew 9:37-38

Historically this view has played out in multiple ways.

In his book, Futureville: Discover Your Purpose for Today by Reimagining Tomorrow, Skye Jethani recounts this path through history.

Eusebius taught a two class style. He said there is the perfect life (ministry) and the permitted life. All those not called to a “full-time” ministry emphasis could engage in vocations which were permitted.

The Protestant Reformation brought reform to this with the understanding that God is glorified in all areas of life – including work. This resulted in a dedication to work which was called the Protestant work ethic.

The strength in this is value brought to all vocations. The weakness is that work can become the focus. Our mission or calling can become our identity, even taking the place of God in our lives. Our mission becomes our God. (For a further development of this idea, I would recommend Jethani’s book, With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God. It is one of the most challenging books I have read in years.)

The Puritans had a bit of a different twist, saying each person had multiple callings which much be woven together:
– Highest calling – God himself and relationship with Him.
– Common calling – Biblical commands for life, family, evangelism,  and social concern.
– Specific Calling – Vocation, unique expression in the world.

So which is correct?

Probably a blending of the Protestant and Puritan view.

The application for us as missionaries is more profound.

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How do we view those who support us and provide for our livelihood? How do we see those called to different vocations?

A subtle sense of superiority can creep into our minds.

If someone is not involved in social transformation or evangelistic training and discipleship of souls, we cannot see them as second class citizens.

Jethani asks, “Do we value businesses for their ability to create jobs, sustain families and produce products and services which bless people or do we see them as a means to fund the ministry?”

Often, we can slip into the mindset that businesses exist to make money to give it to those doing the work of the kingdom – I hear it from people all the time on both sides of the issue.

Jethani adds, “Those who pursue and address social change are exalted…but how does a dentist, roofer, or homemaker find purpose? Are they require to give their surplus time and energy to the “cause”, whatever that might be.”

I would add that their primary purpose is not to give money to the causes. Yes, a missionary just said that people’s primary cause is not to give money to me!

All of life is spiritual, not just the things which pertain to missions or social change.

We as “full-time” workers in traditional Christian vocations need to keep this in mind. I have seen far too many people feel a deep sense of inferiority for merely being a businessperson or medical worker. That is not the heart of God.

How do we walk in this truth? And how do we help our donors feel valued for what they contribute to life and society, not merely the money they give to us?

– Chris Lautsbaugh, Missionary teacher and author with Youth With A Mission, living in S. Africa.
Blog: NoSuperHeroes   Twitter: @lautsbaugh   Facebook: NoSuperHeroes

Photo by Erik Cleves Kristensen via Flickr