Why I went to Cemetery / Seminary

Officiating a wedding in my ‘robe’ a few years ago. Something I never imagined as a “Jesus Freak!”

“Dude, you’re not going to cemetery, I mean ‘seminary,’ are you?”

I was a part of the “Jesus Movement” of Southern California in the 1970’s. We saw remarkable and historic events – we literally baptized thousands of new converts in the Pacific Ocean at Pirates Cove in Newport Beach, started churches with thousands of members in storefronts and strip malls all across the Los Angeles and Orange County landscape, and on a personal note, I was privileged to serve as an associate pastor at one of the largest “Jesus People” churches in the Los Angeles basin even hosting members of Bob Dylan’s band to our church on one occasion.

Academia, and in particular, formal theological training seemed, well, unnecessary to those of us who had found Jesus, not as a religion, but in a relationship. I recall one afternoon when my “Jesus freak” senior pastor confronted me about my university studies. “Jesus will probably return before you even graduate, so why are you wasting your time studying?” I replied that, at least to the best of my abilities, I was following God’s direction in my life by completing my university studies. (He eventually hired me after I graduated, but probably never did understand why I had wasted four years of my life studying ‘man’s wisdom.’)

So, fast-forwarding 30 years, I was a bit taken back by the retired Air Force Colonel’s question after church a few weeks ago. “Why did you, a “Jesus Movement” guy eventually go to seminary?”

Almost without hesitation, which bothered me a little (had I anticipated this question?), I replied, “two reasons – the poor ways in which we handled the Scriptures and the lack of humility we had toward Church history.”

Handling Scripture

German theologians, about 100 years ago, developed a rather benign German phrase into a theological pillar. Sitz im Leben means literally, ‘setting in life.’ But beyond that, what it implies is, if you don’t know what a particular portion of Scripture meant to the audience to whom it was originally written, then you really don’t have a ‘right’ to assume you know what its meaning is for us today.

Back ‘in the day’ during the Jesus Movement, we looked at the local and world news as opportunities to figure out just when the Lord would return ‘with a shout and the trumpet of God’ and rapture the Church up to heaven, leaving everyone else to sort things out while the world went to hell in a hand basket. Of course one of our real gems was to discover that the USSR, the Soviet Union was indeed, the Gog and Magog of Old Testament prophecy, just waiting for its opportunity to swoop down and destroy Israel. Henry Kissinger just might be the anti-Christ, though we pretty much knew it would probably be Spain’s prince Juan Carlos. We had it all figured out.

Years later, after the Soviets’ collapse and Kissinger’s apparent inability to rise to the position of anti-Christ, I realized that, just perhaps, these assumptions weren’t using the best hermeneutical tools and possibly did not reflect what the original readers of the Scripture might have envisioned.

That desire – to handle the Word of God with integrity, thus interpreting and applying it with honesty and sobriety – led me to pursue cemetery, I mean seminary studies.

In today’s post-modern world, followers of Christ aren’t as infatuated with eschatology, but I still see the make-it-up-as-you-go approach to interpreting Scripture. One of my stuffy theologian-type professors once wrote on the board, “Scripture cannot mean to us what it could never have meant to the original hearers.” Those words have stayed with me through fads, pendulums of popular theology, and current affairs.

Learning how to discover, at least in part, the original context, or sitz im leben of a passage is one of the reasons I pursued theology.

Humility and Church History

I was a Vineyard pastor. We had discovered how the ‘signs and wonders’ recorded in the New Testament were also active today and how the Church could begin to ‘move’ in the supernatural realm. My first overseas trip was to England in 1988. We were presenting a conference on ‘Signs and Wonders and Church Growth’ at an Anglican church just outside Cambridge England.

The afternoon before our conference began, I took a walk by myself through the historic Cambridge University district, trying to clear the jet lag from my brain. I wandered past an unremarkable, but quaint Anglican Church with a sign in front, “Open Communion Service for all Baptized Christians – 1:30 p.m.” It was 1:25 p.m., so I decided, ‘what the heck?’ and went inside.

I was ushered through the stately gothic sanctuary into a smaller nave, which I soon learned was part of the original structure – a Norman church structure built in the 700’s. There were about 20 of us for the service. The robed priest began using a short-form for the Eucharist that we all found in our prayer books. Within a few minutes after reciting some Psalms, a confessional prayer, hearing the Gospel reading and a prayer from the Old Testament, I found myself at the communion rail, kneeling and receiving the bread and the cup of wine and suddenly encountering a powerful sense of God’s presence.

It hit me – followers of Christ had knelt here for thirteen hundred years, humbly receiving grace and forgiveness through the wine and the bread – and I had just shown up to the party. While I wasn’t ready to reject the powerful move of the Holy Spirit I had seen in recent years, I also realized that our ‘movement’ had hardly been the first to experience the presence of God and, just maybe, I had a bit of arrogance mixed in with my genuine passion and enthusiasm.

That’s the second reason I decided to pursue theology.

When I graduated with my first seminary degree, my wife threw a small dinner party for me with several pastor friends and their wives. I’ll never forget the card that one dear friend, a Baptist pastor in our city, gave to me that night. In it he wrote, “it is by no means necessary that every one in ministry be a theologian – but it is necessary that a few of us are!”

Blade Runners, Juicers, and real Heroes

The garden bench just outside the Rwandan Genocide Museum and Memorial sits in a well-manicured lawn overlooking this striking central African city. But the large concrete pads still loom just beyond the attractive flower gardens. Buried underneath them are the remains of over 250,000 men, women, and children who were massacred during the one hundred days of terror back in 1994 when almost 1 million people were murdered. Our guide told us that next month the remains of another 30,000 people will be buried here alongside the others.

While sitting on the bench, waiting for others in our group to exit the memorial, I was talking with my South African friend and within a few minutes the topic of Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee ‘blade runner’ Olympian came up. We reflected how quick society is to use the term ‘hero’ when describing people with exceptional physical ability and how disappointed we all are when they are caught lying about using illegal steroids, or arrested for one thing or another.

Then, there are real heroes.

Pastor Ernest Ruyenzi is one of my heroes. As a denominational leader in Rwanda, he is well respected throughout his country and has access and influence into the highest levels of their government. But, in spite of his notoriety, and his large frame, he is a soft-spoken, gentle man who has, quite literally, been to hell and back and never lost his faith.

During the Genocide in Rwanda, Ernest was sought out by the killing squads for hiding Tutsi parishoners and for refusing to expose their whereabouts. (Ernest truly is a modern-day Corrie Ten Boom) On three separate occasions, he was moments from being executed when seemingly supernatural events prevented his attackers from killing him.

They ended up inside the Hotel des Mille Colline, the infamous “Hotel Rwanda,” and eventually outside troops came and stopped the bloodshed. The aftermath was equally gruesome. How do you remove almost 1 million decomposing bodies in a small country and not be emotionally crippled for life? Even as life returned to a new normal in Rwanda, hatred, fear, bitterness, and understandable mistrust filled everyone’s heart.

AFMIN came to Rwanda just a few years after the genocide. For the first time, pastors from ‘opposing’ tribes came together in a way that other organizations seemed unable to facilitate. It was in one of those meetings I met Pastor Ernest and his dear wife, Martha.

After a week of teaching 350 Rwandan pastors, Ernest invited me to a meal at their house the evening before my flight home. I remember it well – the rain was pounding down on the poorly paved streets and the inside windows of our car were almost completely fogged up. I had thought it was a private meal, but was surprised when I came inside and found about 25 of the pastors I had met throughout the week during our training.

Through an interpreter, Pastor Ernest explained that he had felt compelled to reach out to these other leaders – all from different ‘warring’ tribes and groups, and have a night of reconciliation. One by one they shared unbelievable stories of horror and heartache, yet each ended with stories of redemption and grace. One Congolese pastor remarked, “after seeing what [a particular tribal militia] had done to my family, I never thought I would be in a home with people from those tribes.” Tears flowed and I was asked to make closing remarks and prayer.

That evening was over 10 years ago and it remains to this day one of the most remarkable moments in my life. Linda and I were blessed to have Ernest and Martha at our home a couple years ago to meet some of our friends. I was blessed yesterday to greet my dear friends in their country again. There is peace in Rwanda, but at times you can sense that it is both shallow and vulnerable. But when I look into my friend’s eyes and see the peace of God abiding in him, I am reminded of what true heroes look like.

Jesus is my boyfriend?

The author called it the  “Jesus is my boyfriend” genre of worship music.  I almost choked as I read this in the blog of a respected pastor and theologian.  Beyond the obvious shock factor, his point was, well, to the point.  Over the past couple decades, our move toward songs celebrating the ‘intimacy’ of worship has resulted in a whole category of songs that could have been written for Brittney Spears or other pop icons, substituting “Jesus” for ‘baby!’

I would add another ‘genre,’ the “Jesus is my therapist” version of the same, focusing on God’s immediate intervention into my emotional angst and ‘issues.’

For the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity to teach a college level course on the book of Psalms at our church to the students of the New Life School of Worship, a residential, one-year intern / training program that has equipped several hundred worship leaders, many of whom have actually been hired as worship pastors at churches around the country.

The first two-thirds of the course focuses on the structure, poetry, and theological themes in the Psalms and the last third takes a sweeping look at how the Psalms have shaped and influenced Christian worship over the past two thousand years.  After reading and studying scores of Psalms, we are still amazed at the power in the words of the Psalter.

Today our class had a lively discussion on how the early Church Fathers were hesitant to allow folks to write songs for Christian worship, preferring to use only Scripture, and particularly the book of Psalms (exclusive Psalmody).  The danger was that well-intentioned songwriters would, well, write bad songs – songs with bad theology or worse; songs that actually do more harm than good.

A few ‘YouTube’ sites later and our class had gone completely off the rails.  We had seen and heard some outrageous examples of songs that not only don’t reflect Scripture, they promote seemingly human romantic relationships that involve our Lord, all the while, focusing on ‘me’ rather than on God.  My students are all remarkably talented young men and women, some of whom have already recorded CDs and are indeed worship leaders.  They were struck with the challenge – going back to the Scripture as our source for worship rather appealing to the lowest common denominator – ourselves.

There are wonderful new worship songs out there but nothing we do is in a vacuum.  Our modern ‘CCM’ generation did not invent Christian worship and, it could be argued, we haven’t really improved it much either.

It was the Psalms that inspired Martin Luther to construct the liturgy into four basic movements.  Beginning with praise (the “praise” Psalms) we then move to the sermon (the “Wisdom” Psalms) followed by public confession and absolution (the “Penitent” Psalms) and culminating in the celebration of the Eucharist, the ‘giving of thanks’ for the work of Christ which can be seen in the Thanksgiving and Sacrifice Psalms.  What a novel idea, begin with praise and worship, followed by instruction, public confession and ending in the celebration of the Eucharist.  If it sounds boring, then the problem is with us and not with the Scriptures.

http://www.newlifeschoolofworship.com/

Beggars and Bell Ringers

Salvation Army bell ringers are hardly thought of as ‘beggars,’ but a recent city council resolution in my city aimed at aggressive panhandlers in our downtown area has also limited how this worthy charity can ask for money.  Begging, it seems, is going to be regulated, at least in my town.

On my journey back to the US last week, I was in the airport in Brussels waiting for a shuttle bus to take me to another terminal when I found myself overhearing an animated conversation between a young ‘missionary family’ from the US, on their way back to Africa and an American couple on a vacation in Europe for the holidays.  Without being overtly rude, I listened with interest as the young missionary (presumably from an evangelical background) began to generalize the US as not caring about the world’s poorest people since we have the wealth to ignore them.

This is hardly a new argument, and in fact, the “my country sucks because we’re wealthy and the rest of the world is poor” mentality is almost viral when young, idealistic American kids go to the developing world for the first time.

After 38 trips to the African continent (and I actually lost count of all my overseas trips, including India several times, the Middle East, and elsewhere) I just can’t “hate” my country when I return home.

In fact, last year, according to the Charity Aid Foundation in the UK, the US became the most generous country in the world (rising from 5th place the previous year).  We gave over $200 billion to help the rest of the world last year.  That’s a lot of money coming from evil, consumer-driven capitalists!

At the same time, however, the challenge for us is to begin to give smarter!  A few years ago, I had the opportunity to write a book review for a national Christian magazine.  The book was titled, “When helping hurts,” which tackles the tough issues of unintentional dependency that results from well-intentioned, but non-strategic giving.

Generally, I don’t give to street beggars while in Africa – this might sound terrible, but the reality is, if I did, I would still be on the same street in Liberia because the line of beggars would still be there!  I give – both of my own money and my time and energy (as well as other people’s money since I work with a non-profit that asks all of you for money!) in ways that can help these folks develop a sustainable future beyond begging.

Think about your giving – is it ‘feel-good-motivated,’ or is it strategic?

And, throw in a few extra bucks into the Salvation Army kettle – they can use it!

 

 

 

Christmas songs and Third World Violence

It’s my “airport day,” flying from my home in Colorado to the West African nation of Liberia, where, after 18 years of brutal civil war, they are enjoying a very fragile peace and trying to rebuild a country that was quite literally destroyed.

The Colorado Springs airport – my ‘home’ airport is small, easy to navigate and today filled with festive Christmas decorations and piped in Christmas music.  It’s the usual fare – ‘Rockin’ around the Christmas tree,” several Elvis versions of classics, and just now, one of my new ‘favorites’ which so aptly sets the tone for this trip.

Natalie Cole, daughter of the famous crooner, Nat King Cole recorded her version of “Grown up Christmas list” some years ago.  In fact, the first time I heard it was about ten years ago.  I was in my car, about this time of year, having just returned from our African refugee camp project when I listened to the tune.

As the lyrics go, the singer is remembering fond memories of sitting on Santa’s lap as a child with a list of what she wanted for Christmas.  The twist is that now she has a “grown-up Christmas list,” which builds as the song’s chorus and is quite moving musically.  But that first time I heard it, all I could think about were the thousands of refugees I had met, who had seen their lives torn apart because of war and violence.

No more lives torn apart,

That wars would never start,

That love would heal all hearts.

Every one would have a friend,

And right would always win,

And love would never end,

This is my grown up Christmas list.

Both saccharine and sentimental to be sure, but the first time I heard this chorus, while driving in my car, I wept – images of my Congolese friends whose lives had most certainly been ‘torn apart.’

Today I’m listening without the obvious tears, but can’t help but consider once again, where I’m headed.  Liberia is one of the poorest nations on earth, reeling from war and economic ruin, where there is likely no “Christmas season” but rather the daily struggle to simply survive.

I grew up in a very ‘normal’ middle-class Lutheran home where nobody I knew ever traveled, well, much of anywhere.  Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine my life today.  Yet, back when I was in Lutheran parochial school, probably 5th or 6th grade, missionaries from Liberia came to our church.  I recall crying as I saw the slides of their work and heard their stories.  I do remember, in my simple ‘Lutheran’ way, asking God if there was any way I could help these people?  Little did I know the plans He had for me, and little do any of us know how God can and will fulfill his plans in our lives!

“I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord…”  Jer. 29:11

 

What Wilberforce must have felt!

The remarkable film, “Amazing Grace” follows English abolitionist William Wilberforce as he determines his Christian faith no longer allows him to be silent about slavery.  His courage and tenacity led to that most wicked of human institutions being abolished in England three decades before our country would follow suit.

Yesterday, Pastor Peter, our Liberian host, drove us to a rural area outside of the capital city.  Along the dirt road I saw children working – carrying recently made bricks on their heads and one young boy, probably 11 years old, struggled with a broken down wheelbarrow full of what appeared to be cement.

Across the dusty road were school children in their familiar African school uniforms walking home.  “Why are these children working instead of going to school?” I asked Peter.

He replied with a sadness in his voice, “Their parents cannot afford the school fees which are between $50 – $75 per year, so their children will never be educated, but only work.”

Pastor Peter then told us that probably 80% of the children in this ‘district’ do not attend school.  That is why he is building a school which will not require school fees, but will offer scholarships.  He is also trying to build a medical clinic for women and children.  It’s only a foundation on the hard African soil at the moment, but the land is paid for and his congregation is full of faith toward this vision!  These are the kinds of pastors and leaders we are privileged to come alongside and train – truly “Kingdom people!”

But as we drove past these children working hard labor, I saw another little boy, his shirt pulled up over his head to give some relief in the hot tropical sun and tears formed in my eyes.  “This is so wrong!” I muttered rather loudly.  Peter heard me from the front seat of the car and replied, “Yes it is!  Which is why we are so thankful that you have come to Liberia to help us!”

I’m certainly no Wilberforce.  But with God’s strength, and His provision through others who care, perhaps we can help this country!

Man vs. Wild – West Africa Version

Meeting with the Lutheran BIshop of Liberia

The embarrassment and humility far outweighed any notoriety I might have felt later in the day.My day started out well – a good night’s sleep, which is a real blessing, as anyone who travels internationally understands.  I shaved, took a shower (there is a point in giving personal details of my morning ritual) and looked forward to teaching a group of pastors, meeting with the presiding Bishop of the Lutheran Church of Liberia, and enjoying the growing camaraderie with my friend, Pastor Mark Glenn from Illinois.

My shower was finished, and I tried to open the small glass door in the rather small, square shower enclosure only to find that the handle had broken and was stuck in the ‘locked’ position from the outside.  At first, I chuckled at the situation, figuring that a good ‘jiggle’ of the relatively unstable shower door would unlock me from my wet and “awkward” circumstances.  Fortunately, I had my towel, which I had draped over the enclosure.

After several minutes of jiggling, turning, pushing, forcing, etc., I began to become just a bit more agitated.  A few shouts yielded no help, as the walls are all literally, solid concrete.

I’ve watched the TV show with the British survivor expert, Bear Grylls, so I looked at what resources I had – a towel, the only thing, quite literally, at my disposal.  If I could do a rather hefty ‘pull up,’ perhaps I could swing myself over the top of the shower.  The only problem is there was only about 18 – 20” of space between it and the ceiling.  Jumping up, I needed just a slight ‘boost,’ so I slipped my toes onto the water faucet fixture, mostly just for balance, only to have the rather rusted fixture break off and begin to spray water all over the place!

At this point, falling back into the shower, I determined that I HAD to get out of there!  So, with a lot of will power and upper body strength, I made it up, and trying to not shatter the glass, swung my body over, then used a wooden drapery header to again, balance myself.  Except, the wooden header then came right off the wall, crashing to the floor, where I followed, obtaining a respectable ‘road rash’ on my forearm, but, other than that, and my pride, I was unharmed!

There’s just something about Africa!

The rest of the day went better.  Temperature was 91° and the humidity was 91%, but we had over 60 pastors show up for our orientation and training… the first such gathering we’ve had in Liberia.  During lunch we went over to the Bishop’s office and were received in a warm and inviting way.

Today, we had even a few more pastors come, some of them representing networks of churches.  One man dressed in traditional African garb was so excited to meet me.  He is involved in planting over one hundred churches in rural Liberia!  A nation rising out of the ashes of unspeakable horror and bloodshed, there is hope for this little country which has been forgotten by so many.

 

The Perils of Drive-By Missions

Airport sitting always stimulates that smaller-than-average math part of my brain and I began to calculate my own travel statistics: Since transitioning into my present ‘role’ as a missions guy at the end of 1999, I’ve traveled to Africa 35 times (this trip is my 36th, but who’s counting?)  Add up ‘mission’ trips while I was a senior pastor, and the total is over 50 international trips since 1988 – when I arrived in England for my first ‘overseas’ trip.

I have removed the United Airlines Hemisphere’s Magazine from the seat pocket (which the announcement over the speakers has told me I am welcome to take as a souvenir) and looked at the map.  It’s hard to read with all the little lines representing United and partner flights, but… best I can tell, I’ve actually only been to 10 African countries (no, airport stops don’t count!) and a total of 22 countries in the whole world, including Canada and Mexico.

Canada clearly wouldn’t count as an international trip, since, other than the bacon, everything else is pretty much the same, eh?  Mexico sort of counts, one trip was accompanying my [then] youth pastor on a mission trip to Mazatlan.  The other two Mexico trips involved, as I recall, my wife, a beach, and some sort of little drinks with paper umbrellas in them…

So, how come I’m on my third passport, all with extra pages inserted – twice for each passport – with only a paltry 22 countries total?

When I was a pastor with the Vineyard churches, our leader, John Wimber, warned us about developing a ‘mission’ philosophy that has more to do with filling one’s passport with a variety of stamps than developing long-term Kingdom connections.

My passports appear redundant – ten trips to my dear friends inside the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp, nine trips to the terrible, impoverished, mega-city of Kinshasa, DR Congo, etc., etc.  But each time I land in familiar airports throughout the world, I am met by friends – colleagues in ministry, some of whom I have known for over a decade.  There is not the excitement of a new place (even ‘exotic’ locations lose their exotic status the sixth or seventh time you’ve been there), but there is the ongoing development of kingdom relationships, where you sense that your efforts are actually making a difference.

Contrast that with the ‘show-up-and-do-something-for-these-poor-people-get-some photos-and-leave’ philosophy, which seems to have pretty much hijacked most local churches’ missions departments.  Often in the book of Acts, it states that Paul, or Barnabas, or others would ‘stay there for a while’ to encourage the church.

Perhaps rather than the cart leading the horse, local churches, through collaboration between their leadership and laity should prayerfully find true partnerships where they can have ‘staying power,’ and thus make some measurable differences, i.e., “fruit,” for the sake of the kingdom!

 

Off to Liberia

Years ago, as a local church pastor, I never anticipated my future would bring me face to face with people and nations emerging from civil war, but the past decade has found me in refugee camps, war-torn villages and UN military zones!  Last year, our ministry’s CEO asked me to prayerfully consider taking on a new responsibility – directing and overseeing a new project in the war-ravaged nation of Liberia, in Western Africa.

Established in the 1800’s as a place where freed slaves from America and the Caribbean could be resettled in Africa, this lush tropical nation has more recently been known for an incredibly violent civil war, killing hundreds of thousands of people and sadly, was infamous for using “child soldiers.”  By 2003, the London Economist magazine declared Liberia, “the worst place in the world to live.”

Last November, I went to Liberia at the invitation of several Liberian pastors who have quite literally pleaded with AFMIN to start a  pastoral training program. By the end of our week in Monrovia, the crowded,  impoverished capital of Liberia, we were able to meet with 26 key  denominational leaders.  The pastors present were enthusiastic about AFMIN starting an equipping and training project in their country.

I am departing for Liberia on April 9 and my primary purpose is to establish stronger ties to the pastors and church leaders of the country, and to conduct a two-day leadership seminar.

Before and after the seminar, I’ll be meeting with leaders from the Pentecostal churches, Evangelical congregations, as well as the denominational leaders from ‘mainline’ protestant denominations, as well as the government’s “Secretary General” of churches in Liberia.

In spite of the 20-year civil war, the churches have maintained their ‘labels’ and sadly, their divisions as well.  Over 40% of the Liberians claim to be Christians, yet  few of the pastors are adequately trained and many (if not most) of the churches are very ‘unhealthy.’  Islam is also making its ‘claim’ on this region, reaching out to unsuspecting nominal Christians.

I was raised in a liturgical Lutheran church where I learned about the Lord and saw a genuine and sincere faith in my parents and in my church family.  But, it wasn’t an “emotional” type church structure (if you know Lutherans, you know they are a stoic bunch!).  But I clearly remember a church service when I was  11 or 12 years old. Missionaries from Liberia came to our church, told stories, showed slides, and shared what God was doing.  I remember crying – the only time I ever remember crying inside that church, and recall as if it were yesterday, asking God at the end of the service if there was something I could do for the people of Liberia.

Now, forty years later I’m actually doing something for the people of Liberia!