Thursday, April 18, 2019

Pressed Against the Veil

I taught sixth grade Bible for several years, and the most boring lesson was always about the temple.

I would make my students memorize the sections of the temple: The outer and inner courts, the Holy Place, and finally, the Holy of Holies, where the very presence of God dwelt. Only one priest once a year would have the privilege of entering it, and a veil--a curtain several inches thick--separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple. Since it was rare that a person could stand in the presence of God and not die, that priest would have a rope tied around his leg, just in case he blew it and his lifeless body would need to be yanked out.

My students thought that part was cool. But the rest of it? Boring. I couldn't blame them. But I still taught it, year after year, because I knew that when we got to Good Friday, it would be worth it, and I would hit pay dirt.

We would reach the day of Jesus' crucifixion, they would find themselves interested, in spite of their 12-year-old obligation to never be interested in anything. Things would start clicking into place. We had studied the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, so they suddenly understood how Jesus' death paralleled that event. We had learned about Moses and the Passover, so light bulbs went off when they realized the significance of Jesus dying at the exact time that the lambs were being slaughtered at the temple.

But that was nothing compared to their reaction when they heard about the curtain.

Nestled into the accounts of Jesus' death is one line: "At that moment the curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom." (Matt. 27:51) Tangible shock waves would go through the classroom.

The curtain. The curtain that symbolized man's separation from God. The curtain that practically no one could go through without dying. That curtain.

It tore in two? From top to bottom? What do you think that would have been like? I would ask them. The priests would have been freaking out! they would exclaim. No one was supposed to go in there! Hardly anyone had ever even seen behind it!

But since they understood the temple, they understood the significance. Jesus' death meant God opened a way to get to Him. Jesus--the one who called Himself The Way. 

The curtain tore. Sometimes, those 12-year-old adolescents who were never impressed by much--sometimes they would even cry.

There's a song I love from about 25 years ago, which sounds like it was recorded 25 years ago, but it's still on my playlist.

Once there was a holy place
Evidence of God's embrace
And I can almost see mercy's face
Pressed against the veil

Looking down with longing eyes
Mercy must have realized
That once His blood was sacrificed
Freedom would prevail

And as the sky grew dark
And the earth began to shake
With justice no longer in the way

Mercy came running
Like a prisoner set free
....When I could not reach mercy
Mercy came running to me

Jesus cried, It is finished! The curtain tore, and mercy came running.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

When You're Sharing Jesus as an Outsider

Gil and I hadn't been in Tanzania very long before we made our first whopper of a cultural mistake.

We had been investing deeply in the life of an Indian young woman who was with us several times a week. She had a rather harsh mother who, we felt, was giving her daughter unrealistic boundaries and unnecessary expectations. Wanting to help our friend, we approached her mother with our advice. "It's not okay how you are treating your daughter," we said firmly. "She is eighteen years old, so she is an adult. She can make her own decisions."

And the mother responded humbly to our 25-year-old, American wisdom and graciously thanked us for enlightening her on how to parent her child. And we all lived happily ever after. The end.

Um, no. We alienated the mother, caused a deeper divide between her and her daughter, and learned a very hard lesson: Culture and worldview matter. In Indian culture, it is unthinkable to consider an 18-year-old unmarried girl to be either an adult or independent from her parents' authority, no matter how harsh their expectations might be. 

And so began our journey into learning how much we did not know about trying to share the love of Jesus in another culture. 

Since America's inception, Christians didn't need to worry about this. Cross-cultural missions was out there--not right here. Okay, so maybe they thought about it when it came to first-generation immigrants. Maybe a church would offer a seminar on "How to Reach Your Muslim Neighbor." 

I'm not saying that American churches weren't concerned about evangelism; my point is that evangelism of middle-class America was not seen as cross-cultural. Sure, there were plenty of non-Christians out there, but we could assume that they shared many of our core beliefs. We had a starting point of agreement: There's a God, He has established right and wrong, and the Bible holds some degree of authority.

And even once most people started abandoning those beliefs, we all still shared a worldview that came from the Bible, whether we were Christians or not: There is an inherent purpose and order to the universe. We can trust our senses. Biology matters. If you're a human, you're a person. Marriage and family is the bedrock of a society. Moral standards are absolute, even if we might argue over specifics.

But we can no longer assume agreement about these things. Which means that even if you look the same and speak the same language and are living side by side with your middle class, white American neighbors, if you're a Christian, you are now a cross-cultural missionary. Effective evangelism in America requires that you understand a different worldview.

I'm not saying that it's wrong to keep fighting for change at the government level--after all, since America is a government of "we the people," we have a responsibility to work towards a government that we believe is best for society. But we're not going to change hearts by changing laws.

And if we want to change hearts, we've got to understand them first. One of the first things missionaries are told at orientation is that People have a reason for what they do. On the outside, people's actions might look really stupid or foolish to us, but dig a little deeper, and there's a reason there. Even behind horrendous traditions such as female genital mutilation or child marriage or albino murders, there's always logic there. So if you come into a foreign culture with guns blazing, forcefully proclaiming that these are wrong, terrible things, you will lose your audience immediately. Missionaries have learned this the hard way for centuries.

That doesn't mean that we accept these practices as "cultural" and don't do anything about them. But it does mean that we spend time--a lot of time--trying to understand where these ideas come from, and get deep into what motivates culture. Because real change comes from the worldview level.

As American Christians become outsiders in their own country, I can't help but wonder if they have the same lessons to learn as cross-cultural missionaries. As I watch from a distance, I see lots of Christians getting really afraid or really angry, because they feel like they are losing their country. Maybe they are. But what American Christians need to remember is that the "Christian culture" in their country for the last two hundred years has been an anomaly in world history. It shouldn't be an expectation.

American Christians, you might need to start living like missionaries. And among other things, this means that in order to be effective in evangelism, we've got to start by truly understanding the prevailing worldview in our culture. Instead of just frantically trying to put out the fires of abortion and sexuality and re-defined family, we've got to understand what's motivating these cultural changes. And that's going to require a study of worldview.

Do we know why we believe what we believe?  Christians have often said, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it."

And the clouds parted and the sun rose in glory behind the open Bible, and all God's people said "Amen!"

And everyone else stopped listening.

We need a different kind of conversation. Do we know the worldview behind what our neighbors believe? Do we know the worldview behind what we believe?

What is our ultimate source of Truth?
What determines reality?
What is a human? What is a person? What determines our identity?
What is the ultimate purpose in life?
What is the role of a family in a society and what makes the concept of "family" so important? 
How do we draw the line between right and wrong?
Why are things so screwed up, and what needs to happen to fix them?

We should be asking these questions. Can we answer them for ourselves? Can we understand how others would answer them...and why?

Nancy Pearcey is my favorite author, and worldview is her favorite subject. But it shouldn't be reserved for college philosophy courses--this is stuff every Christian needs to know. Every child needs to learn. If we want to be effective evangelists in our culture, then we must understand worldview. Welcome to the world of cross-cultural missions.

Start here: Finding Truth by Nancy Pearcey (right now only 99 cents!)
Love Thy Body by Nancy Pearcey

Know of some other good resources on this subject? Share them with us!

Thursday, April 11, 2019

When You Want to Want to Stay Longer

When living overseas, sometimes there’s no doubt that you need to leave. A denied visa, a medical emergency, a government coup, a burn-out, an unresolvable conflict. 
Sometimes there’s no doubt you want to stay. You’ve adapted; you’ve found community, ministry, purpose, and most of the time, you’re loving life. 
But what about when you think you should stay, but you really don’t want to? 
When the need is great, and right now, you’re the best person to fill it. When you’ve received affirmation from local believers and leadership from home that you are a good fit for your role. When you are seeing fruit–or you can almost see it, just over the horizon.
But you are weary of this life. You are sick and tired of the long lines at government offices, of bugs in your kitchen drawers, of being misunderstood (again). The pollution aggravates your daughter’s asthma, and it takes you five hours to run one errand, and suddenly the price of milk doubles over night. Again.
And your old life is looking pretty great. Your friends’ lives on Instagram are looking even better.
You don’t really want to stay. But you’re pretty sure you should. You want to want to stay. How do you get there?
Maybe sometimes you just need a vacation. Or some counseling. Maybe you need to consider a new neighborhood. Maybe you just need to bite the bullet and buy that air conditioner.
But after fifteen years living overseas, do you want to know what has kept me here longer? Changing my perspective from This is an experience to This is my life.
What’s the difference?
An experience is temporary. It’s something that you check off your bucket list before going back to your “normal” life. You’re likely to expect fun and adventure. You’re likely to have high expectations of what you’re going to get out of it, and lower lows when you don’t. 
Since an experience has a defined beginning and end, you also aren’t necessarily looking for the normal rhythms of work and rest. You might be thinking that you need to pack in as much as you can because you know your time is limited. And when you’re looking at your time overseas as an experience, when times get hard, you just dig in your heels and endure it. (Buy an air conditioner? Pish! I’m here to be tough.) The end is always in sight, and you are counting the days till it’s over.
When it comes time to decide if you should stay longer, it’s not even a consideration. The experience is over; so why should you stay? Your sights are already set on home; they have been for a long time. Staying longer seems unfathomable. 
But when you enter your time overseas with the mindset that This is my life, then there is no end in sight. You realize that adaptation is key. Of course, this does not mean that you try to recreate your life back home. But it does mean that you are actively looking for that “new normal.” When times get tough, you aren’t counting the days until it’s over. Instead, you’re thinking about how you can make this work. How you can adapt. How you can either change your circumstances or change your perspective so that you aren’t utterly miserable all of the time. 
What does this tangibly look like? Put pictures up on your walls. Plant a garden. Spend the extra money to get the couch you love, instead of someone’s old ugly hand-me-down. These are little things, but can help significantly with your mindset. Slow down. Watch TV sometimes. Don’t fret over “wasted” time learning language and culture, chomping at the bit to get your “real” ministry started. Watch. Wait. Listen. Learn. When the power goes out or you get three flat tires in a week, pay attention to your thinking. Are you telling yourself, “Just a few more months and this will be over,” or rather “How can I learn to live this way?” 
You want to want to stay? Let me tell you something I’ve learned about contentment in this overseas life: The more you think about leaving, the more you will want to leave. The more you resolve yourself to stay, the more content you will be. 
And one more thing: There will always be a reason to leave if you are looking for it. Always. If you want a reason, you will find it. So here’s my challenge: Instead of just asking yourself, Do I want to leave?, consider asking yourself, Is there a good reason why I shouldn’t stay longer?
Full disclosure: My family is in that place right now, asking ourselves that question. I realize that finding the answer is not simple, because it can be easy to mingle God’s calling with our own desires. Knowing when has been “long enough” can often become more complicated the longer you stay….because the experience has become life! That’s what’s kept us here fifteen years, and the depth of our friendships, the wealth of what we have learned, and the multiplying impact of ministry have made all of these years more than worth it. I pray it will be for you too.
This article was originally posted at A Life Overseas.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Yes, I Am Judgmental

Let's say that one day you meet a modern-day slave owner in your own country. He's found a legal loophole to get away with it, and he finds no moral problem with owning slaves. He argues passionately that he is good to his slaves and that they have a much better life than they did before he owned them. He staunchly believes that they have consented to this way of life, which wouldn't be far-fetched if they came from poor, hierarchical societies.

In fact, he gets angry with you if you dare question his right to own slaves. Who are you to judge me for my personal choices? If you don't like slavery, that's fine; then don't own slaves. But don't impose your values on me.

Not many of us would be satisfied with that argument. We wouldn't be able stay silent about what this man was doing. We would have a moral obligation to speak up.

How judgmental of us.

Humans are hard-wired to make judgments. We can say that we are open-minded and accepting and not bigoted until we're blue in the face, but when someone comes along who tries to justify raping a child or stealing our car or owning slaves, we suddenly become very judgmental indeed.

So can we please stop trying to pretend that we are not judgmental?

I have chosen to define my moral standards from a historical, literal interpretation of the Bible. I have some pretty significant reasons for that, which will perhaps be for another day's discussion. But that decision means that I believe a lot of things that are quite contrary to what many in my culture believe. Yet somehow that makes me a mean-spirited, bigoted, even dangerous person. Some would say that I need to be silenced for what I believe. At the very least, I should keep my opinions to myself, and not try to impose what I believe on society.

So why wouldn't that standard be permitted for the slave-owner? Why shouldn't he too be allowed to make his own personal choices in how he lives his life and not be confronted by others who judge his morals?

If it seems obvious to you why it would be important to judge the slave-owner, can you therefore try to understand why it is important to me to have the freedom to speak up about biblical morality? A person's individual choices about personhood, abortion, sexuality, gender, and family affect all of us when they start shaping our society. None of us live in a vacuum. We can't assume that anyone's personal choices won't affect other people, because one person's choices affect other people's thinking--and that's how cultures change, and how whole worldviews change. Your personal choices are a big deal to me, as mine should be to you.

"Being judgmental" has become a modern-day badge of shame, and it has caused many of us to be afraid to speak up about what we believe is best for society. But that's not fair. Because those who are labeling others as judgmental are doing the exact same thing--making judgments.

There's an important distinction to make here. Being judgmental is often equated with arrogance, and that is often true. There's a difference between being nasty, cold, or rude with someone you disagree with, versus being kind, but still openly disagreeing. Making moral judgments shouldn't have to assume arrogance. Christians don't always do this right, and that's a problem. Christians often need to do better at speaking the truth in love. But non-Christians need to realize that it's impossible to live as a non-judgmental person.

The bigger, more important questions are these: What is the basis for your judgments? How do you decide whether something is right or wrong? Every single one of us needs to have an answer for those questions, because that's the starting point for having an honest discussion about what is best for our society.

Yes, I'm judging you. You are judging me too. Let's get over it and have a conversation.


*This piece was originally titled, "Yes, I'm Judging You." I changed the title to better reflect what I was trying to communicate. 

After dialogue with readers, I also want to add that I recognize that not all Christians agree on the "literal and historical" meaning of Scripture. That's okay--there is room for debate on certain issues. But Christians who agree that there is a literal and historical meaning at least gives us a starting place for discussion. We might not agree on what that meaning is, but that should just compel us to deeper study to find that meaning, not throw it out as our source of authority. 

Overall, I'm not particularly happy with this piece as I think it comes across as too defensive. I'm not sure if it's particularly helpful. Maybe I'll just eventually delete it. :-)