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China

Why it’s Easier to Follow Jesus in China than it is in the United States

When Christians in America talk about China it usually is a conversation filled with a focus on how hard it must be to follow Jesus in a country that has not historically been seen as friendly to Christians. What I found on my recent trip was that it is very possible that Christians in the west are the ones who are really at a disadvantage. Why? In many ways it is just too easy to be a Christian in America and other western countries where Christianity has historically been strong.

Consider this: On Sunday morning we went to Church in Beijing. This Church has 5 services each Sunday. Eight hundred in the main auditorium and 500 in an overflow. It is packed for all five services. What was really incredible was that people stood in a line for half and hour before each service just to get a seat. It was near 90 degrees outside, yet they waited patiently. Twenty minutes before the service the place was packed, while in most churches in America people regularly come in late and leave early.

When the worship team started singing  the congregation was inspiring. They nearly took the roof of the place. Everyone was engaged and seemed to want to make sure that Jesus knew they were praising Him. There were no casual folks looking to be entertained. The people there were either legitimate seekers, deeply interested in finding out about Jesus, or in most cases, already following Him and glad to let the nations know that their Lord is King.

I then had the opportunity to speak with the pastor and received an even clearer picture of what it is like for people to follow Jesus in China. There is very little in the way of programs that the Church can do to impact the community. Organized church evangelism projects, or even programs intended to serve the needy, are frowned upon by the government. To actively evangelize is viewed as disturbing the balance and harmony of society. So the Church can’t do that. Organized programs to meet the basic needs of people is the role of government. So no Church food banks, or clothing drives, or other common ministries that Churches carry out in the west.

So how is it that the Church is packed and growing if it can’t setup programs or ministries for the needs of people? Simple, the church can’t organize these things but individual Christians can do these things themselves. And guess what? They are doing it. Without fancy programs, events and staff organizing things, these followers of Jesus are living out their faith, everywhere, everyday. As a result people ask them about Jesus. When that happens, you are free to share the Gospel. If you see a person in need, you are free to meet that need, just like the Good Samaritan that Jesus taught about in Luke 15. They are being living witnesses and doing what the Bible tells them to do. As a result Christianity in China is alive and well.

Is it hard to follow Jesus in China? Sure it is. But not for the reasons we usually think. It is harder to do Church there, but it is too easy to follow him here. In reality I am not sure what many of us Christians in the west are doing that can really be called following Jesus. It is far too easy. There is no cost to it, no deep personal investment. We look to Jesus to be our spiritual and emotional fix-it guy. If suddenly there were no Church programs to do ministry, I fear that Christian activity in the west would slow to a crawl. In China the opposite is true. They are not handicapped by our expectation that the Church does everything. They are instead living for Him no matter what. Their lack of programs has meant that as individuals they own their faith deeply and follow Jesus gladly with a passion. Maybe for them it really is easier to truly follow Jesus. It is harder for them to do Church than it is for us, but that is not exactly the same thing as following Jesus.

Hunger and Thirst

Blessed are Those Who Hunger and Thirst

What do you long for, yearn for, lay awake at night dreaming about? What do you hunger for? Much of what we yearn and hunger for never becomes reality. When I was a kid I desperately wanted to go to the moon. I could have told you everything about the space program, including every man who walked on the moon and each Command Module Pilot who circled the moon while two of his buddies played Rat Patrol in the Lunar Rover. I had a hunger to go to the moon. Sadly the program was killed long before I ever had a chance to go. Today I am pretty certain that NASA won’t be starting up a shuttle service to Tranquility Base anytime soon, so that hunger will likely never be satisfied.

Jesus says that there is a hunger that can be satisfied, but it is not something that most people really care much about. In Matthew 5:6 he said “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” At first blush it doesn’t sound nearly as exciting as a chance to hit golf balls on the moon. But the more I think about having a hunger for righteousness, the more appetizing it sounds. Think about it for a moment. What would be different in the world if life was characterized by righteousness? What if people actually did the right thing, treated each other with dignity, watched out for the hurting and weak, and generally loved God and their neighbor above all else? How different might things be if political leaders actually cared about doing the right thing more than getting elected again and again. For that matter, how different would it be if the voters hungered more for leaders who did the right thing than for those who seem to promise the most perks for us? How different would it be if people so longed for righteousness that we would no longer put up with a world in which children starve to death while others grow fat? How different would it be if we thirsted like a dying man in the desert for a world in which women need never fear being raped?  How different would it be if we yearned for a world in which the color of ones skin was seen as a beautiful example of God’s love of variety instead of a reason to exclude, reject or attack?

Jesus hungers for such a world. It is a world in which human beings fulfill the requirements of our relationship with God and with one another. We are to hunger and thirst for “right relationships” that are characterized by loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength – loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. We must never be satisfied with anything less.

But in order to be truly satisfied we must long for a righteousness that is worthy of heaven. For it is only there that we will ultimately experience a relationship with God and one another as it was intended. We must hunger for that heavenly righteousness as a starving man hungers for a crust of bread.

That kind of hunger will lead inevitably to the foot of the cross. At the cross I am reminded again and again that I have no righteousness in myself. I can do nothing to satisfy my need for righteousness. I am spiritually bankrupt. Jesus made that clear in the first Beatitude, blessed are the poor in spirit. But it is also at that cross that I receive my one true hope. I find that Jesus has gone to that cross on my behalf so that I may indeed be in a right relationship with the Father. And that is at the heart of righteousness. It is being made right with God, being in a right relationship with him because my sin has been forgiven. Jesus promises that if I hunger for that kind of righteousness that I will be filled.

As much as I may look at the world and the appalling lack of righteousness in it, I have to look deep into my own heart first. It is there that I must hunger for righteousness before anywhere else. It is in my own heart and my own relationship with God that I must thirst for right things. It is in my heart of hearts that I must yearn for a love for those around me that knows no bounds.

It is a humbling thing to admit that in our hearts we are just not right with God and others as we need to be. But it is also a very freeing thing. It frees me to become the person I know Jesus wants me to be and to look with expectation and hope to the day when all my hunger and thirst will be satisfied.

Psalm 23

Psalm 23: The Lord is My Shepherd

There is a famous psalm written by David that, if written in today, would be Christian music’s number one hit – a multi-platinum recording. Its Psalm 23 and perhaps you have heard of its lyrics? There can be no question that this song beautifully expresses the goodness of trusting in a personal shepherd. I understand that a shepherd probably holds very little weight for those of you reading this in your busy city or quiet suburban hometown. So, let’s modernize this reference that David, and later Jesus, used. Instead of calling the main character a good shepherd, lets exchange it for the word ‘bodyguard.’ The idea of a constant protector is what David was communicating and David, a once shepherd-boy turned mighty king, understood the importance in taking care of helpless animals. David also knew that the Lord was faithful in providing and watching over him.

Can we echo this response when we find ourselves running or hiding in metaphorical caves? Can we echo this when we feel forgotten or lost? Hopefully, we aren’t only proclaiming the following words found in Psalm 23 when life is working in our favor. For the truth is, these words can produce the most power in our lives when we feel the very weakest. Let’s take a look at each well chosen lyric to further understand David’s words to God:

 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

There is truly so much wisdom to be gained from these verses, especially when we attempt to discover God in our lowest of moments, calling Him our forever Lord. Below, let’s look at just the first half of verse one, dissecting what David felt:

The Lord is my shepherd

THE

Notice that David begins by saying that the Lord is His shepherd. He is emphasizing the word “THE” because He is well aware that there is no one else but God who can protect him from life’s snares and pitfalls. Do we truly live this way? Do we camouflage this protection with other things that bring about a false sense of security? Truly, God is THE only thing that can bring about comfort and peace. Can we call him the one and only thing that we need?

LORD

Next, David chooses the title for God Almighty as “LORD,” which means master or owner. While David could have chosen many adjectives to describe the God he knew intimately, he chose to call him Master. I immediately think of a subject serving a King when I hear this title and I truly believe that this was the reverence and honor that David was broadcasting in this opening line. How can we make God our Lord? While we often call Him Savior and Lord, Savior implies that we can do nothing but admit He saved us undeservingly from our sins, but Lord requires action on our behalf. We must place Him in the highest position at all times, surrendering to Him as Lord like David did. How can we begin to make God our Lord each and every day?

IS

David didn’t stop there. David continues by clearly communicating that THE one and only LORD, master and owner of his soul, “IS.” This word “IS” implies a present tense. David is not saying he remembers God was his provider when he felt God’s direction more clearly. Instead, the Lord IS, which means currently. God is always present and personally with us just like a bodyguard protecting a celebrity from crazy fans. Sometimes we may feel like we need a constant hand to hold when life is pulling us in a thousand directions, while other times we may feel invisible, looking for His hand to grasp us tightly. David was vocal in the moments when he also felt forsaken by God, yet He never ceased to praise an ever present Lord… even when He couldn’t feel God’s presence. David believed God was always there. How can we acknowledge God’s presence in our lives regardless of our circumstances or emotions?

MY

The next word is “MY,” which is very personal. ‘My house,’ or ‘my children,’ implies it is yours to claim. The Lord was David’s personal claim. This cannot come without a solid relationship. Yes, relationships go through highs and lows, but knowing that a relationship is yours, much like a marriage, can bring a sense of forever commitment which brings about true joy. Do you call Jesus yours?

SHEPHERD

David uses a word we often lack connection with, which is the word “SHEPHERD.” A shepherd truly has a responsibility and obligation to care for animals who would otherwise roam without guidance. We are the sheep. We can easily be led astray and we need someone to direct us. David saw himself in this manner; wouldn’t you also admit this to be true in your own life?

I’d like to close by putting some thought into the nature of a sheep, so that the real attention can be placed solely on the importance of a shepherd.  I am assuming you haven’t spent much time with sheep recently, so I went to this website called Sheep101 (yes, there is such a thing) and this is what I learned,

“Sheep have a strong instinct to follow the sheep in front of them. When one sheep decides to go somewhere, the rest of the flock usually follows, even if it is not a good decision. For example, sheep will follow each other to slaughter. If one sheep jumps over a cliff, the others are likely to follow. Even from birth, lambs are conditioned to follow the older members of the flock. This instinct is ‘hard-wired’ into sheep. It’s not something they think about.”

I can further identity with my sheep-like nature, can’t you? I can find myself listening to others instead of listening to what God has to say about me. I then end up following mere men instead of following God’s perfect plan. If you are any thing like me, you have once or twice blindly wandered somewhere you’d never thought you’d be because you forgot to seek true wisdom. If not for the grace of God, I could follow my flesh and others around me, right until the end of my time. I am much like a sheep. Thus, I am forever thankful for a loving shepherd who leads me in the right direction. I believe that David hand selected these wonderful words, “the Lord is my shepherd” to remind himself of God’s goodness. Will you also proclaim this promising song over your life today?

Time

“There Just Isn’t Enough Time”

“As a Christian there is stuff I know we should be doing, and really want to be doing, but in our lives right now there just isn’t enough time.” Does that sound like something you have said? If you haven’t said it, is it at least how you have felt? Maybe you never dared speak those words out loud for fear that doing so would somehow force you to deal with the reality of what your own ears heard your mouth say.  In a recent conversation a friend relayed just those words to me. They had been speaking to someone who has a longing, a deep yearning, to do something more, something significant for the kingdom of God. They even have a sense of what that would be. But they just don’t have the time. Now we are not talking about starting a ministry that will end world hunger in forty days, or bring the Gospel to every person on the planet in their own language by next year. We are talking about things like, “I need to be in community with other followers of Christ in a way that we really do life together”. It is about the yearning “To live in such a way that I know my neighbors better and am serving them as Jesus serves”. It’s about “having a more devoted time of prayer and reading God’s Word so that it shapes me into who Jesus wants me to be”. It is about stuff that every follower of Christ can and should do, but so often says, “I just don’t have time”.

Think about this for a moment. There is stuff you know you should be doing and even want to be doing, but there is just not enough time. How is that possible? How can you not have time to do something you know God wants you to do and you have a desire to do? Is God playing some kind of cosmic joke on you? He gives you a desire and longing to do something and then makes the days too short for it to be possible? He gives you a desire and a command to spend more time with your children, but at the end of the day He arranges your priorities so it is impossible. As a result you are left feeling frustrated, disappointed, and guilty. All because you haven’t done what you are sure God wants you to do? All the while, deep in the recesses of your soul is this feeling that God is just not being fair. He asks something of you then seems to make it impossible to accomplish. It sounds like an episode out of the Twilight Zone, where some unseen entity is running experiments on a person to see how long it takes for them to go nuts when faced with a crucial task that just can’t be completed, no matter how hard they try.

What makes this especially surreal is the explosion of modern time-saving devices. Devices that were supposed to free us up for all kinds of noble pursuits have completely failed. It took my grandmother a couple of hours everyday just to make dinner. Now we can pop it in the microwave or order take out and save hundreds of hours a year. It used to take the better part of an afternoon to cut and rake the yard with a rotary, manual push mower and a rake. Now the whole thing gets done in 30 minutes with a direct drive mower and bag attachment. We don’t even need to waste the 5 minutes it takes to make a hard-boiled egg. You can buy them from the grocery store by the half-dozen. And they are already peeled for crying out loud! So what is the deal?

The deal is, we have allowed a picture of a suburban American lifestyle and the upward push of economic advancement to compete with the good that God has for us. At worst I have seen this drive for the nicer house, newer car, advancement of the career and social status, literally rip families apart. At best it has people living a life with a veneer of respectability, rushing to soccer games, participating in church events, attending social functions, but underneath, no one is happy. The parents are at odds over money, time, and other priorities, and the kids have a nagging sense of insecurity because there never seems to be any sense of contentment or peace or tranquility. There is a constant striving for something more and an underlying angst that if we get that “something more” we will still be left feeling unsatisfied.

Some may think that the problem is in our yearning, our appetite for things. It is because we want so much stuff so strongly that we are left hungering for more of the respectable, comfortable, suburban dream. I was reminded recently that C. S. Lewis maintained that the problem we have is not that our appetites are too strong, but that they are too weak. Our appetites for things like comfort, respectability, social standing, and the like, are actually very small appetites. They are but unfulfilling morsels that have the allure of greatness but the substance of vapor. Yet we are made for much more. We have placed within us a longing and yearning for the eternal, the holy, the majestic. We have a hunger for true meaning and significance. We have been created by God to be His image bearers in the world, to be vice-regents over creation, to reflect the glory of a holy, eternal, all-powerful, gracious, loving God. Our hearts ache to fulfill our created purpose. Stupidly we think we will fulfill that purpose by filling our lives with middle-class morality, respectability, and comfort.

There is nothing inherently wrong with running the kids to soccer games, having a nice house in a nice neighborhood, and working at a job that demands much but pays well. What is wrong is when those things become our means to fulfillment, when they become badges of our right relationship with God. We are fooling ourselves when we think so. At that point they are merely idols we worship – and all idols over promise and under deliver. And we are still left unfulfilled, frustrated, and yearning for something more. It is only when we take the radical and provocative step of laying down those idols and looking to find our fulfillment in a full on, sold out relationship with Jesus that we find our purpose. Do you want to be in real community with others but have no time? Then dump an idol and replace it with opening your home in hospitality to others. Do you want to make an impact in the life of someone in need? Then forget about your gym membership and spend the time tutoring an inner city child. Do you want to leave a lasting legacy of God’s grace and mercy, then bag your vacation and spend two weeks every summer for the next ten years serving orphans in Haiti or Africa. You see, there is time to fulfill those yearnings God has placed within you. The question is, are you willing to break out of the suburban twilight zone and lay down your idols?

Die To Yourself

What Does It Mean To Die To Yourself?

“And He was saying to them all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.’” – Luke 9:23

What does it mean to die to yourself? There is something startlingly subjective about this edict Jesus gives to His disciples upon their final realization that He is the Messiah.  While it’s more common for Jesus to speak in universal terms regarding belief and behavior, the above verse speaks directly to the individual would-be-follower.  Jesus is saying to each individual subject, “If you want to follow Me, then you must take up your cross and follow.”  This leads me to believe that while the principles for following Jesus are mostly universal to all and commonly applicable, the ways each of us will have to daily pick up our individual crosses and follow will differ person to person and situation to situation.

There is no one way to pick up your cross, and when Paul tells the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become all things to all men so that by all means I might save some” the practicality of what it means to deny yourself daily becomes clearer.

While I could provide what I think Jesus meant by calling His disciples to deny themselves daily and what Paul meant by attesting to his willingness to accommodate anyone for the cause of the gospel, in actuality I can only provide a testimony of what this has meant for me. When I hear my Jesus telling me to pick up my cross daily, only I can know what that cross is.  My hope, in sharing what I deny myself in order to follow Jesus, is that it would be an encouragement for you to explore your cross and the ways He is calling you to do the same.

For me, in my life, I must die to my desire to be right all of the time.  I have seen in my behavior, and in my ministry experience, a fatal unwillingness to be wrong, whether within Christian contexts or outside of them.  As Christians I think we feel a certain sense of intellectual superiority because of our access to Jesus who Himself claimed to be the embodiment of Truth itself (John 14:6), however our relationship to Jesus (who is Truth) does not guarantee our absolute rightness; in fact, that relationship more calls our wisdom foolishness and our intellect inferior (1 Corinthians 1:27).  God is omniscient (all knowing) and I am not.  To deny myself the need to be right has meant for me a level of compassion and understanding for people from all walks of life for whom God has called me to be all things in order that they might possibly be saved by Him.

What is your cross?  What is Jesus calling you to deny daily in order to follow Him more closely?  Please share your testimony below in order that we all might benefit from our shared openness about the radically different way Jesus has called us to be His disciples in this world.

Moses

Moses and the Burning Bush: Paying Attention to God

Before I began full time ministry, my wife and I were working in eastern Tennessee.  We were newly married, just out of college, no money, living on a college campus (which was part of my job), and we were praying about what God wanted to do with us.  Partly out of dissatisfaction over our current situation, but mostly out of a desire to be used by God in more and deeper ways, we starting asking Him in earnest where He would have us go and what He would have us do.  Within the span of about three weeks, both my wife and I were offered full-time jobs (mine my first full time ministry appointment as a Worship Director), packed up our few belongings, got a cheap apartment in the Chicago suburbs and moved.  It was a whirlwind month, but neither of us will forget what God did to make that transition possible.

Fast forward four years.

We had been living near Chicago and doing ministry there for awhile.  I was nearing the end of my first Masters Degree and again Katie and I began wondering if God might be calling us to take another step.  We started paying attention, listening for His direction, this time a little more experienced at knowing what His voice sounds like.  Often, we had come to discover that whatever the strangest possibility offered to us, God could be in it.  Though we loved where we were, what we were doing, the friends we had made, the ministry possibilities knocking on our door (not to mention having just bought and renovated our first house), this strange opportunity called.

Months prior, as Katie and I were praying for God’s direction, part of those prayers included asking Him to give us more opportunities to share our faith with non-Christian friends.  We wanted to see God use us to bring people into relationship with Him.  This strange opportunity was partly an answer to our prayers for direction, and partly an answer to prayers for greater evangelistic activity.  A Lutheran church in Peoria, IL (somewhere we had never heard of) called looking for someone to train and program their congregation for evangelism.  Neither Katie nor myself had set foot inside a Lutheran church before (not because we were opposed to the idea; simply because we both came from non-denominational backgrounds) and it would mean completely giving up on everything we had worked for years to build near Chicago, starting once again from scratch.

This was one of those strange, exciting, dangerous, unknown leaps of faith we had grown accustom to God calling us to do.

So we did it.  God has richly blessed us in this new endeavor, and each time we take these steps following God, we get a little better at paying attention to what He’s doing around us.

Awhile ago I was reading in the book of Exodus for the umpteenth time and read a phrase I hadn’t caught before.  Moses was wandering around Horeb and saw something strange, exciting, dangerous, and unknown: a bush ablaze but not consumed.  Exodus 3:3 picks up the story,

“So Moses said, ‘I must turn aside now and see this marvelous sight, why the bush is not burned up,’ When the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called him from the midst of the bush and said, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’”

Did you catch that?  Only when Moses took the time to investigate the curiosity before Him, and only when God saw that Moses was paying attention, did He call him over.

That moment, that moment of investigation and paying attention, changed Moses’s life and the fate of the nation of Israel forever.

So what burning bushes in your life should you be paying more attention to?  Is God doing something near you that is strange, exciting, dangerous, or unknown?  Look into it and talk to Him about it.  It may be the moment God uses to start something amazing in your life.