"They packed their belongings in a casket."
I remember reading about the first Alliance missionaries and their deep commitment to go to dangerous places. They didn't think they would be coming back alive. Perhaps they would serve overseas for years, but it was likely that they would be martyred for their efforts to shine the light of Jesus in the Congo.
I was reminded of this last week when Janet and I attended the General Council of the C&MA in Orlando. It was a week of business meetings, worship, reports and challenging messages brought to a climax on the final day when 62 new Alliance workers were commissioned for overseas work. While there was much to celebrate during the week, I couldn’t help but feel an undercurrent of the seriousness of the work to which we are called.
For several decades the work of Alliance missions focused on reaching the responsive peoples of the world. We sought to plant churches and train leaders among those who were ripe for harvesting. Networks of churches formed and Bible schools were started as these efforts matured. But in recent years we have shifted to taking the gospel to those who have never heard. In most cases, a large part of the reason they haven’t heard is because their culture, and perhaps their government, is hostile to the message of Christ. It is dangerous work.
Many of our new workers are heading to those places. Getting kicked out of countries is likely. Imprisonment, physical violence and even death are possibilities. There will be no newsletters or Facebook posts from these unsung heroes of the faith. In our hyper-connected world an email or Instagram post can mean deportation so they rely on the prayers of those who are sensitive to the voice of the Spirit.
Often in America church life is marked by entertainment and socializing. “Fun, Friends, and Jesus.” The gospel is presented as a means to make life better. Relationships can be healed, addictions can be broken, and blessings can be enjoyed. This is true, but what if accepting the gospel meant losing your job or your family? What if instead of healing it meant torture? What if it carried with it a death sentence?
Would you share the gospel with a co-worker if you knew that becoming a Christ-follower would mean losing his family and perhaps being killed? Would you be willing to go somewhere to share the gospel if the penalty for doing so was jail? Is it worth it?
Heaven and hell hang in the balance. The New Testament church experienced all of these things and continued to grow in numbers and in the power of the Spirit. In the same way, the Alliance is seeing people come to faith in the darkest regions of the world. The work is difficult and daily difficulties must be faced, but seeds are being sown and frequently a harvest is being reaped as well.
This Council made me glad to be a part of C&MA, a bunch of irregular people filled with a desire to know Jesus and make him known to ends of the earth.
Oh, that pioneering work in the Congo that started back in 1884 has born fruit. Those Spirit-led risks have resulted in over a million and a half people in the DRC worshipping Jesus today! May the Lord use us in the same way today.
- Pastor Karl Emerson
Prayer rooms are interesting places. The Lord has a way of sneaking up on you while you are in them. Just today I was spending some time praying through the requests from the people in our church. They filled a basket. There were dozens of requests for healing. Cancer, MS, back problems, and heart issues were mentioned multiple times. Then there were the requests for marriage problems. And requests for the breaking of addictions. And requests for the salvation of so many friends and family members.
I’ve prayed through many such requests before. But today was different. The requests began to feel like an overwhelming weight. The more prayer cards I looked at, the heavier they seemed. Its weight was oppressive, almost crushing. And strangely familiar.
Suddenly, I had a flashback to the Saddam Hussein Museum in Kurdish Iraq. Friends had taken me there. It was a converted jail and what was displayed were the unspeakable horrors that the regime’s prisoners suffered at the hands of the brutal jailers. The scene in my mind changed again and I was on a mountaintop not far from Strasbourg. It is an idyllic place, except for what happened there: Nazi medical “experiments” on interned Jews. Few survived the barbaric procedures. The images in my head shifted again and I was at the Dachau concentration camp. Do I even need to recount the things that happened there? All three places had the same nefarious spirit.
Such was the heaviness that I felt as I leafed through the prayer requests this morning. It was the feeling of the grinding agony of the hopeless captive. And I was feeling just the pain of a handful of requests for deliverance from suffering from the people known by this church. Pain, broken relationships, and addictions were painful shackles on so many people, and this was just a fraction of the people in my city.
Then I remembered walking away from the ovens at Dachau with tears in my eyes and anger in my soul. I looked at my son and said with gritted teeth, “If ever there was a reason for war, stopping this would be it.”
Sitting in the prayer room this morning I realized something. The weight I felt and the anger I felt were exactly the things that the Lord felt as he looked at a world held captive by sin. People were tortured and deceived by Satan and faced eternal suffering. The prisoners had no hope and no possibility of escape from their bondage, unless God did something.
The cost would be enormous. It would be a battle unlike any other. He would send his only Son to fight for the release of the captives. His Son would freely give himself to be tortured and executed. During his execution, he would not only suffer physical agony but he would have the guilt of every sin placed upon him. It would crush him.
He did it to set the captives free. He did it to put an end to suffering. There is hope. There is a way out of the suffering, a path to freedom from addiction, and release from the prison of sin.
I began to pray with new fervency. The situations on the prayer cards in my hand were not hopeless. The battle had been waged on Calvary and victory declared at the tomb. The wounded can be healed. The broken can be mended. The captives can be set free. There is a way out of the prison.
Jesus reigns victorious. Satan has been defeated. Hallelujah!
Strasbourg, France. The stunned gasp from the congregation was totally unexpected. I racked my brain trying to figure out what had happened. I had been preaching and used a big theological word and suddenly realized that many of the non-native English speakers in the room might not know the word. So, I had stopped and asked if someone could define the word for the benefit of everyone. A young American university student raised his hand and I called on him.
His definition of the term was correct, but contained several equally difficult theological terms. I rolled my eyes and said, “Thanks, that was SO helpful. It REALLY cleared things up.” He, and a few others in the room laughed, but their laughter was drowned out by the loud gasp of many others in the room. What could the problem be?
I suddenly realized that I was the cause of the gasp. Rather than understanding my remark as light-hearted teasing, many thought that I had ridiculed a young man’s attempt to be helpful. He had been bold enough to answer my question, and I had made fun of him in front of everyone.
The awkwardness was a common problem in France. The humor of one culture doesn’t translate well into other cultures. On the Iron Range of northern Minnesota, where I had spent 14 years, the teasing among friends was almost constant. But in France, I would think of some quick retort only to find it falling flat and the people around me looking confused or sometimes hurt. I found myself constantly find myself biting my tongue to keep from saying things that people wouldn’t think were funny.
One of the things that I noticed was that American humor (along with British humor) tends to be filled with sarcasm. It is the quick jibe or clever put-down that gets the laugh. The late Don Rickles was a master at it. Living in Strasbourg, I learned to restrain myself. There were also difficult conversations trying to explain that if Americans said something that seemed mean to you, it probably meant that they actually like you. It reminded me of a pastor I knew who was devastated when he woke up and saw toilet paper hanging from all the trees in his yard. He assumed that someone in the church hated him and had a hard time understanding that the youth group had done it because they loved him!
Now that I am back in the United States, I find my tongue is looser. But I don’t like what is coming out. The light-hearted put-down which so rapidly comes to my mind tastes sour, even though my intent is to build relationships! The sarcastic quip doesn’t feel “right” anymore. But why? Is it one of those things that is just a normal part of culture and requires some “translation” to understand (like toilet papering someone’s house), or is there something else going on?
Since I observed that much of American humor is sarcasm, I decided to look up the word in the Bible. While there are examples of sarcasm in the Bible, the word itself isn’t found there. Interestingly, the word sarcasm comes from a Greek word meaning “to strip or cut the flesh”. The dictionary goes on to define the English word to mean “the use of remarks that clearly mean the opposite of what they say, made in order to hurt someone's feelings or to criticize something in a humorous way.” So, we use the excuse of humor to say things that can wound or injure others. After all, we were only joking!
I did some more searching online about sarcasm and came across several interesting sites that were devoted to fiction writing. They said that sarcasm in dialogue can be used to show that a character in a story is cynical, bitter, and usually arrogant. Sarcastic characters are typically impatient and do not respect the person at whom the sarcastic comment is made. Those character traits didn’t seem to fit with the fruit of the Spirit. Things like love, joy, peace, and patience hardly produce snarky sarcastic comments.
Then I ran across a quote from Ellen DeGeneres (of all people). Here’s what she said, “Most comedy is based on getting a laugh at someone else’s expense. And I find that’s just a form of bullying in a major way.” That made me pause and think about the quick-witted jest that tears at someone’s flesh just to get a laugh. It is not really much different than the brute who pushes the little kid into the mud puddle because it is funny.
This way of joking is a far cry from Ephesians 4:29. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth, but only that which is useful for building others up according to their needs so that it will benefit those who listen.”
What is the driving force of the sarcastic quip? Perhaps it is a desire to fit in with a group of people that loves put-downs. We all feel the desire to be accepted by others, but you would think that we would have overcome succumbing to peer pressure when we left our teen years behind. Perhaps there is bitterness or arrogance inside of us. Perhaps we are cynical and have become deeply pessimistic. Perhaps we harbor a secret desire to tear others down to make ourselves feel better or to look good. These things poison the well from which our speech flows. They cause us to excuse hurtful speech in the name of humor.
As followers of Christ, we are called to live lives of radical love. When our hearts are full of his love, our mouths will be filled with a sweetness that will build others up according to their needs. Our desire to encourage others should far outweigh our need to fit in with a group that loves to tear one another down. And so, I am setting a guard over my mouth these days. But even more, I am paying attention to the words I speak and asking the Lord to reveal what is behind what I am saying. I want my words to be full of grace and seasoned with salt so that it will benefit all who hear them. To do that I need to be willing to look at the source from which my words flow.
May the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart be pleasing in His sight (Psalm 19:14).
The start of a new year is always a time of rethinking our priorities. Even those who do not make formal resolutions spent at least a few moments thinking about what they want to do in the coming year. All of us should spend some time pondering what God’s priorities are for our lives. Often, we struggle trying to discern what the Lord wants us to do. As with many things, what seems complex can really be boiled down to something basic and easy to understand. So easy, in fact, it is tempting to dismiss it as unimportant. Often, we are like players on a basketball team that is enamored with fancy passes and crazy dribbling moves but has forgotten that the purpose is to put the ball in the hoop. It is the basic things that we take for granted that we forget and we do so at our own peril.
The Jewish leaders in the time of Jesus were passionate about obedience to God. They wanted to do God’s will and zealously searched the Scriptures looking for the things God wanted them to do. It helped them make decisions about simple and complex matters (John 5:39). They recognized 613 different commands in Bible. Some were positive actions to take and others were prohibitions. These commands guided everyday life.
When asked what the greatest or most important commandment was, Jesus answered that it was to “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” This is the number one priority of God for our lives: to love Him (Mark 12:28-34).
Strangely, when I talk to people about their goals for the coming year, loving the Lord never comes up, yet it is the Lord’s top priority for our lives. But what if we made loving Jesus our main goal for the coming year? What would that look like? What would it mean? How would we go about it?
A partially correct answer would be that we would obey him. After all, there are many passages that say that those who love him will obey him (John 14:15-24; 1 John 5:31). Those who say they “love God” but don’t do what he says are deceiving themselves. But I suspect that simple obedience falls far short of what the Lord intends. We all know that it is possible to obey rules on the outside while our hearts are filled with rebellion (Matthew 15:1-9).
Another tempting answer would be to make some promise of bold action to prove our devotion. Such an attempt is silly when we consider who God is. He is the Creator. He formed galaxies by simply issuing a command. What feat could we do that would possibly impress him? Build a cathedral? We’d be using the things he made. Go on a mission trip? Do you really think that will impress God?
We are called to be in love with the Lord. Our hearts are to be filled with affection for him. We are to be enthralled with his beauty and enamored with his fascinating personality. We are to be awestruck at his power and amazed by his majesty. This is far more than doing things out of duty or dreaming up grandiose projects. It is the greatest calling and what we were created to experience.
How do we grow in our affection for Jesus? There is much that could be said, but let me suggest three simple things.
Increase your knowledge of him.
The more we know about the Lord, the more excited we will be about him. The fullness of God is found in Jesus. His glory was veiled in human flesh, but the Incarnate One displayed what he is like. So, spend time reading the gospels with the goal of learning more about what Jesus is like and what his kingdom is all about. Ask him to teach you more and more about him. Ask him to reveal his heart to you. Take time to express back to him your praise and adoration for who he is.
Increase your capacity to worship him.
We struggle to find the vocabulary to express our love for the Lord. One of the best ways to become more fluent in worship is through the language of the psalms. Take a psalm and use it to express your adoration of who he is. Read through the psalm slowly. Then go back and read it again, pausing to affirm the qualities that you see there and express them back to the Lord. This habit may lead you to repentance or praise, and it will cause you to grow more intensely in love with him.
For example, take Psalm 46. After reading it through once, go over it a second time, paraphrase and praying according to what it says.
"God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore, we will not fear though the earth gives way,
Though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea
Though its waters roar and foam,
Though the mountains tremble at its swelling…"
Psalm 46:1-3 (ESV)
Lord, I praise you because you are a refuge and strength and a help in times of trouble. You are a place where I can hide safe from the storms and battles of life. How awesome you are! You formed the ground I walk on and know the names of distant galaxies. How much bigger and stronger you are than the things that trouble me. But you are a very present help in times of trouble. Right now. Right here. You are present. There is nothing that I need to fear. Though all around me might fall apart today, I rest secure in your arms. You will never fail me. Oh, how I love you!
A steady diet of praying this way will increase your passion for who he is and treble your ability to express your love for him in ways that will fill your heart, and his, with joy.
Read books by those who have a deep and a white-hot love for the Lord.
Read A.W. Tozer’s Knowledge of the Holy.
This little book is a gold mine of bite-sized nuggets about the Lord by a man who loved him with a depth that few have matched. When my spiritual fire is ebbing, Tozer is one author I frequently turn to in order rekindle it. While all his writings are good, this particular book is a series of mediations on different aspects of the character and nature of God. Don’t read it quickly. Read it slowly and methodically pondering the truths Tozer lays before you. Then turn to prayer. Express verbally (either out loud or written) your love for the Lord because of the insights Tozer writes about.
Here’s a taste:
“The familiar picture of God as often torn between His justice and His mercy is altogether false to the facts. To think of God as inclining first toward one and then toward another of His attributes is to imagine a God who is unsure of Himself, frustrated and emotionally unstable, which of course is to say that the one of whom we are thinking is not the true God at all but a weak, mental reflection of Him badly out of focus.” (Kindle location 1301)
“God needs no one, but when faith is present, He works through anyone. Two statements are in this sentence and a healthy spiritual life requires that we accept both.” (Kindle location 640)
Read Mike Bickle’s Passion for Jesus.
Mike Bickle has been leading a prayer ministry for years. In fact, he started a prayer room that has had live worship going non-stop for twenty years! It is fueled by a people who are madly in love with Jesus and enjoy spending time declaring his worth. The ideas in Bickle’s book will draw you closer into a relationship with Jesus.
Here are some quotes:
“A life characterized by affection-based obedience is a life in which you are so loved, and so love God, that obedience is the only reasonable response to anything He wishes. For the sake of love, you are willing to give everything and find no sacrifice too great.” (Kindle location 524).
“The accumulation of information about the Scriptures and the mental discipline of hours of Bible study will never thoroughly cleanse the inner man in the way that devotional, worshipful meditation upon God's Word will. In Bible study alone, we store up important scriptural facts and concepts. But when our Bible study leads into personal dialogue with Jesus as we meditate upon His cleansing Word, we also experience growth in spiritual hunger, sensitivity, and nearness to Him. Active intimacy with His presence washes our spirits.” (Kindle location 1604).
Why is making loving God an important priority?
The Lord is interested in our hearts. He wants us to be in love with him. Obedience, by itself, can be done by people whose hearts are far away from the Lord. That isn’t what Jesus wants. He wants us to love Him for who he is and what he has done. Love for Jesus will cause us to have what has been called a “long obedience in the same direction”. It won’t be drudgery. It will be the life of one madly in love with their Creator, Savior, and Lord. It is what we were made for. Anything else is settling for far less.
So, plan now to cultivate your love relationship with the Lord. Make It your goal to love Jesus more passionately in December 2019 than you do today. May it be your greatest priority in 2019!