The Hole in Our Gospel

This weekend we’ll have the privilege of hosting Gordon and Cheryl Roedding, missionaries to Mali. The Roeddings work with professionals and university students in the capital city of Bamako. They will present their missionary work, beginning with a Friday night bonfire at a local farm and ending with a potluck banquet Sunday noon. It will be a treat and not only for our stomachs!

When missionaries visit, I’m always curious about the culture shock they experience upon their return to the States. If the frog-in-the-kettle syndrome is real (and I suspect it is), returning missionaries can sense social and church temperature changes the rest of us miss. In this case, the Roeddings will be returning from one of the poorest nations on earth. That’s a huge contrast when landing on U.S. soil.

Most Americans practice their faith in isolation from the poverty experienced by most of the world. Even the poorest among us, if we have clothes on our backs, a roof over our heads, and food on the table, are wealthy by the world’s standards. When we’re confronted with the unsettling statistics and gut-wrenching reality of poverty, we confront an overwhelming urge to change the channel in our minds.

Richards Stearns is a formerly rich American who has confronted poverty head-on. Here is a taste of his sacrifice and courage:

“His name was Richard, the same as mine. I sat inside his meager thatch hut, listening to his story, told through the tears of an orphan whose parents had died of AIDS. At 13, Richard was trying to raise his two younger brothers by himself in this small shack with no running water, electricity, or even beds to sleep in. There were no adults in their lives—no one to care for them, feed them, love them, or teach them how to become men. There was no one to hug them either, or to tuck them in at night. Other than his siblings, Richard was alone, as no child should be. I try to picture my own children abandoned in this kind of deprivation, fending for themselves without parents to protect them, and I cannot….

“Not 60 days earlier I had been CEO of Lenox, America’s finest tableware company, producing and selling luxury goods to those who could afford them. I lived with my wife and five children in a 10-bedroom house on five acres just outside of Philadelphia. I drove a Jaguar to work every day, and my business travel took me to places such as Paris, Tokyo, London, and Florence. I flew first-class and stayed in the best hotels. I was respected in my community, attended a venerable suburban church, and sat on the board of my kids’ Christian school. I was one of the good guys—you might say a “poster child” for the successful Christian life. I had never heard of Rakai, the place where my bubble would burst. But in just 60 days, God turned my life inside out, and it would never be the same …”

To read more of Stearns’ story, click here:$file/hole-in-our-gospel-study-guide.pdf

If you’ve read Richard Stearn’s book, The Hole in Our Gospel, you know he’s radically committed to addressing poverty. It’s not easy. His answers have raised questions from reviewers. Here’s a review by Kevin DeYoung:

“Is it possible to write a review that is at the same time sympathetic and critical? I hope so, because that is my goal with Richard Stearns’s The Hole In Our Gospel (Thomas Nelson, 2009). Stearns, the president of World Vision, has written a book that is winsome, compelling, and often inspiring. The Hole in Our Gospel is also theologically flawed and economically misguided. In other words, I have some serious criticisms of the book, but its overall charge to care for the poor and put our faith into action is a good and necessary challenge.

“It’s hard not to like Richard Stearns. His love for Jesus Christ and the church is evident. His concern for “the least of these” and disdain for many aspects of the American Dream are admirable. His tone, even in rebuke, is warm and humble. No doubt, World Vision is doing a lot of work near to the heart of God. And Stearns, no doubt, is on the side of the angels. There is a lot to be gained from reading The Hole in Our Gospel. But there are also a number of problems with Stearns’s book. Let me mention three….”

To keep reading DeYoung’s review, click here:

National poverty, such as in Uganda and Mali, is a difficult problem to solve, especially when it’s up front and personal. We can be armchair quarterbacks if we wish, but we should hear from those who daily face the effects of national poverty. The Roeddings work with both ends of the social spectrum in Mali. If you want to engage Gordon and Cheryl in a meaningful conversation this weekend, ask them about the cultural backgrounds of college students they serve and the poverty which surrounds them.



The Casualty List

The great, old classic movie Gone with the Wind contains a poignant scene which portrays the turning of the Civil War against the South. It’s the moment when families of Confederate soldiers, including Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Hamilton, frantically scan the casualty list from the battle at Gettysburg to see if their loved ones are on the list. Some families receive good news. Others receive bad news.

In war there’s one certainty soldiers don’t like to talk about—the casualty list. The church, which is engaged in spiritual warfare, has a casualty list, too. These are people who remain physically alive and well, but spiritually dead.

Casualties are people who are far from God, but not like secular atheists or indifferent agnostics. The casualty list consists of people who are in the church, but they’re fighting for the other side. They’re not out in the world–the entertainment industry, or the schools, or newsrooms, or the halls of Congress. Instead, they’re in pulpits and pews. They carry their Bibles, sing the songs, pray the prayers, and enjoy the potluck dinners. They’re present every time the doors of the church are open. They come on time and give their money in huge chunks.

These casualties are not even missing in action. They’re insiders, not outsiders. Yet they don’t fight for holiness, ministry or justice. Their champion is the enemy of God. Jesus encountered such casualties often. They’re the only people Jesus criticized in public. He did it to their face. And they hated him for it.

If you’re a fan of espionage stories, it might sound like those on the casualty list are double agents. At the very least, they’re fakes and frauds.

Spiritual casualties wear the clothing of Christ followers. They could have become good soldiers fighting the good fight. But they didn’t. They resisted the love and grace of Jesus and cast their allegiance to the opposite side. But they never left the church. Now they fight against truth and grace. These are not seekers struggling to find the way to God but coming up short. They’re not POWs waiting to be rescued. These are not people digging for truth, but remain trapped in the wrong worldview. Rather, these are double agents committed to the dark side of the force. In effect, they have said to God, “I have another master. That’s my final answer.” Game over. Put ‘em on the casualty list. It’s real.

This Sunday we’ll talk about the casualty list and how you can be sure not ever to go on it. If you want to prepare, check out the super short, next to last book of the New Testament. It’s less than two pages long and was written by Jude, a brother of James—and of Jesus. If you’ve never read this brief letter, it may shock you.

The Great Raid

They called it “The Great Raid.” It happened at Cabana­tuan Prison Camp in the Philippines on January 30, 1945. One journalist wrote, “The raid on Cabanatuan remains the most successful rescue mission in U.S. military history.”

For nearly three years, survivors of the Bataan death march had languished in Japanese POW camps. The healthy prisoners had been shipped off to do forced labor for the Japanese. Only the sick, weak and injured remained.

When General Douglas MacArthur returned to the Philip­pines in 1944 and began his assault to free the nation, the occupying Japanese responded by executing POWs in one of their camps.   The American military leaders became concerned for other POWs, including long-suffering cap­tives from Bataan who were being held at Cabatuan. They hastily planned a daring rescue mission.

Colonel Henry Mucci led 121 Army Rangers, along with Alamo Scouts and 80 Filipino guerillas in a brilliantly executed covert march 30 miles behind the Japanese lines. The rescue force avoided thousands of nearby Japanese troops and surprised over 200 guards at the camp. Most of the enemy were quickly killed in the assault.

Here’s what happened next, as reported by witnesses: Removing the prisoners… was an unexpected obstacle. Conditioned by captivity, many POWs thought the raid was a trick to kill them as they fled. Few recognized the Ranger uniforms that had evolved from blue to khaki during their years in captivity. Prisoners hid in their shacks, latrines and irrigation ditches. When the Rangers yelled to the POWs to come out and be rescued, the captives resisted their rescuers. Rangers sometimes had to resort to physical force to remove the detainees, throwing or kicking them out.

In the end, 513 POWs, including a few civilians, were rescued. Only one POW died in camp during the battle—of a heart attack. All but one captive survived the ensuing race to safety. Most of them were carried on the backs of rescuers or rode oxcarts to safety. Not a single POW was left to their captors, although one deaf, British prisoner was missed at first. He awoke the next morning to find he was the only living person in the camp. After a leisurely shave, he walked out to freedom. It’s an amazing story.

Followers of Jesus are being fired upon from all sides. Atheists. Agnostics. Muslims. Philosophers. Politicians. Media. Schools. The entertainment industry. Even other believers. The question is whether to return fire. Many Christians do shoot back at their critics.  It happens all the time. Just check out the comment section of any religious or political blog. The culture wars are a bloody mess. It’s ugly on all sides.

Jesus, Peter and Paul taught their disciples how to respond when under attack by unbelievers. They all gave the same com­mand: Do not return fire! This won’t make sense to Christians in battle until we realize bullies are not enemies to be shot; they’re captives to be rescued. They may be conditioned to their prison and they may heap abuse on their would-be and often foolish rescuers, but they are not the enemy; they’re POWs. This changes everything. Rescue teams don’t waste time criticizing bullies; they attack the real enemy to win freedom for the captives.

We’ll talk about how to respond when fired upon by bullies this coming Sunday.

Moralizing is not enough

Recently I’ve become more aware how much moralizing takes place in the Christian community. Moralizing has become so common in our public discourse that we think of it as normal Christianity. It’s not, but most of us need help to recognize the difference.

What is moralizing? When the window dressing is stripped away to the bare minimum, moralizing sounds something like this:   “____________ is wrong.”

Fill in the blank with your behavior of choice–or more precisely, a behavior of your non-choice: abortion, same sex marriage, pornography, racism, trafficking, wage inequity, war, gun control…. The list is nearly endless. But if you can find your issue on the list, Christians are against it. We can moralize a behavior in just three words.

Andy Stanley is one of several writers who have helped me wake up to the crippling effects of moralizing in the church. Stanley wrote: “Few things discredit the church more in the minds of unbelievers than when it holds them accountable to a standard they never acknowledged to begin with. Nothing says hypocrite faster than Christians expecting non-Christians to behave like Christians when half the Christians don’t act like it half the time.” (Deep & Wide, pp. 242-43).

Moralizing is not enough. Outsiders hear it as judgmental condemnation. We need something better, even when we’re dealing with Christians. Recently I was speaking with a woman who has lived with the same man (not her husband) for decades. I asked her to describe the church of her youth.

“It was really strict,” she said. “The girls had to wear skirts below the knees and the boys’ hair was supposed to stay off their collars.”

I got an immediate impression, although I said nothing. Then I inquired, “Since you were part of that church as a child, what does that make you think today about your living so long with a man who is not your husband?”

She didn’t hesitate or flinch. “Oh, it’s sin. It’s wrong.” She said it matter of factly. Without a hint of regret, remorse, defiance, or guilt, she added, “But some people say, ‘You have to live somewhere.'”

She meant that if she were to move out, she would have no place to live and no means to support herself. A real problem. A big challenge. Too big for her to face alone. I thought to myself, “No, moralizing is certainly not enough. She needs a reason to address this issue in her life, which we haven’t yet given her, and a strong, long-term hand of support.”

Are we willing to pay the price necessary to help people get out of moral dilemmas permanently? Moralizing won’t do it. Redemption is too costly for moralizers who rarely get their hands dirty.

Moralizing has a mantra, “Love the sinner. Hate the sin.” I hear it often. In fact, I heard it in church last month. Usually I don’t have a response. I haven’t known what to say. But yesterday I read a better motto on someone’s blog, “Love the sinner. Hate your own sin.” We need that motto because moralizing isn’t enough. Moralizing imposes law without providing empowerment for change.

Only the gospel offers power for change. Those who moralize need redemption the most. The Apostle Paul made this point when he acknowledged that among sinners, he was chief (1 Tim. 1:16). He needed the most grace because he was a spokesman for grace. In other words, “Physician, heal thyself!” Paul needed grace because he really was the worst of sinners. Just like me, I might add.

Ravi Zacharias highlighted this need in his ministry magazine this summer. He wrote of a better way than moralizing:

“Preaching and teaching and moralizing can come very easily for all of the wrong motives, especially in a volatile climate that has experienced seismic shifts overnight. Yet the one who comes to know Christ recognizes how impoverished the heart is and the need of constant submission to the will of the Lord. Oftentimes we forget how we thought before the Lord changed our hearts. Patience and grace enable us to earn the right to be heard. The beauty of a life in a close walk with Jesus attracts them; the power of the Holy Spirit changes them.”  (Just Thnking, Vol. 23.4, p. 27).

Moralizing is not enough.

Because the gospel is so much more.