Smart Minds & Big Words


2016_annual_logoI spent a recent weekend with a 350 really smart people who use really big words. Most, it seems, are PhDs or in the process of earning a PhD. They come from and have ministered on every continent of the world, with the possible exception of Antarctica. They are pastors and missionaries and university professors; anthropologists, sociologists, linguists.

I felt … not out of place, but out of my league—like a weekend soccer player taking the field with  the likes of Lionel Messi, Rolandinho, Neymar, and Cristiano Ronaldo.

The Evangelical Missiological Society gathers these academicians and missiologists each year to share research and practice around a central theme. This year’s theme was Missions and the Local Church — a matter close to my heart as a pastor, a missionary kid, and a missions practitioner and advocate.

Truth be told, I went for my own fifteen minutes of fame: I was invited to present a paper I had written about how a church I pastored sought to shift how and what we did in missions. But I have to confess: I also went with low expectations of the weekend; academic researchers are not always known to be dynamic presenters, and their papers are not always compelling subjects for guys like me who just want to lead a church to make disciples at home and somewhere around the world.

My low expectations were vastly exceeded. So much so, in fact, that I needed to take a break from the presentations that have greatly encouraged and challenged me in order to put some thoughts down on paper. (Or a computer.) A sampling:

In The Burden of Healing: How Pentecostal Believers Experience and Make Sense of Chronic Illness, Shelly Isaacs shared the stories of men and women suffering from chronic illnesses, whose burdens were made heavier by the unfulfilled promise and expectation of divine healing. The stories hit close to home, as I could relate each one to my own friends who also hoped, prayed, and had faith to be healed … yet never received the expected and desired answer.

Steven Weathers, a PhD student, shared research about ideologies that inform evangelical perceptions around Black Lives Matter. His words were often hard, and challenged me (as a white evangelical man) to again confront my own implicit biases—that is, those that I am not even aware of lurking sometimes deep in my heart and sometimes just under the surface. A couple statements worthy of noting:

Evangelicals are not countercultural, but call for personal change that leaves systemic cultural norms in place. [from Emerson & Smith; source unknown]

Black Lives Matter won’t matter to white evangelicals if we think individually; we need to think systemically. [Weathers]

These are particularly damning statements. They suggest we are willing to change ourselves just enough to be comfortable, but we won’t fight against the cultural realities that lie at the root of Black Lives Matter (or the civil rights fight of fifty years ago).

Some final thoughts from Ed Stetzer’s keynote address on Priorities for Churches in Missions: the decline of denominationalism and the rise of non-denominational churches has not been a neutral influence on cross-cultural missions. Historically, missions had a voice at the table with denominational leadership, and there was a clear and intentional pathway to missions through denominations. With the growth of non-denominational churches (400% since the 1980s—and now the largest evangelical bloc), “innovation is now a higher priority than missions awareness and engagement.”

Within evangelicalism, “missional” has grown while “missions” has declined; gospel demonstration has increased (a good thing), but gospel proclamation has taken a back seat (not so good).

We must no longer merely give lip service to balancing demonstration and proclamation; we must actively practice both.

In my own paper about engaging the local church in global missions, I included this statement from a book by three missiologists: “the center of gravity in missions has moved from the agency to the local church.” I think that’s a good thing; but Stetzer brought a tempering perspective: Churches are vexed about the nations, but don’t have the connections, training, or constructs to engage well and effectively.

The great charge to the Church is to make disciples of all peoples, everywhere. One of my great burdens is to help local churches do that well and effectively … whether it means engaging with the Black Lives Matter movement, offering hope and healing to the chronically ill, serving refugees, rescuing victims of human trafficking, or preaching Jesus where His name has not yet been heard.

It’s High Time…


system-failureThis is not a political blog. If you look right below the title, The Rushed Contemplative, you’ll see the subhead, “Musings on Life and Faith.” But during this election season in the U.S.—perhaps as much as at any other time in my life—our nation’s politics intersect powerfully with “life and faith.” And it’s high time I took a stand.

I am surprised by the number of Republicans supporting Donald Trump. Many of the same people who cried out for Bill Clinton to be impeached twenty years ago are now defending Trump in the face of a pattern of affairs, lewd comments, and lascivious behavior. “But Clinton was president,” goes one defense. “He apologized,” goes another. (Ironically, we’re talking about the same man who said he has no need to ask God’s forgiveness.) “Talk is talk,” suggested one person.

If we thought Bill Clinton’s actions—not only his actions with Monica Lewinsky, but the lies he told to cover it up—rose to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors” that warranted impeachment and possible removal from the presidency, then why in the world would we even consider electing a man with a long history of similar actions? At the very least (and it is certainly least) Bill Clinton didn’t proudly boast about his “conquest,” as Donald Trump has. (I recall one pagan ruler in the Bible whose arrogance resulted in a God-ordained mental illness.)

I am appalled by the number of Christ followers throwing their support behind Donald Trump. Yes, I am well aware that we are not electing a “pastor-in-chief.” But that doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to the significant character flaws Mr. Trump displays daily. We need not expect him to demonstrate all the fruit of the Spirit, but how does he measure up against the “works of the flesh” Paul outlines: “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, enmity, strife, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19–21; ESV). That’s quite a list—and I deleted several of the most arguable ones.

Look for a moment at the words in that list that have nothing to do with sex. Mr. Trump’s god is money. Or himself; that might be a close race. His talk has consistently increased the enmity of other nations against the U.S.—including some of our allies. He has in no way been the uniter of the Republican party that he claims to have been, as evidenced by the number of Republican stalwarts who have vowed not to vote for their own party’s candidate.

The arguments for electing Donald Trump ring hollow. The single most compelling argument I have heard centers around Supreme Court justices; the next president is likely to have as many as three appointments. As profound an impact as that may be, a president’s legacy goes far beyond the Court; it is formed in the relationships with other nations, both allies and adversaries; it is formed in his/her leadership of the armed forces; it is formed in national and global economics.

Next to the Supreme Court question, the most compelling argument I have heard is that by electing Trump, we will not have another President Clinton. It is the “lesser of two evils” argument. Some have countered by saying that at least with Hillary, we know what we’re getting; that’s actually pretty good thinking – because we really have no idea what a President Trump would be like, other than loud, arrogant, and belligerent.

If not Trump, then who? Donald Trump would be not just a bad president, but a dangerous one. He is patently unqualified, by reason of his character and demeanor, to lead what is still the most powerful nation on earth.

Hillary Clinton is by far the most qualified candidate, as she has been almost since day one. But I cannot support her politics and have serious qualms about her ethics—as I have since her time as First Lady.

Many people say that any vote for someone other than Trump or Clinton is a vote for one of them. In other words, if I vote against Trump, then I might as well vote for Clinton, and vice versa. In reality, it is almost undoubtedly true that one of the major-party candidates will be the next president. I have had a growing concern for a dozen years about our nation’s two-party system, how we do primary elections, and the electoral college. (I wonder what conversations we would be having today if we could have multiple candidates from each party.)

Many people say that to vote for a third-party candidate is to throw away my vote. There’s some truth to that. Some of these candidates are not even on the ballot in all 50 states—another massive systemic failure. But even if, somehow, a third-party candidate were to get more of the popular vote than either Clinton or Trump, I suspect that the electoral college would give the vote to one of them—and we’d have an even bigger uproar than in 2000.

So who will I vote for? I will vote for a third-party candidate. I will vote for someone whom I believe is capable of guiding our nation, of leading our military, of working with Congress, of exercising diplomacy with our allies and adversaries. I will vote for someone who can surround him- or herself with wise advisors and cabinet members. I will vote for someone whose character is honorable (the biblical term “above reproach” seems sadly unreachable) and whose politics are as closely aligned with mine as possible.

I’m not sure yet who that person is. I’m not even sure if there is such a candidate, or if I will have to write in a name (it would be Paul Ryan). But in so doing, I will have both confidence and hope: confidence that I will not have cast my vote for someone whom I cannot support for president; and hope that the millions of people who share my concerns will join me and at least begin the process of changing how we elect our president.

Stories From Sixth Grade


All she said was, “he doesn’t have a pencil.” And as quickly as the words were out of her mouth, he was angry, on the verge of tears, and storming out of the classroom.

Welcome to sixth grade.

It had already been a rough afternoon of substitute teaching for me. The first signs of a cold were settling onto me, and the “great kids” the teacher had told me were in her classes must have run away, leaving evil twins in their places. I was looking forward to twenty minutes of relative peace during the science test – and dreading the minor mayhem that would grow as kids finished the test and began working on another project.

Then came the storm.

They don’t teach you how to handle outbursts like that in Substitute Teacher School. Oh yeah – I didn’t go to Substitute Teacher School. They didn’t teach it in business school or seminary, either.

Then my mind went back to a high school gym I’d stood in four years earlier. It was for a program called, “Breaking Down the Walls,” designed to help high schoolers hear a bit of their fellow students’ stories – and perhaps be a bit more understanding of the differences surrounding them.

We all have stories. Our lives are not so much a novel as they are a collection of interrelated short stories. And we don’t get the chance to read those stories from the beginning; we always pick up the book somewhere in the middle, unaware of what has happened in the previous pages. So when sixth-grade Johnny has to hide his tears because of a pencil, I need to remember that there’s an earlier story I missed.

I don’t think the girl next to Johnny was trying to be a tattle-tale; I think she was trying to help so he could take the test. But because she hadn’t read the first of Johnny’s stories, either, she didn’t know what he would do. Instead of helping, it turned a bad situation worse, inciting snickering, laughter, and even some mocking. (On the plus side, Johnny was outside by then; on the down side, they’re sixth graders: it probably won’t end there.)

It would have been really easy for me to just tell the helpful girl—and the rest of the class—to mind her own business. Instead, I briefly introduced them to this idea of stories as why it’s sometimes important to simply let each person take responsibility for himself or herself. I’m sure the wisdom fell on deaf ears. After all, they’re sixth graders, and I’m just a substitute.

But maybe—just maybe—one of those kids will remember the sixth grader who cried about a pencil, and ask for a story. Or maybe I will.

Of Mutts and Methodists and Mennonites


morgans-best-friend-gingerOf Mutts. My families, by both birth and marriage, have owned a number of dogs, mostly mixed-breeds. Caesar joined our family when I was in second grade, we affectionately referred to him as a cross between a cocker spaniel, a dachshund, and a mutt. The dog we now own, Graceyn, is a Westie-Poo, a mix between a West Highland terrier and a poodle. Only Ginger, a golden retriever we had for a few years, was a purebred.

My wife’s family has owned a number English bulldogs. It’s a tenacious and tough-looking dog originally bred to take down thousand-pound bulls. But they’re very loving and loyal to their owners, with the endearing wrinkles of a fuzzy teddy bear. It’s also a breed in trouble, as this recent CBS News article reports.

That’s the thing about purebreds: the inbreeding leaves animals without enough genetic diversity to overcome inherited health problems. The very thing that keeps the breed pure also risks its extinction.

Of Methodists and Mennonites. When I was a kid my family moved around a lot, so I’ve been part of many different churches. Though our roots were in one of the 31 flavors of Baptists, those roots did not define us as we sought out a new church home with each move. I first made a faith commitment to Jesus in the Sunday School of our “community church” in Minnesota. In Texas we joined a “Bible Church.” In British Columbia, I was baptized in an Evangelical Mennonite Brethren church.

During high school in Germany, we joined the American Protestant Church, whose pastors were primarily Methodists and Lutherans. I went to a Free Methodist university for a year before joining the Air Force, where I sat under chaplains from the United Church of Christ, Salvation Army, Southern Baptist, and Seventh Day Adventist denominations. Later I would attend both Presbyterian and Assembly of God churches. I guess you could say I’m a bit of a spiritual mutt.

Inbreeding is as harmful in churches as it is in dogs.

In some church worlds, it’s all about doctrine: we are united by what we agree on, and because we agree. Of course, we are also therefore divided by what we believe. But Jesus sought and prayed for unity within His body, the Church. He rarely talked about believing the right things—unless it was about who He was or what He could do.

Shortly before He was crucified, Jesus prayed “that they [His followers] may all be one … so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). In other words, the greatest strategy for growing the Kingdom of God is unity within the Church.

For too long, though, Christians have sought a false unity, focused not on who Jesus is, but on how we should behave: who can and should lead, how much water to use in baptism, and which sins are acceptable and which will keep you from heaven. We argue about fine points of doctrine: what “is” really means in the Lord’s Supper, and when Jesus will return. (Hint: even He didn’t know!)

Our arguments divide rather than unite, and they keep bewildered onlookers out of our churches and out of His Church.

Doctrine—right believing—is important. Right doctrine leads to right conduct. Seeking right doctrine is what led to numerous councils over the past two millennia, beginning with the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15, Galatians 2). Seeking right doctrine gave us the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and more.

Over the past several years, I’ve looked at hundreds of church websites and doctrinal positions from a dozen or more denominations. Ironically, for all the distinctions in these groups, the doctrinal statements are so similar you’d think they could be from just one or two churches, not dozens. And one of the most common introductory statements is this: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

The problem is, we cannot agree on what are the essentials but seek—in vain—for unity in the non-essentials; and we show precious little charity in most things.

As a result, our differences are centered around things on the periphery, and what unity we have has led to the same type of inbreeding that is endangering the English Bulldog.

We need some doctrinal cross-breeding. We need tables for conversation, not fences down the middle of God’s Kingdom.

We need to breed more spiritual mutts.



The Problem of Intercession (Lord, Teach Us to Pray)


coffee-prayerPrayer is hard work. Maybe that’s why the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1). Or maybe Jesus just knew their models weren’t great (Matthew 6:5), so he showed them another way.

A dozen books on my bookshelves have titles about prayer; certainly as many others include sections about how to pray. It’s hard work, and we need help.

Years ago a man who was training me in how to follow Jesus (a process we call “discipling” or “discipleship”) showed me a way to organize what I would pray for. Back then—in the dark ages!—he was using a file box with 3×5 cards: he had dividers for each day of the week, Sunday through Saturday; other dividers for each day of the month, 1-31; and a section in the front for daily prayers. Each prayer request was written on a card and put in the appropriate section depending on whether he would pray daily, weekly, or monthly. When he prayed, he would go through all the cards in the daily section, then those in the section for “today” (Tuesday), and finally in the monthly section behind today’s date (6).

It’s a good, organized system and for the past few weeks I’ve gone back to that method using a tool in my Bible study program. Being computerized now is an advantage because I can easily add different frequencies like twice a week or every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Here’s the challenge, though: if this becomes the primary way I pray, then it’s easy for me to slide away from relationship and begin treating God more like a vending machine.

Think of it this way: What if the bulk of what your kids said to you was centered around making requests? “Dad, can you help me study? Can you do something to make my day better? Can you give me some medicine to make me feel better?” None of those are bad requests; as a parent, we love to help our kids. And if they were asking for good things for their friends, we’d be okay with that, too.

But if this was all our kids said when they talked with us—or even mostly what they said—we’d get weary of it. We want to hear about their day, the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows. We want to know them, and be known by them. Frankly, we’d love it if they’d ask about us, too. We’d love to be listened to by our kids – for them to hear our hearts and minds.

And it’s not just kids and parents. We want to have heart-and-mind relationships with our friends, too.

The ten-dollar word for “prayer requests” is intercession; it means “going between” – when you pray, you are going between a person and God. It is good and right and necessary. Jesus taught, encouraged, and praised people who intercede for others. In fact, the Bible says that both Jesus and the Holy Spirit are presently interceding for us. (See Romans 8:26-39, I Timothy 2:1, and Hebrews 7:25.)

But intercession is only one part of prayer, and maybe not even the most important part. We need to love God; and love is born and grown in relationship, talking to and with God, listening to Him, reading His Word. Have a cup of coffee with God.

So intercede for your friends and family. Pray for them, their needs, their hopes, their hurts. But when you find yourself just slipping prayer coins into the prayer vending machine, stop! Take a break from the prayer requests and just spend time with God. Talk to Him about Him. Praise Him for who He is. This is different, by the way, than thanking Him for what He’s done – try to focus on who God is; it’s harder than it sounds! (More helps on this kind of praying in another post at another time.)