Category Archives: global

What Do You Love About America?


My dad was an extrovert—he would talk to anyone, anywhere, about anything. Sometimes it was annoying, sometimes embarrassing, always it was just dad being dad. The rest of us in the family are introverts to varying degrees but I am my father’s son: I, too, will talk to anyone, anywhere, about anything. And more than anything else, accents will get me started … though I find myself increasingly inept at identifying them.

And so it was that accents were the opening for a conversation with a couple next to me at a coffee shop recently. Of course, they insisted that I guess where they were from; and of course, I was wrong. Twice. (I started with South Africa, then went to New Zealand, before correctly landing on Australia.)

The iced coffee having been broken, they dove right in: What do you love about America? It was an honest, probing question with no hint of malice toward the nation they were touring for weeks, if not months. (They briefly described an itinerary that had them visiting national parks from the southeast to California and back to the northeast.)

My hesitation in answering was revealing, both to them and to myself. It’s not that I don’t love America; it’s just that there’s so much not to love these days. Tucked between a depressing presidential debate and the nation’s 248th birthday, our deeply honest conversation began with three things I am grateful for as an American: *opportunity, *innovation, and *freedom. Each is a real strength inextricably connected to the others and each demands an asterisk, like a speed record aided by tailwinds or a home run record tainted by performance-enhancing drugs.

*Opportunity. Since long before her birth, America has been known as the land of opportunity. Vast landscapes invite farming and ranching, urban development and exploration. Thirteen years of “free” education for both boys and girls. (Mostly) equal rights, irrespective of gender, race, politics, religion, and so on.

The asterisk here is best summarized with the Orwellian line, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” In spite of the Declaration of Independence’s bold claim that “all men are created equal,” slaves were not counted as equal even for census purposes for the first century of America’s existence. While opportunity in schools, sports, business, politics is theoretically unlimited, any number of factors still raise practical barriers for whole swaths of our citizenry. Clearly we are still a work in progress.

*Innovation. There is some question about who first suggested the idea of “adapt or die,” but it is an appropriate way to describe the endurance of what George Washington once described as a great experiment. Whether in politics or manufacturing, energy or healthcare, when America has faced crisis, her ability to innovate and adapt has ensured her survival. And yet this innovation has been practiced on our foundational rule of law, the Constitution, that has been amended only 17 times since the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791. It would seem that our Founding Fathers were not only innovative but also wary of excessive innovation; or at least they knew that innovation requires a strong and stable foundation.

The asterisk to innovation is the individualism it breeds. Though our money still declares “in God we trust,” a truer motto would be “in ourselves we trust” or the more common sentiment, “pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” Innovation breeds differentiation, which in turn breeds competition, suspicion, division. In the experiment that we call the United States, there is an ongoing tension between “united” and “states.”

*Freedom. America’s greatest strength is undoubtedly her freedom. Not only the specific freedoms enshrined in the Constitution—speech, religion, press, assembly, and the right to petition the government—but the broader environment of freedom that stems from those. We have the freedom to choose where to live, where to attend college, what type of work to do. We have the freedom to leave when we want and to return when we want. We even have freedom to do things that may not be healthy for us.

The asterisk on freedom is the incredible cost and immense responsibility that come with it. Freedom, of course, is never unlimited. Freedom of speech may include the freedom to lie, but not when the lie causes harm to someone’s reputation (defamation). Freedom of assembly includes anti-government rallies, but not when the rallies turn into riots. Freedom with limits is little more than anarchy.

Freedom may be America’s greatest strength, but it is also her greatest challenge. This is the most frequent theme when I talk with people in or from other nations: the social cost of freedom. On American news they see rampant crime, gun violence, political and religious scandals; they see rising division in our nation and candidates in a presidential debate (I use both terms—presidential and debate—very loosely) who sound more like junior high boys arguing on a playground about who is toughest. I long for the day when our nation finally awakens to the incredible cost—no, the insane cost—of our freedom to “keep and bear arms.”

Is this the best we have?

The second question asked by my new acquaintances from Down Under was phrased more incredulously: in a land of 350 million people, is this really the best you can offer the world? They recognize what so many others both at home and abroad know: for better or worse, America is a world leader. And also for better or worse, the individual we elect to lead our nation will be a de facto world leader. 

One headline after last week’s debate was telling: one disappointed, one lied and deflected. And in four months, we have to choose between these two? This is the curse of our two-party system and reveals the lie spoken by so many well-meaning parents and pundits, that anyone can be president. If only that were true. If only, come the first Tuesday in November, America could write in anyone other than the two men whose names will be at the top of the ballot.

I know there are many Americans who don’t like our elevated place in the world, or at least don’t like the significant cost of that role to our own nation. But the fact is that we are a world leader and will be a world leader until we either hide ourselves under a rock or continue to behave so ludicrously that we become a laughingstock and a shadow of our once-great nation. And the cost of allowing either of those to happen will be exponentially greater in every way.

So what do I love about America? I love that in four years, we will have two different candidates. I love that—in spite of my profound concerns about what will happen in our nation and the world over those four years—I can still have hope that these United States of America will rise above where we are today. 

Don’t let me down, America. Don’t let me down.

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.

Isolationism Revisited


I had a very interesting experience a couple weeks ago. In desperate need of a haircut, I decided to try out a new barber in town. I’d seen his business card and website and his tagline had intrigued me: “Changing the world one haircut at a time.” I was curious what that meant, and how haircuts might be able to change the world. I got my answer!

During the course of my hour in the barber’s chair, I got an earful as “Bowtie” passionately talked about all that was wrong with our nation, its politics, its direction, its finances. Three other customers came in and sat down during that hour, readily engaging in a loud and sometimes contentious discussion. It was humorous, intriguing, and at times even educational – and not at all for the faint of heart or delicate of disposition! I left with conflicting feelings: that I needed to wash out my ears, and that Jesus – or at least Paul – would probably get their haircuts there just for the conversation!

What I learned was that Bowtie had two underlying philosophies that would “change the world”: first, get money out of politics; the president, congresspersons, and even local politicians ought to serve out of the goodness of their hearts, not for pay. Second, the US should get out of every other country and focus instead on our own interests.

I’ve heard the arguments before. The first fails to recognize that all humans are “desperately sick” (according to Jeremiah 17:9). The second is, frankly, naïve. From the very beginning, humankind was made for community, and I believe Scripture shows that that extends to the community of nations. Isolationism has never been good politics.

Calls for an American isolationism may have had their impact in the past, but they have been effectively silenced by the unavoidable fact of a world community that is linked by intricate economic ties, instant communication, complex and speedy transportation systems and the fear of nuclear destruction. (Reid, Daniel G. et al. Dictionary of Christianity in America 1990)

Isolationism has never been good discipleship, either. Yet I often hear calls for what amounts to a Christian isolationism. I hear questions like, “why are we going to Ethiopia or Mexico or India when there are so many needs here at home?” They’re not bad questions; they deserve thoughtful consideration. The simplest answer is this: “We go because we are called – to make disciples of all peoples, to be witnesses of Jesus Christ here, near, and far.

So now I have a question for you: As you are going – to work, to school, to the gym, on vacation – how are you “making disciples” of the people you come into contact with?

The Other Face of 9/11


On Saturday, across the US – and in many other parts of the world – people remembered the fateful day nine years ago when terrorists hijacked four airplanes and brought a nation to its knees. The remembrances took a variety of forms, ranging from moments of personal silence to gatherings of noisy protest. There were prayers and patriotism, flags and fights. Names of the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives were read. It is right to remember this day. It is a national tragedy, but one that – if only for a moment – brought the world to our doorstep in shared pain and grief.

And yet a pall has shrouded our nation these past years – a pall not merely of just sorrow, but of enmity; a pall that has not been felt since the last “day that will live in infamy.” And this pall shields from us another face to 9/11. This other face also has seen the death of thousands; it is the face of more thousands of survivors mourning the loss of husbands and wives, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers. But for this other face, the havoc was wreaked not on one fateful morning to be remembered by the world; no, for these thousands, death and destruction came more individually in the incessant bursts and bombs of the wars that have ensued over the past nine years. That many of the lost were active combatants – whether soldier or suicide bomber – does not mitigate the grief that their kin must feel. That so many who have lost their lives were as innocent as the World Trade Center victims heightens both the grief of the survivors and their anger at being dragged into someone else’s war; feelings shared by our own friends and neighbors.

In some cultures, the day after Christmas is set aside to box up the festal leftovers and serve them to the less fortunate; after celebrating, sharing with those who have little to celebrate. Perhaps we need a day set aside after 9/11 to remember this other face of that day; after mourning our own loss, to share in the mourning of theirs.

We Will Believe…


Directly across from me, leaning back against a tree, sat the family patriarch. He looked 75 but was likely 15-20 years younger. Around us sat his family – young children, teenagers, and a few perhaps in their early 20s. My hosts brought me a small stool on which to sit, and for the next 30 or 40 minutes we talked about my faith and theirs, the Bible and the Q’ran, about Jesus and Islam. Several times, the patriarch – I never got his name – told me, “What you say is good.” As we concluded our conversation he invited us to return the next day to talk more, but with regret I explained that this was our last day in the area. Repeating his affirmation, “what you say is good,” he added, “We will believe, me and my family. Not today, but probably in two or three days, we will believe.”

“We will believe….” The words of this patriarch have come back to me again and again – sometimes almost hauntingly – in the three years since I sat with him in Ethiopia. I have prayed for him and his family often, and long to return and meet him again. Perhaps I will, or perhaps we will only meet when we stand together before the throne of Jesus.

This fall I have the opportunity to travel once again to Africa – not to Ethiopia, but to Liberia on the west coast. This oldest of African republics was devastated by civil war over the past two decades – a war that left 250,000 dead, thousands more displaced, a nation in economic ruin, and rampant corruption and unemployment. Significant portions of Monrovia, the capital, remain without electricity and running water.

Our global pastor, Josh Butler, and his wife, Holly, were recently in Monrovia. Read her first impressions: “The city is glum, there is trash piled everywhere and most buildings are either bombed out and empty, bombed out and being used still, or made out of pieces of trash. The poverty here is extreme.”

Our church here in Portland, Imago Dei Community, wants to be part of the solution in Liberia, and so we are beginning what we anticipate will be a long-term partnership with key Christian leaders there. In the midst of the corruption and largely ineffectual progress in other relief projects, the integrity and wisdom of these leaders has attracted the attention of the very highest levels of government.

In October, I will join an 11-person team from Imago Dei going to Monrovia to join the work already in progress. Mount Barclay, a refugee camp outside Monrovia, is home to about 15,000 residents living in abject poverty. Last September, working with Liberian pastor Saah Joseph, a Portland-based organization called Plan Loving Adoptions Now dedicated a school that now hosts 600 children in the Mount Barclay region. These children either walk or are driven to the school from several villages – requiring two vans and multiple trips per day!

Our team will focus on four primary needs:

  • Additional construction work on the elementary school, a kitchen, and a secure storage facility
  • Counseling and job skills training for girls transitioning out of prostitution
  • Pastoral training with local church leaders
  • Long-term strategic planning for our partnership

Over the past few years, God has been impressing upon me the changing role of the American church in global evangelization. While in Liberia, I will not only be helping with construction, but also listening to and learning from the pastors and other leaders there, with an ear specifically toward understanding how Imago Dei and other US churches can best support and serve our brothers and sisters in Liberia. (This will also benefit my seminary studies, as I was recently approved to do an “individualized study” course I designed on “Developing a Church-Based Short-Term Mission Strategy.”)

Of course, a trip like this is expensive – but what price do we put on the lives of people who may gain eternal life through our efforts? What is the value of the patriarch and his family with whom I sat under a tree in 2005? Or a child, orphaned by war, whose future is bleak except for the hope offered by a good education, healthy food, and loving caregivers? Imago Dei – an eight-year-old church – has already contributed more than $12,000 toward the construction needs, plus thousands more toward clean water wells in Liberia and elsewhere.

Eileen and I have prayed for this opportunity and the lifelong impact we believe it will have…for Imago Dei, for Liberia, and even for our family. We would ask you to pray about whether and how you might help make it possible for me to go. We would love to have your prayers, your encouragement, and your financial support.

Would you take a moment right now to pray for this opportunity? As God leads, please contact me for specific information on how you can support me.

– Randy