Friday, March 17, 2023

Learning from the Church in Asia

Flying somewhere between Seoul and Bangkok, I began counting the number of international ministry trips I've done in my lifetime to pass the hours -  a bit like counting sheep to fall asleep. I started flying internationally in 1990 and worked it out to be around 100 trips by 2023, not  including the many times I've driven across international borders. This is not a flex. It's a confession. While I love the nations, international travel has lost its novelty for me. My body is not designed for it. My soul does not long for it. Long haul flights in particular, make me feel every year of my age. I can no longer shrug off jet lag like I used to. It hovers around like an unwanted visitor who has overstayed their welcome.  

So, why do I still do it? 

Very simply,  I do it because I believe embodied visits impart something to churches that videos, zoom calls and books do not. The Apostle Paul, in his inestimably great letter to the church in Rome, wrote that he longed to be present with them so that he might impart some spiritual gift to them to make them strong, that they might be mutually encouraged by each others faith. 

I do believe that in some way Rynelle and I impart something to churches when we travel. I also know for sure that we always gain some mutual encouragement from being with them. Having just returned from our 10 day trip to Asia where we spent time with our dear friends at One Light Church in Thailand and Redemption Hill Church in Singapore, though my body is tired, my heart is full. Despite my travel complaints above, both visits were a real joy, re-kindling treasured friendships and strengthening gospel partnerships. So,  I waned to share some of the encouragement I have received from being with them. 

Of course, Asia is not monolithic. It is vast and wonderfully diverse. Thailand and Singapore themselves are vastly different from one another, both culturally and economically. But collectively they have something to say to us, so I am reflecting on the gift of the Asian Church broadly to us as the American Church broadly. 

What does it have to teach us? 

A Minority Faith is a Robust Faith

First, it teaches us that a minority faith is a robust faith. Thailand is just over 1% Christian, while Christianity has slightly more influence in Singapore at 11%, but in both nations, Christians are a vast minority. Bhuddist monks are so revered in Thailand that they have special seating for them in airports and Bhuddism is by far the majority religion at 94%. The spread of religions is more even in Singapore, with Bhudddism at 31%,  Islam at 15% and Taoism at 8%, while 20% of the population identify as having no religion. Overall though, the religious rights of Christians in Asia are fragile to non-existent. Churches live at the mercy of watchful and mostly suspicious government authorities who fear that their growth may disrupt the religious and cultural status quo. People who become Christians are often viewed as betraying their families, their faith and their culture, so there is a significant cost to following Jesus. Yet, this minority faith reality serves to forge an astonishing common bond among Christians. 

While the debate rages on about whether America is or should be a Christian nation, there is no debate for me as to the quality of Christian that is forged in a minority faith context. It is simply a more robust faith because there are no social benefits to becoming a Christian, so believers count the cost of following Jesus in more sobering ways than do Christians in the U.S.  Does this mean that we should wish that Christianity becomes a minority in the USA in order that it should flourish? Certainly not.  But neither should we fear the fact that we are living in an increasingly secular post-Christian reality. It creates more robust Christians, while a majority Christian nation tends to create more nominal Christians. 

An Embattled Gospel is a Treasured Gospel

While Christians live lives that are embattled by hostility to the gospel in Asia, there is a treasuring of the gospel that is marvelous. I spoke to a man in the Singapore church who was from Malaysia, which is a strict Muslim country. He personally knew of people that had been  imprisoned or killed for trying to convert Muslims in his home country. He was sensing a call to leave the relative comfort of Singapore and return to Malaysia, but was wrestling with the danger of the call. As he talked you could see that despite real fear,  the love of Christ was compelling him. 

 If you compare the last words of Bhudda to the last words of Jesus you will understand why Christians from primarily Bhuddist nations treasure the gospel. On his death bed, Bhudda's last words to the monks around him were, "Monks, work hard to earn your salvation!" In contrast, Jesus last words to those who surrounded him at the cross were, "It is finished!" 

Christ finished the work of redeeming humanity from slavery to sin, paying our debt in full with his own life to set us free. While grace calls us to worshipful effort in serving God, it is opposed to earning of our salvation. Asian Christians treasure the grace of God in Jesus that has freed them from slavishly having to earn merit with God. There is a palpable relief and joy because of the gospel. Make no mistake, they are generally sacrificial and highly disciplined. But they treasure the gospel. You can hear it in their voices as they sing. You can see it in their faces as they speak. You can hear it in their earnest prayers. An embattled gospel is a treasured gospel.

A Communal Christian is a Healthier Christian 

The communal nature of Christianity in Asia is compelling. The idea of being a Christian who is not part of a church, just doesn't make any sense to a Christian here. For a start, culture is far more collectivist, less individualistic. But also, following Jesus without the encouragement of other Christians and godly leaders is just too hard.  We should take our cue from them. A Christian walking alone is a Christian in walking in danger.  One Light Church in Thailand builds community by feeding their whole congregation a simple lunch after their morning service. Nobody rushes off to their favorite restaurant. It's more important to be together. RHC in Singapore is a bigger and busier church with 5 different congregations so there is no after-church lunch, but still, people linger after each service in their rented hotel ballroom, chatting at length and praying for one another. Both churches have facilities that are solid but minimal - no high end coffee shops or playgrounds to get people to stay around. (I am for both of these, by the way!)  And yet, there is a profound priority on an unhurried gathering that weaves a strong communal fabric within the church. While both churches do Christian counseling and community groups it seems as though much of the disciple making and counseling is happening organically and relationally, rather than programmatically and professionally. This makes for a more healthy Christian.

A High Carb Diet is the Best Kind of Diet!

Not really. But seriously! Lots of walking, 5 small meals a day, lots of carbs, and very few overweight people. What are we missing

You may think I am idealizing Asian Christianity. Make no mistake, there are many qualities of Christianity here in the USA that have resourced the Church in Asia. Our music, our books, our seminaries,  our innovation and our generosity have fueled the mission of Christ in Asia in remarkable ways. But let's not fall into thinking that the resourcing is a one way street. Far from it. The Church in Asia has so much to teach us, and in the years to come I believe the American churches that are humble enough to learn from our brothers and sisters there will be noticeably stronger than those that don't.

 I'm forever thankful to God for Asia and particularly, the Church in Asia. 

Saturday, December 24, 2022

2022 in the Books

I know these '
Books I've read this year' lists can come across as a literary flex. Or even worse, they can serve as a guilt trip for those who feel they haven't read enough. I hope this list is neither. I hope it serves as a recommended list for you if you're looking for something to read over Christmas or into the New year. The truth is, in a year when I finished writing and releasing Psalms for a Saturated Soul, I assumed I would not get much time to read beyond that. 

Happily, I was wrong, for two reasons. 

First, I co-lead a morning book club with about 20 men from ages 14 to 71. It may be my favorite time of the week. It forces me to keep reading myself and it's been a joy to see relationships and faith deepen as we've journeyed together. Second, while I prefer reading books in print, leaning freshly into Audible this year meant a good deal of travel was spent listening to books rather than podcasts. That was time well spent and some books, like Bono's 'Surrender,' are actually better in Audible because of the musical interludes.

Some books were hard work. Others I enjoyed so much I didn't went them to end. A couple of books on the list are as yet, unfinished, but still recommended. Here are a few lines on each one of them, in three categories.

A. Non-Fiction

1. The Gospel in Genesis by Dr. Martin-Lloyd Jones 

I returned to read this little gem of a transcript of sermons from the good doctor as we entered our Genesis series at church. While I would not include some of the heavy-lifting commentaries that have been required reading during the sermon series, this is an easy and insightful read with timeless truths and fascinating Welsh anecdotes. 

2. The Secular Creed  by Rebecca McClaughlin

McClaughlin is a British author and Christian apologist living in the USA. This work is a brief but insightful engagement with the secular creed through the lens of Scripture. She asserts that Christians tend to take a hammer to the secular creeds, 'Black Lives Matter, Love Is Love, Gay Rights Are Civil Rights, Women's Rights Are Human Rights, Transgender Women Are Women,' either hammering them into their lawn in full endorsement or breaking them up in pieces in complete rejection. Instead, she argues that if we engage them through Scripture, we can take a highlighter pen to the aspects that are Biblical, while critiquing the aspects that are not. Her writing is clear, concise and Biblical and the book equips  believers to engage thoughtfully with friends, family and neighbors. 

3.  Prayer by Timothy Keller

This is probably my 5th time reading this timeless classic with a group. Who knew that a book by a Presbyterian New Yorker would become my all time favorite book on prayer. Keller is one of my heroes, not just because he is so wise, but because he has lived faithfully for so long. His secret sauce is his prayer life.His chapters on the Jesus' intercession and the Spirit of adoption in prayer are mind blowing, as well as his summaries on Calvin and Luther's prayer lives. You will not regret praying through this book.

4. God's Treasured Possession by Terry Virgo

During a July month long break I read this journey through the life of Moses as a devotional. It was both refreshing and consoling. The author has become something of a father in the faith to me, so I could hear his voice through his writing. Like Keller, Virgo has a remarkable track-record of faithfulness and fruitfulness over almost fifty years of ministry. This matters more than ever to me against a backdrop of common failure among high profile Christian leaders. Terry's faithfulness to the Scriptures mixed with his  deeply personal relationship with the Spirit, yield a kind of insight into God's character that has the reader going, "I never saw that about God, but it was there all along, hidden in plain sight." A devotional gem.

5. Heaven and Nature Sing by Hannah Anderson

Anderson lives with her family in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky. Her husband is the pastor of a small town, rural church and she is an acclaimed author and speaker, particularly focussing on the intersection between nature and theology. This is a stunning Advent devotional, providing insights into the coming of Christ from the Scriptures and God's creation. My wife and I have read it together for a devotional this Advent. Not yet completed, but highly recommended. 

6. Psalms for the Saturated Soul by Alan Frow

This is cheeky, I know, but I did actually read this book with my book group this year, which was a most gratifying experience. I didn't realize how it would work in a group, but it was so warmly received that I am taking some time off to write a group work addendum to each chapter which will be re-released some time in February. I'm still surprised and grateful and at how God has used this little book to help people find emotional health from the Psalms.

B. Fiction

1. Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis 

We have just completed studying this series of letters as a book club and while some of the 1950's Oxford Don's language and context needs translation, it is brilliant satire written from the perspective of an uncle demon called Screwtape to his nephew, Wormwood, as they strategize to tempt and trap a new Christian.There is really no other work I know that gives such a profound glimpse behind the curtain into the dynamics of spiritual warfare in the Christian faith.

2. Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry 

This book is a sequel to Jayber Crow, the small-town barber from Port William, Kentucky, which first turned me on to Berry's remarkable writing. You have to read him slowly. Every page is a masterpiece on the young widow who lost her husband to the second World War. It is not what you would expect of a traditional novel - far less about the dramatic arc of a story-line and far more about a testament to the mysterious beauty and brutality of life. The characters are reflected upon in a way that is empathetic and prophetic -a most surprising gospel art-piece.

C. Autobiographies

1. As Many as the Stars in the Sky by Robert Glover

I stumbled across this inspiring autobiography because Robert's son, Josh, is part of our church. It is the story of a British social worker who senses a call from God to facilitate the adoption of one million Chinese orphans into families. In obedience, he moves with his whole family to Beijing and God begins to open doors of favor to those in authority in astonishing ways. While the book title comes from God's call to Abraham about his many descendants, Glover's story is more like Joseph - an outlandish dreamer with a common touch who is at home with the poor  and the powerful alike. The remarkable thing is that the vision has been accomplished and Care for the Children continues to grow in other nations. Beyond the beauty of adoption taking place on such a grand scale, the story is one of ordinary people being obedient and witnessing God's extraordinary hand on their obedience. Because of the book, we were able to have Robert come and share his story in person at our church and now it is a privilege to partner with his organization, Care for the Children. 

 2. I think therefore I Play by Andrea Pirlo 

I'm a fan of sports autobiographies, and this one about the Italian genius who brought such a magical quality to his soccer, was an absorbing read. Pirlo continued into coaching after his acclaimed playing career, and as I've followed him with Italian super-club Juventus, he will surely enjoy similar success in that realm. Pure, enjoyable escape for me. 

3. Greenlights - Matthew McConnughey

This book was better listened to than read, because its author, the charming,Texan rogue, is such a great actor. The man has jam-packed 5 lives into his fifty-plus years. He is an American icon with an insatiable thirst for adventure, risk and fun. His story-telling is superb and his love of Southern sayings is winsome. I would say that his story-telling is better than the conclusions he comes to about life. I was disappointed by two things in particular. First, his soft stance on promiscuity and drug abuse are irresponsible. Just because he has escaped its ravaging consequences to some degree does not do justice to the fact that countless others have not. Also, his syncretism is regrettable. He claims Christianity as his faith. He has a pastor and a local church. And yet he seems to believe as strongly in the power of luck and Voodoo magic as he does in Jesus. A sad window into our cultures' affinity for a create your own hybrid religion.

4. Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri

This was the most unique book I
read this year. I have enjoyed it so much that I am saving the last chapters for vacation reading. It is the true story of the author's family as they flee from Iran as religious refugees to the Oklahoma because of their Christian faith. It is written in the style of an adolescent - heart-breaking, hilarious, awkward and hopeful. It is both irreverent and deeply reverent all at once. A needed window into the plight of the Global persecuted church that is such a brilliant literary work that it has received multiple mainstream awards. 

5. Surrender by Bono 

As a life-long fan of the band U2, whose songs were the soundtrack of my 20's and 30's, I have gone through a decade of disenchantment with Bono. I have felt that his music has suffered from his philanthropy, and I've longed for the band either to pack it all in, or do the hard work to produce another album with great songs. But this book reveals a man who is both brilliant and self-aware with a deep Christian faith and a consuming drive to change the world for the better. Every rock star has an ego problem, and Bono is no expiation  but I respect the fact  that he has allowed God to use his fame and wealth for good. So, here's to one more great album!

Monday, December 12, 2022

Building with Redwood: a metaphor for Vision 2067

The Davies House was built in 1900 in downtown Fullerton, name after it's original owner, Mr. Davies, who was a well-known Welsh greengrocer in the burgeoning little city. In 1981 it was moved lock, stock and barrel on a flat-bed truck up onto a hill a few miles north of Fullerton in a leafy suburb overlooking Hillcrest Park by its new owners. We discovered her there for sale in 2011 and promptly fell in love with her wrap-around-porch. She was a fixer, for sure, but her bones were beautiful. The city recognized her dilapidated beauty by calling it a historic landmark property.

Part of our purchase of the house required a termite report. Little did we know, that the guy who did the termite report was none other than Matt Holmes. Matt and Adri would join our church four years later.  They would become dear friends of ours who would travel around the world with us doing ministry and Matt would become one of Southlands' elders. God must have been chuckling back then when I just saw Matt as the Termite Guy! Anyway, Termite Guy had a strange report for me back then. The 111 year old house had no termites, whereas the double garage, built in 1981, had plenty. "What's up with that?" I asked, mystified.  

Matt's response was poignant. "The old house was built with Redwood, so she's fine. The newer garage was built with Douglas fir. It's cheaper but far less resistant to termites. Thats why it's half the price."  Materials matter, you know. We're still thankful that Mr. Davies didn't cut corners, choosing instead to build with sturdy materials that would outlast him. 

This has become a metaphor for us in the way we are trying to lead Southlands. I believe one of the  wisest ways we can live and lead is to have a vision that will outlive us,  To build with materials that will outlast us. We want to build with God's enduring Word, Christ's eternal gospel and His indwelling Spirit. We want to hear Jesus and obey Him like the man in Jesus' parable who built his house on the rock that stood firm when the storms came. 

Materials matter. We don't want to cut corners and have future generations lament that we left them a termite-infested house. We must build with Redwood instead of Douglas fir. It seems to me that many church leaders in California are in survival mode. I understand that to some degree. There is such uncertainty around the future, such volatility in our culture. Many people are scanning the horizon for easier building conditions in other States. It results in building under the tyranny of the urgent  in a way that will cause the next generation to lament our decisions. We simply must come back to God's covenant to bless his people and make them a blessing from generation to generation.

This is where our Vision 2067 comes in. Southlands is 55 years old. By God's grace, she will be 100 in 2067, unless Jesus returns before that. She may have a different name by then and she will certainly have different leaders. But I believe  she will exist as a family of churches in many nations by then.  What would it take for us to build now, for Southlands to be faithful and fruitful in 45 years time? 

Vision 2067 aims to invest financially in church planting, in raising up the the next generation of leaders and in the Global persecuted Church. (both strengthening and being strengthened by them) Here is a short video shot on the Davies House porch with myself and Matt Holmes talking about  Vision 2067

We are so thankful for so many who have invested themselves and their finances into God's call on Southlands. We want to ask that you would prayerfully consider investing into our future together by clicking on the Southlands giving link with the Vision 2067 giving tab. 

Yours in grateful hope,