Monday, February 25, 2008

A Son of Abraham

As I grew up outside of Christ and His church, never venturing beyond the bounds of the South and Midwest, my view of the world was extremely limited and ill-informed even into my young adult years. I knew little of other lands and peoples, relegating them to history books and looking with suspicion at the occasional foreigner who crossed my path. My only exposure to other nations seemed to be quadrennial in nature, where during the Olympics, in my sports-crazed, American ego-centric ways, I would watch television hoping the USA would trounce anyone not wearing red, white and blue. Foreign lands seemed to be just that. Foreign and other-worldly to me. You could have rightly accused me of being xenophobic, but I was so ignorant I would have had no idea what it meant.

Yet this past week the Lord has reminded me again and again that He has not just changed my mind about people from other lands. He has blown it away. For one of the wondrous aspects of salvation is that you immediately become part of the family of God, a family that is nation-encompassing in scope. The believer in Christ becomes a child of Abraham, the father of many nations. The incredible event at Pentecost was not only the number of those saved, but that they were men from "every nation under heaven" (Acts 2:5). An awe is seen in the early church over the way the Lord had brought salvation to the nations of the earth (Acts 11:18). And centuries later little old me, still living in the Midwest but with an eye now that is able to look beyond it, is connected to believers all over the world simply because I belong to Christ's church. For just this past week I was privileged to experience:
  • A young lady named Juliann I had known as a girl in the Elkhart congregation sent a letter sharing about her Scriptural translation work in Papau New Guinea.
  • Several college students in our congregation church shared with me desires about traveling and/or doing mission work in places as diverse as Israel, Mexico and Australia.
  • I continue to rejoice in working closely with Bill VanDoodewaard, our pastoral intern from Canada, and learning more about the church there.
  • Daniel, a young man who grew up in our congregation, was here last week with his wife and new son sharing how they will be leaving for Africa for mission work in the wilderness next month. As I spent some time with my pastor and mentor Dave Long a few days later we spoke of how he will be visiting them in April.
  • We spent more time planning for our outreach in April when a pastor from Ireland will be here preaching in Kokomo.
  • We prayed yet again for the work of the church in Australia, where another son of the congregation lives and a dear friend of mine pastors.
  • Yesterday Vic Bernales, a seminary student from the Philippines, preached here. Later that night, his family stayed with us and in my office he spoke to our mutual friend Ojie Bicaldo in Davao City in Mindanao over my computer on Skype.
"Tell of His glory among the nations, His wonderful deeds among all the peoples" (Psalm 96:3). What a privilege being a son of Abraham in the age of Christ is!

Monday, February 18, 2008

John Frum Day

It was the day after Valentine's Day. John Frum Day, that is. It is celebrated every year on February 15th. Missed it, you say? You should thank the Lord.

In the tiny South Pacific archipelago nation of Vanautu, John Frum Day has been celebrated for over sixty years now. It is a ritual of one of the so-called "cargo cults" leftover from World War II. American soldiers by the tens of thousands came into the Pacific Theatre of WWII and its many islands, dropping in from planes overhead and being dropped off from massive boats by sea. As they brought with them their western machines, jeeps, radios, food items, riches, etc., the local villagers living in grass huts with their ancient superstitions thought the gods had arrived. In many cases, villages began worshiping military leaders and praying that these "gods" would bless them with all these wonders they were seeing. When the war ended and the soldiers disappeared, the islanders kept praying for their return. As the years passed by with no return of these wonders, most of these cargo cults faded away with the disillusionment of unfulfilled expectations. But the John Frum cult remains, even being featured on the Vanuatu's travel bureau website.

Every February 15th, in the village of Lamakara, islanders gather to honor John Frum. Men march in order with bamboo sticks carved like rifles with bayonets, while other natives dress in bright colors and do special dances. Flags from America are flown proudly, be they Stars and Stripes or Confederate ones. A chief visits a volcano and speaks to John, who supposedly now lives there, and tends to a special house or temple to John. Other celebrations ensue. Every Friday is also a religious day, as locals gather for a time of hymn singing and drinking to John. Though no naval record points to an actual sailor with this name, locals claim a man decked in naval attire with this name promised that he would return with planes and boats loaded with goods if they would pray to him. Though he has not yet kept his promise, sadly the islanders have maintained theirs.

As I read about this in the Smithsonian (you can go here to read the full story), the exact name of the island caught my attention and reminded me of another John who had gone there nearly a century before. The island this cult resides on is Tanna Island. This is the island that John G. Paton, known as the missionary to the New Hebrides (now called Vanuatu), first went to from Scotland in his mission work. After being there for three months, he tragically saw his wife and then newborn son succumb to illness. Paton continued to minister to the natives there, but ultimately he had to flee Tanna for his life. He eventually resettled on the nearby island of Aniwa. Though the people of Aniwa were just as cruel and cannibalistic as those on Tanna, it was here that the Lord blessed Paton with success. After many years, the entire island embraced Christ.

Several lessons are to be gained from this fascinating history:
  • Why did one island become so enthralled with Christ and another similar in nature generally reject Him even to this day? Nothing but the sovereign grace of God can explain that.
  • One common objection raised against Christianity is "What about those who have never heard about Christ?" A careful look at the history of the church will show that in those places where the gospel is lacking, most often there was a prior rejection of it. This should serve as a warning that God will turn His attention away from those who resist Him.
  • People naturally prefer the gods of their own making over the true knowledge of Christ.
  • As the Westminster Confession of Faith states, wherever God constructs a true church, Satan erects a nearby synagogue to mislead people.
  • The foolishness of idolatry should not decrease over time just because it becomes more culturally acceptable. Even the Smithsonian can go to this remote island and refer to this John Frum religion as a cult. Why can it not see the same in Mormonism, whose roots are just as bizarre?
The chief of this religion was asked by the reporter why he had not given up hope in John Frum's apocalyptic return after sixty years. His answer, which serves as the conclusion to the Smithsonian article? "Christians have been waiting 2000 years for Jesus to return to earth and haven't given up hope." Hear in that answer the knowledge of the gospel he is rejecting? And according to this article, sounds like this very chief is being threatened as the gospel is now triumphing, turning "John Frummites" into Christians. Hallelujah!

"For great is the LORD and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared above all gods." -Psalm 96:4

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Seeing the Unseen

Tragically, last week an unusual storm system for the winter produced at least 68 tornadoes in the south, leading to widespread destruction and the loss of life through states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee. Even as we pray for those who are dealing with the aftermath of this worst outbreak of tornadoes in twenty years, have you noticed what people are saying regarding the unseen source of these storms?

Of course, many of our modern prophets such as Senator John "Elisha" Kerry (friend of Al "Elijah" Gore) quickly arose to proclaim to us the reason these tornadoes were sent was because of global warming. Do these men not appear as hypocritical televangelists, flying around the world in private jets with red-faced anger, warning the masses of the great apocalypse that is coming unless we all repent of our sin of driving an SUV? Is not their message a twist on the psalm, "Who understands global warming's fury as they should?" One wonders how many carbon credits (I prefer the term "carbon indulgences") Archbishop Gore thinks it takes to stop a tornado from forming. I imagine more than I can buy. These men would do well to recall Churchill's words when asked what qualities being a politician requires: “The ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn't happen.”

On the other hand, at least one politician was reported as pointing to another source. The New York Times quoted Governor Phil Bredesen of Tennessee as saying that these whirlwinds were a display of the "wrath of God." However, they later corrected their article as this quote was not from this year, but occurred in 2006 when Governor Bredesen stood beside the ruins of a home that had been stricken by a tornado. Most likely the Times, whose own public editor was not ashamed to admit their liberal bias, made this error in their rush to made the honorable governor appear foolish in his assessments.

These examples demonstrate how one's worldview, with its inherit presuppositions, impacts everything we see. Believe in a naturalistic universe, and you will credit an amorphous Mother Nature's hot flashes as the culprit behind a tornado even as you mock supernatural explanations. Believe in a Creator, and you understand why even insurance policies will still not cover certain "acts of God." Theologian and philosopher Cornelius Van Til said, "I could believe in nothing else if I did not, as back of everything, believe in this (Creator) God. Can I see the beams underneath the floor on which I walk? I must assume or presuppose that the beams are underneath. Unless the beams were underneath, I could not walk on the floor."

Instead of giving carbon the credit for these tornadoes, God does not back away from taking it. Through his prophet Isaiah He proclaimed to a disobedient people, "From the LORD of hosts you will be punished with thunder and earthquake and loud noise, with whirlwind and tempest and the flame of a consuming fire" (Isaiah 26:3). He took his true prophet Elijah to heaven in a whirlwind (II Kings 2:11), and spoke to another one named Job from one (Job 38:1), all the while claiming His power over winds and every other act of nature.

We have been sowing the wind as a nation for quite some time now. Is it not about time we finally see we are reaping the whirlwind He promised He would send (Hosea 8:7)? We better, for think upon what yet another prophet named Nahum was saying when he declared, "In whirlwind and storm is His way, and the clouds are the dust beneath His feet" (Nahum 1:3).

Monday, February 04, 2008

Mercy with a Bite

Ever noticed how often Jesus would meet a request for help with silence, a hard question, a reproach, an impossible demand or even an apparent refusal?

The Syrophoenician woman's story in Matthew 15 is a case in point. She cried out to Jesus for mercy for her oppressed daughter. Yet Jesus at first did not answer her (Matthew 15:23). When she kept up the noise He told her He was only sent for Israel (Matthew 15:24). When she bowed and begged He told her His bread was "for the children, not the dogs" - a Gentile dog like her being implied (Matthew 15:26). Ouch! Finally, as she persevered with Him, her request was granted.

Other notable examples can be found in Jesus commanding His disciples to give food they did not have to the five thousand (Matthew 14:15-16), asking a blind man what he wanted done (!) and a paralytic of thirty-eight years if he wished to be well (!!) (see Luke 18:41 and John 5:6 respectively), and seeming to put off His own mother when presented with a wine shortage (John 2:4). Why did Jesus do this?

To stir up faith. He commended the woman above for her great faith (Matthew 15: 28). Mercy assistance doled out, no questions asked, leads to loss of dignity, obscures the real source of the problem, and misses the opportunity to get people to contemplate why God has put them in that situation in the first place. For the Lord wants them to seek the true mercy of Christ, which is the forgiveness of, and freedom from, sins.

To that end, being a downtown congregation that regularly gets asked for help, from families without any food in the house to the druggie asking for twenty bucks "so I can visit my grandmother in the hospital in Indianapolis" (translated "so I can buy my next hit of crack"), we slow them down by asking some questions.

Since several have asked us recently about how we handle mercy requests, I thought it might be of some help to others to post below the general procedure we ask when someone calls or stops by. In each instance from Christ's life I referred to above, note that even as He heals and feeds Jesus is directing them to Himself as the source of true spiritual health and food.

Psalm 136 tells the people of God 26 times that the Lord's "mercy is everlasting." What a sweet refrain! Yet read it and remember that
the Lord's mercy is praised in the context of Him sending plagues, overthrowing kings, and rescuing His people from adversaries. That's mercy with a bite!

Reformed Presbyterian Church

Mercy Request Policy

When someone outside the church contacts us via phone or personally about helping them with shelter, food, clothing, bills or monetary needs, please follow the procedure outlined below.

1) Ask the following questions, being sure to write down the information.

  • Name?
  • Contact info?
  • Particular need?
  • Family structure?
  • Job?
  • Do you receive government assistance?
  • Why has this need arisen?
  • Have you asked any family members for help?
  • Do you belong to or attend a church? If yes, why are they not helping you?
  • Have you approached any government agencies, Rescue Mission or other churches for help already in this area? If so, why did they deny you?
  • Why did you contact us?

To be honest, not only does this help us assess the need, but it will often reveal those who are merely panhandling and tends to chase away those wanting a quick buck (Do not be surprised if they hang-up or leave angrily). Also, if in this process the questions reveal obvious sin (i.e., "my live-in boyfriend used the money for drugs"), immediately ask them, “Have you ever considered that your need is the consequence of the spiritual problem of not obeying God?”

2) If they continue to seem responsive, then ask, "If we assist you, are you willing to receive instruction from God's word?"

If they are not, we warn them that their hunger or need is God getting their attention about their sin and they are ignoring His message. We then politely tell them we will not be able to help them if they will not listen to the Lord. Jesus fed the 5000 only after they had listened to Him for many hours.

3) If they do agree for spiritual instruction, tell them you must talk to the deacons to see how we can best address their need and that we will get back to them as soon as possible (try to make it that same day if possible). Make it clear that you are not authorized to give them money at any time.

4) Contact deacons Ron Visser or Robert Jones at the Mission to have them checked through the database to see if they have received help or if these men know the individual or family (often they do). Then formulate with Ron or Robert the best plan for meeting the need and/or speaking to the person.

5) Usually a deacon will then contact them on behalf of the church and arrange for bringing the food, giving the ride, helping with a bill, etc. We always go with more than one person to meet the need and give them a church brochure, share a testimony, and invite them to church.

6) Always pray for the person(s) at our next gathering.