Enjoy the Journey

Sorry for being so scarce since returning from vacation.  It’s been a little hectic with renovations going on at church, school starting at Southwestern College and Phoenix Seminary, and starting a new series in my preaching ministry.  It’s been right back to my hectic life!  I promise that there are a couple of important lessons I learned in Rwanda that I have not had time to blog yet; there’s a lesson on relationships and on food that are coming, so hang in there with me!

One of the challenges of our crazy summer was our fitness and running in particular.  I like to run and have completed two half-marathons. (check here and here for my thoughts on those; the first one still makes me emotional to read)  However, in the craziness of the trip to Rwanda and the cruise my running definitely tapered off.  In the weeks of the trip to Africa I ran not one iota.  In Belgium I was too tired or busy, and in Rwanda it was either too early, too late, too much air pollution, too much to do, or what have you.  I ran once in the week between Africa and the cruise, and twice on the cruise while eating enough for a whole family.  I gained about 10 pounds over the month.

So needless to say my running shape was long gone.  I was overweight, had no muscle memory, and couldn’t keep close to the pace I was hitting in June.  3 miles was a huge undertaking, whereas I had just run 13.1 and felt great at the end.  How discouraging!

As I was slogging through a run last week I thought about the fact that I was really “suffering” through my run.  It was harder than expected, it was hot, I was tired and slow, blah blah blah.  I was frustrated that my fitness was garbage and started talking to God some while running, asking Him to ease my suffering and to get me through it until I could get back where I wanted to be.

And then he whacked me upside the head.

Loud and clear in my heart I heard, “Enjoy the suffering.  Don’t endure it; enjoy it.  It is making you into the runner you want to be, so be grateful for it.”  If you re-read my post from the PF Chang half in January linked above, that is the same spiritual lesson that He reminded me of there. 

11      All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. 
12      Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, 
13      and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed. (Hebrews 12:11-13, NASB)

Discipline is no fun, and we can really resist suffering in our spiritual lives like I was resisting it in my running.  But that’s not how God works any more than it is how physical fitness works!  You’ve got to be willing to train in order to run, to start small and make incremental improvements to get better.  Records are not broken on accident, and frankly they are not broken on the race course.  Instead, they are broken on purpose on those solo training runs where you push yourself to be better than you were.  The race is the celebration more than it is the test.

The same holds true in our spiritual lives.  Enjoy the trials, the struggles, and the tests of faith.  Recognize that they are the “training runs” of your walk with Christ and that He will use them to make you into the person He wants you to be.  It’s that discipline and suffering and struggle that will mold you into a Christ follower who brings Him glory and has true and lasting joy in the midst of whatever comes.  That is how to experience what the author of Hebrews wants for us in Hebrews 12:1-2:

1      Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,
2      fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

So with that lesson from God in my mind I set out to regain my form.  I am not nearly there, but I can see little flashes of the old me as I regain my form.  My weight is headed in the right direction, with about 10 pounds to go total.  More than that, though, I am enjoying the process again and looking forward to lacing up my running shoes.

My prayer is that whatever you’re going through today that you hear the lesson I learned and find a place to enjoy the process, not just the product.  Whether your struggle is spiritual, emotional, relational, vocational, educational or financial the same truth can change your outlook on your day. 

Enjoy the suffering and the struggle, not just the result.  Try it and see what God does to your outlook on life as well as your results.  As the founder of American Kenpo, Ed Parker, once said, “Whatever the attitude, so is the response.”

Rwanda Lessons Learned #3: Theology Matters

There’s nothing quite like traveling across the globe and getting embroiled in a theological controversy among the people you are visiting and hoping to serve.  You show up full of vigor to serve the Lord, and the next thing you know someone wants you to solve a long-standing theological impasse in 15 minutes…through an interpreter.  As a theology geek issues like these can be a ton of fun; as a short-term missionary who doesn’t want to ruin unity in the community they are more than a little stressful.  If handled improperly controversy can cause dissension and strife, but if approached with humility, biblical precision and a willingness to dialog and interact it can bring togetherness and camaraderie.  I thank God that on my recent trip to Rwanda He allowed me to navigate this minefield by upholding the grace of God and helping about 30 churches embrace His radical message of the truly free grace of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone.

I didn’t go to Rwanda to start a theological debate, but a big one came and found me while I was there doing pastoral training.  My central mission on a recent trip was to train local pastors in biblical interpretation as well as discipleship and basic theology.  (you can find the handout I used for the biblical interpretation training here; the discipleship handout I made is here)   This was just a short introduction; for anyone who has had a college or seminary class in Bible interpretation, imagine trying to take 16 weeks of instruction and material and compress it down into about 2 hours—during which you have to stop every other sentence for translation—and you will get the gist of what I was working with.

pastors at training 3 I knew as well that I wanted to reinforce the grace of God in my training time.  I chose to use Romans 4:1-8 as the text we would practice our interpretive skills on specifically to reinforce the truth that salvation is by grace through faith alone.  I had been taught by several people who had gone to Africa before me that the church in Africa can tend towards legalism and sometimes struggles with the message of the grace of a truly free salvation, so I wanted to reinforce the radical truth that Paul teaches in Romans.

Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, ” (Romans 4:4–5, NAS)

Salvation as a truly free gift of God, by faith alone in the work of His Son Jesus on our behalf, is the cornerstone of historic Christianity.  I wanted to bring that message to the pastors in Gacundezi; at the same time, I wanted them to discover it for themselves in the text as we worked on our observation and interpretation skills rather than take my word for it.  The bedrock of evangelical Christianity is that there is nothing that anyone can do to earn eternal life because our sin separates us from God.  The scandal of the cross, Paul tells us, is that all who trust Christ with no works have His righteousness credited to their account. (Rom 4:3)

I should have expected that there would be some spirited discussion on the requirements of eternal life when I chose that particular passage.  The million-dollar question came from one of the pastors in the audience.  “Pastor,” she asked, “How does this passage compare with what James says in James 2:18?”  I wasn’t looking to get embroiled in the Lordship Salvation controversy, but it came and found me in Africa!  With how often I get asked to compare James 2:14-26 and what Paul says in his writings (and Jesus says too) I should have expected it.  I was very grateful that I was prepared to discuss the free grace of God and ready to interact with the issue with these pastors.

pastoral training I started with a bit of masochism, telling the pastor who asked the question (her name is Josephine) if I could make the problem more difficult.  My translator did a double take when I said that, thinking for sure that he had misheard me!  However, for the grace of God to come into sharp focus we must first bring the controversy into sharp focus.  I don’t want to tilt at windmills or defeat a straw man; I want to face the issue head-on!  I asked everyone to turn their Bibles not to James 2:18, but to James 2:24.  That’s where the REAL issue is!

“You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

This is the actual heart of the problem, I told them.  Paul says clearly that we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone (see especially Romans 3:21-30; Romans 4:1-8; Galatians 2:16; 3:24; Ephesians 2:8-9), while James says that we are justified by works!  Paul says we are justified by faith alone, whereas James says we are justified by works and NOT by faith alone.  So who is right and who is wrong?  More importantly, does James disagree with Paul and are there therefore contradictions in the Bible?

Once the problem is established, we were able to use our new-found interpretive skills to navigate this theological edition of “Scylla and Charybdis.”  A thorough and biblical understanding of the theology of both James and Paul helped me navigate the tricky issues of the Lordship Salvation controversy and encourage and uplift the 30 or so churches that were there to be trained that day.  Rather than muddy the waters for the pastors assembled, grace theology allowed me to bring clarity and focus.[1]

First and foremost I love grace theology because it allows me to address the words of each author head-on.  Evangelical theology is clear that our salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone, and that is easy to see from many statements in the New Testament like those quoted above.  However, what are we to make of James 2:24 then?  Without grace theology we are left to try to understand James while having to basically ignore the plain sense of what he says, and as I was taught in hermeneutics class, “When the plain sense makes good sense, accept no other sense lest you believe nonsense.”  The bald statement of 2:24 is where the controversy really comes into its own.  Are we saved by faith or must our faith have works to make it valid?

At first blush it might appear that James and Paul are at loggerheads over this issue, so I felt the need to clear that up first and foremost.  I took the pastors in the room to Galatians 2:9 to reassure everyone that Paul and James were friends.  Galatians is widely viewed as one of Paul’s earlier letters; James is considered to be early as well, and these two letters were written within a couple of years of each other.[2]  Paul says in Galatians 2:9 that James was among those who offered him and Barnabas “the right hand of fellowship;” it seems very unlikely that James and Paul could have been close friends if James taught eternal salvation by works, especially in light of Paul’s strong statements about the source of his gospel and how to treat those who taught something else. 

In Galatians 1:6-10 Paul told the church in Galatia to throw anyone out who brought a different gospel, and if James taught salvation by works then he and Paul could certainly not have had the fellowship that Paul claims they had in Galatians 2:9.  Notice as well that in Acts 15:12 Paul and Barnabas defended their mission to the Gentiles, but it was the words of James in Acts 15:19-20 that settled the matter that salvation does not require obedience to the Law of Moses.  So clearly, if Paul felt so incredibly strongly about his message, and Paul and James were close friends, then James must have agreed with Paul on this foundational issue.

Then we turned to the text of James 2 itself to put the controversy to rest.  The pastors I trained could well relate to James 2:14-17 and the message it contains about the need to help people who were destitute.  They had plenty of people in their church that saw needs and instead of meeting those needs wished God’s blessing on the one who was needy! (it seems that some problems within the church are universal)  In James 2:1 we can clearly see that James is addressing people who have faith in Jesus Christ, and in 2:14-17 we see that his concern is much more concerned with the here-and-now than with the hereafter. James asks what good it brings to the church and to people for someone to have a faith that they do not follow.  He has needy people in the church, and their brothers and sisters in Christ are not willing to lift a finger to help them.  What use is that? 

Then the tricky parts of James came into focus.  In James 2:21 James says that Abraham was justified by works when he offered up Isaac on the altar.  But justified before whom?  In Romans 4:5 Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 to remind his readers of when Abraham was justified by God, while James looks to Genesis 22 (decades later in the narrative of Genesis) to speak of Abraham’s justification.  Abraham had been in a right relationship with God for decades when he offered Isaac to God!  It was not before God that Abraham was justified in Genesis 22, but before the people of Canaan.  Likewise in James 2:25, James says that Rahab was justified when she hid the spies and sent them out another way in Joshua 2.  Clearly there, Rahab was right in the eyes of the people of Israel rather than in the eyes of God.  Her faith in Yahweh would not have saved her from death in Jericho when it was destroyed without the works of serving the people of God.  She was justified before men, not God, by her works.

The message of James, then, is how to make our faith useful for the here-and-now.  It’s not about how to go to heaven when we die, but about how to live and love as someone who is going to heaven when they die.  James and Paul are not in disagreement; they just use terms differently.  Paul the thinker and great theologian uses the word “justification” to speak of our standing before God (particularly in Romans), while James uses it more generally to speak of our vindication before people.  These two great men were good friends because they agreed on the central tenets of the gospel of Christ, even while writing with different foci to different groups of people.  In James 2:24, James reminds us that there are two kinds of justification; that while God can see our heart and hence our faith, people can only see our works.  We are justified before God by faith, but before people by works.

It was grace theology that got me through this tense question in the midst of my pastoral training.  Without it, we would have been lost in a sea of different kinds or qualities of faith, about categories that may have been impossible to translate from English to Kinyarwanda.  Because of a firm understanding of grace theology, though, we were able in a relatively short time to bring understanding and clarity to the situation and continue our time in training together.  The pastors assembled heard the message and accepted it with joy, and great unity was built in the room because of it. 

If James and Paul could get along, they said, we can too.  Amen! Paul insists that our eternal life comes as a truly free gift by faith alone in Christ alone. James reminds us that in order to make our faith useful and vital, to live out the commands of God to love Him and love people, we must obey God by having a life of good works. Their messages complement each other rather than compete with one another.

What does that mean in America?  Really, culture changes little in this issue.  Grace theology allows the issues to stay sharp and for the message of the cross to retain the scandal it has had for millennia.  Salvation is and always has been by faith alone in Christ alone.  Maintaining the freeness of eternal life is just as important in America as it is in Rwanda.  It is also important to keep our theology sharp to help people have proper motivation for serving Christ with their lives in light of the free gift they have been given at the moment of faith alone in Christ alone.

Sloppy theology leads to sloppy teaching, which leads to sloppy application and therefore sloppy living.  My trip to Rwanda reminded me to keep thinking theologically and biblically rather than allowing myself to wander from the core truth of Christ and His crucifixion.  We must keep the “word of truth” (see Hebrews 4;12) sharp to do its work in people’s lives rather than being blunted by our inattention or laziness.  Theology matters and we must never forget it.


[1] For a thorough treatment of James 2:14-26 I would encourage you to get a copy of the book I co-wrote with Dr. Fred Chay entitled The Faith That Saves, available at http://www.freegracealliance.com/books/the-faith-that-saves-the-nature-of-faith-in-the-new-testament/; this is just a synopsis.

[2] See Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction. 4th rev. ed. The master reference collection. Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996, 472-480 for dating issues in Galatians that date the letter likely in 49-50 A.D.; see 749-753 for his discussion in James that dates James in A.D. 50.

Rwanda Lessons Learned #2: Church with a big “C”

Pastors are supposed to be the examples to their flock in godliness and humility as examples to their congregation, like Peter tells us in 1 Peter 5:3.  However, in reality we have feet of clay like anyone else; we have a tendency to get a little territorial about our church.  I suppose it is understandable in some respects to see that, because let’s face it every pastor has to justify their salary!  We get so busy shepherding the people that God has entrusted us with sometimes that we forget that we are not really shepherds but rather under-shepherds.  In 1 Peter 5:4 Peter calls Jesus “the Great Shepherd,” taking Jesus’ own title for Himself of “the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11) and making it superlative.  He is the true Shepherd; we just work for Him as minions.

So in reality, we don’t shepherd the flock; we shepherd a flock, or more aptly a part of the Flock.  Some pastor bigger churches and some smaller, but even the largest churches in America (Lakewood Church, pastored by Joel Osteen, is the largest in America; the largest church in the world is in South Korea) are a drop in the bucket compared to the Church worldwide.

On our trip I got several reminders that the church I pastor is just a small part of the kingdom of God.  Rwanda was very, very good for my understanding of exactly what part I need to play in being part of the broader kingdom, and how we should all model the unity that Jesus prays over His people in John 17:23.

100_0887 It started on our first full day in Rwanda.  We got to worship on Sunday in Kigali with Evangelical Restoration Church, where one of the board members of Dwight’s NGO goes.  It has to be one of the larger churches in Kigali, as it probably seated 1500 with the balconies.  (it’s still Rwanda, though: dirt parking lots and plastic lawn chairs for seats!)  We were really awed by the facilities; we were NOT expecting to see this kind of building! 

Far better than the facilities was the amazing worship experience we got to have with the people of ERC.  They were very welcoming and kind to us, ushering us to seats in the second row and introducing us to the congregation during worship.  I know that first time visitors at church don’t like to be singled out, but we were honored guests and they were very kind in welcoming us.  We also got to participate in some amazing worship time with the church that made us feel right at home.

What a blessing to be able to lift up our hearts and our voices to the Lord with the saints in Kigali.  Though sometimes the words didn’t come through in English, the worship of the Living God did, loud and clear.  Laura and I both wept as we sang along in Kinyarwanda (and one song in Swahili).  We had a lady sitting with us named Margaret whose English was good enough to translate for us, and the sermon was a really great reminder from 1 Peter 3 for husbands to treat their wives well.  I was really impressed with this message, because in Rwandan culture husbands pretty much rule their homes their own way.  This church was preaching godliness and counter-cultural theology, and it was great to see.

Kigali was just the appetizer for the main course of being part of the broader Church.  In Gacundezi my mission was to train pastors, which I got to do on Wednesday.  We had almost 30 churches represented, with several significant leaders of 10 or more churches present!  The purpose of the training was for me to teach them basic Bible interpretation, basic discipleship, and basic theology.  What wasn’t on the agenda was for them to teach me about the unity that Jesus wants for His church.

pastors at training 1
The cross-section of pastors who came to the training really impressed me with the unity of the kingdom of God.  In the center of this picture is Reverend Obed, who leads 10 Anglican churches in the area.  To the right is Pastor Agnes who leads a Pentecostal church in Gacundezi.  The man on the left is Jonas, who is one of Obed’s “evangelists” and leads a single church in a village close by.  In the background are four boys from the Gacundezi secondary school who want to be pastors when they are done with school.

These and the other pastors all spoke of the unity of the body of Christ with me.  We went around the room and introduced ourselves, and I asked them each to share where they saw God at work in their congregation as well as the greatest challenge that their congregation faced.  Time and again they spoke of a desire to work together to preach the gospel and see people come to know Christ as Savior.  I was almost reduced to tears as I listened to them ask for ways that they could work together, and for advice on how to convince other churches to work with them as well!  They want to exhibit unity.  Their knowledge of Bible interpretation is weak, but their obedience to the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:36-40) is amazing.  I was really convicted of the fact that there are 12 churches between WG and I-17 on Greenway Road; when was the last time we asked God and each other how we can work together to build the kingdom?

100_0893 As if my mind wasn’t already blown with the unity and desire to be the Body of Christ, God showed me more.  On our last couple of days I really was impressed with how much our team gelled and how well we got along.  This team was primarily made of people who attend Highlands Church in Scottsdale; for them to even invite a pastor they didn’t really know is a huge deal.  I led devotions daily in Rwanda and we kept the focus on serving God by serving His people in Gacundezi.  We worked with Dwight Jackson of FH, and in this picture we are in the home of Jonas and Dorcas of Evangelical Restoration Church as well.  This represents 4 local bodies all getting together, across denominational lines and cultural lines as well, to serve God together.

Listen to the prayer of Jesus for His people in John 17:19-23, and see if you hear in it what I heard in it in Rwanda:

“For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth. I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.”

Unity.  It is Jesus’ desire for His people, and I got to experience that in our time in Rwanda.  Unity is heady stuff, and frankly I enjoyed it too much to let it become a fun memory.  It is definitely a lesson I want to take with me from here to be part of the global Church, not just part of my local church.  I love the church and am as committed as ever to serving Christ in a local assembly of believers.  However, I have been reminded that I need to keep the main thing the main thing and serve Christ with all who call on Him for redemption from their sins. 

So from here on out I want to be more committed to seeking opportunities to partner with churches near us to reach our communities.  I am going to seek to work with Southwestern College and Phoenix Seminary more to build relationships between congregations like mine with others to go together and make disciples of the world.  I am going to be quick to say yes to chances to work outside the US with the church who is seeking to honor God and win people to the worship of Christ.

I am a shepherd.  Well, okay, an under-shepherd.  And hopefully now more than ever, an under-shepherd who sees that it’s less about my flock than it is about THE FLOCK, the Church.

Rwanda Lessons Learned #1: Sacred Space

I realize that it is important for me to “decompress” from our trip to Rwanda in some respects.  God has taught me so many lessons during our trip to Brussels and Rwanda, and I need to get after writing some of them down so that they don’t slip through my fingers.  If I want to live every day for the kingdom of God, then I need to maintain the focus He gave me on this trip.

I am, in many respects, a typically arrogant American evangelical.  I am not much for tradition, and prefer modern expressions of the faith to older ones.  That is probably the outworking of my generation as well as my exposure to church as I “grew up” in Christ.  My first big lesson this year made me re-think the priorities of “new” and “modern,” as a tour of the most beautiful cathedral you can imagine put me in my place.

The cathedral in Brugge sits adjacent to a street of shops; we almost tripped over it while trying to get away from a rain storm.  The outside architecture was pretty impressive:

But the inside was absolutely stunning.

Just the stained glass was worth a visit; the seats are beautiful too!

There is so much more that I could share about the cathedral itself, but you get the point.  It was a sacred space that totally took my breath away.  It was beyond beautiful.  Craftsmen and builders had worked for DECADES to build it in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.  This space had details and architecture that are unparalleled today.  In the main sanctuary alone, the ceilings were over 100 feet tall and made of poured concrete.  There were architectural flourishes and details at every turn that served no practical purpose, but made the building more beautiful and gave people more sense of the divine.

The entire space is built to bring people to their knees before a holy God.  This is what sacred space is supposed to look like, and what we sorely lack in the modern evangelical church.  We have multipurpose facilities and in some cases beautiful buildings, but we have absolutely nothing to compare with what this cathedral represented.  These people poured their heart and soul into building a cathedral that was beautiful beyond belief, and all for the glory of God.

This place reminded me of the first psalm of the sons of Asaph, which David commissioned and who praised God in 1 Chronicles 16:23-31:

23 Sing to the Lord, all the earth;
Proclaim good tidings of His salvation from day to day.
24 Tell of His glory among the nations,
His wonderful deeds among all the peoples.
25 For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
He also is to be feared above all gods.
26 For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
But the Lord made the heavens.
27 Splendor and majesty are before Him,
Strength and joy are in His place.
28 Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
29 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name;
Bring an offering, and come before Him;
Worship the Lord in holy array.
30 Tremble before Him, all the earth;
Indeed, the world is firmly established, it will not be moved.
31 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
And let them say among the nations, “The Lord reigns.”

I need to return to the remembrance of the sacred.  When I come to worship, I need to remember that God is the One to be praised, and I need to approach the worship of the Holy One with reverence and honor.  He deserves nothing less!  This trip through the cathedral of Brugge reminded me that God is worthy of extravagant praise and acts of worship, and that we need to remember His greatness in our building and depiction of Him.

The other lesson I learned in Brugge is a sad one.  This amazing, beautiful cathedral is no longer a church.  It is now a museum.  It welcomes visitors and people come to pray there, but there are no worship services.  It was built as a grand cathedral to glorify God, but now it exists only as a monument to what used to be.  How utterly and tremendously sad.  How horrible to think of the lifetimes of work that went into this building to give people a place to worship, and now it is a place for tourists to gawk.

How many Christians lives, in the same manner, are monuments to what once was?  How many of us have reduced our walk with Christ to a beautiful reminder of what used to be a vibrant and amazing respect for God.  How many have little left than a beautifully adorned life that has nowhere left for worship and remembrance of the sacred?  Leaving the cathedral, the past-tense of it all made me tremendously sad.  At the same time, it renewed my determination not to have my life be like that cathedral in the new sense.  I want to be a reminder of the greatness and majesty of God, but not in the past tense.  I want my faith to be living and vibrant!!

Before we ever got to Rwanda, God had already taught me a huge lesson about His character as well as about my need for Him on a daily basis.  It was only the start of MANY more lessons to come.