Gabriel, God’s “PR Man”

Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to be there with Joseph and Mary at Christmas? Every Christmas and Easter I preach in the first person as a character from the biblical accounts of those events.  This Christmas I preached as the angel Gabriel.  If you’re interested in it, here it is in all its goofy glory.

In a first-person message, the intent is to see a familiar story with fresh eyes and bring the importance and the truth of it to the hearers in a new way.  I would love your feedback on this sermon!

A World(view) of Difference

I have been to a few funerals over the last couple of weeks; they have been interesting to say the least.  I officiated a funeral for a friend and then attended a funeral this weekend as well.  At the same time I am in the first steps of planning a funeral for a man who had become a friend over the last six months.  I noticed a significant difference between the funerals for those without Christ and those with Him that really pointed toward a different view of life and the world.

The two funerals this past week were (mostly, though not all) attended by people without a firm commitment to Christ.  Certainly I didn’t know everyone there, but many of the people that I saw there had the look of folks who were despondent, and as the officiant at one of the services I got to talk to a good number of people who lamented never getting to see their loved one again.  Both were very somber, very sad affairs.

Contrast that with the funeral I am planning for my friend Dan.  Dan came to our church about a year ago with a friend.  He was in his early 60s and his health was failing.  He wasn’t sure what to make of me; he certainly wasn’t expecting what he got out of the pastor of this weird church in Glendale.  We got to know each other and started meeting every couple of weeks to talk about life and God.  Dan’s health was not good, and he used a walker more and more to get around.  Yet our talks got more and more intense as he considered Christ and His work on Dan’s behalf. 

In the middle of February I asked Dan what was standing in the way of his accepting Christ as his Savior.  He said that he didn’t know, and so I asked him to go home and think about that, and maybe ask God for some clarity.  Dan came to my office the following week and said that he had gone home, drawn the blinds, and prayed about his heart.  Then, he said with tears in his eyes, he trusted Christ as his Savior. 

What joy!  Dan was baptized on April 11th in a special baptistery that could accommodate his special needs, and we continued to meet after that regularly for friendship and discipleship.  He had a hard time getting out of the house but prayed regularly, read his Bible or his “Our Daily Bread” devotional.  Well on Saturday, November 12th, Dan passed away in his sleep at his home.  Thanks be to God that he closed his eyes and opened them in the arms of the Savior he was just getting to know.

I have done funerals in this manner before.  When a dear, sweet servant of Jesus named Linda passed away I preached at her memorial service.  Likewise I will preach at Dan’s, and the message will be one of hope.  We have not said goodbye; we have sent them ahead by saying, “see you soon.” 

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words. ” (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, NAS)

Comfort one another with these words.  Death is not the end; instead, it is just the beginning of eternal life. 
The worldview difference between Christian funerals and secular funerals really struck me this week.  Secular funerals look to the past.  They recount the life of the deceased and offer comfort in grief because the loved one is gone.  Christian funerals, though, look to the future and the consummation of life that entering eternity is for all who trust Christ.  In Christ this life is not the end.  In Christ life is just the “proving grounds” or the “waiting room” for those who will worship the King of Kings forever.  Yes we grieve when Christian friends and family pass because we will miss them, but the grief we have is always tempered by hope.
There is the big difference as I observed it.  For Christians, there is hope.  This is what Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 4:13.  We grieve differently because we have hope.  We know that today is not the end, that the struggles we face and the heartache and pain will not last forever.  God is waiting to redeem us completely and bring us and all of creation to His good purposes.
In light of that my encouragement to you is to grasp onto the hope that God has for those who trust Christ.  Whether you are grieving a death, stressing over money, worried about your kids or your job, or fretting over the moral decline of America see the issue through the lens of hope that only Christ can bring. 
For Dan’s funeral in the near future, I will preach this passage with joy, and recount the words of Jesus in John 11:23-27.  Dan trusted Christ for eternal life and today is at home with the Lord, joyous and pain-free.  He has the glorification we await!  I grieve the loss of my friend, but only in the knowledge and joy that comes from knowing what happened the second after his last breath.
Rest in the joy of your Savior, Dan!  I will see you when He comes for me or I go to Him.  Praise God that He brought you to Himself before He brought you home.

FGA Conference, Day 1: Ain’t No Coincidences…

I am in Dallas at the Free Grace Alliance national conference.  It was an interesting day to say the least, but God showed Himself in big ways. 

The day started pretty amazingly!  Laura dropped me off at the airport at about 5:30 and I had to do a special check on my bag through TSA.  No problem, and they handed my bag to a nice man named Samuel.  He had a beautiful voice and what sounded to me like an African accent, so I asked him where he was from.  “Oh, I am from central Africa” he replied.  When I pressed, he told me he was from Rwanda!  Not a minute later I noticed that his name was Samuel Ishimwe; Ishimwe is the Kinyarwanda word for “praise.”  I told him about our trip and desire to go back, and he told me in return that he was a pastor in town and a translator between English and Kinyarwanda.  He was very excited to hear about our plans and wants to help!  Coincidence?  Doubt it!

The flight was uneventful, but unbeknownst to me trouble was brewing.  I had never flown in to Dallas, so when I heard that the conference was at the airport I booked my flight from Phoenix to Dallas.  On Southwest.  Only after landing did I find out that Southwest doesn’t fly into DFW airport; they fly into Love field, which is 20 minutes away!  Well, in my desire not to pay $50 for a cab I caught a shuttle bus that was cheaper and would take longer.  I got to ride shotgun next to Thomas, who is from Nigeria and loves the Lord.  He has been here for 3 years and loves America, but wishes we had more heart for Christ and to reach people for Him.  Coincidence?  Doubt it!

I knew I was running late for the conference, but tried to keep a good attitude.  I got my room key and headed for the elevator.  The FIRST person aside from the front desk clerk that I saw was my good friend and mentor, Keith.  He gave me a huge hug and encouraged me greatly.  We spent the whole afternoon together, and through him I got to meet some important theologians I respect and admire.  Coincidence?  Doubt it!

The topic of this conference is “getting the gospel out.”  We had a plenary address this afternoon from Dr. Larry Moyer from Colossians 4:2-6 that we must have proper prayer (v.2-4), proper living, (v. 5) and proper speech (v. 6) to meet God’s call to share the gospel.  It was a fantastic time!  Also, Dr. Michael Eaton shared in the evening session on the topic of assurance and how the church grows the most when our assurance of eternal life is preached with conviction and passion.  It was a stirring talk as well, and I have been emboldened to pray and to preach with more conviction.  Coincidence?  I doubt it.

Wait, there is more!  In my email inbox when I got to the hotel room tonight, I got an email from a man working for Christian African Leadership Ministries who is developing a pastor training program to implement.  IN NORTHERN RWANDA.  No I am not joking.  And he asked if we could meet because a mutual friend said that we had been to Africa this summer (not specifically Rwanda)  Coincidence? I doubt it!

So as I hope you can see, God is at work in BIG ways today.  I am not sure how all the pieces fit together, but He definitely is putting some pieces in place for our desire to build up the church in Rwanda and serve them as part of our service to God.  All of this comes today in the context of being encouraged to spread the message of the grace of God in Christ freely and appropriately, which is amazing and very encouraging. 

So pray for me today that God keeps showing Himself and what He would have me do through my time here in Dallas.  It’s been a whirlwind day, and I am pretty darn excited about what is in store!

Taking Care of What Ain’t Yours

It’s been a whirlwind week!  Last Wednesday we announced that my wife and I will be heading to Rwanda for a 10-day trip next month; I will be teaching pastors there biblical interpretation and preaching skills (plus some pastoral stuff) and Laura is focusing on childbearing in various facets.  It’s an amazing opportunity that God has dropped in our laps, and we are very grateful to be asked to participate out of the blue.  Since sending out her request, Laura has raised over $2000 towards her expenses!  That’s half way there, and we are amazed at the generosity of people who want her to go and help the women of the Nyagatare district of Rwanda lower their death rate in childbirth as well as their infant mortality.

The request for financial help has produced some rather unexpected results as well.  First off, some significant contributions have come from people who do not consider themselves to be followers of Jesus.  They see the good that is going to be done and want to participate, which in my mind is really cool.  At the same time, I got a polite but very pointed email that basically made the following objections (boiled down to be polite to the emailer…):

  1. It is a waste of money to send an American to Rwanda; the money would be better served by giving it to an established organization providing relief there already.
  2. It is improper to provide relief that is religious in nature; the thought here is basically that there are ulterior motives and that it is inappropriate to proselytize with “bait” such as assistance in agriculture, medicine, or education.

When I first got the email, I must say that I was a bit hot under the collar.  To my mind it is one thing to dislike supporting religious charitable causes or to disagree with methods and not want to provide financial support, and another thing entirely to be adamant enough about it that they decided to send my bride an email telling her how wrong she was to ask for support.  This letter wasn’t sent to strangers, either (okay, okay…some of you here on ABF I may not know personally and it was posted here too, but it wasn’t one of you), so I suppose that I was frustrated from the angle that friends should be more polite to one another than that.

Then I slept on it, and woke up this morning realizing that the objections weren’t completely bogus and needed to be satisfactorily answered if we were going to go to Rwanda.  After all, emotions aside if I could not justify the trip then why are we going?  Is it wise management of resources to spend the money to go rather than just sending money or supplies to the people where we would be going?  And is it appropriate to provide relief in developing nations with an explicit religious purpose?  At the end of the day, I think that the answers to those questions are both resounding yeses.

Show Me The Money

The first objection is financial: is it worth the cost to go?  Would it be a better investment to send money or items to established organizations to distribute relief than go ourselves?  After all, it is going to cost approximately $4000 total per person for us to take a 10-day trip; at a per capita income of $370 annually, this trip could provide a family of four in Rwanda with 2.7 YEARS of income.  It could provide a village with 8 cows, which in a few years could make the village self-sustaining. (provided, I suppose, that they already have a bull!)  What makes us think that our presence is so vital that we are worth more than that?

The answers to this question are many.  The first was brought up by my 13-year-old daughter, who rightly reminded us that in developing nations like Rwanda corruption is rife.  There is no guarantee that any money we send to Rwanda would make it into the hands of the people who need it; many times it ends up in the pockets of corrupt bureaucrats or feeding criminal syndicates.  When we go, we guarantee that the help gets where it belongs, and there is much value in that.

Second, there are times when it is more important to bring expertise, support, and training than it is to provide for physical needs.  The pastors in the area have requested that someone come and train them in the art and science of Bible interpretation, in proclaiming the message of God to help their people, and in caring for the people of their community socially, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.  I have those skills, and the ability to teach them to others in a way that is impossible simply through books (and even with a literacy rate of 70%, the older generation who I will be teaching need help because their literacy rate is lower and their skills in my area of expertise are limited). 

Laura is coming to help the people learn childbirthing skills to help lower the 8.4% infant mortality rate (2008 State Dept. estimate); more than that, she is going to help with basic nutrition information, prevention of spreading infectious disease, and sanitation.  1 in 12 birthing women dies in childbirth.  Think about that for a moment, and then consider if what she brings is worth sending her.  How much is a human life worth?  If her training saves one woman and her baby it will be worth the cost.  According to Matthew 10:29-31 and Genesis 1:26-27, we are made in God’s image and are therefore worth the cost of saving.

Finally, there is a difference between sending and going.  By sending money we help a little.  By going we will not only help the people of Rwanda but will undoubtedly build a heart for the people there that will last a lifetime.  More giving and more partnering and more help will come from our trip than the cost can estimate; it is more an investment than an expenditure. 

So for these reasons and many more, the trip makes financial sense.  Yeah, it’s a lot of money to go, but it is money invested in the people of Rwanda that will bear fruit in the entire community for a long time to come.  A healthy baby in America, delivered vaginally, costs somewhere between $9,000 and 17,000 to deliver.  My seminary education cost in the neighborhood of $30,000.  And we can deliver benefits that are similar to Rwanda for a fraction of that!

Bait and switch?

The other objection I received concerned going as Christians and bringing aid under an explicitly Christian banner.  Is it appropriate to help others under a deliberately religious framework?

Well I think it is. 🙂 (I am willing to bet that you knew that)  Even from an atheistic perspective, is there any harm done in promoting Christianity, even if it is false?  If we are going to go teach the people how to live better, be healthier, and follow the tenets of Jesus concerning loving each other, why is that a bad thing?  Would it be any different if we went to tell people about the Flying Spaghetti Monster?  I am willing to bet that this objection is more about Christianity in particular than religion in general, in other words.

Secondly, I think that this objection overlooks what true Christianity says about how Christians are to live.  My first response is to question the question somewhat: would an atheist think more of a Christian or less of them if they actually obeyed the instructions of the God they claim to follow?  I would think that a Christian who is trying to obey would be better than a hypocrite who deliberately chose to ignore Jesus, wouldn’t you?  Well Jesus begins  this issue in Luke 10:25-37, which we know as the parable of the Good Samaritan.  We are supposed to love our neighbor, and that means going out of our way both in time and in finances to help them whenever we see a need.

That’s great, but it’s not the end of the story either.  Paul says in Colossians 3:17, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.”  So in reality, if I am going to be an honest and true Christ follower there is no way I can leave Jesus out of my trip to Rwanda.  To do so would be to deny what I have been told to do, namely love God by loving people and helping them.  And I am called to do that while telling them about the God I serve who loves them too! 

Finally, Jesus tells us that we are supposed to take His message to the world:

“but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” ” (Acts 1:8, NAS)

So it is entirely appropriate to go in the name of Christ; as a Christian it would be dishonest not to.  Now I would agree that it is not good to pull a “bait and switch” or demand that a person convert to Christianity in order to receive aid or to benefit from our trip.  But of course, that is not at all a condition of our going or of helping people.  Laura will educate and help all who come.  I am there to help Christian pastors, who will then lead and help their communities as pillars and reach out to help all people as they are commanded by Jesus.

There are books written along these lines, but you get the gist: going in the name of Jesus is acceptable as long as it is not duplicitous.

Bottom Line

So at the end of the day, I believe that this trip is defensible.  I think that it is entirely wise money management to go rather than send a check, and it is entirely appropriate for us to go in an explicitly Christian manner and purpose. 

So to the person who wrote the email, I offer my heartfelt gratitude.  You’ve made me seriously consider the underpinnings of the trip we are headed on, and for that I am very grateful!  I mean that without any sarcasm.

For anyone else, we still need to raise almost $2,000 to cover Laura’s trip, so if you’d like to be a part of it we would appreciate it immensely!  Check the first link in this post for the ways you can be a part of our support, and please pray for us as we prepare.

My Crafty and Innovative Evangelism Strategy

What a week I have had!  The past 7 days started by helping Laura run a marathon; I was her “mule” (carried stuff for her, brought her new juice bottles, etc.) and encourager and had a great time while being totally wiped out.  I got a really angry email from a student about what a horrible professor I was, then had lunch with that student and patched everything up. (thanks, Lord, for reconciliation!)  I officiated at not one but two funerals in three days.  I was involved in helping a couple work through a really significant marital crisis.  I am trying to help a young man gain direction in life and keep his relationship with his dad and step-mom manageable.  These are the things that make for a draining week!

That all pales in comparison to the meeting I had on Friday afternoon, though.  I have been meeting with a man who I have known since just before the first of the year, evangelizing and witnessing to him.  He is older than me and has seen a lot in his life; he has significant amount of health challenges, to the point that at one time he didn’t want to live any more.  I have been really praying that the Lord would get hold of him before the health problems did.  He had all the information that he needed about God and Jesus; he simply needed to find the desire for Christ.

Well on Friday we met like we have been, but this meeting was different.  He sat down across from me and told me that the previous Friday night he had waited for the sun to go down, shut off all the lights, and had a very deep and honest conversation with himself and then with God.  And at the end of that conversation he told the Lord that he believed in Christ and wanted Him to have control over his life.

What a day for him!  I was so joyful and excited for my friend.  The pain in his body hasn’t gone away, but now it has meaning.  The challenges of life are still there, but now they are redeemed and redeemable.  He finally found that place where he could be honest with himself and with God, and in that place he found everlasting life.  It wasn’t in response to an altar call in church (I rarely if ever give those), or an inability to counter some great apologetic defense I gave for the resurrection of Jesus.  It was him, his Bible, and time alone with God.

I am always so humbled when God allows me to be an instrument in His hand that He uses to bring someone to Himself.  It’s a joy and a pleasure to be part of His work.  I thought about it a lot this week, and am more convinced than ever that at least for men the evangelism strategy that I have been using can be very effective in our current time and culture.  It’s not a strategy that is cutting-edge or particularly innovative, but it has worked for me and by sharing it I pray that it might help you too.

First off, evangelism is a lifestyle.  I befriend the unchurched men in my life and make it a point to share some interest with them.  When I meet a guy through someone at my church or through school or a friend of a friend I try to get to know them and their interests.  Whether that is running, shooting, hunting, football, MMA or something else I try to take a real interest in them.  I also try to help them out without being too churchy or preachy, meeting them at their point in life.  If they need help moving I help them if I can.  I watch the fights with them and enjoy our time without making every outing a chance to witness with words.  I have found that this builds trust and authentic caring, not only in them but in me.  They are not a witnessing target but a human being of worth and dignity.

Once we have a relationship I am open about God in my life.  I don’t preach, but invite them to share some about God and their thoughts on Him.  And then once they are a little interested in the things of God, I ask them some questions.  Where is God in their life?  Have they ever truly met Jesus for who He really is in the pages of Scripture, or just heard about Him in the media?  Have they ever taken the challenge to see what He really says?

If they are open to that discussion, I ask them if they will take a challenge.  Then I give them a Bible if they don’t have one and bookmark the gospel of John.  I ask them to begin to read it, and then offer to meet with them every couple of weeks to answer their questions about what they read.  Why John?  Simple: John is the only book in the Bible that specifically tells us that its purpose is evangelism:

30 Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;
31 but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.  (John 20:30-31)

John tells us that the purpose of his book is to lead people to faith in Christ.  So rather than trying to convert someone by my logic or charm or whatever, I have focused on allowing the word of God to do what it says it will do.  John Correia is limited in many respects, fallen and sinful and imperfect.  On the other hand, the gospel of John is God’s inspired and inerrant Word!  So I figure that God works better through John the Apostle than John the pastor and weirdo. 

So my grand evangelism strategy is to ask men who are my friends, who show an interest in God, to read the gospel of John and talk with me about it.  I answer their questions and reinforce the main points in the story as often as I can, allowing God to speak to them through His word rather than having them take my word for it.  See, there are a million people telling them what God says. (and usually asking for money for the privilege of listening)  I want them to read it for themselves, to hear it from the lips of God rather than through me!

Does it always work out perfectly?  No, not by any means.  I can think of at least one man who didn’t respond to what John wrote.  Then again, I am not overly bothered by that fact, because it wasn’t my fault that he didn’t!  I wasn’t the key to his belief or lack thereof; the issue was between him and God, not him and me.  I can also now think of at least four men in the last couple of years who have responded to that approach.  So I am glad for it. 

Perhaps it can help you in your interactions with those who are not Christians as well.  I have personally found that I really appreciate that it takes pressure off of me, because I don’t have to be perfect in my logic or witness.  I just have to be faithful, pray for my friend as they are reading, and open to answer their questions.  I need to be honest, available, and walking with Christ.  Everything else is between them and God, and that is a good place for me emotionally.  And when I get to see God get hold of someone and know that He has converted them to Christ and not to John Correia’s charisma, I know that He has hold of them in a way I never could.  That means the world!

So use God’s method of conversion rather than a man-made, microwave, “sitcom-style” evangelism strategy.  Yes it takes longer and is more work, but the results are worth it. 

To my friend who accepted Christ this past week: I know you read ABF.  I am so excited for what God is going to do with you now that you are His!  Watch out, because now that you know Christ life will never be the same.  I am looking forward to our friendship growing.