Which Angle?

Have you ever wondered why two people can have the same experience but come away from it with two totally different impressions?  Have you ever marveled at how one person can lose their job and end up with a degree and a better career, while another person loses their job and just ends up out of work and bitter?

I got a lesson in the difference on Wednesday.  Laura and I had such a fantastic night that night!  We went to ACU’s President’s Banquet to hear a speech by President Bush, who was funny and engaging and honest.  We had a great time, and I think that the ACU community was honored by it. 

Even better than that was a big lesson that the President shared with us.  His speech was about taking his faith with him into the Oval Office, and in the middle of his speech he told a story about going to Rwanda. (oh man, did my ears perk up when he started talking about Rwanda!!)  He got to meet 15 or 16 children there who had lost their parents to the AIDS epidemic in Africa. 

Now, put yourself in those children’s shoes.  They are in an incredibly poor country and have the additional burden of losing their parents to AIDS.  They have, quite literally, nothing.  They were orphans, destitute and many would say hopeless.

President Bush said that he wondered what to say as he walked by them, and for some reason decided to say to them, “God is good.”  Their response to him was to say in unison, “All the time!”  Think about that a moment…these children had more excuse than anyone to be upset at God and to have a terrible attitude, and yet their immediate response to the statement “God is good” is to reply, “All the time!”

Wow.  What makes the difference?  It’s all in the angle.  These kids didn’t see God through the lens of their problems.  Instead, they saw their problems through the lens of their God.  And that is a major difference between a life of frustration, anger, and loneliness and a life of resilience and success.

Sometimes, we look at God through the “lens” of our problems:

Problem

Our problem stands between us and Jesus, so our problem “frames” or provides the “lens” through which we see God.  This is what happens when life gets unfair and it makes us question God’s character based on our experience. (I did this some after my car wreck)  We say,

“How can God be good if this has happened to me?” 
“I feel lonely, which means that God must not be there.”
“This financial disaster must mean that God doesn’t care, because if He cared this wouldn’t happen.”

On the other hand, we can instead see our problem through the lens of God:

Jesus

In this scenario, we see our problem through the lens of our God and His character affects the way we view our problem.  This is what Paul is really talking about in the famous passage in Philippians 4:12-13:

I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. ” (Philippians 4:12–13, NAS)

He saw his problems through the lens of the God he served, not the other way around!  By looking at life through the lens of Jesus Christ, Paul found the stability to weather the storms of life.  Through looking at life through Jesus and His character, Paul put his problems in an eternal perspective.  This is exactly what the kids in Rwanda said to President Bush, and as I considered this today it seems to me that this was instrumental to me recovering emotionally from my wreck as well.

So how do you build a view of the world that looks at problems through the lens of God and not vice versa?

  1. Put God’s Word inside of you.  You won’t know God’s character if you don’t get your nose in the book!  Recognize His goodness, His love, His justice, and His mercy in there.  Soak in His character; breathe it in and accept who He says He is.
  2. Whatever circumstance you come to, ask God how to see it in light of who He is rather than letting it determine who you think He is.  I had to do this with my wreck a lot, because it seemed pretty cruddy to me.  I had to ask God many times to show me how His goodness was reflected in my wreck.
  3. Reflect on God’s character and, without getting all churchy and sloganeering, rest in God’s character when life gets tough.  Don’t ignore your problems, but put them in perspective in light of who God is.  When injustice happens to you, remember that God is just and will make all things just.  When someone hurts you, remember that God is love and their unloving actions do not make God unloving.
  4. Apply God’s character to the problem you’re facing.  If you can’t see how it applies, then ask God (repeatedly if necessary!) to show you where and how His character comes to bear on the situation.

This approach won’t make your problems go away automatically; it won’t pay bills, or stop the loneliness, or erase the abuse. However, it will keep those problems from becoming overwhelming and train you to see Him first and your problems second.

Has there been a time when this kind of approach has helped you?  How has seeing your problems through God’s character made the experience different for you?

A video reminder (UPDATED)

I had the privilege of being part of Phoenix Seminary’s fundraising banquet last week.  They took some awesome video and I got to tell some of the story of our trip to Rwanda!

I appear for a moment at the beginning and then I get to speak starting around 4:45; watch the whole video because it’s really well done!  The reminders of my friends in Rwanda brought me to tears, especially laughing at the end with my friend Emmy.

If you would, take just a minute and pray for the saints in Rwanda.  Pray especially for Jean Buscoe, Emmy, Dan, Paul, Felix, Reverend Obed and the pastors in Gacundezi, that God would continue to work in their lives and that they would see Him through their suffering.

God changed my life with this trip, and I am glad to spread that change around a little.  How about you?  How has God made radical change in the way you view the world?

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!

Rwanda Lesson #4: Relationality

I realized while in Africa what an incredibly task-oriented person I am.  I have pastoral duties to attend to every week, which starts on Monday afternoon with administrative work.  Then I work on preparing my sermon for Sunday, get my Wednesday night class ready, and make time for class prep and grading for Southwestern College and Phoenix Seminary classes.  I have kenpo classes to prepare for and teach, and leaders to train and all that at church. 

Blah blah blah, I am busy, blah blah blah.  You get the drill, but that is emphatically NOT what this post is about.  It is about getting a little LESS busy, and getting busier with more important stuff.

100_0894 In Rwanda God taught me a lesson about being relational.  I have seen the importance of sowing into people for quite awhile as a pastor, but God really shook me up with the relationships we built in a short time in Rwanda.  He began that while we were in Kigali and continued in Gacundezi.   In Kigali we were treated like royalty by the couple in the picture; Jonas and Dorcas brought us to their church and then afterward made us a huge and delicious meal.  They welcomed us into their home and spent the day with us.  That was a big deal because Jonas had other plans that day.  He is wearing his campaigning shirt and hat in this picture, because he was supposed to be spending the afternoon campaigning for his candidate for president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame.  Nevertheless, he took the better part of his afternoon to have lunch with us and encourage us in our work in Gacundezi.  He was a gracious and wonderful host.

The same happened in Gacundezi, again and again.  One in particular stood out to me that involved a leader in the area.  Chris and I went one afternoon to the neighboring “town” by Gacundezi to visit with a man who Chris knew when he lived there the year prior.  His name is Kazim, and he is prominent in the milk co-op in town and a leader in the community.  He is also Muslim.  We went to the small restaurant that Kazim runs with his wife, but he wasn’t there.  He was working of course!  However, he heard we were in town and put everything down to come visit with Chris.  He told me (through Paul, our translator) how much he appreciated Chris because of how much Chris loved his kids—the first pic on this link is Kazim’s son Kevin—and his honesty.  Kazim took an hour out of his busy day and the myriad tasks he had to accomplish to welcome us and spend time with us.

This is the Rwandan way.  Deadlines are not as important as people.  Relationships trump timeliness every time.  We saw that in every activity we did, as people showed up when they showed up but always stayed later than you were expecting just to spend time together and get to know one another.

This is the part of the blog post that I am supposed to lament America and our fast pace, and pine for the old days of Mayberry.  I won’t.  I recognize that I get great joy out of doing what God has in my life, and that means focusing on my teaching and preaching ministry.  I like my life, busyness and all!  What this lesson reminded me of, though, is that being relational is important.  Spending time with people is important, be that hospital visits as a pastor (a shortcoming of mine for sure), phone calls, or spending time with my kids. 

The people of Rwanda showed me that in God’s eyes, a shepherd must be involved in the lives of people.  There is no way to know what people are going through without spending time with them.  There is no way to know people other than spending time with them.  That includes my wife and my kids. 🙂  So I have been trying to spend more time with them.  James and I went dove hunting last Tuesday (he got 4 doves on his first hunt!), and we went as a family last week to Wet and Wild.  I have tried to make meeting people a priority, and spend time with family and friends to build them up in Christ. 

That means less time to blog and less time for other electronics.  That’s okay by me, because my kids need me and they need to know that they are more important than my technology. 🙂 That’s why I haven’t posted much since I have been home, and this will likely be my new pace.  Hopefully that will mean that my posts will be more interesting and thoughtful as well!

Perhaps you can use this lesson too.  Consider all of the tasks, the technology, and the tools you have in your life.  If they draw you closer to God, then great!  If not, perhaps this reminder can help you re-prioritize to put first things first in your life as well.  The blogs and emails and tasks will still be there after the date with your spouse, or the kids are tucked in bed, or your friend is encouraged.

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.