Missionary Compensation

In July we paid our missionaries 100 percent of their target allowance. This marked the 24th consecutive month in which full allowances were paid, overseas and in the Home Office. This is the longest period of “full allowance” during my time of service as Business Manager, and we are all very thankful for God’s provision. Here is a quick look at what it means to pay full allowance and how it happens. In a typical … [Continue Reading]

In July we paid our missionaries 100 percent of their target allowance. This marked the 24th consecutive month in which full allowances were paid, overseas and in the Home Office. This is the longest period of “full allowance” during my time of service as Business Manager, and we are all very thankful for God’s provision. Here is a quick look at what it means to pay full allowance and how it happens.

In a typical month we need about $150,000 to meet all of our missionary compensation needs. About $77,000 of that is used to pay allowance directly to our people. This puts bread on their tables and gasoline in their cars. Allowances are determined entirely by family size; years of experience or job title are not considered. We are all “missionaries,” and the mission desires to provide enough to meet our family needs.

The remaining $73,000 is used to pay for “benefits,” which include health insurance, housing, social security taxes, and so on. You will notice that we consider housing a “benefit” rather than a part of allowance. This is due to the fact that housing costs vary so much from country to country; it would be difficult to include housing in an allowance based simply on family size. When reporting to the IRS, of course, housing is included as income. But for our internal accounting, we consider it a “benefit.”

When we talk about paying “full allowance,” we mean family allowance calculations; benefits are considered separately, as fixed expenses that must be paid each month. This monthly family allowance is not guaranteed: it depends entirely on designated gifts. Health insurance and housing may be paid in full, even if allowance is not.

When you give $100 to a missionary’s Support Fund, your entire donation is applied to a missionary’s monthly family allowance and corresponding benefits. We consider missionaries “fully supported” if they have received enough donations to cover both of these amounts – allowance and benefits for the month. Paying full allowance in any given month, however, does not mean that all of our missionaries are “fully supported.” Missionaries who have not received donations sufficient for their allowance and benefit needs may have their needs supplemented by our General Fund or our Estate Fund. We use our General Fund, if available, to supplement allowances, and our Estate Funds, if we have them, to supplement benefit expenses. So far this year, our General Fund has covered 49% of all missionary allowances, and our Estate Fund has paid for 55% of benefits. To date this year, donations to missionary support funds have paid for 48% of total missionary compensation.

In July donations to missionary support covered 52.9% of all support expenses; $37,277 was used from the General Fund to supplement missionary allowances, and $35,740 was transferred from Estate Funds to supplement benefit expenses for the month. Let me know if you have questions about a project or missionary you may be praying for in particular.

Thank you for your ongoing support!

Fully Given Over to Jesus

Getting Our Callings Right …

A few weeks ago we completed our annual Missionary Candidates’ Briefing Course. Fifteen candidates and missionary inquirers from here and there around the country (and a few from elsewhere in the world) gathered at our offices on Clifton Avenue. We spent nearly a month together – in lively dialogue about kingdom ambitions, missionary commissions, strategic futures, effective training, preparation, and many other things. It has set me to thinking about callings. There are so many … [Continue Reading]

A few weeks ago we completed our annual Missionary Candidates’ Briefing Course. Fifteen candidates and missionary inquirers from here and there around the country (and a few from elsewhere in the world) gathered at our offices on Clifton Avenue. We spent nearly a month together – in lively dialogue about kingdom ambitions, missionary commissions, strategic futures, effective training, preparation, and many other things.

It has set me to thinking about callings. There are so many ways to get our “callings” wrong.

Sometimes we suppose that our fundamental calling is to go somewhere, for example – one of the most basic and errant ways we get our callings wrong, in my estimation. The kind of people who come to Briefing Course may sometimes think this way.

Sometimes we suppose that our fundamental calling is to go somewhere and then to do something – an elaboration of the same, basic misconception. This, too, is a common misunderstanding among the sort of people who come to Briefing Course. People, maybe, like you.

Our fundamental calling is not to go somewhere, or do something, or perform some activity, or practice some profession. Our fundamental calling is to Someone. Christians are called to a relationship, first of all. We are called to be – and only then to do anything at all.

Fully Given Over to Jesus

“Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” Jesus advised his disciples (Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17). But please note: the following precedes the making. We aren’t called, precisely, to fishing. We are called to Someone, first of all. We become something. Only then – only then – are we made to fish, or do we find a place to cast our line somewhere in the world.

This dynamic is true for the entire Christian life, in fact. We don’t build holiness into our lives by force of will; we become holy by relationship to the Holy One. We don’t build goodness, discipline, contentment, or effectiveness into our lives by an act of mental fiat: we cannot will ourselves to Christian goodness or missionary effectiveness, one fine day, as we might will to change our wardrobe. We are called to Someone. We build our lives and ministries always in relationship to Him.

It is important to keep this straight.

If we do not have this fundamental reality straight, we might come to think that our mission in life is to spread the knowledge of Christianity, for example. Most definitely, it is not. We may think that our mission is denominational or institutional in character, that it is a matter of theological propositions or intellectual assertions, that it is effected by jumping particular churchly hoops or enlisting in particular projects or activities. Our mission, I suppose, may involve all of these things from time to time. But these are not our calling.

We are called to know Jesus Christ. We are called to surrender before him. We are not called to spread religion around the world – not even Christianity. It is our mission to spread the knowledge of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. “Through us, [God] brings knowledge of Christ,” Paul reminds his Corinthian friends (2 Corinthians 2:15. The Message). “For we are the aroma of Christ to God” (NRSV). We are simply called to know Jesus; we are called then to make him known.

This is the basic perspective of faith – and it puts everything else into perspective.

I like to tell our guests at Briefing Course that God isn’t particularly interested in all of their fine abilities, all of their impressive skills, all of their brave resolve to go anywhere and do anything for him. He wants them. He wants you. He wants to hold you in his lap, call you to his side, look you in the eye, and say: “You are mine.”

He wants you!

And once he has you – why, then, you will see – your brave resolve will follow in its time. He will fill you and imbue you with the aroma of Jesus Christ. He will make you his aroma in the world.

It is important to get our callings right. We don’t start with fishing; we start with following. We don’t start with doing; we start with being. We will find a place to cast our line and join in the harvest effort, somewhere in the world. Yet we don’t start there, exactly.

We are called to Someone. We start with Jesus.

Supposed Footprint of Jesus

On the Mount of Ascension

Near the end of our recent visit to the Holy Land, we made our way to the Chapel of the Ascension, in the At-Tur district of Jerusalem. I anticipated the stop with considerable eagerness. Here Jesus issued marching orders that would inspire such daring as the world had seldom seen, such praying and obedience, such giving and sacrifice as to turn the world itself upside down. “You will be my witnesses,” he announced to his … [Continue Reading]

Chapel of the Ascension

Chapel of the Ascension

Near the end of our recent visit to the Holy Land, we made our way to the Chapel of the Ascension, in the At-Tur district of Jerusalem. I anticipated the stop with considerable eagerness.

Here Jesus issued marching orders that would inspire such daring as the world had seldom seen, such praying and obedience, such giving and sacrifice as to turn the world itself upside down. “You will be my witnesses,” he announced to his disciples, “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Here the specific task of Christian mission was put under way. The task that stands at the heart of the World Mission Prayer League. The task that has inspired my own life – and maybe yours as well.

Yet the little site was singularly unimpressive. More than any other place in the Holy Land, in fact, this one left me cold.

A larger church occupied the site once upon a time: visitors can still discern its outline. A mosque stood here once upon a time, as well: visitors can discern a few remaining stones. Today, however, the place is mostly empty: a smallish, non-descript chapel stands at the center of a gravel lot. It is accessed by a single, tight doorway – unless you duck, you are likely to bump year head. The chapel contains no altar, no pews, no images or plaques, and no eye-level windows. It is topped by a simple rounded dome. The floor is bare, save for a small area roped off – about a meter square – with a glimpse of bedrock cleared in a smaller corner. There is something like a footprint in the surface of that rock: tradition presents it as the last footprint of Jesus, as he pushed off into heaven. A pan for offerings is placed just beside it, with a few dollars showing on the day of our visit.

Supposed Footprint of Jesus

Supposed Footprint of Jesus

I do not doubt that our Savior was born in Bethlehem – perhaps in the very grotto that I myself have seen. I do not doubt that he was baptised in the very River of Jordan, maybe near the spot where I stepped into the water myself. I do not doubt that he was reared in Nazareth, made Capernaum his home, and sailed the same waters of Galilee that fill the lake today. I think it likely that he died on the very rock of Golgotha that I have touched with my own hand, and rose from the tomb that stands empty nearby.

But a footprint in rock, as he pushed off from the Mount of Olives into heaven? Here, I think, the tradition has it wrong. Jesus leaves his footprint in our lives.

Jesus has become our peace: he turns us into peacemakers, too (Matthew 5:9; Romans 14:19). Jesus has become our life: he calls us to share that life with others (John 5:24; Acts 5:20). We are called to share in his suffering (1 Peter 2:21). We are called to reflect his saving light (Matthew 5:14-16). Jesus gave himself, humbled himself, and became obedient to the Father’s will even unto death: we are called to “have this mind” ourselves (Philippians 2:5-11). Jesus makes us his disciples; then he calls us to make disciples for him (Matthew 28:18-20).

In a sermon for Ascension Day in 1523, Martin Luther explained the purpose of Christ’s Ascension: “And for this purpose did [Jesus Christ] ascend up thither, that he might be down here, that he might fill all things and be everywhere present; which thing he could not do had he remained on earth.” Now “he is present everywhere,” Luther explained. He is present through his gracious rule, in the Word of God and the Sacraments. And he is present in the lives of his disciples.

I am not so sure about the oblong impression one may see in the rock on the Mount of Ascension: I am not sure that Jesus left a footprint there. But he did leave this: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). He left this: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:18,19).

He left you and me. He makes us, in a sense, his hands and feet in the world.

Elston Old Chapel, Wall Paintings

Treasure in Heaven

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven … For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21) Rust, corrosion and decay are everywhere in this world. Bridges, highways and ports are all deteriorating faster than we are repairing them. A new car becomes used and “old” in just a few short … [Continue Reading]

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven … For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)

Rust, corrosion and decay are everywhere in this world. Bridges, highways and ports are all deteriorating faster than we are repairing them. A new car becomes used and “old” in just a few short years; a computer or phone takes even less time, and inflation eats away at the money we hold on to. The fact that earthly possessions fade away quickly is plain to see. This should make Jesus’ advice to store up treasure in heaven an easy decision for us – but it is not an easy thing to do!

For example Jesus said: “… for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail” (Luke 12:32,33). This is difficult; the allure of earthly treasures is strong. They may be fading, corroding and subject to thieves, but they are also immediate and tangible. We do not know exactly what our heavenly treasure will look like; it is difficult to bypass immediate rewards for future, unseen rewards.

Jesus also said that no one can serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24). This is helpful, if we allow God to be the Lord of our life. If service to him is the standard and motivating factor for how we live our lives, then it is God who is our master and money will not be. Living a life trying to avoid “serving money” could still leave a void in our lives. On the other hand, living a life full of service to God will not allow room in one’s life to serve money. In the end you cannot serve both!

Ultimately, storing up treasure in heaven requires faith and patience. We are not able to set aside a portion of our paycheck for our “heavenly retirement.” Instead, we must set aside our entire lives in service to others and to God. We do not get a quarterly statement indicating how our heavenly treasure account is faring, but we don’t need one. We can be certain that our heavenly reward will not fade away or be stolen – and that it will far surpass any fading treasure this world has to offer!

In June we were able to pay all of our missionaries 100 percent of their target allowance. We used $40,654 from the General Fund to meet these needs, leaving a General Fund balance of $141,122 at the end of June.

Thank you for your ongoing support!

Contentment

“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) Philippians 4:13 is a well-known and often quoted Bible verse, and with good reason. The verse is empowering and encouraging. I have heard it mentioned in association with many personal accomplishments related to professional goals, sports and physical fitness. Of course we hear the verse when talking about more spiritual matters, also, like overcoming addictions or sharing Christ with others in difficult situations. … [Continue Reading]

“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)

Philippians 4:13 is a well-known and often quoted Bible verse, and with good reason. The verse is empowering and encouraging. I have heard it mentioned in association with many personal accomplishments related to professional goals, sports and physical fitness. Of course we hear the verse when talking about more spiritual matters, also, like overcoming addictions or sharing Christ with others in difficult situations. We may also look to this verse in difficult times of hardship or persecution. It is good to thank and rely on God in these times, and to celebrate his love and mercy with thankfulness.

However, it seems that we rarely connect Philippians 4:13 with the very things that Paul mentioned right before writing this famous verse. It is one thing to cling to this verse when we are faced with hunger or need. But Paul seems to have taken this a step further. He says that he has learned in every situation to be content. Paul certainly looked to God to supply his needs when supplies were scarce; he was learning as well the secret of contentment in everything.

This is a great lesson for us in ministry. It is easy for us to pray together for God’s provision when supplies do not seem to meet our expectations, and then to rejoice with one another when God supplies what we believe we need. But maybe there is another appropriate response in times of need – contentment. I am not suggesting that financial shortfalls are always the will of God, but we should consider this as a possibility. It is possible that our own financial goals might not be in sync with God’s plans. This we have seen and accepted when financial provision is abundant – but it is more difficult when provision is lacking. If we fail to consider that God’s perfect provision is sometimes less than we anticipated, we can miss out on great ministry and learning opportunities. It is in times like these that we can more easily learn again to depend on the power of God rather than our own abilities. Any ministry we are involved in is ultimately God’s ministry and we can be sure that God knows the needs of his ministry. Neither abundance nor need should ultimately affect the ministry that God has called us to. Like Paul, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

In May we were able to pay all of our missionaries 100 percent of their target allowance. We used $39,712 from the General Fund to meet these needs, leaving a General Fund balance of $103,809 at the end of the month. Our Benefits Fund carried a balance of $29,341.

Thank you for your ongoing support!

Abu Ghosh Frescoe

Emmaus

Unlike many sites in the Holy Land, no one seems to know, precisely, where Emmaus might have been. This uncertainty surprised me, while visiting the Holy Land recently. Emmaus, I should have thought, is the sort of place you might want to keep track of: it figured rather famously, after all, once long ago. The Resurrected Lord of the Universe met a pair of dispirited disciples there, in the evening of the original Easter day. … [Continue Reading]

Abu Ghosh Cathedral

Abu Ghosh Cathedral

Unlike many sites in the Holy Land, no one seems to know, precisely, where Emmaus might have been. This uncertainty surprised me, while visiting the Holy Land recently. Emmaus, I should have thought, is the sort of place you might want to keep track of: it figured rather famously, after all, once long ago. The Resurrected Lord of the Universe met a pair of dispirited disciples there, in the evening of the original Easter day. He met them on the road, “going to a village called Emmaus” (Luke 24:13). Wherever it was.

Many put Emmaus in a place called Latrun, known as Nicopolis in ancient times. Others place it closer to Jerusalem – perhaps in Abu Ghosh, perhaps in a place called Qubeiba. New Testament manuscripts do not agree among themselves, as it turns out. Some manuscripts put the village at “sixty stadia” (about seven miles) distance from Jerusalem. Other ancient variations put it at “a hundred sixty stadia” (eighteen miles or so). None of the manuscripts give much sense of direction. Was the village 7 miles or 18 miles away from old Jerusalem? Did it lie to the north, south, east or west?

As for our little study group, we visited a lovely cathedral in the village of Abu Ghosh, built in Crusader times to honor the memory of Emmaus. The Crusaders, anyway, thought this may have been the original site, referenced in Luke 24. They measured a radius of sixty stadia around the old city of Jerusalem (cf. 24:13), found Abu Ghosh lying there, discovered a well in the middle of town (a likely meeting place for visitors passing through) and erected a church over the site. Why not?

This was a perfect way to identify Emmaus, I have since concluded. Of all the famous New Testament places, “Emmaus” could be anywhere. It should be anywhere, in fact. “Emmaus,” in a way, is an arbitrary waypoint along the pathway of our lives. It is not a distinctive destination – as you would say of Disneyland or the National Mall, for example. People pass through Emmaus, for the most part (Lk. 24:28). They stop, sometimes, only if “urged strongly” (Lk. 24:29).

No one seems to know who the two disciples were, either. One was named Cleopas, whoever that was. (Some think that he was the brother-in-law of Mary of Nazareth; some do not.) The other disciple isn’t identified at all. (Some think that she was the wife of Cleopas, whatever her name; some do not.) They are anonymous believers, more or less, on their way to an unidentified Emmaus.

Abu Ghosh Frescoe

Abu Ghosh Frescoe

The cathedral in Abu Ghosh continues the theme of anonymity. Its ceiling and walls must have taken your breath away, once upon a time: you can appreciate the vestiges of many colorful frescoes, depicting elaborate biblical scenes and mighty heroes of the faith. But their faces have been rubbed out, every one of them. The depictions offended Islamic sensibilities when Abu Ghosh was ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Its Ottoman stewards cleansed the images by rubbing out their faces. The heroes have become anonymous, every single one.

For Emmaus, in particular – this is perfect, I think.

Emmaus is anywhere. The disciples are any pair of believers. It is not latitude and longitude, or names and coordinates that put Emmaus on the map. It is Jesus. He meets his disciples – any one of us, anywhere we are – as we journey our way through life. Why, you still might expect to meet him along the road. Wherever you are. Maybe even today.

Two things happen in this encounter. The Lord reveals himself to the disciples: he creates in them the miracle of faith. And the disciples reveal the encounter to others: the Lord enlists them in his mission. This is the prototypical experience of our Christian faith: Jesus meets us; Jesus enlists us. And you don’t have to be “somebody” for this to be your own experience. You don’t have to be “somewhere” other than where you are, or in “some time” other than today.

You are on your own “road to Emmaus,” you see – and no scholar can prove to you otherwise. Jesus intends to meet you there. You may expect him to lead you into the Scriptures (Lk. 24:27). He may set your heart on fire (Lk. 24:32). And when you meet him, when he opens your heart in faith, you will find that he gives you something to share, as well – a Sure Truth to proclaim, a Gospel Story to tell, and a Mission to make disciples of all the peoples of the world.

Focus on the Unreached: “The Islands”

Imagine… hundreds of tiny islands with lush tropical vegetation; pristine white coral sand beaches lined by swaying coconut palms; turquoise lagoons with warm, crystal clear water; beautiful, hospitable people. Sound like paradise? Now imagine… 120,000 people and the institutions to run an entire nation packed onto an island smaller than threequarters of a square mile; so little cultivatable land that nearly all food must be imported; limited, uncertain fresh water sources; one of the highest … [Continue Reading]

Imagine… hundreds of tiny islands with lush tropical vegetation; pristine white coral sand beaches lined by swaying coconut palms; turquoise lagoons with warm, crystal clear water; beautiful, hospitable people. Sound like paradise?

Now imagine… 120,000 people and the institutions to run an entire nation packed onto an island smaller than threequarters of a square mile; so little cultivatable land that nearly all food must be imported; limited, uncertain fresh water sources; one of the highest divorce rates in the world; a society dominated by fear and distrust.

“The Islands” is an Islamic country – practice of no other religion is allowed, and any “materials contrary to Islam” are banned from entering the nation. Here, however, Islam mixes easily with traditional folk beliefs about the spirit world. Spirit beings from sea or land may interact with humans in helpful or harmful ways, but most Islanders live in fear of the power they are presumed to wield.

The current population is approximately 394,000 with about 30% of people living in the capital. An average household might include six or seven people – more in the capital. The country enjoys a high rate of literacy (93-96%) among both males and females in their national language. English is spoken by most government officials and is the medium of education in most schools. Islander economy is based largely on fishing and tourism. Unemployment among youth ages 15-24 is slightly higher than 22%.

  • Ask God to deliver those who are tormented by fear and restore those who have been broken by divorce.
  • Pray that Islanders will have a hunger to know God, and that they would have access to his Word and other resources in their language.
  • Pray for more intercessors who will faithfully stand in the gap for “The Islands,” and that more workers will be sent out.

[Jesus answered] “… whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst.” (John 4:14, NIV)

Bread

Feeding the Hungry

“I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry…’” (Matthew 15:32) The gospels tell us of two occasions in which Jesus provides food for large crowds. On one occasion a crowd of 5,000 was fed with five loaves and two fish. Then a crowd of 4,000 was fed with seven loaves and a few fish. … [Continue Reading]

“I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry…’” (Matthew 15:32)

The gospels tell us of two occasions in which Jesus provides food for large crowds. On one occasion a crowd of 5,000 was fed with five loaves and two fish. Then a crowd of 4,000 was fed with seven loaves and a few fish. Jesus’ disciples did not seem to have any idea what he was about to do before either of these miracles. I have thought in the past that the disciples should have exhibited more faith by the time this happened a second time, but after a closer reading my thoughts have changed.

BreadJust a few minutes separate these two miracles as you read through the book of Matthew, but for those who lived these stories a lot of time and many experiences separated the events. In my own life I have experienced God’s provision with joy – then, given the same set of circumstances sometime down the road, I have wondered if God would provide again. Part of the reason is that faith tends to fade with the passing of time. This is why we need to continually work at strengthening our faith by staying constant in God’s Word, remaining in relationship with other believers, and living out our faith.

But maybe the faith of the disciples did not waiver at all. The reality is that God often does not provide for our needs in the same way time after time. Even in this case, in which the provision is so similar, there are differences. On one occasion the crowd had been with Jesus for three days. This means that Jesus did not miraculously feed them at the end of the first day or the second day, though they may have been hungry. And the Bible does not say that the disciples doubted that Jesus could do this miracle again. They only said, “Where are we to get enough bread in such a desolate place?” (Matthew 15:33) It could be that they remembered well what Jesus did previously and were now asking him indirectly to do it again.

Regardless of the mind-set of the disciples, we know that God did provide for the disciples and the crowds. As we walk through a life of Christian faith and service, we also experience the provision of God and our faith is strengthened along the way. We do not know when or how God will provide, but we can be certain that those who follow him will not go away hungry.

In April we were able to pay all of our missionaries 100 percent of their target allowance. We used $35,502 from the General Fund to meet these needs, leaving a balance of $111,765 at the end of the month. Our Benefits Fund carried a balance of $30,367. Thank you for your ongoing support!

caesarea-philippi

Caesarea Philippi

I have recently had the spectacular privilege of visiting the Holy Land. On one fine day our pilgrim group journeyed to the ruins of Caesarea Philippi, once the administrative center of Philip the Tetrarch. Philip was the son of Herod the Great, who ordered the massacre of Bethlehem’s innocents, and half-brother to Herod Antipas, who presided over the crucifixion of Jesus and the martyrdom of John – an illustrious family. Here, in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus … [Continue Reading]

I have recently had the spectacular privilege of visiting the Holy Land. On one fine day our pilgrim group journeyed to the ruins of Caesarea Philippi, once the administrative center of Philip the Tetrarch. Philip was the son of Herod the Great, who ordered the massacre of Bethlehem’s innocents, and half-brother to Herod Antipas, who presided over the crucifixion of Jesus and the martyrdom of John – an illustrious family.

Here, in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus made Peter the Rock. Here he promised “the keys of the kingdom,” connecting gospel pronouncements on earth with gospel guarantees in heaven. Here Jesus promised to build his church. The apostolic mission of God was envisioned in Caesarea Philippi, the mission that carries us into the world still today: Jesus will build his church; he will enlist his disciples in the task; he will make the authority of heaven stand behind them. And the powers of death, all hell itself, cannot undo the endeavor (Matthew 16:13-20; cf. Mark 8:27-30, Luke 9:18-21).

Caesarea Philippi by seetheholyland.net • CC BY-SA 2.0

Caesarea Philippi by seetheholyland.net • CC BY-SA 2.0

Why here? I wondered.

Caesarea Philippi is the site of a geological curiosity that has attracted visitors for centuries – a remarkable cave in a sheer rock wall that is considered the source of the River Jordan. The place is positively dripping with significance for the people of Israel. No river is more important for the imagination of the Jewish nation.

Here is the site of an ancient temple dedicated to the Greek god, Pan – the god of victory in battle, hunting, herding, music, and related activities. It was said that Pan himself was born in that remarkable cave. Few places were as significant for enthusiasts of the Greek pantheon.

Ba’al was worshiped here before the Greeks arrived on the scene. Archeologists have identified 14 pagan temples, I am told, in the immediate area. Ba’al worshippers were impressed with the cave and its waters, too.

And here Herod the Great worshipped Caesar the Emperor. Herod erected a temple dedicated to his lord, demonstrating his personal devotion. He called the place Caesarea. His son Philip beautified the temple further, and in a sign of devotion added his name to the place, as well.

The Holy Land is full of holy places of many kinds and varieties, that’s for sure. But there are few places with more layers of religiosity than Caesarea Philippi. So why here? Precisely because of this multi-layered, highly-charged religious backdrop, I suppose.

It was precisely here that Jesus queried his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15) – and here that Peter famously replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16:16). Jesus stood his disciples over and against this specific backdrop and asked them, in a sense, to pronounce themselves. What did they see in Jesus? Was he their Sovereign? Was he King?

The apostolic mission of God – building the church with “rocks” like Peter – gets real against the contrasting backdrop of Ba’al and Pan, or our favorite cultural icons and national deities. Jesus gathered his disciples here, not in some quiet classroom or vacation spot. Peter is no “rock” – until he finds in Jesus his King. God is our rock, after all (2 Samuel 22:3, 32, 47) – not any human being. Peter becomes building material when he rests on the Rock who is Jesus (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:4).

In this month’s issue of Together in Prayer you will find stories from Mongolia and The Islands, and prayer requests from here and there around the world. In places like these, you might find backdrops similar to the holy places of Caesarea Philippi. I have seen them: shrine places festooned with colorful amulets and offerings, dedicated to the powerful “spirits” of the land; holy places dedicated to saints and miracle workers, and so on. You can imagine Jesus standing before places like these, looking us in the eye, and asking, “Who do you say that I am?”

But you don’t need to travel to the steppes of Mongolia to find backdrops similar to Pan’s holy cave. In every human heart there is a “Caesarea Philippi” and an altar to some old Pan. It may be a pet ideology, some personal bandwagon – or wealth, prestige, comfort, security, or the path to upward mobility. It may be our children. It may be our careers. These are the reasons the ancients were attracted to places like Caesarea Philippi and their “gods.” They still attract our homage.

In the grotto of every human heart a decision will be faced. What will we make of Jesus? Will we see in him our King?

Who is Jesus for you?

Africa Boat

The Other Side

Everything is near, it seems, in the Holy Land: you can travel from the shores of the Mediterranean to the banks of the Jordan River in a single afternoon. You can travel from the Golan to Masada in a day. It would seem a single, compact, cohesive tapestry. But it is not. There were ragged edges to the Holy Land in Jesus’ day. (There still are, of course.) There was a right side of things, … [Continue Reading]

Everything is near, it seems, in the Holy Land: you can travel from the shores of the Mediterranean to the banks of the Jordan River in a single afternoon. You can travel from the Golan to Masada in a day. It would seem a single, compact, cohesive tapestry. But it is not.

There were ragged edges to the Holy Land in Jesus’ day. (There still are, of course.) There was a right side of things, and a wrong side of things. Jesus seemed to bridge them continually.

I thought of this when visiting Mount Gerizim recently. In John 4, we find Jesus at the side of Jacob’s well near the ancient city of Sychar – what is today Nablus, probably, just at the foot of the mountain. There he meets a woman of Samaria – a woman from the “wrong side” of things. John explains helpfully: “Jews in those days wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans” (v.9, The Message).

The Samaritans had their own language, their own script, their own history and tradition. (They still do!) They had their own Torah. They had their own rabbis, synagogue, and system of sacrifice – and they had nothing to do with Jerusalem. Jerusalem, of course, was the “right side” of things, presumably.

But Jesus broke right through.

Africa Boat

“Let us go across to the other side.”

“Wrong side” and “right side,” Gerizim and Jerusalem, it turns out, don’t matter as much as one might have thought. “The time is coming – it has, in fact, come – when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter,” Jesus told the woman from the wrong side of things. “It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God…. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration” (vv.23, 24, The Message).

I thought of this again when visiting the land of the Gerasenes, on the far side of the Sea of Galilee. The Gerasenes lived on the eastern side – “the other side” – of the sea. It seemed the wrong side of things to many Jews living on the western shores. It was more pagan, more Greek, less predictable, less familiar.

Here were the cities of the Decapolis, more Greek and Roman than Judean. Here was Caesarea Philippi, a Roman city built upon a site dedicated to Pan, the ancient Greek god of the wild. And here was the land of the Gerasenes (or “Gadarenes” or “Gergesenes”) – a people, definitely, on the wrong side of things. They raised pigs; they lived different. Their politics were questionable. And Jesus, it seems, liked to visit among them. “Let us go across to the other side,” he proposed from time to time (Mark 4:35; cf. 6:45; Matthew 8:18; Mt. 14:22; Luke 8:22; John 6:1, etc.).

We visited the remains of a Gerasene city called Kursi, where it is thought Jesus met the demoniac. The poor fellow lived among the tombs, howling frightfully, completely untamed – until Jesus stepped into his life. Mark 5 relates this remarkable story – full of craziness, a legion of demons, an immense herd of pigs, and an extraordinary splash of heavenly power. It is the kind of thing that happens, sometimes, on “the other side.”

Jesus was always bridging into situations like these. He was born in a stable, not a palace. He was raised in a hamlet called Nazareth. (“Nazareth? You’ve got to be kidding…,” John 1:46, The Message). He made friends among sinners (Matthew 9:10). He chose fishermen and tax collectors as followers and colleagues (Matthew 10:2-4). He pressed always to “the other side”: service to the poor, outreach to the sick and the hopeless, mercy for the outcast and the abandoned. He planted his cross among thieves, on the garbage heap outside the walls of respectable Jerusalem (Matthew 27:38, Hebrews 13:12). And on Easter morning, he chose Mary Magdalene – a reformed prostitute – as his earliest ambassador (John 20:1ff.).

I thought of this yet again when I returned to Minneapolis, following our recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land. How much I prefer, I thought to myself, the near side of things, the “right side.” It is my comfort zone. I prefer predictable, non-threatening sorts of things: no howling demoniacs, if you please. If I had lived in Jesus’ day, I suppose, I might have liked to live in Jerusalem, in a comfortable little bungalow near the Temple.

But Jesus presses always to “the other side” – even today. Again and again, if we listen carefully, he will propose:

“If you will follow me, follow with abandon. If you will be my disciple, enter with both feet. Sinners still need friends. The lost still need finding. Millions upon millions have yet to meet me, or hear what I have done for them or experience my love.

“Come,” he will say. “Let us go across to the other side.”

God Will Provide

“Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.” (Luke 10:7) Hidden in the story of Jesus sending out the 72 disciples is the story of God’s provision. Jesus told them to take nothing on this short journey, noting that they would find a place to stay and that food and shelter would be provided for them. When talking about God’s … [Continue Reading]

“Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.” (Luke 10:7)

Hidden in the story of Jesus sending out the 72 disciples is the story of God’s provision. Jesus told them to take nothing on this short journey, noting that they would find a place to stay and that food and shelter would be provided for them.

When talking about God’s provision we share with joy about when and how God provides for our needs. In different conversations we happily talk about the work of missions and what God is doing in the world. It seems that often we are careful to separate these two conversations, which makes sense in some ways; eternal salvation and daily provision are topics from two different realms, it hardly seems appropriate to relate one to the other. But in this story they are intertwined. Jesus sends the disciples out to do his work while at the same time instructing them to take no provisions on the journey, they would be cared for along the way.

I think there is a danger in separating God’s provision from our Kingdom work. If God’s provision is separate and distinct from our duty as his followers, we may have a tendency to forget how urgent and large the task at hand is. Jesus told the disciples that the harvest was plentiful but the workers were few; there was and still remains a lot of work to be done. If we become satisfied knowing that God will provide for us, we might naturally lose sight of the urgency of the task that he has given us. Our Kingdom work is dangerous, and in fact impossible for us to do alone. Demons submitted to the disciples in the name of Jesus as they healed the sick. These are things that we cannot do on our own.

The great irony here is that the disciples were capable of providing for themselves. They all had shelter and food to eat before Jesus came along. When Jesus took them in and sent them out, he asked them to do things that they could not do and told them that the provisions of life would be met for them along the way. We also must make every effort to do the impossible tasks of the Kingdom through the power of Jesus; this is our first task and responsibility. God’s provision is not a separate topic but a natural result of our service. God will supply all of our needs as we first seek to accomplish the work of his Kingdom.

In March we were able to pay all of our missionaries 100 percent of their target allowance. We used $39,787 from the General Fund to meet these needs, leaving a balance of $153,729 at the end of February. Our Benefits Fund carried a balance of $76,649. Thank you for your ongoing support!

An altar that stands above Golgotha.

Arturo

Some dear old friends of ours have recently gifted us with tickets to Israel – just now, in the first days of Lent. I can hardly believe the generosity! We returned from our pilgrimage a few days ago. Let me share with you a few reflections. On our first day in the Old City of Jerusalem, Cindy and I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Maybe some of you have had the privilege, too. … [Continue Reading]

Entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Some dear old friends of ours have recently gifted us with tickets to Israel – just now, in the first days of Lent. I can hardly believe the generosity! We returned from our pilgrimage a few days ago. Let me share with you a few reflections.

On our first day in the Old City of Jerusalem, Cindy and I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Maybe some of you have had the privilege, too. We thought to begin there, at the site proposed for Golgotha and the borrowed tomb, upon the recommendation of none other than Mark Twain. “One naturally goes first to the Holy Sepulchre,” he famously advised in a memoir of his travels.

This mighty cathedral is ancient, that is sure. Here, we are told, we find the very rock of Golgotha and the tomb in which our Lord once laid. Writing in the first years of the fourth century, Eusebius claimed that the site had been venerated and recognized as legitimate since the days of the apostles themselves. Constantine built a church upon the site in 325. During the period of construction, Helena is said to have found the remains of the cross itself.

I was impressed by the layers of accretion that have accumulated through the years: layers upon layers, in loud and gaudy array. There were stone layers laid down through centuries of building and rebuilding, from Constantine’s day, to Byzantine times, through the Crusader period, and to modern times. There were layers of silver and gold, candelabra and censer, kneeling rails, altar spaces, main chapels, side chapels, tapestries, plaques and engravings. There were layers of footprints throughout the place: millions upon millions of visitors have worn the floor smooth. There was iron scaffolding to hold up failing stone, plywood barriers to conceal (I suppose) ongoing renovation, boxes for offerings, receptacles for votive candles, and rope lines to shepherd the immense crowd of visitors that press in day by day. There were layers of worship, too: praying, kneeling, anointing, chanting, and here and there quiet meditation. There were Catholics and Coptics, Orthodox and Syriacs, Armenians, Ethiopians, and many more. Protestants seem to have added the largest accretion of all – an entire alternative site for Golgotha and the tomb, not far from the Damascus gate, outside the walls of the Old City.

An altar that stands above Golgotha.

An altar that stands above Golgotha.

There you will find additional layers of gift shops and chapels, long lines, narrow spaces, books, guides, pathways, interpretive inscriptions, and so on. (But not as much incense.)

In all the confusing flood of images, smells and sensations – one engraving leapt out at me, in particular. It wasn’t chiseled in stone; it was engraved in magic marker. It wasn’t a thousand years old; it could have been written last week. A pilgrim named Arturo left the little artifact, on a stone in the floor just opposite the bathrooms and a few paces from Golgotha. He drew a heart on the surface of the stone. Inside he scribed, “Arturo loves Jesus.” Here, it seemed to me at last, I could identify.

Our missionary trajectory through the centuries accumulates accretions of one variety or another, almost irrepressibly. We add (unwittingly, for the most part) cultural accretions, denominational accretions, layers upon layers that were not perhaps inherent to the first century church. We add worship styles, preferred worship languages, confessions, institutes, regulations and constitutions. Yet I wonder how much our many accretions lead us in the end to Jesus.

But Jesus is precisely the point.

There are so many very sophisticated ways to think about Lent and Holy Week. So many theories and theologies regarding what, precisely, happened at Golgotha and how, precisely, to get in on it. There are so many competing layers. They may become a blur for us.

But the core of Lent and Holy Week is really very simple: Arturo seemed to capture it. One can have all the sophisticated accretions in the world down pat and understood – all the philosophies, theologies, histories and archaeologies planted in one’s head – but if this simple core is absent in one’s heart, well, the whole lot gains us nothing.

God loves you. Enough to give his Son for you. Enough to raise him from the dead – “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16).

I am not sure, frankly, that I will remember forever the dates of construction at the Holy Sepulchre, or its principal architects through the ages. But I will remember Arturo. Faith must be simple, I think, if it is to be deep. This Lent and Holy Week, remember to keep things simple, as Arturo seemed to do. The world doesn’t need our sophisticated theology, after all. The world needs Jesus.