A Missions Miracle in Burma

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I recently returned from speaking at the annual meeting of the Chin Baptist Convention in Myanmar (formerly Burma). The Northwest Baptist Convention of churches, which I serve, includes about 140 churches that worship in languages other than English, including the Chin Burmese language. It was through one of these churches that I received the invitation. I knew nearly nothing about Chin Baptists in Myanmar, but to preach in the nation where the first American missionary, Adoniram Judson, served over 200 years ago made this invitation particularly intriguing. What I did not know was that the evangelization of the Chin people is one of the great mission stories of the past century, and it’s a story few know.

My wife and I flew to Yangon, Myanmar, which is a Buddhist city. About 90 percent of Burmese people profess Theravata Buddhism as their religion, and Yangon has hundreds, if not thousands of Buddhist pagodas, the largest of which is the Shwedagon Pagoda. At 325 feet in height, it is covered in an estimated nine to sixty tons of gold. In addition, millions of dollars in gems are set in the orb and vane atop the pagoda. I’ve never seen anything like it. The relic that such wealth honors is eight strands of hair from Gautama Buddha. Ugh!

From Yangon we flew to the ancient city of Mandalay, another Buddhist city in which scores of pagodas are visible from almost any location. From Mandalay we drove 14 hours to Hakha, the capital of the Chin state. The road was tortuous and rough, probably the worst I’ve ever travelled over that distance. During the first several hours Buddhist pagodas were the dominant feature. Then, at the border of the Chin state, we witnessed an amazing transformation in the religious architecture. There was a cross on a hill, then a church at the high point of a small community. When we reached Hakha we discovered we had entered a territory in which churches were the dominant feature, especially Baptist churches. The Chin people are overwhelmingly Christian, with more than 90 percent claiming Christ as Lord.

So how did the Chin people, who were animists and wholly illiterate, come to faith in Jesus Christ in such great numbers? I don’t know the full story, but it started when American Baptist missionaries, A.E. and Laura Carson, arrived in Hakha in 1899. It took over six years before the first Chin person received Jesus Christ. He was baptized on Jan. 1, 1906. Rev. Carson died the following year of appendicitis, but Mrs. Carson continued her ministry until 1920 when ill health forced her to leave. A few other missionaries came, with the last one being expelled from the country in 1964. The Chin state was then closed to all outsiders for over 50 years. Because of persecution they were allowed to come to the United States as refugees, which explains the large number of Chin people in our country. Only recently has the national government of Myanmar allowed outsiders into the Chin state and my wife and I were among the first to travel there.

The Chin Baptist Convention that invited us has 64 churches and was formed in 2012. They have broken away from the larger group of Chin churches over theological liberalism and they want connections with Southern Baptists. To my amazement they were familiar with the Baptist Faith and Message. They have researched our beliefs and they know of our commitment to missions. They feel a kinship with us and they want to know us better. One thing I was impressed by is their own commitment to reaching the other peoples in Myanmar. Although they are a poor people, they have sent seven missionaries to unreached peoples in their own country. They have also started a theological college that provides three years of training, including two years of Greek study. Their commitment to educating their teachers and pastors is strong. They want American pastors and professors to come and supplement their teaching with one or two-week intensive classes.

I must say, that in all our years of ministry, our experience with our Chin Baptist brothers and sisters was among the best and most humbling experiences we’ve ever had. Never have we met a more generous, gracious people. It was overwhelming. One leader told us, “We know that the hotel and food we have for you are not up to American standards, but we have given you our best. We are trying to do our best.” I don’t think my wife opened a door, or carried a package, while we were there. I thought I was a gentleman, but the Chin men showed me I could do better.
One man summed the Chin people up quite well. He said, “In the Chin state we have no natural resources. We have no factories or manufacturing. We have no seaport and we have no airport. We have only one thing – the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what we have … and that is the best thing.”

The Chin people are still largely isolated in the mountainous, western part of Myanmar. It’s difficult to get there, accessible only by roads that are quite treacherous. During three days of our 5-day stay, the city was without electricity, though generators were plentiful so we didn’t go without much. So troubled were our hosts about us not having hot water that each morning someone delivered water in canisters which had been heated over a wood fire. Indeed, they did their best. In every way, they did their best. And their best was plenty.

My wife and I are planning a return visit next year. We want to help them get books for their theological college. We want to advocate for them in whatever ways might strengthen their work in reaching the people of Myanmar. And we want to see our friends again. On one occasion when their leadership was apologizing for what they could not do, I said to them, “We often look at ourselves and see what we are not. But when I look at you I see a people of courage, perseverance, generosity and deep faith.” Those weren’t just words. They are an apt description of an isolated and persecuted people, who have so effectively shared Christ across the villages in the Chin hills, that they are more Christian than almost any people, anywhere, in the entire world.

When Tomorrow Comes

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A key leadership responsibility is preparing for the future. That’s a difficult task considering the chaotic and rapidly-changing time in which we live. Still, there are some things that we know and for which we can prepare.

First, when tomorrow comes we will not be exempt from the principalities and powers who are working to destroy human life created in God’s image. As perplexing as the manifestation of evil is, the Bible shows us that our enemy works at every level of society. How do we understand the increasing coarseness of our political life, the growing vulgarity in public life, even the division and compromise that threatens our church life, without knowing that our enemy is working to destroy that which God loves? Whatever happens tomorrow, you must expect and prepare for spiritual opposition.

Second, though the powers of darkness are working to destroy us, God has put limitations on the principalities and powers. Evil exists, but God is in control, and He even uses evil men to accomplish good things. We must not fall into the trap of overestimating the enemy and underestimating God. When tomorrow comes, God will be on His throne, hearing our prayers, accomplishing His agenda, and rescuing human beings from our sin and stupidity. This is our true basis for optimism when tomorrow comes.

Third, the discipling of children is essential for a bright tomorrow. If you don’t disciple your children, the world will. The principalities and powers work to distort the human mind and this begins in childhood. Preschool children develop ideas about the world and the “powers” work to conform the minds and hearts of our kids to the world’s ways. We must fight this. Every believer, every church, must work to reach children and teach them to obey God. Whatever you do, don’t forget the children who will inhabit tomorrow’s world.

Fourth, the American Church is returning to the norm. The Church is a pilgrim people, out-of-step with society, often poor and sometimes persecuted. The American Church has escaped the norm for much of our history, but that is changing. We need to prepare for this. Most of the world’s believers are already poor and persecuted. There are more Christians in Africa than in Europe and the United States combined, and they are mostly poor. China has about the same number of weekly worshippers as the U.S.A. does, and they are persecuted. I’m not saying the American church will experience what the Asian church does today, but a bright tomorrow requires that we put our hope in God and not in the American political process. Not that we should abandon political participation, but spiritual work is done on our knees before an open Bible.

God’s Word tells us that the day will come when time will be no more. On that day the curse will be removed and the daylight will vanquish the night forever (Rev. 22:3-5). Until that day, with every tomorrow the Lord gives, fix your eyes on Jesus and join Him in the spiritual battle for souls.

The Journey to Faith in Christ

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Most Muslims who come to faith in Jesus Christ do so after 10:00 at night! This important fact was explored by Nik Ripken as a part of his research into the persecuted church. He learned that in many Muslim cultures, particularly in the Arab world, the first meal of the day is around noon and the last meal is late at night. This late meal is the setting in which Muslim men, in particular, are most willing to talk about important things. Because of this, many missionary families adjust their daily schedule to fit the cultural realities of the people they seek to reach for Christ. Parents in Portland, OR don’t take their children to the city park at 2:00 AM, but in some faraway places parents do just that (Ripken, The Insanity of Obedience, 260).

If you haven’t read Ripken’s book, I would recommend it, as well as his previous book The Insanity of God. In addition to serving as an international missionary for over 25 years, Ripken has interviewed hundreds of persecuted Christians in about 60 different countries. What he learned will encourage, challenge, and instruct you. One point of instruction concerns what we might call “the process of conversion.” What process, or journey, does the radically unchurched person travel before coming to faith in Christ? The answer depends on their locale, background, language, and a host of other things. You can easily identify the journey to Christ of a child who grows up attending your church, but what of the radically unchurched person in your town?

Answering this question is vital for the Christian who wants God to use them to lead others to Jesus. Moreover, the answer requires the ongoing pursuit of knowing your community and the various peoples in your community.

I was once the pastor of the “big church” in a small Texas town of 1,700. One family that came to faith in Christ did so after my wife and I got to know them in the hospital. We both had a child in the hospital suffering from pneumonia. This common experience led to talking, praying, and eventually, this family gave their lives to Jesus. Later, the husband said that a church member had invited them to our church a few years prior. The invitation went something like this, “It will help your business if you come to our church.” Yes, that really happened! And what’s more, it was true. It would have helped his plumbing business had he attended our church. But even though he wasn’t yet a Christian, he understood that attending church to build your business didn’t seem right.

Although church attendance might be a business strategy in some places (not in the Northwest!), appealing to a business motivation won’t help you reach the radically unchurched for Jesus Christ. The journey to Christ will likely follow a path that takes into account several factors, including:

1. The rhythms of life. People’s schedules and lifestyle differ depending upon age, ethnicity, education, children in the home, employment, hobbies, health matters, etc.
2. Religious background and beliefs
3. Real and perceived needs
4. Friendships (including family) – who are their closest friends and what do they believe about Christ?
5. Personal sin with which they struggle, or which they simply enjoy

There are other factors you could add to the list. But the main point is this: when a person comes to Christ, they travel along a particular road to do so. The better we know the people of our community, as individuals and as groups, the better we are able to share the real Jesus with them. Remember, many people who reject Jesus don’t reject the true, biblical Jesus. They reject the “people of Jesus,” or they reject some “image” of Jesus that is distorted. Ripken says that many who suffer martyrdom for Jesus are murdered, not because the killers reject their witness for Jesus, but because the martyrs affiliated with a Western person or organization. Often the killers don’t even know the specific message of the gospel, or the claims of Christ. They kill for secondary reasons, which is a real tragedy.

So what about your town? Where do people gather? Where do women or men sit around and discuss important things? How can you discover the particular needs of people in your town? Do you have church attenders who are connected to organizations and groups that will help the church connect to various peoples. Are new homes being built in your area? Are new businesses being started? Do you drive around the town using different routes so that you can discover such things?

I once served in an area where nearly half of the adults were functionally illiterate. Learning this changed how we trained our small group Bible study teachers. It impacted our methods of evangelism. In one church, when discussing how to take the gospel to every home in town, the person who helped plan the strategy was a newspaper delivery person. He knew how to cover the town!

The point is, people are different and communities are different. First Baptist Church of Toledo, WA has 400 people attending on Sunday morning, and the town only has a population 725. The FBC of Toledo, OR isn’t nearly so large, though the town has a population of 3,465. The towns are very different religiously, spiritually, historically and culturally. These differences make for a different kind of ministry. The differences aren’t found simply between communities, but between individuals in each community.

For every person there is a process, a journey, on which they can encounter the real Jesus. Part of the joy of ministry is discovering what process works with each person. When we know this we can help guide their steps so that they will meet the real Jesus and hopefully come to know Him.

Let me end with one caution. Many churches have discontinued evangelistic methods that they perceive are not as effective as they once were. The problem, however, is that they haven’t replaced the old methods with new methods. Don’t throw out the old unless you have a legitimate replacement. Although people come to Christ through different processes, ultimately it is the power of the Gospel, the message of Jesus’ life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension and Second Coming, that is powerful to save a person from sin (Romans 1:16f).

The Prison Outhouse was the Only Place We Could Worship

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Something that I regularly do is check a couple of websites for articles on the persecution of Christians. One site is http://www.persecution.org and another is http://www.opendoorsusa.org. Today I read an article on Open Doors (an organization founded by Brother Andrew for those of you who remember him) that I thought I would repost to my blog.

For those of you who are pastors or Bible teachers, I highly recommend that you check sites like these. On them you will learn some of what is happening with and to believers worldwide. You will also read stories that you can share with your church. When we read such stories it helps us to put things in better perspective. It is so easy to get bothered by things that, in the end, are trivial or silly when compared to what Christians are facing elsewhere. So the article below comes from Open Doors and the author is Emily Fuentes, dated January 13, 2016.

Hea Woo’s Story

The sharp, cold wind blew through the prison cell, but Hea Woo could hardly feel it… she could hardly feel anything. “I was within hours of death; sick, malnourished and frozen from the deplorable conditions of the prison cell,” shared Hea Woo. “I didn’t think I would be alive to be used by God. I didn’t think I would ever see the outside of the prison cell.”

But then something happened that would change Hea Woo’s life and the lives of many fellow prisoners. “I felt God stir a fire in my heart to share the gospel with others in prison.”

Hea Woo knew that this was impossible for many reasons; The prison guards were capable of murdering anyone who shared about Christianity. And she also didn’t know which prisoners would report her if she did share the gospel message.

For three long days, Hea Woo tried to ignore the calling God had placed on her heart. But after three days she could ignore it no longer, as God had given her very specific instructions.

“Share your cornmeal with another prisoner.” It did not seem like much, but when Hea Woo gave her cornmeal to a fellow prisoner, she literally gave them life. “I realized that was my calling- to bring life to those who were dying. By giving my own food, I was able to give them life and make a sacrifice of my own. This opened up many possibilities to share about Christ.”

One by one more and more prisoners were interested in hearing about Christ, as they were amazed by Hea Woo’s sacrifice. She had to be wise about the best ways to minister to others and the safest place to fellowship, so she prayed for guidance.

“God placed it on my heart: The outhouse of the prison was the only place we could worship.” And so they worshipped God in the most lowly and unlikely place. In that outhouse, they were free to fellowship and worship, even though they were in prison in North Korea.

After several years, Hea Woo was able to leave North Korea, but the mark she left is still felt in the country. God used her to bring several people to Christ, heal many and start several house churches.
Today, more than 50,000 to 70,000 Christians remain in North Korean prison camps. Learn more about how you can help these believers.

*Representative names to protect persecuted Christians

Life and Ministry in Evil Days

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“Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16).

Urgency, desperation, these words describe how I feel. Certainly the early Ephesian church served Christ during desperate, evil days. Their trouble began with riotous businessmen. The Gospel of Jesus Christ threatened the livelihood of those making and selling idols of the god Artemis. Idol making was big business. The Ephesian temple to Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and housed the world’s largest bank. As the church in Ephesus grew, idol selling plunged, and that brought trouble to the church.

The churches in our nation are facing trouble too. We live in evil days. In June our nation witnessed the celebration, normalization and institutionalization of sexual perversion with the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Failure to participate in the celebration can cost you your job, your business, even your ministry, as those serving in the Kentucky prison system have learned. Ministry inside the church house is safe for now. But those serving as chaplains, or serving in educational institutions, are at risk.

Added to this, nine videos were released this summer showing Planned Parenthood workers discussing and negotiating the sale of aborted baby body-parts. The moral swamp that is PP has its snout deep in the federal trough, receiving over $500 million annually from U.S. taxpayers.

This summer we have witnessed the verbal and physical assault on police officers. As I write, four police officers have been murdered in the last nine days.

Then, this morning, I saw a video of ISIS hog-tying four men, suspending them over a fire, and roasting them in the flames. We are witnessing the eradication of the Church in much of the Islamic-dominated world. Maybe I watch too much news, but I feel as though it’s been a summer of evil.

So what does all of this mean for Northwest Baptists and for you? First, it means that we need you. Your community needs you. Our neighbors need your love and witness and confidence that, despite how things might seem, Jesus wins. Indeed, He has already won. “The prince of this world now stands condemned,” said Jesus (John 16:11). When Jesus Christ rose from the grave He shouted to the world, “I’m in charge. I am history’s champion. And anybody else who lays claim to your life, or seeks to dominate your life, is an illegitimate authority.” Our God is never at His wit’s end. Our God never wonders, “What shall I do?” He knows what he is doing, and our confidence in Him is what the Bible calls “faith.”

Second, as the text in Ephesians says, we must be careful, exercising wisdom. We must pray, speak and act with wisdom. Wisdom requires that our minds be saturated with God’s Word and that we be Spirit-filled. Living for Jesus in an evil world is impossible apart from abiding in Him. This enables us to make “the most of every opportunity.” Believers and churches that create and seize gospel opportunities are those who will win the day. With every problem there is a gospel opportunity – an opportunity to pray, love, and speak truth.

Yes, at times I feel desperate. But more than that, I feel a sense of urgency. Time is short. Heaven is real. But so too is hell. We must be about our Father’s business.

The Church, Abraham Lincoln, and the Great Issues of Our Day

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Someone has said that the message of the First Century Church was not, “What has become of the world?” but “Look Who has come into the world!” In reality, that is the message of the Church in each generation, in all circumstances, and all geographies – or it should be. The Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is as true and transforming in the 21st Century as any previous era. Moreover, the message of Jesus preaches with equal truthfulness and power in Afghanistan and Albania as it does in the United States or Great Britain or Brazil. If it doesn’t preach as well, it’s not the true Gospel. The true Gospel promises spiritual liberation to Syrian refugees fleeing ISIS, and the true Gospel is the only hope a Wall Street banker will ever have.

That said, it is vital that pastors, preachers and Bible teachers apply the teaching of God’s Word to the great issues of the day and to the issues and needs of their community and congregation. Truth must be preached and lived in love, but we must apply God’s truth to the issues of the day. Failure to do so will produce reasonable questions of relevance in our hearer’s minds.  Is the gospel relevant to this issue or that, which everyone is talking about?  Does God have a word for us in this situation?  Or, even, is our pastor or teacher aware of, or interested in, the great issues of the day?

This summer, and this year, there are at least three major issues that demand the attention of those who teach God’s Word. There are others I’m sure, but certainly these are three: the persecution and eradication of Christians in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa, same-sex marriage in the United States, and the recent revelations that Planned Parenthood is selling the bodies of aborted babies. Regarding abortion, approximately 3,500 babies in the United States have been aborted every day, 365 days a year, since 1973 (more than 58 million). Thirty percent of these have been African-American babies. And that’s just the United States. In China it is estimated that 30,000 babies are aborted daily. Thirty-seven million babies are aborted worldwide each year.

I don’t have space in this article to suggest how a preacher might speak to each of these issues specifically.  But I will say that they must be addressed. The children who grow up in our churches need to know where their pastor and church stands on the great moral issues of the day. We must train our people to think biblically, and apply the Scriptures accurately when thinking and making decisions in everyday life. What does it mean to carry our cross daily? What does it mean to be an ambassador of Jesus Christ? How do these truths affect and effect our life choices?

When I was a pastor there was an election in which one of the presidential candidates, and one of our state governor candidates, took public positions on matters that were contrary to the teachings of Scripture. The presidential candidate said that he would not support any limitations on abortion, including partial-birth abortion. You might remember that partial-birth abortion is a procedure used when an unborn baby is late-term, and could often survive if born. The procedure entails the delivery of the baby from the birth canal, with the exception of the child’s head, which is left in the birth canal. The baby is then killed before the head is delivered from the birth canal. The governor candidate ran on one major issue. He wanted the state to begin a gambling enterprise, a lottery, “for the sake of the children.” The lottery income was to be dedicated to school funding.

Without naming names, or political parties, I told our church that I would never, no not ever, would I vote for or support candidates who held such positions on the issues. I further called on parents and school officials to demand that politicians not “use children” every time they wanted to pass a law involving the expansion of alcohol sales or gambling. And then I answered the objection that some might have that I was “getting political.” I told them that politics and biblical morality and worldview intersect, and when they do the church must address it. I told them the primary message of the church is not “morality.” Our message centers on Jesus and His gospel. But the Bible also addresses matters of right, wrong, and how we should live (and this is a gospel issue), and “the children who grow up in this church need to know where their pastor stands.” I said, “I don’t want anyone to question my commitment to the right to life, or state-sponsored gambling, and all that that means.” By helping our church see how politics and our Christian worldview intersect, I was able to teach our people, including our children, that the Bible does address the matters they were hearing discussed in the news and across our nation.

Presently I am reading Abraham Lincoln: Selected Speeches and Writings. I have been struck by how well he wrote, thought, and spoke, even as a young man. He was courageous and he was clear. In a speech delivered while still in his twenties, reflecting on the danger that the United States faced, he said this:

“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide” (Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, Jan. 27, 1838).

Lincoln had it right. The destruction of a people, especially moral and spiritual destruction, always comes from within. That being true, God help us.

When we look back on leaders of 100 or 200 years ago, we are often greatly disappointed at where they stood on issues such slavery and race. Even great men, who did great things, could be horribly wrong on significant issues. Lincoln himself had some thoughts on race that we would find contemptible. He thought black people should be freed and sent back to Africa. He cited the story of Moses leading Israel out of 400 years of slavery, and back to Israel, as an example of the rightness of such a re-segregation. Sometimes we are tempted to judge our predecessors by their mistaken views. But I would urge that we be cautious about judging people who couldn’t quite break free from the prevailing thinking of their generation. Their ability to be wrong should humble us. No, I don’t want to judge them. My greater concern is what future generations will think of us. I fully expect that 10, 20 or 100 years from now, abortion will be eradicated from our nation. The day will come when our grandchildren or great-grandchildren will be appalled by what we did to the unborn. When that day comes, I hope they find that many of us did all we could to oppose the slaughter. More importantly, I pray that when we stand before the Lord, as we are now presently standing, that He will be able to commend us for what we have done as Christian leaders in our generation.