Wednesday, October 31

Every common bush afire with God

Earth's crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "Aurora Leigh" VII.821-22

Few lines capture as profoundly the mystery of God and his ways.

One of the most remarkable gifts God has given mankind is the freedom to choose. We can choose to see God in every common bush, or we can see bushes and pluck berries. The choice is ours. How we see the common bushes of life determines how we embrace life and God.

Is God really in every common bush? Is he in the coffee cup sitting by my side, or the laptop sitting on my desk? Is there really such a thing as a "holy telephone" or an "anointed paper clip"? Is that what Browning is trying to say?

I believe she is hinting we have the choice about what we choose to believe about God. We choose our responses to the things that come into our lives. It is like the story of two prisoners gazing out from behind bars – one sees mud and the other stars. Life can be seen from either perspective, mud or stars. Seeing things from God's perspective or choosing to see what literally stands before us. Perspective is everything.

When Moses encountered the burning bush in the wilderness what first amazed him, "though the bush was on fire it did not burn up."

When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, "Moses! Moses!" And Moses said, "Here I am."

Does God still call us from the common bushes? I believe He does. But only when we choose to see, hear, and perceive Him in all things. Our response has to be the same as Moses, "Here I am, Lord."

When someone is late for an appointment that we have killed ourselves to be on time for, we have the choice to see a bush "afire with God" or a common bush to sit round and pluck blackberries (and fume!) Our common response is frustration and thinking of wasted time. But if every common bush is afire with God, is there always a spiritual reason or significance for even delayed appointments?

Elisabeth Elliot elaborates on Psalm 16:5, "Lord, You have assigned me my portion and my cup, and have made my lot secure." She comments,

"I know of no greater simplifier for all of life. Whatever happens is assigned. Does the intellect balk at that? Can we say that there are things which happen to us which do not belong to our lovingly assigned "portion" (This belongs to it, that does not?) Are some things...out of the control of the Almighty? Every assignment [common bush] is measured and controlled for my eternal good. As I accept the given portion other options are canceled. Decisions become much easier, directions clearer, and hence my heart becomes inexpressibly quieter."

I think the key word in the above wise words is, " I accept the given portion..." As we choose, accept life as it comes assigned to us from a loving Father, we indeed learn to see "every common bush afire with God."

Sunday, October 28

Dealing with sin in the church

Not long ago I received a phone call from one of our house church leaders. With tears and a broken voice they asked to come see us about what they described as a "very serious matter."  One of the actively involved young men in the church was having an affair with one of the older single mothers (also very active in the church.)

While this kind of thing certainly takes place in churches of all sizes, it is very hard to hide when both parties are part of an intimate gathering meeting several times a week. Needless to say, their sin had devastated their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. I was asked to come mediate and help the church deal with the issue.

What do you do in these kinds of situations? What do you say? How do you discipline those in error? How do you restore someone who has been caught in sin? What would you do in a similar situation?

Typically sin matters are often swept under the rug. We have enough problems of our own without having to deal with other people's messed up lives. After all, who am I to stick my nose into another's business? I believe this kind of attitude has hurt the Body of Christ. Without accountability, sin runs rampant in our midst. Our Kingdom mission becomes derailed.

But on the other hand, I have learned that it is not so much that people are afraid of confronting, but it is hard to know exactly what to do in these situations. How much authority do we have in the lives of others to tell them what they must do? You can't very well kick them out of the church for their sin. Where would they go? What chance for restoration would any of us have then?

Many times ministry responsibilities are taken away until the guilty parties show fruits of repentance. Often they are forbidden to partake of the Lord's Supper for "x" amount of time. But what restoration value is there in taking these kinds of things away? There doesn't seem to be much of a connection between taking away spiritual privileges and a person truly repenting.

While Matthew 18:15-17 gives instructions for when a brother sins, there is nothing in these verses for what to do to discipline one who confesses to their wrong-doing.  Matthew 18:18 seems to leave it up to us to decide what is best and states, "whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven."

So here is what we ended up doing, step-by-step...

On Sunday morning we called the church together. We explained that we had been invited to help the church work their way through the sin that had been committed by two of its members. We read aloud John 8:3-11 of the woman caught in adultery and brought to Jesus. Nobody present would be casting any stones at the two, because we were all sinners.

While the young man was present for all that had been shared up to this point, the single mother had not come to the meeting. I explained that unless both parties were present, we really could not deal with the issue. I appointed two ladies to go find the sister. Everyone understood that she was embarrased to come, but that we could not deal with the sin without her being present. The church sat in awkward silence for the 15-minutes it took to find the sister and bring her to the gathering. Most of us spent that time in silent prayer.

Finally the sister came, accompanied by the two sisters who had gone out and found her. We explained again what it was we were doing, and asked her to be part of our gathering as together we sought the Holy Spirit's direction on how to deal with the sin in our midst. She agreed.

I then read aloud, James 5:16 where we are admonished to "confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed." I explained that our intention was healing. We wanted to make right that which was wrong so that all might be healed.

I turned to the brother in question and asked him if he had anything he would like to say or confess to his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who loved him. He did so. For the next ten or so minutes he confessed before the church and the Lord his sin. He did not try to hide or excuse what he had done. While intimate details were not shared, he made clear that he recognized that what he had done was sin. Tears streamed from his eyes. He was repentant and sorry.

Upon hearing his public confession, I asked the sister involved if she would like to say anything. She likewise made a full confession and expressed how sorry she was for what she had done.

After hearing both confess their sin, I asked all the brothers to gather around the fallen brother and pray aloud over him. We then had all the sisters do the same for our sister. Both kneeled in front of the gathered church while they were prayed over.

At the end of this time, I again read aloud, Matthew 18:18 where Jesus gives us the authority to bind and loose in heaven and earth. We declared them forgiven in Jesus Name. They were admonished to cease from their sin and to not be found together unless another brother/sister was present. Both agreed.

At this point, I felt led to ask if there were any others present who might have sin to confess. Much to my amazement, nearly every single person present confessed aloud their sins. Many were embarrasingly personal, yet the humiliation of tearfully confessing publicly one's sin brought genuine healing to the church. The church gathered around each person after their confession and prayed over them offering words of exhortation and counsel as the Spirit directed each to do.

I don't know if we did it the right way or not, but by the time we broke for lunch everyone seemed to be full of the Holy Spirit, cleansed, with smiles on their faces and a renewed hope in the Lord.

What have been some of your experiences in dealing with sin in the church?

Thursday, October 25

CPM = disciples that make disciples that make disciples

The way to get to a 'church planting movement' is focus on what it will take to initiate a 'disciple making movement.'

Our focus is usually trying to get churches to reproduce themselves. The whole CPM thing of 'churches planting churches that plant churches' just hasn't happened in our context.

What we are learning from the Lord is that we need to get back to basics: 'making disciples that make disciples that make disciples.' Church plants will follow if new disciples are making disciples themselves.

Christ didn't charge us with going out and starting churches. Our assigned task is to 'make disciples.' Jesus stated, "I will build my church"--not, 'WE will build his church.'

God is on mission. He invites us to partner with him in bringing about the Kingdom. In this partnership each "party" is responsible for certain things. If we will do our part and 'make disciples', He will certainly do his part and 'build his church'!

There is nothing new about any of this. But for some reason, we busy ourselves with all kinds of activities other than the clear cut commands and instructions of Christ to go, make disciples, baptize, and teach the new believers to be Christ followers who reproduce themselves into other new disciples.

One of the more helpful and practical books on discipleship and church planting is Neil Cole's Organic Church. On page 98 he writes...

Trying to multiply churches is starting at the wrong place...We must go further down microscopically, to the smallest unit of Kingdom life if we want to start the multiplication process...The way to see a true church multiplication movement is to multiply healthy disciples, then leaders, then churches, and finally movements--in that order.

As passionate as I am about church planting, I found it perplexing that the Bible never instructs us to start churches...we are not to start churches, but instead to make disciples who make disciples. that is actually the way churches are started...Jesus gave us instruction that is one the molecular level of Kingdom life, for a very good reason: it works. Trying to multiply large, highly complex organisms without multiplying on the micro level is impossible.
Our focus must be on getting back to multiplying healthy reproducing disciples. Trying to get churches to multiply who are filled with non-reproducing believers is futile. Until we get back to basics of being disciples, and multiplying ourselves in others, there is little chance of ever seeing a CPM in our midst.

Tuesday, October 23

Pindal Medical Missions Trip

A short video of last week's medical missions trip to Pindal in Loja Province of Ecuador (see previous blog entry.)

Thanks be to the Lord for all He did last week to the honor of his Name.

Also thanks to the wonderful team the Lord put together for this trip: Shelby and Frances, Wray, Geoff and Teresa, Hank, Dee, César, Daniel, Xavier, Manuel, Elcie, David, and myself.

Sunday, October 21

Going: the hardest step in the Great Commission

Jesus gave us his own authority to go in His Name, make disciples of the nations, baptize those who believe and teach them to follow all his commandments. 

We believe this. We teach it. We preach it. We read books about it. We have conferences about it. But when was the last time we actually got around to DOING what Jesus commanded us to do? Why?

My theory is that for most of us it is just theory--church talk. We don't ever really think we are to be the ones to get out there and engage the world in an intentional way and make disciples.

The hardest step is the first: going. To go requires committment, money, time, energy, intention, sacrifice, and often leaving our comfort zone. There is always a price involved in doing what Christ commanded.

I have found that if we will just take that first initial step and actually go, each successive step is a little easier. Going is the toughest hurdle. There are so many things standing in the way. The enemy will always push other matters to the front of the line to keep us from going: family responsibilities, work, finances, committments, health, fears, laziness, insecurities, and anything else that might keep us from going.

But when we do manage to take that first step and go, the Lord is faithful to do as he promised and be with us each successive step of the way. Many take the Matthew 28:20 promise out of context and believe that that somehow Christ is saying He will be with us whether or not we obey what He has told us to do. But this promise is conditioned on what precedes. If we will 1) go, 2) make disciples,
3) baptize, and 4) teach...HE WILL BE WITH US. And we will see His Glory as we follow his lead in going before us.

This past week a team of 7 Alabamans and 7 Ecuadorians took that initial step of going to Pindal, a remote county seat town in the southern Ecuadorian province of Loja.  Prior research revealed that there were no known followers of Jesus Christ in the entire county.
Getting there was a 9-hour trek on some of the worst roads I have ever travelled in Ecuador. The roads were so bad that our car will have to be taken in to the shop tomorrow for repairs. While in Pindal, we held daily medical clinics and shared the Gospel with those who came. In the afternoons we invited everyone to join us in the park for a social gathering/Gospel-share time. After four days of these fun, share time gatherings several people expressed interest in giving their hearts to the Lord. One of the new believers who had been the restaurant owner where we ate breakfast and supper opened her home for us to continue meeting.
This past Thursday night, we held our first initial house church gathering in the home of this new believer with about 30 people present. Two of the Ecuadorian brethren who accompanied us on the trip have agreed to make a weekly trip to Pindal to disciple and follow-up the new believers.
Needless to say, this kind of committment and sacrifice is what it takes to fulfill the Great Commission. Both might have given a host of reasons why they couldn't continue to make the difficult trip (see above reasons!)  But because they said YES, I believe Jesus will be faithful to his end of the bargain and do what He said he would do in Matthew 16 to "build his church" in Pindal.
Will you begin praying about where the Lord might have you go? Interested in maybe coming to Ecuador? Adopt one of our unreached peoples

Sunday, October 7

House Churches or Church Houses?

This painting has hung in our home for close to twenty years. It is the work of the daughter of a dear sister in Christ here in Guayaquil. At the time it was given to us I would have never dreamed it would be such a prophetic statement of the church planting efforts currently going on in Ecuador.

This is truly an accurate visual representation of the Ecuador House Church Movement. The juxtaposition of a common indigenous house with a traditional church facade symbolizes the way church planting has developed over the past dozen years in this country.

To some it might seem strange that I would chose to represent the church as a structure rather than people. Of course, I would agree and affirm church as the Body of Christ, people, family of God, brothers and sisters joined together under the Lordship of Christ. In that sense this piece might be better entitled, "The Structure of the Ecuador House Church Movement."

The incongruity of an indigenous house with such an unnatural entrance has bothered me since the day this painting was given to us. Either gather as a church in a home, or build a building according to historical traditions, but don't mix the two!

And yet I believe this painting accurately represents the true Ecuadorian reality of what Christ is doing to "I will build my church" in our context. It is not what I personally believe Scripture teaches about the church, nor is it what we have sought to teach. Yet, after 12+ years of  "painting" this is the reality of what we see emerging. Whether good or bad, THIS IS WHAT WE HAVE!

Some observations.

The house is small.  She is built with natural, indigenous materials like the thatched roof. Electronics might be inside, but they are not part of the visible structure of the house. Between 10-15 people can fit comfortably inside the house.

The facade on the house seeks to imitate the inherited traditional church structures. There isn't money to build a complete stone temple, but the two columns with the cross on top let everyone know this is a church. There is a strong desire for outsiders to know that this is not only a house, but a place where the living church of Christ gathers.

The awkward stone teams and pillars which support the roof are in the shape of a cross. This cross is below the wooden cross representing Christ on the roof, but the stone cross is actually bigger. While Christ is certainly acknowledged as "over" and "above" his church, the visible stone cross at the top of the stone facade is not only bigger in size, but stands on top of the other stones that make up the stone entryway into the church.

I have long noted that church leaders/pastors/shepherds in Ecuador (and Latin America in general) tend to take a hierarchical position above the other common church stones. There is a strong tendency for two mediators between God and men--Christ AND the pastor. Petitions, requests, permissions must first be cleared through the pastor or local church leaders before making their way to Christ.

In my opinion, this is the main obstacle as to why we have yet to see this nation come to Christ. By the high position of authority that is given to pastor/leaders, Christ's will and voice are often supplanted by those very leaders standing at the foot of His cross.

Some have rightly called this Latin American phenomenon church houses rather than house churches. For me this painting depcits the strong influence tradtional church structures continue to have on the overall house church movement taking place in Latin America.

What do you see in the painting? A house church or a church house?