Methods, Missiology, Theology

The Importance of Proximity

Growing up I would often hear a phrase repeated time and again by my elders in the church. “There is no distance in prayer.” (TINDIP) It is a beautiful notion, an exquisite thought. The basic premise is this. Because God is omnipotent and omnipresent, our prayers can effect circumstances around the globe to bring about the will and purposes of our Lord. Hallelujah! Unfortunately that is not all that is gleaned by the hearers of such phrase. What devolves from that statement is the idea that our physical proximity to the target of prayer has no bearing on the outcome. In other words, prayer is as effective as presence. Please allow me to challenge the veracity of this theory.

I do not doubt that our prayers have power. I do not doubt that they can have an effect upon situations well beyond our physical reach or our eyesight. What I will challenge is the more basic premise that the distance makes no difference and has no effect, negatively or positively upon the outcome.
Here are a few ideas that I would like to submit for your consideration.

1. Things of the spirit (divine or created) occupy space and time. (This is not to dispute that space and time are indeed creations and that God resides outside as well as within these creations)
2. Spiritual objects and beings interact with each other in a predictable way. There are rules and laws in place that govern these things, even if they are beyond our wisdom, understanding or reason.
3. The physical realm is tangibly linked to the spiritual realm.
4. When traveling through physical realms you are also traveling through spirit.
5. The spiritual realms that surround us are not homogenous. They are manifestly different from one place to another.

For example, the spiritual climate of San Francisco is different than the spiritual climate of Tulsa, OK or the spiritual climate of my house may be quite different than that of my next door neighbor.
Defending the TINDIP theory are some Biblical passages. Let’s look at a few.

Matthew chapter 8 relays a faith-filled interaction between Jesus and a Roman Centurion. You know the story. The Centurion has an ill servant that has only one hope. Jesus. This Roman, this gentile demonstrated more faith and more humbleness than anyone in Israel. He told Jesus that it wasn’t necessary for Jesus to visit his servant for him to receive healing. He asked Jesus to just say the word, give the command for it to be so, believing that this would be enough for his servant to be healed. He was right. That is all that was required. Many modern translations of Matthew 8:13 state “And his servant was healed at that moment” (NIV). King James says “that selfsame hour”. Young’s Literal Translation translates it as “in that hour” where the New Living Translation says “that same hour”. Regardless of the translation many preachers and teachers will say it happened at that moment or immediately. I don’t hold that understanding of the scripture. I am convinced that when it says in “that same hour” is means exactly that. In that same hour the healing was received. So it took time for the answer to come.

Consider the story of Daniel. An angel appeared to Daniel in response to his supplications.

Then he continued, “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia. (Daniel 10:12-13)

The angel had to travel to Daniel. He crossed a distance, traversed space. It took time. He met resistance. There was physical interaction between spiritual beings.

Let’s look at the story of Abraham and Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham is informed by the Lord that He is planning to judge Sodom and Gomorrah.

16When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way. 17Then the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? 18Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. 19For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

20Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

22The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord.d 23Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 25Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” 26The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

Abraham continues to interceded on the behalf of Sodom.

Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?” He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”

How does it all end. The intercession ends there. There aren’t 10 righteous men in Sodom and God’s judgement falls on the City. God spares the one righteous man, Lot, and his family.

But the question for me is why did the interaction happen in the first place? Why did God approach Abraham about this at all? The Lord asks why should He keep this from Abraham, when the Lord’s intention for Abraham is to bless the nations. All nations. That includes Sodom.

I believe that God didn’t want to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. I believe he wanted to save it. I believe His intention in involving Abraham was to spur not just intercession through prayer, but action. Why did God negotiate with Abraham? Why would He spare the city for 50, 40, or even 10 righteous men, but not for one righteous man?

I believe the answer lies in spiritual inertia. The dictionary defines inertia as “a property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.” Or as we used to say in my physics classes, an object at rest or in motion tends to stay that way unless acted upon by an outside force. Every object has inertia. Every spiritual object has inertia.

Every object has mass. When a object is either at rest or in motion, in order for the object to change its vector it requires force to be exerted upon it by another object. The amount of change that can be realized from an interaction between two objects depends on the ratio of mass and velocity (speed and direction) between the objects. Essentially objects with a larger mass and higher velocity require a greater force, more mass to make a substantial change in their direction. Imagine a freight train. IT is rolling down the tracks at 60 mph. A bicycle on the tracks would be vaporized. A six thousand pound truck may also be destroyed but it could derail the train.

Sodom and Gomorrah had trajectory that God wanted to change. That is why He went to Abraham. The spiritual impact of 50 men, 45 men, 40 men, even 10 men could alter that path. They had enough mass. One man, Lot wasn’t enough. 10 men would have been.

Abraham failed in this. If he had been willing to pick up his tents and move to Sodom, between the presence of him and the fighting men of his household, they could have altered the course of Sodom. Sodom could have been saved. They weren’t saved by his intercession alone. His presence hundreds of miles away was of no practical effect.
In Mark chapter 8 we see an interesting encounter.

22They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. 23He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”
24He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”
25Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly

Twice Jesus interceded for the man by laying on of hands. It took two times for it to take full effect. There was inertia. That inertia wasn’t overcome by a single action. It required more.

In Matthew 8, Luke 8 and Mark 5 we see Jesus encountering Demon possessed men. They all cried out in recognition of Christ. The demons knew who He was. Interestingly, they didn’t cry out when he was 100 miles away, 10 miles away or even 1 mile away. They cried out when he drew near to them. His close physical proximity to the demons illicitted a spiritual reaction.

I am not interested in disenchanting you on the idea of prayer or intercession that takes place at a distance. What I want is to persuade you to believe that it is not always enough. Your presence has weight and has an effect that prayer in and of itself cannot.

One of my favorite scenes in recent cinema is from the movie Skyfall. Bond goes to a museum to meet his new quartermaster, Q.

[At the National Gallery, Q, a scruffy-haired young man in thick glasses and a raincoat, sits down next to Bond, who is looking at a painting. Bond looks at Q in disgust and suspicion.]
Q: It always makes me feel a little melancholy – a grand old war ship, being ignominiously hauled away to scrap. The inevitability of time, don’t you think? What do you see?
James Bond: A bloody big ship. Excuse me. [rising to leave.]
Q: 007. I’m your new Quartermaster.
James Bond: You must be joking.
Q: Why, because I’m not wearing a lab coat?
James Bond: Because you still have spots.
Q: My complexion is hardly relevant.
James Bond: Your competence is.
Q: Age is no guarantee of efficiency.
James Bond: And youth is no guarantee of innovation.
Q: I’ll hazard I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field.
James Bond: Oh, so why do you need me?
Q: Every now and then, a trigger has to be pulled.
James Bond: Or not pulled. It’s hard to know which in your pajamas. Q. [offers his hand.]
Q: [shakes his hand.] 007.
http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Skyfall

I think this sums up what I want the Church to understand. Prayer is powerful. Sit around and intercede in your pajamas if that is what you want to do. You can do some spiritual damage against the darkness in this world just like that. But don’t think that that will be enough to win the war. Sometimes a spiritual trigger needs to be pulled. Your presence is essential to reclaiming this world for our soon and coming King. We need soldiers on the battlefield not just sequestered back on the base. Your proximity to the need adds indeterminable weight and power to the intercession that is vital to its effectiveness.

Imagine if on D Day, the Allied Forces just sent a handful of men to storm Normandy’s beaches. They would have been repelled and the offensive would have failed. That would have been foolish. Yet we do the same thing all the time in the Church. We send a handful of missionaries to storm the spiritual beaches on the mission field and we support them with prayers. I am not saying we shouldn’t pray for them. What I am saying, is that we should go with them. More of us would have a greater effect. Done should be the days of the old adage “Some Pray, Some Pay and Some Go.” We should all pray. We should all pay, and we should all go. Your presence makes a difference.

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Missions

Truth that Cuts Deep (or the Importance of Circumcision)

In 1999, I was in Yalta, Ukraine on the Crimean Peninsula. I had a team of short-term missionaries that I was leading from Oral Roberts University (ORU).  It was a two month trip and we were nearing the end of the trip, but what we were doing at that time was not only the pinnacle of the trip and the primary goal of our time in Ukraine that summer, but it was the most fiscally straining.

We had come to Ukraine with a special agenda that summer.  We were not there to just “do” short-term missions.  We were there to train other short-term missionaries from a youth group in Kiev and facilitate a mission trip for them.  Due to obvious budget restraints, we were doing a domestic mission trip within the boarders of Ukraine.  We had selected as the target of our love and ministry, an unreached group of muslim’s known as Tatars.

Tatars were originally from Crimea, but had been deported wholesale by Stalin during World War 2.  A large portion of them ended up Uzbekistan.  After the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and the so called independence of Ukraine was established, the Ukrainian government welcomed the Tatars back to Crimea.  Tatars returned but they were not warmly welcomed by the actual inhabitants of Crimea, who at that time were largely of Russian descent (they walked in and took all of the Tatar assets after they were deported).   Their property and businesses were gone.  They were starting from scratch.

With a focus of our mission selected, we prepared a team of Ukrainians. Part of their preparation was fundraising.  We knew that the young students that would be going on this mission to Yalta, would not be able to raise or earn enough money to cover the actual cost of the trip.  We felt, however, that it was important for them to participate and to sacrifice for the trip.  We planned for our team budget to cover the shortfall between what they would raise and the actual cost.  This difference was significant.

Needless to say as our trip was nearing the end, our team funds were receding like Nicholas Cage’s hairline.  Money was tight and we needed to maximize every dollar.  That is what we had…dollars.  Of course, we needed to exchange those dollars to the local currency, Hrivna, to buy food, pay for transport, pay for housing, etc.  The problem we faced was that the official exchange rate was horrible.  Yalta was port town and a tourist destination and the exchange rate reflected that perfectly.  At the official, exchange booths or at the bank we were loosing an additional 10-15% over what we would get in Kiev.  Because of this, we exchanged our dollars in the open market.  Ukraine was full of grey markets.  This is how the majority of business was conducted in Ukraine.  We would go to the market, approach a stall owner or an unofficial money changer and do an unofficial exchange.  This would save us a lot of money.  They were happy, and we were happy.  That is until one of my Ukrainian friends, a translator for the team, changed money with the wrong guys.

I sent my friend, to the market to make an exchange like we did everyday so that we could buy groceries.  It was about two or three hundred dollars.  It may not seem like a lot, but that was 3 month’s wages for your average adult in Kiev at that time and as I mentioned the money well was drying up but we still had a team of 35 people to feed.  But I digress. My friend was in the market looking for someone to exchange with, when a couple guys from Azerbaijan, approached him and offered an awesome exchange rate.  He was ecstatic!  So money changed hands and everyone walked away happy.

My friend didn’t get very far before his elation turned to despair.  As he went to purchase food with the money he had just exchanged, he came to understand the age old axiom, the hand is quicker than the eye. The Azerbaijani money changers had walked away with hundreds of dollars and he had walked away with a few dollars worth of Hrivna.

My friend returned to me in shame, guilt and sorrow.  He knew our financial situation.  He knew he had just lost the equivalent of 3 months wages for his single mother.  He was shaking and in tears as he relayed the situation.  I comforted my friend and told him it was ok. But I was livid!  My righteous anger was a fiery blaze the size of Texas…in the mind of a texan.  The target of the vitriol was not my friend but a pack of Azerbaijani thugs.  In all honesty, I prepared for battle.  I put on my boots and I went looking for those guys.  I was ready to fight…literally.  At that time I was training in martial arts 2-3 times a week and I was confident like the captain of the Titanic.  Well our search was in vain at that time.  We couldn’t find the marketplace hyenas. We headed back to our apartment.  My friend took off for a while and I was left alone with the Lord.  I was praying about this situation.  I was furious.  I need the Lord to intervene.

About 2 or 3 hours later my friend returned.  He told me that the guys that had cheated him were back in the market.  Once again I prepared to engage them physically.  This time was a little different though.  Before we left the apartment, I prayed with my friend and another team member who was going to accompany us back to the market to confront the culprits.  As I prayed, I was brutally honest with the Lord about my feelings. I told Him that what had happened was wrong.  It was a crime.  I told Him that I would not stand for it and that justice needed to be served. I told Him that I was ready and willing to fight.

Here comes a key point…but my prayer ended quite differently than you would expect if you were plotting the trajectory of the prayer based on the take-off.  I told the Lord that despite all of my willingness to mix it up and seek justice, that I could not fathom how deeply inglorious His name would be seen by those who knew of the situation.  I asked Him to resolve this in a way that would bring Him the honor and glory that He deserved.

We left and headed for the market. As we approached, my friend pointed out where the guys I was determined to confront were.  I gave my team member that had accompanied us specific interactions.  I posted him on a street corner as an overwatch.  I told him that no mater what happened he was not to engage in the situation.  He was only to observe and report.  If anything bad happened he was to find my assistant team leader, brief her and then inform the police ( I knew that the police were going to be useless in this situation and their arrival would be too late if they were needed).  I then instructed my friend and interpreter to translate everything.  I didn’t care if he thought what I was saying was wrong or dangerous, I made him promise to translate faithfully everything I said and everything said to me.  He warily agreed.

With that taken care of we approached the group of men (approximately 6 or 7)  we had come to see.  I walked up to them and in Russian, I greeted them formally, and I introduced myself and my interpreter.  At that point, I let my translator take over.  I told them that I they had already, met my friend and that they had stolen money from him.  I told them I wanted it back.  They were irate. They denied any wrong doing.  I told them not to play games with me.  I told them it was a waste of time.  They knew as did I what they had done and they had to make it right.  The leader of the band, told me in no uncertain terms that I better leave and leave them alone or something bad was going to happen to me.  I told him that he was mistaken.  I assured him that if he didn’t give me back the money, that something bad was going to happen to them.  They were all shocked.  They began to ask my interpreter, who is this guy?  Is he someone important, powerful?  I answered for him.

I explained to them “I am no one important. I am not from here, obviously, but people here know me.  They know what I do.  I help people.  We are building a playground for Tatars in their local village, Samota. We work with the Church locally and orphans in Kiev.  You see, you think you have stolen from a man, but you haven’t.  You’ve stolen from God.  If you don’t give me back the money there will be consequences.”

The leader, named Andre, told me that they stole the money gave it to muslim orphan refugees.  I didn’t believe him for a minute, but I didn’t address the credibility of the statement.  Instead, I asked him “Where does it say in the Koran, to steal and give the money to orphans?”  He looked at me but didn’t say a word.

I continued “Besides, if you are a muslim, should you be praying right about now?”

He responded with a “Yes”.

Again I pushed forward, “Well then let’s pray together.”

Andre replied “I can’t.”

I asked “Why?”

“Because we are enemies,” Andre retorted.

“Why are we enemies?”

“Because you are a Christian and I am a Muslim.”

“Yes I am a Christian. But I am also a Muslim,” I declared.  Am I?  Can I honestly say that, I, a missionary for Christ, am a Muslim?  Maybe not in the classical sense, but in a wider sense yes.  You see, a Muslim is one who is submitted to Allah.  I believe that Allah is the Muslim name for Jehovah.  Allah is the God of Abraham. You might say that the Koran paints a different picture of Allah than the Bible paints of Jehovah and you would be correct.  It is propaganda.  The Koran is full of lies and character assassination contrived by Satan.  Consider George W. Bush.  He is the son of George W. H. Bush.  The written material that you would find on him in a Democrat’s library, let alone that of a Muslim in Iran or Iraq, would differ greatly from George W.’s autobiography.  In fact, they may well have other names that they call him by than the one he was given by his father.  Their perception of him as a person, his character, his motives and his history, may be far from reality.  Regardless of what they know or don’t know, believe or don’t believe about him, he is who he is.  When they are talking about him, they are talking about him, despite their misconceptions.

I told Andre and his company, “Yes I am a Christian. But I am also a Muslim.”  Then I began to tell them that I follow the 5 pillars of Islam.

“I haven’t been yet, but I hope to one day perform the Hajj” (the pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim should make at least once). “I practice Sawm (Fasting), Zakat (Tithing), Salat (prayer 5 times a day – Paul said pray without ceasing so why limit yourself to only 5 times), and Shahadah.”  Shahadah is the creed for Muslims.  There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is His Prophet.  I agree with that in part.  It is half right.  So I altered my declaration accordingly.

“There is no God but Allah and Jesus is His Son,” I proclaimed. And then for good measure I threw in the 6th Pillar of Islam, for the radicals (faithful muslims) in the house.  “And I practice Jihad.”  Jihad is often referred to as Holy War. This is the classical interpretation and understanding.  But it is actually the struggle that a muslim undertakes on behalf of Allah.  Teachers, preachers, and people who work with orphans all fall into that category.  So I said it with innocence like that of a dove, but with the wisdom of a serpent.  I wanted them to think of only the classical definition when it rolled off my lips.

When the Azerbaijanis heard these things, they looked shocked and they huddled up and began to talk amongst themselves.  Then Andre turned back to me and asked the big question.  “But are you circumcised?”

Allow me to pause the story here and give you a little additional information about this.

There is a grand tradition in not only Ukraine, but in most slavic and northern european countries that is known as the баня (banya). The banya is is essentially a sauna, with a few added peculiarities.  These banyas reach temperatures upwards of 93℃.  In a Ukrainian banta, men and women are separated.  Everyone is naked. People wear hats and gloves to insulate against the heat.  Banya goers take branches and hit each other with them to stimulate better circulation.  The experience is denoted by a cycle of going into the heated sauna then exiting and dousing yourself with ice water.  Although, my first time was nerve wracking because I was so far out of my comfort zone, it was exhilarating. A couple of  hours of cycling in and out of the heat and cold, ending with an hour long full-body massage and I felt like a Roman Gladiator primed for Battle.  “We who are about to die, salute you!”

The day before my encounter with Andre and his cadre, I had taken my mission team of American’s and Ukrainians to the banya.  Since, as I mentioned, everyone is unclothed, (except for the Babushka or grandmother, serving hot tea, thank the Lord – but awkward none the less) we try to keep our gaze upward above the horizon.  Despite this, one of my team member’s gaze fell below the equator and made an interesting observation.  All of the Ukrainians in the banya with us were, to the best of our knowledge and with limited inspection…uncircumcised.  This revelation prompted a discussion about the reasoning with our local hosts.  We came to find out that in Ukraine, unlike the USA, males were not circumcised at birth.  Only Jews and Muslims were circumcised there.  Out Ukrainian brothers, were as shocked as us at the difference between us. They wanted to know why we were circumcised.  We explained that although it was for the purpose of hygiene at this point, it was tradition in the USA (although this is changing).  I then began to prescribe for one of the Ukrainian brothers who was working as a missionary in Turkey to be circumcised.  I told him that it was important if he was going to be working with Muslims.  He vehemently disagreed.

He told me that Paul said that circumcision was of the heart and not the flesh (Romans 2:29). My suggestion alone terrified him I suspect.  Despite his apprehension, I laid out my case.  I told him, “Yes it is true that circumcision is of the heart.  Why then did Paul take his protege, Timothy to be circumcised?It is because, Paul also said that to those under the law we should be under the law.”

 

To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.I am very proud of my translator.  He must have been so intimidated, but it was his fear of God that kept him there and being my voice.To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.  – 1 Corinthians 2:20-22 NIV

 

“And although circumcision is not required for salvation, it maybe required to effectively reach those who are.  Timothy was ministering to the Jews, and therefore he and his mentor deemed it not only appropriate but a necessary strategy to win them to Christ.”

My friend was still not convinced by the daunting proposition. So I told them the following tale.

My roommate in seminary, had traveled 3 years previous (1996) to a village in Turkey on a mission trip from ORU.  He and his 3 team mates were in the village for a few weeks (after a crash course in Turkish on a 1 week stopover in London).  The entire time they were there they were treated like dirt.  They worked hard, helped out in the fields, acts of kindness, tried to build relationships, but they were largely rejected.  That was the daily outcome, until the last few days in the village.  The team recognized that the villagers were talking about them. They inquired as to what they were talking about.  The villagers told them that they were wondering if the missionaries were circumcised.  When they told them they were, everything changed.  They were treated like family.

Fast-forward one year.  ORU sent a second team.  The leaders were invited into the home of the village mayor.  His decorations were sparse.  In fact he only had three things adorning the walls of his house.  The first, a flag, the national flag of Turkey.  The second, a picture of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the national hero of Turkey. The third, a picture.  It was a picture of the first four missionaries sent from ORU.  The impact those men had was profound.  It would have been nonexistent if they hadn’t been circumcised.

Fast-forward two years. We are still in the banya, and despite my proof of concept, my Ukrainian brother was still not convinced.

Fast-forward one day.

Andre asks me the big question.  “But are you circumcised?”

With assurance I confess… “Yes, I am circumcised.  I am a son of Abraham and you have stolen from your brother.”

They were confounded.  They were shocked.

To prevent this long story from being longer, let me sum up the results of this interaction.  Andre and Co. returned the money.  They took me out to dinner.  Andre bought me a shirt.  I was invited to Azerbaijan to attend the circumcision of Andre’s son.  Although I was unable to attend that event, I was able to meet Andre’s son in Lugansk, Ukraine about 6 months later.  I don’t know if Andre ever received Christ, because we lost contact with one another when he was deported from Ukraine.  I hope and pray that he did surrender to Him.  What I do know, is that my prayer was answered.  Christ was glorified despite my fleshly response to an unjust and criminal situation. I also came away with a profound understanding that it is in the little things that we do (or not so little) in order to become all things to all men, that may make an eternal difference for those we are sent to love.

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Missiology, Missions, Practical, Theology

You Are What You Eat

When I was a young, short-term missionary, taking trips with my youth group to Mexico, my youth pastors would always conduct mandatory training sessions for the youth selected to go on the mission trips.  There were a lot of topics that were discussed. These topics ranged from how services were conducted, to proper attire, to warnings about absent creature comforts, interpersonal relationships with the team and the nationals, and FOOD.    

A verse that every youth pastor worth his salt, preparing a mission team, will trot out is…

“If you enter a town and it welcomes you, eat whatever is set before you.” (Luke  10:8 NLT)

     Or maybe…

“If someone who isn’t a believer asks you home for dinner, accept the invitation if you want to. Eat whatever is offered to you without raising questions of conscience.” (1 Corinthians 10:27 NIV)

Typically the youth pastor will at this point regale the captive audience with stories of gastronomic challenge; blood sausage covered in flies, the cow tongue in congealed fat, liver cake, insects, fish eyes, black eggs, unrefrigerated mayonnaise with blue mold on top, cobra venom sacks are just a few examples I have heard.  I have to say I have told more than a few stories about such things myself.  My greatest culinary gauntlet I passed through, was liver.  I know there are a lot worse things that  people have put in their mouths and chewed with a smile, but for me it was the singular trial that tested my resolve and my mettle, over and over again.  Other things may seem bad but it is liver that holds the top slot on my list of least favorite foods.  For some reason I have a serious gag reflex when it comes to liver.  Just the aroma itself makes me want to puke.  Despite this handicap, I have gagged down, with a smile (although strained at times…more specifically all the time and every time), a metric ton of cow liver during the course of my missions career in Ukraine.  The funniest (in retrospect) experience that I had with liver in Ukraine was during my first trip.

I was in a village.  The local church was conducting a baptism in the river.  This celebration is accompanied by a large picnic.  Everyone in the church and even many unbelievers bring food and celebrate the public confession of Christ.  Some of the local girls approached me and asked if I had gotten any of their cake yet.  I told them no and they graciously provided me with what appeared to be an huge slice of 8-layered, chocolate cake with white frosting.  (You already know where I am going with this.)  With great anticipation, I forked off a huge piece of the cake and as it neared my mouth, my nose picked up a distinct odor. Liver! The frosting…mayonnaise. This was not some Ukrainian chocolate masterpiece waiting to pleasure my palate.  This was a cosmic joke.  Loki the trickster of old was up to no good.  I hesitated, if only for a second.  I stuffed my face and punished my tastebuds. The ol’ gag reflex was hard at work.  But I manned-up, I put it down, and by God’s good grace, I kept it down.  And…I did it all with a smile.  Hallelujah!

Why did I do this? Why does any missionary subject themselves to such harrowing edibles?  Is it simply, the command of our Lord that solicits such sacrificial obedience?  Maybe that is the case for better missionaries than me.  Maybe that is the reason for missionaries, who have a faith that I will never know myself.  I, however, was unsatisfied with just a command.  I had to ask…WHY?!?!?  What is so important about eating what is set before you?  That’s what I want to know.  And that is what I asked of our Lord.

The gracious Lord, who allowed Thomas to touch His side which was pierced and to put his fingers in the holes in His hands, answered my inquiry.  He said “Because you are what you eat.”  Was this a trite reply?  Heavens no.  This was not some humorous explanation by an divine gym teacher warning us off indulging in too many Twinkies (thank Heaven).  This was a profound answer with deep implications about the human condition and our psycho-social identity.

You see we are what we eat, in the sense that our identity is inexorably tied to what we consume for sustenance.   When people offer us food, they are offering us a part of themselves.  It doesn’t matter if that food is blue ribbon, Kansas City, Baby-Back Ribs, or a juicy grub dug out from a rotting log in a rain forest. It is themselves they are offering.  So what happens when we turn up our noses at such a gift?  The tragic reality is that it is not the food we are rejecting as unworthy, but the person, the people group, the sheep lost waiting to be found.  To make the situation more appalling, you must understand that when we do such a thing it is not even us who is rejecting the people. It is not us who is deeming them unacceptable, but rather Christ.  That’s right Christ is rejecting and hurting those people.  Christ is alienating those people from Himself by deafening their ears and hardening their hearts to the reality of what He sacrificed for them on Calvary’s cross.  How is this?  Because we are Christ to those people.  What we do to the least of these, we are doing in His name.  We are His ambassadors, we are His voice, we are His hands, His body.

“Eat what is set before you” is not just a suggestion.  It is a mandate, with a very poignant reason behind it.  Will you arise to the challenge?  Or will you stand in opposition to the will of God? Remember Christ drank of a bitter cup for you.  He ate your sin.  What will you eat for Him?

Never forget… You are what you eat.

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