When the Flower Withers

August 23, 2013

The statistics indicate a moral change in our society that many of us have witnessed during our lifetime. The violent crime rate in the US was 160.9 per 100,000 population in 1960. In 2011, it was 386.3 per 100,000. The divorce rate in 1960 was 2.2 per 1,000 population. It reached its high point in 1981 with 5.3 per 1,000 and in 2009 was 3.5 per 1,000. If the divorce rate has dropped since the 1980s, cohabitation (“living together”) has increased. In 1960, there were 439,000 cohabiting couples. In 2005, 4.85 million cohabiting couples were reported by the Census Bureau — up more than 10 times the rate in 1960. In 1960, out of wedlock births were 5.3% of the total births. In 2007, they were 40% of the total births.

Elton Trueblood in his 1969 book, A Place to Stand, made an important observation on the moral decline of Western culture:

Always men have broken laws; that is nothing new. What is new is the acceptance of a creed to the effect that there really is not objective truth about what human conduct ought to be. The new position is not merely that the old laws do not apply, but rather that any moral law is limited to subjective reference. While this has been the position of a few individuals in various generations of the past, our time differs in that this has suddenly become the position of millions. Some of them still have a slight connection with the Judeo-Christian heritage, but the obvious conflict in convictions will, if it continues, finally dissolve even the mild connection that still appears to exist. If there is no objective right, then there is not even the possibility of error, and intellectual and moral confusion are bound to ensue.1

Trueblood calls ours “a cult-flower civilization.” His analogy means that when people first began to cut themselves off from Judeo-Christian ethics, they initially behaved in moral ways. Like the cut-flower exhibiting life though cut off from its roots. Such life though eventually withers, and in the same way, cut from the roots of Judeo-Christian ethics, our society undergoes a moral decline.

So what does this mean for Christians and the church today? It is easy to be a bit depressed, and certainly the cultural shift is lamentable. But it does not change our mission to share the good news. In fact it means that the difference between the lifestyle of a truly, biblical Christian is going to be even more distinct from the world around us. We face a culture much more like the one that Peter and Paul faced. They saw opportunity. The good news went out into that kind of world and turned the world upside down. When the flower withers, the good news is needed all the more.

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1Elton Trueblood, A Place to Stand, p. 15.


The Misunderstood Commission

July 12, 2013

If I were to give you their names, you probably wouldn’t recognize the list: Shammua, Shaphat, Igal, Palti, Gaddiel, Gaddi, Ammiel, Sethur, Nahbi, and Geuel. Add two more names, Joshua and Caleb, and many Bible students would suddenly have a flash of recognition – the twelve spies.

The setting is after the Exodus from Egypt. Israel is in the wilderness. They are camped outside the Promised Land. The spy mission is God’s idea: “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel” (Numbers 13:2, ESV). Moses also states their commission:

Go up into the Negeb and go up into the hill country, and see what the land is, and whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, and whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad, and whether the cities that they dwell in are camps or strongholds, and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not. Be of good courage and bring some of the fruit of the land. Numbers 13:17-20, ESV

It is interesting to note that in the commissioning of the spies the issue is never whether we can take the land or not. Taking the land is a given. God has promised.

The ten spies failed not because they reported strong peoples and fortified cities in the land. Their failure was saying, “We are not strong enough; we can’t do it.” The issue had never been Israel’s strength. The issue always was God’s strength, and what could be accomplished by faith. They misunderstood their commission.

We too have a commission – a great one in fact. It is about going into all the world, making disciples, baptizing, and teaching. It would be failure for us to say, “We are not strong enough; we can’t do it.” It is not about our strength. It is about God’s strength, and what can be accomplished by faith. For this commission too comes with a promise: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20, ESV).


The Good Mystery

November 30, 2012

When you hear the word mystery, what comes to mind? Do you think of something esoteric and incomprehensible, or do you think of a whodunit crime novel? For Paul in Ephesians 3, mystery means something that God had not previously made known or made clear, but has now revealed. We could not arrive at this mystery by reason or observation alone. The good mystery was revealed by God.

God’s plan was progressively revealed. We see a hint of it in the curse on the Serpent in Genesis 3:15 and in the promises to Abraham and David. The prophecies of the Old Testament point to it. But the mystery was not fully revealed until it was revealed to the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 3:5). Yes, the mystery when revealed was a bit of a shock to some Jews. But Paul assures us: the good mystery was revealed to the apostles and prophets.

What is this good mystery? It is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, fellow members of the same body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Ephesians 3:6). God’s plan was to create a new humanity in Jesus “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Everyone can share in the inheritance. Everyone can be a part of the body. Everyone can partake of the promise. The good mystery is that the gospel is for all.

That means the good mystery is preached. Paul became a minister of the gospel “to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God” (Ephesians 3:8-9). Paul makes clear that the church is an integral part of the plan.

… so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord … (Ephesians 3:10–11, ESV)

I suspect that we struggle a bit thinking about spiritual beings observing the church to see the wisdom of God. But what they should see is a new humanity in Christ Jesus. They should see is both Jew and Gentile formed into one family of God. They should see people, regardless of nationality, race, culture or language, being united in Christ and transformed into Christ’s likeness.

The good mystery is revealed by God. It has been revealed to the apostles and prophets. We read about it in our New Testaments. The mystery that Paul preached is that the gospel is for all.


God Gives the Increase

October 19, 2012

Jesus said to go into all the world and preach the gospel. Today’s world population is about 7 billion. In one hour, there are 14,954 births and 6,461 deaths. It’s a staggering task. When viewed like this, it can be paralyzing. What can one person do? What can one church do?

Yet I recall the words of Jesus, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much…”(Luke 16:10a, ESV). And in the parable of the talents, the approved servants hear these words:

His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ Matthew 25:21, 23 ESV

It seems that the global picture will take care of itself when we learn to be faithful even in the little things.

Take the story of Fred Asare, the director of the Village of Hope. His older brother received the World Bible School lessons, and he encouraged Fred to take them too. The WBS teacher sent the lessons to the then nine-year-old Fred. Fred was very young, and he felt like he had received too much help from his brother in doing the lessons, so he asked to take the entire lesson series over again. The WBS teacher sent the lessons again. (I admire the patience.) The WBS teacher sent an invitation to Fred to hear some missionaries preach. Fred invited his school mates. They were baptized. After college, Fred was invited to be the director of the Village of Hope – a work that had previously failed. Fred accepted the challenge, and many have joined in that work. But I want you to notice the small acts of faithfulness – the small beginnings that lead to great things being done.

Thank goodness for farmers. They prepare the soil. They plant the seed. They care for their crops waiting patiently for the rain. Yet, they feed the world. I might despair at the task given the smallness of the seeds. Yet, the farmer knows that our beneficent Creator knows how to multiply seeds into abundant crops.

It is to this that Paul compares the task of sharing the gospel. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:6, NKJV). God knows how to multiply our efforts. He seeks people of faith, who can be faithful even in the little things. He desires people who can encourage, invite, share, and give. You never know where your faithfulness may lead. Your faithfulness may be part of a golden chain of events that moves mountains. Pray for open doors and the faith to go through them. For it is God who gives the increase.


Into All the World

April 1, 2011

Although there are places in the world that are very secular which makes evangelism more difficult, places also exist that are very fruitful. Sub-saharan Africa is a great example. In 1989, there were 6,222 local congregations with a membership of 416,874. By 2002, 14,669 congregations existed with a total membership of 1,070,837. By way of comparison, the United States had 12,719 local congregations of churches of Christ with a membership of 1,239,612 in 1980. In 2006, we had 12,963 congregations and a membership of 1,265,844.

Other brights spots in the world include Eastern Europe and areas formerly under the control of the Soviet Union. Members of the church have been able to provide printed materials to public schools, and congregations have been planted. Latin America is also experiencing growth. We have had over 100 vocational missionaries teaching English in China. The Philippines has 24 missionaries and 900 congregations. There are places that are more fruitful, and there are places that are more challenging. God is always doing great things by people of faith regardless of whether they are in fruitful areas or challenging areas.1

Whether a place is very fruitful or whether it is tougher going, the faithful must go. Jesus did not say, “Go into all the places that are very receptive.” He said, “Go into the world.” Certainly, churches must recognize open doors and take advantage of them. But any long range strategy must recognize that all places need missionaries and evangelism.

J.M. McCaleb was a missionary to Japan for about fifty years. He went to Japan in 1892. People wondered about going to Japan when “the fields are white unto harvest” in the United States. The nineteenth century was a period of great church growth. McCaleb had an illustration that spoke to the pioneer environment.

The wise farmer doesn’t just reap from the fields he has prepared. He may go to another part of his property and prepare a field. He may have to fell trees and pull up roots. He may have many stones to clear. It may take time before this area of the farm is ready to be a truly productive field. But the time will come when others may reap abundant harvests where a few have prepared the way.2

This was J.M. McCaleb’s way of reminding us to go into all the world. God is doing great things through people of faith. It may be in areas of great fruitfulness; it may be in difficult areas. But there’s the rub. Let us not be discouraged. God will be with us when we act in faith. We need faith to share the good news with a world that so desperately needs it.

1Dr. Monty Cox, “Around the World in Sixty Minutes,” Harding University Lectureship, 2008.

2J.M.McCaleb, OnceTraveled Roads, pages 361-62.


Pray to the Lord of the Harvest

March 25, 2011

The headline captured my attention: Religion may become extinct in nine nations, study says. A paper read at the American Physical Society had used a mathematical model to explain the interplay between the number of religious respondents and the social motives for remaining religious. The model looked at data over the past century, and it predicted the extinction of religion in Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Switzerland. A similar model had been proposed to deal with the decline of lesser-spoken world languages.

I particularly noted New Zealand and Australia because of our work with the South Pacific Bible College in Tauranga, New Zealand, but this is a serious matter for all of these countries. New Zealand and Australia are very secular societies. Church attendance for all religious groups is about 10% of the population. The study only confirms what we already in some sense know. These countries have great needs for evangelism and may be slow and difficult areas in which to work. Lest we congratulate ourselves on being more religious than they are, the trend in the United States is going down as well, although the U.S. is at 44%.

A mathematical model is a way of looking at data and making projections; it is not prophecy. It is not written in stone and unalterable. But it should still be taken to heart. If good people do nothing, the picture for these countries is dire. However, mathematical trends can be reversed.

What should we do? I’m struck by Jesus’ words as he sent out the seventy:

“And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. ” (Luke 10:2, ESV)

Jesus commands us to pray to God to send out laborers, and note that it is not just a command to pray, but a command to pray earnestly.

I’m convinced that those kinds of prayers are being offered, but the news story reminds me of how important those prayers are. For those who pray, often find that they are also the ones who send, support, and go. The prayer changes them as well as seeking God’s providence. In the midst of dire projections, pray to the Lord of the harvest.