Monday, August 27, 2012

Is Hope a Common Noun or a Proper Noun?

The nature of hope has been on my mind a lot this week, as I have followed the World Vision bloggers’ stories closely from the West.

I could tell from their posts and pictures that today was a day of great celebration, as World Vision marked the end of a 15-year project in a region that had become self-sustaining. A place that, 15 years ago, had been dogged by so many disadvantages. But today, they had planned their own party, wishing World Vision well as it closed up shop and moved on to another place that needed help.

I celebrated vicariously through them, like a giddy little kid. I was simply amazed by the work that World Vision had accomplished there. It was rewarding and gratifying to see how our support had been used to bring such an impoverished part of the world to a point of being so full of life, independent and self-sustaining. It made my entire day.

But at the same time, I struggled. I squirmed. I twitched a bit.

As the story unfolded, I read that a broad swath of faiths from that community had come together to mark the occasion: Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Buddhists were among the throng that had come to party like it was 1999. And it wasn’t just eating and dancing and marching to celebrate World Vision. The way the story was told, this was an otherworldly potpourri of religious rituals, in their purest ancient forms, blended into an olive drab of innumerable deities. They were pronouncing blessings on each other, making merry with each other. It was pretty clear that there was zero animosity. Not a hint of proselytizing—or persecution—loomed in the air. One of the bloggers did comment on the “uncomfortable” feeling he had, but described it as “the best day of [his] life.”

I wasn’t there to witness first-hand what sounded like an almost too-good-to-be-true expression of solidarity and super-human tolerance as a human race. And I must say, I’m as intrigued by it as anyone else. Living at peace between our fellow man is a GOOD THING. It’s something that should appeal to all of us. I hate arguing, fighting and warring. Those are everything that is ugly in the world to me. Getting along is a good thing. We have to get along with Muslims and Hindus and Christians and Buddhists. I work and ride the bus shoulder-to-shoulder with people of these stripes nearly every day. Great people that I highly respect.

But as I poured through the posts, I kept asking myself: is such a scene, with people engaged in worshipping their respective gods in complete harmony, masking the invisible Principalities and Powers that are at war among these major world religions? Is this scene a kind of whistling Dixie while Rome burns? Can we safely suspend the notion that these religions’ spiritual bows have been drawn against each other for millennia, join hands as humans and sing Kumbaya—and call it great? Or progress? Or the best day of our life?

I’m asking the question not to accuse anyone, but because I struggle with it. A lot. I wonder if I’m alone, or just a crazy back woods curmudgeon who needs to lighten up.

I know well (and appreciate) that World Vision does not “go to market” as a “missions” organization. Even though they are a Christian organization, their focus is not to proselytize, but to “be the hands and feet of God” in real world ways that relieve suffering in the world (which is a solidly biblical ideal). Joy and I enthusiastically give them considerable financial support each month. I think it’s simply amazing what they accomplish. What they’re doing extends out far beyond benefits for today, and helps generations to have a better life. There is a need for this; a HUGE need for this.

But when I see a potpourri of gods on parade with complete abandon, after a 15-year stent of being the hands and feet of God among them, I ask myself: Can and should we call it done done? How should we as Christians define a better life for people? How do we dimensionalize hope? Is it OK to stop short of preaching the explicit words of the gospel, and feel gratified in having given someone a better earthly life? Is it because we can’t, we won’t or we don't feel we need to?

If we deeply believe Christ is the way, the truth and the life, is it OK to be satisfied with our work when one generation is still commending a false god to the next, with a completely clear conscience? I realize that I may not be seeing the whole picture. And I realize that, to some believers who were on hand to witness it, it was probably a bittersweet scene.

When it comes to “common noun” hope, no one can deny that World Vision is at the forefront of giving hope to thousands who need it. But the burden of my post (and my heart, at this moment) is: who will now give the people Hope? Hope in the life to come? Hope that Christ said can only come through Him? Hope that can sleep at night knowing that from His fullness we have received grace upon grace? Hope that rejoices that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ? Hope that lets goods and kindred go, and delights in Christ and the glory to come when suffering comes?

I don’t believe it’s arrogant to commend Christ as our only Hope in and through our physical dispensations of hope. In fact, Hope is a debt we owe those who are without hope. It isn’t either/or. It is both/and. Some say they’re one and the same. I can’t, in good conscience, go that far.

I’m wrestling with that piece. Maybe I just haven’t heard those stories yet. I’m hoping to hear some of them yet this week. And I’m praying that just as hope has come to this ADP, Hope will come, too. I believe that it will. I believe that it can. From the sound of it, I believe that it still needs to.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Half of Me Is In Sri Lanka with the #WVbloggers

On Thursday, I pulled up to a vacant stretch of oily, scuffed curb at the Delta terminal. I put the van in park, clasped Joy's hand tightly, and stumbled through an impromptu prayer for safety, stamina and success on her 9-day trip to Sri Lanka.

There were no tears to mark the moment—just a lot of smiles, kisses and long hugs. We’d been preparing for this moment, and both knew it was the right thing to do from the beginning.

I got her all situated on the curb, gave her one last long hug, and slowly drove away. As I watched her disappear through the revolving doors in my rear view mirror, it was like I was watching half of myself in the mirror. And I’ve been half here, half there ever since.

On the drive home, I tried to imagine all that my soul mate would see over the next nine days: Regions of the world where rest is an exception, and not a rule. Families whose food and water is scarce, and survival is the biggest thing on their minds. People who live on pennies a day, yet still manage to smile and run and jump and play. Children whose chances of getting an education are as slim as their malnourished bodies. Souls who need a Savior, and who need to first see Him on display in selfless acts of love.

Practically speaking, half of me is in Sri Lanka. As I keep things going at home, I feel a persistent tug toward the East. I have calculated her local time countless times. I take in her texts and photos like fine wine. This is good for each of us. This is good for both of us.

Will you join me in praying for the World Vision Bloggers? Big prayers?

Ask God to use those who have been sent to advance World Vision’s sponsorship success in Sri Lanka beyond imagination. Ask that this trip be an historic week in the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands in need. Pray that this week will be looked back on for generations as the week hope came to the people of Sri Lanka, as it had never come before. And most of all, pray that the team's presence, and their acts of love, might till more ground so that more people will receive the gospel of Jesus Christ.

And if God has moved you to sponsor a child in Sri Lanka, you can do that here.

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” Romans 10:14-15

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

This Is Too Wonderful For Me

Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it. Psalm 139:4-6

Sometimes God opens up our field of vision to see how His hand has intricately guided our past to the point where we are today. Sometimes, He allows us to see how each trial, each challenge, each strength—even each weakness—was uniquely and wonderfully fashioned for such a time as this.

That's when you realize that this is no coincidence; it's a culmination.

I start to feel that same sense of awe when I watch what God is doing through my wife, Joy. For the second consecutive year, she has been given the opportunity to travel as a guest writer with World Vision to one of the poorest places on earth. Later this month, she’ll be traveling with 8 other bloggers to see the needs in Sri Lanka, speak about what World Vision is doing to relieve suffering, and summon everyone within the sound of her voice to help—now.

I am not only accepting of this trip; I'm excited and honored to be holding the ropes for her back home. 

But more than that, I can look back on the 16 years I have known Joy, and nod with a smile as I ponder the way God has been fashioning her for this trip, as only He can.

One of the things that first attracted me to Joy was a youthful, upbeat fearlessness unlike any woman I had ever known. As a Sophomore in college, she was an RA in her dorm, dealing with 8 other girls’ messy breakups, curfew violations and ongoing struggles. She was involved in too many extracurricular activities to name. Yet, she always seemed to be smiling, two steps ahead of everyone around her, and getting good grades.

In the Spring of her Junior year, she landed an internship with the Manhattan agency I was working for, after fearlessly and confidently introducing herself to my management at a campus career fair. I remember the solemnity of the moment when I discovered that she and I would be working shoulder-to-shoulder all that summer. In a strange sort of way, that’s when I knew I would marry her. There was something about her. I didn’t know a lot of small-town women who would dive head first into an internship in New York City with such determination and fearlessness.

Joy with our daughter, Elli, who died
in 2008 at the age of 8.
But Joy’s relentless determination to face fear in those first years was nothing. She’s had to face unthinkable grief as a mother, and unrelenting criticism as a blogger. 

There have been many long days of sobs at Elli's graveside, when the fog would not lift. And there have been days when her mouse pointer hovered over the button that would put a final end to the blog she had poured herself into, because the pressure to stop being real got too intense.

It is no accident that God has allowed Joy to know unusual hardship in her life. As is the case with all who are in Christ, her challenges and suffering have proven to be divinely-appointed preparation for more fruitful ministry down the road. 

As her husband, I can see so clearly that these World Vision trips are such-a-time-as-this moments for her.

In her hardships, the God Of All Comfort has given her plenty of comfort to go around. Having known the pain of loss—and the strength that God supplied in her suffering—she can step onto Sri Lankan soil and better understand the plight of its people. She can kneel down in the dirt and embrace the child who has never known a day of ease. She can feel a connection with the woman whose calloused hands give every waking moment to the survival of her family.

Having watched her life for 16 years, I can see how Joy’s experiences uniquely suited her for her trip to Bolivia last year, and for the trip she’s about to take to Sri Lanka later this month.

This is why I’m confident that she will have the grace to face the inevitable fear and uncertainty that comes with traveling to the opposite side of the world for the first time; that she will see the needs in Sri Lanka with fresh eyes; and that she will use her words to break through the barriers her readers may have to helping. And she’ll do it with the same confidence she’s had all along.

This is too wonderful for me.