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Expelled from China

After the closing prayer on Easter Sunday, police raided a local Chinese church in the city of Harbin. They interrogated the members and took the church leadership into custody. A sister church experienced the same type of invasion shortly thereafter.

Among those arrested were two Chinese pastors and two foreign missionaries. My friends, Jake and John, were the key suspects in the investigation. The questioning lasted for several days requiring all of them to make regular and lengthy visits to the local police station. They told the truth about who they were and what they were doing.

After several days of wondering what would be the final verdict, Jake and John were told that they have ten days to leave the country. Although the Chinese pastors were released, they are mourning the imminent departure of their close friends and mentors.

Over the past several years the Lord has used all of these men greatly in China. Currently four healthy churches, which did not exist before Jake’s arrival, are now strong and growing. I am always amazed, but never surprised, by how the Lord uses these men in China.

Please pray for them as they make this transition. Jake and John need wisdom in knowing what step to take next, and the believers in China need encouragement knowing that the Lord will use this experience for His honor and glory. China needs more men like this who have the courage and determination to preach the gospel at any cost. Will you take their place? Will you have a part in sending others to continue the work?

Check out http://www.projectchina.org to learn more about the ministry and how you can help during this time.

Consider supporting Jake and John as they are forced to move everything they own from China back to the States.

Write and encourage the Chinese believers as they seek the Lord’s wisdom in the next steps for the church.

Consider helping two other men, Ben and Ed, who are currently preparing to work in China. See http://austingardner.net/ for more information.

This isn’t some story from an old book. This is happening now! Decide today what part you will have in God’s story in China.

 

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Posted by on April 25, 2014 in General, Personal Notes

 

Captain of the Distressed and the Son of Consolation

What is the ultimate objective of a true leader? Many mistake “dictatorship” for leadership, and praise those with an insatiable thirst for control as natural born leaders. In the world’s system, this individual pushes his way to the front, always gets his way, and is marked by having others serve him. But in the seemingly paradoxical philosophy of Jesus, the first are last and the last are first (Matt. 20:25-28; Mark 9:35). A true spiritual leader is one who gives his life to serve others, not to be served. The goal is to make someone else a success.

In the Bible, two individuals stand out to me as excellent examples of genuine leaders. David was arguably the greatest king and leader of Israel in the Old Testament. Through all of the drama and tragedy that he experienced and even participated in, the Lord continuously referred to him as a man after His own heart. God even sets him as a standard for succeeding kings (1 Kings 9:4; 11:38; 2 Kings 14:3; 16:2; 2 Chro. 7:17; 28:1). We read about him as a lowly shepherd and then see him as a great king, but what took place in the decades between the flock and the kingdom? How did he rise to the level of a national hero and what did he consider to be his role?

We see his first significant following came from a very unexpected group of people. David’s influence begins in 1 Samuel 22:2 when he was fleeing for his life and “every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him; and he became a captain over them: and there were with him about four hundred men.” Instead of trying to schmooze the influential potentates of his day, David sought to serve those who were suffering as much if not more than he was. He didn’t sulk in his misfortune; he gave hope to those who were discouraged. David “served” his generation rather than demanding that his people serve him (see Acts 13:36). Many individuals who were social outcasts became mighty men and leaders in the same nation where they were originally rejected. David used his power to serve others and help them reach their full potential.

We read about the next individual in the New Testament. He doesn’t usually get much attention as a leader, but in my opinion, outside of Jesus, he is probably the best example of a leader trainer in the New Testament. His name was Joses, but most people know him by his nickname, Barnabas, which means the son of consolation. Although he did not pen a single word of Scripture, he is responsible in many ways for at least fourteen books of the Bible.

Usually people present him as a good “second man,” and an outstanding example for Christians who are not naturally strong leaders. If your leadership philosophy is to push your way to the front and get recognized, then you would probably agree. However, if you take into account Christ’s teaching, he is a perfect example of what we should strive for in our own life and ministry.

Considering his wealth and social status he probably was well respected and powerful in his community, but he chose to give it up, sell everything that he had, and give it to the church. We then see him taking in a feared social reject and former terrorist. Barnabas shared his life and ministry with Saul, and successfully phased out shortly after he became known as Paul. He went on to do the same thing with his cousin, John Mark, who wrote one of the four gospels.

I’m convinced that Barnabas could have become the pastor of a mega church in Antioch, but he understood his mission as being the son of consolation. He chose to make other men a success and phase out rather than attempting to take the glory and become the famous evangelist and writer himself. He was a great leader because he used his influence to serve others. Barnabas was a leader of leaders and influenced the influencers. He put Christ’s true leadership principles to practice and made an eternal difference. Barnabas is a great example of what every “first man” should strive to be.

When we think about our individual roles as leaders, let’s consider these two men and their styles of leadership. Jesus’ teaching and example of true greatness is still our standard and ultimate ministry paradigm for servant leaders and leader trainers. We succeed when we help others become a success. Find some distressed and discouraged individuals, dedicate your life to making them a success, and become a child of consolation.

 
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Posted by on August 4, 2013 in General

 

The Best of the World

I’m not sure exactly when or even how it came about that Gretchen and I started referring to the other as “the best of the world,” but it stuck. A friend of mine, Trent Cornwell, once made the comment that the only valid reason for two people to get married is because they become more effective in their worship and service for the Lord when they are together. Somehow within our twisted modern culture we get so focused on individuality that we lose sight of the true value and strength of a godly marriage. When we understand the profound truth of “two becoming one,” we realize that in fact we do not lose our personal identity through marriage, but on the contrary we become more dynamic in our individuality through our spouse.

Enough preaching for now… I just want take a minute to brag about my wife.

In the ministry there is an extraordinary amount of pressure to perform. Everybody has their own opinion as to what is expected of individuals who are in leadership. That should come as no surprise to those of us who willingly chose to pursue this calling in life; however we must be careful not to impose the expectations of others upon our own families.

Gretchen is unquestionably “the best of the world” for me, and I thank God for bringing her into my life. No one else compares to her. She is exactly what I need as a wife, and we would not be as effective in either worship or service if she (or I) were any different.  I do not need my wife to be my assistant pastor or even my secretary. That may be what some other men want or need, but that would absolutely drive me crazy and do more harm than help.

Forcing Gretchen to perform in any of those areas would dilute her true ministry… our family. I have a wife and our kids have a mom. She is vital in the work that God has called us to. Society depreciates the value of this God ordained position, and we have bought into the lie that being a mother and a wife is somehow a second rate and even an oppressive position. What the spiritually dead world despises, the Lord has elevated to a place of honor. The first commission in the Bible was given to the family, not government, or even the church! What a pathetic testimony it would be for us to spend our life teaching others while neglecting our own children. They are our first disciples.

In spite of the unsolicited opinions of the undiscerning, Gretchen has been the most successful individual in her field of work than anyone else that I know. When I travel, our children say that I am on a trip, but when my wife travels our children say that their “mommy is lost.” We all sense that something is missing in the home when she is not here. Being a wife and a mother is more than a full time job. She does not clock in or out of work. She goes from one responsibility to another, and then at the end of the day she spends her time getting things ready to do it all again the next day. That has to be more frustrating than working for the post office!!!

On top of all of that, she has learned Spanish, communicates well in Arabic, and shares Christ with others. When I think about the life she has I am overwhelmed at how gracefully she handles the day to day pressures. Putting up with me alone is enough to drive an average human being insane, but somehow she seems to actually enjoy it. It definitely isn’t me, it’s her.

Together we are stronger than we were as singles, and as we daily learn more about each other, we become more effective in fulfilling our purpose here on earth. Our hope and prayer is that Christ will be glorified through our life and ministry together. Gretchen is the perfect person for me, and I don’t want her to be anyone else. She is “the best of the world.”

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2012 in General, Personal Notes

 

Christmas Eve in Romania

The following is from the December 1983 issue of a periodical called “A Bible for Russia”:

CHRISTMAS was not to be the same this year. Isolated from the rest of
the outside world, it was difficult with the seven children to
celebrate the birth of Jesus when their stomachs were empty. There
were no decorations, no brightly lit candles, no Christmas tree, no
cookies and no beautifully wrapped gifts to exchange. The children
were just as hungry today as any other day. Soon, Dad would be telling
the children about the Messiah, born in a manger, much like the little
hut they lived in.

This father, mother and their seven children (all under 14) were
banished into exile in the far reaches of an uninhabited part of the
country. The Communist authorities hated the father because of his
convicting preaching. He was nicknamed by the believers “The Golden
Word” because of his eloquence. They were forced to move to a little
village inaccessible by car or train. What little food they were given
was flown in by helicopter. They lived in a tiny hut with a straw
roof, under constant surveillance of the prison guards.

The village was established for those “undesirables” of society, which
included “religious fanatics”. The stinging chill was made worse by
the wind whipping snow across the flat barren land, unbroken by hills,
and whistling its song through every crack and crevice in the small
hut. For two days now the guards had not bothered to bring them any
food. They were too busy preparing their own celebration with wine and
pork.

The children listened intently to their father telling them the story
of Jesus as they huddled together around the dim light of the gas
lantern on the table. They were so intent, they forgot about their
hunger. But when the story was over, one after the other began to cry.
Before going to bed that Christmas Eve, the whole family knelt down on
the dirt floor and prayed as never before: “Our Father, which art in
Heaven…give us this day our daily bread.”

After they finished their prayer and said “Amen”, the children asked
their mother and father many questions.

“Do you think God heard our prayer?”
“Of course He did.”
“But what if He didn’t hear it?”
“That isn’t possible.”
“Do you think He will send us bread?” they asked.
“Yes, I’m sure He will,” said the father.
“But when?” they cried.

The parents, heartbroken to see their children crying from hunger
could not answer. The children continued, “Who will He send to bring
us bread?”

“He will find someone,” said the father reassuringly.

“But what if He doesn’t find anyone?”

“Well then…” the father paused, “He Himself will bring it with His
own hand. Now close your eyes and go to sleep.”

The father blew out the little lantern as darkness descended on them
and the wind whistled to them in their sleep. Suddenly, the still
darkness was shattered. A knock at the door!

The father got out of bed and opened the door just a crack to keep the
cold from blowing inside. A hand holding a large loaf of bread was
stretched toward him. His heart pounding, the father reached out to
take the bread, and at the same time opened the door widely to say
thank you. But at that very moment, in the twinkling of an eye, the
hand was gone. There was no one there. Bewildered, the father closed
the door and turned around. All seven children leaped out of bed and
surrounded him.

“Who was it, Father?” Who gave you the bread?”

“Children”, he said with a tremble in his voice, “the Lord did not
find anyone to send to us with bread, so He Himself came and gave it
to us with His own hand.”

Nobody could sleep anymore that Christmas Eve. The children couldn’t
stop singing about Jesus and about how the Lord had spread a table for
them in the wilderness.

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2011 in General

 

Look Up Not Within

As an introvert, my natural tendency is to withdraw from people and avoid uncomfortable encounters with other individuals (i.e. any conversation with anyone). A difficult reality for someone like me to accept is that diffidence by nature is arrogance cloaked in artificial humility. The fear of man drives us to dwell in obscurity, and our anxiety over the opinions of others petrifies us. We spend most of our lives consumed with our imperfections and work hard at hiding them from the rest of the world. Christ is the only one who can free us from the bondage of self consumption.

The Lord carefully formed each of us and intentionally designed every individual with unique strengths and weaknesses. Too often we waste our lives constantly complaining about inherent traits that we did not choose to possess nor can we choose to eradicate them. We spend such an excessive amount of time evaluating ourselves and dwelling on our own imperfections that we render ourselves useless to the world. Only when we recognize the hand of God in our lives and search for opportunities to give Him glory through what He has given us will we begin to live a life with real purpose. Our hope is in Him not in ourselves.

We must recognize and accept that we exist to glorify God (Revelation 4:11). A life lived for any other reason will always feel empty and incomplete. This is why so many people fall into depression and set out to “find themselves.” Regardless of their salary, fame, or even how many grandchildren they have, deep down inside something tells them, “There must be more to life.” The most common mistake in these cases is that we tend to look inside ourselves for the answers when we should be looking to our Creator. Even though it feels uncomfortable, it is actually an act of grace. God is speaking to you and trying to get you to realize that there is no true joy outside of Him. Fellowship with the Lord is the oxygen of our soul. Without it, we will suffocate spiritually.

In Christ, we have a supernatural ability to overcome our own thoughts. We do not always control what goes in our minds, but we decide what stays. Most of our problems in life begin with dwelling on wrong thoughts. Philippians 4:8 tells us “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true… honest… just… pure… lovely… of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

It is easy for us to see the negatives. We phlegmatics are experts at that. We thrive on pointing out problems and imperfections. In this passage of Scripture the Lord commands us to make a practice of focussing on the positives. He says, “If there be ANY virtue, and if there be ANY praise, think on these things.” If a situation is 99.9% negative He says to think about the 0.1%. Why? Because dwelling on problems produces fear, and fear is a lack of faith. And “without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Hebrews 11:6).

We need to see the positive potential in every characteristic that God has molded into us and then ask, “How can I give Him glory through this.” The areas in which we are the weakest yield the most potential to magnify our Lord. He chose the foolish things of this world to confound the wise and the weak things to confound the strong (1 Corinthians 1:27). We, like Paul, should glory in our infirmities because they are what constantly remind us that we are completely dependent upon the Lord.

Psychology does not define who we are or what our potential is. God alone reserves the right to order and direct our paths.

Stop looking within yourself, and look to Christ. All of the answers that you are looking for are found in Him.

Quit worrying about what everyone else thinks about you and strive to live a life that pleases God. He is the only one that matters.

Accept who He made you to be, and thank Him for it.

Dwell on the positive and invest what you have.

Spend less time evaluating yourself and more time reflecting on the cross.

God gave us gifts, talents, strengths, and weaknesses intentionally to use for His glory. Let’s look for opportunities to invest what we have to serve Him and others.

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2011 in General, Personal Notes

 

Giving for Cholerics

Here is the exact same story rewritten for all of my choleric friends out there. It contains fewer adjective and adverbs and is written in a format that you should find bearable. This version will make more sense to all of you who view life in outline form and through bullet points:

  • I love peanut butter M&M’s
  • My daughter likes them too.
  • I gave her some without her asking for them.
  • I told her “… Just because I love you.”
  • Norah gave some back and said, “… Just because I love you, too.”
  • Giving should not be compulsory; it should be out of love and gratitude.
 
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Posted by on December 5, 2011 in General, Personal Notes

 

Give Like a 4 Year Old

Norah taught me an important lesson about giving the other day in a way that only a four year old could.

When my parents came to visit a few weeks ago, they brought a giant bag of peanut butter M&M’s. I’m not typically possessive of food, but this culinary luxury is my absolute favorite candy and it is impossible to find anywhere in the world besides the U.S.

One night I stealthily snuck into kitchen cabinets to indulge in junk food bliss. When I turned around I was surprised to see Norah standing there in her pajamas. She only wanted a drink of water and asked for it sweetly. Suddenly an unnatural impulse came over me and I grabbed a handful of M&M’s and put them in her hands. I told her, “Here you go, Norah. Just because I love you.”

She seemed a little shocked since she didn’t even ask for them and just stood there for a second staring at her hands. Suddenly a huge smile came across her face and she picked up a few with her tiny fingers and handed them back to me. She said, “Here you go, Daddy. Just because I love you, too.”

I didn’t demand 10% of her M&M’s from her and then put her on a guilt trip until she finally paid up. She realized that I gave her something of mine so she could enjoy it, and she didn’t do anything to deserve it. She didn’t even ask for it. Norah responded to love by showing love and giving back a portion of what was given to her. I had the entire bag to myself, and I didn’t even need her little offering. But I took it anyway and for some reason those three little M&M’s were the sweetest that I’ve ever eaten.

 
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Posted by on December 4, 2011 in General, Personal Notes