It’s hard not to want to soften the edges of the Sermon on the Mount becuase I really don’t think sin is so much more terrible than losing a limb. If I’m going to misread the text, it won’t be by cuting off my hand. It’ll be by blunting the message to salve my conscience.
Matthew 5:28-30 “If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.”
While browsing the news on cnn.com a couple days ago, I came across this article about how detainees at Gitmo were forced to listen to music at loud volumes in an attempt to get them to talk. So I began wondering what my torture playlist would be. Here’s what would make me tell all faster than a mockingbird:
1. The Meow-Mix Jingle (Perhaps the most loathsome jingle created in the history of mankind. Worse, the entire thing is meowed by a cat, which means that it transcends any language barrier. I’m in the middle of watching season 5 of 24, and I’m just waiting for the time when Jack Bauer yells “We don’t have time to break him through interrogation! Bring out the Meow-Mix Jingle.” Because it would work.)
2. Sandstorm by Darude (I’ve had some experience with this, as about a 15 second clip from it is looped in the line for Scream at Six Flags.)
3. I’m Blue by Eiffel 65 (The world motto my eighth grade year was “If it ain’t Eiffel 65, it ain’t music.)
4. All These Things That I Have Done by The Killers (Thanks Andrew M.)
5. Paper Planes by MIA (Made popular by Slumdog Millionaire, the cash register and gunshots are a little bit over the top.)
6. Dueling Banjos (Hey…let’s play the same six notes over and over and over again for 4 minutes and call it a song!)
7. Lost in the 50s Tonight by Ronnie Milsap (Had to sing this as a solo in choir one year. Unfortunately I still remember the song 6 years later.)
8. The entire Nu Thang album by dc Talk.
9. All Creatures of Our God and King by St. Francis of Assisi (I feel bad for including a hymn with some great truth in it, but I really cannot see why this song has survived for 4 centuries.)
10. Honkey Tonk USA (I don’t know the artist, but the genre was country. This is what they play at gas stations in western Nebraska. That should tell you enough.)
1. It has become incredibly trendy to portray Jesus primarily as a Jewish rabbi. It seems to be assumed that we can only truly understand Jesus if we dive into His culture and cultural conditioning, as His true and pure message is obscured by our Western way of thinking. While Jesus certainly did minister within a particular cultural context, He did not teach His message in such a way that only that particular culture could understand it. The gospel is transcultural. And Jesus Christ preached it that way. He, the One who has declared the end from the beginning, intentionally spoke with you and me in mind, 200+ years after He physically walked the earth. While the average man off the streets of Nazareth would be practically unable to function in our world today (without a lot of tutoring), the gospel itself is just as clear, relevant, and effective for changing lives as it ever has been. Over-Judaizing Jesus does nothing but obscure the life-giving message that the world desperately needs to hear.
2. We are meant to intensely long for heaven. There’s a young man in the youth group who has a front-row ticket to a concert by his favorite band. I know this because he mentions it almost every time I see him. He lives with great expectation that very soon he will participate in something he’s waited a long time for. Longing for heaven in like that. It’s understanding that even the greatest joy I’ve ever had on this earth is but there merest shadow of what awaits. Heaven is my home. It is my hope. And this allows me to bear much more than I could otherwise. Sickness isn’t so defeating when I see that one day, very soon I will be free of it. I can bear the constant frustrations of wrestling with entangling sin because I know that one day soon there will be no more roller coaster victory-defeat-victory-defeat pattern, the joy of triumph. Persecution, betrayal, loneliness, pain, suffering, grief–it’s not all that bad because one day, very soon it will all end. And not just be taken away. But rather replaced by joy that is so great I could never describe it.
3. It is hard to be biblical while teaching topically. It is so easy to bend texts to make them say what I want them to say; to search for translations that give the nuances I’ve already determined I want to draw out before considering what the text really has to say. It’s incredibly easy to teach an entirely biblical message and do the Bible a great injustice. To do so is to preach my own insight and wisdom, not the Word. And my insight and wisdom has no staying power, no ability to change lives. It is only the Word of God that is sharper than any two-edged sword, able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. If I do anything other than bring the Word and nothing but the Word to bear on people’s lives, then I’m failing as a teacher. Illustrations, examples, humor–all is good, but only if it is used to drive home the message.
4. The Lord has been teaching me much about contentment. It is not easy to graduate from Master’s. It’s hard to leave behind the conversations in the dorms and the small groups and the close-knit friendships established by walking with one another in every aspect of life through thick and thin. It is so easy to find joy and happiness in that rather than in the Lord Himself. The church is a very different community than the college. There’s more space in between peoples’ lives. It’s harder to get to know somebody on an intimate level. And that’s hard to get used to. In some ways I don’t want to get used to it. Having seen the transforming power of God displayed through friendships I see the potential in the church for a wise, self-sacrificing, other-sanctifying culture. Because there is a lot of wisdom that exists in the church that does not exist in a college culture where everyone is between the ages of 17 and 23. The difficulty in college is finding wisdom. The difficulty in the church is tapping into that wisdom. My church has just started a men’s discipleship program, and I’m excited to see us taking the step of being intentional in our relationships. The people of God have so much to offer one another.
5. A man I really respect said this about personal devotions: “It’s one thing to give the church’s time to your walk with the Lord. It’s another to give your time to your walk with the Lord.” It is hard to come home after studying at the church and jump into the Word again, this time for myself. While I think there certainly is an overlap between personal devotions and preparation for a sermon or message, it just isn’t the same thing. In order for me to preach passionately, I must have had my heart pierced by the Word, my complacent sinfulness rubbed against the ragged-edged purity of God’s truth. And yet, it is so, so easy to professionalize brokenness and contriteness of spirit. To be in the Word only in the office is to functionally compartmentalize my life. And the heart always follows what you functionally do. If my life outside the pulpit is to be vibrant with the truth of God’s Word, I must be immersing myself within the truth of God’s Word outside the pulpit.
6. I’m outside on my back porch and coyotes just began howling. I hate being alone outside in the dark. And I hate coyotes. I’m now inside where it’s nice and bright and they can’t get me, unless these particular coyotes descended from those half-crazed The Day After Tomorrow wolves.
A couple days ago I finished reading Three Cups of Tea, a book about a mountain-climber turned philanthropic school builder in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. It’s been on the New York Times #1 Bestseller list for a while (as evidenced by the fact that my library chain has an
unheard of 23 copies of the book!)
After giving up his hope of making it to the summit of K2 in order to save the life of an altitude-sick fellow climber, Greg Mortensen gets lost during the descent. He winds up in a remote village of Korphe, where he is cared for by the chief’s family. After learning that the children of the village have no school, Mortensen promises to raise money in order to build them a schoolhouse and hire a teacher.
So begins a twisting journey through Islamic customs, Taliban threats, corruption, and the transition from the pre- to post-9/11 Islamic world. By the end of the book, Mortensen not only has built the Korphe village school, but also oversees nearly 100 other schools and institutions that his organization has built.
Three Cups of Tea is a challenging book to read. Not in a literary sense, but rather in a philosophic sense. What Mortensen has done is simply incredible. His passion and devotion to seeing children forgotten by the world receive an education produces a dogged determination that shames my own work ethic.
Twice Mortensen had a fatwah (labeling him to be an outlaw who could be killed on sight) issued against him by jealous or corrupt clerics. Despite the danger to his own personal safety, he continued to labor to build schools, and eventually the fatwahs were dismissed by Islamic religious panels.
Though he is considered an infidel by the Muslims in the book, repeatedly they allow him to continue his work because his schools because they push no religious instruction, but rather remain faithful to Islam. Mortensen argues that education will ultimately defeat Islamic extremism. Oftentimes the only education provided in the rural regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan is steeped in religious extremism. By building schools that are focused on true education–reading, writing, mathematics, science, etc.–religious extremist schools will be forced “out of business” so to speak.
This book has challenged my thinking about overseas missions and evangelism. A Christian simply could not have accomplished what Mortensen has been able to do. Though not Muslim himself, Mortensen has no trouble practicing the prayer rituals of Islam alongside his friends and contacts in Pakistan. As Christians, we simply can’t do that! And for good reason! And yet the results–education that will raise the living standards of thousands of children–make tolerance attractive as a way of life.
And yet, we can’t live that way. The gospel is a way of life. It is what motivates us to care for the poor and the suffering and to seek to help those in physical distress. But the same thing that compels us to live that lifestyle also compels us to open our mouths and share the even better news of Jesus Christ. If we minister to the physical side only, we are not serving the Lord Jesus Christ for we are called to be watchmen warning of the impending fires of Hell (Ezekiel 33-34).
Christ-centered missions will always be balanced between relieving both the physical suffering and the spiritual suffering of people. There are equal dangers on both sides of the highway. To seek to minister only to the physical is to ignore the oncoming reality of eternal judgment. To minister only to the spiritual is to ignore the fact that authentic faith always motivates to action on behalf of the suffering, not just a “be warmed and filled and go in peace” shout as they head back out into the cold.
If you get the chance, read this book. It will challenge you. Most of us won’t agree with a number of conclusions Mortensen draws. But better than simply reinforcing everything you already believe, it will force you to think about how we ought to evangelize a window that is vehemently opposed to the gospel. I hope that Christians will read this best-seller and think about the call to evangelize every tribe, tongue, and nation.
The question is, are we willing to go where the conclusion leads us?