Tag Archives: missions

Follow Me

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On Thursday I watched the new Martin Scorsese movie Silence. It’s about two Portuguese Jesuit missionaries who travel to Japan during a time of intense persecution of Christians. Many Japanese were tortured and killed for their faith. Many more gave up their faith to avoid persecution. At the climax of the movie, one of the missionaries is given a choice – renounce his faith and save the lives of five Japanese Christians or keep his faith and watch them die a cruel and painful death. I won’t spoil the ending by telling you what he did, but I will say that it was a difficult film to watch at times.

Like the missionaries in the movie, the earliest disciples had no idea what they were getting themselves into when Jesus called them. The first four, two sets of brothers, were all fishermen: Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Matthew 4:18-22 tells the story. What’s impressive is how these men left their nets and followed Jesus IMMEDIATELY when Jesus came and said to them, “Follow me.” Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Traveling from town to town with a rabbi must have sounded better than doing the same strenuous work day after day. To be sure, Jesus didn’t promise them a rose garden. Not by any means. But he did promise that they’d still be fishermen of sorts. Only instead of catching fish, they’d catch people for God.

I often wish God’s call to me were as clear as the one the disciples received by the lakeshore. Before I went to seminary, I struggled with my calling. I thought I might want to become a psychologist instead of a minster, so I enrolled in a psychology class at the local community college and applied for a graduate studies program in counseling psychology at the University of Florida. In the end, I decided to go into the ministry instead. My wife Amelia and I hitched a U-Haul trailer to our 1974 Chevy Impala, loaded up our furniture and personal belongings, and drove from Florida to North Carolina where I enrolled in seminary. I’d like to tell you that making that leap of faith settled all doubt about my calling. It did not. I continued to struggle with the question of what God wanted me to be. A missionary? A pastor? A Navy chaplain? A college or seminary professor? I didn’t know. I’ve done all those things except for being a missionary. I’ve found good in all of them. I’ve sensed God’s blessing in all of them. But I’ve never heard a voice telling me, “This is the way, walk in it.”

One thing that God has been teaching me lately is the difference between being and doing. Who I am is more important that what I do. God calls everyone to follow him. For some that involves leaving everything and entering full-time ministry like the Jesuit missionaries in the movie Silence. For many following Jesus means being a faithful witness right where we are. No change of employment. No new address. The important thing is that we’re living for Jesus now – this day, in this moment.

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Into Africa

tree of life

Tree of Life, Walt Disney World

The one thing predictable about life is its unpredictability. Since my last post – a while ago, I know – I’ve embarked on an unexpected, and in some ways unwanted, journey. I use the word “journey” literally, not just metaphorically.

I left my church on June 19 for an involuntary, yearlong mobilization and deployment to Djibouti, Africa where I serve as the senior US military chaplain. (If your African geography is as shaky as mine, I’ll give you some help: Djibouti is surrounded by the countries of Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea in the so-called Horn of Africa.) Camp Lemonnier, my new duty station, is a US Navy base with over 4,000 personnel aboard, including all branches of our military, foreign military personnel, and civilians.

I arrived in Djibouti on July 16 and have adjusted to the time difference and extreme climate, for the most part (“extreme” as in extremely hot). Part of my job is traveling to wherever we have even a small number of US troops. I’ve already been on two trips: a brief one to Mogadishu, Somalia (called “the most dangerous city in the world”) and a longer stop at a base in Kenya where I saw scenes that looked straight out of The Lion King: a giant crane soars majestically over an ancient thick-trunked Tree of Life, curious little black-faced monkeys scamper around the camp looking for scraps of food, a small antelope called a dik-dik bounds through the jungle.

But, as exotic as the wildlife is, by far the greater experience has been meeting people from all walks of life: military and civilian, career military and reservists, male and female, young and old, people of all nationalities from all parts of the globe—more diverse than the flora and fauna of Africa.

I’ve often said the greatest joy of ministry is dealing with people, and the greatest challenge of ministry is dealing with people. That’s true here too, though so far the joys far outweigh the challenges.Moger in Somalia

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What Good Is Religion?

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A few weeks ago I received a hostile comment about religion on my blog from someone who accidentally stumbled upon it. I chose not to post it. Instead I sent an email to the person who wrote it, asking for clarification. I received a long and thoughtful reply, explaining that the author isn’t against people of faith, only organized religion. “I’m spiritual but not religious” has become a modern mantra. It’s made me wonder, Is personal faith enough? What good is organized religion? Is religion better than irreligion? Here’s my attempt to answer these important questions.

For starters, I reject the dichotomy between faith and religion that has become popular in Protestant Christianity since the twentieth-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth first drew the distinction. Just as you can’t have an army of one (despite what the US Army’s recruiting ads say) you can’t have a religion of one. Faith is by its nature a group activity. There’s certainly a place for the private practice of one’s faith. Everyone needs time alone to study and pray. But it’s misguided (if not arrogant) for individuals to think that they can attain to the truth about ultimate reality on their own or even live as persons of moral and spiritual integrity without a community of faith to support and guide them.

I will admit that not all religion is good. That’s true of any human activity. Not all government is good. Not all education is good. Not all medical treatment is good. Institutions are only as good as the people in them and saints are in short supply.

One of the most pervasive myths of the modern age is that religion has caused most of the wars and violence in the history of the world. It’s not true. Indeed irreligious people have arguably caused more death and destruction than religious people ever did.  Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong are prime examples. Religion certainly has had a hand in war and other social evils like slavery and persecution, but it hasn’t been the sole or even primary cause of them. Complex social ills like war and slavery never have a single cause. It’s wrong to blame them all on religion.

Keep in mind that religious people use religious language to justify their choices – some good, some bad, some neutral – even when the underlying cause is something else. Although economics made slavery lucrative and therefore desirable, the institution was both defended and condemned in religious language by people of faith on both sides of the debate.

Organized religion has given the world a host of institutions that have made life better. Secular humanists didn’t invent the university; the Catholic Church did. Long before the Enlightenment there were hospitals, hospices, orphanages, schools, homeless shelters, and a host of other charitable organizations paid for and run by churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques. Christian missionaries are often condemned for exporting western culture to the non-western world, and it’s true they did. But they also exported western medicine which saved countless lives. Recently I read that by 1938 there were over 1,000 hospitals around the world founded by missionaries. Even today the only food pantry in my town was founded by six local churches, not secular institutions or humanist societies.

My roommate in college was Cambodian. He fled the killing fields of Pol Pot before migrating to the US. He learned to read in a Buddhist monastery and learned English at a Baptist church. A Protestant missionary named Frank Laubach, developed a literacy program that taught teachers how to teach reading. Millions of people in dozens of countries learned to read through this program – a program born out of a desire to spread the Christian faith. Religion teaches more than dogma. It teaches compassion and the obligation to be good and act benevolently toward others.

Even atheists and agnostics have inherited the bulk of their morality from religion. Organized religion gave us principles such as the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” The great legal traditions all flow from organized religion. Hammurabi, Moses, and Justinian all credited the Divine as the source of their laws. For a millennium and a half before Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto, Christian monks and nuns had renounced private property and were living communal lives. The monastic traditions of Christianity and other religions have stood the test of time in a way that secular communism has not. The ethical code of secular humanism is largely the product of organized religion.

Government has been taking over the charitable work once left to religious institutions, and some might argue that organized religion has outlived its usefulness. However, if all of the faith-based schools and charities were removed from the earth, there’d be a humanity gap bigger than all the non-religious organizations and governments could fill. Even if they could, religion meets needs that other institutions can’t.

Religion creates communities and spaces that bind us together with other people in ways that civic organizations can’t. The word religion comes from the Latin prefix “re-” plus “ligare,” which means to tie or bind. Religion reconnects us to God and others, making us stronger and better than we are alone. Religion ritualizes all the stages of life. It teaches us how to celebrate new life and how to grieve when life comes to an end. It points us toward ultimate meaning and helps us understand transcendent things. Only religion can provide the hope of a salvation that endures beyond this material world. To irreligious people that may sound like a bunch of bunk, but everyone has a desire to find meaning that transcends the here and now.

I can love my religion while admitting its faults for the same reason Noah could love the ark despite the noise and smell. It’s not perfect but it’s better than treading water on my own.

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