Paris and 1 Peter

Another terrorist attack fills our TV screens, this time from Paris, with 17 dead. Journalists from France report the largest outpouring of solidarity demonstrations since the Second World War.

As I prepare to transition to Switzerland and serve at a school that trains predominantly French people for ministry in France, I was touched more by the attack, as well as some of the underlying tensions that it exposes in France. It’s challenging to offer a simple response as a Christian.

We should “weep with those who weep.” Tears are the better first response than cultural commentary. One article cited the words of a theologian who teaches at the Bible School of Geneva: “The most human of humans should be Christians.” This is a time to be human, with lives marked by real compassion and real grief.

The attack and the aftermath highlight that it is easy to despise those who dishonor what we hold most sacred. The magazine that was attacked, Charlie Hebdo (“Charlie Weekly”) made its niche in publishing biting satire, often with caustic illustrations and  inflammatory cartoons mocking religious or political figures, especially Christianity and Islam. One of the editors was clear about his goal, “We have to carry on until Islam has been rendered as banal as Catholicism.”

The radical Muslims who were behind the shooting, “justified” the terrorism to protect the honor of their god. This is a terrible wrong. But its hard to ignore the quasi-religious zeal behind some of the Charlie Hebdo publications. Personal freedom of expression is made sacred over everything else– no limits and no caution. Degrading articles and inflammatory cartoons serve as a zealous expression of that freedom. Some of the aggressive French satire has roots that go deep into history and originated in reaction to authoritarian abuses from the church and State.

The salvation offered in Jesus chastens this kind of reactive zeal. Jesus saved us, not by fighting shame with violence, but by going through shame with patience. One of the main features that each Gospel writer highlights in the crucifixion of Jesus is the mockery, even blasphemy, he endured. In the midst of dishonor, he demonstrated the depths of love and trust. He took on shame he didn’t deserve, to lift shame from sinners that they did deserve. In this Jesus reveals that we don’t fight to rescue God’s glory from shame, it is God’s glory that rescues us from shame.

This perspective gets practical in the book of 1 Peter. Peter calls us to follow the example of Jesus, enduring suffering by entrusting our lives to God. It’s difficult to love those who blaspheme what we passionately revere. But being united to Jesus gives us profound inner strength to be gracious, humble, and honest in the face of offense.

We live in a world with increasingly stronger religious differences. More conflict is likely to come. Jesus calls to be peacemakers, or, as one French translation beautifully puts it, “artisans de paix.”

Consider an extreme case: what if we had an editor of Charlie Hebdo as a neighbor on one side of the street and someone we viewed as a potential Muslim extremist on the other?  Over time, would they know where we stand and yet confess we were kind?  That seems to be Peter’s vision. He tells his readers to live lives of honor and good works amid those who may speak evil against us.

1 Peter 2:12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

This is possible because of Jesus. He stamped our passports with a true citizenship to a coming world where “everything will be made new” with resurrection power. That can strengthen us to be honorable and good neighbors without bitter retaliation when our God is mocked or even blasphemed. He has proved He can handle that himself.

Thoughts on « Raising Support »

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“I’d rather preach for an hour in front of a hundred people than sit down with my friend and tell him something he doesn’t want to hear.”  

My friend listened and smiled.

“Of course! Staying in your strength is always easier. But trusting God often means taking steps in areas where you feel uncomfortable.”

He was right. It’s easy to huddle near the places where we feel adequate and weasel out of facing things that expose weakness. As I transition to the mission field, I get to face a new challenge: asking people for money. It’s what Christians call “raising support.”  

I wholeheartedly believe we should invest in helping the gospel go to all nations. But often I believe that in theory or in the privacy of my own bank account. Now I have to invite others to consider investing in me.

This has got me thinking about “support raising.” Here are a few thoughts, not in any particular order, of things I am learning.

  1. Talking about money quickly exposes our worship struggle

Money can be an awkward conversation topic because money, in a mysterious way, often represents our life. Jesus tells us life involves much more than our possessions (Luke 12:22). But his words challenge a powerful and invisible assumption: that our wealth gives us our meaning, our life.

After all, money “evangelizes” better than most other alternatives to God. Wealth makes better promises than almost anything else. Think how much security, pleasure, self-worth, and meaning several million dollars that you earned could offer?  Slowly the line between our life and our wealth gets blurry. We start living for money, instead of using money to live.

We should avoid overreacting to this problem. When we do this, we can lose sight of the goodness of money. The Bible openly celebrates wealth and possessions. In the first pages of the Bible, the Garden of Eden sparkles with opulent riches and productivity. In the last pages, the New Jerusalem shines even brighter– gold is the new asphalt (Revelation 21:21).

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It is precisely because wealth is so good it is so dangerous. We are not innocent Adams and Eves, nor are we fully redeemed in the New Jerusalem. Our hearts are so prone to idolatry that wealth quickly makes us slaves without letting us know. If God took a spiritual X-ray of our hearts as modern Americans, I think we would all see more dysfunction that we would like to admit, even though we might be outspoken and passionate about the Bible’s teaching on money.

That’s one reason asking for money can be awkward. I have to confront my own messed-up heart. Have I been as generous as I am asking others to be?  Am I anxious about this process because I am trusting money to make my ministry go forward? At the same time, my request might touch my friends struggles too. I might be tempted to say, “Give because it’s easy” or “Give only if you have extra you don’t need” or to “Give out of a sense of obligation to a friend.” But that’s asking for counterfeit generosity, generosity so small and light it does not take the power of worship to lift. We win or lose this battle in our worship. True worship dethrones wealth as king, and puts God in its place. Wealth becomes our sturdy servant: good, powerful, and useful.

When our hearts praise God, we praise the most generous being alive, a triune being of infinite love. Worship like this changes giving and makes it “cheerful.”  And in that cheerfulness, talking about money becomes less awkward. After all, it’s just our servant, not our master.

  1. Giving exposes the wealth of grace

Amy Carmichael, a missionary to India, once said, “You can give without loving, but you can’t love without giving.” The first time I read it I reacted: “Of course you can love without giving.” Then Jesus came to mind. His love was always full of grace. At its core, grace is giving what others don’t deserve. In fact, one of the words in the New Testament for “gift” (charisma) is built on the word “grace” (charis).

When grace changes our hearts, our love deepens to something stronger than emotions or friendship. Christian love stands on the bedrock of grace: we want to love others by being willing to give what will bless them. This is why the lack of a generous heart reveals a poverty of grace.

In 2 Corinthians 9 Paul rebukes the wealthy Corinthians for not giving more. His strategy was unusual. He casually reminds them of the need (verses 1-4). But then he speaks to their hearts:

“For your generosity to them and to all believers will prove that you are obedient to the Good News of Christ” (verse 13).  

A lack of generosity proves we are obedient to the “bad news” of trusting our money. We let it call the shots in our lives. But generosity announces we are obeying good news: news of grace that God is working in us. And that is true riches.

3. “What some do poorly, I won’t try at all” is an unfortunate outlook

Precisely because grace is so good and so free, it is often abused. The many stories of Christian financial misconduct- some goofy, others tragic- remind us this problem is as real today as it was in Jesus’ time (Mark 12:40).

Since every ministry leader is imperfect, funds will never be used perfectly in every situation. Giving is always risky this side of heaven. But to hold back in skepticism or in fear of being disappointed, ironically, is a greater risk. It shows we are being “overcome with evil” instead of “overcoming evil with good.”

It’s easy to find bad examples- they often make juicier stories on blogs and newspapers. But if we keep our eyes open, it’s also easy to find good examples. Millions of dollars of sacrificial gifts keep thousands of godly ministries going year after year. And the cumulative force of these ministries is changing the world.

In some ways, a system that does not rely fundamentally on grace (like the free-market economic system) will better protect people from the dangers of abuse. So I think to myself, “It would be so much easier if I could earn all my income somehow and never have to look needy in front of others.” But for all the risks involved, God has chosen grace to show off his character. He calls us to live that way too– yes, with wisdom, but wisdom that tempers love, not wisdom that holds back love. If I were entirely self-sufficient, I would miss out on seeing Jesus in those who take a risk on my behalf and sacrifice to keep my ministry going.  

  1. It’s OK that fundraising is reason to connect with long-lost friends because friendships are always forged in movements

Occasionally I’ll get an email from a long-lost acquaintance asking for financial support. My cynicism reacts: “Ah, now I’m your friend now that you need money…”

Then I started building my own email list.

And I wondered, “Is anyone thinking the same thing about me? It’s true I have not really been in contact with these friends in a while and I’m sure it would have meant a lot to them if I just reached out to see how they were.”

Then I had a simple thought that liberated me and helped me add the most distant friends to my update email. Friendships are always formed around movements. Friendships don’t happen because two strangers sit down together at random and decide to be friends. We become friends because we find ourselves side-to-side engaged in something bigger than making friends (or keeping up with them). Going to school is an educational movement. We didn’t go to university with the one purpose of making friends. We went for education, and that movement aligned us with real friends. The same thing happens at church. Our mission is bigger than being a social « friend group ». As we submit to Jesus’ mission together, we connect to one another. There are many other examples: sports teams, Boy Scouts, a corporation, even marriage: they are all things bigger than just friendship, yet they unite people in profound ways.

Missions is a movement– in some ways the greatest in history. It goes back to the promise God made to Abraham that all the tribes of the world will be blessed. It will continue until Jesus returns and people from every tribe and nation gather around his throne to praise God. It’s the one story that unites all the other stories.

Financial giving and receiving is a practical way to embrace a movement, any movement. But it especially true of missions. Because of this, giving can be a way to forge friendships. Jesus says our hearts follow our money. Which means when I am asking people for support, I’m asking people for a “heart-level” connection with me. That’s exciting. More than just financial provision, I get to see God sustain and build friendships in my life.

  1. Asking people to give helps them invest in what lasts forever.

What if we found a field where whatever was planted in it would grow to last forever? And what if we had friends who had barns full of seeds, much of which was sitting on the shelves or going into soil that produced plants that only lasted for a few weeks? It would be a no-brainer. We would ask for seeds. Not because we were needy, but because we had discovered such amazing soil and we cared about our friends.

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Europe is full of rich soil where gospel seeds will grow forever. It’s a privilege to be able to plant in this soil. And it’s a privilege to challenge others to give their seeds to plant in this soil.

  1. Giving to missions (especially in Europe) is “cathedral building”

Many of the great cathedrals in Europe had a project timeline of over a hundred years. The bricklayers that laid the foundation never lived to see the building finished or hear the organ music fill the sanctuary. But they built anyway because they had long-term vision.

Missions today requires that same kind of long-term vision. There are many godly ways to invest money that offer faster “results.” Humanitarian work like building wells for fresh water, or building hospitals in places of poverty, or creating schools help us see generosity in action. Praise God for how that encourages us.

But we should also have the long-term vision that helps us invest in “cathedral projects.” Working to see a large majority of western Europeans know the gospel is one of those projects. God may bring a great revival. We hope and pray for that. But he is also glorified through the work of “cathedral builders”– people who plug away decade after decade, celebrating the small growth they see and steadfast in knowing God is up to something that will outlive our lifetimes.

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History reminds us these “cathedrals” are possible. In 1910, just 9% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa was Christian. It was a hard mission field, often called the “graveyard of missionaries”– and this also implies the “graveyard of missionary dollars.” Many missionaries were discouraged. Many died, some came back early and many worked all their lives without seeing much fruit. Obviously it took a lot of money getting all those missionaries there. I wonder what their prayer letters sounded like. In 2010, 100 years later, 63% of sub-Saharan Africa self-identified as Christian (according to the Pew Research). In Nigeria alone, researchers estimate there are around 80 million Protestants, many more than in Germany and France combined. That’s quite a cathedral.

  1. God provides through people, making “support-raising” an adventure

God’s mission depends on him, not on us. That’s encouraging for me. My real “asking for support” is when I pray to God. If he has called me, he will provide. And he will provide through real people– people I know, people that hear about the need, people who are friends. But because it’s his work, I don’t need to pressure others or be stressed out myself. I get to walk with him through a new adventure of trust. Veteran missionaries often say “It’s surprising how God provides. The people you expect to join often don’t and those that you least expect often do.”  Isn’t that so often how God works? It’s another reminder we are not in control. But we live with vision and gladness because our heavenly father is in control. He loves us enough to shape us by teaching us to trust in the adventure story he is writing with our lives. I’m glad my life will have a support-raising chapter in it. It might even beat preaching in front of a hundred people.