Monday, February 21, 2011

Lessons from a Year

Today we celebrate our one-year anniversary of living in Budapest. It’s frigid and overcast outside, which means it is still winter in Central Europe. While I am thankful for the snow I can’t help but hope for sunshine, and soon. We are both feeling a little depressed today. We miss home and wonder what the next year holds. In this melancholy state, I hit my knees desperately searching for hope and answers when I came across Matthew 28:16-20.

This passage is commonly referred to as “The Great Commission.” As missionaries, we have read this passage a thousand times before we left and re-read a couple more thousand since we’ve been here. Today, however, I am floored by a few things that either I haven’t paid much attention to or have never noticed at all.

The eleven disciples, who have been through the emotional ringer and even lost one of their own, gather at a mountain where Jesus instructed them to meet. When they see the resurrected, crucified Lord, “they worshipped him, but some doubted” (v.17). Then Jesus makes yet another dramatic statement, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (v.18). Apparently being nailed to a Roman cross didn’t soften Jesus’ flare for the controversial.

The first thing to observe is the power of Jesus and frailty of His followers. Verses 17 and 18 remind me that Jesus is still God-in-the-flesh and the disciples are still human. After laying eyes on the risen Jesus, some of the disciples break out in triumphant worship and still others have the audacity to doubt him! I can’t help but wonder which crowd I would have joined. Despite seeing God work miracles before my eyes and within my own heart, I still have trouble trusting Him. God only knows why He would call me to go overseas in the midst of the darkest season of spiritual doubt I have ever experienced.

Even so, Jesus does not rebuke the doubters or call them foolish for being skeptical of what they see. Instead He affirms his authority over all things (an incredible statement) and charges the half-believing riffraff with a worldwide rescue mission:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (v.19-20).

The second observation I have so often missed deals with how one makes disciples, by “baptizing” and “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” I can say with certainty that I haven’t always taken seriously everything Jesus taught and commanded. After all, Jesus did and commanded a lot of crazy things: The casting out of demons, healing the sick, healing the lame, multiplying food resources and even raising the dead. He can’t be asking His followers today to “observe” or obey those things?

While living in Europe, I have seen God heal people on more than one occasion. The first time it happened I thought my brain would short-circuit. I didn’t have a category for “modern-day miracles.” It made me feel uncomfortable, out of control and humbled, like watching lightning strike a building and shut down all of its power. I am seeing just how important it is for God to display His power in a place like Europe, where God is by-and-large a subject to be discussed in Philosophy courses. Despite yours or my system of theology, Jesus is still empowering His followers to heal people, cast out demons and even raise the dead.

The final words of Jesus, as recorded by Matthew, are the most intimate of His commission. The promise to be “with you always, to the end of the age” is one I have clutched dearly over the past year. When my ugliness and selfishness seems too potent to have divinity anywhere near me, God is here. Regardless of my doubtful thoughts, overwhelming feelings or hateful actions, I can’t stop Jesus from being the great “I AM.” Jesus simply won’t leave me alone, and I am thankful.

Jesus’ persistence in loving us and breaking out of our boxes reminds me of a quote from CS Lewis in Surprised by Joy, so I’ll close with it.

In describing his hatred for authority, Lewis explains how he tried desperately to be a rebellious individual, to hide himself even from God...

“But Christianity placed at the center what then seemed to me a transcendental Interferer...There was no region even in the innermost depth of one’s soul (nay, there least of all) which one could surround with a barbed wire fence and guard with a notice No Admittance.”

Friday, February 11, 2011

Riding Along

On my way home tonight I sat next to a homeless man riding the metro line around Budapest. Sometimes homeless people will ride the metro from the beginning of the line to the end because it’s warm and provides a comfortable place to sit. I watched as this man used the window next to him for a pillow and gazed into nowhere. I can’t stop thinking about that guy’s life. He’s not really going anywhere, but he still rides and the tram will take him somewhere.

Tonight I feel like the homeless and aimless metro passenger. It’s been nearly one year since we moved to Hungary and it still doesn’t feel like home. And when it comes to our service here, I’m moving forward but I don’t know where to. I’ve tried my hand in many different areas (I believe working with youth is my best option), but what impact can I really have in two years? I have lots of questions, but that doesn’t seem to slow this tram down.

I use to think my life’s calling was to be a teacher of the Bible. “If only I could teach at a church,” I daydreamed, “then I would be truly content and happy.” After all, I am creative, can tell a funny story, am an effective communicator and I love the Bible. Lately, however, I’ve realized that a few witty jokes, a couple of catchy phrases in a sermon and an enjoyable stage presence isn’t enough. It’s not enough for me or the world I live in.

So what do I do? I can’t help but feel like my well-crafted Bible talks aren’t going to change the world. These little blog posts will, at the most, render a barely-audible, “hmmm, interesting thought.” I also can’t help but wonder if the most important part of my week is spent playing Wii Tennis with a sophomore in high school. I wonder about those seemingly small interactions with students that slowly build a friendship. Isn’t this what it’s about? Sacrificing a little time, and sometimes glory, to waste my life on a high school student who just wants to know he’s loved?

I use to long for a cushy preacher job that provided me a book deal with Zondervan and a popular podcast. I know it’s important to reach a wide audience, especially if one has the gift of communicating God’s love well, but it’s not the end of the line. If I never write a popular Christian book, it doesn’t mean I haven’t “arrived.” We’re all riding this tram and all of us have to exit eventually. I still don’t know exactly where I’m heading, or at which stop I will have to get off, but at least I’m awake and growing aware of the people around me.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The King's Father

It sometimes takes a while for movies to make their way to Budapest. So when The King's Speech hit our theaters we were eager to see what all the buzz was about. Last night I was a part of a giddy group of missionaries who had heard about the movie from friends "back home" and were finally able to see it. The hyped-up Best Picture favorite did not disappoint.

In case you live overseas like me, or just have something against popular movies with great reviews, the plot goes like this. Britain's reigning King George V is dying; two brothers stand in line for the throne. The elder brother, Edward VIII (or David), is conflicted between the crown and a consuming love interest. The younger brother, George VI (or Bertie), wants not to usurp his brother, but more seriously is held captive by fear in the form of a stammer.

When David willfully steps away from the inherited throne, Bertie begrudgingly enlists the help of an unorthodox speech therapist--Lionel Logue. With Lionel's persistent help and friendship, Bertie is transformed into a more confident King George VI and rallies Great Britain at the start of World War II.

Though the story focuses primarily on George VI overcoming an embarrassingly painful speech impediment, I want to highlight the relationship between him and his father. King George V knows Bertie is fit for the throne, yet he too is frustrated by his son's inability to speak clearly and "Get it out!" All the frustrated father can think to do is shout and order modifications to his son's posture and pronunciation. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't work.

Unbeknownst to both father and son is the disastrous effect a father's disapproval can have on a boy-turned-man. Only Lionel sees the deeper core issue that Bertie is facing when he stammers: Fear. Bertie fears he cannot be a worthy King almost entirely because he fears that he has been a disappointment to his royal father. The stammer is merely a symptom of a soul desperate for approval.

Bertie's elder brother David also struggles with Papa's approval. Our first glimpse of David might be deceptive, though. He doesn't appear insecure of his father's love. He first appears in the movie confidently piloting and landing a plane. We then hear of David gallivanting with various women, some of whom are currently married. David lives the life of a King-to-be, doing what he pleases with whomever he pleases.

As the story progresses, however, we see that David too lives in fear. Only, David fears that he may never be truly loved. David speaks harshly of his dying father because he knows the King doesn't approve of his "immoral" relationships, or of his son's life in general. In the last hours of his father's existence, it's all David can do to not call his lover once more and hear that someone cares for him. There is a deep fissure between Papa and David. Ultimately David refuses the crown because being in the arms of one who says, "I love you" feels more secure than even the throne of England.

Men who don't receive affirming love from their fathers are missing what Patrick Means calls, "The Father Blessing." Such a blessing is a sign of approval from Dad that he is proud of his son, no matter what. Without the Father Blessing, men search for signs of affirmation in their jobs, accomplishments, relationships with women and even in sports teams. David and Bertie were lacking their father's blessing and it drove both of them into acts of insecurity: The elder into the arms of many women and the younger into an agonizing stammer.

Instead of medicating ourselves and minimizing the pain of feeling unloved, it's vital that we receive the Father Blessing. Like Bertie, our fathers may pass away before we can communicate to them our need, or they may refuse to talk about such an emotionally-charged subject. If it's impossible for a man to receive such a critical blessing, all is not lost.

God has revealed Himself to us a Father to the fatherless; as One who stands on the front porch waiting for His lost son to return home. There is no need for long speeches, excuses or explanations. The Father simply takes us into his estate, tired, afraid, stammering and needing the security of His love. That kind of love feels like home. That kind of love can transform fearful boys into assured sons of the King.