Monday, September 24, 2007

The View from Above

In the C.S. Lewis classic, The Screwtape Letters, we are flies on the wall as one demon instructs another as to how he can stop a young man from becoming a Christian. Once the novice demon fails, his next task is to trip up the new Christian in any way possible, no matter how ridiculous. One approach is to get him to focus on everyone else in the church meeting except himself. The adversary wants the Christian to focus on the sincerity of others simply based on their facial expressions, posture and manner of dress. Anyone not living up to some religious external standard is deemed a hypocrite. Thus, the new Christian is sidetracked and defiled by the silliest of attacks.

I learned a similar lesson a few years ago while attending a church in New York where the pastor preaching was projected on a screen so people in the back could see better. It just so happened that the camera captured the first row where I was sitting.

The lights were quite bright, and I became distracted by looking at how they reflected off the growing bald spot of the guy sitting beside me. Normally, the top of this guys head was not visible, but the camera, bright light and large screen changed that.

I also began to notice how this guy moved in his seat or nodded his head every time I did. He also seemed to be looking at the screen when I did. It was then that the awful revelation hit me; I had somehow miscounted who sat where and had been looking at my own head the whole time! Selah.

Scripture tells us to look into the mirror of God’s word on a daily basis so we can judge our spiritual progress by comparing ourselves to ourselves and not to others. Ultimately, we are really comparing ourselves to Jesus, and this should be enough to keep us humble.

My bald spot is not particularly large. It is just a spot, but when I am in a bright light the view from above reveals every detail. Since God discipled me with the video projector, I have tried to be less observant of the outward shapes of others and to even be merciful when their inner man was not shining in the best of ways.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Shaken, Not Stirred

I remember my first earthquake like it was yesterday. We were in our Manila apartment, the 11th floor of a 19 floor building. I was at my computer when my head rocked back and forth. Was I dizzy? I then looked up to see the blinds swinging back and forth, then the ceiling light, and then I noticed that the whole building moved back and forth about 3 feet (1 meter) in a gentle sway.

Several things instantly went through my mind like the worlds fastest modem. All the engineering, Physics and math that I could never remember suddenly and uninvitingly came to mind and reminded me that concrete is not supposed to bend. In other words, this building was going to fall like many pancakes, and we were going to die. The next revelation was that we were on the 11th floor; again, we were going to die. Then I recalled volumes of Bible study that said that I was right with God. My last thought as we sprinted down the stairs was that I hoped that the architects who built this building made good grades. Actually, since that time I have used this example to prove to my daughters why good grades are important. “Would you want to live in a high rise or fly in a plane built by someone with average grades?”

When our quake experience was said and done, it was on a minor shake of 5.9 on the
Richter Scale, nothing too scary. There was another quake – a real quake – that was in the news in 1999. It was in İzmit, Turkey, and many thousands were killed from collapsing buildings. In the aftermath of that quake, engineers and investigators noticed something quite peculiar. Some buildings that stood side-by-side had different fates. One building was unfazed while another was reduced to rubble. What was even stranger was that these building were identical in design and suffered identical tremors during the main quake. A mystery was at hand.

When investigators dug deeper they could find no obvious difference in the way the buildings had been built, so they decided to test the materials by cutting two identical pieces of concrete from each building to compare. Again, they looked the same, so they decided to conduct a stress test by applying hundreds of tons of pressure to each piece in a hydraulic press to see if they could both withstand their design specifications. This is where the mystery ended.

The piece from the building that survived withstood the required pressure, but the piece from the collapsed building quickly disintegrated into dust. The dust was examined with the result that it was now clear that the builder had added much more sand than concrete mix in order to save time and money. He took a fatal shortcut that only became evident when stress was applied, and he did so knowing that he was in an earthquake zone.

As believers and leaders who raise up other leaders, it is a certainty that times of testing will come because this world is a spiritual earthquake zone. If we take shortcuts by focusing on exterior facades rather than internal character, we are dooming our building plan to a future cataclysmic failure. However, if we focus on the simplicity of laying firm foundations in our own lives and the lives of those whom we mentor we assure that when shaking comes we will not only stand firm but produce a testimony of God’s grace and truth.

Here are a few areas that will help secure us in our daily walk and assure long-term stability:

  • The Lordship of Jesus: abide in Him daily by studying His word and seeking His face in prayer. You can do nothing without this. Jn 15

  • Your family: In airplanes they tell us to put on our oxygen masks first so we can then put them on our children if the need arises. The simple reason for this is that you can save your kids but they cannot save you. Strong marriages make strong children.

  • Reaching & serving others: Pattern your life and lifestyle around the purposes of God. This brings prosperity to you, salvation and help to others and drives you back to the first priority.

These are only a few. Don’t be afraid that you might mistakes while growing in these areas. The serious error is to not do them at all, to take shortcuts.

"Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell--and great was its fall." Matt 7:24-27

Monday, September 10, 2007

Better Late than “The Late”

Our family just arrived in Kiev two weeks ago to embark on a new church plant. We have found a nice temporary home to stay in just outside the city, but this created one hurdle: how to get our daughters to school every day before we purchase a car. The first solution was the bus which took over an hour and we had to stand the whole way, sort of like communal surfing on rough water. The next solution was the train-subway-bus. This required a 20 minute walk to the train, but the ride was much better. We finally just hired a driver and split the cost with another missionary family who are in the same boat. This is working just fine.

However, one day the driver was running late, and I was convinced that he could not make it to school in time. There was a traffic jam going into the city but – welcome to Ukraine – there was no traffic going out of the city. Well, logic dictates on the mission field to adapt so the driver switched to the left shoulder of the road while carefully swerving to miss oncoming traffic. He then drove around a concrete barrier which was meant to stop us from driving where we were, passed through oncoming traffic back to the right side and proceeded to pass as many cars as was mortally possible. He then asked if we were still late to which I answered, “yes”, but I was thinking that I had rather be late than to be “the late Mike Watkins”. Our driver goes slower now but takes the same shortcuts.

In ministry, especially in church planting, there is always an urgency to start something quickly and build something quickly. One positive motivation for this is to win as many souls as possible. A negative motivation is to catch up with all the other ministries that seem to be passing us. This is dangerous and often fatal both in driving and in ministry. I have passed several accidents this week caused by either speeding or driving on the side of the road. I have also passed a few church-planting accidents in our years on the field and am thankful we have survived our own fender-benders.

  • My first priority these days is to stay strong in faith and character by staying close to God. This cannot be done in fifth gear. We need to park and listen.

  • My next priority has been getting our daughters happily settled in school and creating a happy home life even while in transition. We will next shop for a nice car and then go apartment hunting for something more permanent.

  • The next step is to start laying the practical foundations for outreach and the new church plant. We have exciting things planned, and we are already working on the details; however, taking shortcuts with the first priorities might cause disasters. Actually, shortcuts will definitely cause disasters. I will write more about dangerous shortcuts in my next post.

You know, God knows how to build His church, and He is not in a hurry. We can abide in His grace while working hard. The vision can still be big, but there needs to be a healthy plan that considers all of God’s priorities.

Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it;Unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman keeps awake in vain.
It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late, to eat the bread of painful labors; f
or He gives to His beloved even in his sleep. Behold, children are a gift of the Lord,The fruit of the womb is a reward. Psalm 127:1-3

Oh, one more thing. Anyone from the British Commonwealth is welcome here because you can choose which side of the road best suits you.