Our 2017 Mission to Central Africa

As many of you know, for many years I have traveled to central Africa to support and teach the pastors there. Now, however, in the providence of God my health no longer allows me to make this trip myself. That being said, God has risen up one to take my place. Just as he did last year, my son Jacob will be traveling to Africa to carry on the ministry I began.

I hope you'll take the time to read his support letter below and to prayerfully consider hitting the donate button at the bottom of the page.


June 2017
Dear Brothers and Sisters In Christ,

As many of you know, I had the opportunity to go on my first Africa mission trip (to Burundi) last summer. It was a very eye-opening trip. Although I had planned to do a Pastors’ Conference during my time there, a last minute change of plans (due to visa complications) found me doing daily “crusade meetings” instead. Several hundred Burundians heard the Gospel message! God used me albeit in a different setting than I was expecting.

I was struck by the hunger the Burundians had for the Word of God. They were eager to learn and grow so they could share with others. Their passion within the worship service was also inspiring. Their excitement and energy and love for the Lord was almost palpable.

This summer I have the opportunity to go back and teach a Pastors’ Conference. My father has done these trips for several years, and now that I have one under my belt, I feel even more equipped and excited to go.

The ministry I am coming alongside is called REMAC (a French acronym for Missionary Churches of Christ). This denomination was birthed after missionaries fled this and other war-torn countries within Africa. It is led by a godly pastor named Flory Kazingufu who I had the pleasure of meeting and working with last summer. He was my chauffer, tour guide and translator as well.

This year, I will be teaching “How to Interpret the Bible.” While this may seem basic to some, many of the Africans rely soley on what their pastors teach them without reading the Bible themselves. Though the pastors wish for the congregants to be “self-feeders,” they don’t know how to teach this. I am excited to use my gifts to serve God by teaching these people.

Please pray for me! I desperately desire your continued prayers. Here are some specific requests:

  • That my visa would come through correctly so I can teach the Pastors’ Conference this year as planned.
  • That God would prepare the pastors’ hearts for the messages they will hear.
  • That God would provide the $4,000 necessary for plane tickets, food, lodging and various needs within the body of Christ in Africa.
  • Please commit to praying for me before and during this trip as this is my biggest need. But if God is calling you to support financially, I would be greatly apprecitive of this as well. Without the support of God’s people, God’s plan won’t be thwarted, but it will be much more difficult.

If you feel called to to support this trip financially, please give online at BecomingMature.Org/Africa or send a check made out to Becoming Mature with “Africa” in the memo.

Becoming Mature 1205 Tricia Ln. Brenham, TX 77833

Thank you in advance for your prayers.

Jacob

How are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” ~Romans 10:14-15
 
Support Becoming Mature's Africa Mission

What All Religions Have in Common and Why it Matters

Recently in Brenham, TX (our fair town), two local churches sponsored a public forum concerning the relationship between Christianity and Islam. Included on the stage were a Professor from Harvard Divinity School (whose dissertation was on some technical aspect of the Quran), an Imam, and one of the local pastors. 

As one might expect from such a meeting, the viewpoint universally expressed was that Christianity and Islam worshipped the same god, that “all roads lead to the top of the mountain” (meaning all religions get you to the same place), and that “when we all get to heaven” (a dangerously false assumption) we will find out where we were all right and all wrong. No questions were allowed from the floor but were “chosen” from pre-screened index cards. As a result, no tough questions were asked and no opposing viewpoint was heard. 

The fact that Christianity and Islam are mutually-exclusive is undeniable when one takes the words on the page (be it the Bible or the Quran) in their normal, everyday, socially-designated meaning. One must allegorize and spiritualize the two texts before one can harmonize them. For example, inside the Dome of the Rock, the major Quranic inscription over the arches of the inner arcade is addressed to the “Followers of the Gospel,” i.e. Christians. It reads as follows:

“O People of the Scripture! Do not exaggerate in your religion nor utter aught concerning Allah save the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a Messenger of Allah, and His word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers, and say not “Three” – Cease! (it is) better for you! – Allah is only One God. Far is it removed from His transcendent majesty that he should have a son. His is all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth. And Allah is sufficient as Defender.” [4:171]

There is no way to take that at face value and reconcile it with this statement from the Bible:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:16-18 NIV 84)

This being said, it is true that all religions hold certain doctrines in common. Put another way, every religion regardless of the type (monotheistic, polytheistic, animistic, spiritistic, etc.) subscribes to the following truths. (This list is taken from S. H. Kellogg, A Handbook of Comparative Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1899), 6-10.

  1. All religions assume the existence of a higher power or powers that are superior to man and able to influence his destiny. The individual is dependent upon the higher power or powers to one extent or another so that this relationship is a necessary relationship. It is assumed that each person is born into this relationship and there is no way for the individual to free himself from it. It is also interesting to note that, even in religions that worship more than one god, in the background of the religious consciousness there remains the dim outline of one sole power to which all other powers are subordinate. 
     
  2. Because of man’s relationship with the higher power or powers, certain actions are obligatory while other actions must be avoided. If these actions are not avoided then the inevitable result is suffering. Thus, all people are, to one extent or another, responsible for their own actions. 
     
  3. Between the individual and the higher power or powers, something is wrong. Put another way, in every religion there is some appeal to man’s sense of sin. This is most obviously displayed in the various religious practices and offerings designed to either soothe the anger of the higher power or powers or to court the goodwill of the power or powers. 
     
  4. All religions assume that there is a state of being after death. The consequences of one’s actions in the present life follow the individual into that state of being. Even in Buddhism, which seems to deny the existence of a soul that can live after death, there is much that seems inconsistent so that the reality of a state of future rewards and retributions may be found.

Why it Matters

When one considers the variety of religious belief in the world and the mutually exclusive claims of these religions, it is remarkable that so much may be found in common. The only conclusion that makes sense, at least to me, is that there must be a spiritual reality in the unseen world that presses upon the souls of men. In other words, there must really be something out there that is unseen but nevertheless real that can be and is known at the most fundamental level of each person. 

People universally speak of such abstract concepts as love, hate, grief, joy, longing, friendship, or pride. That these concepts are known to everyone indicates that they are realities that are at once internal to the individual but common to the experience of everyone. The same is true of religion. 

The fact that every religion believes in a higher power or powers means that there must be some invisible but, nevertheless, real power out there that influences our lives. That every individual is born into this relationship means that this power or powers are universal in scope. That there is something wrong between the individual and this power or powers means that sin is real. That all assume a state of being after one dies means that everyone must be ready for that day at all times. 

 

Patent Medicine, Truth Claims, and The Most Loving Thing To Do

Dear __________,

First of all, let me say how pleased I am that we are able to have this conversation. I suspect that you have been urged in the past to distrust whatever I had to say. I sincerely hope I’m wrong, but I suspect otherwise. At any rate, the fact that we may now carry on an open and sincere dialog is a precious gift which I highly value. 

Now on to the matter at hand.

You write, "There is something so grating about pat, perfect answers that don’t speak healing to a soul grappling for meaningful truth.…Sometimes it’s acceptable to say, ‘I don’t know for sure.’” I completely agree. Truth without love turns medicine into poison. What is meant to heal only sickens, and in some instances, kills. So you have certainly spoken truly. 

You also write:

I just see a lot of arguments out there that are simply written to BE argumentative. Or written to criticize our fellow believers for not sharing the exact same outlook as us. And how in the world can that be edifying or loving? At what point do we “be the change we hope to see in the world,” and stop trying to get the last word? Partly I understand this is part of what you do, yes? It’s your “job” to be “theologically correct” and maybe it’s your job to make sure that others know when they AREN’T being theologically correct. But... at what expense? … And it’s exactly these types of sharp corners that wear me out and make me want to distance myself from the “I have all the answers” crowd.

You raise a lot of issues in this paragraph. This being said, I think the core of your argument revolves around one central idea, specifically, that certainty and love are mutually exclusive. It appears, and please correct me if I misunderstand, that correction has little or no place in your understanding of edifying and loving. In response, I’d like you to consider the following story.

Suppose you go to a doctor and complain, “I feel terrible.” After an examination and a few tests, the doctor informs you that you have an infection. 

“The infection is rather serious, I’m afraid,” the doctor explains. “Left untreated it will become completely debilitating. But the good news is that it’s treatable. I’m writing a prescription for an oral antibiotic that will bring the infection under control. It won’t work immediately, but in about a month you should see signs of improvement. Unfortunately, the infection will never completely go away, but if you stay on this antibiotic as prescribed you will eventually see a remission of nearly all the serious symptoms. I have a sample bottle here for you to take with you.” He reaches into the cabinet above his desk and hands you a bottle. Then he sits down, pulls out a prescription pad, and begins to write.

Upon receiving the bottle, you twist off the cap and take a sniff. The pungent odor makes you wince and turn away. “Ugh! This smells horrible. … How does it taste?”

The doctor smiles and continues to write. “Not so good, I’m afraid. It’s rather bitter. There’s been some research to try and make it more palatable, but nothing’s worked so far. But I’m told the more you take it the less objectionable it becomes.” The doctor pulls out a book from his top drawer and turns to a dosing guide. He runs his finger down a chart before looking up and asking, “How much did you say you weigh?”

“I’m not sure I like that question,” you respond. “Are you being purposely abrasive?”

“No,” he says, looking genuinely surprised. “Not at all. I just need to know in order to prescribe the proper dose.” 

You pause for a moment as your eyes narrow. “How do I know this will work? I’ve tried a different medicine before that said it would work, but it didn’t.”

“What medicine did you try?” asks the doctor. “Do you remember the name of it?”

“Of course I remember the name of it. It was given to me by my family. It was called Uncle John’s Miracle Elixir, and it smelled an awful lot like this. All it did was make me sicker. How do I know this is any different?”

The doctor leans back in his chair and smiles. “Young lady, I assure you that this is not a patent medicine. This is real medicine. Countless millions who have exactly what you have, have taken this and the results have been universally the same…uh…when taken as directed, of course.”

“Funny,” you say, but there’s no smile on your face. “That’s exactly what my family said about the Miracle Elixir.” Your eyes narrow further until suddenly you take a deep breath and smile. “I don’t think I want your medicine,” you say cheerfully. “I have a different approach I’d like to explore.”

The doctor leans forward, looking concerned. “And that would be…?”

“Aroma Therapy.”

“Aroma Therapy…for an infection…” the doctor repeats flatly.

“Yeah, you know, essential oils, scented candles, that sort of thing,” you explain cheerfully. “I’ve read that this has done wonders for some people.”

There is a long pause as the doctor leans back in his chair. He rests his elbow on the arm of the chair and his chin in his hand. His forehead is furrowed and his eyebrows drawn together. Finally, he speaks.

“I’m sure you have the best of intentions,” he begins, maintaining the same stern look, “but as your doctor, I must warn you that this is a dangerous course of action. Your infection will only get worse.” 

“You must understand,” he continues slowly, “infections are not cured by pleasant smells.…they are only cured by antibiotics.”

Now…consider the following questions: 

In this last sentence, was the doctor being unloving by making this “100% truth claim?” Would you consider this a “pat, perfect answer?” Is the doctor part of the “‘I have all the answers’ crowd?” Was he unloving or loving by prescribing the bitter medicine?  Or was he doing the most loving thing possible by telling you the truth?

Hope I’ve given you something to think about.

With much tender affection,

Pastor Baker

 

 

 

 

 

Tragedy, Providence, and Faith

(I wrote this post about three years ago. Since that time my father-in-law has graduated this life and is at home with the Lord. I published this a few months after I wrote it, but seeing as this still expresses truth, I've decided to post it again.)

An email hits my desk this morning, telling of the death of a 45-year-old pastor, as he prepared to leave for church one Sunday morning.

It leads me pondering on what a mystery are the works of God. At the same second I read about this young preacher being snatched away from family and flock, my father-in-law lies lingering in horrible health and great pain.  While he is ordained, he can no longer actively minister and repeatedly states his desire to be home with the Lord.  Yet God chooses to take a young man with children in the prime of ministry years. And so suddenly … preparing for church on Sunday morning only to be found unconscious on the floor by his wife. No chance to say goodbye or tell his family he loved them. No final message to his flock about what he considered most important for them to remember. No chance to make amends with those who were estranged (and we all have those in our lives, don't we?) It's the same mystery I guess that Job wrestled with.

God is not a capricious God who acts on mere whims. Indeed, "Precious in the eyes of the LORD is the death of his saints." (Ps 116:15) As I recall, the word for "precious" refers to something valuable, something treasured, not to be used or traded away without careful consideration. Therefore, the LORD our God has a reason for this just as he has for all that he does. We evaluate what he does not on the basis of our finite reasoning, but rather on the knowledge of his character … that he is the definition of good and the sum of all perfections. So the apparent evil of the death of a 45 year old faithful pastor who leaves behind a wife and 6 children is not an evil at all but the best of all possible circumstances.

Still, knowing these things to be true does not remove the mystery from our finite minds; it does not lift the thick fog that blankets our thoughts from all except what God has revealed. And the truth of the matter is that God may never reveal why this occurred. His answer gave no response to the question that burned in Job’s mind: Why? 

While the Scriptures don’t really indicate such, still many people in the pew believe that these mysteries will be revealed to us when we are finally at rest in that eternal city. But I'm not so sure. Proverbs 25:2 teaches that in some way these mysteries enhance God’s glory. They work to remind us that he is the Creator, and we are the creatures, that he is completely other, that the vastness of his wisdom we will never discover. 

Perhaps I'm wrong about eternity. Perhaps, because we are now friends of God (and more than friends, but children!), he will reveal these things to us. After all, John 15 15 records Jesus as saying, "I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you." But who knows? Here again is another mystery about God we cannot know until then. 

At the end of the day we must remember that "the just will live by faith." Not only is faith required to remain sane in this inexplicable world, but also because God commands it. Like the mysteries he chooses not to reveal, our faith in response to them enhances his glory. And even if we never find out the answers and eternal faith is required of us, when we are at home with him we will say with joy that this is good enough. 

Shia LaBeouf, the "F-Bomb," and an Argument so Bad it Isn't Even Wrong

Dear _________,

I’m pleased to respond to your inquiry concerning the web article in question. The fact that you asked for my guidance shows a level of trust that I don’t take for granted. Plus, my great love for you makes me eager to help you think this through in any way I can. 

Before I deal with the argument of this blog post, I must plead a thorough lack of familiarity with the subject at hand. Specifically, I had never heard of Shia LaBeouf prior to this article. Yes, yes, I know—my ignorance of contemporary culture is truly profound and marveled at by many. 

Background

This being said, I’ve done my homework. I’ve read the article by Elvis Mitchell entitled (appropriately) Shia LaBeouf in Interview Magazine. In this article, Mitchell describes LaBeouf as someone who has a “stubbornness in recognizing boundaries [that] seems consonant with LaBeouf’s public conduct of late.” This behavior includes

…his 2013 dustup with Alec Baldwin during rehearsals for the play Orphans, from which LaBeouf was later ousted, and continues through his recent arrest in New York City for criminal trespassing, disorderly conduct, and harassment, after disturbing a Broadway performance of Cabaret. In 2013, when it turned out that the plot of LaBeouf’s short film HowardCantour.com (2012) had been purloined from graphic novelist Daniel Clowes’ 2007 comic Justin M. Damiano, the actor-director responded with a series of tweet apologies that also appeared to be shoplifted. 

The interview that follows is profanity-laced and utterly forgettable, at least from the point of view of someone who doesn’t share the culture’s view of acting as a noble profession. Still, one section of it is noteworthy. LaBeouf remarks that, during the filming of the movie Fury where he plays a religious character, “I became a Christian man.… in a very real way. I could have just said the prayers that were on the page. But it was a real thing that really saved me. And you can’t identify unless you’re really going through it. It’s a full-blown exchange of heart, a surrender of control.”

Evidently, the two individuals most influential in this decision were Brad Pitt and director David Ayers. Brad Pitt was raised in a Christian environment but has since rejected religion as the “people’s opium, almost like a Marxist view on religion,” while Ayers is “a full subscriber to Christianity.” Nevertheless, according to LaBeouf, “these two diametrically opposed positions both lead to the same spot.” I’m not exactly sure how this works, but there it is. Such an explanation leaves much unanswered. It seems reasonable to presume that there was some kind of Christian tract involved as he didn’t just say “the prayers that were on the page.” But one really doesn’t know. 

While one never knows what goes on in the heart, and Christian charity goads one into taking LaBeouf at his word, one does wonder about the excessive profanity in his profession of faith. Even if his control of his language is … incomplete … one must assume that he had the opportunity to edit the interview after giving it. With a Jewish mother and a Pentecostal father, LaBeouf must know how offensive such language would be to his fellow believers. But perhaps this is the “stubbornness in recognizing boundaries” commented on above.

Enter Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle, (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is the author of the blog Theology in the Raw. Dr. Sprinkle is evidently incensed that some believers wonder about the confessed conversion of Mr. LaBeouf. He has written about it under the provocative title “F-Bomb and Bikinis: What it Really Means to be a ‘Christian.’” (Note: This same article, with only minor revisions, is posted one year earlier under the title “Christians Are Quick to Judge this Famous New Believer, But How Different is He from the Disciples?” What is peculiar is that the earlier article has the byline of Brian Orme, while at the same time having a blurb about Preston Sprinkle at the bottom of the page. One is forced to conclude that either Dr. Sprinkle is a blatant plagiarist or that this is an issue he cares about deeply, having posted the same article under two different titles one year apart.)

In this article, Sprinkle’s argument is nothing more than one long, drawn-out straw man. Here is his argument in a nutshell: Different Christian communities find different activities not in keeping with applied Christianity (Note: Paul addresses this in Romans 14). In his argument, Sprinkle cites example after example of believers with differing values. From this fact, Sprinkle draws the following conclusion: 

When you try to cut out Christians with a religious cookie cutter, you not only tarnish diversity, but you trample on grace. It’s one thing for Christian subcultures to cultivate unique values. But it becomes destructive when those values are chiseled on Sinaitic tablets for all to obey. It’s even worse when Christians expect instant holiness from recent converts—holiness, that is, in areas where we think we’ve nailed it.

The statement “2 + 2 = 5,” is wrong. In contrast, the statement “2 + 2 = an egg sandwich” isn’t even wrong. It’s beyond wrong. It’s incoherent. Sprinkle’s argument is so bad, it’s not even wrong. 

No one that I know argues that the use of the “F-Bomb” is a matter of conscience. As Paul teaches, “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving” (Eph 4:29 NIV). Therefore, to expect some restraint in this area is not expecting “cookie cutter” Christians. It is clearly a matter of personal holiness. To ask LaBeouf to curtail his language in this regard is not trampling on grace. Grace should never be used as a license to sin.

What makes Sprinkle’s argument incoherent is that he suddenly shifts the substance of his argument and reasons from the contrary of his previous position. Instead of assuming that censuring such language tramples on grace, he argues that expecting restraint in language is to “expect instant holiness from recent converts.” Here he evidently concedes that the “F-Bomb” is not in keeping with personal holiness and not a matter of conscience. The fault lies in people expecting holiness from a recent convert. 

Thus, either those who object to Mr. LaBeouf’s language are seeking cookie-cutter Christians, or they are expecting instant holiness from recent converts. One appeals to Dr. Sprinkle to make up his mind. To which crime does he wish us to plead guilty?

But Dr. Sprinkle is not done. His final argument may be laid out this way: Shia LaBeouf is a sinner. The 12 disciples were sinners. Therefore, to condemn LaBeouf’s actions is to condemn the 12 disciples. This is a textbook example of the fallacy of questionable analogy. The logical structure is this: (1) A and B are similar. (2) A has a certain characteristic. (3) Therefore B must have that characteristic too. A brief review of his argument hopefully will make this more plain.

Sprinkle describes the 12 disciples this way: “I know we’re programmed to see the 12 apostles as saints with halos and contemplative faces. But actually, they were criminals. These guys were more like prisoners than pastors, and few of them would have been let inside our churches today.” This is so wrong on so many levels that one hardly knows where to begin. 

First, there is no evidence whatsoever that any of the 12 disciples were criminals. It is unquestionably true that they were flawed men. But criminals? Please. Second, the assumption is made that criminals wouldn’t be allowed in our churches? Really? Every pastor I know would LOVE to have criminals attend their service and hear the gospel. This type of negative stereotype isn’t worthy of a serious response. It is a straw man of the worst order. Third, even if the 12 disciples were criminals (which they were not), they didn’t remain criminals. And it should be remembered that Jesus didn’t hesitate to tell them when they were wrong.

I don’t want to misrepresent Dr. Sprinkle, nor be unkind to him, but it appears, at least to me, that he holds a deep contempt for the traditional church and finds its condemnation of sin offensive. This may be seen not only in his understanding of homosexual marriage and transgender pastors, but also in the summation of his article.

You cannot sanitize grace. You can’t stuff it into a blue blazer and make it wear khakis. Grace is messy, offensive and it sometimes misses church. To expect God to pump prefabricated plastic moral people out of a religious factory is to neuter grace and chain it inside a gated community. If God’s scandalous relationship with the 12 thugs means anything, then we should expect a variegated spectrum of righteousness and be patient—or repentant—when such sanctification doesn’t meet out expectations. God meets us in our mess and pushes holiness out the other side.

It is true that God “meets us in our mess” and “pushes holiness out the other side.” But grace never excuses our sin. The grace of God acknowledges our sin and loves us in spite of it. But such love never allows us to remain in it. And this is the distinction that Dr. Sprinkle has chosen to forget.

Conclusion

In the end, there is little to commend this article. It is filled with straw men, false “facts,” and borders on the incoherent. My advise is to pay it as little attention as possible. As for the conversion of Shia LaBeouf, I have little to say. I don’t know his heart and, to be completely candid, I’m not called to have an opinion. 

I hope this has helped.

Your affectionate friend,

Bruce

 

Risking Reconciliation

Dear ______,

Let me begin by lightening your heart. I assure you there is no problem between us. I haven't been offended in any way. There is absolutely no damage done to our friendship and relationship in Christ. 

I want to thank you for your email. In fact, I'd like to commend you for even writing in the first place. Most people wouldn't. To write in such a way as to make yourself vulnerable and open to criticism, all for the sake of harmony in the body, is a bold move. To ask if your actions have offended invites a critical, even hostile, response.

Similarly, to speak in favor of another brother, taking the side of love and assuming the very best of intentions, risks being dragged into a dispute not of your making. For the record, I am aware of no issues between myself and the brother you mention. Still, you had no way of knowing that. 

People are unpredictable. And since all people have had their lives ravaged by sin, that volatility all too often expresses itself in bitterness, malice, and hostility. Everyone has experienced, at one time or another, shock and bewilderment as rancor and venom spew from the lips of those we considered friends over some completely unintended word or slight. Sometimes we are able to repair the damage done, but all too often we cannot. The hopelessness, the feeling of loss at such times is overpowering. 

On the other hand, it seems more common for people to take offense at some snub (real or imagined) but never let you know. Oh, over time you notice a difference in the relationship. The warm camaraderie that was previously enjoyed is now merely a cordial exterior. There is always some reason why the invitation to spend time together is not accepted. The friendly slap on the back eventually turns to a cold shoulder. When you begin to search for the basis of the change you are assured there is nothing wrong or (more likely) that they don't want to talk about it.

In the very worst cases you later learn from a mutual "friend" the real problem. You discover that many others know as well. Enough time has passed that hurt feelings have hardened into permanent resentment. As the story has gotten round (each time worse in the telling), your reputation is damaged, your character besmirched, your good name slandered.

And the real tradgedy is that all of this is avoidable. If people…if believers……if brothers and sisters in Christwould simply love more, repent quickly, forgive freely, be tender always, the shambles that exist in so many churches would be gone. To be more explicit, if more people would reach out in love early, at the first hint of trouble, and seek reconciliation (as you have done) then Jesus' prediction would be a reality (John 13:35).

Oh to be certain, such a loving response is not really optional. We are commanded to reconcile with each other. In fact according to Jesus, being reconciled to a brother is more important than worship (Matt 5:23). But few in the body seem to take that seriously. 

I'm thankful you're one of the few.

With much gratitude and tender affection in Christ,

Bruce

When a Believer Dies

I read an article recently that encouraged the blogging of letters that others might find valuable. I've decided to start posting such letters as they occur, omitting those items which may identify the recipient. My prayer is that God will use these public letters to strengthen his people.

     ______________________

    Dear _________,

    Please accept my most sincere condolences on the death of your mother. Even though her illness made such an event only a matter of time, the actual death is always so painful. Oh, we think we are prepared, but in reality one can never really be prepared for the death of one we love. 

    I'm thankful that God heard our prayers uttered over these many months and that "her passing was peaceful." It is also an indescribable blessing to know that "she was at peace with death and confident in her faith in Jesus." You are quite correct that such knowledge gives peace and hope for the future. 

    As a pastor for many years, and having mourned the death of both my parents, I've discovered a few truths about death that people who have never gone through it don't realize. These aren't Bible truths, but the numerous funerals in which I've participated have proven them true.

    1. When a parent dies, you're nine years old again. It doesn't matter how old you really are, what responsibilities you carry, what marks of maturity are evident in your life. The basic relationship that defined the bond between you and your mom overrides all other truths. Oh, you may continue to act the part of a mature adult, but the raw emotions that burrow a hole in your stomach are those of a child. 
       
    2. When the second parent dies, you're an orphan. The safety net that parents provide may not have functioned for decades. In fact, you may have been the caregiver for your parent. But even though the roles are reversed, your memories of the ones who could "make it better" overwhelm you. The loneliness that is an integral part of all grief is even more intense when the second parent dies.
       
    3. It hurts a lot more than other people know. Even those who have endured the grief you now experience have had the memory of the gnawing, devastating grief dulled somewhat by time. This is just another reason why the mind-numbing pain we experience makes us feel so alone.
       
    4. It hurts a lot longer than other people realize. In a few weeks, other people's lives will return to normal, but yours won't. It will take about a year before the ache truly begins to subside, for it will take a year to get by all the "firsts": the first Thanksgiving, the first Christmas, the first birthday, the first Easter, etc. You will get better, but not as quickly as others imagine. And no, you can't just "get over it" even though others may expect you to.
       

    All of the above is merely the fruit of my experience and observation. But at a time like this, what we really need is God's perspective, not merely on death, but on the death of a believer. Because even though I may be able to describe the grief we experience, there is nothing in my words that can comfort. Only God's Word can do that.

    The Old Testament's standard way to describe God's character is that he is "gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in love" (Psalm 103:8 among many other passages). Because God is who he is, death for a believer is changed from a terrible curse to a good and gracious gift. 

    To say that death can be a good and gracious gift is not to deny the evils associated with death. Death, the Bible teaches, is the consequence of sin. Death brings separation and sorrow. In fact, the Bible always portrays death as an enemy that has invaded the land of the living.

    Even the Lord Jesus did not look forward to his death, despite his confidence that he would be raised from the grave. But the Bible does teach us that God is able to use what is, in and of itself, evil, in order to bring about what is good. 

    Rom. 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

     Understanding that God works things together for good, even an evil such as death, it seems appropriate to ask what happens when a believer dies. What is it about a believer's death that so changes the experience? Well, there are at least four truths concerning death that apply to all believers.

    So what is death for a believer?

    1. Death is a key in a Door

    Rev. 1:18 I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.

    The fact that he holds the key to death means that no one dies unless he puts the key in the door. In other words, no army no matter how great can kill me unless Christ puts the key in the door (I remind people of this truth every time I go to Africa). In the same way, no team of doctors can save me if he uses the key.

    This is a great comfort when you understand who God is. As I stated above, the standard way to describe God is that he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Knowing this to be true, we can be assured that he waits until the absolute best time, having weighed the alternatives, to put the key in the door. In the same way, we can also be assured that if we had the ability to go back and undo that doctor’s report, undo all the tests, undo the illness, we would only make things worse. Jesus knew the right time before he put the key in the door.

    And this also shows that this was really no mere chance occurrence. There is no such thing for a believer. God knew the best time and so arranged circumstances that he brought about the best for your mother and for you, for her entire family and even her friends. 

    2. Death is a Change in Location

    2Cor. 5:6 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.  7 We live by faith, not by sight.  8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

     We must remember that the body that was laid to rest was not your mother. She experienced a change in location when she died. If death were all that there is, if it was really the end, then we would have the right to mourn without ceasing because there would be no way to ever see our loved ones again. But death isn’t the end.

    Instead your mother is now experiencing the joys of heaven where there are pleasures at the right hand of God forever more. She now looks upon the unveiled face of God in all his holiness, and experiences freedom from the sins that plagued her and the physical ills that were her constant companions. Her body is laid to rest here, but your mother is not here. 

    She is in heaven waiting for that great day "when Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with him in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever." (1 Thess 4:16-17)

    3. Death is an Answer to Prayer

    John 17:24  “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.”

      Jesus so loved your mother that he prayed that she would one day be with him in heaven and would be able to behold his glory, a glory far greater and more wonderful than anything that this world could produce. And so, even though our hearts are breaking, God has said no to our prayers for just a while, so that he could answer the prayer of his Son. 

      Of course, one day this prayer will be answered for us all. We will all be gathered together with those that have gone on ahead, and we will all together behold his glory forever more. Still, until that time, we can rejoice that your mom is there now, experiencing the glory of God, even though we must wait a while longer.

      4. Death is the Delivery of a Gift

      Eph. 2:8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God —  9 not by works, so that no one can boast.

      In one sense it is true that we may enjoy eternal life in the here and now, but it is also true that the entire benefits of this gift of God are not realized until we are in his presence. Your mother has received this gift. She knew what it meant to be saved by grace alone apart from works. And now, because of God’s grace, she has received in full the gift that God has promised to all who believe.

      Understanding this gift means that we realize that this is not our true life, or final life.  There is something so much greater and so much more significant than the life we now live in the flesh.  There is something beyond the present, so much more important than the present, that what is now is scarcely worthy to be compared with it.  

      The present life can be compared to the training ground for eternity.  It is the mere entrance, like a porch on a great mansion.  It is like the preface to a book which contains many chapters.  And while the porch of a mansion might be beautiful, it is vastly inferior to the wonders that lie inside.  The preface of a book gives us some clue as to the author’s purpose, but it is not the important feature.  Both the porch and the preface are insignificant in comparison to that to which they lead.

       In the same way, our life now is so vastly inferior to the life that is to come, that we may rightly say that your mother has entered into the life that God gave her so long ago as a free gift.

      Your mother will forever experience the glories of God’s holiness. She will forever enjoy a banquet of pleasures that God has promised are at his right hand. She looks forward to an eternity of blessed contentment and will spend endless hours of unbroken fellowship with the Savior who loved her so much that he died for her.

      I know _____, that you have this same hope. And while I have no delusions about the reality of grief, God desires that we do not "grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope" (1 Thess 4:13) Please be assured that I will continue to pray to this end, just as I prayed for you and your mother these past months.

      Mourning and Rejoicing with you,

      Bruce

      Becoming Mature is now a 501(c)(3) non-profit!

      Recently, we received the official letter from the government that declared Becoming Mature a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. This means that, from now on, all domestic donations are tax-deductible. In keeping with our internal policies, a tax receipt will be sent within 2 weeks of receiving your donation. 

      Because You Cared: An Update on Anita & Naomi

      When I took these pictures in August, Anita weighed just 88 pounds. Naomi was desperately underweight. Both Anita and Noami had tuberculosis. That was then.

      As mentioned below, we set up a fund so that Anita and Naomi would be fed regularly: Rice and beans twice a day, every day. It's not much by our standards, but I believe that act of compassion by those who gave literally saved their lives.

      Because some of you gave, Anita now weighs 110 pounds and Naomi is no longer critical. They are recieving treatment for Tuberculosis. That's the good news. The bad is that Anita has been diagnosed with AIDS. There is nothing that can be done about that. 

      Thank you for giving. If you haven't given, the need hasn't gone away. Just click on the "support" menu at the top of the page. Just add a note about Anita and we'll make sure the funds go to Anita & Naomi's support. 

      By the way, the brick wall in the backgound of the bottom picture is the wall of the church in Walungu, which the generous donations to this ministry helped build. Oh, about the smile, or rather the lack of it: it's the really good photographer that can get someone from central Africa to smile for a photo. I don't know why that is, but that's just the way it is. So don't let the expression on her face fool you. She's genuinely grateful. 

       

      Anita & Naomi: A Tale of Heartbreak and Hope

      Anita & Naomi

      Anita & Naomi

      Anita is twenty-two, although she looks and acts much older. Traced across her taught face are lines of care and deprevation. Her little girl, Naomi, is two months old. I wrote about her in an earlier post. When I saw Anita today, she hadn't eaten in the last 24 hours. Naomi was crying for milk, but it became evident that Anita had little to give.   

      Anita is a widow. Her husband was a Congolese soldier and went missing in the fighting around Goma, in the northeast of Congo. After a lengthy investigation, it was confirmed that he was killed in the line of duty. When he fell, she was carrying their second child.

      A widow in a war-torn region, she returned to her parents in the north of Burundi. She is a member and regular attender at Pastor Timothy's church in Rugombo, where we held the conference this year. Her only means of support is the slight widows’ pension she receives from the Congolese Army, although she has rarely actually received any funds.

      In order to collect her pension, she must travel to Congo DR. Unfortunately, the price of travel there and back consumes the entire amount of the pension. In order to try and make things work, she enlisted a "friend" who was to collect the money for her so that she could make the trip once every three months. This still eats up a third of the funds, but it is better than nothing. Not surprisingly, the "friend" proved to be dishonest and absconded with all the cash. (Amy is sitting next to me as I write this. At the last sentence, she shook her head and whispered emphatically, "That is…absolutely…unbelievable." I told her the sad truth is that it is all too believable.) 

      If one would think that Anita’s parents would be there to support her, one would be wrong. Her parents aren't believers. According to Timothy, "They are drunkards." Instead of turning to Christ, they trust the local witchdoctors. What little money Anita can scrape together, they bully out of her for drink. 

      To make matters worse, she has been diagnosed with tuberculosis. We believe little Naomi also has TB as she was born with a cough. Anita is unable to buy food, let alone purchase medical care and prescription drugs. I confess that her bleak future has tugged at my heart all day. I must regularly pause when I speak in order to regain my composure. I keep turning my back on those around me so I can wipe my tears. 

      I learned long ago that a believer shouldn't pray about something about which they are unwilling to be involved. As James teaches,

      Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?" (James 2:15-16 NIV84)

      When I held Naomi in my arms at the baby dedication, I prayed earnestly for her. Can I now say to her mother, "Keep warm and well fed," and do nothing? The answer is obvious. Amy and I each arrived at the same conclusion without speaking to one another. When we shared our thoughts, we were of one mind. If we could help, we would. 

      So Amy began searching the internet (slow work here in Burundi) for treatments for TB. I began investigating how much money would be involved in feeding Anita and her little boy (about two years old I think), who appears to be the only healthy one in the family. Here’s what we discovered.

      The governments of central Africa are united in providing free TB testing and treatment to all people. They recognize that TB spreads so rapidly that they need to be proactive to prevent an epidemic. Amy’s connection at the clinic proved to be invaluable at this point. They knew all about the free clinic. 

      Flory and I made arrangements to have Timothy bring Anita and Naomi to Bujumbura on the bus. They made their way to the clinic where Amy is volunteering and Anita collapsed on a bed. Little Naomi was lying beside her. When Flory and I arrived, I went in to wake her. She was drenched in sweat, and you could tell it took everything she had to struggle to her feet. Timothy helped to steady her as she made her way to the consultation room where Amy and Jackson examined her. 

      While Anita was being examined, I went to the bed where Naomi was lying. She was fidgeting and restless, which I took to be a good sign. At least she wasn’t on death’s door as I feared. No, Noami was merely hungry. I picked her up and held her close. I began singing the only song I know in Swahili. 

      Yesu anapenda watoto. Yesu anapennda watoto. Ni Yesu, Bwana Yesu. Alikufa qua mtu, qua sababu ya zambi. Yesu anapenda watoto.

      (Jesus loves children. Jesus loves children. Jesus is our Lord. He died upon a tree, because of our sins. Jesus loves children)

      This helped a little, but what I really needed was a bottle or a pacifier. I’ve seen neither since I’ve been here in Africa. So I did what I did when my children were infants—I used my little finger as a substitute. She began to suck greedily and stared into my face as I sang. I’m not at all sure she had the ability to focus, but she knew someone, at least, was there. Her momma came back in a little bit and took her to nurse. I don’t think she had much milk, but what she had, she gave.

      Naomi at two months.

      Naomi at two months.

      While Anita was being examined, she stated that she had been ill since February, while she was pregnant. She exhibited all the classic signs of TB: night sweats, swollen glands behind the ears, lack of energy, lack of appetite, (severe) weight loss, cough, fever and pain. Since Naomi was born with a cough, it’s nearly certain that she also has TB. With this diagnosis, Jackson wrote out the necessary referral for the clinic, and we all climbed into the minivan. Flory was driving, and his wife Amina came along for moral support, as she knew Anita. Pastor Timothy was there for the same reason, but also to serve as translator from Swahili to Kirundi. Jackson and Amy were there to answer any of the questions the free clinic might have. Despite a complete lack of useful medical skills, I also rode along simply because I was concerned.

      When we arrived, we were brushed aside, being told that the person we needed to see had already gone home, and we needed to come back on Friday. Call it hubris, call it swagger, call it American arrogance, call it a combination of the three, but this raised the hackles on my neck. I began saying very loudly that we were notcoming back later and that they were going to call in the appropriate people right now! I’m pretty sure I embarrassed Amy, for she began tugging at my arm to draw me away. I was, however, having none of it. I wanted names. I wanted phone numbers. I wanted someone to care, for heaven’s sake. 

      The loud mzungu drew the curious and the concerned to gather in the office. I’m not sure if they were speculating about what kind of trouble I could cause or about of what kind of trouble I was about to become. Fortunately someone appeared and assured us that they were accepting Jackson’s diagnosis. The reason we had to return on Friday is because they only dispense medicine once a week. It just wasn’t feasible to open the bottle for every person who came in, evidently because that would spoil the medicine. I could live with that and turned my attention to the immediate problem of transportation and food.

      I provided for Anita’s transportation to Rugombo. Timothy called the church and instructed them to purchase food and transportation back to Bujumbura on Friday. So much for the short term needs, but clearly more needed to be done.

      After much consultation with Flory and Timothy, we concocted a plan. We all agreed that we couldn’t just give her money for a varitey of reasons, primary among them being her parents would probably either steal it or bully it out of her. So we decided that we would place money on account at a local merchant who was also a member of the church. 

      We also agreed not to provide too much food at once. Not only was there the issue of pests and spoilage, there would also be the temptation for her parents to take some of the food and sell it for drink. In her weakened condition, there would be little she could do to stop them. 

      So we determined that she should walk daily to the nearby shop and draw out that’s day’s supply of beans and rice. The beans are an important source of protein to make milk and boost the immune system. The rice provides the carbohydrates needed for energy and helps make a more complete protein when mixed with the beans. The plan will cost $50 a month and will keep her and her little boy fed and provide milk for Naomi. 

      Amy and I agreed to ensure that she has food for the next year. This should be plenty of time for the medicine to work and for her to regain full health. There is no way we can sleep at night if we sit idly by. We’re hoping that others will be moved by this need and help with her support as well. But if not, we will do it alone. 

      All the while I was around Anita, I never saw her smile save for once. All the while she held the vacant, hopeless stare that hunger and disease inflict. It was only at the end, when we were moving her toward the van to take her to the bus station that she smiled. I spoke to Flory. Flory spoke to Timothy. Timothy spoke to Anita. I told her that we were going to ensure that she and her baby got the medicine they needed. And we were going to ensure that she had enough food for the next year. She didn't seem to comprehend what we were saying, so I told her again.

      "Anita, you're not going to be hungry any more."

      That's when she turned, faced the wall, placed her forehead on rough plaster…and smiled.