Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Missionaries Just Need to Have (“Humane”) Fun

I want to focus one more time on the missions book, Repaid a Hundredfold, by Charles Alexander Leonard, Sr., because he did something in telling of his missionary experiences that I have not seen anyone else do. He included in his book two chapters with a total of 56 pages (over 16% of his book) focusing on the important role that recreational activities played in his missionary experience. After reading his chapter on what missionaries do (see my November 7 post), I gained an appreciation for the long hours and the physically and mentally demanding responsibilities that missionaries in pre-Communist China faced. As I stated previously, just reading about all he did made me tired. The wide range of responsibilities, the long hours, and the arduous travel had to be physically exhausting. Chapters 14 and 15 of his book, however, gave me insight into how he coped with the heavy demands of being a missionary in a foreign culture.

“Hunting and Fishing in North China and Manchuria” (chapter 14) and “Sportsmen as Kindred Spirits” (chapter 15) detail Leonard’s passion for hunting and fishing that, though certainly not equal to his passion for missions, rounded out my understanding of the man behind the missionary persona. Though he had never owned a gun or a fishing rod prior to his deployment to China, Leonard took the advice of an esteemed missionary to China whom he had heard speak during his seminary days. The advice was: “It is almost imperative for one to have a change from time to time, if one is to do one’s best work.” This missionary had used hunting as “recreation of mind and heart” and for “building up my physical being.”

Leonard took the speaker’s advice and became an enthusiastic sportsman, who enjoyed every opportunity that came his way to break away from his heavy daily responsibilities and to spend some time hunting and fishing. He tells stories of his hunting and fishing expeditions with the same intensity that he applied to the stories of his missionary work. The physical trophies of his recreational pursuits seem to provide some tangible victories that most of us need when we work intently in the somewhat ephemeral area of the spirit. Leonard was proud of his guns and fishing equipment. He was buoyed by the trophies of the game he took. He enjoyed fellowship with other sportsmen. He shared the game he bagged with Christian schools, church members, and neighbors, who often lacked nutritious protein in their diet. And he benefited from the physical exercise that helped keep him well and strong through 60 years of continuous active service.

Not being a hunter and not being very interested in fishing (even though I live on a lake), I found some of Leonard’s stories kind of gory; but one sentence in these two chapters really captured my attention. On one expedition, Leonard was fishing with a kind of competitive spirit alongside some of the locals. As always, the fishermen were sharing stories and talking about their equipment. Leonard noted that they were using live bait but commented that he was using an artificial lure, which he classified as “more humane.” I found that comment rather ironic. Most of the time Leonard used live bait. All of the fish and game he bagged were live when he caught or shot them. The consideration of what is humane and inhumane has a spiritual dimension, and it is one we ought to reflect on occasionally with sensitivity.

Some religious persuasions make a case for not taking any form of life. Interestingly, the Buddhism that was practiced by many in China in Leonard’s day held that persuasion. We face the similar issues with vegens in our society. For the past 30 or 40 years, the President of the United States has spared the life of the White House turkey each year at Thanksgiving time—even while hundreds of thousands of turkeys are being consumed with gusto. We are divided on the status of embryos, fetuses, and death-row inmates. We can’t even agree on whether war is humane or inhumane, and we tend to focus on “innocent” casualties in assessing the toll of war.
As is the case in so many ethical considerations, upsides and downsides of our choices often leave us in a quandary. I would hope that the things I do consciously can be done with the gusto of a Charles Leonard. I too think recreation is important, as is a day of Sabbath, or a Sabbatical leave, or a vacation, or even a year of Jubilee. Maybe Paul summarized it best in Colossians 3:17 (NASB), “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.” I have no doubt that Charles Leonard lived by that verse. I hope I can too.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Trusting God for Daily Bread

The Bible study for yesterday’s International Sunday School Uniform Series lesson focused on the Lord’s Prayer. Not only is this a familiar Scripture passage, but it also is one that most Christians memorize. Many churches include this model prayer frequently in their liturgies. As is often the case, familiarity breeds . . . well, maybe not contempt, but at least indifference. We say the words so frequently (and often in the archaic King James Version) that we can become numb to its meaning.

I teach a Bible study class composed of Korean students associated with Carson-Newman College. Though we generally have the Scripture read in Korean, my teaching is solely in English. This means that in the case of a New Testament study like we had yesterday, I am moving from an English Bible text back to the text of the Greek New Testament and finally giving my expositions in English with occasional pauses for some particular point to be translated into Korean.

Yesterday as I tried to apply the Lord’s Prayer to our experiences as disciples, I found myself captured by the clause, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Most of us have at one time or another been introduced to alternate translations like, “Give us today our bread for tomorrow.” The Greek text states, “Our bread for tomorrow give us today”—though the exact meaning of “for tomorrow” is disputed. The Greek word sometimes is used for “today,” thus yielding “our bread for the current day.” At times its meaning is closely associated with the actual components of the word itself, which literally means “necessary for existence,” thus yielding “the bread we need to live.” More frequently, scholars think it refers to “the following day—tomorrow,” thus yielding “our bread for tomorrow.” Scholars have attributed all kinds of meaning to this expression. Some see an eschatological dimension to the petition, beseeching God to give us the promised blessings of the future right now. Understood this way, the clause parallels the invocation, “Thy kingdom come.”

I’m inclined toward the meaning, “Give us today our bread for tomorrow.” If we ask only for today’s bread, we will awake each morning with anxiety for that day’s sustenance. Each new day would have to begin with a petition for that day’s bread, and the issue of our basic sustenance would always be a high level of concern. This might well keep us focused on our dependence upon God, but I don’t think we could ever have the full and abundant life that Jesus promised if what’s on today’s menu is always an issue.

But think what it would mean for us to always have tomorrow’s bread in hand today. The assurance that our needs today were handled yesterday and our needs for tomorrow are already met sets us free to focus on life today as children of “our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9), as citizens of God’s “kingdom” (v. 10), as devoted followers on earth of God’s heavenly “will” (v. 10). This relieves us of the need for storing up “treasures on earth” (vv. 19ff). It resolves the tension between serving “God and mammon [wealth or money]” (v. 25). It frees us like “the birds of the air” and “the lilies of the field” to set aside worry about food and clothing and to focus on seeking first God’s “kingdom and righteousness” (v. 33). What a transforming experience we could have if we recognized that God is giving us tomorrow’s bread today.

But let me make another observation about this passage. The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer for a community of faith, not solely for individuals. The only singular pronouns in the prayer refer to God. All the rest are plurals—our’s and us’s. We pray this prayer as a community of faith. All of our “my’s” and “mine’s” are blended together into “our’s.” When God answers this prayer, I believe it is answered in the plural and not in the singular. God gives us today our bread for tomorrow.

Jesus asserted that when forgiveness of trespasses, debts, and sins is found within the community (vv. 12,14-15), the church will find forgiveness (v. 14) and will store up treasures in heaven (vv. 20-21). In a similar manner, I believe that God most often answers the “give us today our bread for tomorrow” through the community that shares together its abundance and supports each member who is in need. In that sense, the prayer for our bread of tomorrow finds its answer first in the abundance found within the community of faith. Withholding abundance parallels the failure to forgive and has eternal consequences.

It was a liberating experience for me to discover in this prayer of promise that God will today supply my needs for tomorrow. It was a disturbing experience for me to discover that the community of faith that prays this prayer has high accountability in answering the petitions in the prayer—especially when it is the universal church of which I am a member that prays the prayer and that expects us together to be God’s answer, providing tomorrow’s bread today from the abundance within God’s community of faith.

Monday, November 7, 2011

What Missionaries Do

Charles Leonard devoted an entire chapter in his book, Repaid A Hundredfold, to what he called ”Varied Activities and Responsibilities.” This really is an insightful chapter about what missionaries were able to do during the first half of the 20th century in China; but even more, it is a testimony to the unflagging devotion that many American missionaries demonstrated in their efforts to spread the gospel around the world. The chapter is 23 pages long, but it seemed much longer—perhaps because of the breadth, depth, and intensity of the work. The missionary’s days from sunrise to late into the evening were filled with a multitude of activities often complicated by difficult travel, economic hurdles, and struggles with foreign languages and strange customs. Daily these missionaries faced multitudes who were plagued by poverty, disease, superstition, ignorance, and exploitation.

I was most impressed by the breadth and balance of the missionary efforts in China. In a time when mission boards have shifted to a narrow focus on evangelism and starting churches, the mission in China was broad-reaching and comprehensive. Compassionate ministry to every aspect of human need was central. Economic, social, physical, vocational, and spiritual needs were in focus. Establishing preaching points and starting churches was a central strategy; but schools, hospitals, and publishing ventures also were integral to the comprehensive efforts undertaken. Indigenous workers were trained, equipped, and employed to multiply the missionaries’ efforts. Cooperation with Christians of every stripe was evident, from the Russian Orthodox to the Presbyterians to the YMCA. No area was neglected if it held the hope of making life better for people whose needs far surpassed the narrow spiritual focus that often consumes contemporary missions and ministry.

I suspect that few missionaries today can be as open and visible in their ministries as were the Leonards and other early missionaries to China. Political restrictions certainly are more severe. Nationalistic and Islamic influences raise restrictive barriers. An awareness of the secularization of our own society is too obvious through worldwide access to the media. The “do-it-all-on-our-own” mentality restricts cooperative efforts with other Christian groups and agencies. Evangelistic apathy infects many of our churches, and many other churches are infected by a narrow focus on saving souls with little regard for the whole person.

We still need a comprehensive and balanced vision of missions; and missionary pioneers like Charles Leonard can provide an inspiring model of the kind of selfless dedication, expansive compassion, visionary focus, and cooperative effort that will stretch our own missionary endeavors.

I was pleased to see an Associated Baptist Press release last week of a modern-day missionary to China, Judy Sutterlin who, working under the aegis of the American Baptist International Ministries, continues to work with the broad perspective of pioneers like Charles Leonard. She recently received the Charity Award in the Jiangsu Province of China for her work in improving people's lives and promoting social harmony. May more follow in the footsteps of Leonard and Sutterlin.

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Slow Boat to China

Frank Loesser penned the lyrics in 1948, and Kay Kyser first recorded the song, “Slow Boat to China.” That song came to mind as I read Charles Leonard’s book, Repaid a Hundredfold. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese and America’s entrance into the war, Leonard (who already had been withdrawn from Manchuria) was asked by the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention to head up an international relief program in western China. This program was administered by the International Y.M.C.A. Headquarters in New York. Chapter 13 in his book, “Famine Fields of Free China,” tells of his travel to China from New York and his two years of work in humanitarian relief efforts during World War II.

This cooperative spirit of working with other groups was an original hallmark of Southern Baptist missions and missionaries. Much of that spirit has been lost in the last couple of decades. When doctrinal purity takes precedence over human needs (both physical and spiritual), missions begins to look more like the proselyting efforts of the Pharisees in the New Testament than the ministry of Jesus to the poor, sick, and oppressed. The entire ministry of Charles Leonard is a testimony of cooperation with anyone who shared a commitment to care for the poor, the needy, and the lost. In both World Wars he linked up with other agencies to address critical needs, and this was done with the blessing and commitment of the Foreign Mission Board. Unfortunately, cooperation like that today too often requires passing a litmus test of orthodoxy.

Those of you who have read stories about Adoniram Judson, Lottie Moon, and other pioneering missionaries are familiar with how arduous travel was before the advent of air travel. We are now able to travel to China by air in a single day. When I first went to Taiwan in 1964, three days was more the norm. Charles Leonard’s trip took two months, but that was greatly influenced by the fact that he was traveling during a time of war when German submarines in the Atlantic and Japanese submarines in the Pacific threatened all ocean travel. The two months were not wasted, however. Leonard used this time to write the first draft of his book, which was not published until two decades later.

One other sacrificial aspect of this assignment is that Charles Leonard left his wife and three children in the United States and was separated from them for two years while he addressed these humanitarian needs. Many American soldiers faced similar separations, but this assignment was voluntarily accepted and willingly embraced out of a compassion for the human suffering being experienced by the Chinese people under Japanese threat. “There was a great need and a tremendous opportunity for service to God and my fellowman in famine-stricken China, where thousands were starving for food and millions without a knowledge of God and His gospel,” Leonard wrote of his waving goodbye to his wife as the convoy of 50 ships set sail.

Departing New York, the flotilla sailed down the eastern seaboard of the US, traveled through the Panama Canal, down the western coastline of South America, swung two or three hundred miles south of Cape Horn, and then headed east for 3,600 miles to the southern tip of Africa. Crossing the Indian Ocean, they landed in Bombay but had to sail on to Karachi traveling by night because every berth was taken in Bombay. From Karachi, he traveled by train back to Bombay. There he sent copies of the first manuscript of his book to the American Embassy in Bombay, to the Foreign Mission Board in Richmond, and to his wife. Three more days of train travel brought him within range for a final 12-hour military flight over the Himalayas to Kunming in the Yunnan Province of China. Some of the refugees he met there had fled 2,000 miles from eastern China to escape the Japanese invasion. To them, even Charles Leonard’s arduous journey had been “first class” travel.

We need more people like Charles Leonard today—people of compassion and commitment who are willing to set aside their comfort and ease to address the humanitarian and spiritual needs of the 7 billion people in our world. Thousands are still starving for food and millions are without a knowledge of God and the gospel. God still asks, “Who shall I send, and who will go for me?”