This is a guest post by my friend Ann Zuccardy. As you will see, Ann is a new Christian who recently went on her first mission trip. I have great respect for Ann and appreciate her honesty about the struggle such a trip entailed. One thing I love about Ann and her journey with Christ is that it is truly provocative. She is living the kind of life that would provoke the “why” question and thus open the door to a conversation about Jesus.

She is the founder of AZ Communications, a blogger, and TEDx presenter on living with a brain injury as well as adjunct faculty at Champlain University in Vermont where she teaches a course titled, Writing for the Web.

Ann’s Blog     Ann’ TEDx Talk

Enjoy,

Dan

Haiti

I’ve been to third world countries and I’ve seen real poverty. I taught in inner city schools in New Orleans. I’ve worked as a doula helping women give birth and I’ve worked in hospice care supporting dying patients and their families. As both a mother and a person with experience caring for others, I’m unflappable when I’m urinated or vomited on. When the opportunity arose through my church to go to Haiti on a medical mission trip, I eagerly signed up, cool and calm, confident that nothing I saw there would shake me. I should mention that I am a newbie Christian. Yep. I’m a “baby” at the age of 51, having only started following Jesus just over a year ago. This was after a four-decade hiatus. Raised Catholic, I decided to check out of religion somewhere around the age of 10, calling myself a devout atheist for many years. Those details of my departure from Catholicism and return to God many years later are a whole other blog post, but the “new Christian” bit is important here because in all of my previous service work, I was a non-believer. It’s important because looking at Haiti through my new eyes, as a believer, rocked my “baby Christian” world. I was so unprepared for the shake-up of my new faith, that upon my return home from Haiti, I felt guilty that I was doing the mission thing, and maybe even the Christian thing, all wrong. Instead of feeling the love of God, compassion, and changed outlook that many of my colleagues on the trip were reporting, I was angry and anxious and having a challenge processing it all. I didn’t want to write this blog post. I didn’t want to look at my photos from the trip (except the pretty ones). After witnessing real hunger and thirst, I panicked every time I found spoiled food in my fridge. Every time I heard a friend talking about their gluten intolerance or commenting that the Starbucks barista got their soy latte order wrong, I wanted to scream at them to stop whining and then launch into the gory details of hunger in Haiti. “How can the God I’m just getting to know let Haiti be the way it is?” I wondered. This was hardly Christian behavior of me, I decided. I prayed a lot. I cried a lot. And I kept most of it to myself, fearful that I wasn’t doing anything right and that God was not thrilled about my immaturity in my new walk with Him. I was down on myself and down on God.

Our Haiti mission team was comprised of about 50 people from churches nationwide. From my church (in Vermont), there were about 20 people. Although I was not new to serving and helping others in need, this was my first mission with a team of Christians, all with more Christian years under their belts than I had. I felt intimidated when they prayed out loud (I’m reserved by nature and public prayer does not come easily to me), when they spoke eloquently of other mission trips they’d been on, when they sang songs I didn’t know. We were split into three groups. Each day, each group went off in a rickety old school bus loaded up with medical supplies, water and snacks to set up makeshift medical clinics in local communities. My group worked at the Onaville Church in a little town on the side of a mountain just outside Port-au-Prince. Each day when we finished our work, the groups reassembled at the orphanage where we were sleeping. The orphanage was surrounded by a 15 foot cinder block wall all around and guarded by men with rifles. Upon our return each evening, we’d have dinner, worship, and some small group debrief time. A large part of worship involved talking about “God sightings” – ways in which we saw God at work in Haiti in our lives and in the lives of those we were serving. God sightings were the most challenging part of my days in Haiti. I was hard pressed to find God anywhere during that week and I felt embarrassed and inadequate that my colleagues were able to see God everywhere while all I could see were sadness and despair…and an ever increasing challenge to my nascent faith. “How in the world can my colleagues (and the Haitians were were serving) people be so positive and hopeful when all I could see and smell was dust, hunger, and the stench of human waste?” I wondered if I was really cut out to be a Christian and for mission work.

The Onaville Church, where I worked every day with my team, sits on a dusty plot of land amidst a smattering of shacks made of tin where its members live. The closest water source is a lengthy hike from the church and homes. The church itself is nothing more than a cement floor, cinderblock walls, and a tin roof. Its windows are open to the world outside and covered with iron bars. Its doors are made of the same iron bars that allow people to peer in, but not get in when the gates are closed. Its “pews” were cinder blocks stacked up with a board laid across them to make a bench. There were a few rusty folding chairs and tables – they were reserved for special guests. In back of the church, in a separate small building are the toilets, which were just big cinderblock enclosures around open holes in the ground. It became clear to me that this church was indeed a special place to the people who worshipped there. It was the center of activity for Onaville, a gathering place, a healing place, a cool respite from the relentless sun-baked dusty earth. We set up our makeshift clinic with a de-worming station where patients got an anti-parasitic medication a small piece of bread with peanut butter, and a small cup of water. Of course, being Americans who must hydrate and snack constantly, we all had our own bottled water and food, but we were careful not to eat and drink in front of our patients, many of whom were hungry, malnourished, and thirsty. There were a few other stations as well to deal with basic health care issues which in the U.S. were easy to treat, but in Haiti were potentially deadly. The last station in our clinic was the pharmacy station, where we were distributing donated vitamins, ibuprofen, Tylenol cold and allergy medications, some antibiotics, and scabies treatment. There was also a prayer station where we would ask patients who were leaving if we could pray with them.

Wouldn’t you know it – on the first day, I was assigned to the prayer station…remember, I said I am uncomfortable praying out loud? Hey, I’m from New England. We are naturally reserved people and me-even more reserved as a self-conscious newbie who doesn’t know the Christian lingo and Biblical references that everyone else was making. Not to mention, I was praying in English and Haitians speak Creole. I was told I’d be “stretched” during the week, but I’d not bargained for this kind of stretching. I felt like a performer who was about to get booed off the stage at any moment. I was terrified that I’d be singled out as a fraud and sent home. I was stretched, alright, and I could not see any value in my prayers.

After my perceived failure at the prayer station, we had a local dentist come to work with us. We set up a makeshift dental clinic, which consisted of a folding chair for patients, a wobbly table upon which sat a pile of rusty, old dental tools that looked to me like something out of the dark ages and an old fashioned syringe with two needles (yes, you read that right – TWO needles for hundreds of people) for injecting lidocaine to perform extractions. Dental care in the poor parts Haiti consists largely of extracting extremely rotten teeth. I was asked if I wanted to be a dental assistant. No one else was clamoring for the job – it looked terrifying – so I volunteered. I figured I’d been with many women giving birth and that perhaps my experience with teaching deep breathing and relaxation and my fearlessness around blood would be helpful here. I dubbed myself the dental doula. I intend to write more about the details of my dental doula experience separate from this post because it was such a profound and literally gut wrenching experience. I saw teeth so rotten that they were practically liquefied. I saw the two needles being used over and over again on patients having teeth extracted. I saw a lines and lines of people waiting patiently to have teeth extracted while they watched our dentist wrestle with a stubborn wisdom tooth for 50 minutes and then give up on it. I saw tumors and growths in mouths and realized there was nothing we could do about them. I sat behind patients and held their heads as they leaned back in the folding chair and opened their mouths wide. I saw children under 10 with mouths full of rotten teeth. I saw badly infected gums where the infections had traveled beyond the gums. Do you know that an infection in your mouth (or one created when you have scabies and you scratch to the point of breaking the skin and bleeding) can cause death if infection gets into your bloodstream?

I called upon my doula experience and with each head that I held, practiced slow, relaxation breathing – praying that our patients would find comfort in my touch, but now I realize the breathing was more for me than for them. I never saw a tear. I didn’t see any clenched fists, rapid breathing or any signs of anxiety. I simply saw people who were grateful to have a rotten tooth that had likely caused years of pain yanked from their mouths. And I imagined what kind of pain would make a person so eager to open their mouth and have their teeth yanked out under such conditions. With each re-use of the needles, each time a not-so-well cleaned tool entered a new patient’s mouth, I asked myself if we were doing more harm than good. I realized that even if we helped someone feel better just for a few moments by extracting one rotten tooth, it was likely they had few more rotten teeth and a plethora of other non-dental problems. Each time we handed out a dose of Tylenol and antibiotics, I realized that what we were doing was small in the grand scheme of Haiti’s problems.

Outside the dental station, we saw listless dehydrated babies with fevers, malnourished children, tumors and growths that could be cancerous…and all we could do was give Tylenol, vitamins, prayers, and a cup of water. I prayed silently over each patient I came in contact with. Each night upon our return to the orphanage, as everyone shared their God sightings, I grew increasingly disappointed wondering where God was and why I couldn’t spot Him as so many others were. In retrospect, more than a month after my return from Haiti, I am able to look back on my experience and recount my own God sightings. When I became a Christian in late 2012, I wondered where, in the state of Vermont, I would find my people. A dear friend of mine who was with me at the beginning of my walk said, “Don’t worry. The right people will appear.” And here I was in early 2014, surrounded by people from my church and new friends from all over the country and in Haiti who did not judge my fear of praying out loud or my lack of Biblical knowledge because it wasn’t about me. It was about all of us working together for a week to serve. I look back on the experience now and I realize that never, in my professional life, have I never seen a group of people from so many walks of life work together and communicate with each other so beautifully for a single purpose. Never before had my voice and my fears been so unconditionally accepted and valued in a group. I’d found my peeps in the people with whom I served and in the citizens of Onaville. I’d say that’s a pretty good God sighting.

I told you I am not as well-versed in the Bible as I’d like to be, but I’m working on it. As we near Easter, I am struck by the simple words Jesus spoke as he was near death on the cross and how they relate to my experience in Haiti both metaphorically and literally. In John 19:28, Jesus says “I am thirsty” just before he gives his spirit to God. The thirst I saw in Haiti broke my heart and shook my faith. A wise pastor on our mission advised me, “Look for Haiti at home.” I didn’t begin to fully process those words until well after my return, as I recognized that I had been thirsting for a God sighting in a dry and barren land. Even bigger than that, I realized that we are all thirsty. I was thirsty for 40 years – my soul dry like the soil of Haiti.

So, as I continue to write and process in the days that pass between me and my first mission trip, I repeat the words “I am thirsty” to myself daily. I ask myself where I am noticing “thirst” both in myself and in others and I try to offer up a silent prayer for guidance or a “cup” of whatever another may need. I have not fully mastered noticing my own thirst or the thirst of others, but I each day I become more adept at practicing. The more I practice, the more my fledgling faith is strengthened. I know there will be many more “Haiti’s” for me. I am eager to have my own thirst quenched as I grow in my walk with God and to hopefully alleviate the thirst of another by finding a God sighting in every Haiti I encounter.

 

The hashtag, “HotJesus” went viral last week. It all had to do with the Son of God movie that was released to theaters and the physical appearance of actor Diogo Morgado who portrays Jesus. Apparently some people think Morgado is a good-looking guy and said so. That raised the issue of whether or not his physical good looks detracted from the message. On the other side people were saying as long as it gets people to the movie to hear the message, what does it matter. As you may have guessed I have some thoughts on the whole thing.

First this is not new that Jesus in movies is good-looking. In the early 60′s Jeffrey Hunter played Jesus in The King of Kings. He was a Hollywood Hunk at the time. In the 70′s it was Ted Neely in Jesus Christ SuperStar and more recently Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ. Neither of them are ugly men. So why would we be surprised that the latest portrayal by Diogo Morgado is any different. It’s Hollywood. Unless you are a character actor who needs a certain look, chances are you are going to be above average in the good looks department. At least you will be once they make up and airbrush you enough.

Is there a reason to be concerned about the physical portrayal of Jesus? Does it really matter as long as people see the movie and hear the message? Clearly it does. In our overly sexualized culture some folks become way too focused on “HotJesus” and missed the point of the message. Certainly there will be people who go to see the movie because they heard about “HotJesus” and in spite of that they will get the message. But even still there is a reason to be cautious, even concerned with how we portray Jesus. First and foremost is that we have absolutely no description of what Jesus looked like. So any attempt on our part will be pure speculation that is heavily influenced by our own biases. Such portrayals can unintentionally say more about us than they do about Jesus while at the same time telling some people Jesus is not for you. The recent statement by a politician that “Jesus was white” only serves to show the danger. For the record Jesus was a middle eastern Jewish guy. Not exactly a candidate for a Western European Caucasian.

The one statement in Scripture that gives any hint to the physical appearance of the Messiah comes in Isaiah 53:2 which says,

 he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
    and no beauty that we should desire him

In other words, Jesus was very average looking. You wouldn’t pick him out of a crowd because of his looks, good or bad. I am convinced that was by God’s design. Jesus came into the world to be our representative on the Cross. In literary terms he came as an everyman character. He was someone we all could relate to so it would make sense for him to be average looking.

Being average looking was important for another reason. It meant that people were drawn to Jesus not by his physical good looks but by three other more important traits, his unconditional love, his authoritative teaching and his miraculous power. In his love for people Jesus reached out to the sinner and the rejected as well as the religious and social insiders. In all cases they experienced love and personal acceptance while at the same time being told that they were sinners in need of repentance. Jesus showed how to love people welcome them while rejecting their lifestyles and calling them to do the same. That is a skill woefully lacking and needed in today’s world. His teaching was done with such confidence and a sense of authority that when he spoke people marveled and debated and chewed on what he said. The Word of God has the effect. And finally when he healed people, cast out demons, turned water into wine, walked on water and raised the dead, people noticed and they marveled. At no point did his appearance become the topic of discussion. It was all about his message, his love and his power.

Where the follower of Christ must be concerned with portrayals of Jesus is that, as Marshall McLuhan said , “the medium is the message”.  Whatever vehicle one uses to transmit a message will in some way impact the message itself. Radio impacts the message differently from television which is different from a movie which is different from Broadway which is different from a tweet. An ugly Jesus impacts the message differently from “HotJesus” which is different from average looking Jesus. If he came originally as an average looking man then maybe we should be more diligent to see him as such.

Maybe more importantly there is a lesson here on God’s command to not make any images of him. As soon as we make an image of God we confine God to something that cannot contain him and we run the risk of focusing on or even worshipping the image more than God. There is a lesson to be learned from both Islam and Judaism with their connections to Moses. They each forbid any human depiction that may be worshipped or which of necessity would be woefully inadequate, not to mention inappropriate, in its portrayal of deity.  We will never get to that point with Jesus. That ship has sailed. There are more physical depictions of Jesus in art than you could ever count. But that should not keep us from continually moving the conversation away from what Jesus looked like to who Jesus was and is, God come in the flesh, crucified, buried, risen, ascended to the right hand of the Father,the only way of salvation, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world and the one who is coming again.

Freedom always comes with a price tag. The sad and tragic fact is the price is often shed blood. My own country’s struggle for freedom 240 years ago was a struggle soaked in blood. This morning as I read the news from around the world I see that same struggle happening in country after country. This is nothing new yet in recent days it has struck me in a far more personal way. I have personal connections in many of the places where people are striving for and in some cases dying for freedom.

Freedom Square in Kiev, known locally as Maydan, is a place I have visited many times. I have numerous friends who have been in the square making their voices heard, not only for freedom but for the Gospel. They have had a prayer tent in the middle of the square since day one and they have served the broken and wounded, both the physically broken and spiritually wounded. Scores of people have been killed and hundreds severely injured. Venezuela is following in the footsteps of Ukraine. Reports are that paramilitary bands are roaming the streets on motorbikes shooting anyone who looks like they are going to protest a government that has increasingly oppressed huge portions of the population. Torture and death have become commonplace but still people are massing to protest the brutality. Venezuela is on our minds because one of our daughters-in-law’s family is from Venezuela having been forced out under Chavez. In the South Sudan cities of Juba and Malakal there is gunfire in the streets with rebels and government forces battling. With a team from Northland I trained 100 church planters in those cities a year ago. They and their children go to sleep at night with the percussion of gunfire and explosions of grenades as their lullaby. Bangkok is barely in the news but I have paid close attention, having been there recently and knowing a team of people who are there now training church planters. Then of course there is Egypt which continues to boil. Once again a place in my heart. I have been there 8 or 9 times over the years. My middle son lived there for the first year of the revolution and we have a close partner church one block from Tahrir Square. That church, like others in Kiev, has served as a makeshift hospital in the midst of bloody turmoil.

These places are not far off distant lands to me or my family. They are very real, tangible, close. We can hear the sounds, see the sights, and smell the unique aromas of each of those places. We hear the voices of friends there and see their faces, hear their laughter, feel their anguish. We have talked about the fact that as a family we have a connection to each of these places, about how our hearts ache for our friends. I honestly wish I could be there with them. I long to be there to stand with them, to let them know they are not alone, that others around the world have not forgotten them. But how do you go to half a dozen places at once? You don’t. But even going to one is not an option. Not because of the danger, but because I know my friends. In one moment they would be thrilled and encouraged by my arrival and in the next their amazing love and hospitality and concern would kick in and they would end up focusing their time and energy on me and not the task at hand. So I stay on my back porch and think of them, pray for them and write to all of you about them. I pray for Oleg, Anatoly, Nadia, Olena, Fayez, Nader, Sarah, Matta, Patrick, their families and many others who yearn for freedom and are paying a price in its struggle and are at the same time being a witness to others of the love of Christ, risking their safety so others may know Jesus.

Know Jesus. That’s really the point isn’t it? Even in thinking about freedom and the price paid for it, one cannot escape the Gospel. I said that the price of freedom is often paid in blood. I wonder, should we really be surprised by that when the price of our ultimate freedom was also blood? There is a great passage in John 8:31-6 where Jesus says that the truth will set us free and that in Him we have true freedom. The religious leaders argued that they had always been free and didn’t need Him to make them free. But as He usually did, Jesus meant something far deeper than physical or even political freedom. He was talking about being spiritually free, which is the most important of all freedoms. He was talking about the fact that we are all enslaved to our sins and desires but that He came to pay the price, the blood price for our freedom. We say that our freedom as Americans has been purchased by the blood sacrifice of countless others who died so we might live. Jesus is the premier example of paying that price for our freedom. He shed His blood so that all who believe and trust in Him might have freedom from guilt, freedom from sin, freedom from the bondage and slavery of our broken human nature. I can’t think about Kiev, Bangkok, Juba, Malakal, Cairo, or the friends I have in those places without thinking about Jesus who gave everything that I might be free. As He said in John 8, “If the Son has set you free, you are free indeed”.

So I pray for my friends, that they would know Jesus presence and freedom even in the midst of suffering. I pray that they would know they are not alone, that He is with them. Yet I wonder perhaps if they don’t already know His presence in the midst of pain far better than I do from the comfort of my back porch. I suspect they really do, for Jesus makes Himself known to us in the midst of the furnace in ways not possible in the midst of comfort.

Finally I ask that you pray for them as well. Pray for Jesus to show up in those places and change hearts as only He can. As you pray for them, pray for yourself also. Pray that Jesus sets you free and makes Himself known to you as never before.

 

I remember hearing a professional athlete some years ago make the case for renegotiating his contract. He was already making several million dollars a year and had a hefty signing bonus from his current contract already in the bank. There were a few years left on that contract but for a number of reasons he wanted a new contract and even more money. The case he made when people objected that he already had a great contract was this, “this is about my families security. This is about feeding my kids and getting them an education. It’s about my family’s security”. My first thought was, what planet are you living on. What kind of food do your kids eat when several million dollars a year doesn’t cover the grocery bill?

Of course it is easy to poke fun at an athlete who makes more in a year than many people will make in a lifetime yet is still worried about financial security and the future. When I speak of our cultural value of security it is the financial variety I am talking about. Make all the fun we want of the athlete but the fact is, nearly everyone in our western culture is looking for financial security. And nearly everyone is convinced that if they only had a little more money, security would finally be theirs. The athlete making millions a year worries about the end of his career and says, I just need a few million more a year and I will be okay. The business woman making great money on Wall Street says, if I only had a few hundred thousand more a year I would finally be secure. The middle class suburbanite says if I only had ten or fifteen thousand more a year I would be set. The inner city single mom says, if I only had a few hundred more a month I would be fine. Do you get the point? We all think that what we need is a little bit more and we would be financially secure and able to breathe easier.

Now I get the feelings of the single mom to whom a few hundred dollars a month means the difference between food on the table or shoes on the feet. But after that it seems to me that most of the rest of us have somehow missed an important biblical point. It goes to the story in Luke 12 of a farmer who had such a huge crop that he ended up building bigger barns to store all that grain in for a future day. He went to bed feeling completely secure in his future because by all human standards of measurement he had it made. No worries. His supply of food, i.e. tangible wealth in the 1st century, would never run out. He was as secure as anyone could ever be. Yet when he went to sleep that night, it was his last. The warning given by Jesus was do not seek to gain the whole world and then end up losing your soul. In our western material obsessed culture we are doing just that. Even within Christianity there is a growing movement that measures spirituality by how prosperous you are materially. Surely with such a theology we are in danger of losing our soul.

Perspective and context are often the keys to understanding life. In The United States there is an escalating tension over wealth. People who have huge amounts of it are being attacked for having it and people who don’t are crying out about the unfairness of it all. The 99% and occupy movements are indicative of this way of thinking. Here is my problem with it all. If you live in The United States you had best be careful about this whole 99% issue and about the injustice and unfairness of the income inequality you see. The reason is simply this, by mere fact of living in America you are among the tops 5% wealthiest people in the world. How do I figure that? Simple. For starters there are roughly 7 billion people on the planet of whom just over 300 million are living in the USA. That makes it less that 5 % of the world’s population. When we look at the financial side of it, when compared to the world’s top 30 developed nations, the average American makes about 60% more a year than the average for those countries. That doesn’t even take into account half the planet that lives on 2 dollars a day or less. That’s 3-4 billion people who live on two dollars a day. When you sift it all out what you end up with is that nearly every American is better of materially and financially than 90-95% of the rest of the world. So when you complain about the injustice of income gaps between the rich and the not so rich in America, remember that on a world context you are most likely among the rich.

I could go on with lots of numbers that would make your eyes glaze over. Rather, having been in 30+ countries on every continent but Antarctica in recent years I think I have a fairly decent view of the world and what people are living through. Let’s not talk numbers. Let’s talk lifestyle. Let me ask you a few questions. Have you gone out to dinner in the last month, including fast food drive through? Have you bought a book just to read for pleasure in the last 6 months? Have you gone to a movie theater in the last 12 months? How many televisions are in you house? Cable or satellite? How many cars in your family? Do you have things in your closet that you haven’t worn in a year because you have plenty of clothes that you do wear regularly? I could go on and on and on. Please understand this, for many people I know around the world the answer to every one of those questions is no or none. They could not dream of buying a book to read for pleasure because it is the cost of three meals. They have never been to a movie theater because it means the difference between a few hours of amusement and shoes. They have only the barest of necessities to sustain their lives.

What I find fascinating about so many of those folks is that they are more in touch with community, their faith, family, God, and lots of other things that really matter than any dozen of us who have so much more. You see something is happening to us in our material blessing. We are being deceived into thinking that those are the things that make life good. We have bought into the cultural value that says those are the things that will insure our security into the future. The problem is, we end up trusting in those things and not the Lord who blessed us with them. Jesus made it clear that we should not be obsessed with such things because our heavenly Father knows we need them and if we trust Him, He will take care of us. That was not a license to sit back and not work or even to plan for the future. Rather it was a word of assurance reminding us that our security does not come from our stuff but from our Father. Instead of feeling secure because we have material wealth we need to feel secure because of our relationship with and trust in our heavenly Father. Jesus says that all our stuff will rust, corrode, be burned up, stolen, destroyed. There is no security in that stuff. There is only security in Him. The more we place our security in the stuff, the less we will find true security in Him and that will slowly suffocate our faith.

Safety, comfort, and security. They sound like wonderful, worthy goals that no one would take issue with. After all, who would willingly seek out and embrace their opposite numbers, danger, suffering, and turmoil? Yet in a previous post I began to make the case that these three nearly universally accepted values of the western world are in fact slowly suffocating and choking the life out of the faith of most Christians. In that post the focus was on our obsession with safety and its negative impact on a faith that trusts God enough to move into circumstances that on the outside appear risky, even dangerous, when remaining in place is actually more dangerous to your soul.

This post is about comfort. On the surface you would think who could possibly have an issue with comfort. The Bible itself is full of references to comfort and how God promises to comfort His people. Not all comfort is created equal. When God offers to comfort His people it generally is in the context of a people who are suffering and God wants to strengthen them in the midst of hardship. That is what comfort is really about. It is the combination of two Latin root words, com, meaning with or alongside and forte meaning strength. So to comfort someone in a classic sense is to be alongside them providing strength. I will take kind of comfort whenever I can get it, especially when it is God who offers it.

Far from a comfort that brings strength in time of need is the 21st century variety. Our value of comfort is more about making life free from all struggle, all hassle and all minor irritation. It is about making a nice life as soft and plush as possible. Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating pain and suffering as a virtue to be pursued. Last year I put in nearly 175,000 miles in an airplane seat as I traveled the world helping train pastors and leaders to plant churches. That level of frequent flyer miles means that on rare occasions I get bumped up from economy to business or first class. Trust me, it has never crossed my mind to turn down that upgrade to a more comfortable seat in the name of some misguided love of discomfort. When you have a fourteen hour flight ahead of you and someone offers you a bigger, softer reclining seat with a meal served on real plates, you take it. There is nothing “holy” about bumping elbows with your neighbor as you try to eat bad food with the seatback in front of you nearly in your lap. Yes, I will take the upgrade when I get it. What I try hard to do is take it as a blessing so that when I don’t get upgraded flying overseas, which is 90% of the time, I don’t get annoyed and put out by the experience.

When I speak of our obsession with comfort I am talking about what I see as a value that no one should ever be physically, emotionally or socially uncomfortable. Take some time to watch ads on television and you will quickly see that Madison Avenue is selling, among other things, the life of comfort. Anything that makes life easier, more plush, softer, is good. It doesn’t matter if the product is a car or toilet paper. Conversely, anything that is difficult, hard or stressful is intrinsically bad. Parents want their children to never ever feel uncomfortable so to the delight of makers of sports trophies, even the worst player on the worst soccer or Little League Baseball team gets a trophy at the end of the year because Lord forbid that a child should be forced to deal with the painful reality that some people are better at kicking or hitting a ball than they are. 

So what does this have to do with your Christian faith? Simply this, I have found that my faith often grows stronger when I am forced outside my “comfort zone” and it grows weaker and softer the more comfortable my situation and surroundings. Our cultural value that seeks out comfort at nearly any cost is in direct conflict with one of the most important ways God uses to deepen our faith and relationship with Him. Imagine for a moment that you are faced with two possibilities. You can take a two-week vacation to that favorite relaxing spot you’ve always dreamed about. Be it a tropical beach resort or a lush mountain getaway, it doesn’t much matter. The point is it is a place of comfort, beauty, special service, fantastic food, huge soft beds and wonderful hot tubs. You enjoy the comfort of servants who cater to your every need. Each night you go to bed stuffed from the abundance and variety of the food you feasted on. At the end of it all you drag yourselves to the airport and go home to face the work week. You love the time you had in comfort but somehow feel like you need a vacation to rest from your vacation, yet you cannot of the life of you think of what you did that really mattered and will last.

Your other option is two weeks in a third world country caring for AIDS orphans. The food will be the same everyday, something along the lines of pasty grits with some beans on top. You will bath out of a bucket after a night of sleeping on a very hard bed under a mosquito net. But everyday you will be challenged by the smiles and laughter of children who have nothing but feel they have everything because you came to love them for the briefest of days. You will find yourself praying for strength and feeling guilty that you complain about the food knowing that these kids eat the same thing everyday. Well actually only Monday through Friday when they have school. On weekends there is no food at home. You will find yourself reading your Bible every morning AND evening because you need it like never before. Incredibly the words jump off the pages and into your heart as never before. When it is finally time to go home the tears flow as children rush to hug you and say goodbye and it takes all you have to peel them away and not smuggle one or two into the van.

Which was the more comfortable two weeks? Which was the more difficult, challenging and uncomfortable? Which one did nothing to strengthen your faith and as a result actually weakened it? Which one changed you forever and drew you nearer to the heart of Jesus as never before? That answers are obvious, yet most people will never, ever consider the uncomfortable two weeks because it is just that, uncomfortable. They dismiss it out of hand without realizing they have made a decision based on a deeply held cultural value and not a call from God to change the world. It is not just the decisions on what to do with two weeks of vacation that is in play here. It is the decisions we make every day to select comfort over challenge, ease over effort, soft over sacrifice. Those daily decisions add up over time to suck the life out of the Christian faith.

Faith in Jesus is a living, breathing thing. Like all living things when healthy it grows and even reproduces. As long as it receives the proper nourishment and right environment it can flourish. But if we cut back on the nourishment or the environment becomes toxic, sickness and even death can result. The scriptures speak often of the difference between the things of this world and the things of God. For the follower of Christ our citizenship is in heaven but we currently live in this world as something akin to aliens and sojourners. We are to some degree living in an environment that by its very nature threatens the health of our faith.

The environmental issues that most threaten the health of Christianity in America are not the things that we Christians typically focus on, you know the lists of various sins du jour that come under scrutiny. There was a time when many preachers focused on three “big” sins of sex, drugs, and rock n roll as the cause of the coming downfall of the American Church. Sex, (whether of the homosexual or heterosexual variety), drugs even legalized marijuana, and certainly rock n roll will not be the death of Christianity in America. Rather there is a different big three that are far more insidious and dangerous. I am convinced that the American obsession with safety, comfort and security are slowing sucking the life’s breath out of Christianity in our country because Christians have unwittingly and uncritically been breathing the toxic air of an environment in which those three values subtly influence nearly every decision we make.

The illustration of a frog in a kettle of water has been used often, even being the title of a widely read book on church growth and transformation in the 80′s. The idea being that if you put a frog in a kettle of water that is extremely hot the frog will immediately jump out and save its life. But if you put the frog in water that is a comfortable temperature and will stay there even as you slowly raise the temperature to boiling and kill the frog. Christians in America are the frog in the cultural kettle. Over time the culture values of safety, comfort and security have become more and more the guiding values and as that has increased, we have not even noticed the life threatening change. Or maybe to stay with the analogy of air, many people have slowly succumbed to the toxic poisoning of carbon monoxide without even realizing they were breathing in their very death. In either case the point is, our cultural values of safety, comfort and security are killing our faith and witness and in a shocking irony we are embracing those values as being prudent, wise and even biblical.

Let’s talk about the first of those, safety. We have become obsessed with safety to the point that products have warning labels that go to the extreme of telling you not to use your electric hair dryer while sitting in the bathtub full of water. Children are not allowed to ride their big wheels unless they are wearing OSHA approved helmets and are in the basement where the walls are covered with protective foam and the floors are rubber. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying we should be reckless and there are real risks to life and limb in the world. But it seems to me that we have progressed, or may regressed to the point where anything that has the slightest potential what-so-ever to have a bit of danger in it is immediately off-limits. I contend that in our efforts to insulate ourselves from any pain, hardship or disaster we have in fact insulated ourselves from life in the process.

So how has this impacted the church? I have three sons, the second of whom spent a year in Egypt. It wasn’t just any year. It was the year of the revolution. He arrived in Cairo just a few weeks after Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president. During the year my son was there protests and violent clashes were still a fact of life. Tahrir Square was at times a battle ground and people died. On more occasions than I can count people asked my wife and I if we were worried about his safety. Our answer was always the same and it was heartfelt and fully believed. Our son was convinced that God wanted him to be in Egypt serving others during that year. With that as our foundation we were certain that the safest place for him to be was Cairo, Egypt. Our home in Orlando would not have been safe, at least not in ways that really matter. His year in Egypt was a year of amazing growth and life for him. Was it risky on a physical level, sure. Would Orlando have been less a physical risk, maybe, maybe not. But it certainly would have been a greater risk to his faith and relationship with Jesus. Only by stepping into the risky place where God had called him for that year could he have experienced the things that so deeply impacted his relationship with Jesus and his view of the world.

Here is the point. Jesus never promised us safety. Instead he promised us life, life abundant which is a far better deal than mere safety. Jesus said in John 10:10 “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly”. He promised us life to the fullest which only comes in a healthy, living, breathing relationship with Him. That means sometimes going places and doing things that seem risky to a world obsessed with safety. Oh and the other thing Jesus promised is that we would face danger and even suffer. In Matthew 10:16 he warned his followers that he was sending them out like sheep in the midst of wolves. That usually doesn’t turn out well for some of the sheep. But notice that Jesus did not say, hey there are wolves out there. It’s dangerous. You better stay inside. No, instead he acknowledged the wolves and warned that they are there. But we are not meant to live life as sheep protected behind the walls of a sheep pen safe from all harm. We were made to go into the world, living life and bringing life, even when it is dangerous, even when there are wolves around. It is in those moments that you will experience being fully alive.

Somehow we have bought into the cultural worldview that sees anything hard, painful and the least bit dangerous as something to be avoided. The result being very few Christians will ever feed a homeless person because who knows what they might to when you give them something to eat. Very few Christians will ever use vacation time to go serve in another country or even another part of America, because isn’t it dangerous there? Very few Christians will ever share their faith in Christ with a neighbor for surely they may get mad at me? Very few Christians will ever truly experience the abundant life Jesus offers us because we are obsessed with being safe when in reality we are slowly destroying ourselves by breathing the toxic air of a cultural value.

The Kingdom of God will not be advanced by Christ followers who are always measuring what to do based on the value of being safe. In such a worldview being safe will always trump advancing the kingdom because advancing the kingdom is not safe, it is risky and dangerous, but it is full of life, life abundant.

Part 1 of 3. Next up, How Our Obsession With Comfort Has Made Us Spiritually Obese.