Disclaimer: this is both a plea and kind of an editorial. If you don’t claim to be a Christian, don’t sweat this. You probably won’t agree with some of it and it may not make sense. Even if you are a Christian, I may offend you, so apologies all around. I really don’t mean harm.

There are a couple of related ideas I’ve been mulling over for the last couple of months. I would like to share them but I’m fearful of sounding like a blowhard. Since they represent something important and I feel led to share them, I’ll do so, but not without first expressing my humility and concern. I’m only sharing this after having thoroughly grilled myself on the same issues. In the end, I don’t have all the answers and I’m still trying to get a handle on things.

The first idea relates to missionary efforts, more specifically to medical missionary efforts. Many concepts can be known on two levels, one intellectual and the other experiential. They are not the same. Take for instance the knowledge of running a marathon. Before ever trying it, you know that running a marathon is hard. After having done it, though, you have a deeper understanding that running a marathon is hard. Before coming to Ethiopia, I knew that missionary surgeons have to do a lot of stuff beyond their area of expertise and that there isn’t enough time in the day to do it all, especially to do it well. Now I know it… and all the attendant emotions. Indeed, when we were at the PAACS conference in Kenya, I found that this was normative for every other mission hospital represented there.

It seems to be accepted as a fact of life, both among missionaries and the folks back home, that this is how a mission hospital is going to be. The needs and challenges will overwhelmingly outmatch the resources and the few people standing in the trenches will have to do the best they can, in all those unfamiliar arenas and with too few people, and pray. It makes for great books, inspiring movies and juicy correspondence. Very heroic stuff.

Well, I agree with the prayer part, but why the rest? Does it have to be that way? Would we, even non-Christians, put up with that on our own turf? If we were going to start an organization or business in the West, would we not make sure we had the necessities to make it function well? I realize there are frills, bells and whistles that are nice to have but not really required for the task. I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about fundamental building blocks that are needed to have something of quality. It is the lack of those fundamental building blocks, and the ensuing pitiful efforts to make due, that characterize the vast majority, if not all, mission hospitals. Why is this permitted, even accepted, among a community that claims to have hearts regenerated by the Holy Spirit and whose model is the One who left heaven itself to serve and die for rebellious sinners?

There are really only a few adequate responses. One response is that it really isn’t worth doing well. If so, I would suggest we all pack it up and go home and stop messing around. But I don’t believe that is so. The other response is that we’re doing something wrong.

I’ve mentioned this in other places but I’ll do so again here. I’ll bet the apostle Paul made some sweet tents. If you don’t know, Paul was a tent-maker by trade and often supported himself with this profession while spreading the early church. His writings in the Bible are filled with his zeal to see God glorified in all things. In one of his letters, he wrote, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance.” (Col 3:23-24) He states in 1 Corinthians that he became all things to all people that he might win them to Christ. He said that, “I do all things for the sake of the gospel.” (1 Cor 9:19-23) I contend that he was much too zealous for the glory of Christ and desired too greatly the salvation of men to ever sell a lousy tent. Additionally, the apostle Peter said in one of his letters, “Whoever speaks is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet 4:11)

I believe Christians, more than all people, should be interested in excellence because we should be intensely interested in God’s glory and in doing a good job of heralding Him to mankind. I would be ashamed if my mediocrity ever detracted from God’s fame among men. Please let me clarify. I’m not suggesting we should all be stressed-out, driven perfectionists frantically dashing through life fearful that we are messing up God’s image. God can handle His own image. But I do think we should be interested in doing it (whatever it is) well within the proper bounds of obedience to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. There should always be a balance in life but God gets to set the boundaries, not our creaturely desires, which tend toward laziness.

I’ll share a statistic from a talk given by the CEO of PAACS, Bruce Steffes. Sorry to throw you under the bus, Bruce, but I couldn’t find a reference for it in your talk. I know Bruce, though, and there probably is a reference… if you want it, ask him ;). Regardless, the gist of the statistic is fairly self-evident so it may not need validation. It says that 90% of the Christian wealth in the world resides in North America. Now, when the Bible talks about how wealth ought to be used, it never says the recipient should horde it up for increasing pleasures. It typically talks about it as a means to bless. The one who has extra should give to the one who is in need, that God may be glorified in both… glorified as supreme over possessions by the giver and glorified as the God who provides in the receiver. I don’t think that God gave all that wealth to North American Christians to spend on North American Christians. Again, to clarify, I know there are needs on North America and I’m not trying to diminish those needs. But it’s usually obvious when resources are spent for need versus pleasure.

To bring it around, it’s the use of resources that I’m talking about. (To further clarify, though I’m talking about mission hospitals in particular, this really pertains to all Christian endeavors to glorify God and point men to Him.) The word “resources” doesn’t just mean money. We could throw a ton of money into mission hospitals and, if that is all we do, it will still end up crummy. God has never focused on money but He has always focused on people. I would submit that the greatest need of mission hospitals worldwide is not money but loving people whose hearts have been reanimated by Christ and who desire to serve Him wholly.

I have a hunch this is where 28% of Christians snap their fingers and say, “Argh! Too bad I’m not a preacher, teacher or a doctor!” and 70% of Christians wipe their foreheads and say, “Whew! Good thing I’m not a preacher, teacher or a doctor!” I’m being a smart aleck, I know, but I have a hard time resisting, as those close to me affirm. First, remember I’m not just talking about mission hospitals… it’s just what I know best. Second, the lack of resources in the world has a very broad spectrum. If you’re working in America, or anywhere else for that matter, you’re probably doing something useful that makes life better in some way. Ergo, you are needed in the third world. In the specific area of mission hospitals, they, like their North American counterparts, need more than just doctors. They also need accountants, administrators, maintenance people, electricians, plumbers, personnel people, construction people, and all the rest. To go back to my prior argument, you wouldn’t start a hospital in Florida without these slots being filled. Why do we do it and maintain it all the time at mission hospitals in Africa, South America, Asia and other developing areas?

OK, let’s jump to the next idea. Don’t worry; if I haven’t offended you yet, keep reading… it’ll get worse.

I’ve been pondering a very prevalent and evidently important concept in 21st century America that seems to be essentially ignored by the Bible. It’s boredom. A huge chunk of the American population expends an enormous amount of time, energy, effort and money to combat boredom. And, tragically, it usually continues to haunt them no matter how far they go.

Every time I’ve searched a Bible concordance for the words “bored”, “boring” or “boredom”, I get nothing. (Except in 2 Kings 12:9, where “Jehoiada the priest took a chest and bored a hole in its lid”, but I don’t think it’s applicable.) However, I do think the concept is there. A great example can be found from a loose, conversational translation of the Bible called “The Message.” It portrays Ecclesiastes 1:2 as the following:

Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That’s what the Quester says.] There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke. What’s there to show for a lifetime of work, a lifetime of working your fingers to the bone? One generation goes its way, the next one arrives, but nothing changes—it’s business as usual for old planet earth. The sun comes up and the sun goes down, then does it again, and again—the same old round. The wind blows south, the wind blows north. Around and around and around it blows, blowing this way, then that—the whirling, erratic wind. All the rivers flow into the sea, but the sea never fills up. The rivers keep flowing to the same old place, and then start all over and do it again. Everything’s boring, utterly boring— no one can find any meaning in it. Boring to the eye, boring to the ear. What was will be again, what happened will happen again. There’s nothing new on this earth. Year after year it’s the same old thing. Does someone call out, “Hey, this is new”? Don’t get excited—it’s the same old story. Nobody remembers what happened yesterday. And the things that will happen tomorrow? Nobody’ll remember them either. Don’t count on being remembered.

Now this actually does sound familiar, doesn’t it? What we’re really talking about is satisfaction. The conclusion portrayed in the excerpt above is actively, aggressively and doggedly suppressed and denied in the minds and hearts of the vast majority of modern men and women today as we continue to search for that elusive satisfaction. The list is enormous where mankind searches for satisfaction. I can’t speak for the ladies or even all the guys but I can speak for myself. Just to be honest, here’s a short list of some of the places in which I’ve historically either searched or placed my hope for this satisfaction: family, friends, books, movies, video games, success, intelligence, money and the admiration of men. The complete list is unfortunately much bigger and uglier.

But the Bible pretty clearly states, even in the more accepted translations, that this real, meaningful satisfaction will never be found in anything “under the sun”, that is, in all nature. That’s a pretty grim indictment on a huge portion of the stuff with which we fill our lives. Is this where God leaves us hanging? Does He give us any solution?

As I’ve wrestled with this, I think the answer is found in the story of Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well. Most Christians are familiar with it but if you need a refresher (this post is out-of-control long as it is), it is found in John 4:7-30. Essentially, it is a discussion between Jesus and a social outcast that takes place beside a well. It starts out about literal water (H20) but Jesus shifts it deeper to things of soul cravings. First referring to literal water, Jesus moves on to spiritual things when He says, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” This is different than H2O. He’s talking about real satisfaction, real meaning. The Answer we’re all searching for is to be found in Jesus. This is corroborated throughout the Bible.

So… why are so many Christians thirsty? This is a question that has plagued me for many, many years; not as a general question but a personal one; a question of why I have been so thirsty. I think God is moving me in the right direction because as I write this I’m more satisfied than I’ve ever been. But here’s the thing, going to Ethiopia wasn’t the answer. In fact, going to Ethiopia was initially quite disheartening because doing life as a missionary didn’t come close to the hopes and expectations of satisfaction I had placed upon it. I think the real answer is what God has been doing in me while I am in Ethiopia. To be more accurate, I think the answer has to do with some things God has been pulling from my hands; some things to which I was tightly clinging though completely unbeknownst to me.

OK, I need to describe a few more ideas before I can wrap it all up and bring it together. If you’ve read this far, I’m not going to apologize or even complement you because you’re sick. You obviously like punishment so adding some more should be just fine.

I’ve recently been listening to a sermon series by a fine preacher named Matt Chandler. It has to do with answering a question that has haunted him for many years. Basically, he finds many evidences in the Bible and in historic Christianity of men and women who hungered deeply for God so that He was a passionate primary in their lives. They desired Him more than anything so that if they had Him it didn’t even matter if they were starving, sick or being killed. His question is why is that so rare today, especially in modern America? It’s a great handful of sermons and, if you want to listen to them, you can find them for download at the following address: http://hv.thevillagechurch.net/sermons. They are near the bottom of the page, titled Heart Matters, and are dated between 5/20/07 and 6/24/07.

In explaining one of his answers to this question of indifference to God, he references Ezekiel 14. In this passage, some of the leaders of Israel are coming to the prophet Ezekiel for guidance for the country but God doesn’t respond the way they wanted. God, in effect, says these men have placed idols in their hearts and decides He won’t answer their questions but will instead deal with their idols until He is supreme in their hearts. Chandler goes on to explain that the idols in our hearts usually have nothing to do with skulls and golden calves but with legitimate desires that have become supreme. We start with something that is not wrong, like desiring a nice house or a good job or personal safety, but then our hands begin to close around it and it becomes nonnegotiable. It becomes supreme and off-limits to God. So long as we hold those idols in our hearts, we will never enjoy God to the level described above because He will always start by dealing with those idols… and we don’t want to. So, instead of desiring to approach a sovereign, all-powerful God we want to approach a cosmic butler who will meet our demands and needs, on our own terms. As Burger King so aptly puts it, we want it our way. Since this butler god is a myth, and we can’t find him, we lose interest in pursuing the real God.

I think Chandler’s words are very insightful. How many of us have basically approached God with the following thoughts? “God, I’ve read that you satisfy my real thirst so I want your will and direction for my life. Here are the things I’m willing to give you… please tell me what your good will is concerning them and how I can use them for you. I’m ready for my thirst to go away, to get real with you.” Do you see the stupidity? According to Ezekiel, God isn’t going to tell us much except to deal with the stuff we’re not willing to give to Him. You see, if anything is off-limits to God, it is by definition supreme to Him and is therefore an idol. We logically can’t allow anything to be supreme to God and still claim to follow a supreme God. We’re just worshiping an imaginary God because the real God actually is supreme.

So, back to the original question. Why is the reality of most, if not all, mission hospitals (and every other mission endeavor) like it is? I think the answer is idolatry. The greatest need of mission work cuts deep into most people’s nonnegotiables. The tragedy is that clinging to the nonnegotiables keeps us in the shallow waters, with our feet firmly in the sand and land well in sight. The answer to the longing, thirst and need for meaning we spend our entire lives searching for can only be found in God’s deep water. You have to get out there in God territory where you can’t make it on your own strength, where you can’t tread water long enough, where you drown if God doesn’t hold you up. Because that’s really what the idols are. They’re our crutches, our way of keeping control in a scary world. But they kill us because they blind us to God. It’s doubly tragic because we’re only half right. The world is scary… but we don’t have any control. I can’t tell you how many people have asked me how I can take my family to Africa. After all, what if something happened to them? To that I have another question. Who can ensure their family’s safety here in the US, or anywhere else for that matter? As an aside, I’ll mention publicly that I take that as an insult. When someone asks me that, they are really implying I am an irresponsible husband and father. I can assure you I’m not bouncing around on a whim here. I’ve thought long and hard about this and it makes logical sense. Since I believe God is 1) supreme, 2) loving and 3) has promised that His way is best for His children, the best way I can care for my family is to do exactly what God leads me to do. To do otherwise is not only idolatry, it is foolishness. It will, in the end, turn out worse for my family if I decide I know better than God.

I’m not suggesting that everyone pack up and head to Soddo, Ethiopia… we don’t have enough housing. I am, however, challenging each of you to examine your life before God and ask Him to reveal all the things you have made supreme before Him. It may have started out as a good and reasonable desire but the moment it outpaced God in your priorities, it became an idol.

It was only because God helped me let go of some idols that I was even able to go to Ethiopia. The reason real satisfaction didn’t start to exist until well after my arrival was that God had to pry a few more things out of my hands. I didn’t even know I was gripping them until I was faced with having to let them go.

I’ll try to describe one of them to you. God has blessed me tremendously in my life and I’ve done well in most things I’ve put my hand to. Whether college, medical school or residency, I’ve always felt confident that I would do well and, thanks to God’s generosity in the abilities He’s given me, I have done well. I never knew how much I was clinging to that until Ethiopia. I was open about my intent to go to the mission field throughout my residency. During the first few years I didn’t get many responses. I suppose most people figured I was young and naïve and that I would snap out of it. As I entered my last years, though, I guess it became apparent I wasn’t bluffing and some of the real opinions started coming out. Some were given to my face; others came through intermediaries after being spoken behind my back. They included such ideas as wasting my training, (pardon my French) “pissing in the ocean”, wasting my life and pursuing an immature desire for adventure. You get the idea.

It never really bothered me but now I realize there was a reason for this that was under the surface. On the surface, I felt confident that going to the mission field was what God wanted for me and my family and I rested in that. It was a good and right reason to not be bothered by others’ opinions. Now I know there was another, hidden reason for my confidence. They may have been dismayed that I was going to a “jungle hospital” but deep inside I was confident I was going to a top-of-the-class “jungle hospital.” I may have been “peeing in the ocean” in my efforts to train African surgeons but it was going to be top-of-the-class peeing at a top-of-the-class residency.

You see, excellence was where I found a lot of peace and worth. That’s not an inherently bad thing unless you choose it over God. Sometimes God blesses us by giving us what we want but sometimes He really blesses us by asking us to give up what we want so that, in the end, we get more of Him (the best of all). In Ethiopia I was faced with the reality that this hospital and residency I was joining needed a lot of work and was hardly top-of-the-class. I was and am faced with the real possibility of a lifetime of mediocrity and maybe even outright failure (according to human standards).  God, in essence, showed me how much I loved and needed basically worldly excellence in my life. And then He asked me to choose that or Him.

So God is helping me let go of excellence by worldly standards. I’m staying in Ethiopia until He clearly sends me elsewhere, whether I “waste” my life or not. It’s pretty painful. But it’s beautifully freeing! You see when God is all, nothing can touch you. The apostle Paul had it figured out. It didn’t matter if you killed him (to die is gain) or let him live (to live is Christ), whether you fed him or starved him, whether you let him free (he spread churches) or put him in jail (he converted the guards), whether you left him alone or beat him (his sufferings advanced the gospel). Christ was all to him and he was truly free.

For many of you, God is not leading overseas. But for many of you, He is. Will you go? The answer is not to just head to Africa; it’s to head where God is leading. Contrary to the Burger King, you will never be satisfied having it your own way… ever. It’s a myth. Please, for your own sake, let it go. Real life is being offered to you but it’s in the deep waters. There will be pain and it won’t be easy but God is sufficient. That’s the great news. Not only does He tell us to trust Him completely and put nothing before Him, but He’s worthy for the task. He’s worth it.

Paul

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