COVID-19 and Missions: What I’ve learned so Far

As a freelance author, I’ve felt led to tackle the issue of COVID-19’s effect on missionary work overseas, particularly in Japan, Italy, and Spain. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to write about missionary work and glad for the editors who are taking a chance on this subject.

I will say that I’m surprised that Christianity Today is not writing more about this (I’m available, if you’re curious, Andy Olsen). CT is the go-to resource for Christian news and this is a topic that is severely underserved. I hope that gets rectified.

At any rate, I want to share a few things that I’ve learned so far in my research:

  1. In many ways, missionaries are facing the same issues we’re facing in North America. I know a college teacher in South Korea and another in Lithuania. Both have had to move online and some courses are just not available right now. This is the same thing facing San Diego State University, UCSD, and just about every other school in America.
  2. In some countries, it really is that bad. Near Madrid, Spain, they really are using a mall ice skating rink for body storage, and the missionaries I’ve met there really are locked down in ways that we haven’t seen in the USA, even in California where I live.
  3. One of the biggest areas where missionaries are being impacted is in funding. Because they had to shutter their English classes at a local café (that they manage), Dale and Karen Viljoen have had to turn to other funding sources (supporters) to keep the ministry alive until the classes can resume. Another family, hoping to start a ministry in Italy this summer, now finds themselves stuck at 80% funding because they can’t travel to churches to find new supporters.
  4. Glimmers of hope abound, but it might be awhile before we hear about them in the hardest hit areas of the globe. People are really struggling in Italy and Spain. These are places that don’t have evangelical churches to serve as a reference point, not that they can do that at the moment at any rate. Still, in Japan, Dale and Karen have found reasons to be hopeful, and we should look for those reasons too, whatever our situation. I just saw a post from some missionary friends in Lithuania that was full of gratitude despite a recent decision to extend that country’s lockdown until at least Easter Monday.
  5. Everyone overseas right now needs our prayer. I know…you need prayer for your family’s well-being too. Maybe you’ve lost a loved one. Even still, we are blessed beyond comprehension as believers by the sheer fact of our belief. People are dying in neighborhoods that have no evangelical gospel witness, and I hope that breaks your heart like it’s breaking mine. Pray.

As I get word that my articles are being published in the various news outlets, I’ll share them out on Facebook, Twitter, etc. In the meantime, please pray, and if you give, try to continue doing so if at all possible. Give more if you can. Keep overseas work going.

You can read more about why I chose this topic on THIS BLOG POST.

Until the next update…

 

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Why I choose to write about COVID-19

I am commissioned to write two articles on COVID-19 and missionary work in Asia and Europe. As I write those articles and others, I wanted to give you an idea about why I chose this topic.

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Beautiful little stream near our hotel in Su’ao, Taiwan.

Around the first of March 2020, as the world was learning just how bad COVID-19 was getting, I was struggling to find a vision for my writing. I had a great nonfiction project going with my church’s teaching pastor (still going, actually), but my fiction writing was dying on the vine and I hadn’t written an article that sold since May 2018. I’d lost my original focus somewhere.

Which led to my first reason for writing about COVID-19. I needed to calm down, get back to writing what I love, and find people to serve. While the world is awash in competing claims about the virus, I felt that maybe missionaries were not being written about as much as they should be, so I focused on that. That has led to two article projects as of this writing, and I have plans for more (hopefully).

Another reason is that the writer in me is still skeptical that we’re getting the whole picture. I don’t know if we’ll ever get there, and I’m certainly not going to be the person who breaks it open. I don’t know if it’s the “liberal media” stirring things up, or the Chinese Communist Party trying to keep their economy intact while blowing it out of proportion to drive competing western economies down, or what it is, but I just feel something in my gut that isn’t square.

Again, I don’t expect to be the person who will figure it all out. Nevertheless, it’s spurred me to do what I can in a situation like this, which is to look for stories to tell that might help people understand the overall situation better. That’s one of the reasons I picked to specifically talk about missionary work in light of COVID-19.

Finally, but certainly not least, I need to be humbled about my writing. I keep having grand visions for my work, and I keep having to be reminded that God gives success and failure, and that I need to just do the next indicated step. I’m his servant, so I need to focus on being that. COVID-19 reporting will not make me famous. Plenty of bigger names are already covering that. But it is a way for me to serve.

I look forward to what I will learn as I write about this interesting situation as it continues to unfold.

If you want to stay up to date with my writing as I focus on COVID-19, you can sign up for my newsletter HERE.

 

Taiwan Visit (Photo Blog)

I was blessed to be part of a trip to Taiwan recently, my third trip in twelve months. I’ve grown to love that island and the people that comprise its population. In two of the visits, God has blessed me further by letting me meet with believers. On my first trip, I got to visit an international congregation on Easter Morning while on my most recent trip, I worshipped with a Taiwan congregation.

My travels have taken me to Taipei, Su’ao, Kaohsiung, and a few other main cities near Taipei and the airport that serves that city. Su’ao, in particular, has become to me like my hometown of Girard, KS. It is small, quaint even, but I have grown to love it for that simplicity. In all three visits to the village, situated in Yilan County, I’ve run most days.

After a few days in Su’ao, we moved on to Kaohsiung, which I’ve been to once before, on my first trip to the country. This time, I got to worship in Mandarin with a church there.

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David Ullstrom, OMF missionary to Taiwan, preaching in the native language.

I’ve written at length in my monthly newsletter about the church, but I’ll say a little snippet here: “This is what I love about the people of God. When I arrived at the church, David (the missionary) confessed that he probably wouldn’t be able to offer a translation because, well, it was a church ministering to Taiwan people, not English speakers. Much to my surprise, a retired Taiwan Air Force technician, who also led the singing for Qiaotou God’s Love Church, sat down next to me after the worship and personally translated everything David preached, just so I could follow along. He then translated everything for me during the little Sunday School time after, and of course translated my words back to the congregation when David asked me to share about why I was there.”

 

I was also blessed to be in town during the annual Lantern Festival. Please enjoy the photos!

 

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American Easter

IMG_8908This Easter holiday, I’m in a country that doesn’t celebrate the Risen Christ. In fact, they don’t celebrate Easter at all. There are no church slogans posted on billboards, no Easter bunny’s hopping on plastic signs, and no eggs to buy in stores. No peeps either, but I’m ok with that.

There is no Easter here.

That’s to be expected when only 4% of the population ascribes to a form of Christianity. That includes Catholics, Reformed, non-denominational, etc. The whole kit and caboodle. Only 600,000 protestants and 300,000 Roman Catholics out of a total population of 23.5 million people.

IMG_8913I should back up a little. Having visited a church in Taipei, I know for a fact that 600,000 Protestants here celebrate Easter. I’m sure that the 300,000 Roman Catholics celebrate as well, however limited its form in this culture. What I mean to say is that the holiday does not permeate culture like it does in America.

On the other hand, there is something refreshing about not being inundated with what Easter is in America. The fact that many churches start the week with children waving palm branches and muddling through a few songs on Palm Sunday annoys me, frankly. And that it culminates often with Easter egg hunts on Saturday morning or after services on Sunday is just shy of sacrilegious.

Cue the defensive responses from American Christians…

“We are just raising up the children the way they ought to go…”

“We are trying to bring more people to church on Easter so we can present the gospel…”

“We have to engage our culture…”

No. You only haveto get the gospel message out. If you’re doing that differently on Easter Sunday than you do on any other Sunday, you’re doing it wrong in one of those situations, probably both.

Alas, there is none of that in Taiwan, or at least not so openly produced and paraded about. Even in the hotel where I’m staying, which caters to Westerners, it’s not visible. I’m the only person wearing a pastel color, and that’s by happenstance. I did see one child dressed in a pretty white dress today. I say that in the spirit of full disclosure.

By the same token, there is no mention of the blood of Jesus Christ, which cleanses us from sin. And I saw a person today who looked incredibly down, and I had no words for them because I don’t know the language, and I can’t simply say, “There’s a church right down the road…” Taipei is largely a first world, materialistic city. As such, there is no thought of where the nearest church might be and there usually isn’t one “right down the road.”

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So, where does this leave me? It leaves me hoping that the scattered congregations on this island do what God has called all of us to do, in order to reach as many Taiwan people for Christ. It leaves me praying for the individual I saw this morning at breakfast.

In all of the pageantry that is an American Easter, I hope you will find some time for reflection as well. In the hustle and bustle of the holiday, will you pray for those you come across? Will you pray for the hundreds of millions of Americans who only know this Sunday as Easter egg hunting and the one day a year they go to church? Will you pray for the billions around the world who do not know our savior? And have no hope of redemption without someone telling them the good news? Will you pray that God sends more laborers into his harvest?

Or are you content with colored eggs and a church service?

 

IMG_8904I’m grateful for the folks at Grace Church Taipei. The church was welcoming, friendly, and simple. There was no pageantry…no special song by half-interested toddlers, no egg hunt after service. Only the message of a Righteous God displaying his Mercy through Christ’s sacrifice.

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Christians can’t give up on North Korea

The summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator is off, as in, not going to happen. Well, maybe it will. Trump seemed to leave the door open in a recent news conference. North Korea’s official response seemed to leave the idea of a summit on the table as well. Unfortunately, no one knows for certain, except maybe some diplomats in SecState Pompeo’s department. Obviously, you and I are not privy to that information.

It’s easy to get discouraged as a Christian when it seems like everything is headed back to status quo. If you’re a regular reader of mine, you know I’m interested in this situation (I actually wrote about this as early as late 2010). I believe that a peace accord and normalization of relations between Washington and Pyongyang would produce fruit in the kingdom. In fact, I believe that a well-executed summit, and its subsequent deals, could mean a world-wide outpouring of the Spirit.

North Korea, in being one of the absolute worst places in the world to be a Christian, is a linchpin in future kingdom growth. I don’t mean kinda-Christians either. I mean actual believers in Jesus Christ who live for God through the Holy Spirit every day. I mean the kind of Christians that I could only hope to be. The kind we find in many persecuted countries around the world. Back to the point: If North Korea accepts terms, even some of them, and the United States accepts that we’ll have to give in on some measures, then we might just see the kind of real growth that would spur the next revival in the world.

I believe this like I believe that David killed Goliath with a small rock. I believe it like I believe that Noah built a big boat and outlasted a flood. I believe it like I believe Jesus Christ rose again on the third day.

My hope is that you believe it too. If you don’t, please think it over.

We cannot give up on the idea of peace between the Koreas, even if it never leads to reunification. I understand that it’s not all Trump’s fault that the summit was called off. I understand that it isn’t all Kim’s fault that it was called off. Both are to blame and neither are to blame. This is a game that has been played for over 60 years.

That shouldn’t stop us from praying for North Korea, or the freedom of her oppressed people. It shouldn’t stop us from having empathy for the downtrodden. We have to break through the idea that North Korea is the enemy and focus on the fact that North Korea has millions of people who have never heard the gospel.

Pray for North Korea and for peace between Pyongyang and Washington. And then pray that our mission agencies have a plan for getting more evangelistic efforts into the country and that they enact them.

Please read a little about efforts to reach those in North Korea with the gospel by going to this great article in the Atlantic.

I would love your thoughts…and as always, you can sign up to receive updates on my social commentary by going HERE.

Praying for the North Korean Summit

I’ll be honest, I want a peace deal with North Korea. I think it’s in our best interest as a country and I think it’s definitely in the best interest for the gospel moving forward in the North. As an American, I’m not at all for giving in to Kim Jong Un. But I am for praying that peace actually happens.

Sometimes it’s difficult to separate my feelings for America and my feelings for the gospel of Jesus Christ. I don’t know if you have that problem, but I do. Sometimes I equate the two, sadly, and I have to remember that the two are not the same. The gospel should always trump loyalty to my country.

In this case, however, what is good for the gospel is good for the country. An agreement between the United States and North Korea would signal the eventual end to the saber rattling that distracts American service men and women, provides some stability in that region of the world, and would encourage the North to join the region’s trading partners. While I suspect that they would never become the former foe-turned-trading-friend like Japan or Germany, I do believe we could at least get to an Iran type situation. Yes, still rattling sabers and making threats, but not a belief that all-out war may break out at some point.

It would also allow America the opportunity to press upon the North the importance of religious freedom. Even if this never got more real than what happens in China, I believe that it would be good for the gospel message. Christianity could stop looking like an American religion to the leaders in the North, which would hopefully equal less persecution and more freedom of expression for Christians and would-be Christians in that country.

Do I think that either of these things is a sure bet? Not at all! We have a very self-assured leader in America who is honestly liable to say anything at any time, and often that equals saying the very thing that upsets a particular partner (in this case, the North). We are facing a leader who believes that he is an equal because of his nuclear arsenal (an inaccurate and inflated belief). This understanding doesn’t even account for the fact that an accord between the North and America wouldn’t automatically equal freedom of religion.

So we pray. We pray for the very reason that this is still a long-shot. We pray because we’ve been down this road before, and North Korea balked when it last had a chance to do the right thing. We pray because this would be another way for the Lord to get the glory (as long as we evangelicals don’t give the glory to Trump if it’s successful). We pray because the gospel is more important than any national barrier; the salvation of souls more important than any patriotic position.

Some ways to pray:

  1. Pray that the summit will happen, and that it will be successful. Both of those things are far from guaranteed as of this writing.
  2. Pray for an official end to hostilities on the Korean peninsula.
  3. Pray for people on both sides of the table. Pray that their egos are softened, and their hearts open to change.
  4. Pray for Christians currently living in North Korea. Pray for an end to their suffering and for freedom for them to live as Christians in the open.
  5. Pray for a revival in both North Korea and America.

If you pray for one thing each day this week, then by Saturday morning, you’ll have prayed solidly for North Korea all week! Join me in this effort, and we will all see great things happen.

I would love your thoughts…and as always, you can sign up to receive updates on my social commentary by going HERE.

Beijing doesn’t want your Bibles

China has made a move that most dispensationalist Christians would say they’ve seen coming for years. Beijing has banned online sales of the Bible in a move certain to put additional pressure on the Chinese underground church. You can read the NYTimes article here.

With Christianity’s gradual increase in China, though our faith still only makes up roughly 6-10% of the total population, the communist government has continued to ramp up its plans to dampen the fire. A regulation preventing the sale of Bibles online (they are already heavily regulated in physical form) is just the latest move. China used to meet the underground church with blunt force, often arresting pastors and levying fines against parishioners. In more modern times, Chinese authorities pressure discovered churches to join the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (China’s authorized church).

I’ve read the tenants of this authorized faith and on the surface, it doesn’t sound half bad.  However, my biggest concern is that the state authorized church means that the state, which is certainly not friendly toward Christ and his church, can stamp it out any time it pleases. More likely, of course, is that it just keeps the communist thumb on them to prevent the sort of growth that appears to be happening in the underground church.

According to the NYTimes article, a Vatican source suggests that this could be the opening salvo in a new, broader crackdown. Again, the dispensationalists would have no problem believing this to be true. As a premillennialist, I certainly believe this is very possible. While China has been fairly open on some economic issues in order to become the powerhouse that Russia could never be, Beijing has not shown the same interest in religious matters.

China is listed as #43 on the Open Doors World Watch List for 2018. One would assume that it will at least hold on to that number with a move like this, or even move up a number of slots. I’ll update this as further events unfold.

I should add that I don’t want this to scare or anger any of my readers. Our ultimate (and only) hope is in God. I do not believe he is surprised by any of this. Indeed, as a premillennialist, I believe that he is fully aware of every move that the Chinese government is making, just as he is aware of the Soviet efforts before them. I am not advocating any action on our part except to pray for those affected. We do not know them, but we are brothers and sisters and will get to meet them someday. It is our duty and our privilege, and as such I call on all Christian believers to pray for those affected by the curtailment of Bible sales in China.

A final thought as I close: America is beginning its slow move to this end as well. Bibles are still easily available, but I’ll show you tomorrow just how fragile the situation is becoming in America.

As always, you can sign up to receive updates on my social commentary by going HERE.

Tribute to Chris Gennaro, an Expendable Christian

Chris Running

I used to run with Chris Gennaro and his wife, Michelle. In fact, it was they who got me interested in running long distances. We’d often train together on Mission Bay in San Diego and I ran with them during my first two half marathons. Through running, and learning about their desire to be missionaries in Africa, I grew to love them both. In particular, Chris made a lasting impact on me as a husband, father, friend, and Christian.

Be that as it may, I never would have thought I’d take so long to get over someone’s death. Others have bothered me, but Chris’ death troubled my spirit way down deep, where my innermost thoughts live and where, I suspect, my darkest doubts lie as well. I can tell you this: I had never prayed so hard and with so much faith as I had prayed for Chris. I have never prayed for anything that important since, and probably never will again…not without a heavy dose of faith delivered first from God.

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Chris Gennaro, missionary to Lesotho, contracted encephalitis in January 2013 and passed on 16 February of the same year. He and Michelle, along with their six children (two adopted from orphanages in Africa), had moved to Lesotho to work in God’s harvest. He had just started really ministering to the people of Lesotho…his people. I remember that because it was one of my prayers. “God, don’t let him die now. He just got to really know people!”

I don’t know how many people prayed prayers like that, but it was in the hundreds. Try as we may, we couldn’t stop the mighty hand of God from carrying out his will in Chris and Michelle’s lives. Chris Gennaro had become expendable in God’s plan. Like those who are killed for their faith, my dear friend died in the harvest field.

As I read her story and think back to the moment, this is where Michelle and I take separate roads in our grieving process. Her story of course, is far more important. I watched a woman of God struggle with intense emotions, yet she came through on the other end trusting God more. It was no surprise, then, that she went back to Africa as a teacher to missionary kids. She now resides in San Diego and supports Africa Inland Mission (AIM) as the Southwest region mobilizer.

I had to take a different path in my faith due to Chris’ death, which has taught me several things over the years. I’d like to share them with you now.

First, it taught me that the grieving process can take years to get over. I’m not his widow, and I can’t imagine what she goes through. What I do know, as someone who loved Chris, that his death has been very difficult to move on from. Not all the time…but definitely some of the time.

Second, it’s hard to trust God with big prayer requests when he seems to have let you down. I prayed hard while Chris was sick, but as the days went on, it became clear that he wasn’t going to make it. While his family sang hymns on the night of his passing, I was preparing my resentment against God. My faith changed a lot that day. I remember standing up in my office when I learned that he’d passed, walking to my door, and shutting it. That day, I also shut the door on God for a long while. My rebellion was substantial.

I remember, as Chris was dying, that a song got into my head and wouldn’t leave me. It’s by Brian “Head” Welch, of Korn fame. Here are a few lines from the song “Paralyzed:”

Why is my love so cold? No more will I pretend
Gasping for air as you’re slipping through my fingers
Don’t kiss me goodbye, please don’t leave here
The smell of sacrifice, Your disappearing whispers
I cannot grasp how my life inside just withers
Don’t kiss me goodbye, please don’t leave here.

Those words hurt so bad when Chris died.

Third, I learned that God is still God even when I feel like he isn’t. Just because I throw a tantrum doesn’t mean that God comes down from his throne. He is still very much Lord of all even when I don’t want him to be. Sometimes, I feel the weight of that majesty and sometimes I feel the blessing from it, but one thing is constant: it’s always there. He does not rely on me in order to stay the King of the universe. As I struggled in the last five years to understand God and his love, his majesty seemed to grow even more dominant. It was as if I was to feel the constant pressure of his glory until I came around.

Another song comes to mind now as I remember the struggle. It is called “Hands in the Air” by a group called The Waiting. Here is a sample of the lyrics, but really the entire song is simply amazing.

Light from my window sill, make my way to the door
I hang my head and still, I know you’re wanting more
Over the threshold now, I move across the yard
All that my will allows, my every step is hard
Now in the garden I carve out six feet of space
There make my will comply, lie down upon my face
Been toe to toe too long, I’m tired of fighting You
I see You were too strong ’cause I am black and blue
But now I understand a loser’s due to win
How every dying man is sure to rise again
So I raise my left hand one, I raise my right hand two
Under the morning sun, my spirit cries to You

I’ve come to understand that God is so much more powerful than I will ever be and that is good. I’ve also come to understand that I might never comprehend how God wields his power, and that is also good. If I were to know too much, I might decide to try to influence it more than I should.

This has helped me believe in God again as my Lord. It has also allowed me to see my friend Chris as an expendable Christian who burned out giving Glory to God, which is the ONLY THING THAT MATTERS IN THE WORLD. Anything I leave here on earth when I go must likewise simply exist to give God glory. If it gives me glory, or if my legacy is just mine, then it is worthless.

As the Apostle Paul said in Acts 20:24 –

However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me —the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.

I remember one day, while running with Chris (Michelle had been unable to join us), he began to share some frustrations with me about the missionary planning process. He just wanted to get to Africa as soon as possible! I wish I had that fire…that determination…that said I would burn at both ends for God, so that, even in my death, I might hear the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

Rest well, my friend. Until we meet again…