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AN UNSTOPPABLE FORCE
daring to become the church GOD had in mind
By erwin rapahel mcmanus
David C. CookCopyright © 2013 Erwin McManus
All rights reserved.
I engage in a peculiar habit whenever I have the opportunity to travel: making my way to the center of the city and walking the streets. I never really feel that I understand a nation or a people until I've had a chance to visit their city. It's not enough to drive a rental car through it or to see it from overhead from an airplane window. You have to walk the streets. You have to feel the environment in which the people live, hear their voices, and have the strange and unusual sounds of their language seep through your ears into your mind.
I love to walk down lesser-traveled streets where, oftentimes, there are small markets and open-air restaurants. The smells that fill those streets bring you closer to the soul of the city. Sometimes you're captured by aromas that instantly cause you to salivate. Like the siren, the city pulls you in to eat foods that you could not possibly identify, with the hope that the taste you experience will somehow match the aroma that pulled you in. Other times your nostrils are filled with the stench of decay and desperation. Some cities overwhelm you with a smell that travels long distances, beyond their busiest roads. The weather and the experiences, whether fragrant or foul, are important to understanding and experiencing the essence of a city.
Bangkok is one of these cities that I've explored over the years. I must admit that, from my first experience, it was not my favorite. While the street markets are intriguing to experience, not to mention great places to pick up bargains, they are surrounded with some of the darkest realities of urban life. From every direction, you are reminded that Bangkok is one of the epicenters of child prostitution and a global exporter of AIDS and various other STDs. At the same time, by walking down virtually any street in the city, the careful observer will find countless numbers of "spirit houses"—miniature houses that grace the lawns of most residences and decorate the most ornate buildings. These structures serve as spiritual hotels for evil spirits as a way to keep these spirits at bay.
At the heart of the city there is the Wat Phra Kaew Temple—the city's spirit house. The city temple reminds us that Bangkok is essentially a spiritual city with an impoverished soul. From the elderly that I would watch pleading with the spirits for help to the dark brown colors of the rivers that flow through the city, Bangkok's need is inescapable.
I should have known from the start that, as much as I intended never to return to Bangkok (a city whose name, like Los Angeles, also means "City of Angels"), I would one day have an inseparable relationship with the soul of the city.
A MIRACLE IN BANGKOK
It happened last February. We had just finished a week of ministry in Kanchanaburi. Forty-two of us had gone together to serve over five hundred believers who, once a year, came together for refreshment and retooling. This was our day off. We were back in Bangkok.
With mixed feelings, I reluctantly joined the group that was going to the night market to pick up last-minute gifts for our families and friends back home. Like a mother with too many children at the mall, I was trying to watch everyone in our group. I had warned them of the traffic. It was intense and extremely dangerous, and I instructed everyone to stay together and look out for one another. Like a bad script, my warnings seemed to foreshadow the very experience that I was going to have.
I had taken my children, Aaron and Mariah, on this trip. I felt that this experience would expand both their vision and burden for a world without Christ. Aaron had crossed the street with the first twenty or thirty people. I turned around to instruct the other group to begin to cross, but as the light turned red, eight-year-old Mariah darted across the street before I could stop her. I could almost feel the weight of the car as it hit her head-on. Just a few feet away, I watched helplessly as her body bent around the hood of the car before she was thrown like a rag doll onto the streets of Bangkok.
It was nothing less than a surreal moment. Hundreds of sparrows were flying overhead. I could only describe them as manic. They seemed to be out of their minds, flying in a frenzied manner and making a noise that begged for release from a torment that we could not understand. I later came to know that it was the practice of the city to capture these sparrows, place them into wooden cages, and take them to places of worship for the purpose of having people impute their sins upon them in hopes of finding forgiveness and mercy. I know this may sound crazy, but I can only say that everyone who was with me would agree that somehow those birds seemed to express a connection, if not a transference, to demonic oppression. Under the ominous cloud of the birds, on the busiest street, at the heavily populated intersection, and amidst the multitude of cars, my little girl lay crumpled on the hard concrete.
I rushed over to her and bent down to pick her up, but before I could do so, she stood on her own. Not a bone was broken. As I held her in my arms, the police arrived and insisted that we rush Mariah to the hospital. The driver of the car implored us to come with him for medical care as a large crowd gathered around us. Somehow all I could say was, "Mariah is a follower of Jesus Christ. God has protected her. She's fine." Rather than uttering the words, I felt more as if I was hearing them. It was as if someone else was saying them, and I was simply observing.
I was told later of a peculiar phenomenon that people observed that day. At the moment that our group of fifty or more surrounded my little girl and began to pray, all the sparrows overhead stopped flapping their wings. They stopped their insane ranting. For a moment there seemed to be peace in the soul of Bangkok.
My little girl is my miracle from Bangkok—proof that God has a significant purpose for her life. It's taken some time for her to regain the courage to cross the street. You can imagine the memories that her eight-year-old mind has had to deal with.
AFRAID TO CROSS THE STREET
The first time she stood at the edge of a sidewalk, she was paralyzed. At first I would have to carry her across. Soon it would require only that I hold her hand. And now, once again, I face the parental challenge of keeping her from crossing the street on her own.
Why is this experience so important to our present conversation? Because the church is afraid to cross the street. It's not that we haven't tried. It's that when we ran across the street, we got hurt—hit head-on and banged up pretty bad. And because we are the church, and we have a resilience that even we cannot understand, we somehow got up and walked away from the accident. Somehow our bruises healed, and we live to try again—except we are too afraid.
The church stands at the edge of the sidewalk, paralyzed, afraid to cross. Sometimes the memories are overwhelming. Sometimes we need someone to carry us and other times just to hold our hand. But this chapter is about coming to where, even if we've tried to cross the street and failed to make it across, even if we've experienced the pain of getting hit head-on, we can regain the courage to get to the other side. What's across the street from your church? Could it be that God has called you to step out of your safety and cross over and engage this world?
Mariah joins the family tradition of colliding with cars. For me, like Mariah, it seemed to come out of nowhere. It would be so much easier to avoid the oncoming collision if our peripheral vision was better or if we had at least somehow just seen it coming.
When I talk to pastors and church leaders, I rarely find people who do not have it in their hearts to touch the world with the love of Christ. Often the exact opposite is true. Many are followers of Jesus Christ who are deeply burdened with the human condition. They care deeply about what God cares about; they understand that Jesus came to seek and save that which is lost; they know their churches should relevantly and powerfully impact the world around them; but they just can't seem to get across the street. Unseen obstacles keep knocking them down. It's hard to gain momentum when, every time you pick up speed, you crash into something. It's bad enough to get hit by a speeding car because you were running somewhere and didn't see it. My experience was different.
My first car crash was quite the opposite. When I was about twelve years old, my brother and I had seen a horror film at the house across the street, and then we had to go home in the dark. I was so scared of getting caught by the same creatures that I had just watched for two hours that I ran with the speed of fright. All I could think about was reaching the safety of my house.
I know it seems strange, but I never saw it. I ran straight into my parents' station wagon that was parked in front of our yard. I don't mean I clipped it, touched it, or brushed it. I mean I ran smack head-on into a stationary vehicle.
This is probably more descriptive of our present condition than being hit by moving cars. We're running scared, and because we are, we're hitting the cultural obstacles rather than overcoming them. In Deuteronomy 2, there's a peculiar story of God shaping his people and transforming them from slaves to conquerors. It is one thing to be set free; it is another thing to become free.
The Lord says to Moses and his people, "Set out now and cross the Arnon Gorge. See, I have given into your hand Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his country. Begin to take possession of it and engage him in battle. This very day I will begin to put the terror and fear of you on all the nations under heaven. They will hear reports of you and will tremble and be in anguish because of you" (Deut. 2:24–25).
This was Israel's defining moment. This was the battle in which God was going to establish them as his people. Through this victory, God was going to place the fear of God in all the nations who worshipped false gods. His instructions were absolutely clear, "Go pick a fight, engage them in battle, and today I will give you victory."
Surprisingly enough, the very next verse tells us that Moses sent messengers to Sihon, king of Heshbon, with this message: "Let us pass through your country. We will stay on the main road; we will not turn aside to the right or to the left. Sell us food to eat and water to drink for their price in silver. Only let us pass through on foot ... until we cross the Jordan into the land the LORD our God is giving us" (Deut. 2:27–29).
If you read these two passages separately, you could hardly place them at the same event. Israel's response to God's command that they engage and conquer was to offer a compromise of peace. They simply couldn't or wouldn't believe that God would keep his word. While God was committed to establishing them as a people of his presence and power, they were more than willing to settle for much less than that. All they wanted was to survive.
Shortly after this the text says, "But Sihon king of Heshbon refused to let us pass through. For the Lord your God had made his spirit stubborn and his heart obstinate in order to give him into your hands, as he has now done" (v. 30). And then it says, "The Lord said to me, 'See, I have begun to deliver Sihon and his country over to you. Now begin to conquer and possess his land'" (v. 31).
This passage teaches us a very peculiar thing about God. His approach toward us is often to invite us to believe in him and move in his power. God's first choice is to search for a heart that is wholly his and then strongly support it. But many times that is not the condition of our hearts. Often it is God who forces circumstances upon us in which it becomes necessary for us to rely on God's goodness.
Since Israel did not have a heart to trust God, God hardened the heart of Sihon—made his spirit stubborn and provoked him to go to war against Israel. God did all of this so that Israel would begin to conquer and possess the land. In short, what God did was bless Israel by forcing them to engage in a battle that they were afraid to fight. As a result of this, Israel not only experienced victory in that one particular battle but discovered that there was no city too strong for them and that the Lord delivered them all.
AS THE WORLD TURNS
In the same way, the church is God's agent for redeeming the earth to himself. We are called to engage in the battle for which Jesus Christ died. Matthew tells us that the kingdom of God is forcefully advancing, and forceful men take hold of it. Jesus reminds us that the church will crash against the very gates of hell. Paul describes us through the imagery of soldiers of light, dispelling the kingdom of darkness.
For two thousand years the church has been called by God to encounter culture through his transforming power. I am convinced that many of the global trends that have brought fear and concern to the contemporary church are the very act of God, in a sense, hardening the heart of Sihon king of Heshbon. He will force us to engage the battles at hand. He will do whatever is necessary to reorganize this planet until we have nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.
For two thousand years Jesus has commanded us to go and make disciples of all nations. We have, at best, given this command nominal adherence. It seems now that God has brought us to a place in history where he is bringing the nations to us. And while we may perceive that the challenge is intensifying, it is perhaps within this very context that the church will discover most powerfully what it means to go, conquer, and possess the land.
Several global movements are, in many ways, presenting countermovements to the contemporary church. These movements have had both sweeping and dramatic impacts on the culture in which we serve. The culture from which the church has been dominantly informed and formed has positioned the church to be either antagonistic or ineffective in the emerging global scenario.
While there are many current books that describe the significant part of the phenomenon known as postmodernism, I would like to approach some of these issues from the perspective of globalization. For if postmodernism is the best description of what's happening on the Western scene, globalization is the panoramic view of this historic shift.
We're going to look at a few of these globalization issues from the perspective that the very movements that create friction for the contemporary church are the same ones from which we can generate traction. Friction is what hinders us, slows us down. But traction is what helps us get going and enables us to launch a movement!
RADICAL MIGRATION: A MOVING STORY
The first significant global shift is the emergence of radical migration. Sometimes we forget that, in the past, the world has essentially been stationary. It was extraordinary for a person ever to leave home, meet foreign peoples, and settle elsewhere. Jesus never traveled more than a hundred miles from his hometown during his adult life.
While visiting Pennsylvania I learned a new phrase that I had never heard before. People kept talking about being "married to the land." While visiting the university town of Penn State, I was working from the assumption that most of the community moved there to receive their education only to move somewhere else. However, many times when I asked people where they planned to live long-term, they would look surprised and say, "Well, I'm married to the land," which meant that they were never going to move. It wasn't an option.
It wasn't anything they would ever consider. They had deep roots and probably considered anyone who wasn't married to the land to be nothing more than an educated transient.
This was the real world of the past—the world from which the American church was formed. Even though we are a nation launched by pilgrims and pioneers—where the American spirit is unmistakably marked by adventure—the American people, in the end, did settle. The churches were a part of the land—hallmarks of stability and continuity. All over America, next to churches lie cemeteries that have no more than a half dozen last names on all the tombstones. They were family churches. If you had lived in their community for twenty years but you were not born there, you were still an outsider.
MEET YOUR NEW NEIGHBOR
Nothing is inherently wrong with this description, except in the context of radical migration. When churches have been informed by continuity, and then suddenly there's sociological discontinuity, responses may range from racism to irrelevance. At no time in history has human movement in any way paralleled what we are experiencing. It's more than just a movement from one village to the next, and it's quite different from the expansion of empires through conquest and colonization. Immigration and integration are common experiences, and a job transfer can easily mean moving to another country.
Excerpted from AN UNSTOPPABLE FORCE by erwin rapahel mcmanus. Copyright © 2013 Erwin McManus. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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