The Black Man in Our Sacred Dreams

It has become almost a stock image, especially in missionary circles:  During a fitful night trying to sleep, an African man has a dream of a white man coming to him telling him that a message of salvation or healing is on the way.  The missionary then arrives, the gospel is preached, people gladly receive the good news and the church is born anew.  You don’t have to go far to find such a story.  In fact, the most recent issue of Christianity Today (May 2012) tells the story of an Islamic farmer in Mozambique named Feliz Talibo who had this very dream a few years ago and is now a devoted Christian, freed from sickness and demonic oppression.

I rejoice over this story and the dozens like it I have read over the years.  It reminds us that God is the greatest evangelist of all.  We see God showing up in the dreams and visions of Joseph  (Matt. 1:20; 2:19), the magi (Matt. 2:12), Pilate’s wife (Matt. 27:19), Ananias (Acts 9:10), Peter (Acts 10:10), Cornelius (Acts 10:3), and Paul (Acts 16:9, 18:9), among others.  Nevertheless, I see a day dawning when the “man in the dreams” will be an African, and the man or woman who has the dream will be white.  Paul once had a vision of a Macedonian Man and, in obedience to God, crossed the sea and found Lydia.  We need the message of Christ, of salvation, of healing, of demonic deliverance and of hope here in the West too, especially as North America is emerging as the fastest growing mission field in the world.  I am praying that God would start sending Africans into the dreams of white men and women.

This prayer may have already been partially answered in the 2012 General Conference of the UMC.  In the midst of leadership failures, stunning disconnects between the mission of the church and the work of the Conference, and attempts by protesters to hijack the Conference, the African delegation kept showing up.  Not only did the Africans bravely remind us that the church is the most diverse movement in the history of the world, but that great inclusiveness must be found in Jesus Christ.   The Africans showed up in our dreams to boldly remind us of the imperative of the gospel to preach good news, to heal the sick and to share the love of Christ.  The Africans showed up in our dreams to gently remind us that Jesus Christ is Lord.  The Africans showed up in our dreams to lovingly remind us that the Scriptures are the Word of God to us.  There were many in this delegation who remembered General Conference 2008 when some wanted to silence their voices and take away their vote.  Today, no one can silence the African church.

It is easy to cite disappointments in the recent General Conference.  But, looking back a decade from now, this conference will be remembered as the time when the African delegation really found their authentic voice to speak prophetically to the church they love so dearly. They showed up in our dreams.  They spoke to us.  If we listen, we just might hear the voice of the Lord calling us to a better day.

Lessons my Mother taught me

There is an old African proverb which says, “the mother feeds the baby when it has no teeth so that the baby will someday feed the mother when she has no teeth.” The truth of that proverb came home to me powerfully this week when my 84 year old mother fell and broke her hip.

To get the full impact of this you have to know something of my mother. She is the most active 84 year old I have ever known. For example, about a year ago I went down to Atlanta to visit her. I couldn’t find her anywhere in the house. A quick check of the garage revealed the car still in its spot, so she had to be somewhere at home. I finally found her at the back of the house on top of a ladder cleaning leaves out of the gutter. I told her she might be a bit old to be carrying ladders around and cleaning gutters. She looked at me with incredulity that I would even raise the question.

She still holds the record for the oldest person to ever ride down Arvid Metcalf’s famous “zip line” here in Wilmore. She did that the week of my inauguration in 2009. Her house is famous in the circle of her friends for being a “better homes and gardens” type house. If you don’t know what that means, you’re probably under thirty years old. It means that her lawn is always immaculate with beautiful flowers and well trimmed bushes. Her house is so well appointed we could almost open up tours to show it to the public. It is such a picture of beauty. Whether it is the porcelain figurines on the mantle, beautifully filigreed frames on the wall or dainty lace carefully placed beneath every lamp, she has mastered the art of home presentation. All this happens because of my mother’s hard, daily work and commitment to excellence.

Whenever I come to Atlanta she always gives me a list of chores to do (just like old times). Now that I am President of Asbury, my schedule has kept me from always attending to this list as quickly as I once did. One of the items was a large tree in the backyard which needed to be taken down. Before I could arrange to come down I learned that she had taken the tree down herself. In amazement I asked how she did it (she doesn’t own a chain saw – at least not yet). She had taken a hand saw and sawed ten to twenty strokes each day for two months, finally bringing the tree down. This is a small snapshot of my mother. The idea that she is “old” has not yet crossed her mind. She knows how to make things happen and makes sure it happens with beauty, grace and excellence.

So, here I was this week, along with my two brothers taking care of my mother. I helped her to eat (remember the African proverb) and watched as she lay there unable to move. Within 24 hours of the operation she took her first step and now, several days later, she is walking with the aid of a walker. She is headed for two weeks of intensive physical and occupational therapy so, to use her phrase, “I can get back home where I belong.” The physical therapy people have been amazed at her strength – both physically and her inner drive – to get back to her former capacities. For my mother, her physical challenges are also causing her to trust in the Lord in ever deepening ways. Her faith in Christ has always been central to her identity. Indeed, everything she does she sees as an expression of her faith in Christ.

There are two kinds of age. There is outer age and there is inner age. The Apostle Paul says in 2 Cor. 4:16 that although our outward bodies are wasting away, our inner life is being renewed day by day. My mother may be getting old on the outside, but her inner life is vibrant and determined. I am now 52 years old, but my mother is still teaching me how to live in every season of life. She is teaching me how to live with determination and vigor. She is teaching me the meaning of the phrase, “never give up” and the beauty of spiritual growth in every season of life.

The doctor came in on Friday and gave her the good news that she was ready for rehab, but that “her ladder climbing days were over.” She gave him a little scowl. I don’t think she should ever get on a ladder again, or travel down zip lines. But I admire her capacity to embrace life, and she knows that whether in this life or in the one to come, there will be ladders to climb, work to be done, and glory to be revealed.

The Quiet Revival

Christianity Today reported a few years ago that eighty-five percent of the members of Yale University’s Campus Crusade for Christ chapter are Asian, whereas “the university’s Buddhist meditation meetings are almost exclusively attended by whites.”[1. “Go Figure,” Christianity Today 47, no. 7 (June 2003): 13.]  There is an important lesson in this. It is often stated that Christianity in the Western world is in decline. It is true that, on average, every day there are approximately 7,000 fewer Christians in the West. Statistically, it has been as high as 11,000 fewer per day. However, this is only part of the story. While we are witnessing the dramatic decline in Christianity among Caucasians, the Western world is, at the same time, witnessing the dramatic growth of newly emerging ethnic congregations. The Chinese, Hispanic, African and Korean congregations, in particular, are experiencing unprecedented growth.

This weekend, for example, I had the privilege of speaking at the Rutgers Christian Community Church. It was planted only thirty years ago by a handful of Chinese students from Rutgers University. Today, it is a thriving Christian community with several thousand members. They have English, Mandarin, and Cantonese congregations and are in the middle of a major building program to build a new sanctuary.

Prior to my coming to Asbury I lived in the Boston area. Boston is the home of a major spiritual awakening. More people have come to Christ in Boston in the last three decades than during the Great Awakening, but it has largely gone unnoticed, because it is occurring primarily among African, Chinese, Korean, and Hispanic peoples. There are over 50 different African congregations in Boston and, indeed, on any given Sunday in Cambridge, Massachusetts, more people worship Christ in a language other than English than in English. It has been called the “quiet revival.”

I am convinced that the greatest source of renewal in the North American church will be found in these emerging ethnic churches. Pastors across this country should begin planting ethnic congregations in their facilities and nurturing their growth. Boston already has more shared-facility churches than any other city in the country. May this trend continue.

Last night I worshiped in a sanctuary packed with Chinese Christians. The congregation sang, in Mandarin, Chris Tomlin’s excellent hymn, We Fall Down.  I don’t know if Chris Tomlin realized when he wrote this hymn, among others that he has written, that he is playing a significant role in stimulating the global Christian community. Indeed, when we fall down and worship Christ today and look to our left and to our right, we will increasingly be worshiping with Christians from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The globalization of the Christian faith is no longer a theoretical point we affirm, rather it will be, increasingly, the living experience of Christians in the West. So, whenever I am prone to discouragement about the state of Christianity in the West, I think about Rutgers Community Christian Church, and a thousand like it. They are the living demonstration that Christ is building his Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!