By B.J. Funk
My daddy often quoted Longfellow’s phrase, “Into each life some rain must fall. Some days must be dark and dreary.”
Darkness is a scary thing. When we were small, we thought that boogie bears and goblins inhabited the dark. When we grew up, we knew for sure that they did. Smoke colored clouds roll out thunder into our lives, showing no favoritism. Rich or poor, sinner or saint, no one is excluded. Perhaps that is why I love the story of Fanny Crosby. Her literal blindness was her entrance into God’s work for her and became the catalyst for her triumphant life of writing over 8,000 hymns. She lived inside of Blessed Assurance; Jesus is Mine long before she wrote about that assurance. Our spiritual blindness can also become the catalyst for bringing victorious life to you and me.
At the age of eight, Fanny wrote these verses about her condition: Oh what a happy soul I am, although I cannot see; I am resolved that in this world, contented I will be.” Later Fanny, a life-long Methodist, remarked “It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank him for the dispensation. If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow, I would not accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me.”
She might have been blind, but Fanny Crosby could see! For Fanny, darkness was the doorway into life.
We don’t have to go to a Blind Academy or stop under a bridge of homeless heroin addicts to find blind eyes. There will be a pair or two on your same pew this Sunday. Spiritual blindness at church is perhaps the hardest blindness to cure. These people are your brothers and sisters in Christ. However, they leave the church the same way they came in. Scales block an entrance to the truth. The message of hope cannot penetrate. They are as blind as the blind heroin addicts. The difference is that the addict recognizes his blindness and either chooses to stay or tries to get out. The pew-sitter might never recognize his.
Sometimes Jesus did things that caused others to gasp. He broke into their preconceived ideas with unconventional methods. On two occasions when Jesus restored sight to the blind, he used an unsanitary method: spit. In both cases, sight was given to men who had not been able to see. In Mark 8:22, Jesus spit on a blind man’s eyes and then touched him. In John 9:6, Jesus spit on the ground and made a mudpack to place on the other blind man’s eyes. Do you hear the gasp of the crowd as they watched Jesus pucker up his mouth and let out two rounds of human spit straight into a blind man’s eyes. Did that man gasp? Did he let out any x-rated words as the wet saliva drenched his eyes and rolled down his cheeks? When others watched Jesus stoop down and pick up two wads of mud, plastering them on the other man’s eyes, can you hear shouts of “Oh no!” in the crowd? Wonder what it felt like to be hit with a wet, cold thickness. If I had been Jesus, I would have chosen the easier route: just touch the men and heal them. Why the show? Was there anything magical about spit and mud?
I don’t think so. In everything our Lord did, he moved with the determined purpose of teaching us about kingdom living. Perhaps the disgusting elements of spit and mud were meant to be symbols of what we face before we receive our spiritual eyesight: Life’s problems spit at us and disappointments throw mud in our eyes. Once we have had enough negatives of life, enough darkness, we call out to the Healer for mercy. Only His touch can help us sling off earth’s foul pull and open our eyes to the joy of new life with Jesus. Spiritually blind eyes see best after they’ve been crushed under layers of darkness.
2 Corinthians 4:4 tells us plainly where this darkness comes from. “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” Satan so cleverly disguises his work that believers forget there even is a god of this age. Darkness then becomes a way of life, with one layer of blindness piling in on another until a thick, dark coat completely engulfs the unbeliever. There is not a human on earth who can pull back the darkness. It takes an act of supernatural mercy.
Do you have children or grandchilden walking in spiritual darkness? Tell them the story of how Fanny used her blindness to find light. Then, pray that God will pile their eyes full to the brim with the mud and spit of life. It’s a prerequisite to their sight. Lord, have mercy.
B.J. Funk (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate pastor of Central United Methodist Church in Fitzgerald, Georgia. She is the author of The Dance of Life: Invitation to a Father Daughter Dance, a regular contributor to the South Georgia Advocate, and a frequent speaker at women’s retreats.
By Reed Hoppe
The presence of drug cartels has plagued Mexico for decades. March 2010 saw a dramatic rise in the number of violent deaths in Mexico as two of the largest drug cartels declared war on one another.
More than 22,700 people have been killed since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels after assuming office nearly four years ago. More than 2,000 were killed in the first quarter of 2010 alone. Ciudad Juarez, located across the border from El Paso, Texas, is one of the most violent cities in the world. More than 2,600 people were killed in Ciudad Juarez in 2009.
Mexico supplies 70 percent of the illegal drugs that enter the U.S. each year. The U.S. is the largest consumer of Mexican-produced marijuana, as well as a major consumer of methamphetamine, heroine, and cocaine.
The violent drug wars have hit close to home for the six Mission Society missionaries and their children who serve in Monterrey, Mexico. These missionaries are involved in teaching at John Wesley Methodist Seminary, children’s ministry, ESL classes, outreach to the “garbage people,” evangelism, and discipleship.
Many short-term teams have canceled trips due to the increase in violence and the travel warning issued by the U.S. Department of State. Without the short-term teams that usually flood Mexico each year, there will be a drastic change in the ministries in which Mexican churches have traditionally been involved.
“From Mexico to southern Chile, mission teams have left their mark on the Church,” explains Mission Society missionary Jon Herrin, “in the form of schools, church buildings, medical clinics, Bible schools, micro-businesses, Bibles, clothes, and friendships. These teams have come to do more than just build things. When teams are planned and managed well, relationships are formed. It is through those relationships that we can most surely and effectively share the Good News of God in Christ Jesus.”
Herrin encourages short-term teams from the U.S. to come to Mexico to minister. “We invite teams to come to Monterrey, to work side-by-side with the Mexican nationals in the development and repair of infrastructure, to share the love of God,” he says. “If we believed there was a serious risk to one’s life, we would never invite people to come.”
Ministries have been affected in other ways as well. It is dangerous to travel to remote areas because of the cartels’ prominence on major roadways, so assistance is not getting to rural areas. Most people do not venture out after dark, which has cut down on the evening activities churches offer, such as Bible studies, discipleship groups, and outreach. Several pastors ministering in the border towns have received death threats as well.
But not all of the news is bad. One of the annual conferences of the Methodist Church, which included Monterrey and most of the border towns, took place during the first week of June. Churches reported a 2.3 percent net growth since the violence began. “Because of the rise in violence, the uncertainty of each day, people are asking those eternal questions,” reports Herrin.
Bonnie Hipwell, a Mission Society missionary in Mexico, recounted an encouraging story from a pastor in the conference. One of the pastors with which Hipwell works, had her home riddled with bullets during a gun battle between the Mexican army and cartel members. One bullet came through the wall into one of the bedrooms where her daughter had been sleeping moments before. Elena told her husband that she wanted to leave and take the family to a less dangerous area. He responded, “Why would we want to leave this place? This is where God is protecting us!” Hipwell reports that Elena’s preaching has been electrified by the realization of God’s presence and the church is seeking after the Lord.
Herrin adds, “One of the things that has hampered the gospel in many places is the failure of believers to actually live what they say they believe. We say we believe that God is in control. We say we believe the Bible. However, when we live cowering in fear of the economic disaster that has befallen us, or if we hide in our houses on this side of the border because of an increase in unpredictable violence, our testimony falls flat.”
Bonnie Hipwell has prayed for years for revival to come to Mexico. She hopes that the current situation will encourage people to turn to the Lord. She said, “It’s a tough time to be in Mexico, but it’s an amazing time as we see God at work here. We as Christians are called to be the light of the world. If all the Christians leave Mexico, the light leaves Mexico, and the enemy has won. So we need to stay and stand our ground. This is a spiritual war.”
Reed Haigler Hoppe serves as an associate editor for The Mission Society and is an ordained deacon in the Alabama-West Florida annual conference of the United Methodist Church.
By Duffy Robbins
The hard part is getting them to give you a listen!
It’s that time of year when youthworkers and Sunday school teachers are heading into a new school year, praying, brainstorming, dreaming, stressing, and panicking about how they will make biblical truth come alive for a roomful of adolescents. For some it’s the excitement of a new Fall. For some it’s the fear of falling. And for some, it’s the fear of total failure.
We’ve been talking in the last several issues of Good News about how we can more effectively communicate biblical truth. Specifically, we’ve been looking at some of the factors that make it hard for students to hear us such as program flow and students’ openness to new ideas. Before we leave this topic, there are a few more issues to consider:
• How much of a threat is the message? (cf. John 6:60, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”) Students are asking, “What are the potential costs and benefits if I respond to this truth?”
• Are we speaking in their language? Missionary Cam Townsend founded the Wycliffe Bible Translators because a Guatemalan Indian posed to him the question, “Why doesn’t your God speak my language?” It’s still one of the fundamental questions that kids ask about our preaching. That doesn’t mean that we need to talk like teenagers, but we surely need to craft our messages based on how teenagers talk.
• Is this the best time and place for this lesson or this message? We’ve all had conversations in which someone has said, “Can we talk about this later? Now is not a good time.” The ambiance of time and place makes a difference in what we hear and the way we hear it. A group that is open and receptive in a late-night lock-in setting, might not be as much so on the following morning. The message that seemed powerful and inspiring when you gave it at the campfire somehow seems cold and sterile at the Wednesday night Bible study. Time and place matter. That’s why your wedding proposal was made in a romantic soft-light bistro and not in the drive-through lane at Chick-fil-A.
• What is the mood of the students? Sometimes a crisis at school or a national news story provides a unique window of opportunity to address a topic with our students when that topic might otherwise be very tough to talk about with a fair hearing.
• How crowded is the teaching venue? Yeah, believe it or not, there is substantial evidence that having students crowd together in a room makes them more susceptible to persuasion than would be the same number of kids in a larger room. Moral to the story: Always use a room—or, at least, try to arrange the room you are using—so that students feel jammed in together.
• Is there a way I can add humor to this lesson? Communication research has confirmed what most youth workers have learned through experience: humor makes an audience more open to persuasion. Numerous studies have shown that humor relaxes an audience and makes it feel more at ease. Humor can break down barriers and increase receptivity to our message. Again, that doesn’t mean you need to be Rev. David Letterman. If you’re naturally funny, that’s great. But, for the humor-impaired, there are wonderful resources for visual humor and funny stories on the internet (still pictures, funny movies, outtakes, clever television commercials, YouTube clips). One of the keys to being funny is not creating humor, but learning to see it when it’s there in everyday life.
• Does this talk or Bible study really scratch where they itch? This is probably the most important gateway factor: are we speaking to their felt needs? Does this study answer their questions or our questions? One of the ways to think about this as we prepare a talk or a lesson is by asking of every biblical text four simple questions:
1. What would my students find hard to embrace in this text? What would my students doubt to be true?
2. What do my students need to know or re-hear in this text?
3. With which inner feelings, longings, hopes, and hurts does this passage connect in their lives? How will they feel this truth?
4. If this text is true, what does it say about the world in which my students live? What might they need to rethink or reevaluate if they accept the truth of this message?
Jesus was wise enough to understand that even the disciples had limits to what they might hear. And, whether it was due to their lack of maturity, or the circumstances they were in at the time, Jesus knew not to push matters beyond their limits: “I have much more to tell you, but now it would be too much for you to bear” (John 16:12). Understanding how our students hear can help us to think more strategically about how we communicate.
Duffy Robbins is Chairman of the Department of Youth Ministry at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, and a long-time columnist for Good News.
By Linda Bloom
In rural Zimbabwe, there is not much relief—physically or emotionally—for those dying from the complications of HIV/AIDS.
But, by training nurses at United Methodist-related Mutambara Hospital and other hospitals, as well as educating volunteer community caregivers in hospice skills, the Foundation for Hospices in Sub-Saharan Africa is making a difference.
That project is among the 155 projects in 33 countries receiving $527,165 in grants from the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund in 2009. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) administers the fund.
The Rev. Don Messer and other members of the denomination’s Global AIDS Fund Committee are proud of that accomplishment. However, donations to the fund have dropped from a high of $977,541 in 2007 to $395,851 last year, with receipts even lower as of July 2010.
While the church alone cannot solve the HIV/AIDS crisis, Messer pointed out, its participation is essential.
Lighten the burden. The committee hopes to rejuvenate denominational interest in HIV/AIDS mission work with its third international conference on the subject. “Lighten the Burden III,” set for October 14-16 in Dallas, will offer participants the opportunity to discuss how to work “towards an AIDS-free world.”
Dallas was chosen as a way to attract participants from the Hispanic community and highlight the concern over growing HIV infection rates among Hispanic and African-American women in the United States, says Patricia Magyar, an executive with UMCOR Health.
Magyar senses a call from the denomination’s annual conferences for more educational tools to help them respond to the pandemic. Such information sharing will be part of the conference. “The hope is to re-energize and re-charge,” she added.
Messer believes the speakers—who include an African theologian, a U.N. expert, two United Methodist leaders and, possibly, the director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy—“can motivate us to see that clearly we are responding from the call of Christ.”
Etta Mae Mutti, the wife of retired Bishop Fritz Mutti, also will share in a workshop session her experiences of having lost two of her three sons to AIDS.
Maureen Vetter, a member of Trinity United Methodist Church in Grand Island, Nebraska, has found inspiration from Etta Mae and Fritz Mutti, as well as the stories she heard from local caseworkers dealing with people with HIV/AIDS.
One of the denomination’s “AIDS Ambassadors” organized through the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, Vetter knows of people coping with HIV/AIDS in silence. “I feel it is time for churches to start talking about HIV/AIDS and those struggling and ways we can reach out to others,” she said.
Messer—who has attended four international AIDS conferences, including this summer’s event in Vienna—finds acceptance of church involvement. “Increasingly, there’s been an openness by AIDS activists and government officials around the world to get the faith-based groups involved,” he said.
The Vienna conference, which drew almost 20,000 people, focused on human rights, understanding the scope of the pandemic in each nation, and “marshaling the resources to meet that need,” he added.
Messer, director of the Denver-based Center for the Church and Global AIDS, believes that creating or supporting such resources is the type of action that any local church or individual member can take.
Phil DiSorbo, whose organization runs the hospice project in Zimbabwe, certainly depends on such support. “Many people would like to turn their backs on the suffering, especially in tough economic times,” he pointed out.
But “the church needs to be in the forefront,” DiSorbo declared, not only addressing HIV/AIDS, but also the social justice, health care, gender inequality, and child abuse issues related to poverty and disease. “It’s our calling.”
Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York.
By Elliott Wright
In today’s world, Christian mission flows in all directions.
The rapid growth of African, Asian, and Latin American missionaries, and the evolution of Western Europe into a mission field, are two of the major changes that have occurred in the hundred years between a historic World Missionary Conference of 1910 in Edinburgh, Scotland, and a global mission conference this month in the same city.
About 40 percent of the United Methodist Church’s missionaries, for example, are from Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
A century ago, as numerous speakers at Edinburgh 2010 pointed out, planet Earth could be divided into the “Christian world” of Europe and North America and the mission fields of Africa and Asia. In the view of the entirely Protestant participants in 1910, mission energy flowed from north to south, with denominational mission agencies usually in charge.
Today, the “global South”—Africa, parts of Asia, and Latin America—contain vibrant, growing churches and Christian communities, both mission-founded and indigenous. Many are Pentecostal or independent. Meanwhile, the older churches of the Northern Hemisphere have lost members to secularism or new forms of spirituality.
Impact of religious liberty. The Rev. Bertil Eksrom, a missionary in Brazil with the World Evangelical Alliance, speaking in a conference plenary session, saw the growth of all kinds of religious expressions as one sign of the growth of religious liberty in formerly closed societies.
Presbyterian, Pentecostal, and Methodist churches in South Korea send thousands of missionaries into the rest of the world. Korea’s Yoido Full Gospel Church, whose leader, the Rev. Young-Hoon Lee, spoke in Edinburgh, has missionaries throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, with some in the United States and Western Europe.
The Rev. Tinyiko Sam Maluleke, president of the South Africa Council of Churches, said Africa had both benefited from and been a “victim of mission.” Much of the past, notably northern Christian assumptions of superiority, must be undone, he said.
Ideally, he added, mission is an exchange among equals and cannot be understood as what “the rich do to the poor, what men do to women, what people from the North do to people of the South.”
Maluleke also said the lack of any controls leads to “new challenges” of relationships and objectives. The awareness that mission today goes in all directions without clear lines of accountability figured in deliberations on how various Christian denominations or theological perspectives relate to one another in the context of evangelism and church growth.
An underlying consensus at the conference was that the various parts of the Christian family have done a better job historically of collaborating in providing humanitarian services than they have in evangelism aimed at church growth.
The World Council of Churches, the Vatican, and the World Evangelical Association are currently working on what could become guidelines on how churches respect one another’s members. The council represents Protestant and Orthodox churches.
New mission fields. Mission from Africa to the north is also happening today, although in what degree is not easily determined. Such work relates to migration, with African Christians, including United Methodists, moving to Europe for professional or economic reasons and then setting up churches or linking to existing denominations.
The Rev. Fidon R. Mwombeki, top executive of the United Evangelical Mission based in Wuppertal, Germany, said many of these emerging churches are independent of European church structures.
“They do start with the people from their own countries,” he explained, “but they are slowly getting a footing in Europe and with not a few European members and interested people.”
Maluleke, speaking in a press conference, commended this trend as good for north and south and wished it were more common.
“All sorts of problems stand in the way of getting into European countries—racism, immigration issues,” he said. “I celebrate the few and wish for more.”
Elliot Wright is a freelance writer based in New York. This article was distributed by United Methodist News Service.