The worst missionary ever…

samuel-zwemer460Samuel Zwemer – missionary to Bahrain and Egypt, founder of Arabian mission and editor of The Moslem World for 38 years, professor of missions at Princeton Theological Seminary and internationally popular speaker and advocate of missions for over 60 years, famous for his quote: “the history of missions is the history of answered prayer” – was arguably one of the greatest failures on the mission field with less than a dozen known converts to Christian faith.

Whether it’s defensiveness or faithfulness, Zwemer is still regarded as a hero. Hailed as another example of Hebrews 11:39, “commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.” It’s easier in hindsight to champion Zwemer’s cause of hand-wringing in the face of the insurmountable, but it’s hard to imagine funding his ministry today, or raising support for 40 years of work on the field with fewer than a dozen success stories.

Zwemer embraced the debate over differing measures of success, complaining often of inefficiencies even while heralding a career of relative fruitlessness. Toward the end of his teaching career, he mused: “The printed page is a missionary that can go anywhere and do so at minimum cost. It enters closed lands and reaches all strata of society. It does not grow weary. It needs no furlough. It lives longer than any missionary. It never gets ill. It penetrates through the mind to the heart and conscience. It has and is producing results everywhere. It has often lain dormant yet retained its life and bloomed years later.”

Regardless of Zwemer’s own stewardship message, his biography does show what is the most compelling feature of his ministry – the alignment of his ministry and message.

And what was Zwemer message? This son of a Reformed pastor, young Zwemer unapologetically proclaimed that the task of evangelism was to identify the elect, and the chief end of missions is not simply the salvation of people but the glory of God (or the glory of God in the salvation of sinners, as he later said).

Late in his career, he wrote an essay titled, “The Glory of the Impossible,” in which he portrayed the discouraging, prohibitive and insurmountable obstacles to Christian mission among Muslims. He said, true faith is that “which enables the missionary to look upward with confidence and see by faith the future result of…toil; a world where statistics are inadequate to express realities, where finance and budgets have lost all significance, and gold is used for paving-stones.” (Zwemer, “The Glory of the Impossible,” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, 1949, 16)

But Zwemer didn’t mislead anyone it seems. His message of God’s sovereignty-explains-evangelism was his response to detractors, and his dig-in-your-heels-because-God-is-sovereign approach motivated generosity, and some fame. But the question remains, after you’ve exhausted deep Dutch pockets from Orange City, Pella, New Holland and Grand Rapids, where do you turn?

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What’s original about sin…

Eve-shoving-the-apple-in-Adams-mouthBlame the serpent (that’s Eve’s ploy), then Adam blames Eve (though she was just a toy), and God who created it all; add this together and we have the fall.

The history of religion is the history of blame, the motive for religion is guilt, the means of religion is empathy, and the denunciation of it all is sympathy. That is, only those who care go to hell.

 

History of Sin

History a tale of fallen’s friends
giving account of what had to be,
fixed  by a sovereign who sees the end
saddled with desire to be free;

lost to be found, but only through Rome
intrude on our lust, our passion, home,
named ex opere – the lusty lie
sprinkle the babies lest they all die;

create the fright, threaten what’s scary
touch our babes, but you’re still necessary,
triumph assured, all wars justified
feelings condemned not capitalized.

Who erred that all are born this way
simply answered, we all come astray,
it’s sin, not hunger, that babies cry,
and not biology why we all die.

 

Love Story

We met at the beginning of the circle
when all was new just to each other,
soon we thought we were always we,
stories merged like one on another;

what it was, was easy enough to be
always something, everything undone,
damned by fruit of a forbidden tree
critiquing what once was begun;

tested, not tempted, fallacies, not lies
our Kant dared us from infants to grow
question by taste, deceived by our eyes
stop just taking, trusting, we can know;

no prudes, no rules, the circle begun,
exemplary yet derided for immemorial
blamed by Hippo for perfection undone
but not the cause, simply the tutorial;

we’d eat it again and again in love,
the defiance was arbitrary after all
as was the command – it was a shove
toward deconstruction and not a fall;

it’s quiet, our story, beyond this plot
we loved, with fear – that our glory,
wandering together for what we ought,
we are Eve and Adam – a love story.

Salvation and other messy words…

salvationSalvation is not a religious word. It has become one, but only by losing its usefulness – its realism.

To preserve from harm or loss, deliver from, hold back, keep rather than lose – in a phrase, to love well,  with consequence. Not all love is salvation, but all salvation is love. Unless… unless it becomes religious.

Salvation Song

In search of the lost, each
and every day, without fail;
certain you’re out there
wandering, daring to wonder
at the recovery of your way,
regaining your bearings for
home, for the way it once was
when you knew of comfort
or simply no better, and love,
especially love, now lost;
you’re certain, aren’t you,
no one is looking, no one
cares as long as you don’t
interfere with the ways of
those who’ve never been
lost and thus, are never found;
evangelist I am not, counselor
ignored, prophet spurned,
only you know, Lord, if these
bones can live again, but
to what end – for another war
of destruction, another test
of fidelity, another loss of
love – no, they’d be better
to bake in the sun, strewn
about, picked over, broken;
hope of change in the pocket
doesn’t raise the dead,
protestations of sins forgotten
only console the guilty,
joyous hymns of sacrifice
are the blood sport of piety,
none of those are for the
found among the lost surely;
if you return, you expect
servitude, for that’s what
you’re taught the never
ending price of restoration
must be – will-less existence
while all other retain theirs,
and once returned you’re
never trusted and must
continually prove the
celebrated recovery – always
so, but never arrived, never
home because you can’t
go home again, can you;
I have no guilt, no pity either,
I am no god in need of
your praise, gifts or alms,
make no pilgrimage to me
for I am not home either,
I am a worm and not a man,
a son of man only whose
fato is the same as yours,
no sacred tale of success but
victorious defeat, no tragic
celebratory dirge to hide
the pride of humiliation;
the telling is itself compelling
as much for it’s incorrigible
neglect of largesse as my
refusal to be examined,
my anonymity, my death
as an author on the pyre
as Dido, lacking comparison;
I seek by looking ahead only
as I pass your lair, ignoring
cries for gifts my mercy is
only discovered in the walk,
the follow-after leaving
the lost still wondering if
the gift of suffering is your
damnation by a Calcutta
saint dancing to Lucifer’s
tune, your sores unhealed,
or the only hope of ransom;
there is a way, several to be
clear, for therein lies the
game – and a game it is,
competing for titles, pews
it’s yours to refuse the
triviality of sin, accusation
as the easy way, to refuse
Augustine while he still
damns from Monica’s shadow
above his child’s grave;
making home, not finding it,
will be the only consolation
offered here, and it is the
same for love and mercy
and joy and the peace so
desperately missing today.

It is what it is (and other lies they tell us)…

Doris DayYes, it’s a lie. Always has been, always will be.

It is what it is.

That’s the lie.

It’s used to give up. To teach us to give up. Accept and not except. Let go to get by.

It’s called providence or sovereignty or fate or determinism or the status quo or City Hall or Que Sera, Sera (if you’re Doris Day – which I’m not).

It’s called the Serenity Prayer (if you’re Reinhold Niebuhr).

It’s called history and what is is what had to be (if you’re Augustine of Hippo).

It’s called metanarrative (if you’re any kind of modernist – and that’s just about everybody these days, as amazing as that sounds).

And it’s a lie. Always has been, always will be.

It Is What It Is
Starting a new religion usually takes effort,
not necessarily consistency, proof or fact,
just data and anecdotes, which means
listening and creating at the same time;
it’s an interpretive exercise most ignore
because of the difficulty of thinking anew,
and we’re really driven by insecurity and
the need for followers, but not this one;
it won’t matter if a single soul converts,
nothing will change if everyone changes,
because whatever happens will happen
in the new religion of it is what it is.