The Accidental American


Less than two weeks from now, Leah and I will be leaving the continent of North America. After a five-day stopover in Madrid to see our oldest daughter and her husband, we’ll be continuing on to South Africa to take up our new lives.

These days are full of packing, disconnecting from services, and saying goodbyes to friends. I’m fairly used to the routine after years of being moved around by a bishop, but this time, I can’t help reflecting on another powerful reality.

As I pack boxes, I am acutely aware of my privilege. That’s a loaded word; most of the time the word is used, it refers to race, as in the term “white privilege.”

But I want to use it in a slightly different sense. Let’s talk about the privilege that comes with holding a navy blue passport, the privilege of being a citizen of the United States of America.

Despite the labyrinthine complications of procuring a visa to South Africa, there is no doubt that it’s easier to get one as an American than it is from many other places in the world. 

In world travel, there is a marked advantage to being a US citizen, for many reasons. For one, we are still the world’s lone superpower, at least for now. Americans might be mocked or ridiculed, but we are always taken seriously by other nations. 

The dollar remains the most-desired currency in the world, too. Everywhere you go, people want the green bills. 

And compared to the vast majority of humans on the earth, we live in luxury.

We can pretty much go anywhere in the world. Many of us have the disposable income to travel whenever we want, wherever we want. We can visit practically any country in the world, and be warmly welcomed in doing so.

Think for a moment how recently in world history this development has taken place. A century ago, a vacation to Europe meant a long boat trip, horse and buggy rides, and the means to sustain oneself for a very long stay away from home. Today, you can make all your plans in a single evening on a computer screen and go to Paris and back in less than a week!

But we should never forget that this is a luxury enjoyed by only a small percentage of the world population. International travel is still reserved for those who can afford it. The vast majority of the world’s people don’t have a travel “bucket list.”

Not only that, but when Americans travel or live in other countries as we will be doing, there is always a safe place to return, a place to which we can go back. No matter where we go, there is always the option to return to the US. 

That’s an extremely reassuring thought; no matter where we go, we can always come back. But it’s a privilege that many people don’t have.

Imagine being a refugee family and being chased out of your home, unable to return. Or think about what it’s like to be one of those hundreds of thousands of people who are in the US right now without proper documentation because they have fled their home country for safety or economic security. This week, the President of the United States has essentially announced that these people are personae non gratae, a Latin phrase which means “people who are not appreciated.” 

I am an accidental American. I was born here, and I had no say at all in where I was to be born. I am lucky, or fortunate, or blessed. Percentage-wise, it was much more likely that I would have been born in Asia, or in another time period, but here I am. 

And there you are. 

We are privileged. That’s the hard truth. 

We didn’t do anything to deserve the privilege that comes with being an American citizen, it happened without our input. Our privilege doesn’t make us any more or less deserving of God’s grace, nor does it make us more or less a child of God. 

But it does make us more responsible. Our privilege becomes a responsibility for those of us who believe in the shalom and justice of God. When we look at the world, we recognize that there are billions of people who are not likewise privileged. We recognize that there are millions of people in our own country who suffer from the disparities of race and wealth. We come to realize that our privilege is something that is truly accidental.

As Christians, we have a responsibility to look out for those who are not privileged, those who suffer from poverty or geographical hardship, those who are not appreciated. 

So … what are you going to do with your privilege?

How to Support a Missionary


I might have a terrible sense of timing. I’ll admit that right away.

Lots of my friends and colleagues have questioned the wisdom of my becoming a missionary of the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) of the United Methodist Church at a time in which, one year from now, the church as we know it might not exist.

Yes, there are lots of reasons why this may be a bad idea. For one, many churches (including Kessler Park!) have decided to withhold their global apportionments until General Conference 2020 — that is money that is used to fund GBGM missionaries! And what will happen to the general boards and agencies in the event of a split? Which side of the church will inherit them?

One thing I know for sure — those of us who are clergy didn’t opt for the ministry because it was a safe and secure career path! Indeed, we didn’t choose to be pastors — we were called.

The truth is that I’m going back to Africa as a missionary simply because I believe God is calling me and Leah. This isn’t my idea, but God’s.

As I previously announced, I will be teaching at Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa beginning in July 2019. I recently received my first semester course load; I will be teaching Methodist History and Introduction to Christian Ethics. I’ve also been asked to co-lead a post-graduate program called Theologies and Perspectives of Leadership. I honestly can’t think of a more important place to be — and role to play — than this appointment, even though I will greatly miss my friends in the North Texas Conference.

But I will need the assistance of United Methodists in North Texas to succeed in my new position. As you may know, there is a financial crisis in our denomination.

Let me explain how missionaries are funded in our current system. First, unlike other missionary agencies, United Methodist missionaries receive monthly salaries from GBGM. Salaries are paid from a general pool of money. At the end of each three-year term, missionaries spend three months traveling among UM churches, telling their stories, and raising money for the GBGM missionary pool.

The money in this pool comes from a number of places: partnerships with congregations and individuals, investments made by GBGM, and from the World Service Fund of the church’s general apportionments.

But the amount of money available has been shrinking. Even before the 2019 General Conference, the next quadrennium budget for GBGM had been slashed by 20%.

One way to ensure that GBGM missionaries can remain on the mission field in the future is to support missionaries like me and Leah with Covenant Relationships.

At last week’s Annual Conference, I invited North Texas congregations to consider entering into a Covenant Relationship with me during my ministry in South Africa. Covenant partners agree to send $2,500/year (or $5/member) to the GBGM missionary pool on my behalf for a period of one to three years.

It would mean a lot to me if Kessler Park UMC considered the same thing. By becoming a Covenant sponsor, you would not only be supporting United Methodist missionaries across the world, you will also guarantee a visit from me in three years when I come back to the States on furlough.

I’d love to have Kessler Park as one of my official sponsors, but even more so, I value your prayers and encouragement. Thank you for preparing me for my next phase of ministry.

Reflections on a Tragic Missionary Story


I’ve been thinking about John Allen Chau a lot lately.

He was the missionary who was recently killed on the shore of a remote island called North Sentinel by a tribe which intentionally remains isolated from modern civilization.

Media coverage has mostly focused on two questions: first, was Chau a courageous martyr or a misguided fool; and second, what is the best way to evangelize anyway; isn’t missionary sending a thing of the past?

I don’t know if I’m really qualified to answer the first question. Obviously, it took courage to travel to North Sentinel; that was bravery, but I also think it was entirely inappropriate. For one, there was a very real danger that Chau would bring communicable diseases to people who had no natural resistance to them. Furthermore, he didn’t know their language, so he had no quick way to let them know why he was there. And they didn’t invite him to their island!

I seem to recall that just a few weeks ago, I led my Sunday School class through a lesson that included a quote from Jesus in which he clearly said to his disciples, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town” (Matthew 10:14). Apparently, even Jesus thought it was a waste of time to go where you were not wanted!

In all seriousness, however, I want to move on to the second question, which has to do with the nature of evangelism itself. Put simply, does God want us to attempt to proselytize people, to convert them into believers in Jesus Christ?

It would appear so from the closing words of the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus tells his disciples, “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:19-20).

This was obviously the impetus behind Chau’s evangelism efforts. He was trained and sent by an organization called All Nations, based in Kansas City, Missouri. According to their website, their vision is “to see Jesus worshiped by all the peoples of the earth,” and their mission is “to make disciples and train leaders to ignite church planting movements among the neglected peoples of the earth.”

Why is this the vision of All Nations? What drives them to make this their particular mission? According to their Statement of Faith, “We believe that when a follower of Jesus dies, he/she passes immediately into the presence of Christ, there to enjoy conscious fellowship with God until the day of the resurrection and transformation of the body. The saved will then forever dwell in fellowship with their great God. We also believe that when the unbeliever dies he/she is consigned to hell, there to await the day of judgment when he/she shall be punished with eternal, conscious separation from the presence of God.”

In this way of thinking, missionaries have the ultimate task of saving people from hell — literally! That’s why Chau felt driven to risk his life on a far off island. That’s why he believed his act of self-sacrifice might ultimately be worth it. If the North Sentinelese are eventually introduced to Jesus someday, they might be saved to go to heaven. That’s a bargain Chau would accept, because he knew he would be in heaven himself.

This logic is flawed to me, to be honest. I simply don’t believe that people who don’t have faith in Jesus Christ will spend the afterlife in perpetual torture, much less people who have never even heard of Jesus.

In fact, the story of Chau’s demise reminds me of a story I heard once about a missionary priest who traveled to a remote tribe in a far-off land. When he got there, he learned the language as quickly as he could, and then began teaching them the precepts of Christianity.

Finally, one of the tribesmen asked the priest, “Are you saying that we will go to hell if we don’t accept your Jesus?”

The priest said, “Yes, that is what I am saying.”

The tribesman asked, “But what if we never had heard of this Jesus? Would we still go to hell?”

The priest replied, “Well, no, not in that case. Because God would show you mercy.”

The tribesman then said, “Why did you come and preach to us then? We would all be going to heaven! Now some of us are doomed!”

Chau either believed a) that all people who don’t believe in Jesus are going to hell regardless of whether they had heard of him or not, or b) that only people who have heard about Jesus will be judged on the basis of whether they have believed in him; the rest will be judged on a different basis. If he believed option a, then I understand his urgent mission but pity his belief in an unmerciful and horrible God; if he believed in option b, then he was simply foolish — far better to leave them alone and let them go to heaven out of ignorance!

Frankly, I find both options to be equally problematic, but that’s a subject for a different column.

For now, let me simply close with this thought: the Gospel of Jesus Christ is meant to be good news to people, a liberating word, a fresh and transformative thing. Jesus himself once said, “I have come that you may have life and have it more abundantly.”

Anything that doesn’t bring abundant life is not from God. Even if it comes from a so-called missionary.