Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Value of Numbers

Numbers can be numbing. But we’re battered with them everyday. Polls and percentages, stats and stocks, discounts and death tolls – it’s all coming at us in every form of media available. It’s no wonder people switch off when they hear the latest estimates of a famine or a bomb blast. It’s the downside of an IT culture in which so much information is available that we can’t possibly absorb it all, let alone give a considered response.

And yet I think there’s value in knowing what’s going on. As a Christian who believes that Christ has called His people to share the Gospel with every people group on the planet, I find numbers helpful. I think it’s worth knowing that there are about 16,314 people groups in the world and that about 6,739 of those are still considered unreached with the Gospel (that’s about 41.3%). Now depending on whether you’re a glass half-full or glass half-empty person, you could find that encouraging – about 59% of the world’s ethnic groups have a viable Christian church already among them, and essentially two-thirds of those groups are considered primarily Christian! In fact, of the world’s 236 countries, 169 (or 72%) are Christian-majority countries. And isn’t it encouraging to know that over 95% of the world’s population has the Bible, Bible-portions, the Jesus film, gospel radio, or gospel recordings available in their language (4,334 out of 6,516 languages)?

I could throw around so many more numbers that you’d have to be a real stats junkie to keep reading. If you want more like that, Joshua Project is a great place to go. But it doesn’t take long before all those numbers begin to feel overwhelming – or like some kind of artificial reality. After all, a number doesn’t move us the way a real person does. A number is data that informs our mind, but a face is a neighbor that touches our heart. That’s why it is known among aid agencies that the calamities that draw the television cameras will get far more dollars than more serious tragedies that are merely reported in print.

Though I understand why this would be, I still believe that numbers have great value in helping us to understand the state of the world. Do you know how many people are on this planet? Do you care to know how many of those people still have no Christian witness living among them? Or do you want to know how many people in this modern world still live without safe drinking water, or how many kids in Sudan have no access to a school? Such numbers shouldn’t be used to appeal to a sense of guilt, but rather to stir our interest. Figures can feed passions, and depending on what our passions are, some numbers will interest us more than others. But the point is, know what God has given you passion for and know the numbers that will feed that passion. Don’t go numb to all the numbers coming at you just because there are so many. Look for the ones that matter to you. That’s why I’ve inserted a population counter just above the news headlines in the left margin of this blog. And that’s why you’ll also find a live stat-counter regarding all kinds of concerns at the bottom of this blog (just scroll down to view it).

But the million dollar question is, What good are such numbers – even the ones that pertain to our passions – if we aren’t going to do anything about them? The danger, of course, is that if all we do is read the data and do nothing with it, we will become bloated with facts and calloused to the plights of the people they represent. We’ve got to act! Ezekiel 16:49 says that the sin of God’s people was that they were “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” I live in a land of physical and spiritual abundance, and that leaves me feeling vulnerable to the same thing being said of me! And it is for that reason that numbers matter to me. Numbers like how many are in need, how many are unreached, how much money do I earn, how much can I share? I can’t respond to all the numbers – and nor am I expected to – but I can do something about the numbers that tally the things God has given me passion for. And that is why there is great value in numbers.

© 2008 by Ken Peters

Friday, September 26, 2008

Seeing God in it All

Many people are reading the news these days and asking, “How bad are things going to get?!” Well, whatever the answer, my conviction is that whatever is happening in this world, both now and throughout history, on either a personal or societal level, God 's purpose is to magnify Himself and make Himself known. I believe that because of how much I see that to be the case in the Bible. Quite recently, I was reading Ezekiel 38, which happens to be an intense battle scene. It's an event far more serious than today's news headlines. Gog of Magog and a vast army of many peoples “like a cloud covering the land” (38:9) are advancing “like a storm” (38:9) on God’s people, intent on destroying them. What could be a worse scenario for Israel? Isn’t this the kind of global scene that would cause a person at risk to wonder where God is or to question God’s faithfulness and to flip out with anxiety? Though more serious, it has the same feel of the financial storm that many people today see approaching (if they don’t feel it’s already come upon them). The picture Ezekiel describes in chapter 38 is one of imminent disaster, of impending doom, much like many news headlines today.

Enter God. In fact, God has been in the picture all along. It is God who actually gathers that vast army from Magog to stand against His own people (38:16). And when the battle is over, it says that all those troops and peoples will be strewn on the mountainsides, food for the beasts and the birds (39:4). God says in Ezekiel 38:23 that all of that tension and catastrophe will be to magnify Himself, to set Himself apart and make His name known in the sight of many nations! Wow. Why such extreme measures? Many people suffer in a scene like that. But God’s view is that wherever there are those who put their trust in something other than Himself, like Prince Gog of old, those lesser things must be shaken, and if necessary, struck down, for God will not share His glory with another.

So how then should we view the troubles we face in these days? Is God uninvolved in the turmoil of Wall Street or Bay Street? Or is He allowing things to escalate until all will clearly see where we ought to put our trust and who ought to be our God? God will allow enemies to advance in our lives, and He will allow pressures to build, with the ultimate intent of magnifying Himself above everything else in our lives! He wants to do that in each of our hearts, but as we see in Ezekiel, will sometimes do so on a wider scale so that all will see that God “is the Lord” (38:23).

My desire is that this realization of what God was up to in Ezekiel 38-39 will spill over into my perception of 2008. God is worthy of all glory, and is robbed of glory when anything becomes so important to me that when it is shaken, I lose my trust in God. So my response to the news these days is to magnify God – to trust and depend on Him through it all – before He needs to take desperate measures to make sure He is magnified in my life.

© 2008 by Ken Peters

Monday, September 22, 2008

Has your day ever started like this?

I tend to feel better if I avoid caffeine -- it makes me feel like an electric current is coursing through my veins -- but this commercial is still a personal favourite of mine. ...Though I think it should've been called "Ken" instead of "Glen" in memory of the years I worked in the credit and revenue accounting offices at Reimer Express. There were days when I would have appreciated the guys in this video. Check it out!

© 2008 by Ken Peters

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Lord of Everything (church bulletin cover)

The world sometimes seems out of control. Stock markets are in turmoil... people in countries like Haiti and Burma starve at the hands of oppressive regimes... terrorists bomb markets full of innocent people… the list can go on and on. And then one can add personal challenges to the list — a serious health issue, a relationship in trouble, a vehicle breaks down. Life begins to feel like the perfect storm.

Last week, Stanley Mehta preached at Gateway on Jesus and His disciples crossing the sea amidst a serious storm. It was so bad, the disciples thought they would drown. Perhaps some of us felt similarly overwhelmed this week as we read some of the news headlines. Yet as chaotic as things seemed in the storm of Matthew 8:24, it says in the same verse that Jesus was asleep. Is Jesus equally calm amidst the storms of September 2008? I think He is. As the disciples woke Jesus while waves were crashing into their boat, Jesus’ immediate response was to challenge their lack of faith in the midst of the storm. He then rebuked the storm so that “it became perfectly calm” (v.26). Fear turned to amazement. As one of the disciples aboard that boat, Matthew writes this account in a chapter packed with other miracles-stories. The disciples had just seen Jesus heal a leper and a centurion’s servant, as well as Peter’s mother-in-law. And now they discover that He is even Lord of the elements! Then, when they come ashore, Jesus delivers a demoniac. But not before the demons asked if Jesus had come to torment them “before the time” (Matt. 8:29). This is significant because their question revealed the truth that Jesus even had authority over the times in which we live and the times to come. This brief chapter essentially tells us that Jesus is Lord of everything!

If that is true, then we can know that the world is not out of control. Jesus, who is clearly Lord of all creation, is Lord in all of Matthew 8 as well as Lord of all September 2008. Why then should my faith be small in days of turmoil? Everything must obey Jesus, and He has invited us to call out to Him in time of need. Seas, wind, sickness, demons, nations, commerce -- it must all obey the Lord of creation. And I’d be wise to obey Him as well, by putting my faith in Him in every situation I face in this uncertain world. Only then will I be able to have confidence amidst a world that seems out of control!

© 2008 by Ken Peters

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

When God lets the Pressure Mount

Pressure in life is to be expected. Especially amidst the hectic lives we lead in a fast-paced society. But sometimes, pressures can become overwhelming, and while I was in Sudan last month, God helped me in how I view such situations. From our very first day in Sudan, we were faced with the pressures of unexpected expenses and big uncertainties about our tomorrows. We were flying into a town packed with displaced people due to flooding in the surrounding areas, where hotel rates were set at NGO-levels of $150-per-person-per-night, and where we had no one to pick us up at the airport and no affordable accommodations arranged. For our first eight hours in that town, I had no idea where we would actually spend the night as we shuffled from one shady spot to another in search of something affordable. But God spoke to me on the very flight that took us to that town, and He assured me that whatever happened on this trip… it was Him. Yes, that’s what I felt He actually said: “Whatever happens on this trip is of My making.” That gave me a whole lot of peace amidst a whole lot of uncertainty for much of our time there.

Not long after leaving Sudan, I wondered why I didn’t always seem to live with that same sense of peace amidst pressures in Winnipeg. And I remembered something God had shown me from King Saul’s life just a few months ago. I’m thinking of the story in 1 Samuel 13 in which Samuel tells Saul that the kingdom will be taken from him due to Saul’s disobedience. I realize that King Saul got things all wrong in that story, but I find it so easy to relate to Saul’s earth-bound insecurities. I feel for him, in a way.

It had not been a very long time since Saul had been yanked from a life of peaceful obscurity, chosen to be king of a fledgling nation. Now he’s facing enemies of great numbers, and his people are without swords or spears and have inferior numbers, and all the people expect him to do something kingly to deliver them all. Talk about pressure. It says in 1 Samuel 13:2 that Saul had 3,000 men and in 13:4 it says that “the people were then summoned.” Whether that speaks of the 3,000 or to others in addition to them is almost irrelevant, for 13:6-7 describes them as so fearful that they were hiding in caves or high-tailing it across the Jordan.

Meanwhile, the Philistines have gathered for battle with 30,000 chariots, 6,000 horseman and soldiers as numerous as the sands on the seashore (13:5)! And now Saul is expected to wait! When Samuel had anointed Saul as king, he had instructed Saul to wait seven days at Gilgal for Samuel to come offer burnt offerings to God (10:8). But every day that he waits, more soldiers desert. Every long day, Saul’s numbers were reduced while he waited for Samuel (13:8). So what does Saul do? He’s the king, so he takes charge – he makes an executive decision. He literally takes the bull by the horns and presents the burnt offerings himself. Saul was down to 600 men at that point. I’m sure he felt understandably desperate. I think I would have too.

But Saul’s disobedience to God’s servant Samuel reflected Saul’s lack of trust in God. His eyes were on earthly pressures rather than on the God who is Lord of our circumstances. Even though that’s probably because God seemed as far away as the troops who had scattered, things were not as they appeared. God was there watching as Saul was tested – as Saul failed to trust God as the pressures mounted. Interestingly, in Judges 7, Gideon was down to 300 against “innumerable hordes” and he won a victory. But Saul lost the battle and the kingdom because he allowed the persistence of life’s pressures to rob him of perspective. In the end, he tried to rush God rather than waiting for God's way in God's timing.

In Sudan, I had to trust God amidst many pressures that left me wanting to get aggressive and make something happen! And God then worked things out way beyond my expectations. I hope I can remember that here in Winnipeg. That way, I can live amidst life’s pressures with peace rather than panic, trusting that the sovereign God will work out His will in my life in ways that only He can do!

© 2008 by Ken Peters

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Action-Cluster of Life (church bulletin cover)

There are certain behaviours that are meant to go together like action-clusters. Action-clusters are like atoms—separate the components of them to your own peril. Split an atom and there’s trouble. Break up an action-cluster, and your life loses its potency. As I read Jesus’ story of the man who built his house on a rock, I see an action-cluster containing three key activities: pursuing, listening to and obeying Jesus. Jesus said, “I will show you what he is like who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice.” (Luke 6:47).

I can’t help but think that so often I major on one or even two of those things, and not often enough on all three. I may find myself coming to Jesus and enjoying His presence in times of worship, but not do much listening amidst the familiar songs and my hasty prayers, let alone obey what I would’ve heard if I’d been listening more carefully. Or, I may find myself able to hear Jesus as I cruise through my day too busy to come to Him for a devotional time, but in that busyness, fail to obey whatever I heard Him say! Or, I may be so busy doing things I once heard Jesus asking of me that I’ve switched off listening any longer, and have even stopped coming to Him because of how busy I feel doing what I’m doing for Him!

The variations of all the ways I can smash this action-cluster begin to feel so complicated when Jesus made things so clear in Luke 6:46-49. He simply wants us to come to Him (spend time in His presence), hear His words (be quiet enough to listen), and obey His words (do what I hear God saying). Simple. Come, listen and obey. An action-cluster that represents the building blocks of our spiritual lives. That’s all Jesus asks of those who want their lives to be able to stand up amidst the winds and storms that come our way. And it works, because of course, the One we’re coming to, hearing and obeying is the Lord of the winds and the storms! Who else would we rather turn to?

So as we look to the season ahead of us, let’s not allow ourselves to become so busy with the activities of this world that we’re unable to regularly come to Jesus, hear His words of life and put them into practice!

© 2008 by Ken Peters

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Waiting in Aweil

In the 11 days we were in Aweil, Sudan, it was a strange paradox to get so much accomplished in a place where it took so long to accomplish anything. A Ugandan pastor who ministers in Southern Sudan told us that however long things take to do things in Uganda, it takes five times longer to do the same things in South Sudan. It is a war-torn region that is recovering from over 20 years of civil war (1983-2005), or from what the state Governor referred to as “the disaster of the last 20 years.” Yet despite all that, in a whirlwind 11 days we managed to meet with…
  • the state Governor
  • the state Minister of Education
  • the previous state Minister of Education
  • the state Minister of Infrastructure (re buildings and land)
  • the former Secretary General of Aweil Town
  • the Executive Director of the Aweil Town Council
  • two pastors of the Episcopal Church in Aweil Town
  • the lead pastor of the Sudanese Pentecostal Church in Aweil Town and for the outlying areas
  • two Presbyterian church planters in rural Aweil
  • a portion of the teaching staff of a public primary school in Aweil Town
  • a UN/NGO Taskforce on regional health issues
It had to be God, in answer to the prayers of His people, who ensured that we were able to have so many valuable conversations with so many people. I say this because there were times during our visit when the simplest things took hours to accomplish. For example, one day we planned to drive to a village northwest of Aweil Town to see Aken’s sister as well as to drop off Aken’s brother and Aken’s nephew.      For this to happen, we had arranged to borrow a vehicle from the Ministry of Infrastructure.
All we needed to do was to get the vehicle to come to the place where Aken, Carlos, Aken’s brother, Aken’s nephew and I would be waiting. This is how it all came together…
  • At 11:00am, on the day we planned to make this trip, Aken went to get some medicine for his brother and to confirm the vehicle’s availability while Carlos and I went back to the house we were staying at to get what we needed for the trip.
  • Having got our stuff, Carlos and I walked back to a tea stand at which we expected Aken to return with the vehicle.
  • There we sat around for awhile.
  • Eventually we got hungry, so Carlos and I told the people at the tea stand that we were going to a nearby restaurant for lunch.
  • After eating, Carlos and I sat and sipped our water for awhile.
  • Then after awhile, I pulled out my Bible to read and Carlos slipped on his MP3 player to relax.
  • Then Aken came to the restaurant without the car, without the medicine for his brother and unsure where his brother was.
  • Aken then sat down to have lunch with a relative of his.
  • Carlos then went back to the house to get something.
  • Aken, his relative and I remained at the restaurant and sipped our water.
  • After awhile, Aken’s relative left.
  • Aken and I remained and waited some time longer.
  • After some time, the driver of the vehicle appeared and explained that he needed money for gas.
  • We gave him money and instructed him to return after purchasing the gas.
  • The driver then sat down to eat.
  • Then the power went out and the restaurant’s electric fan, which I had strategically placed myself right in front of, stopped spinning.
  • Not long after that, Aken and I got up and went back to the tea stand, and as we left, I looked back at the driver still sitting at his table eating and I wondered how we could just leave him there when it took so long to find him!
  • After sitting at the tea stand for awhile, I pulled out my sermon notes to review them for Sunday.
  • Then, at about 2:30pm, Carlos returned to the tea stand.
  • Not too long after that, Aken’s brother appeared and sat down at the tea stand. All we needed now was Aken's nephew and the vehicle.
  • But then Aken got up and went to purchase some clothes from the market for his brother.
  • While Aken was away, his nephew then arrived at the tea stand. Now all we needed was Aken and the vehicle.
  • Then Aken’s nephew went away somewhere. What next? Would Aken's brother be the next to leave so that when the vehicle came, it would be for just Carlos and I?
  • Then Aken returned with the clothes.
  • And then suddenly, at 3:10, the vehicle arrived with Aken’s nephew.
  • But gas had to then be siphoned into the vehicle from two jerry cans.
  • We then loaded up the luggage, and at 3:17, we departed for our destination.
Whenever we faced long waits like this, it often seemed like everyone around us knew more about what was going on than Carlos and I understood. We would sometimes try to clarify what was happening, but people seemed to think that we’d be better off if we just trusted them rather than them having to explain things to two confused North Americans. And like I said, the things that were accomplished on this trip seemed to work out in ways far beyond what we could have accomplished by our own understanding anyway!

© 2008 by Ken Peters

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Back from Sudan!

I’m back in Winnipeg and extremely glad to be home with my family! Though it was quite a trip, I’ve struggled to find the right words to sum it up. It was certainly an adventure – one that was both challenging and amazing in so many ways. From the start, it felt as though God placed a curtain not more than six inches in front of our faces so that we couldn’t know what was going to happen from one moment to the next. I like to know what to expect. I like to plan for what’s coming. And none of that was possible in Sudan – certainly not in the remote town of Aweil. We arrived in a town bursting with people displaced by the floods in the surrounding area with no one to meet us, no transport arranged, no place to stay, little idea of the cost of such things, and no clear idea what we would do there for 10 full days.
All of that gave God plenty of opportunity to show Himself faithful as we gave up control and just let Him lead. And that resulted in blessing after blessing coming our way as the trip became more and more fruitful. Aken was able to see one person after another who he hadn’t seen in 17-25 years! The joy-filled hugs were wonderful to witness. And as we walked about the town on the day after we arrived, who happened to come and sit at the same tea shop where some happy friends had brought Aken, but the former Minister of Education! So as Aken caught up with loved ones, Carlos and I peppered a very willing interviewee with questions. And later, as we met with the new Minister of Education, it seemed God’s timing as he pulled out fresh notes that he had just taken in the past month after traveling to all the areas surrounding Aweil Town to find out exactly what the current status of all the schools and teachers was! We later saw some of his statistics illustrated during a visit to a local school in which we found as many classes outdoors as indoors and several classes as high as 100+ students – with one class of more than 200 children! We also met with the Minister of Infrastructure (re land and buildings), the Executive Director of the Town Council, the former Secretary General of Aweil and the state Governor. Later we also stumbled into a UN/NGO Taskforce meeting of health issues in the area, which we sat in on as guests.
My personal highlight was how God led us across the path of John Garang, a wonderful pastor who ministers in Aweil. It all began with us first meeting one of his associates, William Deng – a man whose name we’d been given by a pastor in Uganda – a name which represented the only Christian leader we knew of in Aweil. Our conversation with William was just in time since he was leaving on a trip the day after we met, but our time with him was cut short before he could even tell us of any other pastors he works with. Later that afternoon while Aken was out visiting, I let God know about my regret that I’d had so little time with William, as I had so many other questions I’d wanted to ask him. And then, just minutes after expressing this disappointment to Carlos, there was a knock at the door. It was John Garang. William had told him about us and he had sought us out.
John is a former Lost Boy who, in 1986, with many other boys walked all the way across Sudan to Ethiopia to escape the fighting in Aweil. To survive, he joined the SPLA (Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army) for eight years. While a soldier, God sovereignly directed him to go to what turned out to be a church and there he was introduced to Jesus. John felt called to take the Gospel back to Aweil, and that resulted in his long walk back home. In fact, as a volunteer pastor, John walked the distance between Uganda and Aweil 6-7 times – an 800 mile, 3-month journey each time! As a pioneer for the Gospel in Aweil, John experienced significant persecution, including time spent in jail. Presently, he oversees pastors of many congregations while also leading one himself. It was a huge honour not only to meet him, but also to preach in the church he leads as he translated for me.
This summary wouldn’t be complete without many thanks for people praying for us. We felt those prayers as we ended up in what seemed like one divine appointment after another – one sense of perfect timing after another. We would constantly wonder what more we could be in Aweil to accomplish, and suddenly we’d find ourselves in yet another purposeful moment. Thank you for praying.
People’s prayers for our travels were especially appreciated. As we arrived at the airport on August 28 to leave Aweil, we received a cell phone call telling us that no plane would be coming to get us that day. The flight was delayed until the following day. That meant we would miss our connecting flights to Uganda and to Canada! At that moment, there was a UN plane sitting on the airstrip collecting passengers, and they admitted that they had three empty seats on their plane. But because we could not be officially referred to them by an NGO, they couldn’t take us aboard. So as that plane took off, we were left wondering how we would make our way back home. And then suddenly, as if on cue from heaven itself, in walks Vincent, a Canadian who lives about an hour from Aweil Town and whom we’d met the week before. After hearing about our situation, he explained that he had a charter flight coming in that afternoon which would be leaving with no passengers at dawn the next morning. It was an MAF (Missionary Aviation Fellowship) plane that wasn’t scheduled to stop in Juba but which perhaps would be willing to rearrange their schedule for us. In the end, they agreed to have us on board and to make a stop in Juba, and we arrived there just in time to make our flight to Uganda! So to complete a trip on which very little went according to a plan, that is how we made it home to our families as planned!

© 2008 by Ken Peters