Monday, July 6, 2015

While I was in Charleston


Emanuel AME less than 24 hours
after the shooting
The afternoon following the horrific Charleston massacre at Emanuel AME Church wasn't as crowded or chaotic as I had expected. It was quite calm.

I was on vacation in Charleston and had even been on a tour of the historic city just a few hours before a racist killer entered the prayer meeting. My wife's uncle, who led the tour, gave a glowing review of a concert he had attended at this beautiful church. For obvious reasons, I felt compelled to return the next day. I just wanted to pray for them, display unity with them, and serve as a representative of the many students, faculty, staff, and alumni of school who are passionate about the issue of racial reconciliation.

I had expected a larger number of people in front of the church, but most of those directly outside were either press members or policemen. Around 10-15 people were standing just outside of the area marked off by the police tape praying, so I simply stood there and prayed alongside my fellow mourners.

The event of the previous night was so clearly unjust and evil that the last thing on my mind was any sort of politics. With pure motives and a quiet atmosphere, empathy and prayer came naturally and easily. Easily, that is, until I was bumped sideways by someone who was suddenly in a hurry to get somewhere quickly. Confused and a little perturbed, I opened my eyes to see what was going on. It was a camera woman who knocked me around, but it wasn't immediately clear why she had done so until I looked to my right. Enter Al Sharpton.
Rev. Al Sharpton and a few friends have a
moment of silent prayer and reflection. There
were no comments made in front of the church.

I wasn't very excited about this, to be honest. I feel that he often makes things worse. In anticipation of this possibility, I felt tempted in that moment to focus my mental energies on divisive politics instead of why I came in the first place.

GETTING DISTRACTED

What a metaphor for those who desire racial reconciliation! Just when you think you're operating with pure motives and doing something everyone can agree on, you start getting bumped around and distracted.

I believe that distraction is one of the great tools of Satan when it comes to issues of race in this country.

Specifically, I want to challenge white Christians who, like me, would generally describe yourselves as being socially conservative. Most of you would emphatically declare, not only that you aren't racist, but also that you desire to see unity among black and white people (If you simply need to repent of racist attitudes, you will need something different than this article). You realize that racism in our country is real and did not simply write off the Charleston shooting as a drug problem.

I want to humbly ask a couple of probing questions and I pray you will consider them.
  • Do you spend a lot of time talking (or posting) about your disagreements with African-Americans over political issues (e.g. Michael Brown and whether or not Darren Wilson was justified) and completely avoid talking about the reality of racial prejudice and the importance for all of us to examine our hearts for our own bias (we all have them) and our own sin? 
  • Do you ever post blogs and website articles encouraging brothers and sisters in Christ to seek unity and reconciliation across ethnic groups?  
I am not trying to convince you that your opinions on recent events are necessarily wrong. Personally, I have felt very differently about the individual police shootings. For the record, I have great respect for the selfless work of policemen and I'm very slow to criticize law enforcement. Consequently, I sometimes agree and sometimes disagree with some of my African-American brothers and sisters in Christ over the details of these events. I do not for one second, however, believe that racism doesn't exist and that bias doesn't happen. I've seen it in society at large and I've seen it clearly in churches where I've been a member. I have black friends for whom I have great respect (including pastors) who tell me stories about getting pulled over by the police when they are doing nothing or just getting long and lingering looks while walking down the street. This doesn't happen to me. This draws me towards compassion and a desire to better understand the world and how our fallen nature affects others and how it affects me. In addition to this, my love for God and the gospel narrative which concludes with a picture of people from all tongues and tribes worshiping around His throne compels me to seek unity. 

I'm convinced that one of the main reasons we become distracted is that we let our defensive desire to avoid being misunderstood as racists trump our desire for unity and reconciliation. Before I explain further what I mean, I need to let you know where I'm coming from.

I'm not writing as an outsider who wants to bash Southerners. I'm a white conservative evangelical Christian from Alabama. As such, I've dealt with my share of stereotyping. In other parts of the country it is often abundantly clear that those I meet are skeptical of my intelligence as soon as they find out where I'm from. It doesn't matter if they already know I have a lot of education and they have comparatively little. Intellectual superiority over me is assumed from the beginning. It is also often assumed that I'm a racist. In upstate New York I was asked if I was in the KKK (by young people who also were surprised we wore shoes). I've even been asked this question while living in a small town in Central Java, Indonesia. Escaping the shadow of Bull Connor has proved elusive.  

So I sympathize with the reaction many white people have when events are quickly attributed to racism before all the facts are in. If we think for one moment, however, that anything we have been through is on par with the African American experience throughout the history of our country, we are delusional. Slavery, Jim Crowe, KKK lynchings, the Civil Rights struggle... and now Charleston. Yes, things have improved dramatically. I have always been grateful that I didn't have to choose to be rejected by society in order to love those who are different from me. Every time I passed by 16th Street Baptist Church I was thankful that I didn't live in an era where violent racists would bomb innocent people gathering for worship... and now Charleston.

Again, I want to stress that I am not here asking you to change your mind on issues such as gun control. My concern as I watch things play out on social media is this: What should be our first response and our major impulse?  I believe strongly that, because of our past and current issues with racial prejudice, our first response should be to seek unity and to show compassion.

Our hearts should hurt over the racial divide. We should long for greater reconciliation and always keep in mind that we're not just talking about the white community and the black community; we're talking about brothers and sisters in Christ on opposite sides.

I will go as far as to say this: If you don't feel an ache to see unity between black and white in the body of Christ in tangible ways, you are simply missing the heart of our Savior. You are missing the reality of the gospel as expressed by Paul when he told the Ephesians that Christ has, through His death, "created in himself one new man in place of the two" whereas Jew and Gentile had earlier been separate. You're missing the big picture of biblical history which culminates in people from all tongues, tribes, and nations worshiping the Lord in perfect unity around His throne (Rev. 7:9). You're also missing the heart of Jesus as expressed in the Lord's prayer when He commanded us to pray for God's will to be done "on earth as it is in Heaven" (Matt. 6:10).

It's too little to "not be racist." We must move beyond that to show tangible love. We also need to be balanced in the way we react to events online. For example, regardless of how you feel about whether or not the policemen involved in the shootings of black men are innocent or guilty, please consider these questions:
  • Have you prayed for everyone involved? 
  • Have you admitted to yourself the reality of racism in our country before making a quick evaluation and putting your opinions online? 
  • Is your ultimate hope that there will be healing on both sides or that the other side will be proved wrong? 
  • Is there a longing for unity that is deeply dissatisfied regardless of where you stand? 
  • Do you at least consider the other side of the argument and the feelings of many black Americans before your only reaction is to cry "false racism!"? 
Our defensive reaction to a racist allegation can blind us. It can blind us from seeing the greater reality. It can blind us from seeing or even caring about what is most helpful. It can turn a helpful and truthful statement into a sarcastic barb painting everyone on the opposing side in a negative light. Being right isn't always the same as being wise.

What I saw early on the Thursday after the Charleston massacre was clear sympathy to a horrific tragedy. It was, however, disappointing to see how quickly the subject changed to gun control. That did not mean that Christians who believe in gun ownership were obligated to quickly counter by flooding social media with protests - to the exclusion of offering sympathy and prayers to the victims' families, Emanuel AME Church, and the black church in general! Even with this clear cut "black and white" case involving obvious racism, many people found a way to talk about everything but racism. It was sad to see, as things developed, some people passionate about defending the confederate flag and seemingly lacking any compassion for the hurting.

Maybe some of you are responding now by thinking, "But I was, in fact, horrified by the shooting in Charleston. I did pray for them. I didn't deny that it was racism. It's just that I didn't say anything about that and I did speak up about gun control." Herein lies the problem. Some of you don't use social media for anything political in the slightest. I have one Facebook friend who insists that it should only be used for "fluffy bunnies and spring meadows." If that's you, you're off the hook. But if we do use social media to speak out on issues, we need to understand that silence on this one will be very discouraging to our black brothers and sisters in Christ. Try to just imagine what they are seeing instead of well-reasoned statements and sympathetic prayers and this point should be obvious.

The negative reactions I'm writing about above certainly don't describe all white southern Christians (to any outsiders who may be reading this). The reaction from the majority of Christians whom I consider to be spiritually mature was encouraging. But it's times like these that remind me of the lack of spiritual maturity in our churches. It's a reminder of the existence of cultural Christians who show little or no evidence of a relationship with Jesus Christ at all. Also, it's a reminder of how easy it is for everyone (myself definitely included!) to broadcast thoughtless remarks to hundreds of people with the click of a mouse. Social media is messy.

I certainly don't have all the answers for our problems. But the way forward must include more substantive relationships between black and white Christians. As we pursue this, remember that we don't have to agree with every nuance on every issue in order to have unity in Christ. However, we can be guaranteed that our opinions will be impacted when we are no longer simply commenting on a political issue, but we are considering the thoughts and feelings of friends we love and respect.

Even when we are wrong (and we will be), genuine love can "cover a multitude of sins." Obviously that's a general statement and no guarantee every individual will react in a similar way. People are people and this is definitely a challenge. However, when we refrain from engaging in meaningful relationships because of fear that disagreements will spiral into an unhelpful misunderstanding, there is no opportunity for love to be shown.

A BIBLICAL GUIDE FOR CONVERSATION

It's often said by those desiring to see things improve that we just need to start talking about our race issues. While I believe this is ultimately true, it's also true that we first need to know how to talk about them or else, as illustrated above, we can simply make things worse. I've chosen a few scriptures that I believe speak to this issue (There are many more, of course). In fact, they speak to how we approach almost all disagreements.

  • If one gives an answer before he hears, it is to his folly and shame (Proverbs 18:13, ESV)
  • Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. (1 Peter 3:9, NIV)
  • I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20-21, ESV) This is the "high priestly prayer" of Jesus before his death, burial and resurrection.
  • A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (Proverbs 15:1)
  • Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)
Too often we are simply trying to win an argument instead of trying to win a person. A serious consideration of how God has commanded us to believe and to act makes such an approach inexcusable.

STAYING FOCUSED

So there I was. Standing outside of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston less than 24 hours after a tragic, dramatic, and historic event. I went there to pray. I wanted to pray for comfort for the victims' families, for Emanuel, and for the black church in general. I felt compelled to pray for God to do something for unity in our country and to make a plea to God for individual churches to reflect the true diversity of His people.

Then, without warning, I suddenly get bumped around and find myself wondering if I was about to hear a "made for media" speech distracting from the sanctity of the situation (which didn't happen, by the way). I found myself wondering, "What do I do now?" The answer came quickly and easily.

I put my head back down and I prayed.

- David Parks

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Gay Marriage and Missions


Christian leaders who are pushing for "tolerance" and acceptance of gay marriage are often using the desire to reach the younger generation for Christ as their justification. In this narrative, they are the ones who genuinely care about people knowing Christ and those of us with a traditional understanding of marriage are the ones who care more about rules and tradition than people. There are good arguments against this other than what is below.  There is one hole in this argument, however, that is very rarely, if ever, discussed:

The majority of the global population.  

This is especially relevant to the task of evangelizing unreached people groups.  Yes, there are changes that are happening on a global scale when it comes to the acceptance of new views of sexuality (Pew Research), but there is still a large divide between Western and non-Western nations on this issue.  The 10/40 Window, which is home to the large majority of unreached peoples, is filled with societies solidly against the acceptance of gay marriage and other new understandings of sexuality. 

So when it comes to Christian leaders pressing for acceptance of new views of sexuality, where is the burden for the unreached peoples of the world

Does anyone think that our increasingly "open views" are removing obstacles to the gospel among Muslims?  The reality, of course, is that the rest of the world is watching - often in disgust - what is happening in the West and are very worried that our immorality will continue to spill over into segments of their societies like it has been for decades.  They can't be convinced that this is a "new move of God" regarding how sexuality is to be understood.  They simply put it into the category of a long list of problems that have been transferred through media from our country to theirs: gang violence, bulimia, disrespect for parents, rampant sex outside of marriage, and a general devaluing of the importance of family.  For a brief picture of what this disgust looks like, consider the backlash over Facebook's rainbow flag profile pictures

One of the misperceptions missionaries have to combat upon entering one a Muslim or other traditional society (one that I had to deal with myself) is the belief that almost all Americans are Christians.  In other words, when a well-known celebrity claims to be a Christian and is soon afterwards in the news for public drunkenness, adultery, arrest, etc., the conclusion is that this is what all Christians are like.  Therefore, they are not only uninterested in Christianity.  They are appalled by it.  

Missionaries coming from churches who conduct gay marriages would only confirm this misperception and strengthen the voices of local imams warning people against the message of Christ.  

So while the call to reach people for Christ is used to lead people towards new views on gay marriage and transgender teachings in America, those who are making this point have little concern for the majority of unreached peoples of the world. This shouldn't really be surprising since many of these same leaders don't believe that whether or not people hear about Jesus will have any significant influence on where they spent eternity.

No doubt there are many of you reading this who are agreeing with the main point and yet have become quite frustrated with the reasoning being employed. You may be saying, "Shouldn't we simply focus on obeying with the Scripture says instead of trying to figure out which view of sexuality we think will reach people?" "By trying to see which way the moral wind is blowing and following suit," you're thinking to yourself,  "aren't we displaying a complete lack of trust in the power and sovereignty of God?" 

You are correct.  

The reality, of course, is that compromising on the truth of scripture never leads to true conversions.  See the history of liberalism and mainline churches.  See the recent history of the emergent movement that attracted many followers who identified as Christians already but led to very little true conversions where people surrendered their lives to Jesus Christ as Lord.   It seems that those who want a god who encourages them to do whatever they wanted to do anyway actually don't want the God of the Bible at all.  They eventually figure this out and, at best, become nominal Christians.

Speaking of the rest of the world, we need to also keep in mind the persecution of our fellow believers in other countries.  Yes, in light of the Supreme Court decision last week, the realities of potential persecution have risen for all of us.  Yet there are believers all over the globe who choose to follow Jesus knowing it will potentially mean complete rejection from society, violence from their own family members, torture from their government, and maybe even death.  Quite often the missionaries who reached them have been funded and paid for by Christians in America.  

Isn't it ironic that some of those who paid the missionaries to go are already shrinking back in the face of such little difficulty?  

Consider the words of the Apostle Paul, who was so overwhelmed with the message of grace and the freedom found in the gospel that he would not compromise any part of it in order to avoid persecution or a strain in his relationship with a newer generation of Christians:  "If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ." (Galatians 1:9-10 ESV)

Smoke on the Martyrs

Below is an excerpt of an article I wrote that is now published at the Gospel Coalition website.

This is difficult to write. I don't enjoy disagreeing with those who are trying to raise awareness for the persecuted church.  

We are in the midst of a clear global upsurge of attacks on Christians. In the last year we've seen major atrocities in Kenya, Nigeria, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Ethiopia, and other places as well. Make no mistake. The large majority of this is clearly from radical Islam and, although the majority of Muslims are not violent, an astonishingly high percentage are sympathetic to extremist violence.

In the midst of this we see almost no concern on the part of the leadership of the United States. As Christians have been beheaded in dramatically produced videos designed to recruit more Muslim extremists and strike fear into the rest of the world, condemnation from the White House regarding the targeting of Christians has been underwhelming.  

And in this moment when clear, consistent, and accurate voices are needed, Christians in the West are blowing a cloud of smoke into the issue by hanging their hats on a discredited and debunked statistic. There are simply not 100,000 Christian martyrs every year.

Read the full article HERE


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Fabric of Hope in Kenya

Through Extreme Response and Samford's GMS program, I have been blessed with an internship of nine weeks in Nyeri, Kenya. During this internship, I will be working at a rescue center for orphaned or at risk children. This wonderful home is called Belwop, which means: Better Life without papers. The home is run by a beautiful woman named, Veronica Mumbi. Veronica believes that "It is the best thing in the world to know what you are created for."


As soon I arrived to Nyeri and hugged the woman I had been emailing for the past two years, I could see Jesus in her. We embraced as if we had known each other our whole lives. Veronica is an amazing woman. I cannot wait to learn everything I can from her these next few weeks. As she began her story, she told me how she moved from job to job but she was never satisfied. She felt that God was calling her to something more. She just did not know what that was. 

Veronica simply said, "Yes" to God's plan. Children began coming to her through other people that were in very bad living conditions and Veronica opened her home and heart to help them. Now she is "Mum" to over 40 children and counting. She has built a school for them. Now, they are provided with a stable home, food, clothing, and eduction. However, most importantly Veronica shares Jesus with these children. They can have hope, joy, and peace despite their past circumstances because Jesus lives inside their hearts. 
I have learned so much just in these few short days and I cannot wait to see what God shows me next. At Belwop, I help out with the school on the compound that opened in January. So far, I have been teaching class 4, or 4th grade. However, Veronica has a new dream. 

God has recently placed on her heart women who have suffered from rape and abuse. She built a safe house for these women called, The Hope House. Here, the women receive food, shelter, healthcare, and counseling. Someone kindly donated sewing machines to the Hope House a few months ago. Veronica came up with, Fabric of Hope. Through this project, the girls would be able to see dresses and learn a skill to help them make a living on their own when they leave the Hope House. Unfortunately, Veronica does not have the resources to provide a seamstress for the girls to learn. For a mere $175 a month, a local seamstress could be hired full time to help these beautiful women regain their sense of self-value and to begin to rebuild their lives. While I am here, I hope to raise awareness about this situation and encourage people to give if they feel lead. This is an overwhelming task for Veronica, but I believe that where God guides, He will also provide. 

- Samford University student, Anna Boldt

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Do You Believe in God? Paynes in Czech Republic


Stephen passing out bingo cards to 6th graders in 
PelhÅ™imov, Czech Republic.  Not only was bingo 
a helpful tool to teach English, but with the learning 
came much laughter and competition.
My story actually takes place on our very first day of teaching.  The night before Meredith was up most of the night with an upset stomach, so I went to teach by myself the first day.  In the class of 9th graders, rather than introducing myself, I suggested the class ask me questions to get to know me.  Questions you might expect were asked: How old are you? Where are you from?  What do you like to do in your free time?

After answering about 10 questions of this type, I asked for one more before we started the lesson.  A guy in the back of the room raised his hand, and asked, “Do you believe in God?”  I replied with a simple, “Yes,” but then I asked him the same question.  He said he did not.  So I asked the rest of the class, “Do any of you believe in God?”  All 25 students said they did not.  The question is vague of course; I mean, about which God are we even talking?  But that is beside the point.  I knew the statistics of Christianity in the Czech Republic, so I wasn’t surprised by their response.  But in that moment, statistics became people, people traveling to hell.

After class, I wanted to know why that student asked me if I believed in God.  I caught him going out the door and asked, “Of all questions, why that one?  You could have asked me anything, but you asked if I believed in God.  Why?”  His response is what I hope you find encouraging.  He answered, “Because there was an American here last year (whom he even remembered by name) that said he believed in God.  So I wanted to see if you did too.”

Be encouraged that when you leave the mission field overseas, the words you spoke remain. Remember this!  Every place God has taken you to share his gospel remains a place where the gospel seed was sewn – that is, if you actually proclaimed it.  So when others come along, God continues through them what he began with you.  It is ultimately God’s work after all.

- Stephen Payne



Meredith Payne (Stephen's wife) is teaching a class of 7th graders in PelhÅ™imov, Czech Republic.  She became  a celebrity in the schools (we were the only Americans in the city), as many students got selfies with her afterwards.


Monday, June 8, 2015

SU Students in East Asia

Our team is doing well and loving it here and no one is sick so far! We arrived on Sunday May 24 at 6am after a 14 hour train ride! It was an interesting experience to say the least. We spent the first week sitting in on English classes meeting students and helping them out with their English lesson. After class the students we met always took us to lunch or dinner. We made a lot of friends this way. Everyone is so friendly here to us. It's like we are famous-random people on the street take pictures of us everywhere we go. 

     Our time so far has consisted of a lot of shallow conversations and even more games of uno. This sometimes is draining, but we know that this what it takes to build relationships here and once we have relationships with the students they will be more open with us and more likely to want to know about the things that are important to us. 

    This rest of our time will look more like our second week. In the morning we are tutored by some students in their language-this is important because it shows them that we care about them and are interested in their culture which goes a long way in this country. It helps us learn how to communicate and find our way around better. Then we go out to lunch with the students. In afternoons we try to make plans with the students to get drinks, play cards, see their dorm or have them take us some place in the city. 

On Friday nights from 7-9 we help the foreign teachers with English Corner where students can come talk to us to work on their English. A lot of students have to come to this for class once or twice a semester. 

On Tuesdays from 3-5 we hang out at a certain place in the library and we have told some students that they can come there to talk with us or play card games. Word spread like wildfire that there are Americans in the library waiting to hang out. It was a hit this past week and I left with my favorite conversation I have had yet. 

STORY

     Nancy asked me if I felt pressure in high school. I told her a little because I want to work hard and do well but I know that that is not the most important thing in my life. She said that she doesn't know what she wants to do with her life. She said that in this society people just work to make a high income and so they can live a happy life but they cannot live a happy life. I explained to them how we always have a goal we want to reach and how we think it will satisfy us but when we reach it, it never does and we are left wanting more. They agreed excitedly when I said that-like they understood exactly what I meant. Lucy said a sense of achievement and friends satisfies her but then the satisfaction goes away. Nancy said she couldn't think of anything that satisfies her. I told them I had found something that does satisfy me completely and is not temporary. 


    They asked me what it was. I was able to tell them I am a follower and that my relationship with the father is what satisfies me. I told them about the hope I have as a follower that this life is not what I live for. That there is life after this life where there is no pressure, no stress, no tears, only joy, and that is the life I am living for. Please lift up Nancy and Lucy with me. That they would realize their longing for this life and that the father would reveal Himself to them so they may come to know this hope to which He has called them.

    It's amazing how in America I get nervous to talk about the father with someone who is not a follower but here I long for that freedom. 

    Please continue lifting up our team unity, for the students we are meeting, and for patience for us during the seemingly shallow conversations and game playing and to believe those things are making an impact.

Sent in by Mary Prater