When I heard the first whistle, I got tense. It just kept coming closer and closer. Then a few blocks away the rocket landed and exploded. Since this was a well-populated suburb I thought it hit a house. I felt sorry for those who were inside. Then, the second whistle started.
A few years earlier a soldier who had been conducting a demining orientation for us said that bombs did not naturally make that whistling noise when falling. They fall silently. During WWII whistles were attached to bombs for their psychological effect- to create fear.
The whistles were effective. The first whistle made me tense. The second terrified me.
This was not my first experience with falling bombs; but it was my first with whistles. I had been in Islamabad, Pakistan in 1988 when the army munitions dump exploded in Rawalpindi. Rockets were landing all over the twin cities. One landed just twenty yards from where I was standing. I had been getting permission to import relief supplies from the Chief Commissioner for Afghan Refugees when the first explosions occurred. We went outside to see what had caused them. The explosions rocked the entire building. We crossed the street into an open area to get a better view of the city and we saw two small mushroom clouds rising in the distance, over by Rawalpindi. Then one of the retired Army officers pointed out more small clouds of smoke rising all over the city. He stated that Ojhri Camp, the munitions depot in Rawalpindi, must have exploded. Just then a silent projectile hit the ground just twenty yards behind us, right by my pick-up truck. We crossed the street and then another projectile landed where we had been standing. There were no whistles on these projectiles; and they fortunately did not explode. Yet, many did explode, killing more than 1000 people that day.
With the second whistle, I quickly moved over to a wall and crouched down, waiting for impact. I prayed over my fear and committed my destiny into the Lord’s hands. If my name was on that rocket, I was ready to go. The rocket exploded but not on my street. So, I stood back up and continued walking down the road. I had a job to do. I had brought a truck filled with supplies for one of the humanitarian organizations working in the city. I had to find the director of the organization and turn the truck over to him.
What was I doing there? My parents and siblings could not understand why I would work in such conditions. But to me the answer was simple. Jesus had given me a small glimpse into his view of the world. That view changed the way I saw everything.
It wasn’t as if Jesus had done something wrong. I had asked him to do this. I had been in a meeting when I was in my mid 20s and the speaker said that God loved the world so much that he gave us his only Son. “Well,” he said, “if you ask God, he will give you a glimpse of what his love is like.”
I knew that God wouldn’t give me the glimpse if I didn’t ask for it. So, I did. I didn’t realize at the time how that small request would shape my life.
I lived the majority of 28 years in a conflict-ridden area of the world. It was uncomfortably cold in the wintertime. It was oppressively hot in the summertime. To give you an idea of what the heat was like, a group of five young men came from Singapore one summer. These men came to help out in the ESL center I ran for three weeks. When they first arrived I advised them to adjust the pace of their work because of the heat. In classic fashion they shrugged off my advice and said Singapore was hot and they were used to the heat. Three weeks later when they were ready to leave we went to purchase a few crates of mangos for their trip back home.
As we stood by the stall purchasing the crates, one of the interns asked me, “How can you take this heat?”
I chuckled. They were happy to leave after three weeks. I was happy to stay.
How could I withstand the scorching heat? Paul’s gave the reason in 1 Corinthians 5:14: “For the love of Christ controls us.” When God gives us a glimpse of his love for the world, he puts a bit of that love into our hearts. That love compels us to do things we normally wouldn’t or even couldn’t do.
God’s love opens up our eyes to the people around us. That love also opens our eyes to see the brokenness and the heartache in people’s lives. Some people may be content where they are in life, but many, if not most, are hurting. When we see their pain, the words of Ecclesiastes take on new meaning:
I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them (4:1 NRSV).
The writer saw that both the oppressed and their oppressors had no one to comfort them. Even though the oppressors had power to inflict pain on others, they had no power to stop their own pain. This insight led the writer of Ecclesiastes to despair of life:
And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun (4:2-3 NRSV).
This insight doesn’t lead us to despair because we have God’s perspective. God’s perspective is shaped by Jesus’ victory (Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again) and it is shaped by God’s hope-filled, enduring love (“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” 1 Cor. 13:7 ESV).
After God gave me a glimpse of his love for the people of the world, developing an interest in missions was the natural progression. God invited me to join him in his efforts to reconcile the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:20-6:1). I think he extends the same request to all of us. What differs is the way he directs each of us in getting involved. God just happened to direct me to a conflict-ridden area. I was open to going to Fiji or Tahiti, but I was sent to the plains of the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan instead.
Pakistan is predominantly Muslim- 97 percent. Though the government has tolerated Christian missionary activity, the people take a dim view on open evangelism.
Due to this, I was faced with a very practical question. How could I impact my world for Christ when most of those around me did not want to hear anything about Jesus?
Followers of Jesus face this problem here in the US. They feel that secularism has too much influence in their world, rendering them unable to effectively represent Jesus to the people around them. What adds insult to injury is that all the other doors that would be open to them for serving the Lord are closed to them as well. Their jobs and their family responsibilities steal away any remaining time that they could give to serve the Lord. So, they lament their hapless state.
Life gets in the way
An elder of a church that I attended expressed the fundamental reason why he could not serve the Lord.
“Life gets in the way,” he lamented from the pulpit.
He certainly wasn’t alone in his feeling. Many in the church seemed to resonate with his lament.
I wondered about the words of Jesus. Jesus said that out of us would flow rivers of living water (John 7:38). Either Jesus didn’t know what our lives were going to be like in the 21st century or the elder had something wrong in his thinking.
As I listened to the speaker, it became clear that he had made a simple but very common error, the error that saps the life out of us, blinding us to the many opportunities that exist to serve the Lord. What was this error? It was the compartmentalization of life.
When life is compartmentalized, not integrated, God’s work becomes one of its many compartments, along with one’s job, being a spouse, raising a family, attending the children’s sports games, not to mention the host of other obligations that creep into our lives.
The speaker also compartmentalized God’s work. All these compartments revolved around the activities of the “church.” Tithing was one compartment. Though it didn’t rate high on his scale of service, it was an easy way to serve God. All that was required for this was to write a check. The elder itemized the different compartments the church offered to serve the Lord. There was the food distribution program for the poor, a workday each quarter in order to help maintain the church building, Christmas and Easter outreach programs, and for the most committed, participating in or leading various small groups.
The speaker felt absolutely helpless. His job and family required all his time. He simply did not have any time left over to serve the Lord. As a result, he felt completely unfulfilled as a believer.
The compartmentalized life is hard wired to maximize a believer’s frustration. Churches tend to reinforce this compartmentalization of life and faith with their calls to ‘serve God’ by serving in the church programs. It is sort of a Catch 22 situation. Churches have to provide programs for their members. If members don’t volunteer their time, then how can the programs happen? So, pastors encourage people to serve God by getting involved. Pastors don’t intentionally reinforce this compartmentalization of life and faith; it is simply an unfortunate outcome of classifying people’s involvement in the church as serving God. The programs churches offer are meaningful, and they are good ways of serving God and others. However, they are not the only ways we can serve.
How then do we meaningfully serve God when we are trying to excel in our profession and fulfill our obligations to our employers as well as to our families?
Let’s step back and ask: What does it mean to meaningfully serve God? What images enter our minds when we think of serving God?
We all know that one way to serve God is by sharing our faith. However, sharing our faith for many people means that we are to be somewhat aggressive and intrusive. One professional affirmed this when he talked about the “the Bible thumper at the water cooler.” This professional knew that he couldn’t be intrusive and aggressive in sharing his faith on his job. He would get fired. But he did not have people asking him for information about Jesus. What was he to do? He simply did not know how to think about evangelism except by the descriptor, “the Bible thumper at the water cooler.” He knew he had to have the job to feed his family. And it was a good job. However, by not being aggressive about his faith he felt that he was compromising his faith.
This and other stereotypical images of what it means to serve God grow out of a compartmentalized view of life, faith, and ministry. The unfortunate outcome of the compartmentalized view of life and faith is that many believers wind up feeling unfulfilled in their faith. They cannot ‘serve God’ in these compartmentalized, stereotypical ways. So, they spiritually limp along. What they can do, they do well. They put their effort into their professions and their families. Yet, by adjusting to these constraints upon their lives a number drift away from God because their lives do not allow them to live for him. For others, their faith eventually becomes irrelevant. What they hear from the pulpit is not something that they can import into their world. It is too dissonant with the way everyone thinks. Others hang on but they limp along, quietly enduring their feelings of discontent that gnaw away at them. When they turn 40 or 50 they inwardly wish they could toss everything away and start life all over and finally live for God.
I have seen these scenarios played out in the lives of acquaintances over the years. It breaks my heart. When I was younger I too compartmentalized life in these ways.
Freedom from Compartmentalization
What helped me break out of that compartmentalized mold was living and working overseas in Pakistan, in a strict Muslim context. Since the context was so radically different, I was forced to rethink much of what I had learned. This process of reflection was immensely rewarding. The Lord used this process of reflection to set me free from the stereotypical images I had of what it meant to live for and serve God. Later on I was able to mentor interns in living as a follower of Christ in a strict Islamic context. I can remember two of the students in particular who relished the release they experienced when they came to see how to integrate their faith into their daily life and into their relationships. Their integration became so seamless that talking about their faith was never received as intrusive or aggressive.
Now that I am back in the US, I see people still battling with the same feelings that I had. I see how the compartmentalized view of life and faith seriously hampers people’s ability to walk with God through life and take hold of the many opportunities to represent Christ that comes to them. Life should never get in our way of serving God because life is the way to serve God.
It is time to construct another view of life and faith, one that releases us who work as professionals to enjoy God’s presence, one that enables us to live with and for God each and every minute of the day. It should be a view of life that enables us to mature, reflecting the grace and the wisdom of God in what we say and do. Our faith should provide us with what we need to withstand the storms of life while releasing us to encourage others, strengthen those who are weak, and enable us to speak wisely and meaningfully of the hope that we have within us. We need a view of life and faith that can produce professionals who are mature believers, believers who, as the Psalmist said, are like trees planted by streams of water, who bear fruit in due season and whose leaves do not wither.
These posts are my humble attempt at constructing a view of life and faith that releases us in these ways.