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Missions 101

Posts By: Ethan Larson

Encountering Suffering, Discovering My Middle Class Prosperity Gospel

Apr. 8, 2015By: Ethan LarsonAuthor Bio

“Would you pray for me?” she asked us. 

We had finished an evening Bible study at our little church in Priluki, Ukraine. We chatted about the Bible study, about life, and lingered in the warmth of community. We were a small body of believers in a big unbelieving world, forestalling our exit from this haven, and bracing for the cold dark walk home. Some were bracing for home itself.

Like many Ukrainians she lived in a multigenerational home; kids, parents and grandparents20100323_the-t85600e0c21 sharing small spaces and often, big problems. That she lived with alcoholic men was, in Ukraine, hardly remarkable. But her family dynamic also included serious mental health issues. Some diagnoses had been made, but the available “cures” might be worse than the disease, so they lived with it. Several of us knew the specifics, and so when she asked for prayer before going home, we knew what she meant. And as always, our Church was quick and ready to pray for one another. 

Our church lived Ephesians 6:18 and prayed, at all times, with all kinds of prayer, for everything. And God kept on answering. It was beautiful.

That night God used my Ukrainian brothers and sisters to teach me something deeper about prayer, and about myself. And He also began a deep work of challenging and changing my understanding of Him. 
As we started to pray I was full of confidence. I was sure I knew just what she needed, and just how God could fix it. As a Pastor in the USA I knew several examples of how psychotropic treatments could radically transform family realities like hers. I think I offered a tacit plea for healing, but I prayed mainly and earnestly that God would fix it by providing the medicines I knew could treat it. 

Others prayed in turn, but for a different kind of divine intervention. They prayed for endurance in suffering, divine strength, and God’s help to live and respond gracefully to suffering from which there was little chance of escape.

Our prayers ended, our sister was encouraged, and we went out into the night. But a question began to stir in me about the divergent streams our prayers had taken and why. As a missionary I was constantly discovering new questions and cross-cultural complexities, but this was different. It poked at deeper issues. As I considered the discomfiture, it was obvious that we had very different responses to suffering, but it also began to see that we might also have different expectations of God’s help in our suffering.
Ukrainians know about suffering. They have lots of experience. That doesn’t mean they are immune to the pain, but I’d say they have a significantly higher threshold. I’d also say they find suffering less surprising. Suffering is, as you might say in Russian, “Normalna”: normal, unremarkable. 

What about Americans? Suffering? Normalna? Not so much. 

It’s not that Americans don’t experience suffering. We are members of the fallen Human race. We suffer, some of us intensely. But on a macro level, it would be hard to argue that systemic suffering that is common in the much of the World is common here. Suffering isn’t a competition, but on the other hand, the field is hardly level. We are privileged. If you doubt that, just ask the rest of the world if they want to trade places with you. Exactly.

Living and ministering around the world has been a continual education in the human experience of suffering. And since it is ubiquitous, all of us are always responding to it at some level. Well or otherwise. Some of my most profound lessons have been in learning how and why I respond to suffering as I do.

Reflecting on his life of ministry and of teaching ministers Dr. David Veum recently said to me that he is increasingly convinced that our main work as ministers is to prepare people for suffering. I’m convinced that standing at the back of that church in Ukraine, ten years earlier, I was not prepared to prepare people for suffering. 

Praying for a miraculous healing is not wrong, nor is praying that God would provide medicines, as long as you realize that you are asking for water from a rock. Those drugs simply did not exist in Ukraine. Praying for medicine might say something about my weak faith in healing, as well as my ignorance of medical realities in Ukraine. But that it was the main way I imagined God helping her also says something about the weakness of my Theology of suffering, and my expectations of God.

I knew, or thought I knew how God could help them escape, but I knew little of how He might help them endure. Though it felt bold to pray for a miracle, it was desperation. 

This was one of my first encounters with systemic suffering; people living in lives, cultures, economies, and histories that are not going to be fixed easily or possibly ever.
I was in over my head, and my theology felt shallow in these deep waters. She needed more than prayers for a lifesaver she didn’t have. Unless she could be pointed to God’s strength to sustain her, and help her swim in a sea of suffering, she was going to drown, and eventually so would I. Luckily others held her up with other prayers and assured her  of God’s provision of Grace.

"When I was put in the squeeze of suffering, what came out of me was the theology I had absorbed" - Tweet this 

Like a swimmer who first experiences a rip current, I realized my strength as well as my theology left something to be desired. There were lessons about my weak faith to be sure, but there were also lessons about my weaknesses in The Faith. It’s not that I didn’t have a theology so much as that I had the weak one, and in many respects a wrong or at least distorted one. 

What was weak was a theology of suffering. What was distorted was my expectation of God at work in suffering. I began a slow awakening to what Luther would call a Theology of Glory in place of a Theology of the Cross. Or as John Piper puts it, a Theology that delights in God making much of us, rather than delighting in us making much of Him.

No one was more shocked than I was to discover what was inside of me. But when I was put in the squeeze of suffering, what came out of me was the theology I had absorbed. 

I was beginning to discover my “Middle-Class Prosperity Gospel.” 

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Things I Learned as a Missionary

Feb. 17, 2015By: Ethan LarsonAuthor Bio

God was there before I arrived. 

A few years ago I visited a meeting of pastors in Suceava, Romania. Though we were one in Christ, we were mostly separated by language. And since I couldn’t really follow the proceedings, my mind drifted and I began to look around at the faces of those in the room--their worn faces, and subtly joyful eyes. What stories, struggles, and triumphs lay beneath? What had these saints endured for The Name, and for the Church? 

At 45 years old, I was one of the youngest in the room, and as an American I knew I had an easier life and ministry by comparison. American pastors may have their challenges, but most of these men had pastored churches under the Communist rule of Comrade Ceausescu and his dreaded Securitate. Respect. 

The language barrier prevented me from learning as much as I would have liked to know about their lives and churches during that time. Who doesn’t like a good war story? But soon, my mind was drawn to consider what had sustained them, and I began to think less about these pastors and more of their Shepherd. Their presence here ultimately revealed more about His faithfulness than theirs, didn’t it?

So perhaps the barrier was a Grace, to keep me from making small heroes of these men. I’m sure like the rest of us they are far from perfect. As in any gathering of blood-bought saints, they surely held stories of faithfulness and hid stories of failings. Yet here they were, trophies of His grace. Instead of mere hagiography, I was drawn to honor the greater Hero, The Lord of the Church …to Whom be the glory forever.

Even more years ago, in the 1990’s, I visited Romania for the first time. I was on one of the thousands of short-term mission teams/tours that poured into Eastern Europe after “The Wall came down.” Growing up as a child of the Cold War it seemed easy to believe this was a land of Godless Atheists. This idea was amplified by the missions milieu I worked in, which generally viewed Eastern Europe as a kind of spiritual Wild West … or East as the case may be, where you could ride into uninhabited territory, stake your claim, and start God’s work turning the soil. 

This, of course, revealed more about our ignorance than it did about the reality in Romania or its churches. What was terra incognita to me was a hard-plowed, patiently farmed field, and a precious, often precarious fold, whose sheep had been tended and defended at great cost by the brothers I sat with in Suceava years later. They had been here all the time. How had I missed them?

51SZ3fZjkAL._SY344_BO1_204_203_200_Could I claim ignorance? Hadn’t I read Tortured for Christ by Romania’s own Richard Wurmbrand as a child? Yet when I came to Romania that first time, it neither occurred to me to look for the faithful Church, or even expect to find it. We believed our own vision of Eastern Europe as a spiritually empty wilderness and were enamored with our own role as bold pioneers. 

When we did encounter evidence of national churches, to our shame, we simply accepted at face value the collective assessment held among our new churches, that those “old” churches were “dead,” and thus irrelevant. Since neither I, nor anyone I knew had personal experience with these churches, this lay somewhere between slander and character assassination.  

Ignorance, in our case of the willing kind, made it easier to believe this narrative. And the narrative, in turn, served both to dismiss the existing churches and create a clean start, while at the same time confirming the necessity of our new work and congratulating our arrival. In such an isolated, self-referential mindset, it's easy to believe our new thing is the only thing, and that God's arrival coincided with our own. 

It's easy to believe our new thing is the only thing, and that God's arrival coincided with our own. - Tweet this


The sad irony for me is that the many “new works” and the “frontiersman” I worked with rarely lasted more than a few years, springing up and withering, often in sad fashion.  

Meanwhile, the Church that was supposedly dead continues on, seemingly unaware of the earlier reports of its demise. Its roots were sunk deep in stormy seasons, and it is not easily withered. It continues to bear faithful witness and fruit in what is generally tough soil.  

I have learned and am still learning. If I had it to do over again, I would go to the mission field expecting to find something rather than nothing. If I saw nothing, I’d take a long hard look at myself, and ask what I was willing to see or not see, and why.

There are still places in the world where you might hack through the bush, meet the natives, and say the name of Jesus for the first time. But more often than not, missions today is about partnering in some way with existing churches, even to plant new churches.

So I think we should expect to find the Church in most places. We should also not be quick to dismiss what and who we find. Even, and especially, when we don't understand it. We should seek to honor the Church we find, and as much as we can to seek to serve it, seek its health, its joy, its reformation, its multiplication. The Church is God’s Bride, His Body, His plan for reaching the nations, and displaying His Glory.   

I’ve learned and am learning that The Church is precious and beautiful and difficult … and indispensable … and almost everywhere … long before I ever arrive.

Show Comments   |   Leave a Comment  |  Tags:  dead church, romania
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