Friday, September 28, 2007

Book Review: "Three Cups of Tea" by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

I stumbled across a book the other day while I was in Barnes & Noble. After searching unsuccessfully for about an hour to find a book that looked appetizing enough, I quickly decided on this one. To say the least, it was one of the most inspiring books I’ve read in a while.

A New York Times bestseller, Three Cups of Tea is the riveting story of a man who has done more to fight terrorism and promote peace in Central Asia than any grenades the US military has thrown, or bombs they have dropped. It’s the story of how much of a difference one man can make.

In 1993, Greg Mortenson’s attempt to climb the world’s second highest—and probably toughest—mountain, K2, was derailed. After failing to reach the top, and ultimately losing his way, he stumbled into a remote village in northern Pakistan. For the next few months, the kind and gracious people in the village nurtured him back to health. Overwhelmed with gratitude toward the people, he promised them that he would return and build a school for the village—something the Pakistani government had promised, but never delivered.

When he returned to the United States, his whole existence revolved around raising money so he could return and build the school. To save all the money he could, he had a dramatic change in lifestyle and decided to live in his car, as well as keeping his other expenses to a bare minimum.

Finally, after a year, he had enough money to return to the village to start building the school. Unfortunately, there were a number of speed bumps along the way, but the school was finally completed. Thinking that he would simply return to America and resume his life, one of his biggest financial backers convinced Mortenson to go into the work full time, and he has subsequently built 55 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as providing aid and help to a number of other government-funded schools. All this he has done in one of the most impoverished and war-torn regions in the world.

The book is full of adventure and raises the reader’s awareness to many issues relating to that area of the world. Mortenson’s adventures forced him to cross paths with members of the Taliban, and he has had tea with some of the scariest characters on earth. He was even held hostage for a week in the region of Waziristan—the region in western Pakistan where many believe Osama bin Laden is likely hiding today. It is by far the most dangerous and unchartered region in Central Asia, torn apart by warring clans.

Three Cups of Tea has a lot to say about our present approach to the war on terror and Mortenson ultimately shows that it is love, compassion, and education that ultimately eradicates hatred in the human heart, not guns. While the United States bull-dozed through Afghanistan and then left the country desolate to pursue other demons in Iraq, the country is almost worse now. Millions of dollars of aid that was promised to the Afghani people was re-allocated to the war in Iraq, and this has left many people in the area with a bitter taste in their mouths toward America.

Reflecting America’s approach, one man said, “I’m a moderate Muslim, an educated man. But watching this, even I could become a jihadi. How can Americans say they are making themselves safer? Your President Bush has done a wonderful job of uniting one billion Muslims against America for the next two hundred years.”

He then went onto say, “Osama is not a product of Pakistan or Afghanistan. He is a creation of America. Thanks to America, Osama is in every home. As a military man, I know you . . . have to attack the source of your enemy’s strength. In America’s case, that’s not Osama or Saddam or anyone else. The enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business. Otherwise the fight will go on forever.”

One man, Greg Mortenson, at least gets this. He has done more for the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan than any military brigade could do in a hundred years. Though he was raised in Tanzania to a Lutheran missionary family, he wears no Christianity on his sleeve. And yet he does. Because the ideals he lives for—loving people, caring for them, providing for their needs—is far more Christian than what any right-wing American who breathes war displays. And, ironically, though he does no proselytizing—and probably doesn’t even espouse to any Christian creed—the people in Central Asia call him a Christian (who, from the West, isn’t a Christian to them?).

So I ask you: which image of Christianity is better? The one that Greg Mortenson unintentionally displays, or the one that many of us violently promote? Fortunately, there is at least one person in the Muslim world who is giving the people a true picture of what it means to be Christ-follower.

He inspires me to do the same.

Recommendation: Must-read.
Pages: 348.
Quotable Quotes: “I was just an average bloak. . . I don’t know if I particularly want be remembered for anything. I have enjoyed great satisfaction from my climb of Everest. But my most worthwhile things have been the building of schools and medical clinics. That has given me more satisfaction than a footprint on a mountain” (pp. 129, 130—Sir Edmund Hillary).

“I don’t want to teach Pakistan’s children to think like Americans. I just want them to have a balanced, nonextremist education” (p. 209—Greg Mortenson).

“I don’t care where the money comes from. It’s all washed clean in the service of God” (p. 236—Mother Teresa, in response to the criticism of receiving money from “questionable” sources).

“In times of war, you often hear leaders—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim—saying, ‘God is on our side.’ But that isn’t true. In war, God is on the side of refugees, widows, and orphans” (p. 239—Greg Mortenson).

“I want to be thoroughly used up when I die” (p. 286—Julia Bergman).

“It was a very humbling victory. Here you have this Islamic court in conservative Shia Pakistan, offering protection for an American, at a time when America is holding Muslims without charges in Guantanamo, Cuba, for years, under our so-called system of justice” (p. 308—Greg Mortenson).

Friday, September 21, 2007

"Salvation Issues"

All is well in the world.

My wife arrived safely from the East Coast - 14 hours late (see my previous post below) - and she is sleeping soundly in the bed in our hotel room with her mouth approximately a half-inch open. I wish that I could take a picture and post it on here to accompany this entry, but I fear that that would be an abuse of my marital privileges.

I have an itch to write, however. It's been a while since I've really written anything and I feel that I owe the world some of my thoughts (though I'm probably mistaken). Plus, I'm not that tired right now.

So I may as well go ahead and quickly write about something that I've been thinking about for a while. Why not? It's nothing profound, but something that has been on my mind for sometime.

That is: what, exactly, is a "salvation issue"? I've heard this term thrown around a lot. Some people may say, "Well . . . jewelry is not a salvation issue," while others may say, "What you believe is not a salvation issue."

The idea really hit home with me a few months ago when I came across another Adventist blog (one that seems to be fairly frequented) and they seemed to be congratulating themselves by writing that they believed in the Sabbath, not as a "condition or a salvation issue, but . . . a gift of the eternal rest we have in Christ."

Don't get me wrong. I applaud them. The Sabbath truly is a wonderful blessing from Christ, a reflection of the fellowship we have with Him. But do they really know what they are saying when they write that the Sabbath is not a "salvation issue"? It's a term that is thrown around a lot, and I'm not sure that too many people really stop and think about what they mean by it.

Again, I pose the question: what, exactly, is a "salvation issue"? I was talking about this with one of my pastor friends a few nights ago - "colleagues," we're supposed to say - and he agreed with me when I told him that, on the one hand, nothing is a "salvation issue," and on the other hand, everything is a "salvation issue."

Question: is murder a "salvation issue"? What about lying or committing adultery? What about cheating on your taxes? What about paying tithe? Or - heaven forbid - what about drinking coffee?

The truth is, if the Sabbath is not a "salvation issue" then murder can't be a "salvation issue" either. And if murder isn't a "salvation issue" then we may as well throw the whole thing out because you can't really get any worse than murder (I'm sure some could argue that there are worse things).

Reflecting on the whole issue of "salvation issues," I wonder if people are trying to say that you are not saved by doing or not doing the said thing. Thus, keeping the Sabbath doesn't save you. Abstaining from alcohol doesn't save you.

But this is a purely artificial distinction and reveals the fact that those who are trying to distance themselves from legalistic thinking are, themselves, legalistic. Presumably, they believe that certain things are "salvation issues" (i.e., murder, treating others with love, feeding the hungry, promoting world peace). What makes them so?

Last I checked, what we do does not contribute one iota to our salvation (though some well-intentioned folks may disagree). Clothing the naked or fighting for the poor does not earn me any brownie points in heaven, no more than keeping the Sabbath or avoiding harmful substances does. None of these things contribute to Christ's atoning work on the cross. To pick and choose which issues become "salvation issues" is to play the part that God can only play, and make Him into our image.

Yet at the same time, all the aforementioned things can be salvation issues, in some senses. Though salvation is a free gift from God (which is not even based on my faith), how I respond to God's convicting Spirit reflects the reality of my salvation relationship with Him. If His Spirit convicts me of a certain area in my life - pornography, hatred, Sabbath, and, yes, even coffee and other health-related issues - that needs to be surrendered over to Him, then that specific thing very much becomes a "salvation issue." It doesn't matter how grandiose or how minute the issue is, when the Holy Spirit presses it upon my conscience, my salvation, in many senses, hangs in the balance.

I believe this is part of the great tension that Paul and James both present. On the one hand, Paul makes it abundantly clear that we are saved by grace, and not of works. On the other hand, however, James says that we are not simply saved by faith, but by works also.

In the end, when some people claim that certain things are not "salvation issues," I believe that many of them are simply trying to excuse their own behavior that they know to be wrong. Yes, some of it is purely semantical, but this world - indeed, this universe - hinges on semantics. What we say and how we say it is incredibly important. Christ is, after all, the Word incarnate. We need to be very careful how we say things.

Let's not make artificial distinctions. Let's make it crystal clear that nothing we do contributes to our salvation in an objective sense - not even our faith. Yet, on the subjective level, our behavior is a reflection of that objective reality and whether or not we have truly surrendered to the Almighty. This does not mean we should go around and say that "everyone" needs to do this or that (yes, there are issues that we can make such bold proclamations about, including the Sabbath), but neither does it mean that we should avoid bringing these issues to the forefront of people's consciences - as the Holy Spirit leads - and encourage them to experience a deeper union with Christ.

We need not apologize for some of these more "peripheral" issues that Adventists are peculiar for. Of course, we shouldn't bang people over the head with them, either. But we should be eager to show them that there is a better way. God wants to not only give them life, but life more abundantly.

And now, I must go. But first, a picture for you of the Oregon coast that I took last week. Not a great photo. Nice place, though (Cannon Beach).

Thursday, September 20, 2007

They call it "Field School"

TUALATIN, Ore. - It's 10:07 PM PST, and I am supposed to pick up my wife at the Portland airport at 11:19. That won't be happening, however. Due to severe weather conditions in Minneapolis, her plane was diverted to Rochester, Minn. and she'll be spending the night either at the airport or a hotel, once they are bussed to Minneapolis. Hopefully it's the latter.

So, instead of spending 54 hours with her for the first time in two and a half weeks, I'll only get to spend about 40 hours with her before she flies back to New Hampshire. And such is life. I've been doing a lot of waiting over the past few weeks.

I've been in the lovely Northwest for the past 16 days. They call it Field School, but I'm not sure how much of that is going on. It's been slow. We've been holding some meetings in Woodland, Wash., and though the evangelist is great, the pastor is great, the church is great, my classmates are great and everything about the Northwest is great (except for the fact that I'm separated from my wife), we haven't done much. Attendance has been sparse - and we have not even shared any of the "testing truths" yet.

But there are reasons to be positive. Some folks who are attending have stories to share, testimonies to tell. God has been blessing - and you can never put a price tag on a soul in Christ's eyes.

Meanwhile, we've almost done more sight-seeing than visitation. In some ways, that's fine, but in others, it's kind of a sad commentary on the challenges that we face here. We've hiked around Mt. St. Helens, camped at Mt. Hood (pictured right - taken this morning), and seen the Oregon coast (below). It's all very beautiful - definitely my favorite place in the US outside of New England.

However, I want to make another point - and perhaps this deserves a whole other entry - but whoever said that the Northwest is the most secular area in the United States has never been here. Truthfully, it seems like there is a Christian church on every corner - and an Evangelical church for that matter. There are three or four Christian radio stations in Portland, alone! Honestly, the Northeast is way more secular than this place. I know this is purely anecdotal and lacks any true empirical evidence, but I have eyes, folks. I can see. And I think there is probably plenty of evidence that the Northeast is every bit as secular (if not more so) as the Northwest.

The reason our meetings are so sparsely attended, by the way, is because we are holding them in a town of about 4,000 people, and there was no pre-work done before the meetings began. Handbills aren't going to bring in the masses, friends! But I digress. . .

Well, that's about all for now. This is probably the most unfocused blog entry I've had to this date, but I just wanted to inform my faithful readers of what has been going on with me for the past few weeks. And you can be sure, with the slowness of our experience here, that I would be writing more often. But the place I'm staying doesn't have internet (myth #2 of the Northwest: everyone is wired. This is not true at all).

Fortunately, tonight I am staying with two wonderful fiends of mine - David and Val Smith - who have internet. Though they've gone to bed, they have consoled me as I received news that my wife would not be arriving tonight.

More later, I'm sure.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Five Questions With . . . Russell Burrill

Russell Burrill was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts of Baptist parentage. He became an Adventist in his late teens through the ministry of the Voice of Prophecy. He graduated from Atlantic Union College with a B.A. in Theology in 1963 and married Cynthia Hartman, who also graduated the same year with a B.A. in Elementary Education. He received an M.A. from the seminary at Andrews University and a D.Min. From Fuller Theological Seminary. The Burrills have two children: Jim, a Computer Systems Analyst for Adventist Health Systems Sunbelt in Orlando, Florida, and a daughter, Ruth Davis. She and her husband pastor in the Carolina Conference.

Russell and Cynthia’s ministry include seven years pastoring in Connecticut and Maryland, followed by seven years full-time evangelism in Mountain View, Chesapeake, and Upper Columbia Conferences, followed by another seven years pastoring in Spokane, Washington and Wichita, Kansas. From 1985 to 2007, Russell was the Director of the North American Division Evangelism Institute, for seven years in Chicago, and since 1993, in Berrien Springs, Michigan. He continues to teach at the Andrews University Theological Seminary, where he holds the faculty rank of Professor. In 2005 he was also appointed NAD Ministerial Secretary and NAD Global Missions Director.

Russell is the author of numerous articles, the Prophecy Seminar lessons, and nine books, including Revolution in the Church, and Rekindling a Lost Passion.

1. Will Adventist churches in North America ever get away from pastor-dependency as you have envisioned it?

Will every Adventist church get away from pastor dependency? Obviously no. Will some? Defintely yes. It is happening. In fact whole conferences like Pennsylvania have committed to move in this new direction. In that Conference, every pastor has bought into the concept and the Conference is moving forward. Individual churches throughout NAD also are moving in this direction.

2. What do you think it will take to really motivate Adventists into action?

As HMS Richards use to say. "The only way to finish the work is to put all the Adventist preachers in jail". I hope it doesn't come to that, but if all else fails, God will finish His work, because He is in control.

3. Realistically speaking, where do you think the Church will be in ten years?

I am not a prophet or the son of a prophet, but God is leading and God is in control. I would hope we would be in the kingdom, but that is in God's time. It is hard to be realistic here. One naturally hopes for the best, but unless there is major change in the local church we will probably still be where we are today.

4. You suffered an unfortunate setback this past spring. How have you personally rebounded since this event?

The event last spring was very traumatic, but by the grace of God I have recovered. I no longer think about it or at least consciously dream about it. My biggest concern is that my attacker has found the help he needs so he can recover. God has been gracious and restored me.

5. Why hasn't Christ returned yet?

It is easy to speculate, but that is all it is. Christ will return in His time, not mine,. The Scripture declares we must preach in all the world and then the end will come. Is that every nation? every language? every city? every town? every person? I no longer speculate, I trust that He will return when He is ready. I will do my part and wait for Him.