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The Nations as an Inheritance

“He declares the power of His works to His people;

He gives to them the nations as an inheritance.”

(Psalm 111:6)

I had the joy of bringing the word this past weekend to Ministerios Betesda, a Hispanic congregation in south Florida. This was our second time together for a conference and I was invited to speak of the topic of finding delight through the Study of the Bible as an essential part of the Christian life. As always, the grace and hospitality of these saints was a great blessing (not to mention their cooking!) and I pray that the seeds planted during my time with them will bear good fruit.

It never ceases to amaze me how God brings people together and how radically similar we are once we get beyond superficial matters like the color of one’s skin or the cultural “personalities” that differ from region to region. At this stage of my life, this country-boy from north-eastern Maryland has been privileged to minister to homeless men on the streets of Jackson, Mississippi, to easter-European pastors in Ukraine and in Russia, to pastors in Kenya, and now to Hispanic Christians in south Florida; plus I have worked to mentor pastors in Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi, and India to name a few other places. My point is not to say, “look at me…” No, just the opposite. My point is to say, “Look at Jesus! And look at Christ’s Church!” 

Now, all border and immigration politics aside, what I find wonderful is the nature of Christ’s church. It exists beyond national boundaries and it exists beyond language boundaries. The church may look a little different and sound a little different based on where you are, but Christ is being glorified as men and women, redeemed from the power of sin and death, come together for worship. 

I remember the first time that God impressed this great truth upon me. I was in eastern Ukraine with a group of Russian-speaking Christians and we went to church. It was my first real trip out of the United States, so I was feeling pretty overwhelmed by the language barrier, but then, all of a sudden, I recognized the tune to the hymn these Christians were singing. Right there and then I was struck with the reality of the words of praise that these Christians were lifting up in a language not my own. America is not the salvation of the Church; Christ is — I truly understood that wonderful truth there and then.

The Bible talks a lot about this phrase “the inheritance of the nations” or “the nations as an inheritance.” Too often when we see these words, we think only in terms of land and territory and natural resources…yet this not of which the Bible is speaking. It is speaking of people who are being “shaken out” of the nations to fill the church. And, so, if you want to see God actively fulfilling this promise in Christ — spend some time doing cross-cultural ministry. 

My concern, at least pastorally, is how often people don’t look outside of their context. In the church where I was raised, I heard about missionaries but I never met one — money was just sent to the denomination and they dispersed it as they saw fit, sending missionaries as they saw fit. The idea of anything cross-culture was seen as a novelty and not emphasized. Also, I have known churches to get so focused on their own challenges and problems that they begin to act as if they are the only thing that matters. Yet, the church is far bigger than one regional location.

In addition, I have found that the bad teachings and heresies that we see here in our American context are often the same bad teachings and heresies that plague the church elsewhere. The “prosperity” and new-age movements abound and attack the church not just here but all over. The errors that come along with the hyper-pentecostalism of people like Benny Hinn and Joyce Meyer are also leading many astray in other cultural contexts. The goal of church leadership is to build the church up to maturity to ensure that it is not swayed to-and-fro by the winds of human cunning and false doctrine. One thing we have in America — that our brothers and sisters elsewhere do not have — is an abundance of resources — not just money, but good theological literature. If we would strengthen Christ’s church we must not limit our work to our own cultural context — but extend the work to the whole of the Christian church so that men and women of every tribe and language would know the greatness of our God as is taught in our Bibles.

Playing Dominoes in Ukraine

I spent about half an hour the other day playing a game of two-on-two Dominoes with several of my Ukrainian students. The game was the basic game that I had played as a child, though it has been many years since I had played, and it was fairly easy to follow the progression even though neither my opponents nor my partner and I spoke the same language.

Though my gaming partner and I did lose our little tournament, it began to get me thinking about the nature of cross-cultural ministry on two levels. First, how often we go to great lengths to put on an expensive program or elaborate activities to help us bridge the language barriers when often one of the most significant ways we can bridge that gap is by our simple presence in their lives. That which proved meaningful to my three students was not so much that I was able to play a game that they liked or that I could be competitive with them (then again, my partner and I did lose the game, so I am not sure just how well I did at playing) but it was simply that I was willing to spend time interacting with them on a very basic level outside of the classroom.

Such was the case even when I was teaching students in America where no (or almost no!) language barrier was present. It was not the things that I normally did in the classroom that endeared my students to me and it was not my lectures that they will remember for years to come (as much as I would like that to be the case!). Instead, it was the time that I spent with my students outside of the classroom, living life together, sitting down to arm-wrestle, or working together on a project. It wasn’t even always about the quality of the interaction, but it was the willingness to interact that made the impact.

The second thing that I got to thinking about was in terms of the nature of what “cross-cultural” means. Typically we think of cross-cultural as going somewhere else in the world and bridging a language-barrier. Such activities are essential in working out the Great Commission and I have enjoyed the privilege of being able to do so in a small way myself here in eastern-Europe. Yet one need not travel 5,000 miles away from home to find a cross-cultural context. In seminary, I spent several years doing inner-city homeless ministry — a culture that was very different than the rural middle-class context in which I was raised. Sometimes cross-cultural simply even means sitting down with your grand-kids and listening to their favorite music or sharing a favorite movie of your own with them. You may find out that cross-cultural contexts are as close as your neighbor’s back yard or even your own home.

In putting this all together, I am reminded both of Jonah and of Jesus’ ministry to the Samaritans and others outside of the Jewish context. The Syrophoenician woman, for example, came to Jesus shortly after he had spent time in her non-Jewish town. Jonah, of course, did not want to go proclaim the Gospel to the Ninevites, but God sent him the hard way. The sermon that Jonah finally preached was terse at best and he fled the city hoping to see a mighty display of fireworks. Yet God moved even through Jonah’s half-hearted message. The very fact that God had sent them his prophet must have (at least initially) made an impact on the people and caused them to take notice. Jesus’ response to the Syrophoenician woman was that it was not yet time for the pet dogs to receive their meal; hardly a cordial greeting, but his mere presence in her community told her that he would be willing to help and the desperation she felt for her daughter’s need drove her to be undaunted by this initial rebuke. Even in Samaria, Jesus’ interactions are warm, but brief, yet the impact is profound.

Ukraine may be a long way to come simply to play a game of Dominoes, but no distance is too far to go for the opportunity to share the Gospel and to help develop disciples. Even so, you likely do not need to travel very far to cross a cultural barrier. My encouragement is to look for those opportunities, find a chance to simply be present in the life of your neighbor (even in the Good Samaritan sense) and build a relationship with him or her, for it is out of that relationship that you will have a chance to share the Gospel. Who knows, were Jesus to have come for the first time in this world today — a world of running water in homes and water-fountains in public places — I wonder how he might have engaged the Samaritan woman at the Well…it might have even been through a game of Dominoes.