January typically marks a time of new beginnings for us in America; a new year, a new start, a new set of resolutions.  For some it might even mark the start of the first full year as a follower of Jesus Christ.

This year, Neighborhood Church is starting our new year by emphasizing the importance of missions.  In this month of January, we'll spend at least 2 weekends, and possibly 3, focusing on the extraordinary things God is doing through ordinary people around the world who have committed their lives to spreading the good news "full time."

So what do you think of when you think of 'missions?' Do you think of Mormons on bicycles?  Do you think of James Bond? Do you picture pith helmets and machetes?  Maybe some of you even harbor a  grudge against the average missionary; maybe you see them as many in our hyper-tolerant, relativistic times do: as meddlers. You might be surprised how many people look at missionaries this way. "You're destroying their cultures!" "You're imposing your values!"  "You're corrupting their noble lifestyles!"  What do you think?

My dad sent me this article last week via email; it is an extraordinary piece.  Why?  Mainly because the observations being made come from someone who is known for proactively denying the existence of God.  The article below was written by an atheist.  After reading it however, you might wonder as I have how long that position will hold…

As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God

Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa's biggest problem – the crushing passivity of the people's mindset

Matthew Parris


Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it's Malawi, and The Times Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there. Pump Aid helps rural communities to install a simple pump, letting people keep their village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.

It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I've been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I've been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I used to avoid this truth by applauding - as you can - the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It's a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

But this doesn't fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.

First, then, the observation. We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, alone with my little brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world - a directness in their dealings with others - that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.

At 24, travelling by land across the continent reinforced this impression. From Algiers to Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, then right through the Congo to Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, four student friends and I drove our old Land Rover to Nairobi.

We slept under the stars, so it was important as we reached the more populated and lawless parts of the sub-Sahara that every day we find somewhere safe by nightfall. Often near a mission.

Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers - in some ways less so - but more open.

This time in Malawi it was the same. I met no missionaries. You do not encounter missionaries in the lobbies of expensive hotels discussing development strategy documents, as you do with the big NGOs. But instead I noticed that a handful of the most impressive African members of the Pump Aid team (largely from Zimbabwe) were, privately, strong Christians. “Privately” because the charity is entirely secular and I never heard any of its team so much as mention religion while working in the villages. But I picked up the Christian references in our conversations. One, I saw, was studying a devotional textbook in the car. One, on Sunday, went off to church at dawn for a two-hour service.

It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. Their work was secular, but surely affected by what they were. What they were was, in turn, influenced by a conception of man's place in the Universe that Christianity had taught.

There's long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture: “theirs” and therefore best for “them”; authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours.

I don't follow this. I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the “big man” and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.

Anxiety - fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things - strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won't take the initiative, won't take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.

How can I, as someone with a foot in both camps, explain? When the philosophical tourist moves from one world view to another he finds - at the very moment of passing into the new - that he loses the language to describe the landscape to the old. But let me try an example: the answer given by Sir Edmund Hillary to the question: Why climb the mountain? “Because it's there,” he said.

To the rural African mind, this is an explanation of why one would not climb the mountain. It's... well, there. Just there. Why interfere? Nothing to be done about it, or with it. Hillary's further explanation - that nobody else had climbed it - would stand as a second reason for passivity.

Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I've just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.

Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted.

And I'm afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.


Matthew Parris joined The Times as parliamentary sketchwriter in 1988, a role he held until 2001. He had formerly worked for the Foreign Office and been a Conservative MP from 1979-86. He has published many books on travel and politics and an autobiography, Chance Witness, for which he won the 2004 Orwell Prize. His diary appears in The Times on Thursdays, and his Opinion column on Saturdays.

STILL WITH US! ~ 12/23/08

I was going to write something different today; it might have even been helpful.  I’ve been planning to cover some miscellaneous Christmas traditions and explore their origins, was going to finish up this 3 part Christmas season with an even-keeled look at such things as Christmas trees, gifts, the name “Christmas” – all of that.  But then I saw the star.
“Huh,” was my first thought; “That’s a wee bit arrogant.”  I was driving through a local neighborhood when I saw it – a huge, lit up star, prominently suspended directly over someone’s house.  In the Biblical account of Christ’s birth, the star was to direct attention to the location of the world’s savior.  He’s come, and He’s here,” it seems to say in Scripture.  But this, this was just another house, 2000 years later. 

Then it hit me.  Like a dummy getting hit with a ton of bricks, it hit me – and it was perfect!  It wasn’t inappropriate or arrogant or anything like that – it was wonderfully, perfectly right on.  I know the family in the star-clad home, and they’re Christians.  And their glowing star was trying to communicate one simple message to each harried and stressed driver that sped past: “The Savior has come, and He’s here in this house.  He is still with us!”

I wonder... maybe I’m not the only one who gets so caught up in re-telling the first Christmas story that I forget the story is still happening today, still happening right now.  You see, that first Christmas was like the arrival of a special guest, a visitor; Jesus came as a visitor.  I say a “visitor” because He came as a man, and as a man, like every other human, His days among the living were numbered.  I suppose, in that same sense, we’re all just visitors here, which makes what Jesus did on the cross and his raising from the dead all the more significant –“…he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy”” (Col. 1:18).  Jesus, the visiting God made flesh, was the first and only able to defy death, rising again, so that He would forever remain more than the ‘holy visitor.’  Without the cross and without the resurrection, Jesus would not be “God with us.”  At best, He would be “God with them,” God to and for those people 2000 years ago. It is only because of His death and resurrection that Jesus fulfilled and lived up to His name as Emmanuel, “God with us.” 

Jesus didn’t leave us because Jesus is still alive today.  Behold, I am with you always” (Matt. 28:20), He tells us, and His birth into the ranks of humanity was just the beginning of what ultimately made that promise possible. He came as a visitor… so He could stay. He was born into our human family so that we might have a way to be born into His.  On that first Christmas, God was born with a human heart, so that you and I could receive God’s heart the moment we put our belief and trust in the risen and living Jesus.


~ are you weary? 


~ are you in financial difficulty? 


~ are you struggling with sickness or pain? 


God is still with us, because of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27).  There is a star over your life, if you know Christ, and it’s message remains the same: ‘The Savior has come; and you can find Him here.’ "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt. 5:14). 

Surrounded By Grace,

"SANTA CHRIST?" ~ 12/19/08

He sees you when you’re sleeping.  He knows when you’re awake.  He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!  Ohhhhh…….”

Talk about creepy; what in the world could possibly have inspired someone to write those lyrics and still hope they would produce joy (of all things) in the heart of any child? Does that song make you want Santa to come to your home?  No thanks; close, block and reinforce the chimney flue before coming to bed please.

The odd thing is, people can look at Jesus this way too. He is the rewarder of good people, a gift for the good, a rich symbol of wisdom, joy, peace and love for those wise enough to learn from him… and they stop there. If the “heads” side of the coin is needlessly villianizing Santa Claus, the “tails” side I want to flip to today is carelessly ‘Santafying’ Jesus.  ‘Santafying?’ you ask – yes,  ‘Santafying.’ As in, “our culture has in large part ‘wholly Santafied’ Jesus” (a little inside C&MA humor there…) So what does a ‘Santafied’ Jesus look like?  Maybe a better question is – “What does the person that treats Jesus like ‘Santa Christ’ look like?”

This person:

~ Thinks of Jesus as just another ornament on the tree of culture. He’s a colorful character that enriches our stories, our celebrations, our imaginations…

~ Treats Jesus like the favorite uncle that visits once a year.  If you play nice, he gives you good stuff and might send $5 with your birthday card too.

~ Sees the example of Jesus’ life and teaching as the greatest gift to humanity. He was a noble man at the least, and at best, a role model from God that we should follow in our dealings with the world around us.

~ Feels strongly that ‘good people deserve good things in life.'

But it’s not just “secular” people that fall into the trap of treating Jesus like “Santa Christ;” Christians can do it too.

“How sadly common it is for the church to manufacture a Jesus who is a mirror refection of Santa Claus. He becomes Santa Christ. Like Santa, he simply asks us whether we have been good. More exactly, since the assumption is that we are all naturally good, Santa Christ asks us whether we have been ‘good enough.’ So just as Christmas dinner is simply the better dinner we really deserve, Jesus becomes a kind of added bonus who makes a good life even better. He is not seen as the Savior of helpless sinners.  -- Sinclair Ferguson

Jesus is more than the cosmic vending machine.  He’s more than ‘a good man who has left us all better off because of His wise teaching.’ He’s more than a prophet, more than a teacher, more than a preacher, more than just the wonderful baby who came that first Christmas so long ago.  He’s more… I was checking Bill’s blog this week ( and was excited to find we were writing about similar topics… here, he expresses the danger of “Santa Christ” perfectly:

 “There’s a tragically hilarious spoof in [the movie] Talledega Nights (Todd Skinner told me about this, and when I saw it, I laughed out loud at the satire of our culture)… in which the lead character prays for his family meal.  This guy is so narcissistic, that he chooses to pray to “Baby Jesus” and “tiny infant Jesus” and “little baby Jesus” and “Eight pound, six ounce Jesus.” His wife and father-in-law challenge him, but he basically says, “I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I’m saying grace.  When you say grace you can pray to grown up Jesus… or whatever Jesus you want.”

This satirical punch to the gut of truncated Christianity is super-effective. There’s truth in “baby Jesus.”  He is the reason for Christmas. But baby Jesus isn’t the whole truth.  The whole truth is summed up in the angel’s instruction to Joseph:  “And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21, NKJV).

You will call his name Jesus–the word for Savior.  For he will save his people from their sins.  From their sins.  Not from the corruptions of the government, or from political oppression, or from psychological disturbance, or from financial poverty… though all these things can be the outcroppings of sin, and are addressed tangentially in the gospel.  Yes, we should be involved in the mission of bettering lives on earth. But never forget that on Christmas God gave us a Savior from our sins.  There’s the whole truth of Christmas.  That’s why we celebrate.” 

Remember this Christmas that “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” is only possible because of the death baby Jesus was born to die “for helpless sinners.”

Surrounded By Grace,

"SATAN" CLAUS? ~ 12/12/08

There exists, apparently, an unspoken list of public conversation topics that are extremely ‘taboo…’ which is likewise extremely unfortunate for those of us born with “foot-in-mouth” syndrome; why can’t the list be made public?  Will someone please pull a Martin Luther and hammer the list to a church door for all to see?  Or at least for me?

Over the past few years I’ve discovered a few of these rules on my own… the hard way.  One of them is politics, another, I’m told, is religion (I seem to mess up on the religion one frequently), and then there is parenting.  If you want to see hackles raise in a hurry, start dishing out advise about how to ‘best’ discipline and raise children. The point of this intro?  I want to make it clear that in this three-part letter series I’m not trying to tell you how to parent your children.  It’s just that when my oldest son Nathan asked Esther and I point blank the other night “Is Santa Claus real?”, it made me wonder how many other Christian parents have found themselves pausing in their responses.  Do you know what you would say?  If so, humor me as the young parent tackling these issues for the first time.  But if not, perhaps a little review on the origins of Santa Claus would help. Next week I’ll look at the flip side of the coin, and in the 3rd part of this Christmas series I’ll cover the origins of several other misc. Christmas traditions.  But I’m getting ahead of myself – let’s start with Santa Claus.


My mom used to tell us about an uncle that would occasionally visit their family during the holidays and suck the living joy out of their Christmas fun.  How?  Two words: “Satan Claus.”  “Don’t you know,” he would say, “that all you have to do is move one letter and 'Santa' becomes 'Satan?'  Satan Claus.

Look, I dislike the bloated commercialism of Christmas as much as the next guy, but I’m sorry, that’s just extreme -- that’s downright “Grinchy.”  As Bill (and probably Jesus) would lovingly admonish, “unclench!”   I do, however, understand the frustration many Christians feel about the sly coup d’etat that’s taken place over the centuries to displace Jesus as the central Christ-mass theme.  The image that comes to mind is the scene from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” where Indiana Jones deftly exchanges the artifact of gold for a bag of worthless sand in the opening scene.  Incidentally, the result of that movie switcheroo is a pretty good parallel to what has happened in reality – the pillars that hold up the meaning and purpose and wonder of Christmas have collapsed around us, to the point that even at this most magical of seasons, for many in America, “nothing tastes”—nothing is truly meaningful.

But is Santa really to blame? I don’t think so. “Guns don’t kill people” the saying goes – “People kill people.”  In the same way, Santa hasn’t replaced Jesus; people have replaced Jesus with Santa.  And honestly, I don’t think Santa is going away.  So instead of sticking our heads in the sand and hoping the world will leave us alone, instead of telling our kids that Santa is evil and an abomination and probably the Antichrist too – maybe we can tell our kids about the real, historical, God-fearing man behind the mythology of Santa.  Maybe we can tell our kids about “St. Nick.”


“The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships. Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. The prisons were so full of bishops, priests, and deacons, there was no room for the real criminals—murderers, thieves and robbers. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicea in AD 325 (where we get “The Nicene Creed”). He died December 6, AD 343 in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church.”   --

After the Reformation, celebration of Nicholas as a ‘saint’ “died out in all the Protestant countries of Europe except Holland, where he was known as Sinterklaas. Dutch colonists brought the tradition to New Amsterdam (now New York City), and English-speaking Americans adopted him as Santa Claus, who is believed to live at the North Pole and to bring gifts to children at Christmas.”       --

Should we allow Santa or “St. Nick” to displace Jesus in our Christian families? No; Jesus needs to be at the center of it all.  But when little ones turn conversations to Santa, maybe it’s okay to tell them about his namesake, a man who loved Jesus, lived like Jesus, suffered for Jesus, and was part of a body of Christians that protected some of the most foundational doctrines of our faith through a creed that still speaks for us today.

Surrounded By Grace,


He told me his name was Robert.  He’d overheard a conversation I’d had at The Nugget and learned I was a pastor, so he followed me next door to the office.  I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye while working at my desk and, glancing towards the door, saw his weathered face doubly framed by a thick beard and the smudged glass of the entryway.  His black embroidered hat hinted at his status as a veteran, and a set of broad shoulders betrayed an active lifestyle -- what I later learned were 36 years of survival on the streets. “Pastor,” he began, dumping his 60lb frame pack on the ground, “Last night I had a dream or a vision or something, and I need you to tell me what to do.”  Swallowing hard, I indicated that he should go on with his story.  Meanwhile, I decided I’d better sit down. 

“I’ve been homeless a long time,” Robert observed.  “And everywhere I’ve gone, people have told me that God loved me.  I figured out somewhere along the way that these people were all Christians.  But I never wanted to hear it, or if I was in a tight spot and did give their words a chance to sink in, I’d always feel this streak of rebellion when I got to the point where I knew I’d have to surrender to God and admit there was something wrong with me.  But people just kept telling me the same thing.  One day I was in an accident, and I thought I was dying.  I grew up going to Catholic school, so I asked for someone to get a priest to administer the last rites.  They brought a Baptist preacher instead!  That preacher just kept telling me I was “running.” I did not say very nice things to that man.  But now… I know he was right.”

“All my life, all I’ve ever wanted was to be happy,” he continued. “Last night God spoke to me and for the first time I feel real happiness. God told me I need to show and tell others that even homeless people can make a difference in the world.  That we have worth and value and purpose.  I know that for sure now – I read in the Bible that Jesus was a man without a home too. He was homeless!  And just look what he did.  Look what he did.”

“I want to show you something that was given to me,” Robert said.  Pulling out his empty wallet, he withdrew a baseball card sized piece of paper with tattered edges.  On it was the amazing picture called Forgiven by Thomas Blackshear -- the one in which Jesus stands, holding the sagging figure of a man who himself is holding a hammer in one hand and a nail in the other. In the picture, blood flows from somewhere near Jesus.  As I took the card from Robert he asked, with startling passion, “What do you see in this picture?”  Without giving me a chance to respond, he choked up and stuttered, “Because when I look at it now, I see me.  That man is me.  I know now that I don’t deserve anything good from God, but he gives good things to me anyway. I just wish so bad it hadn’t taken so long for me to get to this place.  But what about you… I see me when I look at that picture, but is that normal? What do you see when you look at this picture?”  His voice was so sincere, his heart was so obviously out in the open that I was taken aback… I didn’t expect this kind of vulnerability from such a rough looking man.  His eyes were still searching my face for a response, but all I could manage to get out was an echo of his own observation; “I see me too Robert; I see me.  And I think that’s the point of the picture. You got it. That man is you, that man is me, that man is all of us.” 

Robert had to leave then; but before he left I offered to pray for him, which I did.  I said ‘Amen,’ started getting to my feet, and realized Robert was still sitting, head bowed.  Then he prayed too.  It was one of the most beautiful things in my life to hear a man of such hardship pray such a tearful, tender, grateful prayer.

“Lord, I love you so much; more than any man could love.  I’m so sorry it took me so long to accept that it was me and my sin that put those nails into you.  Thank you for loving me so much, for continuing to put people in my path that shared with me your word, even when I didn’t respond well.  Thank you for all those people who told me I had value, that I wasn’t worthless.  Please let me live to a ripe old age so that I can continue to share your word with other people.  And thank you for The Outpost, and the work that you’re doing through the people here.  Amen.” 

He left the office with obvious joy – much more than many others who are better off than him.  If you need to be reminded this Christmas season that your ‘in’vironment matters more than your environment, remember Robert.  And pray for him.

Surrounded By Grace,
*Grace induces faith & Grace is obligated to faith ~