A Tale of Two Ibadah

Ibadah is the local word for religious ceremony. It’s a word we learned early and use often because the milestones in life on our island are commonly marked with the gathering of friends and neighbors for good food and a traditional ceremony. Each type of ibadah is specific to the circumstance: tujuh bulan (literally “seven months”) marks the seventh month of a pregnancy, and another ibadah follows shortly after the birth of the baby; traditional weddings are more like a series of ibadah involving various parties to the new marriage; and a death means not only the funeral, but ceremonies to mark seven days after death, forty days, one hundred days, and one thousand days. Events like these date back thousands of years and are steeped in the local cultural worldview. They provide a great opportunity for us to carefully and pragmatically participate in community life as language learners and observers.

But there is a fascinating nuance to these ceremonies as well: each ibadah is both cultural and religious at the same time. It reflects the traditional cultural worldview as passed down through the centuries, but also the religious worldview of the present. The two – the cultural and the religious – are so intertwined that the expression of one aspect necessarily reflects the other. A cultural ceremony cannot be merely cultural because the minds of the participants are not merely cultural – they are religious also. And a religious ceremony is never merely religious because the participant is not merely religious, but immersed in a cultural context as well. Here is an example:

In the past few months I received invitations to two events in different neighborhoods, one marking 40 days after the passing of a man in my neighborhood and one marking 1000 days after death of a man whose family attends a nearby church. These post death ibadah are very much particular to this island, rooted deep in the animism of ancient generations. And although the basic animistic, ancestor focused, foundation has long been replaced (or at least overtaken and obscured) by various more recently incorporated religious beliefs, the ceremonies themselves live on with their new faces. I had already observed several of these after death ceremonies in my neighborhood, all with families practicing the majority religion of the island.

The first event I attended, a forty-days ceremony was exactly what I have come to expect based on prior experiences. The neighborhood men filter in and find a spot on the rugs which have been spread out on the floor, and a family member makes an opening statement. Following this, a religious leader begins a prayer chant in Arabic and those who can join in do so. This goes on for a short time before a brief pause, and food is served (usually traditional snacks – various fried foods, fruit, etc.) and another round of prayers begin. When I asked what my neighbors were praying, they told me the prayers were offered in hope that the deceased person would be allowed into heaven. After fifteen to twenty more minutes of praying/chanting, everyone is given a small gift (usually food items or a meal for later) and the house slowly empties.

The second ibadah, a one-thousand-days ceremony, though derived from the same cultural bedrock,  was nothing like I was expecting. For this event I followed a local Christian pastor to the home where members of his church were gathering to remember a fellow believer and former member of the congregation. The event started with songs of praise to the creator. The pastor talked about the man’s love for God and his family, and the faithful testimony that had marked his life. Those who were present were given the chance to reflect on the hope that we have in the one who died for us – an assurance that cannot waiver – and to rejoice with one another at the life well lived and the One who gives life. There was no pleading for heaven, as the pastor explained, because we have a hope in the finished work of Christ who has already paid our debt. Finally we ate together and departed.

As I made my way home, I couldn’t believe what I had just witnessed. This was the same ceremony, and the two were nothing alike. Two ceremonies, two gatherings of people who share the same national identity and cultural heritage holding the same culture-derived event in incredibly different ways with vastly different themes. The sole difference was the gospel – not a gospel that eliminates the culture but penetrates it and reveals what it can be in the light of Christ. This is the impact the good news can have on a community.

And this is the reason we’re toiling away at language study right now: because hundreds of people groups (that use this national language as a second language) have never been given the opportunity to interact with the gospel. Proficiency in this national language will open up opportunities for us to dig in with one of those groups, learn their distinct language and culture, and eventually allow them to hear the Word of God for themselves in their own language and cultural context – and to glorify God within and through that context in new and exciting ways.

The Biblical Context for Missions – Part 1

The following text was originally intended as a short booklet with which we could communicate to our friends and partnering churches the basic Biblical context for missions that has helped to motivate us to take part in cross-cultural ministry. Since a document sitting dormant on my hard drive for three years (that will likely never see print) does little to serve it’s intended purpose, I have decided instead to publish it here in a four part series.

Before we start, I would like to acknowledge that there are many authors with far more knowledge and certainly more eloquent writing that have tackled this subject, and my intent is not to present a complete theology of missions so much as to invite you to follow with me along the paths of God’s Word that have cultivated my heart’s longing and propelled me onward toward the goal of missions – God’s glory among the nations. If you will engage God’s word with me through this brief text, I hope you will be likewise encouraged to begin your own pursuit.

Introduction

For many years I thought the Bible’s mandate for missions was based on (or more likely extrapolated from) a few key New Testament passages like Matthew 28:18-20 (called the Great Commission) or Acts 1:8 (“to the ends of the earth”).   It is true that those passages give a clear mandate for the church to be involved in evangelizing the world, but the Bible has much more to say about missions than just a few proof passages.  My goal for this study is to show that missions is a mandate rooted in both the Old and New Testaments, initiated in the first book and culminating in the last; it is a core element of God’s interaction with humanity.1)  I will argue that God’s entire redemptive program is not primarily for our sake (though we definitely receive great benefit), but for the sake of His glory being professed by people of every nation, tribe, and language.

Two Themes

The key to approaching missions with a Biblical perspective, I believe, begins with an examination of two Biblical themes: 1) God’s glory as motivation; and 2) mankind’s blessing and resultant purpose (this will be tackled in part 2). These two themes are key to our understanding of missions because they point us toward the fact that God is the real missionary in our history.  When we grasp God’s zeal for his own glory we understand his underwriting motivation for redeeming humanity, and when we grasp God’s purpose in blessing humanity we are able to more fully comprehend our own past, present, and future role in God’s plan.

The Glory of God

See if you can finish Psalm 46:10 from memory:

“Be still, and…”

How did you do? It is no surprise that most, if not all of us, got as far as “Be still, and know that I am God.”  Those are comforting words, after all; we like the idea that we can rest in God knowing He is in control.  Probably, though, a fair number of us missed the rest of the verse: “…I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” This may seem like a minor detail (dropping the end of a familiar verse), but it begs an important question. As Christians, how aware are we of God’s motivation for acting throughout the Bible? How easy is it for us to be totally ignorant of God’s zeal for His glory, instead operating under a theology that “places man at the center and ignores God’s purpose in the world?”2 This is just one verse, but I will admit that the first time someone walked me through Psalm 46:10 like we just did, I was amazed at having so easily disregarded the context of the passage.  Psalm 46 is about God’s glory and steadfastness in the midst of Israel’s chaos; I had stolen its emphasis by making it about my comfort.  And in my theology, I found that was the norm.  I had read God’s Word extensively without ever taking note of the basic concept that in the Bible, God often declared His glory as His motivation.

Israel’s history provides us with some prime data by which we can evaluate this claim.  What was God’s motivation?  Let’s take a little quiz.

Q – Why did God call Israel out of slavery in Egypt?

A – David’s response to the Lord in 2 Samuel 7:23 (ESV) – “And who is like your people Israel, the one nation on earth whom God went to redeem to be his people, making himself a name and doing for them great and awesome things by driving out before your people, whom you redeemed for yourself from Egypt, a nation and its gods?” (all emphasis mine unless noted)

Q – On their way out of Egypt, why did God save Israel from Pharaoh at the Red Sea?

A – Psalm 106:8 (ESV) – “Yet he saved them for his name’s sake, that he might make known his mighty power.”
Isaiah 63:12 – “[He] caused his glorious arm to go at the right hand of Moses, who divided the waters before them to make for himself an everlasting name.”

Q – Why did God judge Israel’s sin while they were in the wilderness?

A – Ezekiel 20:9 (ESV) – “But I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations among whom they lived, in whose sight I made myself known to them in bringing them out of the land of Egypt.”

Q – Why did God lead and guide David as King of Israel?

A – Psalm 31:3 (ESV) – “For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me.”

Q – Later, when Israel was in full rebellion against God, why did God delay His wrath against Israel instead of wiping them out immediately?

A – Isaiah 48:9-11 – “For my name’s sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off. Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.”

God loved Israel.  He certainly intervened throughout their history in ways that brought great benefit to the nation.  But Israel (or protecting Israel from harm) was not God’s primary motivation; God’s glory was God’s primary motivation.  Steven Hawthorn applies this idea to broader humanity in his article The Story of His Glory.”3  Referring to believers saved by God’s grace, he asserts, “The ultimate value of their salvation is not to be seen in what they are saved from, it is what they are saved for that really matters.  People are saved to serve God in worship.  In this respect, we can say that world evangelization is for God” (author’s emphasis).

That God’s chief motivation is His own fame requires some justification.  Why should God be allowed to exalt himself?  Is it not the height of arrogance for God to demand worship?  To put Himself, His reputation, before even the survival of a nation?  If you or I were to go around with that sort of pride in our own worth we would be labeled a narcissist and laughed out of every room we entered (or more likely scorned out).  Why is it different for God?  I believe the following two reasons are sufficient.  First, God is the supreme thing in all the universe.  If we, as humans, are to praise something, it should be that which is most worthy of praise.  Would you not find it strange if the post-game show following the Superbowl focused primarily on the losing team – or worse, a team that didn’t even make the playoffs?  Those teams may have some merit as professional football teams – even Superbowl contenders, but everyone recognizes that the winning team should have the spotlight.   How much more would God, as the thing most worthy, be wrong to encourage the praise of anything except himself?  There is no offense in His pursuit of His glory because we should not be content to worship a lesser thing.  He is supremely worthy of praise because He is supreme.  Second, as C.S. Lewis observed, “In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”4  I love how Michael Lawrence said it:

“But when we realize that God freely created us for his glory, we finally realize that the story of creation is fundamentally a love story.  God didn’t have to create us, but he did.  He didn’t have to create us as bearers of his image, but he did.  And in doing so, he gave us a unique ability – the ability to take joy in the highest, most beautiful, most desirable thing imaginable, the glory of God.  God himself loves nothing more than his own glory.  There is nothing better or higher to love.  There is nothing more beautiful to fall in love with.”5

God’s motivation for His glory is also His motivation for missions.  John Piper unpacked this idea in the first chapter of his book Let the Nations be Glad.  He concluded, “Missions exists because worship doesn’t.” ((John Piper, Let the Nations be Glad (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 17.)) Think about what that means. We were created to glorify God, but since Adam and Eve sinned in the garden mankind has walked through history in rebellion against Him. As a race we have exalted ourselves and laid our worship at the feet of earthy things.6 “We are half-hearted creatures,” says C.S. Lewis, “fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”7  We have lowered our standards, content to give our worship to things inherently less worthy of it.  But God is on a mission to restore our worship to its proper place (Himself), and He will see it through.  Missions exists because there are people groups8 in the world that do not worship God.  Missions will cease once all people groups are represented before God’s throne – a future event shown to the Apostle John and recorded in Revelation 7:9-10 (ESV):

“After these things I looked, and here was an enormous crowd that no one could count, made up of persons from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb dressed in long white robes, and with palm branches in their hands. They were shouting out in a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God, to the one seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

Our history is moving steadily toward that day when God’s throne will be surrounded by men and women representing every “nation, tribe, people, and language.”  We will all praise Him, and in our praising Him, enjoy Him fully.  Our mission is for God’s glory.  Yes, a complete Biblical theology is much more complex than this single concept, but it cannot stand without it.  We must acknowledge God’s motivation if we are to understand our purpose.

Continue on with Part 2.


  1. My basic outline has been heavily influenced by Jeff Lewis’ Bible study booklet, God’s Heart for the Nations (Littleton, CO: Caleb Project, 2002 

  2. Ibid, 3. 

  3. Steven C. Hawthorne, “The Story of His Glory,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, 3rd ed. ed. Winter, Ralph D (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1999), 36. 

  4. Reflections on the Psalms (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958), 97. 

  5. Michael Lawrence, Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2010), 125. 

  6. See Romans 1:18-23 

  7. C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory. 

  8. The Lausanne Movement defines a people group as “the largest group through which the gospel can flow without encountering significant barriers of understanding and acceptance.” These barriers are typically differences in language, culture, geography, etc. 

Delicious Cake

Photo courtesy of http://www.martinpng.com

I mentioned in an earlier post that NTM missionaries have begun teaching chronologically through the Bible in the Akolet tribe of Papua New Guinea.  They started on January 4th, and have taught 5 days a week for about an hour each day.  If you have not already done it, I’d encourage you to check out their blog or sign up for email updates so that you can follow the progress and pray with me that God would do an amazing work in the hearts of the Akolet, and that he would give those missionaries the energy and endurance to work faithfully to the end.

In just these few short weeks, we are already able to see how God’s word is challenging the Akolet to examine their worldview and think about what is true.  I have read several great quotes from the men and women attending the teaching, but there is one I especially wanted to share.  Gelio was asked by Ryan (one of the missionaries) to tell him what he thought of the teaching so far.  This was his response:

“Ryan, it’s like this. Remember that cake you gave me one time?  This teaching is like that cake. I’ve never tasted anything like it, and it is so delicious.”

If you’re interested in reading more, check out these links:

http://www.martinpng.com

http://www.ntm.org

The Sum of an Elephant

There is a parable out of India about three blind men who are brought before an elephant and asked to explain what the elephant is like.  One of the men reaches out and touches the leg and concludes that an elephant is thick and round and much like a column or pillar.  Another man puts his hand on the trunk and concludes that an elephant is slender and flexible and must be something like a snake.  The last man pushes on the elephant’s side and determines that it is broad and unmovable like a large wall.  Sometimes the parable includes five or six men, and you can see from the picture above than there is no shortage of perspectives one could take.  The moral of the story is that everything is relative.  Each of the blind men told the truth based on their experience with the elephant, but no one man’s truth could exclude another’s.  No truth took precedence, even in the face of completely opposite claims.

I think this parable is an incredibly beneficial illustration for our world today, but for a different reason.  If our quest is to find out what an elephant really is, then what are we doing asking blind men when there is one who came to give sight to the blind.  Why trust a man’s limited experience with an elephant when there is one who created elephants?  The religious discussion is full of men espousing experiential truth from their own narrow perspective, but God, the creator and sustainer of the universe, has chosen to speak to us through His Word, the Bible.  We should place a higher priority on God’s word because His perspective is infinitely wider than ours.  He knows more about elephants than 6.7 billion blind men ever could.

Perhaps you don’t believe in God, or that He has communicated to man through the Bible.  That is ok.  My point here is not to convince you of His existence, but to simply show that He is necessary if we are ever to know the true purpose for our existence.  Without the broad perspective of the One who set the universe in motion, we have no hope of true understanding.  We are merely blind men groping around in the dark, thinking the sum of an elephant is a snake.

Awayo

I think you could say there is a general consensus among the world outside of Christianity that Christian missions is nothing more than a form of colonialism.  The argument falls somewhere along the lines of 1) they are individuals with human rights and are happy as they are, and therefore 2) who are you to impose your culture on them?

I’m no scholar, and I can’t speak for any tribal people, but last week I was shown a short video from New Tribes called Awayo: Fear to Faith, which I believe does a fair job of illustrating the Moi worldview before and after receiving the gospel.  At the very least, I will let Awayo tell me what is best for him over the opinion of a guy in a classroom.

(Parents: I’d encourage you to watch this first before showing it to your children.)

Check out a higher quality version at http://ntm.org/video/, or if you’d like to hear Awayo tell his story in his own language (with subtitles), go to http://vimeo.com/7087303.