One of the first things you might notice in a church service is the decided absence of Bibles in Liberia. This is not just because many are not able to read, but because many books were destroyed during the fourteen year war. Bibles were no exception. It also has nothing to do with not wanting to carry the precious Word of God, for many would love to own just a portion of the Scriptures.
The Pastors’ Conference was no exception and it was sad seeing so many without their own copy of the Word of God. I felt embarrassed that I had so many in my house back in England, even extras, and some days struggled to read even one of the copies. It was just one more reason to feel very blessed for all the provisions, even those I far too often took for granted.
What these pastors and church leaders did not know though, was that we had through the generous gift of believers in England been able to purchase 125 English Bibles from the Liberian Bible Society which is located in Monrovia. At that time, it was not producing a great amount of Bibles due to costs and the difficulties involved in obtaining the supplies necessary to print large quantities. We shared with those in attendance that all who were there on the final day would receive a special gift from the believers in England. This was the suggestion that was recommended to me and would thus make it a more valuable item to those who were willing to spend three days listening to the Word being preached instead of handing them out at the beginning.
Far from being a “normal” type setting for church, I believe it is helpful to share what was going on around me in what for Liberians would be a “normal” church setting. It is one thing to look at pictures from National Geographic, but another to stand and breathe the air of those who only exist in pictures to many in the west. This is especially true of the church.
As I stood gathering my thoughts, a two-foot long lizard moved fearlessly down the wall to my right, skittered slowly across the floor to my feet, and stopped momentarily to glare at me with its beady eyes. The challenges of this new environment had long ago approached unbelievable as I stared back at the little creature. My stomach was already churning from the intake of unknown food items, and the recent trek to the back of the church to what passed for the toilet facilities was almost enough to send even the most hardened traveler over the edge.
The vision of the filthy, plastic sheeting hung on a fence for a semblance of privacy invaded my thoughts again as I apprehensively watched this wicked looking reptile try and decide whether the two-legged creature eyeing it was worth the fight. One part of my brain told me to run might be prudent while another part considered what the onlookers would think of the lack of courage in the face of obvious danger.
The lizard decided I wasn’t worth the fight, moved to the opposite wall and climbing up exited the building. Opening my Bible, I took out my first set of notes and tried hard to tune out what I was hearing just outside the church, namely the sounds of a child being beaten severely. No glass was present in the windows to keep out the shrieks as the little one pleaded for mercy from whatever supposed crime or indiscretion they might have committed. I could do little at what is a commonplace event in Liberia. It was definitely not to be considered a trip to paradise.
Paradise remains overrated and is normally defined by tourists who stay in comfortable resorts while the local populace hand them endless supplies of piña coladas. Those who venture far from home know little of the reality that faces those who actually live there. Only the most adventurous travelers find out that life outside the resort is not just difficult. For the Westerner used to three meals a day and cable television with 329 channels, it is an impossibility.
The first week of my trip with all of its drama was behind me as I stood in front of the crowd and the lizard. The early morning air continued to assault me with its repugnant sounds, sights, and smells being pushed my way by the use of a fan being run by a generator. My senses were on overload and I struggled to stop the emotions that whelmed up like a spring but could not fully understand.
A short distance from my location in “paradise”, acres of burning trash heaps and tires belched out their poisons, and gases invaded the lungs of tiny, malnourished children as they played in pools of stagnant, disease-ridden water. The horror was compounded as I remembered children of seven or eight years old picking through the garbage piles hoping to find something that might provide them or their family sustenance so they would not have to consider again the possibility of selling their bodies for probably no more than the equivalent of a couple of dimes or a quarter.
All of this was almost impossible to put out of my mind as I set my mind to the task at hand. The western mindset sees that which is outside our norms and we have this innate desire to want to change everybody else to be just like us. In some way, we in the west think that we have arrived because we have become a civilized nation with laws written designed to protect adults and children alike. We have running water, electricity on demand, and grocery aisles stuffed with products designed to make the average consumer fat, happy, and content.
However, laws may be able to civilize the outward appearances of a nation, but unless the Holy Spirit changes hearts, the civilization is only skin deep. If America and Britain were left fully to their own devices, they would utterly rebel against the Most High God. They would decline into a moral morass and her civilities would disappear overnight. Either country could become what Liberia and many African countries have and that is the outpouring of the depravity of the heart.
This western mindset is part of the dilemma facing missionaries as they go overseas under the authority of our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ. Do we start by trying to change the culture? How much do we say in regards to the injustices being played out with seeming disregard, even at times, for human life? Is what we are to preach merely a social gospel? Are we there to make others feel good about their country and about themselves?
The truth is that the Word of God cuts across culture. It goes right to the source of all of mankind’s problems as found in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?” The missionary is tasked with the awesome God-given responsibility of preaching and teaching the entire counsel of God. When the Holy Spirit arrests the minds and hearts and souls of the listeners, it is He alone Who can, will, and does change the life of the individual. They become a new creation in Christ according to 2 Corinthians 5:17, and when this takes place, the new believer soon learns the importance of dealing with others in a Christ-like manner. It is not an easy process, but one that is vital in the realm of progressive sanctification.
I struggled to remember all of these things in my mind, while my heart wanted me to go outside and stop the beating from taking place. I wanted to tell this individual that they were wrong. I longed to demand from them that they come into the building and hear the truth of God’s Word, but I stood in my place just watching and listening to all around. In my heart, I knew that this was not a paradise, but I also knew that what I was going to share would either make some hearts mad, while others would be made glad. The culture would not be changed by this Pastor’s Conference, but prayerfully, hearts would be made new in Christ.
So, with all of that in mind, I read my first verse, Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
(…to be continued…)