Jesus Doesn't Want You on His Team.

                Who did you cheer for this last Super Bowl? The World Series? Who are you cheering for during March Madness? Probably your local team, as long as they are still in it. After all, they are the Indianapolis Colts, or the Utah Jazz. They’re your team! Or, maybe you’ll go with an underdog, because you want to see them pull off the improbable win. Some will inevitably cheer for whoever plays the Yankees or some other team they hate.

Photo: Bess Adler, metro. Source. 

Photo: Bess Adler, metro. Source. 

                The way a fan ends up behind their team is pretty arbitrary, isn’t it? Having a certain home city doesn’t make a team any more successful or fun to support. If it actually meant anything, if it was more than just for fun, we’d all want to pick our sports teams based on meaningful information like performance and history. Gamblers don’t just bet on whoever’s local or who their dad roots for. They want to win, so they (usually) look at stats and try to pick the team with the best chance of winning.

                Matters that are more serious than sports get the same picked-by-default treatment. People are strongly influenced by their environment growing up and most tend to align with their family when it comes to political parties. Most of us lean in the same direction as our parents, or perhaps our friends from our early 20s because it was just so enlightening to leave home.  Why? There’s plenty of research on the topic, but it’s generally because we accept the prevailing opinion of our social circle during our formative years. There is more at stake with one’s vote and civic duties than cheering for a sports team, but still, our human tendency is to just go with the flow, with what feels right.

Photo: Tammy Ljungblad, Kansas Star. Source.

Photo: Tammy Ljungblad, Kansas Star. Source.

                Have you given more thought to your faith? This is the most important choice of all- deciding what you believe is true, what your values are, and how you will live your life as a result. Did it get more research and thought than your sports team choice did?  Does it get more passion? It is all too common for people to join Jesus’ team just because they were raised that way, just as an Indianapolis kid raised by his Colts-supporting parents cheers for the Colts too. We see this same behavior and social inertia in Utah. The LDS people we meet are generally LDS because they were raised LDS and never knew anything else. They never seriously thought about making a different choice or about whether the Church was true, because everyone they spent time with was LDS and it was the default to think like them. They went along with the flow. Is it the same for you? Are you a Christian because you believe that Jesus is Lord, or because Jesus was your default option?

                I hope you are not on Jesus’ team. I hope you are his adopted child, and have a relationship with him as your savior. Being a Christian is a bigger choice than joining a team, and living a life worthy of the name of Christ is more than showing up to a certain place during the weekly event and looking the part. Don’t be a teammate and don’t be a fan. Be a child of the one true God, and live like it. Examine your beliefs and believe them because you are convinced that they are true.  Study your faith rather than using "faith" as a cop-out for spiritual laziness.

                If you’re a fan of Jesus instead of his child, you might be like the church of Ephesus described in Revelation 2. You may be doing the external things right, cheering along God and doing the work, but where is your heart?

 

I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary.  But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.

 

If your relationship with Jesus is personal, close, and meaningful, you’ll find more in common with Psalm 23:

 

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He heads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

 

                Utah is full of Mormons, India is full of Hindus, and the Middle East is full of Muslims because it is easy to go with the flow, and because they have not been told who Jesus is. Don’t be like those who follow what they have been told just because it’s the path of least resistance, or those who choose what to believe based on how it makes them feel. Follow Jesus because he is your true Lord and savior, and follow him with the passion and gratitude that flow out of being saved from death. Follow him in the work he’s told us to do, bringing his truth to those who have not heard of him.

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”

Romans 10:14-15

                Those trapped in Mormonism here in Utah could at least say that they were never told of Him- but you have been told. Get out of the Team Jesus grandstand and follow him. Do the work he set out for you in the way he’s gifted you to, so that when you meet him, you can meet him as more than just a fan.

Two Flavors of Missions

        Most of our readers are connected with missions in some way: having taken a mission trip, attended a conference or presentation at your church, or are friends with some missionaries (hi!) or partner with a missions agency like Gospel for Asia or Pioneers. I'd be willing to bet, though that for the vast majority of Christians, their experience of missions comes from mission trips. Mission trips are an incredibly beneficial expression of missions: Believers are blessed to leave their locale and comfort zone to minister to the lost. The poor are fed and clothed, the truth is preached, and those who go are strengthened in their faith. Many full time missionaries were first set alight with passion for the lost by a short-term mission trip. I know that is true for me. Here's a photo of me on the mission trip to Utah that started it all:

Preparing handouts during my mission trip to Utah in 2010.

        What about the other major aspect of missions: full-time missions? When an individual or family makes it their primary focus and vocation to reach the lost, it is a very different experience from a mission trip. Although the goal is the same- preaching the Gospel-  full time missions has a very different approach and set of expectations. As Sarah and I have been in Utah for full-time missions for five weeks now, I have some reflections on both short-term and full-time mission work.

        It may be a tired analogy, but there is none better than good ol' footrace analogy. Mission trips are more like a 200 meter sprint, whereas full-time missions is akin to a marathon. These races have completely different strategies. In the 200 meter sprint, legendary sprinter Usain Bolt will get his heart pumping to the max before the pistol fires, give it his absolute maximum effort for 200 meters, and then drop to his knees after the finish line to catch his breath and let his body recover. A mission trip's timeline mirrors this: those who go attend training and team-building exercises leading up to the date that they leave, then for a few days to a few weeks, pour out their hearts and bodies to have the maximum impact during their limited time. And then, who remembers the rented vans finally pulling into the church parking lot and the weary (yet glad) trip-goers oozing out, giving hugs, and returning home to recover? While there is amazing variety in these kinds of mission trips, I think anyone who has been on one could relate to this caricature. 

Usain Bolt winning the Men's 100m sprint in London 2012. Photo by sumofmarc. License.

Usain Bolt winning the Men's 100m sprint in London 2012. Photo by sumofmarc. License.

        Now, before I compare full-time missions to a marathon, let me pause to communicate clearly that there is no value judgment here. Mission trips and full-time missions are approaches that the Lord calls people to according to his plan, and one is not a higher calling than another. Remember that the body of Christ needs all sorts of members serving in many different ways to be effective. So don't think that full-time missions is some kind of major league recruiting out of the minor league mission trips. It just ain't so. Usain Bolt's gold medal for the Men's 200 meter race isn't any smaller or less shiny than Eliud Kipchoge's, the winner of the 2016 Olympic marathon. Both are athletes doing their best according to what their training and opportunities led them to.

        How would marathon runner Kipchoge do if he treated his race like Bolt's 200 meter sprint? Jogging in place at the start line, staging alone on starting blocks he brought with him, then tearing away from the pack at maximum speed? He'd be in first for a while, then slow to a crawl after a mile, exhausted and unlikely to even finish the race, much less do well over the remaining 25 miles. That's not how he won! He worked hard, but paced himself wisely and conserved energy to go the long distance.

        Even though we all experience pressure (from ourselves or from others) to go-go-go and do more-more-more, that's not how a life-long goal is achieved. Our Lord rested on the seventh day of creation to set an example for us, knowing that we do not have an infinite well of energy and charisma from which to draw. So, like Kipchoge the marathon runner who starts off at a steady and maintainable pace, the full-time missionary must also keep the duration of the race in mind. As he also races to achieve, like Paul says, we must run the race with discipline and self control. The wise full-time missionary neither allows the sin of laziness to tempt him into procrastination and self-indulgence nor the sin of pride or foolishness to tempt him into trying to outdo himself and burn out in the process. 

Eliud Kipchoge running a marathon in the Netherlands. Photo by Michiel Jelijs. License.

Eliud Kipchoge running a marathon in the Netherlands. Photo by Michiel Jelijs. License.

        Sarah and I have been here for five weeks now, and we might have been tempted to set off at a sprint pace if not for the guidance and counsel of the more experienced staff here at Tri-Grace. By their encouragement, we have been taking time to help Flint adjust to his new surroundings, establish our home, and deal with the massive life change that we're experiencing. At the same time, we are diligent not to neglect the ministry opportunities that the Lord has put in front of us: building relationships with our unsaved neighbors, guest teaching the college student Bible studies, fixing broken light switches, and taking on shifts at the Solid Rock Cafe.

        The work that we have begun and the work that lies before us is a complement to mission trip work that the Lord plans to reach the lost of rural Utah. When mission teams come to visit, we spring with them to distribute DVDs or literature, go door-to-door for prayer on the porch, and witness on the streets: all in the same day. Then, when the mission team goes, we rest- and we build the relationships in the community that allow us to minister in an entirely different way. We make lattes, host and lead Bible studies, and we trim foliage back for winter. By the Lord's grace and wisdom, the many different kinds of ministry harmonize to make one beautiful song of worship to our savior. As we run together in the ways that the Lord has led us, we reach the goal he has set before us: that his name be made great among the nations, and that many worshippers are added to his family.

Clarity and accountability on support tracking

        Sarah and I are glad to share the wonderful news of a big jump in our support raising! This jump is partially because of new ministry partners joining our team, but also because of two changes in our accounting. We want to be fully accountable and above reproach in the way that we steward the Lord’s resources that others have entrusted us with, so this post is to explain what the changes are and why we made them. In short, the two changes are that we aligned the way that we calculate our budgetary numbers with the rest of the Tri-Grace Ministries (TGM) staff, and we accepted the staff’s exhortation to count special, non-recurring gifts towards our support level. I’ll explain these two changes in more detail below. In both cases, we are changing our method to be more unified with the rest of the TGM staff.

1.       Budgetary changes

          When we wrote our initial budget for moving to Utah, we aimed to be not too high and not too low. We recognize that we are stewards of the Lord’s money and should not waste it by any means, especially knowing how many missionaries and Christian organizations could have a greater impact with greater funding. On the other side of the coin, we know that what our ministry partners’ money buys is really our time, and we don’t want to waste that either. We could raise less money and spend that time clipping endless coupons, baking our own bread, and canning food from our garden. These are all fine things to do, but we see our time in Utah as precious and devoted first to building the Lord’s kingdom. We don’t believe we’d receive any special prizes in heaven for saving God money: he is an infinite God, able to provide for all our needs without limit. While we practice frugality and shrewdness in ministry life at least as much as we did when privately employed, we don’t believe it is wise for us to go over the top, flirting with the poverty line to save resources from an infinite God. Those who know me (Ned) will know my frugal streak is wide- I am in fact all about coupons, high-MPG cars, and turning the lights off in empty rooms. Please trust that gifts are used with a mind for the greatest impact from the resources the Lord entrusts us with.

                The change to our budget is actually that we now have two budgets: a working budget and a maximum budget. TGM is a board-controlled non-profit organization, with guidance and approval on significant decisions and long term plans from a board of trusted and wise Christians. This ensures a high level of external accountability for the TGM staff[N1]  and provides steady guidance from an outside perspective. Our budgets had to be approved by the board before we could collect even a dollar of what we’ve raised, because all the funds we raise go through TGM. The budget that the board approves is our maximum budget. This is intended to be a higher amount than what we’ll actually raise or collect right off the bat, to allow for flexibility in the future as needs change. Our working budget is smaller, and is the actual number that we expect to need when we arrive and get settled. It is what we use as our target for support raising, which is one reason why our support level jumped up this month: our working budget amount is lower than our old budget amount. Since the target is lower, our support percentage is higher! The system of a working budget and a maximum budget provides the flexibility and security we’d tried to attain with a ‘middle of the road’ budget, without the need to raise more than our immediate need right off the bat. If we find that things are tight later on for any reason- family growth, rising gas prices, or any other legitimate reason, we are free to ask TGM’s directors to increase our working budget and seek more financial support to provide for that need. This would always be within the maximum budget approved by the board.

2.       Including special gifts in our support level

          Up until this month, our support level has reflected only ongoing commitments from ministry partners- monthly, annually, etc.  We have been greatly blessed to receive many special gifts also which are not intended to recur on a specific schedule- these put a nice buffer in our account for up-front moving expenses, times when things may be tighter, etc. We’ve been encouraged by the TGM staff to include these in our support level. We’d excluded them previously because we didn’t want to rely on gifts like these to keep coming in the future- after all, we are making it our full-time work now to meet with many people to present our need, so it might be expected that we would not see as many special gifts come in in the future. We were surprised, but pleased, to hear all of the other TGM staff report that they see a continual stream of support come in the form of special gifts. Sometimes they are from completely unexpected sources, sometimes from friends of the ministry who choose to give over and above their commitment, or from others whose situation doesn’t lend itself to a rigid recurring commitment- one way or another, it came.

           Analyzing the last five years' records of gifts, it was found that 15-20% of the financial need of ministry families on the TGM staff came from special gifts. The rest of the TGM staff have all learned to expect this and account for it in their support raising strategy by including at least 15% support from special gifts. In light of this, we have been encouraged to do the same, and we are glad to accept this wisdom. When the data confirms the experience that at least 15% always comes in- in recession years and boom years, we would not want to set the finish line unnecessarily further back . The Lord has provided this way for years, and we will adjust our accounting to match the model that he has established. As such, our support level automatically jumps 15% this month, as we are now including the expectation of at least that amount each year. Our experience so far confirms that 15% each year is a realistic number.  Praise God for this encouraging development and sudden push closer to our goal!

Wrapping up

          I hope that this information clears up any confusion or concern about our sudden jump in support level. As always, Sarah and I strive to be faithful stewards of the Lord’s resources and use them in the wisest way that we can. An opaque, vague, approach to reporting our progress and status would not serve that goal. This post isn’t the most exciting one you’ll find on our blog, but we wanted to make sure that any questions from our supporters had ready answers, and to practice clear accountability in our stewardship. As always, we are completely open to questions and feedback. You can reach us via email as usual, or using the Contact Us page.

 

The Utah Paradox

So Utah claims its identity as both the happiest and saddest state in the US. And this has statisticians and mental health professionals at a bit of a loss. "These polarized feelings of despondency and delight underlie a confusing phenomenon that Perry Renshaw, a neuroscientist at the University of Utah investigating the strange juxtaposition, calls the "Utah paradox."

"All Their Creeds Were An Abomination..." Mormonism and the Nicene Creed

"All Their Creeds Were An Abomination..." Mormonism and the Nicene Creed

Strangely enough, the differences between Mormonism and Biblical Christianity are sometimes hard to get to the bottom of. Perhaps the LDS teaching about the devilishness of the spirit of contention promotes avoidance, or perhaps our general cultural aversion to awkwardness lends itself to tiptoeing around a really meaningful conversation. Evangelicals are the most likely group of people to experience tension that would prevent a conversation with a Mormon. Is it any wonder we are left scratching our heads as to what they believe?

What to do when Mormon Missionaries knock on your door

You know the little thrill of fear- you look through the window and see that the doorbell was rung not by neighborhood kids, not by a friend, but by two young men all dressed up, wearing name badges indicating they are Elder so-and-so. What do you do? This is not a comprehensive, definitive guide for what you should do in every situation, but it’s a good way to get started if you want to engage the two young people at your door in a meaningful way. There are many different personalities and a variety of approaches God has used to spread the gospel, but these are some of the lessons that have served Sarah and I over the years. So - they are on your doorstep now. What do you do?

Image courtesy of the More Good Foundation - CC 2.0. Cropped from original.

Image courtesy of the More Good Foundation - CC 2.0. Cropped from original.

1.      Open the door.

Just open it! What are they going to do, bite you? Even if you don’t feel prepared, just open it! You want to talk about unprepared? These guys are 18-20 years old, have probably never lived away from their parents’ homes before, and got sent to a random area on their own with six weeks of boilerplate training in a windowless room with dozens of other teenage boys. You, by comparison, have the Holy Spirit and truth with you. How can their arsenal compare with yours? Don’t be afraid!

 

2.      Pray.

Even if this visit takes you completely by surprise, take ten seconds to pray. Ask the Lord to be with you and give you the words to say and the right heart and attitude. Before they arrive for your second appointment (because you will set one up), take some time to pray for the appointment- for them to be open to the truth and recognize it when they see it, to crave for answers that the LDS church cannot offer, and for the Lord to reveal himself to them through your heart, your words, and the truth of the Bible.

 

3.      Recognize the opportunity you’ve been given.

Each Christian has been commissioned by Jesus to make disciples (Matt. 28:16-20) and to be ready to give an answer for the hope they have in Christ (1 Peter 3:15). How convenient to have lost people come to your door, of all doors! You have read an article on how to witness to them (about half of one by this point, at least), you’re not going to slam the door in their face, and you are inclined to speak to them with love, kindness, and truth. The chances of these factors coming together are actually pretty slim! Most LDS missionaries encounter only a few Christians who are equipped to minister to them during their two year mission-and they came to your door!

 

4.      Don’t feel the pressure.

You cannot change what they believe any more than you can forgive their sins. Only the Lord can reach them, your job is to be the willing instrument that he uses to reach them. God is the only one with the power to chase away the demons covering their eyes and ears so that they can hear truth and choose to love and follow Christ. For those inclined to use their Bibles as a thumping tool and not a beacon of hope: recognize dominating a conversation with proof texts will just cause them to tune out; they get that all the time. For those paralyzed by fear: recognize that the pressure isn’t on you, you only need to present the true gospel, it is the Lord’s task to change their hearts, and their choice to accept truth or not.

 

5.      Relax and be open.

Job #1 in reaching missionaries is to build a relationship with them. Be yourself and make friends with them like they are any other human being. Although the false gospel they bear is poison, they are not maliciously trying to deceive your family. They are themselves deceived, but they generally think that they are truly bringing you a message of truth. The best way to show them the light is not by treating them as a threat, but by building a foundation for a relationship so they’ll be willing to listen to you. Also, be open and honest- don’t lead them to think that you’re really interested in converting; this deception is not a good tactic in the end, nor is it honest. Openness and honesty should be core themes in your interaction- consider discussing 'ground rules' in your home, e.g. that all resources can be considered (e.g. non-LDS ones), that truth is truth and can withstand questioning, etc.

5b. Be nice.

Sadly, a lot of Christians are rude to LDS missionaries. What kind of witness is that? Not to mention ineffective- these young men (and sometimes women) get rudeness all the time and have long since learned to tune rude people out. You won’t likely reach them that way. Instead, follow the biblical imperative to practice hospitality. The word translated as 'hospitality' in the Bible is often the Greek philoxenia, meaning “loving strangers”. You stand a much better chance of the missionaries considering what you say if you genuinely try to build a relationship with them and invite them to be themselves. Wouldn’t you be more likely to accept a grave concern brought to you from kind, considerate person than from someone you didn’t know who was being argumentative?

 

6.      Don’t sweat the first meeting.

Many Christians meeting with many missionaries have found that it’s very difficult to redirect the first meeting. The outline for this meeting is the same everywhere, with every missionary, and it is drilled into them very strongly. It’s practically scripted. Use the first meeting to build a relationship with them instead of trying to dive into deep theological discussion. You don’t have to affirm everything they say, just let them know you are interested in hearing them tell you what they believe the truth is.

7.      Invite them back.

They will probably suggest a second meeting- take them up on this. Make them dinner. These poor boys are on a strict budget and might not know how to cook! They get fed by LDS church members sometimes, but you can bet that making them a tasty home-cooked meal will go a long way in building the relationship you will need to speak truth to them.

8.      Speak the true gospel of Jesus Christ

This is the big part! You’ve had to take a lot of steps to get to the point where you can actually do the thing that makes an eternal difference in these youngsters’ lives. Prepare yourself by being well-versed in the biblical gospel first, and have some key verses marked in your Bible. Ask  them to look the passage up in their own (LDS-church-approved) Bibles along with you. Their Bibles are King James Version like any other KJV (with some extra LDS notes and references) but reading from a text with the LDS seal rather than your copy avoids an argument. Be prepared to give a defense of the Bible’s reliability and historicity. Resources for this and many other methods of reaching LDS missionaries are available on Tri-grace’s Resources section. There is no one right topic or method of reaching LDS missionaries. Although they all teach identical lessons from the same materials, they are unique individuals who will all respond to different things. As you get to know them and their stories, you can pick topics that reach them. I often find it useful to use elements of the Impossible Gospel, contrasting Jesus’ words with LDS teaching, and telling my own story of finding a relationship with Jesus to be useful tools.

9.      Continue to minister

Keep on meeting with the missionaries and speaking truth to them as long as they are willing to. You will need to turn to more exhaustive resources than this for doctrinal and theological arguments. Always pray for the missionaries before and after meetings with them, and after your last meeting. I am not afraid to pray with the missionaries during the meeting either- I keep it clear in my heart and it should be clear to them through your discussion that you are praying to a God that they are not. I see no reason not to pray to the true God in the presence of those who we’re trying to guide to him. Lastly, try to exchange some method of contacting the missionaries after they are done with their missions. As of this post’s writing, many missionaries are permitted to have profiles on social networks such as Facebook for the purposes of their missions, and this is a good way to be able to reconnect with them after their mission, when they are more free to engage with you.

 

Remember, you are only offering truth. You cannot change these young people’s hearts, only God can draw them towards himself in that way- you are but the tool He can use. Still, your role is an important one, and it behooves each Christian to be ready to give a skilled, authentic, and passionate answer for why they choose to put their hope in Jesus.

Sarah and I gained our experience in reaching Mormons through short-term missions that turned into year-long assignments as assistant staff with Tri-Grace Ministries. We'll be returning there as missionaries this fall. You can read our story here, and learn more about being involved in our ministry by clicking here

"What? Ephraim got a Tractor Supply? Awesome!"

As you may have read in our newsletter, the big change for the Funnell household recently is that we are moving into full-time work on our efforts to get to Utah. That means that Ned has left his job- as of today!- so that we can have all the best hours of the day available to build a network of ministry partners that will support the work we’re going to do. If you missed our newsletter, you can find it here, and subscribe here if you have not already.

Sarah and I had a great opportunity to continue developing our ministry vision and action plan with the TGM staff during a trip we took to visit Utah in February. Ned’s (now former) employer wanted him to attend an event in Phoenix, AZ. We took the opportunity of being out West to book an extra ticket for Sarah and work out travel arrangements so that we could spend time in Ephraim. During our visit, we had some strategic planning sessions with the TGM staff where we got specific about our future community outreach efforts and conducted some training for the café staff. We also took the opportunity to get to know our future co-staff-members the Rittmeyers, who joined TGM as staff after we were there in 2010-2011.

We enjoyed building our relationship with Kjelse and Jordan, and their kids Svanja and Judah enjoyed getting to know Flint.

Sarah and I also did some footwork scoping out houses in town and getting a feel for what to expect when we start home-shopping in earnest. It was really great to spend time in Ephraim, and our hearts were filled with excitement for our move this summer. The idea of being super jazzed to move to a small agricultural town in rural Utah is strange (knowing my usual attitude toward small towns), but it is confirmation in our hearts that God has been pulling us back to Ephraim for some time. There’s no other way to explain our irrational excitement at finding out that Ephraim got a Tractor Supply Company since we visited last. (This should help the title of this post make more sense now.) We were almost giddy as we drove into town last month, and we know it is not because of what the Sanpete valley has to offer in terms of amenities! It’s because of the work God is doing in this town that we can’t wait to join.

                The next several months are a very important time for us, and we would benefit so much from having your support. As we know, Utah has been a playground for a very real enemy that has been largely successful in keeping the people of Utah unaware of grace and oppressed for decades. Satan wants to oppose everything we do to shine light in the darkness, and he is a strong enemy. In these next months, when we most need to focus on our work, we will be tempted to fear and worry about letting go of the security we had in Ned’s job before seeing the security of God’s provision. We know that we serve a God who is greater than any enemy, however, and who always supplies the needs of those who serve him, even if in ways we don’t expect or recognize. We would like to ask you to ask God on our behalf for peace for us during this time so that we can focus on the work of building our network of ministry partners, and that we could have success in connecting with all the people we need to for our physical needs to be 100% covered by our move date at the beginning of August.

One of the beautiful vistas encountered during our trip.

               It will be a great privilege for us to be agents of the gospel in Utah. Although God has called us there specifically, we know that we are only one small part of the body working to share God’s love with the world, including you! We’re grateful for the way that you minister where you are, even though ministry to your community might seem different from those who pick up and move to other places for the same purpose. As we enter into this new season of networking, we’re excited to see how God will weave our stories together to reach the unreached in America. If you are a friend of ours, don’t be surprised if you get a call from us in the months to come wanting to meet and share our vision and goals for Utah. If you’re too excited to wait for a call(what are you, some kind of overachiever?) or not sure if we have your number, feel free to get in touch and we’ll be happy to schedule an appointment. We look forward to it!

Funnell Christmas Lowdown

               The holiday season is nearly behind us! Sarah and I have just returned from spending Christmas with my brother’s family and my parents. We met in Georgia, which actually is new to all the Funnells- my brother’s family moved there in July with the Army, and it made a suitable location for us all to gather to for the holiday. It was a lovely time of rest and we enjoyed seeing my niece and nephew, both of whom have grown so much since we last saw them over a year ago. It was a long car ride down to GA, but Flint did great during the drive! We could hardly have expected a four-month-old to tolerate a 9-hour drive so well. 

               Christmas has always been full of warm memories for Sarah because of the Smiths’ rich traditions and enthusiasm for the Christmas season. This was the first year Sarah spent Christmas away from them, which was a difficult choice to make, but something we understand to be coming with our future move to Utah. Spending Christmas with the Funnell side this year was both a sweet reunion with my family and a transitional move towards the new traditions we’ll have to make when our new home is a few thousand miles away from family, rather than a few hundred.

               One lovely experience during our Christmas in Georgia with the Funnells was a candlelit Christmas Eve service at Ian and Libby’s home church. We enjoyed singing some old Christmas carols and hymns, and having ladies seated in the row behind us fawn uncontrollably over Flint. To be fair, he was (and is) impossibly charming. He was also captivated by the candlelight when the house lights went down, as you can see.

               Christmas has been an interesting topic for me (Ned) throughout my life. When I was a boy, the Funnell household didn’t celebrate it in the typical way. There were no trees or lights, nor a legend of a fat man who slid down the chimney at night to give gifts to deserving children. The hyper-commercialization of the season along with thoughts about the possible pagan roots of December 25th as a holiday had prompted a family moratorium on the things that most families in the US would consider central tenets of the holiday. We did have other good things- time together, some gifts, a big family meal, and remembrance that, well, although Jesus was almost certainly not born on December 25th, it was a good a time as any to remember the loving gift that it was for God to descend to earth in human form and live among us.

            For Sarah and me, Christmas does include a tree and presents. We actually haven't celebrated our own at-home Christmas yet. We decided to take January 2nd as our own personal, relaxed, at-home Christmas rather than sneaking it in between trips here or there. Our on-sale turkey is happy to wait another week in the freezer, and we don't have to worry about our tree drying out too much, since it's plastic. While Sarah does appreciate a live tree, my practical and frugal sensibilities pulled us to the  6 1/2 foot, pre-owned, pre-lit, no-mess example currently residing in our living room. I have reasons to choose the no-hassle tree. Over the years since my youth, my parents’ attitude towards customary Christmas softened a bit. During one Christmas break in college, my dad bought a leftover tree on sale on Christmas Eve and he and my mom decorated it with whatever could be found around the house- only for it to fall over from the corner where it had been propped (for want of a tree stand, which we did not own), leaving a tree-shaped imprint of needles and mismatched decorations on the carpet. Not a worry with a fake tree with its own stand. The tree could be another sticking point of concern, but we have one anyway on the belief that we control our tree's meaning rather than it telling us what it is about when we take it out of its box. To us, the tree is a traditional reminder of memorable Christmas seasons past and a lovely place to hang a new ornament each year, commemorating what the year held. (This year's ornament is a piece of flint.) There’s more interesting history behind the concerns of pagan roots in Christmas that I’ve been learning about lately. Rather than discuss it at (even more) length here, I’ll just link you to this article from Biblical Archaeology Review that helped me understand how we got the dates we have and put worries of past pagan Christmas roots to bed.

Sarah is pointing to this year's ornament- a piece of flint (the mineral).

               With that bit of church history nerdiness settled, I want to snap back to the idea of God coming to earth, which I think is more mind-blowingly incredible than it often gets credit for. We have to start with a proper understanding of our right relationship with God: we are his creation, he is our creator, in the same way that this blog post is my creation and I am its creator. It’s common for us to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to, so I want to communicate the right perspective here that no matter how awesome of a creation we are (and we are pretty darn neat), we cannot even fathom how much greater our creator must be. After all, he created us- and all life and matter- by merely speaking. Now, think about the one who is able to do that choosing to put off the privileges of being who he is- God- and choosing to be born as one of us, with all our limitations, trouble, and mess. It is appropriate and correct to say that God condescended- came down to something lower- to walk among us. “Condescending” often has the negative connotation of a rude attitude of someone putting someone else down, but realize that in this case, it is a merciful and undeserved grace. The idea that he did so to redeem us after we betrayed him is more mind-blowing still, but we’ll talk about that in the spring. Take a slow moment to read this passage from Philippians 2, wherein Paul describes God’s condescension:

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,  being born in the likeness of men. 

               What must it have been like to put off the privileges of being God, powerful enough to create life just by speaking, and take on a human body? How limiting must that have been? What was it like for God to put his identity and personhood into such a small vessel? These questions probe into mysteries of the Trinity that have been debated for ages. All I can say is that the sacrifice Christ made in coming to earth is more than we can know.

               I tried to describe the incredible difference between God and us, but I don’t want you to think that the message is that we, humanity, are worthless. In fact, I think that properly thinking about Christ’s first coming can show that we are very valuable when we ask the question: why? Why did God cross that incredible distance between us? This is why- he decided that you were worth so much that even though you have nothing to offer him but your love, that he freely chose to descend to the form of a man, and later redeem you with his life. All of the words we toss about freely: fantastic, incredible, awesome, amazing- fail to capture the magnitude of this miracle: a baby born in a stable millennia ago who was God.

               It was that miracle that I was thinking of as I held my baby boy in one arm and a candle in the other, singing “Joy to the World”. It is truly an unfathomable joy to consider when I think about the undeserved grace that it is for God himself to have come to us in our form and walk with us. He became a helpless infant like Flint, the complete opposite of an all-powerful creator of universes, because he loves us and wants us to be part of his family.

             Think for a moment about how the biblical Christian view on Christmas contrasts with the Mormon teaching. Biblical Christianity teaches that out of a heart of love, a perfect God sacrificed by descending to be with us and served us humbly, even to death, in order to make it possible for us to know him face-to-face, in perfect harmony. Mormonism teaches that a man must always be going about the work of perfecting himself, slowly ridding himself of sin and, by degrees, advancing through the process of "eternal progression" until finally he has exalted himself enough to attain godhood himself, like the Mormon god did himself, and endless gods before him. Note that the 'he' used here is deliberate and exclusionary- this path is not available to LDS women, they can only join men in the LDS version of heaven by marriage in a temple. Which of these two sounds more like a loving father in heaven? Reaching down to his children, messy though they are, to pick them up in love, or climbing up a ladder ahead of them, leaving only judgement and confusion behind? Please help us reach these people who have never known anything but this.

               To get back to Funnell news, we have a report about support-raising. Several people have responded generously to our request, and we’re now at 1.4% support. Huzzah! We’re just getting started, so we’re not afraid of the 98.6% still to go. Thank you, friends, who have partnered with us to bring the message of good news to the people of central Utah.  If you want to be a part of our mission too, check out the Take Action page on our website. There, you can find information on making one-time or recurring gifts, networking with us, or subscribe to our newsletter. One way in particular that you could help us, if you are somewhat local: would you consider inviting friends to your home and having us present to the group? This is a great way for us to build our network beyond those we already know.

Thanks for reading, and happy new year!

Ned and Sarah Funnell