On the Anniversary of His Death: My thoughts on John Chau

John Allen Chau / Instagram

The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.

Proverbs 16:4 ESV

At this time last year, I was introduced to John Chau. Unfortunately, that introduction came via news headlines and not in person, and I regret that I didn’t have the opportunity to meet John in person. I have been so encouraged by transcribing his journal (available here), I can only imagine how much I and my students would have benefited had I had the opportunity to know him personally.

The Background

John Chau was killed on or about November 16, 2018, as he attempted to access an unreached, unengaged people group (UUPG) on North Sentinel Island, a remote Island in the Indian Ocean. His reason for accessing these people was to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.

News of Chau’s death, hit the news cycle pretty hard, though specifics dripped out slowly. I was bothered by much of the negative commentary by the big mission voices, some of whom are personal friends while others are friends via the books they have written. These are people I respect and I would happily let them speak in my classes. With very little information beyond the headline “Missionary Killed on Remote Island” many big names (and smaller names, too) made snap judgement’s about Mr. Chau as a person, describing him as a lone ranger, foolish, selfish, etc. Additionally, his missionary knowledge and skills were criticized with comments like he disregarded Jesus’ instruction about receptivity, he was unprepared, and he demonstrated no planning or strategy. Some also said that he harmed the reputation of missionaries around the world.

North Sentinel Island from above.

Admittedly, I had no more knowledge than most of those saying those things. But, I did have a suspicion that the quick and harsh assessments were likely wrong. The comments were unquestionably unkind. I can only guess why people were so quick to criticize in such a public way, but now one year later, I can say with much more conviction that much of the criticism was wrong. (It’s my personal opinion that some professionals owe John Chau an apology and their readers a retraction.)

The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.

Proverbs 18:17 ESV

Some may wonder how I can be so bold to suggest that some owe Chau an apology. In addition to the overarching tenor of Scripture, two things have greatly informed my opinion of John Chau. First, the additional reporting beyond the original news of his death added more details about his mindset, his preparation, and his commitment to the mission (e.g., see this article by Alex Perry). The second thing was the time and effort of getting to know John through his journal entries from the last few days of his life. I’m thankful to John’s family who provided a pdf copy of his journal for people like me to read, and again, I offer my sincere condolences on this first anniversary of his death. (A pdf image of Chau’s original journal is available here. A pdf copy of my transcription of his journal is available here.)

Chau’s journal was scribbled out, and in certain places it was smudged by water. This made transcribing his notes very challenging at certain spots, and impossible at others. His penmanship was not great, but that was not the goal of his writing. His goal was to record his thoughts and passions about what he believed to be an eternal mission. Because of the importance of this document, I spent several hours transcribing, as best I could, John’s last thoughts. That document is available here.

John Chau / Instagram

The Questions

Perhaps the best way to share my thoughts on John’s thoughts and actions is in the form of Q&A. 

“What is your opinion of John Chau?”

I respect and honor the sacrifice of John Chau. As a born-again Christian, I want to have the “lay it on the line” passion for the glory of Christ that Mr. Chau showed in his willingness to go to the hard places and pay the ultimate price in his effort to share Christ with the Sentinelese.

As a husband and father, I want to lead my family in the same passionate commitment to “Know Christ and make him known.” I don’t hope that my children should die at the end of an arrow; though I do desire that they have such a commitment to Christ and his commission that they would pursue the lost with abandon in God’s sovereign care, even if that means a martyr’s crown (Rev. 2:10).

As the leader of the Missions/Intercultural Studies program at Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, my prayer for and plea to my students is that they would catch the spirit of John Chau or John G. Paton who “claimed Aniwa for Jesus.” (Listen to John Piper’s biography of Paton – “You Will Be Eaten by Cannibals” – here.) Oh, that they would embrace the words of Jim Elliot: ” He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

“Do you believe John Chau was foolish or selfish to go to North Sentinel Island?”

Foolish? No. All of the professed Christians and non-Christians posting in Internet comment sections their disgust for Christians who “force” their beliefs on others notwithstanding, the Bible is the guide by which I must formulate an answer. And, the New Testament is abundantly clear that Christ-followers are to share their faith with those, both near and far, who are outside of faith in Christ. This includes the Sentinelese people. The usual “missions verses” immediately come to mind: Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:14-15; Luke 24:44-47; John 3:16, 20:21; Acts 1:7-8; Romans 10:13-15; and Revelation 7:9-10.

Interestingly, Chau mentioned some of these verses in his journal. For example, he alluded to John 3:16 and Matthew 28:18 in his first words to the Sentinelese (Journal, p. 3): “I hollered ‘My name is John. I love you and Jesus loves you. Jesus Christ gave me authority to come to you. Here is some fish!’”

In the last missive to his family he revealed his motivation when he wrote, “This is not a pointless thing – the eternal lives of this tribe is at hand and I can’t wait to see them around the throne of God worshipping in their own language as Revelation 7:9-10 states” (Journal, p. 13).  

Some seem to think John was foolish for trying to reach the Sentinelese given the danger of doing so. However, Jesus didn’t say, “Make disciples of all nations, except those where it might be risky to do so.” Chau was well aware of the risk involved and took that into account both in his preparation and strategy.

Selfish? Hardly! An obvious example of his selflessness was his commitment to celibacy. His friend John Middleton Ramsey said that “Chau confided that he was avoiding romantic attachments because of his planned mission … He knew of the dangers of this place. He didn’t want any hearts to get broken should something go wrong.” Chau was a college graduate and had a variety of skills that could provide a nice standard of living. However, he chose to set those possibilities aside to follow what he believed to be Christ’s calling on his life.

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?

Matthew 16:24-26 ESV

“Was John Chau a Lone Ranger?”

Because John Chau approached the island alone, some immediately suggested that he was a Lone Ranger. That was not necessarily an unreasonable initial thought. But, it is one that should have been held in check until more information became available.

Dr. Mary Ho, International Executive Leader of All Nations, Chau’s mission agency, said that there was a team of people willing to go with Chau. However, it seems his decision to approach the island alone was based on his awareness of the risk involved in such a mission. He was concerned not only for the islanders, but also for the safety of his friends. Additionally, there may have been some strategic thinking in his solo approach. It’s reasonable to think that one person approaching the island might appear less threatening to the inhabitants than a group of people approaching.

Interestingly, while journaling on the afternoon of November 15, after having been shot by the young boy earlier in the day, John confessed to being both scared and frustrated. His frustration seemed to be at least partly directed toward JP who “won’t go with me and only stays on the vessel” (Journal, pg. 7). It remains unclear if that entry suggests an expectation or simply a desire for JP’s participation. And, his frustration may have only been directed toward his circumstances at that moment as he tried to determine whether he should continue the mission.

In an earlier entry in his journal he noted “me and two of the guys jumped in the shallows and brought my two Pelicans and kayak onto the northern point of the cove” (Journal, p. 2). So, to some degree, others were directly involved. I wonder if JP may have been one of those two guys.

“Was John Chau unprepared for such a venture?”

Much of the initial criticism of Chau – apparently based solely on the fact that he was killed – suggested that he lacked appropriate training and preparation for an effort of this kind. As more information surfaced, such conclusions had to be moderated. Ed Stetzer acknowledged this change in his Washington Post article: “These new reports at a minimum challenge the simplistic image of an adventure-seeking zealot willing to recklessly risk the lives of a remote group of islanders.”

Those who followed this story at the time discovered little-by-little that Chau had undergone a variety of trainings. He took a course in linguistics at SIL. He was an EMT with wilderness survival training. Chau studied anthropology and culture with All Nations. Additionally, he did extensive self-study on the history of the Sentinelese and similar tribes in the area.

Chau’s journal gives evidence of his training. He listened closely and noted the specific sounds of the islander’s language: “lots of high pitched sounds with [b] [p], [L] and [S] heard. Couldn’t quite get any words. Insults are probably exchanged a lot. Did not seem to understand Jarawa words I said” (Journal, p. 8). The Jarawa are a similar “stone age” tribe on a neighboring island, which anthropologists suggest also migrated from Africa tens of thousands of years ago. He noted elsewhere in his journal that in his interaction with the islanders he “yelled some phrase in Xhosa” (Journal, p. 5). This use of a South African language may have been connected to the anthropologists’ suggestion that the Sentinelese had migrated from Africa.

EMT training was evidenced by what he included in his “initial contact response kit (for arrow wounds) such as hemostat/quick clot, abdominal pads, chest seal, and dental forceps for arrow removal” (Journal, p. 4). Additional consideration of the health and well-being of the islanders was demonstrated by the fact that Chau underwent 13 inoculations and a period of quarantine prior to approaching the island.

The anthropological data in Chau’s journal reveals his interest to know and understand the people, and supports his friends’ suggestions that he truly intended to reside long-term on the island, slowly gaining trust from its inhabitants and greater understanding of them. All of this to be able eventually to share Christ. On the afternoon of November 15, the likelihood of his death seemed to be more apparent to Chau. I’m impressed that in that circumstance he was careful to make some specific anthropological observations in his journal – in addition to other similar information peppered throughout his journal entries. This information seems to be provided to whomever may come behind him after his death.

observations:

# of people in hut: ≈ 10 {illegible}

Language:  lots of high pitched sounds with
                   [b] [p], [L] and [S] heard. Couldn’t quite
                   get any words. Insults are probably exchanged a lot.
                   Did not seem to understand Jarawa words I said.

Gestures:   Arms in the air = unarmed, friendly?
                   Pointing with hand/finger (?) = pointing a location
                   Arrows in bow = ready to shot you

Environment

       Scenery   :   Beautiful cove, all mostly dead coral but clear
                            of dead coral bottom. Sand is [calcite] but
                            coarse. There’s an amazing surf break at
                            the south part of the entrance to the
                            cove. Saw 3 perfect sets of 4-6 foot
                            high swells {illegible} the {illegible} 200 yds or so.

{illegible} hut and dugouts point to a cultural practice.
It could also be from poacher as I have
seen numerous rocky coral that juts out of the
having lines thick wrapped and {illegible} ..

If they see something they like, they’ll take it (by force
if necessary). I wonder how many other folks have given
them something. And if they feel like it is expected or
due them?

Journal, p. 8

“Does it matter that the Indian government declared it a no-go zone?”

This is a fair and important question. Some Christians say Romans 13:1 is clear that we are to “be subject to the governing authorities.” Thus, Chau should not have gone within the no-go zone around the island. However, in Acts 5, Peter and John were reminded that they had been told not to preach in Jesus’ name. “But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29). Obeying God rather than man was definitely the thought of John Chau.

John Allen Chau / Instagram

“Are you saying John Chau is above criticism?”

No. I’m saying that we should be sober minded in criticizing his efforts. He gave his life to reach a people group that no one else was apparently attempting to reach. Furthermore, the evidence indicates that he prepared in significant ways for this mission effort.  

If you believe in heaven and hell then what he did was the most loving thing anyone could do.

John Middleton Ramsey

“How can we best honor John Chau’s efforts and sacrifice?”

My suggestion is threefold.  

First, “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works …” (Hebrews 10:24). In the same way that Jim Elliot’s story stirred up love and good works in John Chau. Let’s use Chau’s story to stir up love and good works among us. Let’s learn about commitment to reach unreached people by listening to his heart and learning how he shaped his life to accomplish a holy task

Second, let’s think fairly about Chau’s preparation and strategy, then improve upon those things, if possible. Critical comments immediately offered to the media are not helpful to this end. In this case, much of the quick analysis was based on false assumptions. Now that we have more information sourced from the testimony of those who knew and interacted with John as well as his journal, we can actually evaluate his methods. For example, was English the best choice for first oral interaction? Was John’s decision to approach the island alone the best option? Were the gifts that he chose to offer the best options? These questions and many more are valid analytical questions, but should be asked after gaining more information. And for those who are wondering, I can make reasonable arguments for both a yes and no answer to each of those questions.  

Finally, let’s learn more about the North Sentinelese from what Chau recorded in his journal. He added fresh knowledge to that provided by previous visitors to the island. Learning about the Sentinelese as a teen is one of the things that God used to stir Chau’s heart toward reaching them for Christ. Perhaps God would do the same for us.

John Allen Chau, my new friend, rest in peace “in a place where the sun never sets.” Bask in the glory of the resurrected Christ whom you loved more than anything in this world.

Soli Gloria Deo

When the Bible Meets Life

As I was reading Proverbs 28 this morning, two verses stood out.

When the righteous triumph, there is great glory,
    but when the wicked rise, people hide themselves.

Proverbs 28:12 ESV

Like a roaring lion or a charging bear
    is a wicked ruler over a poor people.

Proverbs 28:15 ESV

When I read these verses my mind could not avoid the connection to this weekend’s news of the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “… when the wicked rise, people hide themselves,” is a perfect description of the conditions within the areas overtaken by ISIS. In an effort to survive under the rule of ISIS, thousands of people submitted and did their best to simply keep out of sight. Through the years of ISIS domination of the area reports would leak, describing the underground market for cigarettes, which were forbidden by ISIS. There were also reports of an underground communication network that was used to warn of the location of ISIS monitors moving about looking for those who might not be living according to ISIS standards. The people truly hid themselves to survive.

A roaring lion and charging bear are images of power and force. In verse 15, these images describe what it is like when a wicked person rules over a poor people. The rule of Abu Bakr Al-Badhdadi and ISIS could not be described more clearly than power and force. Whether that be demonstrated by the piles of severed heads of their victims put on display. As if to say, “this could happen to you.” Or, the infamous execution videos of their victims dressed in orange jumpsuits published by ISIS propaganda forces. Or, the brutal treatment of women, including kidnapping, rape, and murder, by ISIS soldiers from the lowest rank all the way to the top.

The Bible should not be regarded as an old book for a past generation. It’s a living book as relevant as today’s news. More relevant, actually.

It’s Thursday, but Sunday’s Coming

The title of this post is a spin-off of S. M. Lockridge’s sermon “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.” In that sermon, Pastor Lockridge is encouraging those who are discouraged by the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion to look forward to Sunday. Because on Sunday, everything is different. In this post, I also want to challenge you to look toward Sunday, but for a different reason. But, before looking forward, let’s look backward.

How was church yesterday? is a common Monday morning question among Christian friends who attend different churches. Typically, what is meant by this question relates to how much that particular individual enjoyed his or her morning at church. It may solicit an evaluation of the sermon, the music, the crowd size, the fellowship, or even the temperature in the building.

I want to look at the question from a different angle. How was church yesterday (or last Sunday) for the visitor who didn’t know anybody there? The new person in town who was invited by the highway billboard that promised “A welcoming and friendly atmosphere.” The lonely person who responded to the 30-second television advertisement with b-roll clips of people happily engaged with others as the soothing voice described the warm fellowship that happens at your church. The one who found your church on a Google search. A Google search done not so much out of interest, but desperation because of his/her life is caving in?

Regarding the experience of visitors many church consultants think in terms of convenience. Here’s a list of focus points provided by Jayson D. Bradley (sponsored by Pushpay):

  1. Signage
  2. Presentation software
  3. Giving software
  4. Service planning software
  5. A plan for capturing visitor’s contact information.

All of those certainly have value. However, that list has a glaring deficiency. What is missing? The personal touch from real people. And here, I don’t mean the happy people dressed in logo shirts standing next to the entrance. I mean regular members … the people who show up week after week, but aren’t on the Impressions Team. The regular people.

Let’s go back to that visitor’s experience at your church. Did that person feel the warmth that others describe as the normal experience at church? Did anyone express a genuine interest in that person? Or, did you pass them in the hallway as you raced to see your friends? This scene is all too common in churches today. Friends huddled together, fellowshipping with each other as visitors try to find their way in this new environment. Sometimes those visitors are committed Christians who are seeking a new church and basically know the lay of the land. In other cases, the new person may be uninitiated in all things church and are simply looking for God. If that person wanders into your church, what will they experience? Will they walk away saying, “No one was interested in me.”

It’s Thursday, but Sunday’s coming. Looking toward Sunday: How can you help visitors experience what the advertisements say they will find at church? People – even “uninteresting” people – are interesting … if you slow down and talk with them. Everybody has a story. Who – that you didn’t already know – did you initiate a meaningful conversation with in the last month?

This Sunday, will you commit to finding someone you don’t know and start a conversation with them? I don’t mean the “Hi! My name is Craig, it’s nice to have you today” then spin on my heels and walk-away conversation. I mean the conversation that attempts to know them in some meaningful way. The conversation that recognizes them as people, not as a cog in the evangelical church wheel.

You can’t have a conversation about Jesus unless … you have a conversation. #TalkToSomeoneThisSunday

You asked: How did Jesus identify Joseph?

I received the following inquiry.

We had a discussion in Sunday School about what Jesus called Joseph. We know that he called Mary Mother, but we don’t think he called Joseph Father. We think he just used Father when he was talking to/about God. What do you think?

My response:

Here are my thoughts regarding your question. Pass it around if you like, but remember my word isn’t the last word. I simply submit to you my thoughts.

If the class doesn’t think Jesus called Joseph father, how did He address him? Were there any suggestions? I can only guess that this question stems from one of two things: Jesus’ statement in Matthew 23:9, or a belief that Joseph was somehow less than a “real” father to Jesus since there wasn’t a genuine biological connection. (I reject both.)

Though we have no record of Jesus ever addressing Joseph at all, I believe it is safe to “assume” that Jesus addressed him in the manner that was appropriate and respectful. For Jesus would certainly follow the 6th Mosaic command to honor father and mother (Ex. 20:12).

We must also remember that while Joseph was not the physical father of Jesus, he certainly was Jesus’ legal father and he functioned as both legal and physical father in all normal aspects of fatherhood apart from conception.

We have no grounds to assume that there was any type of sibling rivalry which is often the case today in “step-parent/step-child” relationships. Neither do I have reason to believe that Jesus ever said, “I don’t have to do that, you’re not my father!” or that Joseph ever said something like, “If you were my child, I’d . . . ” I say this because I believe Jesus treated Joseph exactly like a biological father should be treated according to Mosaic law – with honor. Granted, I’m arguing from silence here, but from the other aspects of Jesus’ life and personal relationships, I think it is safe to draw such conclusions.

So, how did other children respectfully address the man to whom their mother was married? The only thing we see in the New Testament for this relationship is the word father. In the New Testament the only Greek word used for this person is “PATER”. There are NO exceptions regardless of who is speaking, Jesus or “regular” people.

I think there are two important issues to pursue so that we can understand this question: the particular context of the “prohibition” and Jesus’ acceptance or rejection of the use of the word “father” elsewhere in the Scripture.

First, let’s deal with the latter. Immediately, Matthew 8:21 comes to mind. In this passage Jesus is dealing with a certain scribe about the COST of true discipleship, a small part of the cost being “leaving everything behind.” Then another of the disciples interrupted by saying, “First, let me go bury my father.” Jesus’ response was not, “Don’t address anyone on earth as father!” Why? Because the context and issue at hand was different than that in Matthew 23.

Also in Matthew 15:4-6 we see Jesus himself quoting the commands which had been penned by God and brought down from Sinai by Moses: “Honor your father and your mother; and He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.” In this case Jesus is rebuking those who had abused their responsibility toward their parents, thus breaking the command. If, as some assume from His statements in Matthew 23, we should never refer to our male parent as father, why did Jesus not CORRECT rather than PROTECT what Moses delivered? He couldn’t because there isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with addressing the man married to your mother (whether you are his physical descendant or not) as “father.” Family relationships are not at stake in Matthew 23.

If family relationships are not at stake in Matthew 23, then what is going on? Jesus is giving a scathing assessment of the religious leaders of the day. He summarizes their offenses in verse 5, “All their works they do to be seen by men.” In other words, they are hypocrites seeking vain glory and honor from those over whom they have charge. They are seeking titles of power and prominence in this world.

Notice the three titles he forbids: rabbi/teacher, father, leader. All of these could be considered “power positions” in this context which are NOT forbidden elsewhere in Scripture. In fact, the writers of Scripture use them in a positive sense. For example, Paul writes to the Ephesians that “teachers” were given to the body for her edification. As mentioned above, Jesus positively quotes the 6th command which identifies the male parent as “father”.

Jesus is trying to underscore for the multitudes and disciples the distinction between true religious faith and religious “power brokering.” Jesus says: “You are all brethren (vs. 8).” “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant (vs. 11).” “He who humbles himself shall be exalted (vs. 12).” He is highlighting the abusive power system that was in place and exhorting the people to breakout of such by recognizing their teacher, leader and father who comes from heaven. Those whom they were currently following were certainly not from heaven.

If we understand this prohibition in this manner, then we can easily reconcile both Jesus’ and other NT writers’ positive use of these terms with Jesus’ command not to use them in Matthew 23.

The application for us today is very real. Many men and women fill positions of church leadership as religious power brokers. In many cases there is no difference between our day and Jesus’. Therefore we should receive Jesus’ warning not to follow in the footsteps of those who abuse their position for the purpose of being seen by men. Neither should we submit to such phonies.

The Little Things Matter

In certain of my courses I assign Bible memorization. The goal and requirement of these assignments is “word perfect.” In this context, “word perfect” means the words appear exactly as they do when you read them in a published Bible. Each mistake (e.g., missing word, additional word, wrong order) reduces the score by ten points, and five mistakes is the maximum allowed. If a student makes more than five mistakes, their score is a ZERO. Thus, the possible grades for this type of assignment are 100, 90, 80, 70, 60, 50, or 0.

The above explanation seems fairly simple and straightforward, but students often offer push back. Sometimes they wonder why five mistakes is acceptable and six is not. My answer: Even five mistakes is not acceptable; word perfect is the goal. And, although six mistakes is only one more than five, there is a certain point at which the student simply didn’t get enough correct to warrant credit or demonstrate any level of mastery. And, five mistakes is where I draw the line. While feeling “unfair” to those who make more than five mistakes, the above system seems to offer a measure of grace while still expecting perfection; i.e., it allows some points for mediocre, even poor performance. Yet it still requires the student to produce something.

The most interesting push back, though, is from those scoring 90, which means they made only one mistake. Frequently, the complaint is, “It’s just one word.” I understand the point they are trying to make, but I’m not sure they understand the point they are actually making. To whit: “one word does not matter.” Granted, all mistakes are not equal. But since this is a training exercise and the goal is perfection, all mistakes are treated equally. One must also remember that this is God’s word the students are memorizing, so forgetting or adding one word can be critical.

On a trip to Israel in 1995, my flight boarded but was delayed. A fifteen minute delay turned into a three-hour delay, before the flight was finally rescheduled for the next day. As the captain made the announcement of the cancellation, I was standing in the doorway beside an Israeli man whose countenance dropped to the floor upon hearing the news. I tried to cheer him up by saying (in Hebrew), “Don’t worry, they will give us a nice halon.” His puzzled look, puzzled me. He didn’t say anything; he simply turned and walked away. We deplaned and were bused to the hotel the airline had provided for us. I didn’t think anything more of the oddness of my “conversation” with the Israeli man until I saw him at breakfast the next morning. Immediately upon seeing him, it occurred to me what I had said. What I intended to say was “They will give us a nice hotel” (malon). What I actually said was “They will give us a nice window.” No wonder he looked puzzled. Embarrassing, to say the least. Oh well, sometimes a mistake is simply a mistake and amounts to nothing … but a little awkwardness or humor. On the other hand …

I once read an evangelistic blog article that was making a good argument for trusting in Christ, until … “all you have to do is except Jesus.” What she meant was “accept,” which means to “consent” or “receive.” What she actually wrote, “except,” essentially means the opposite, “to exclude.” But, it’s just one word; in fact, it’s just two letters. However, those two letters can make all the difference … in eternity.

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