'Get the big picture' is lesson of contact with Church of God brethren in Burma
By Dixon Cartwright
BIG SANDY, Texas--What is going on in the Church of God? That question bothered Leon Sexton of Rowlett, Texas, for a long time. He pondered it for years, and he came to some conclusions.
In a sermon here May 22--in which he recalled the breakup of the Worldwide Church of God and its subsequent spin-offs and resplits--he said brethren of the Churches of God need to see that God's work is bigger than any work any human beings have ever undertaken.
Mr. Sexton recently returned from his second trip to Myanmar, formerly the Union of Burma, where he visited with Church of God brethren pastored by a man named Lazum Brang. Mr. Lazum (whom The Journal, in previous articles, erroneously referred to as Mr. Brang) serves about 350 scattered Church of God members in Kachinland, a territory in northern Burma. (See "17,000 Burmese Attend Church of God s Through HWA Influence," March 31.)
Mr. Sexton's recent two visits with Mr. Lazum have helped him realize "the big picture," as he calls it, of what God is accomplishing in His creation.
Mr. Lazum, with no affiliation with the Worldwide Church of God, past or present, is busily serving the spiritual needs of people in the nation Mr. Sexton still refers to as Burma.
As Mr. Sexton puts it, God called Mr. Lazum without the knowledge or permission of any Church of God organization. He happily goes about doing his best to do God's will, although he has had no official relationship with a church headquarters in Pasadena, Calif., or anywhere else.
Not a whole lot
This is especially interesting, Mr. Sexton stated, because in the more-visible Churches of God, those that spring directly from the WCG, not much is happening.
"There's not a whole lot going on with our various efforts, is there?" he commented. "One person will rise up and say 'We have to do the work and I have to be the leader,' and another person will rise up and say 'We've got to do the work and I'm your leader.' Then not a whole lot happens, does it?"
Yet things are happening, according to Mr. Sexton. The people of the WCG tradition simply aren't aware of them, just as Elijah was not aware of the 7,000 people whose knees had not bowed to Baal (1 Kings 19:18).
Years ago Mr. Lazum had brief contact with WCG members in India. From that short exposure to Church of God members and their beliefs, Mr. Lazum began to study on his own and eventually concluded he should preach the message of the Bible, as he understood it, to people in his part of the world. He has been doing that now for 10 years.
Only recently did Mr. Lazum and friends learn (from Mr. Sexton) about the feast days. On his latest trip to Burma, in March, just before the Passover, Mr. Sexton spent three weeks with the Kachin brethren and took the opportunity to tell them about the Days of Unleavened Bread.
Mr. Sexton, 48, and his 21-year-old son Bronson visited Mr. Lazum during that time in part so they could participate with him in a baptizing tour along the China-Burma border. But Mr. Lazum could not obtain official permission for the Sextons to travel with him on the tour, so they stayed in Mr. Lazum's home village of Na Mawn.
The circumstances turned out for the best, said Mr. Sexton, because he and his son met many of the brethren in the "core church" in Kachinland. "We did baptize one person, Lazum Brang's wife, on that occasion."
(Mr. Sexton was ordained in the WCG in 1990. He attends with United Church of God brethren in the Dallas area, although he considers himself an "independent contractor in the ministry," visiting many congregations, along with his wife, the former Gloria Jebens.)
The Kachin brethren hold to beliefs and traditions similar to those of Church of God brethren elsewhere, but with some differences.
Yet "they understand they will have eternal life," said Mr. Sexton. "They understand that through the grace of God and through their obedience to His Word they are being saved by Jesus Christ. In the resurrection they will have eternal life. That's all they knew.
"But you explain the plan of God to them as outlined in the holy days in the Scriptures, and it's like a light clicks on and all the pieces fall together for them."
The experience of visiting with the Kachin brethren and traveling with Mr. Lazum "has been a real honor and a humbling experience" for Mr. Sexton. He values seeing "that sweet, tender faith and dedication to God."
Mr. Lazum is unusually qualified for his duties as pastor of 350 people. He's an educated citizen of three nations--Burma, China and India--and he's fluent in 24 languages. He's a former military intelligence officer of the Indian army. He moves freely across borders.
God is working through Mr. Lazum and friends, believes Mr. Sexton, and that fact illustrates that Church of God members in America and elsewhere should not "put God in a box." The Creator doesn't always do things the way some people think He should do them.
"It seems like many times we're just too busy fighting among ourselves. Some try to hold onto what we had. Others try to recreate what we once had."
The question of what is God doing has troubled Mr. Sexton on and off for the last decade.
"I'm struggling. I'm looking through a glass darkly, like most everyone else in our various fellowships. But the trips to this remote part of the world have brought into focus a number of thoughts. They've caused me to reevaluate a number of important issues. I've called what I'm learning the big picture."
In his sermon he made three main points about the big picture:
Mr. Sexton quoted Job 38:4-11: Where was Job while God laid the foundations of the world? Who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and the sons of God shouted for joy? Where was Job when God made the clouds as the garment of the sea?
"These are just a few of the many questions that are asked in the book of Job about the majesty of God, the mightiness of God, the unfathomableness of God," commented Mr. Sexton. "God does what He wants to do when He wants to do it and how He wants to do it. He's God."
Since God is greater than "any box we might try to put Him in," it follows that the "work of God" is "much greater than the parameters that many of us have experienced in the past."
When Christians limit God by their perceptions of Him, "are we limiting our effectiveness?" he asked. "Are we limiting our ability to serve that God?"
Defining 'the work'
A question perennially discussed among the Churches of God is "What is the work?" Mr. Sexton replied to that query as well.
"Is God's work to preach the gospel to the whole world? Is it warning the world? Is God's work to announce salvation through Jesus Christ? Is that His work?"
All of the above are "the work," he said, but each is only an aspect of the big picture. He quoted Revelation 5:9, about God redeeming His people "out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation."
He quoted from Genesis and the account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. "From that point forward--Eden--the work of God began," said Mr. Sexton, "because God is creating a family for Himself. God is creating a family in His image, a spiritual image. When [the Bible] talks about creating His children in His image, it's talking about spiritually, not just physically. But, because of the decision that Adam and Eve made in the Garden of Eden, the work of God had to begin, and it's a work of redemption."
The larger view, he said, is not that a church group or organization is warning the world or preaching salvation and baptizing people. It's the "redemption of mankind at various periods of time over the course of the human experience."
Why was Jesus Christ slain from the foundations of the world?
"Because the decision that Adam and Eve made at that time made it necessary for the Savior to die for our sins that we might be redeemed, so that we can enter the family of God."
As an example, Mr. Sexton asked his listeners how many had heard of the True Jesus Church.
"Lazum Brang told me there are millions of members of this church in China, and they're Sabbatarians. There are 9,000 of these people across the border on the Burma side."
Representatives of those 9,000 people have met with Mr. Lazum and asked him to help teach them "Bible truth," as Mr. Lazum calls it.
Mr. Lazum was also recently elected general secretary of the "Churches of God in Burma," a group of 17,000 Church of God members, most of whom had come into contact with people in Burma who had had a tenuous connection with the old WCG.
"How that happened, when it happened, we really have no idea," Mr. Sexton later told The Journal. "We just know that most of them identify their antecedents through the work of Mr. [Herbert] Armstrong."
A shifting of gears
In his sermon Mr. Sexton said the "potential" of what is happening in Burma is "incredible."
"It's an eye-opener for me," he said. "We think there's only one way or only a certain approach to doing the work of God, and unless we're able to do that, unless we can somehow get it put into our comfort zone, then it can't be the work of God and we're very, very uncomfortable with it."
But is God shifting gears? "Is He continuing to carry out His plan, the big picture, in a different way and with people that He chooses to do it with? Is that happening? Again, I'm just posing the question."
For a decade Mr. Lazum has preached the gospel in Burma. "We'd never heard of him. God did not choose to inform us of this man or these brethren. God didn't need any of us to start a work in Burma. He doesn't need us now. If that fact is really humbling, which it certainly was for me, so be it. Maybe what we need is humbling."
Mr. Sexton, an American, has made contact with the brethren in Myanmar (as well as other Church of God brethren among the Karen tribe in Thailand), so shouldn't he encourage Mr. Lazum and associates to come under the umbrella of a U.S.-based Church of God organization?
"I'm not called to save these people," he said. "God is already doing that. I'm not called to bring Brother Brang and his people under one or more of our organizations or umbrellas. Guess what? They're already under God's umbrella. I'm not called to legitimize them; God has already put His stamp of approval on these people through the power of the Holy Spirit."
The first Elijah
God does not have to work with anyone in particular, said Mr. Sexton. "This lesson is very clear with the example of Elijah."
God powerfully used Elijah as a witness to Israel at Carmel. Yet the dramatic incident involving the prophets of Baal did not turn Israel to God, as Elijah had hoped. When Elijah realized that would not happen, and when Jezebel persecuted him, he grew so depressed he wanted to die. Yet 7,000 people of whom Elijah was not aware were evidence of a work God was doing in that day.
"The point is," said Mr. Sexton, "that God is bigger than what we would like to think sometimes. He's greater. He's more expansive . . . He has people of His own choosing. He doesn't have to tell us about them. He doesn't have to work through only us . . . He does things His way because He is God."
Still small mimeograph
God sometimes works in dramatic ways, but sometimes He works in small ways, said Mr. Sexton. Witness the "still small voice" speaking to Elijah in 1 Kings 19:12.
Herbert and Loma Armstrong's ministry began small, noted Mr. Sexton. "You've read about it. A hand-cranked little mimeograph machine in the back room somewhere: They're cranking it out. If big church organizations would have looked at them at that time, they would have laughed them to scorn at the insignificance of that act and that work. But what happened over the years?"
Mr. Sexton repeated his third principal point: that God wants people to work toward His goals, not just narcissistically focus on themselves.
"Satan's real clever. If he can get us focused on ourselves, then he's effectively checked us out of the game . . . Then the scope of our vision starts to get smaller and smaller and smaller. The smaller our vision gets, the more you and I are checked out of the game."
Mr. Sexton left Burma recently with one thought clearly in mind: "that God is still carrying out His plan . . . He's still hard at work doing that . . . He will accomplish it with or without our help . . . It's the very same work that He started when Adam and Eve made the decision they made."
It's time to realize the larger scope of God's doings. God "wants us to get over it and get on with it . . . I'm struggling just as much as anybody else to grasp this big picture. But one thing I do know: It is time to leave the past behind. It's time to get focused on what God is trying to get us to see. Let's find out what God wants and get in line with what He wants, not only individually but collectively."
The Big Sandy--or any other--congregation, he said, "can move mountains in the accomplishment of God's work . . . but only if we are in line with what God wants, what He wants to achieve."
The brethren are the brethren, wherever they live, said Mr. Sexton. He has visited many congregations and has noticed a consistency of spirit and attitude.
"I can sit in the congregation in Kachinland with the people of God there, and I have exactly the same feeling as sitting in this congregation. The leadership's different sometimes. The leadership can be a problem oftentimes. But the people are the same."
Mr. Sexton mentioned that an Australian, Alan Kendall of the Independent Church of God, for several years has sent literature, including The Good News, published by the United Church of God, to scattered brethren in Asia. Mr. Lazum saw a copy of the magazine a few years ago and wrote then-president David Hulme of the United Church of God . Mr. Hulme told Mr. Sexton about Mr. Lazum's letter. That's how Mr. Lazum and his brethren made contact with Mr. Sexton and other Church of God members in the West.
Credit is due
Mr. Sexton warned that Christians should give God credit when credit is due. He quoted verses beginning with Matthew 12:22 about the Pharisees crediting Satan for the miracles of healing Jesus performed. The Pharisees were dead wrong; they discounted works of God in unusual and unexpected places.
The thought of inadvertently failing to give God the credit for working with other people "scares me," Mr. Sexton said.
Church of God members should not cast aspersions on people who are attempting to do God's will. They could also be the people of God, and to criticize them could be to criticize activities of the Holy Spirit.
"Let's be very careful about that . . . I believe we should do what we can to support those activities that God is doing, even though He didn't tell us about them, even though He didn't use us to get them started and . . . even if it humbles us."
In conclusion, Mr. Sexton asked for prayers for the 5-year-old son of a Church of God member named Juliana, a member of the Karen tribe who lives along the Thailand border.
"When I left there to return to the United States, he was urinating blood," he said.
"Please remember that boy in our prayers. This is her youngest son."
Write Mr. Sexton, Mr. Lazum or Juliana and her son in care of Mr. Sexton's address: 6402 Azalea Dr., Rowlett, Texas 75088, U.S.A. Or send E-mail to email@example.com.
Mr. Sexton has set up a Texas nonprofit corporation to accept donations for his Church of God friends in Southeast Asia.
Donations (tax-deductible for Americans) may be sent to Legacy Institute, P.O. Box 130632, Dallas, Texas 75313, U.S.A. Make checks payable to Legacy Institute and specify Karen Fund, Kachin Fund or General Fund.
Visit Legacy Institute on the Web at www.legacyinstitute.org.
© The Journal: News of the Churches of God