A Story That Speaks to Life

Perhaps because I love cats, this story touched me at a deep level. In 1947, the pride of London zoo was a beautiful white polar bear. It’s mother was dead and it never knew its father. Far from polar ice, it only knew the temperate weather of England and thousands of adoring visitors. Once it became unusually cold and froze the small lake within the bear’s enclosure. The ice was 2 to 3 inches thick and not safe to walk on. The bear tapped and cracked the ice and took a deep contented dive. But the huge animal never surfaced. The polar bear apparently panicked and could not find the original ice hole. It died beneath the ice by drowning!  It could have easily cracked the ice, but it lacked the experience and the memory. It had not so much forgotten, but perhaps had never really known what it was to be a polar bear! I read this sad story in Reading the Clouds: Mission Spirituality for New Times by Anthony Gittins, an excellent book John Armstrong recommended for his ACT 3 cohort. How does this sad story speak to you? To your Christian journey?

The only church I know. The only Christian life I knew for 3 decades was in UBF. To this day, despite her shortcomings, I love this church–my church, Christ’s church–and the people in it. When I had some struggles some years back, as many of you have had and shared, I was an inch away from leaving the only church I knew. The reasons are manifold, and are virtually similar to the reasons given by those who left, if not exactly the same. That is why I am sympathetic of those who have left UBF and truly wish to remain friends with them, and God willing, even be close intimate friends.

A fish in a fishbowl. During my struggle, I began to read many books and to explore what other churches and ministries are doing. I was blown away. I thought my Bible knowledge was superior, since I have read the Bible cover to cover once a year for many years, wrote testimonies every week, and taught many the Bible. But I began to read books by contemporary and dead Christian authors. Now I am ashamed of my Bible knowledge, or rather lack of it. I thought UBF Christians really worked harder than other Christians. But when I read about others’ devotion to Christ and the church, I found countless other Christians of many stripes who were perhaps more sacrificial, and who worked even harder than UBF Christians, not just intellectually, but also in physical labor. I was ashamed and humbled. I came up with a phrase: “A fish living in a fishbowl does not know that there is an ocean out there.” I freely acknowledge today that I have lived in my own Christian bubble of UBF for decades. Perhaps, I was like the poor inept polar bear who did not know how to be a polar bear. I was like a Christian who only knew how to be a Christian in UBF, and not with other Christians, or in other churches, communities or circles. Why? I thought I was doing just fine.

Teaching the God of your church culture is idolatry: it taught me to worship UBF. Over the last few years, I had to learn how to be a polar bear in the Arctic, and not just remain a polar bear in a London zoo. There is a helpful quote from the book by Leonardo Boff: “Not a single missionary was aware that the God the church proclaimed was a cultural image. The essence of idolatry is the identification of the reality of God identified with the image of God produced by a culture.” Without a doubt I was taught many priceless things in UBF: love God, love Jesus, love the Bible, love people, love discipling, love mission, hate sin. But I was also taught cultural elements in UBF, mostly implicitly, that were placed on the same importance and  emotional level as the essentials of God and the Bible. As a result, for decades, I was greatly offended when anyone said anything critical or negative about UBF, as though UBF is the closest thing next to God. I had worshipped God and UBF on the same importance and emotional level. UBF had become my idol, and my functional savior. I felt I needed UBF and that UBF needed me to defend her. I did not know how to practically and emotionally function in any other way.

I could go on about the sad polar bear drowning. But how does this story resonate with you?


  1. The story resonates with me, too. I remember how rhe reformers of 2001 compared UBF to frogs in a pond who think their pond is the world – a very similar comparison.

    Concerning the idea of “working hard” in which UBFers take pride (some UBF missionaries even have “Work Hard” as a name), believing all other people are living an “easy-going life style”: This belief really angers me, in many ways. None of the UBFers, particularly the leaders, know what real hard work is. They are all upper-class, 1st world, white-handed college people, most of which never experienced even once the real hard work of the “working class”, of the majority of all people in the world. They have no idea of how dirty and troublesome the life of the majority of people on the world in 2nd or 3d world countries is, or even for the working class in our 1st world in times like these, just in order to survive. UBF people have the time and luxury to sit in endless, boring meetings (as a UBFer, your most trained body part is surely the one you need to sit on), to attend conferences and make mission journeys, they have good houses, cars, heating, air con, yummy and helathy food like bulgogi every day. Compared to the majority of people in the world, they all live a luxury life. Yes, there is a small percentage of UBF missionaries in 2nd and 3d world countries, but even there, compared to the majority of the people in these countries, they live a priviledged, luxury life. Their bragging about “working hard” is disgusting. Or, when they say “work”, do they mean “study”? But UBF Bible study and theology is so shallow and wrong compared to any Bible study in any ordinary seminary. It does not even deserve the name “study”, and certainly it shouldn’t be considered as “hard work”. A hard-working Bible scholar would at least try to learn Greek or Hebrew, but I have never met a UBFer who really wanted to spend so much energy and hard mental work on learning the Bible. What they really mean with “work” is “activity”, more specifically “UBF activity”. It is neither effective, not particularly spiritual. Again, it mainly consists in sitting in meetings, where you are permanently manipulating yourself and others to believe your activity is valuable and you should keep on doing it, it’s a self-energizing process that keeps you active like a hamster in a wheel. Also, you don’t really learn anything on the way. In addition, in the sogam meetings you constantly undermine your feeling of self-worth until you believe you’re so weak that you can’t even break a thin layer of ice, like that sad polar bear.

  2. Thanks, Chris. I am laughing (not at you) as I am reading this. You are so funny, because of the interesting way you express yourself and what you have seen, which is surely a gift of God. It is so funny not only in your descriptiveness but also in your astute and omnivorous observation. (I first learned the word “omnivorous” from John Piper who was describing C.S. Lewis.)

    Of course, you know that not many current UBFers (except me) will think that what you wrote is funny at all. I wish they would have a sense of humor, and laugh, which is perhaps an attribute that some lack. An inability to laugh, especially at yourself (a sign of taking yourself too seriously), is not conducive to a happy joyful life.

    As I was reading what you wrote, it reminded me of Chris Rock, who is so funny, because he is simply describing life as it is, with all of its oddness, denials, foibles, hypocrisy, inconsistency, etc.

    I will have to say that some of what you write is a slight exaggeration, but not by much. My wife rebuked me many times for using words like “always” or “never.” Perhaps that might be helpful to your writing.

    I think that if and when I do meet you in person, we will be having quite a laughing conversation together. If not, we will have lots of time to do so after Jesus comes again.

    • Sorry. Many have already criticized my use of the words “always” and “never”. But I never learned and am still always using them :(

      Maybe it’s because in reality I’m not very eloquent. Actually I was a mathematician. These people have a reduced language with actually only two quantifiers, the universal quantifier and the existential quantifier. Since the existential quantifier always seems to be to weak to support what I want to say, I’m always using the universal quantifier instead. Yes, it’s a bad habit.

  3. Dr. Ben a cat is not the same thing as a polar bear:)

    This article made me think of the other article about sexual sins commited by Christian leaders. How could a polar bear forget how to crack ice? How could a Christian forget to stay faithful to his current/future spouse? It happens and “there but for the grace of God go I.”

    I agree with Chris, not completely (I dont think we can use the universal quantifier here), but I see his point. When Christians don’t flex their hand and feet muscles, then like the polar bear, Chrisitans die under the ice and cannot withstand temptations. The church is meant to be the hands and feet in this world. Jesus’ way of living is not easy. It’s not supposed to make you wrm and fuzzy on the inside, sometimes it can happen but not always. Reading Chris’ comment made me uncomfortable because I became aware of my own self-righteousness.

    I read yesterday, “The preaching of the gospel awakens an intense resentment because it is designed to reveal my unholiness, but it also awakens an intense yearning and desire within me.” The truth hurts. Our example is Christ so we have a long way to go. There will always be room for improvement. We are in the sanctification stage so it will never get comfortable. I pray to live the way God created me to live not in my own “artificial zoo park” based on my ideas and standards.

    PS Have you watched Chris Rock’s documentary “good hair”? It looks hilarious.

  4. @Christ, Thanks, I learned 2 phrases! It seems like, as a polemicist (which I guess I have become, or maybe always was one), I also (over)use the universal quantifier rather than try to stick to the existential quantifier, which probably annoys the heck out of some people, including and especially my wife.

    @MJ, yes the gospel/the truth should awaken an intense resentment. That’s why it is always good to not mainly surround ourselves by those who are impressed by us, and who will only pat us on the back.

    Both my lovely cat and the lovely polar bear generate virtually exactly the same emotions from any animal lover (Proverbs 12:10), I think.

    I can only imagine how sad I would be if I found the polar bear drowned under the thin ice that it could have so easily cracked with its paw!

  5. Ben, when we “teach about obedience” I find it helpful to use stories. Your story here about a polar bear is very helpful. In fact, I believe it is the power of narrative that Jesus Himself used. And I’ve discovered much wisdom by being a “story listener” instead of always wanting to be a “story writer”.

    Here is an excellent resource about becoming a better story teller:

    “As we encounter the stories of our Christian tradition we are all invited to enter God’s story as both story-listeners and storytellers.”

    Stories, Stories Everywhere: Good Practice for Storytellers

  6. Thanks, Brian, for commenting on this post. This is actually one of my own personal favorite posts, but which did not receive much traction or response or comments (since yours is only the 6th comment).

    Yes, I love stories and stories definitely resonate with people. So in Deuteronomy (which are actually predominantly speeches [or sermons] or a recitation of Laws by Moses) I do want to tell the story, which is predominantly about what God did for them and how God dealt with them over their last 40 years in the wilderness of Sinai.

    Interestingly, it concludes with Blessing for Obedience (Dt 28:1-14) and Curses for Disobedience (Dt 28:15-68) in chapter 28–with only 14 verses regarding blessing for obedience and 54 verses regarding curses for disobedience!

    • So what do we make of the Hebrews 12 viewpoint on those “mountain events”? And what do we make of those 14 verses regarding blessing? Are they not now cursed as well in Galatians 3?

      I am more and more convinced that it is not really worship that Jesus wants, but followership. Jesus said “follow me” way more than he said “worship me”.