Talking to 80 Muslim Students about Jesus

It was the type of opportunity about which one can only dream and pray to come to pass. A group of exchange students from more than two dozen countries visited Northland Church in order to have a 90 minute presentation and Q&A about Christianity and Jesus. They came as part of a program, supported by The State Department, with the intent of encouraging dialogue that leads to mutual respect and a lowering of tensions around the world.

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There were a few things I hoped to accomplish with my time. One was to help them understand that what tolerance really means is that I respect you as someone made in the image of God and treat you with dignity, even if I disagree passionately with what you think. In the past there was a common cultural ethic that said, treat one another with respect, engage people with different ideas, debate those ideas, and seek truth in the process. The current understanding of tolerance says, you cannot tell anyone that your ideas are right and theirs are wrong. But the end result of that new tolerance is to not pursue truth and disrespect and marginalize anyone who claims their ideas right and others wrong. We need to get back to a place where we can say what we think, agree and disagree with others, respect them as people, and never attack the person, only the ideas.

 

Second, in light of that understanding of tolerance, here is what I believe about Jesus, why I follow Him, and why I think He is the only way to Heaven. It was a delight to hear the questions that students asked regarding Jesus, why I thought He was the only way to Heaven, what place I thought Mohammed had in God’s plan, the Bible vs the Quran, and a host of other questions. Even though my answers clearly showed that I disagreed with much that Islam teaches, they loved the open yet respectful honesty of the answers.

Third, in the midst of our dialogue, questions and answers, I wanted them to see in real life the tolerance I just told them about, so they could actually experience someone who disagreed with them yet loved them. You see it is one thing to talk about tolerance and respect and dignity, but it is another thing altogether to demonstrate that in the real life tussle of questions and answers over difficult topics that are passionately embraced.

Not only is this type of understanding and tolerance needed between Muslims and Christians, it is even more needed among Christians of various stripes and theologies. We can’t really expect to engage, in a respectful Christ-like way, people who do not follow Christ, if we are unable to do it with people who identify themselves as Christ-followers.

 

 

Honoring Obama Even When You Disagree With Him: The Sequel

This piece was first posted four years ago today. I find that it is just as relevant now as it was then and can only hope that people who claim to follow Christ will exhibit Christ-like character no matter what their political position may be. It is deeply concerning to me that I see many Christians, politically right and left and theologically right and left, who have made their political ideology superior to their Biblical commands. By that I mean, many people are interpreting Scripture in light of their politics and not their politics in light of Scripture. I think this because the vitriol that I see in the Christian on Christian attacks and ad hominem arguments are only possible if we are setting aside the things that Jesus taught us about our relationships and responding to one another out of human pride, bitterness, and anger.

With that said, I trust that the following will speak to you and that you will be encouraged to trust in an almighty God who has been running the universe very well, long before you and I ever showed up on the scene to tell Him how to do it.

First published in November of 2008

“This morning I was confronted with one of those Bible passages with which we like to do one of two things. It is a passage that we either try to ignore altogether or explain it away so that we become convinced that it could never apply to our situation. The passage deals with giving honor to leaders, even bad leaders, even if you vehemently disagree with what they are doing. The words come from the Apostle Peter in 1st Peter 2:13, 14 and 17. “13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and praise those who do good…17 Honor everyone. Love the Brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the Emperor” Peter goes on to talk about also honoring your boss as well as being willing to suffer for doing good. Those are not easy things to put into practice.

Now before I go any further let me make it clear, in the last election I voted for the other guy so this is not coming from an apologist for the current administration. Rather, I am trying to look at this from the standpoint of making Christian witness a priority over political ideology. What I have seen in recent months, in terms of political rancor and vitriol is not new, at least not in my eyes. One advantage of being a child of the sixties is I have seen demonstrations against the government that make the G-20 demonstrators look like a Sunday school class out for an ice cream social. So I am not concerned about the general population getting all angry and nasty in politics. That is nothing new no matter what the media says. What does concern me is the level ridicule, bitterness, and anger bordering on hatred that is being poured out by many claiming to follow Christ. Instead of attacking the issues that we disagree over, many are falling into the time-honored tradition of attacking the person expressing the ideas.

I always find it humbling to the extreme that the first century Christians continued to honor the Emperor with the exception of worshiping him as a god, even as he was having some of them put to death for their faith. Peter makes it clear why this was to be the practice of Christ-followers. 1st Peter 2:21-23 says, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His footsteps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly.” That is the kind of life that we as Christ-followers are to demonstrate to the world around us.

But what is the purpose in it? Peter also makes that clear. We are to live this way, honoring those in authority even when they make us suffer so that they will glorify God. “Keep your conduct honorable among the gentiles so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” 1st peter 2:12 This is why I say I am more concerned with our Christian witness than I am with political ideology. Peter says that the ultimate goal is NOT for us to shape the government. Certainly we are to be involved in the process but if we get the public policy we want and do not live in such a way that leads people to people glorify God, then we have failed. It would be better to have lost the policy debate and have won people to Jesus than to have won the debate and lost our witness and our souls.

This is why Peter says that we are to honor others. We are to treat them with respect and dignity, even serving them while we disagree with their policy or their methods. We debate the issues. We don’t attack the person. We should be involved in the public debate in order to demonstrate what a Christ-follower is really like, not just what we think, but how we love and honor others. So disagree all you want with President Obama, with your governor, mayor, town dog catcher. If you are in another country the same applies to you. Disagree with policy but honor the office and the person in it. It may mean that you will suffer for disagreeing, because we should never be surprised when unbelievers don’t play by our rules. But that is never an excuse for us to do anything differently from how Jesus did it.”

Christianity’s Fate Is Not Contingent on America

Before you go off on me as being somehow un-American, I was born into a typical Pittsburgh blue-collar family. My Dad’s first job was in a coal mine before he worked his way to owning a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership and fulfilling his version of the American dream. My favorite actor always has been and always will be John Wayne. As a kid I cried when he died at the end of The Alamo. As an adult I tear up when an American flag gets handed to a family member at a funeral with the words, “on behalf of a grateful nation”. If I have a slight regret it is that I didn’t sign the enlistment papers that Marine Captain Tacksus had ready for me back in college. So yes I love America. But America and Christianity are not the one and the same, and the fate of Christianity is not dependent on the fate of America or any other country.

If, as history shows to be the way of all great nations, America one day becomes eclipsed by some other nation, that does not mean Christianity is somehow eclipsed or automatically in decline. I get the distinct impression that many people think otherwise, both Christian and non-Christian. Some non-Christians seem to relish the possibility of both the decline of America and Christianity. If it would be possible to deal a blow to both with one stone, then they say, so be it. For some their primary hatred is for America, which they view as monolithically Christian and so they hate Christians/Americans. The recent violence and demonstrations in Egypt, Libya, and now strangely enough Australia would fall into this category. Many Muslims see America as a Christian Nation and their picture is the decadence of Hollywood, sex, drugs, alcohol, and more sex, hetero and homosexual and a nation that militarily is trying to impose “Christian values” on other countries. For others their hatred is for Christianity and they view America as the bastion of Christianity and if America must decline for Christianity to lose its influence that’s all well and good.

This illustrates the problem that Christians create when we too closely align ourselves with any kingdom other than God’s Kingdom. The missteps of a government or society that we cannot control can easily drag Christianity, or the external perception of it, in a direction that is neither helpful nor accurately Christian. Most people outside Christianity, not to mention within, do not appreciate the nuance of a Christian being a model citizen of their country, yet with a higher citizenship that trumps anything the earthly country might do or call for. Additionally, most people paint with a very broad brush and we let one example fill in the blanks for us in understanding a whole group. That was part of the point of Daniel Khaneman’s book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow” that I reviewed some time ago. So when a government, an anonymous movie director, or a screw loose preacher, says or does something provocative in a destructive way, people paint with a broad brush, decide that is what all America and thus Christians are like and they get violent against all things American/Christian.

The connection of a country with Christianity is not new. At least since the Reformation and the 16th century it has been largely the case. Prior to America it was the British Empire that Christianity hitched a ride with and circled the globe doing missions wherever the Union Jack got planted. In some cases with worked well. In others, Christianity became synonymous with English invaders and colonial oppressors. Prior to that it was Spain and the expansion into Central and South America that tied a Roman Catholic brand of Christianity to the Conquistadors. So you see the problem. Christians and Christian mission can benefit as a result of the work of countries and empires. Certainly the existence of the Roman road system made it possible for Christianity to spread in the first few centuries. But when we become so closely connected to the culture and/or government that Christianity becomes nearly indistinguishable from them, then Christianity looses its power and message.

I said even many Christians do not understand the nuance of being a model citizen of an earthly country while being first and foremost a citizen of God’s Kingdom. There are at least two reasons for this that I can see. One is our inability to disagree with someone or something and still love them. The other is that our view of success is based on one of worldly power and dominance.

As to the first, one only needs to look at a few church splits to see that Christians have a hard time disagreeing on even the most mundane and unimportant things, without taking sides that cause conflict. It goes all the way back to the first disciples of Jesus who wanted to prevent some people from casting out demons in Jesus name because they were not part of the group. In another case, James and John wanted to call fire down from heaven onto a village that did not want to listen to Jesus preaching. In both cases Jesus harshly rebuked them. In America we Christians need to learn how to disagree with people in a Christ-like manner. In Ephesians 4:15 Paul says we are to speak the truth in love. There is a dynamic tension with which few seem willing to live. We either love someone and don’t speak any truth for fear of hurting their feelings, which is actually incredibly unloving and untruthful, or we speak the truth without any love, under a false guise of love, while in the process ripping a person’s guts out, which is also not loving and incredibly dishonest. Christians must absolutely learn to disagree in as loving a way as possible. That must be the case in politics, religion, and any other area of life. You can love your country, serve it, sacrifice for it, but at the same time disagree, lovingly, when it goes wrong.

The second issue, our view of success and power, is more difficult to deal with. No one would argue against being more loving as we speak truth. It is obviously what Jesus wants. But our view of success is far more deeply rooted in our culture than we Christians want to admit. The thinking goes something like this. America is a great nation because God has blessed us, because we have been a Christian nation that was obedient to the Bible. As long as we follow the Bible and are a Christian nation, we will be a world power and a blessed people, in every way, including our material, physical, and emotional well-being. If we start to decline morally, as we seem to be doing, then God will judge America and we will lose our place of blessing, and Christianity will decline around the world as American influence declines.

There are so many false assumptions in that line of thinking that I fear it would take a whole book to address. But let me briefly deal with a few. First, Christianity did just fine expanding from place to place and reaching more and more people, long before America ever existed. Remember, the first viable English colony in North America that succeeded, didn’t get going until almost sixteen hundred years after Jesus walked the Earth. It was another one hundred and fifty years before the colonies split from England and became a separate nation. It has really only been since World War 2 some seventy-five years ago that America has been a world power and with the collapse of The Soviet Union, THE world power. God was doing just fine in expanding His kingdom for the 1900 years of history from Jesus to American dominance, and I suspect He will do just fine until Jesus returns, no matter how long that takes. A second presumption in the previous paragraph is that America has, until recently, been a model Christian nation. For almost the first hundred years of that City Set On A Hill we call America we allowed white people to own black people as property. Not exactly a shining Christian nation moment. Let’s not even talk about what we did to people who were Red not Black and lived here before European’s arrived. On the other end of the spectrum, motivated by Christian Temperance Movements we passed a constitutional amendment banning alcohol. It was the worst kind of Christian Pharisaism and resulted in all sorts of violence and corruption not to mention leaving a lasting picture of Christians as extremely legalistic fanatics who want to dominate others. No, America has not been the ideal Christian nation that would automatically be showered with God’s blessing. Perhaps the most dangerous assumption in the previous paragraph is that America somehow is fulfilling a role of being The New Jerusalem. As a result people attach to America all sorts of Old Testament prophecies about Israel, Jerusalem, or various Hebrew tribes. Now it is generally true that if nations follow the things of God that things will go better than not. But that is a result of God’s truth having that effect whether we are believers or not. However, that is a far cry from saying that America is God’s new chosen nation and applying prophecy to it; especially prophecy that was already fulfilled in Israel 1500 years ago.

The bottom line is this. America is a great nation that has at times demonstrated amazing “Christian” principles and culture and at others times not. In the last few decades it seems to be more not. God’s Kingdom is far greater than America. God does not need America to fulfill His plan of redemption that was set before the foundations of the world. God can and does use America as He has and does use any nation. Christians need to actually live what we so often point to on America money, “In God We Trust”. We do not trust in American dominance or success in order to feel secure that God’s plan of redemption will succeed. Conversely we do not fear failure in God’s plan of redemption is things in America are not going as we would hope. In recent history, America has been the key player in the World Christian Movement, but South America, Asia, and Africa are seeing massive growth in Christianity. China will soon become the nation with the largest number of Christians in the world. South Korea, as small as it is, is beginning to lead the way in missionaries sent. Some see that as the decline of America. I think God sees it as the ascendency of a global Christianity. No matter what happens in America or any other nation, God is still sovereign and will prevail, as will The Church. Jesus promised that even the Gates of Hell could not withstand the ultimate success of His plan.

Obama, the Bible, and Same Sex Marriage

It is impossible to turn on the news today or go to the internet without being confronted by the news of President Obama’s statement that he supports the right of same-sex couples to get married. While I can certainly appreciate his compassionate heart for people who feel they are unfairly being denied the possibility of a marriage to their same-sex partner, and I can even affirm that I believe the President to be my brother in Christ, I have to disagree with his position on clear biblical grounds.

At the heart of the issue is this, who determines what a marriage is and who can get married and who cannot? In the last 200 years or so, governments have played an increasingly large role in that decision and the religious community has played a smaller and smaller role. But for the entire period of human history prior, that was not the case. Prior to that time, certainly in western civilization, it has been the church, and I mean that in the broadest terms, that has defined marriage and informed the government on what is and is not a marriage. Clearly the tables have been turned. Now instead of the faith communities informing society and the government on what is and is not marriage, it is western philosophical, post-enlightenment philosophy that shapes the our understanding of marriage. We have gone from marriage being a sacred union between man and woman, to being a contractually based relationship between two people who want certain benefits of accorded such couples by the government and society. That is founded on faith in philosophy not faith in God.

But where does the church get its understanding of marriage? On what basis does it take a stand. Let me be clear about one thing. This is not a blog dealing primarily with homosexuality. That is only secondarily the issue here. What I am talking about is marriage and its roots. In the Christian community we look to the Bible as our revealed source of God’s truth. That is a given. You can debate the wisdom of that all you want but the fact is, the Bible is what Christians hold to as their depository of God’s will and wisdom. I say that as strongly as I do, so that it becomes clear, if you want to affirm same-sex marriage you are doing so with full knowledge that the Bible teaches otherwise. That may not matter to you, but it matters to millions of Christians in America and a billion world-wide. First let’s be clear on what the Bible does not say. The Bible does not say “same-sex marriages are sinful”. You won’t find those words. Why? Because rather than take a negative approach full of “thou shalt nots”, the Bible takes a positive approach and holds up the ideal that we are to strive for. The positive teaching of the Bible on marriage is that it is designed by God to be between a man and a woman. That teaching is so clear and so taken for granted that there were no same-sex marriages and thus no need to say anything against them. That doesn’t mean there was no homosexual behavior. There was. But same-sex marriage was unheard of so there was no need to speak against it. Rather the Bible says what marriage is, why it is and who is eligible for marriage.

To understand what the Bible teaches, we have to start with Genesis 2 and the account of the creation of man and woman.

18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” 19 Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him. 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. 22 The Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. 23 The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones,
And flesh of my flesh;
She shall be called Woman,
Because she was taken out of Man.”

24For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. 25And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. Genesis 2:18-24

It doesn’t matter whether you think this actually happened as a literal event or that it is somehow a myth handed down to make a point. For Christians, and incidentally, Jews AND Muslims, this is something revealed to us by God to teach us about our origins, purpose, and destiny. As it speaks about marriage it is crystal clear that God made it to be a union between a man and a woman and that it has spiritual significance. They are somehow joined together as one. They are not just two people signing a contract detailing how they will share property rights or designating who can visit them in the hospital or any other such important issues. Those are the issues of the contractual understanding of marriage in the post-enlightenment west. The Bible is saying there is more, there is a binding together of man and woman in marriage that is instituted and blessed by God.

Some will say that the Genesis passage is Old Testament and therefore culturally irrelevant. For that reason it also needs to be recognized that Jesus affirmed this teaching in the clearest possible ways.  In Matthew 19 he repeats and expands on the teaching from Genesis 2 as a way of affirming the sanctity of marriage and the exclusive nature of the relationship between a man and a woman. Jesus does not deal with this as a cultural issue but rather as an issue of theological truth that is founded in the very character of God. When Paul writes to the Corinthians he also affirms that there is a spiritual component to the physical relationship that is supposed to be reserved for husband and wife. A biblical understanding of marriage must include the recognition that it is more than two people agreeing to live together and be partners in some domestic limited partnership. There is a third-party involved. The Bible says that God joins together a man and woman in marriage. That is why it is primarily a spiritual and not a civil matter.

In making any decisions about our view of marriage we must, or at least confessing Christians must, look to what the Bible says about marriage and seek to understand it and implement it as best we can. Some people may come to a different interpretation of what the BIble teaches. I understand that and can work with that. At least from there we can discuss the meaning of the passage and its application based on mutually agreed methods of literary interpretation. What we cannot do is simply ignore what the Bible says because we are trying to be compassionate, modern, or even fair.

What are the concerns in all this? Some who support same-sex marriage might simply say, “why don’t you just live your way and let them live their way?” That sounds so nice and reasonable and fair. But here is the problem. Because government now has the primary role in determining who can get married and what a legitimate marriage is, they also have the power to determine who can perform such marriages and who cannot. Given the nature of government to spread its power and authority rather than limit it, as an evangelical pastor I have a legitimate concern that the day may soon come when the government says, in order to have the authority to perform any wedding, I must be willing to perform all weddings, same-sex or not. You think that is far-fetched? Think the government would never do such a thing? Look at recent history. Religious hospitals are being faced with regulations requiring them to perform medical procedures they find to be immoral. Religious schools and other institutions are being faced with the possibility of being required to provide insurance coverage for those same procedures. Clearly the government has shown a willingness to ignore the conscience of people of faith and require them to do things that violate their religious beliefs. How ironic is that, when one of the foundational principles of our culture today is to respect the beliefs of others and not force anyone to adhere to your beliefs. It seems that only flows one way.

Let me make one final point. I place the blame for where we are, squarely on the shoulders of Christians and the Church, though probably not for the reasons you may think. It is not because we have failed to oppose such culture shifts vehemently enough with protests and indignation. Rather, it is because we have failed to teach and uphold the positive Biblical ideals on marriage, sex, and human relationships. Far too much of our teaching and preaching is moralistic do’s and dont’s without any solid foundation based on the character of God. Such moralism quickly gives way to what is expedient, easiest, or “most reasonable”. In other cases our teaching too closely represents the latest self-help steps to a better marriage or relationship. It is teaching, full of practical tips, void of Biblical power. We need to get back to a Biblical understand of the purpose of marriage, the oneness between man, woman, and God that is the glue that holds the marriage together. We need to be captured by the holy mystery of man and woman becoming one, and that being more than sexual intimacy but a binding of soul on soul that is for the benefit of society and the glory of God. Let’s live out the glory of a Biblical marriage that makes it so attractive and compelling that people would yearn for that ideal and accept no substitute for the blessings God has for them.

 

Egypt: An Uncertain Future for the Faithful

Having just spent a week in Egypt, including time in Cairo, including a visit to Tahrir Square, I am struck by the somber mood that hangs over much of the country. If you have never been to Egypt before you might not notice anything out-of-place. This was my fifth visit to the country in the last three years and I could sense the change. People seemed more hesitant. Even among the more than 300 pastors and leaders that I spoke to for three days, there was a certain hesitancy that I felt. These are people I had been with on every prior trip, so I had some history with them to be able to read their mood. But it was not just these Christian leaders that seemed different. The whole country felt different. The energy of tourists was completely absent, down an estimated 80%. The once ubiquitous police are few and far between, replaced instead by more regular army troops. Shop keepers all spoke of how depressed the economy has become and how uncertain they feel about the future.

How did it get to this? Unless you have been living on Mars you know that on January 25th of 2011 a revolution erupted in Egypt. Thousands of Egyptians entered Tahrir Square in Cairo to protest the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Incredibly on February 11th after three decades of being in power, Mubarak stepped aside. Throughout the next year there would be further protests, many deaths, violence, fear, as well as demonstrations of unity between Muslims and Christians, and the first truly free and democratic elections in Egypt’s history. The new parliament is made up of a majority from The Muslim Brotherhood and smaller numbers of extreme Islamists on one end, and an even smaller number of moderate to liberal freedom parties on the other end.

One of the themes I heard over and over again from Christians in Egypt is that they are so uncertain about what the future holds. There are many among the radical Muslim members of parliament, known as Salafists, who are calling for a complete Muslim state under Muslim law. Some of the them are calling for all women in the country to be veiled, for beaches and swimming pools to be segregated by gender, for all sales of alcohol to be banned throughout the country, even in resorts that cater to foreign tourists. Such moves would cripple tourism which accounts for 20% of the Egyptian economy. Some Christian leaders are so concerned about the future prospects for followers of Jesus that they are, for the first time, talking with moderates in the Muslim Brotherhood in order to reach compromises that in that past would never have been considered.

For the average Christian there is a common theme that I heard. “I just don’t know what the future holds”. I understand what they are saying. Things have changed so much that they can’t see what the road ahead looks like. Will things settle down and freedom become a reality? Will the Islamist rule the day in the short-term but in time people become disillusioned and rise up and complete the revolution for freedom? Will Christianity be persecuted beyond what we can imagine? Nobody knows the future and they are understandably anxious.

In a message that I shared with more those pastors and leaders I focused on this question of the future and the insecurity they felt. The point was, we have never known what the future holds. In the beginning of 2010 they had no idea that a revolution was coming in January of 2011. They thought they knew the future based on the stability of the recent past. They, like all of us, projected into the future that it would be much like what we knew in the recent past and present. But that is never the case. We take comfort in that idea but it is a fools comfort. Life changes in ways we can never predict. There is no security in projecting what we know of the present into the future. We cannot trust in our ability to know the future. We can only trust in the One who holds the future in the palm of His hand. Jesus repeatedly told his followers and us to not be anxious about the future or about people who can destroy our physical lives. Instead He said that we must focus on the one who can give us eternal life. Consider what Jesus says in Matthew 6:25-34

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

The point for any follower of Jesus, no matter where you live and in what time, is that you put your future in the hands of God. You trust not in your ability to know the future. You trust in the fact that you know the One who knows the future. Prior to January of 2011 the fate of Egypt was in God’s hands. Prior to 9/11 the fate of America was in God’s hands. Prior to anything in your life, your fate was and still is, in God’s hands. There is amazing comfort and certainty for the follower of Jesus if we have the right mind. We look not to our immediate circumstances for safety and security. Rather, as the old hymn says, “our hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus blood and righteousness”.

Christianity and Science: Is There a Conflict?

As a kid I was enthralled with science, any branch of science, astronomy, biology, chemistry, paleontology, physics, anatomy, it didn’t matter. Until the fifth grade I lived in a house that backed up to a huge woods that included a spring fed pond where my best friend Bobby Kramer and I used to catch salamanders, crayfish, and lots of really cool bugs. Of course we would also put fire crackers in the model warships we built but that is another story. One of my favorite parts of that woods was a dried stream bed with a several foot high wall from an old waterfall. We would regularly dig into that rock wall and pull out some of the most amazing fossils that we would eventually match to their period in history. Dissecting frogs and snakes was a normal Saturday afternoon, as was mixing compounds from the chemistry set, making slides for a microscope, or charts of the various constellations according to the season. A highlight of a junior high biology class was when, along with two other students, I was given the opportunity to dissect a fetal pig when the rest of the class got frogs. I grew up with the birth and expansion of the space program and once could name every astronaut, their capsule name and mission highlights. My bucket list still includes a walk on the moon. I still love science as evidenced by the fact that one of the books currently on my night stand is a biography of Albert Einstein. It is as much about physics as it is about his life.

As a Christian I find myself puzzled and saddened by the ongoing conflict between so many people of faith and people of science. There seems to be this commonly held idea that you cannot be a Christian and a good scientist. The two are seen as being polar opposites that can never be reconciled. Yet anyone with a bit of historical perspective and willingness to get beyond sound-bite thinking will find that in fact the opposite is true. Christianity and science are both historically and philosophically allies in the search for truth. In fact, the modern scientific method owes part of its existence to the philosophical world-view of Christianity.

All Truth is God’s Truth

Both science and Christianity are on a quest for truth. As a follower of Christ I have no fear of science. If science determines something to be “true” then I know that God is well aware of that truth and in fact is the reason such truth even exists. Some of the greatest scientists in history were also people of deep Christian faith. Their faith in a God of laws and order gave them a theological foundation from which to explore the cosmos. There was a conviction that the God of truth, who ordered the world, did so with a set of laws that made it possible to study and learn using the scientific method. Isaac Newton, who is considered by many to be one of, if not the greatest scientist in history, functioned as a scientist because of his faith.

“Newton’s theology profoundly influenced his scientific method, which rejected pure speculation in favor of observations and experiments. His God was not merely a philosopher’s impersonal First Cause; he was the God in the Bible who freely creates and rules the world, who speaks and acts in history. The biblical doctrine of creation undergirded Newton’s science. Newton believed in a God of “actions [in nature and history], creating, preserving, and governing … all things according to his good will and pleasure.” (Charles E. Hummel, Christian History, Christianity Today Online April 1 1991)

The case has been made that the rise of science in Western Civilization is in large part due to the influence of Christianity. Because the world was seen as being created by God with order and laws, it was not only possible to study and learn, it was actually a duty to study and learn about the cosmos. Although other religions and their cultures may have been more advanced in some areas of technology, they were not cultures and religions that promoted science as such. Buddhism, and Hinduism are great examples. Historically they have viewed time and the cosmos in a circular fashion. What is now will come to an end and the cycle of time repeats. Scientific progress is not highly valued because it will all come around again. In addition, the material world is seen as something to escape. It is the world of suffering and pain, not the world of wonder created by God. The gods of such theologies are also capricious and unpredictable so any conclusion reached in the study of the cosmos are unreliable. In the Judeo-Christian tradition the cosmos was pronounced by God to be “very good”. Time is more linear and we are heading towards a desirable future that is a new creation of heaven and earth. Far from wanting to escape this reality, the Christian is one who is called by God to improve it. That includes being good stewards of creation. Being a good stewards requires understanding how the cosmos functions in order to care for it in a way that glorifies God.

When Scientific and Theological “Truth” Conflict

There are times when the understanding of science and our understanding of the Bible are in clear contradiction. Most often cited is the case of Galileo and the Church disagreeing over the Earth revolving or being fixed and stationary. This is often cited as an example the narrow-mindedness of the Church and Christians. Science is hailed as being objective, rational, concerned with truth. But here is the problem, prior to Galileo and Copernicus, the common notion among scientists was that the Earth was fixed. The Church at the time looked at some verses in the Bible and decided that indeed the earth was fixed. After all, it said things like, “God has fixed the earth on its foundation” or spoke of the sun rising and setting. So for centuries, science that the Church agreed, the Earth is fixed and the sun moves. No one bothers to point out that for centuries science was also wrong. They only point out that the Church was wrong. The fact is, science was simply quicker to correct its error. Eventually the Church came to realize that the Bible was not wrong, because it never taught that the Earth was fixed. It was our understanding of the Bible that was wrong and needed to be changed. All of that is to simply say that when science and the Bible seem to be in conflict, we need to be patient and reexamine our preconceived ideas. It is possible that the explanation science gives for the information is wrong. It is possible that our understanding of the Bible is wrong and needs to be adjusted. It is possible, as with Galileo, that both science and our understanding of the Bible are wrong.

Eventually much of Newtonian physics was superseded by the theories of Einstein. Quantum physics replaced Newtonian physics. The speed of light being constant and the fastest possible speed became foundational truths. For the last hundred years they have ruled the scientific world. Yet recently some scientists in Europe have indicated that they may have found something that travels faster than the speed of light. As a result the Physics world is a buzz with debate. Could science be going through another mega-shift in its understanding of truth? It remains to be seen. But one thing is certain, whatever they discover about the truth, it will still be God’s truth.

Scientific Method vs. Naturalism

The scientific method is simply that. It is a method of exploring and discovering truth. It is neutral. A person of faith can and should use good scientific method to explore and discover the wonders of God’s created cosmos. Naturalism is a philosophy. It is a mind-set that excludes the possibility of any spiritual component in the cosmos. In naturalism the material world is all that exists or at least all that can be studied and understood. Many scientists are also committed to naturalism. God has no place in their world. Naturalists will often accuse people of faith of being narrow-minded and unwilling to see the truth. I find that rather odd since the Naturalist is the one who is thinking more narrowly. They exclude the possibility that God has anything to do with all this. The scientist who operates out of faith seems to have the more open mind, believing that there may be more explanations for things than simple material cause and effect.

The bottom line is that if you are a person of faith, you must not see science as the enemy. You need not fear whatever currently appears as a contradiction between the Bible and science. Taking the long view of history and realizing that eventually God’s truth prevails should give confidence to your faith and motivation to your exploration of the cosmos as a scientist.

Lessons from an Atheist: The Death of Christopher Hitchens

He is perhaps to most well-known atheist of the past two decades. He became infamous for his attacks on religion and religious figures seeing all religion as dangerous and destructive. It didn’t matter to him if you were an Islamic suicide bomber or Mother Theresa, who he accused of being an ambitious self promoter who was willing to take money from anyone in order to keep the poor even more poor. His books have been huge best sellers if for no other reason than the provocative nature of the titles. Who would not react to a book titled, God is Not Great?

In June of last year Hitchens found out that he had cancer. It eventually took his life this week. Along the way folks prayed for him, including his younger brother Peter who wrote a wonderful book titled Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, that was the antithesis of Christopher’s life. (By the way, I highly recommend that you read Peter’s book no matter what your religious convictions. It is a fascinating study in how two people can take a similar path and yet in the end diverge to vastly different destinies.) In addition to people praying for Christopher there where some whose actions would only seem to confirm his view of religion. It wasn’t unusual to hear or read comments that made it clear that people were convinced Hitchens would get his just punishment in the end. The sad thing was that some of those commentators seemed pleased by that knowledge. Now I have no problem with believing in a doctrine of Hell and that there is a just punishment to come. What I do have a problem with is people who don’t grieve the possibility of someone ending up there. Jesus himself wept over the people of Jerusalem because they did not understand the fate that awaited them in this life or the next. Should His followers respond any differently?

In thinking about the life and death of Christopher Hitchens it occurred to me that there are a few important lessons for Christians in particular and religious people in general.

Lesson Number One: Not All Criticisms of Religion are Groundless.

Hitchens had a point when he spoke of the danger of religion. Lets not be blind to the fact that people have used religion as an excuse for all sorts of heinous crimes. Granted the case can be made that it is people who have distorted the rue message of a faith but such hairsplitting is hardly convincing to a radical atheist and hardly comforting to the person who was tortured or killed in the name of religion. One common response is to list all the good things religion has done, founding hospital, funding orphanages, fighting slavery and so on. Getting into a back and forth listing of virtues and sins hardly changes anyones mind. The Christian response should really be one of honest acknowledgement of the truth and repentance over it. From there it would behoove followers of Christ to do everything they can to live according to the teachings of Jesus and call others to that radical life of self-sacrifice, loving your enemies, and loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. We can’t change the past but we can learn from it and shape the future.

Lesson Two: Religious People, especially Christian, Need to Sharpen Their Intellectual Game

Far too many people who claim to follow Christ are flat-out lazy when it comes to understanding what they believe and why. There is no place for lazy or sloppy thinking in the Christian world. Paul urges Timothy to be a diligent student of the Bible. Peter urges us to always be prepared with an answer for the reason of our hope. Particularly in the church in the west there is no excuse for a follower of Jesus not being able to explain and defend what they believe. The resources and training available are so abundant as to be almost obscene. Yet in spite of that, the average Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness causes the average evangelical Christian to quake in their theological boots. But if we are to in any way engage people and their ideas and have any impact in directing them to Christ, then we must be better students of the faith and know our Bibles far better than we do currently. I am convinced that much of the anger shown to Hitchens over the years comes from religious people who are insecure in what they believe and threatened by someone who believes differently but is not insecure. Anger is a secondary emotion. There is normally a previous emotion that triggers the anger. In religious debates that primary emotion is usually fear or frustration over not being secure in ones own beliefs.

Lesson Number Three: Love, Not Hate is Still Our Greatest Witness

There appears to be little if anything that people could say to Hitchens to get him to even consider the possibility that God exists. However, the love that people showed in praying for him and that I am sure his brother showed him, seemed to at least soften some of the harshness Hitchens so famously exhibited. Jesus made it clear that people would know that we are His followers by the love we have for one another. He also made it clear that we are to love others. Showing Christ’s love to people has a way of breaking down the intellectual arguments that they construct in order to protect their position. There simply is no intellectual defense against sacrificial love. Of course loving people in a sacrificial way is not easy. It requires work, commitment, endurance, and sacrifice. In that way it is exactly like the cross.

Lesson Number Four: We Are More Alike Than We Are Different.

Christopher Hitchens is not much different from me or you. We all go through life trying to understand the world and our place in it.  We all have questions of an ultimate nature, why am I here, is there a God, what happens when we die, am I loved? We all face loneliness, pain, heartache and loss. We all want love, acceptance, safety, and joy. We all end up facing the reality of our own death. Hitchens answered many of the ultimate questions in ways far different from me. But as a fellow traveler and “seeker” of answers, we share a great deal in common.  You do too. That realization in itself should cause followers of Jesus to have a far more benevolent attitude towards people like Hitchens.

If you want to get a wonderful little update on his life and death this NPR article is a great place to start.

If you want to read a fantastic assessment of modern atheism I recommend Why God Won’t Go Away: Is the New Atheism Running on Empty?  It is written by Alistair McGrath. I had the incredible privilege of taking a summer class at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University a few years ago in which McGrath was a featured professor. He is brilliant thinker and writer who has often engaged well known atheists in debate with a winsome and engaging style.

Burundi, A Nation Being Healed by the Power of Christ

A view of central Bujumbura from the cathedral...
Image via Wikipedia

For twelve years, from 1993 to 2005, Burundi, a nation of 8 million people, suffered through a civil war that took the lives of an estimated 300,000 people. It was a horrendous time of slaughter and genocide. Men, women, children, the elderly, people who had no desire for fighting, were caught in the vortex of tribal hatred. Hutu and Tutsi killed one another with machete and machine gun, just because their tribe was different. During the twelve years of violence, 5% of the population was killed. If that same percentage held true in The United States, that would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 million people. That kind of comparison shows with stark reality that everyone in this country lost someone, and some lost everyone.

Yet, here I am in the capital city of Bujumbura just six years later and you would never know that anything so horrific had taken place. The streets are full of people going about their daily lives. Shops are open. New homes have been built everywhere you look. A brand new beautiful university sits on the edge of town. Hospitals and schools are popping up all over. There is food in abundance. And smiles and laughter to last a life time. How in the world could such a transformation take place? The answer is simple. One man led the way to reconciliation and renewal by living and preaching the Gospel. That man is Burundian President, Pierre Nkurunziza.

I first met President Nkurunziza two years ago in Nairobi, at a summit for African political and church leaders. Yes I know, I am not an African. How and why I was invited is another story altogether. But as events unfolded it was clear that I was supposed to be there and was to find some way to support this president’s vision and mission. At the time of our meeting, he had been in office for four years. Already in that time he brought the warring sides together and called for the church and Christians to demonstrate forgiveness and love for enemies and neighbors alike. He and his wife also led the way by adopting more than a dozen orphans from both Hutu and Tutsi backgrounds and actually holding house church services in their home. He integrated the warring factions into one army that was already being used throughout parts of Africa as peace keeping forces. Just recently he was elected to a second six-year term, a first for this country that had never seen a previous democratically elected leader last more than a year.

In discussions with some other Christian leaders in Eastern Africa it was eventually decided that the first step in helping advance the vision for a peaceful and growing Burundi, would be to bring Northland’s training on Distributed Church Ministry and Simple Church Planting to the pastors of Burundi. So this week, Pastor Gus Davies and I, along with Northland Elder, Marcus Mennenga, joined with three Kenyan partners, in order to teach 75 pastors how to plant churches, serve the needs of people in their communities, and advance a Gospel of reconciliation in their country. For 12 hours a day for three days, we taught, and taught, and taught. we would break for less than an hour to eat and then get back at it again. And everyday the wife of President Nkurunziza was there as a student, taking notes, praying, and in the end sharing with the entire group how excited she was that these pastors were being equipped in ways that would help continue the transformation of Burundi.

The many conversations with these pastors, that took place over meals and at the close of the training, were humbling and inspiring all at once. I was humbled that these men who have been through so much, lost so much, suffered so much, acted as if we had brought them a hope for the future that they never dreamed possible. What inspired me was the commitment they have already demonstrated in living for Jesus, no matter what. Almost every one of them lives by faith. Sometimes there is money in the offering, sometimes not. But as person after person said, “God provides”. They left our training with a renewed energy and tools to reach and serve others. I can’t wait to go back in six months when we do the second level of training with these same pastors and get to hear the stories of changed lives and as a result, a changed country.

Blessed are the Merciful: The Irony of Angry Christians

Matthew 5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
I continue to be perplexed at the anger and rejection that so many Christians heap on people whose sin is obvious and public. What befuddles me is that this is about as far from doing what Jesus did as you can get. I look at how Jesus treats the Samaritan woman at the well, or the woman caught in adultery, or the drunks and prostitutes. What I see in Jesus is a savior who was completely committed to holiness and glorifying God in all he did. Yet, He did not allow that commitment on His part to result in condemnation of those who consistently wrestled with sin and lost. Rather Jesus showed great mercy to those people. He certainly called out their sin and challenged them to live a holy life. But at the same time He empathized with their weakness and sought to lift them to higher things. And He did this even though He never sinned and therefore never needed that kind of mercy.
In the beatitudes Jesus has made it clear that we are spiritually bankrupt and in desperate need of God’s grace and mercy. If you are a follower of Christ you have received that mercy, countless times over. Knowing that we have received such wonderful mercy, how can we do other than to pass that mercy on to others?
In Matthew 18 Jesus tells the story of the Unforgiving Servant. It is about a man who was forgiven a monstrous debt by his master. The debt was so large that it would take the average worker in Jesus day, 200,000 years to earn that much. He was forgiven something he could never pay. The servant later comes upon a fellow servant who owes him the equivalent of about three months wages. That fellow servant asks for time to pay the debt. The man refuses to give him time and in great anger, throws him in debtors prison along with his wife and children. Later, the master hears of this and in his just anger, throws the servant in prison for the rest of his days. Jesus makes the point that He is the master and we are the servants who, because of the cross and resurrection, have been forgiven a debt we could never pay. In light of that, how dare we spout vitriol and anger at people who have sinned against us in significantly smaller ways. How dare we not show mercy to a fellow debtor.
Giving people mercy simply means to not push on them the punishment that they deserve for what they have done. If you throw yourself on the “mercy of the court” you are saying, yes I am guilty but please do not punish me to the extent I deserve”. If you are a follower of Jesus, you have thrown yourself on the mercy of His cosmic court. And you have received mercy. Having freely received, we are to freely give. It doesn’t mean that we fail to call sin what it is. It means that we call it what it is, but we let a person know, we will not heap anger, rejection, punishment or suffering on them, because we have received a far great mercy from the Lord.
There is a symbiotic relationship at work here. We have received mercy from the Lord so we give mercy to others. When we do, we will continue to receive mercy. When we don’t give that mercy, we can be assured that we will not be receiving it. The unforgiving servant learned that sad lesson.

President Obama: Christian or Muslim?

One thing you have to love about people, is the way we can refuse to let the facts get in the way of a good preconceived notion, conspiracy theory, or deeply held conviction. Depending on which poll you read in the past several months, anywhere from 18 to 24% of Americans still think that the President is a Muslim. When asked why they thought that, a significant number point to his name and say it sounds Muslim. Given that logic I guess my name, Lacich, makes me Croatian Eastern Orthodox.

Today at a prayer breakfast in the White House, President Obama spoke as clearly of his Christian faith as anyone could be expected to speak. In fact, he was more clear than a lot of people I have talked to who claimed to be Christians and are regular church goers. In an article in the Examiner, author Christine Priest Stiegemeyer, (hmm sounds like a Nazi name to me) details what the president said about his own faith and religious practice. He goes so far as to pinpoint the events that led to him embracing Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior twenty years ago. According to what I read in my Bible, that pretty much makes you a Christian, no matter what your name is. So if you are a Christian then I think it is time to recognize that the President is a brother in Christ, with you, me, and the Governor of Alabama. If you are wondering why I mention the governor then read this post from a few weeks ago. That means you need to treat the President with the same respect you would any other member of the family. After all, you just might find that you are seated across from him at the eternal banquet feast in Heaven. Talk about awkward!

But what if he was not a Christian. What if in fact he really was a Muslim? Then what? First, according to our Constitution, it is irrelevant what his faith is or is not. America was founded on lots of principles, one of them being that a person’s faith or lack there of, has no bearing on their rights as a citizen. Further more, if you are a Christian let me suggest that you are still required by Scripture to pray for him, to respect and honor him, as well as to love him so that one day he would come to faith in Christ. Christians can disagree with policy. We can express our opinions on issues. We can work, march, debate, and struggle for what we think is the right direction for the country. What we cannot do is attack the person who holds different views. We cannot raise the issue of their faith as being somehow the deciding factor of what is right or wrong.

But the fact is, the president has identified himself as a follower of Jesus Christ. Every morning he reads scripture and a devotional on that passage. He prays and asks the Lord to give him wisdom and strength as he seeks to lead. At night he prays again and asks the Lord to forgive him. Maybe we can all get past this silly notion that he is a Muslim and instead spend our time reading the Scriptures, praying for strength and wisdom and asking for forgiveness.

Alabama Governor Says, “You’re Not My Brother”

Alabama Governor, Robert Bentley has people in an outrage over comments he recently made at a church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was once pastor. Politics Daily is reporting that Bentley was making the point that as Governor he is color blind and serves all the people of the state equally. But he went on to make the distinction that only people with a faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are truly his brothers and sisters. Bentley is being attacked as bigoted and divisive for holding such a view. What is fascinating is that all he was doing was affirming exactly what Jesus said. People who are followers of Jesus are “family” in the faith. The New Testament refers to followers of Christ as brothers and sisters so often that in many churches that is exactly how people address one another. Brother so and so, Sister so and so can be heard in the halls of numerous churches around the world.

I can understand that some people may not really get what Bentley is saying. I remember walking up to an African-American member of my church in Pittsburgh one Sunday morning and saying, “Hey brother, how you been?” He looked at me very puzzled and said, “What did you say?” So I repeated, “Hey brother, how you been?” The continued puzzled look clicked with me and I said, “Brother in the faith, I’m not trying some, white guy being urban thing”. At which point he laughed and said, “Oh, sorry, I’m doing great. How you been?” Being called a brother by a white guy was something that as a new Christian he just was not used to. But he quickly made the transition in his mind and was totally cool with it. I was not his “brother” in a racial sense, but was in a “Christian” sense. Now if he had referred to some African-American friends, who did not follow Jesus, as “brothers”, I would have understood he was talking in a racial/cultural sense and not been upset that he didn’t include me in the mix. In that context I am NOT his brother. In the Biblical/Spiritual context I am. Having read excerpts of the governors speech at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, I suspect that the people in the church understood and appreciated the statement of solidarity in the faith. They knew exactly what was meant by brother and sister. It is simply a way of expressing the common bond that crosses all cultural and racial lines for people who follow Jesus. Nothing bigoted or divisive about it.

What seems to be the issue other people have with this, notably the American Hindu Foundation, and The Anti-Defamation League, is a concern that a governor with such strong religious views is not able to treat other people fairly. Two things come to mind. First, does that mean we can only have elected officials with weakly held religious views or no religious views at all? That would be so contrary to the spirit of our Constitution as to be laughable to those who wrote it.

The second thought is that if someone is truly following Christ as Governor Bentley seems intent on doing, then his fair treatment of others, no matter their religious views, should end up being a model for every politician to follow.  I think this is actually the point that Christians should be most concerned about. The reputation that we should have with those outside the family should be one in which they say, “Oh, they are a Christian. Good, at least I know I will be treated fairly, honestly and justly because they want to serve people just like Jesus did”. The time when Jesus treated the Samaritan Woman at The Well with dignity and respect, in spite of the fact that most other Jews, especially Jewish males at the time, would have treated her with disdain, should be the kind of example we set for those outside the Christian family.

You may not be my brother or sister in the faith. But that does not mean I treat you with anything less than honor and respect for two very basic reasons. One, you are also made in the image of God and how I treat the image should track with how I treat God. Two, Jesus told me that I must love you as I love myself, plane and simple.

In the early centuries of the Christian faith, Christians were often reviled for the close, exclusive relationships that they had with one another. But over time that attitude changed. It changed because people began to realize that Christians took care of their own sick as well as the non-Christian sick. And they did it better than the non-Christians. They took care of their own orphans and widows, and the non-Christians orphans and widows. And they did it better. Eventually people decided that they would rather deal with Christians than people of their own group because they would be treated with dignity. It happened because Christians were committed to loving others as Jesus commanded, and serving them in His name.

I wonder, what would it take to recapture that kind of reputation?

Why You Need to Pray for Sudan: NOW!

In 1989 Sudanese Colonel Omar al-Bashir led a coup against the president of Sudan. Shortly after he began to institute Islamic Sharia law and took his armies into the largely Christian Sudanese south in order to enforce his will. War raged for the next fifteen years. One of the effects was the suffering in Darfur, western Sudan. A peace accord was finally reached in 2005 that allowed for a referendum to take place in the south so that they could vote to become an independent country. On January 9th that vote will take place. It is a vote that has huge global implications as well as great implications for the Christians in northern and southern Sudan.

I have some friends who live in Sudan. They are wonderful followers of Christ who have put everything on the line in order to honor the Lord. They and other Christians in Sudan have been asking Christians around the world to pray for their country. They are asking for safety. They are asking that the outcome of the vote be honored by the north. They are asking that Christians who live in the north will be safe after the vote.

Colonel al-Bashir eventually made himself the President of Sudan and has systematically persecuted Christians. He has already said that once the vote takes place and the south becomes it’s own nation, he will institute a radical version of Sharia in the north. Omar al-Bashir is a bad dude. Last year The International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest on war crimes for genocide, rape and a host of other crimes related to Darfur. It is the first time ever that the court issued such a warrant for a sitting head of state.

What may seem amazing to many is that in spite of, or maybe because of, the persecution by al-Bashir, the church in southern Sudan has grown larger and more vibrant. Christians have been involved in major ministries of mercy in Darfur. Pastors have been geting more training and churches are getting planted with more people coming to Christ. No one really knows what will happen. That is all the more reason to pray.

I hope you will join with me and take time over the next few days to pray for Sudan. Pray for a safe day of voting. Pray that the results will be honored by everyone involved. Pray that Christians will be a light of Christ-like love and respect for the world to see. Pray for Omar al-Bashir to come to faith in Jesus.

Death, Destruction, and Dedication in Eastern India

In the fall of 2008 the Indian state of Orissa was rocked by a shocking wave of violence. Tens of thousands of Hindus went on a month-long rampage against local Christians. By the time the violence ended more than 60 pastors were killed, mostly beaten to death by mobs, and 100 churches or church related buildings were burned. I have just returned from doing 3 days of basic ministry training for 130 pastors and other leaders in Orissa. It was the most difficult trip I have ever taken. Not because of the forty hours of travel to get there, or the large furry rodents running at my feet as we ate in the hotel restaurant to go with the two others the kitchen staff had just killed and swept out the door. It wasn’t because of the garbage and filth that lined the streets and choked every lake, pond or canal. It wasn’t the smell of raw sewage flowing in the gutters or stepping in one of the countless cow patties left by the animals that roamed freely, everywhere. It wasn’t even the concern for my safety that my hosts had after a gang of men tried to disrupt our training. (From that point on I was not allowed to be on the street and was never alone expect when I got back to my hotel room.) All of that I expect as part of the deal. I have traveled enough to know that’s how it is and that someplace has to be the worst yet. You simply have to learn how to roll with that.

What made this so difficult was seeing the video tape from the news station that showed people being beat to death because of their faith, seeing the homes and churches that were burned, talking to pastors who hid in the woods for a month while people brought them food. Seeing all that and then seeing that these Christians continues to press ahead, longing for ways to reach out and serve the very neighbors who attacked them and then comparing it to our own situations in the west, THAT is what made it so difficult and painful. No matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t, and still can’t, shake the words of Jesus out of my head, “to whom much is given is much required”.

You see, even though these pastors have theological degrees and are well-educated in doctrine, church administration, preaching and the like, they have received no training in basic disciple-making, community outreach, the pastors family life, or multiplication through church planting. The training we did was the only known training conference for pastors EVER in this area. The average evangelical church member in the USA or England or South Africa has tons more training and resources in basic ministry than these pastors of churches in India. On top of that a single pastor there typically oversees 6 or 7 churches at the same time. They have nothing. Yet they press ahead in the face of life threatening opposition, seeking to learn how to love and serve their neighbor, their enemy. They are doing more with nothing than most in the west are doing with everything.

When I finished a session on The Good Samaritan and told them you do “What You Can, With What You Have, Where You Are”, a number of them said that they felt guilt and shame because they had no idea that ministry was supposed to be about reaching out to those God puts in your path, those who are clearly in need. They had a time of repentance right there.

The typical reaction when hearing about this is for western Christians to express how grateful they are for the blessings God has given us, our freedom, resources, safety, etc. But as we are prone to do, such sentiments, while a good start, fall woefully short of what is really needed. What we  need to do is ask, “God, what do you require of me in light of all my freedom, blessings and resources”. Again I say, “to whom much is given is much required”. It simply will not do to stop with a recognition of our good fortune. We must go the next step and ask how that fortune is to be used by God so that others will come to know and love Him. In Orissa, Christians are asking that question in spite of the fact that the answer could lead to their death. How much more should we be asking that question ourselves?

Blessed are the Pure in Heart

Matthew 5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
I have wondered why this is my least favorite of the Beatitudes that Jesus spoke. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it has a lot to do with the fact that of the group this is the one that I a clearly do not exemplify in my own life. The simple truth is, the more I look into my heart of hearts the further from God I realize that I am. I keep getting reminded of the somewhat creepy sounding statement from the old radio show, The Shadow. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.” You see the issue is, the more I get to know Jesus, the more I see the evil that lurks in my heart. Not only does the Shadow know, but I know and there is no psychological trick of denial that is strong enough or effective enough to cover over that fact and hide that truth.
The closer I get to Jesus the more I realize I am a despicable, sinful, self-centered, egotistical, covetous person. At this point you are all supposed to say, “oh no Dan, you’re wonderful, awesome, and godly, don’t be so hard on yourself, we love you”. Thanks. I appreciate the gesture but that is exactly how our world tries to deal with the sinfulness of our hearts and it just doesn’t cut it. Denying that one has cancer will not get rid of the cancer. A correct diagnosis and surgery can. Denying the sin in my heart will not make my heart pure anymore than painting over the X-ray of the tumor will make it go away.
Now here is the huge irony in all of this. It rests in the statement “the closer I get to Jesus the more I realize how sinful I am”.  As the sin in our life gets dealt with and we grow to be more like Jesus, our heart is getting more pure. As a result we see who God is with greater clarity than ever. BUT, we also see the sin that remains with that same clarity. I may have been able to effectively deal with a mouth that swore like a drunken trucker before I came to Jesus. But as I get closer to Him I realize that sins of the heart like envy, or jealousy are harder to deal with. And as long as I don’t to something too overt to let that sin out, nobody else knows about. I look good on the outside, but the inside is not what it should be.
So what’s the answer? I found it in a 4th century book by St. Augustine titled, “Confessions”. In it I saw a man who learned to be honest about the sin in His heart. He exposed it to the light of truth. And just like a vampire from a Hollywood science fiction movie, it looses all power and crumbles to dust when exposed to the light. Sadly, Christians have learned to paint over and hide their heartfelt sins. We have learned not to expose them and make them known because we so quickly get rejected by other Christians who are threatened by the possibility have having to expose their own sin.
Jesus has a very different approach. It is called confession, repentance, and forgiveness. He deals with our sin and urges us to move on and get even closer to Him. But I want to warn you. When you do that you will find out even more of the things that lurk in your heart. A further part of the irony here is that the closer you get to God, the more you realize that you are farther from Him than you thought. As you see the glory and holiness of God more clearly, because your heartfelt sins are being dealt with, the more you see that you are not nearly as close to Him as you hoped. You are more sinful than you knew, and he is more holy than you ever imagined. But there is hope. Jesus makes a promise in this verse that if you continue to pursue a pure heart and are honest with Him about your sin, the day will come when you will stand before Him, face to face. You will be welcomed into His eternal kingdom. As Paul says, “now we see as if dimly in a mirror, but then we will see face to face.”