A World On Fire

Freedom always comes with a price tag. The sad and tragic fact is the price is often shed blood. My own country’s struggle for freedom 240 years ago was a struggle soaked in blood. This morning as I read the news from around the world I see that same struggle happening in country after country. This is nothing new yet in recent days it has struck me in a far more personal way. I have personal connections in many of the places where people are striving for and in some cases dying for freedom.

Freedom Square in Kiev, known locally as Maydan, is a place I have visited many times. I have numerous friends who have been in the square making their voices heard, not only for freedom but for the Gospel. They have had a prayer tent in the middle of the square since day one and they have served the broken and wounded, both the physically broken and spiritually wounded. Scores of people have been killed and hundreds severely injured. Venezuela is following in the footsteps of Ukraine. Reports are that paramilitary bands are roaming the streets on motorbikes shooting anyone who looks like they are going to protest a government that has increasingly oppressed huge portions of the population. Torture and death have become commonplace but still people are massing to protest the brutality. Venezuela is on our minds because one of our daughters-in-law’s family is from Venezuela having been forced out under Chavez. In the South Sudan cities of Juba and Malakal there is gunfire in the streets with rebels and government forces battling. With a team from Northland I trained 100 church planters in those cities a year ago. They and their children go to sleep at night with the percussion of gunfire and explosions of grenades as their lullaby. Bangkok is barely in the news but I have paid close attention, having been there recently and knowing a team of people who are there now training church planters. Then of course there is Egypt which continues to boil. Once again a place in my heart. I have been there 8 or 9 times over the years. My middle son lived there for the first year of the revolution and we have a close partner church one block from Tahrir Square. That church, like others in Kiev, has served as a makeshift hospital in the midst of bloody turmoil.

These places are not far off distant lands to me or my family. They are very real, tangible, close. We can hear the sounds, see the sights, and smell the unique aromas of each of those places. We hear the voices of friends there and see their faces, hear their laughter, feel their anguish. We have talked about the fact that as a family we have a connection to each of these places, about how our hearts ache for our friends. I honestly wish I could be there with them. I long to be there to stand with them, to let them know they are not alone, that others around the world have not forgotten them. But how do you go to half a dozen places at once? You don’t. But even going to one is not an option. Not because of the danger, but because I know my friends. In one moment they would be thrilled and encouraged by my arrival and in the next their amazing love and hospitality and concern would kick in and they would end up focusing their time and energy on me and not the task at hand. So I stay on my back porch and think of them, pray for them and write to all of you about them. I pray for Oleg, Anatoly, Nadia, Olena, Fayez, Nader, Sarah, Matta, Patrick, their families and many others who yearn for freedom and are paying a price in its struggle and are at the same time being a witness to others of the love of Christ, risking their safety so others may know Jesus.

Know Jesus. That’s really the point isn’t it? Even in thinking about freedom and the price paid for it, one cannot escape the Gospel. I said that the price of freedom is often paid in blood. I wonder, should we really be surprised by that when the price of our ultimate freedom was also blood? There is a great passage in John 8:31-6 where Jesus says that the truth will set us free and that in Him we have true freedom. The religious leaders argued that they had always been free and didn’t need Him to make them free. But as He usually did, Jesus meant something far deeper than physical or even political freedom. He was talking about being spiritually free, which is the most important of all freedoms. He was talking about the fact that we are all enslaved to our sins and desires but that He came to pay the price, the blood price for our freedom. We say that our freedom as Americans has been purchased by the blood sacrifice of countless others who died so we might live. Jesus is the premier example of paying that price for our freedom. He shed His blood so that all who believe and trust in Him might have freedom from guilt, freedom from sin, freedom from the bondage and slavery of our broken human nature. I can’t think about Kiev, Bangkok, Juba, Malakal, Cairo, or the friends I have in those places without thinking about Jesus who gave everything that I might be free. As He said in John 8, “If the Son has set you free, you are free indeed”.

So I pray for my friends, that they would know Jesus presence and freedom even in the midst of suffering. I pray that they would know they are not alone, that He is with them. Yet I wonder perhaps if they don’t already know His presence in the midst of pain far better than I do from the comfort of my back porch. I suspect they really do, for Jesus makes Himself known to us in the midst of the furnace in ways not possible in the midst of comfort.

Finally I ask that you pray for them as well. Pray for Jesus to show up in those places and change hearts as only He can. As you pray for them, pray for yourself also. Pray that Jesus sets you free and makes Himself known to you as never before.


Provocative Submission: Is God Really Your King?

Recently I was witness to evidence of that amazing transformation from Communism to Democracy that has been experienced in Ukraine. As a former Soviet Republic the people of Ukraine spent seventy years under communist domination. Since the break up of the Soviet Union there has been a great deal of political turmoil in Ukraine as the people of the country struggle to learn democracy. In a microcosm I saw a group of Christian leaders putting what they have learned thus far into practice.

In a conference outside the capital city of Kiev a group of nearly thirty leaders of churches and various mission agencies had gathered to discuss the future of Christianity in their newly democratic country. Since the fall of Communism they had experienced what for them was unprecedented religious freedom. Countless groups from the west had flooded Ukraine in an effort to help strengthen the church. Some of those efforts were helpful and some clearly were not. Now these leaders, many of whom had known Jesus less than ten years, were taking responsibility for the future of their country and church.

They came up with a list of nearly two dozen issues that people around the table felt needed to be addressed if Christianity was to thrive in their country. It was then that I witnessed something that I am certain caused Stalin to turn over in his grave. They voted on every single suggestion in order to discover what priorities where most important. I sat in wonder as I realized that these people were only a few years removed from a time when such a vote would have been unthinkable and possibly dangerous. It was amazing and wonderful to see people taking ownership of the situation and respecting the ideas and opinions and votes of others around the table. Clearly a bridge had been crossed into the future. To have such freedom to determine ones future, to do it with out fear of reprisal, to live with a sense of dignity that your opinion and vote matter, is a blessed privilege.

But that also got me thinking. What are the dangers of Democracy? A wise person must recognize that even their greatest strengths can come with a blind spot that has the potential for ruin. Superman has superhuman strength because he is from another planet. But that also carries with it the seeds of his potential destruction. Kryptonite, which comes from his home planet, can drain his strength to the point of making him weaker than the weakest human. No matter how strong, good, powerful, talented, or gifted we are we must always be aware of the hidden dangers of that gift and the blind spot we have concerning it.

So what’s the hidden danger in democracy? For the Christian it is this; we don’t live in a democracy. We are citizens of a land that is an absolute monarchy. It is the Kingdom of God. It means that God is the ultimate sovereign ruler of that kingdom and all who live within it. It means that I don’t get a vote in what really matters. It means that I am the subject of the King and I owe Him my allegiance and obedience. That’s a hard thing for people who live and breathe the air of democracy from birth. Our freedom to do what we want, when we want, how we want and to change rulers we don’t like is so much a part of our cultural DNA that most people who live in western style democracies don’t even realize the danger they are in. The danger is that we marginalize God and act as if we are the masters of our lives and fate and not He who is our king.

We have been born and raised in a culture that thinks the highest possible value is to be placed on our freedom to decide for ourselves what we want. That includes deciding who is in charge. In fact democracy has built within it the notion that we have the right to reject any ruler and that the large group has wisdom far beyond that of the individual or small group of leaders. In the best of circumstances democracy protects people against the tyrant or complete incompetent who would bring ruin on a people or nation. But at its worst it means we reserve the right to vote God out of our lives. As a Christian you might not take a formal vote on it, but you certainly do it with regular decisions you make in which you fail to submit to your King.  I know I do and I am pretty sure you are just like me.

The thing that seems to be at the heart of it all goes back to the beginning when Adam and Eve rejected God and His law. They believed that by eating the forbidden fruit, they could become like God, that they would rise up to some new level of freedom. They would become His equals: democracy in action. They did not want to submit, even to God. Neither do we most times. We don’t want to submit to our spouses, our parents, our employers, our rulers, or even our Lord. Yet the Bible calls us to submit to all of those and it does so on numerous occasions.

We justify our failure to submit by affirming our own freedom to do, as we want and by painting submission as somehow being degrading and subhuman. I contend that it is failure to submit to God and one another that is in fact what makes us “sub-human”. We were created to be in a relationship with God that had us under His rule as our Lord and King. The first time we took a vote, we voted to remove Him from the throne of our lives. When that happened we became less than we were created to be. That is what I mean by becoming sub-human. We became slaves of our own “democratic choice”. The only way out of the dilemma in which we find ourselves is to submit completely and totally to Him as Lord.