Posts Tagged ‘Jesus’

If there is something sad that characterises how we approach difficult or controversial issues in the age of internet memes. It is that the extremes move to center stage and gain all the attention. The pithy, mic-drop sound bite becomes the be all and end all in the debate. Emotion packed retorts push out any chance for real dialogue and the process of using our brains to do the hard work of thinking becomes replaced by visceral, knee jerk reactions.

Nowhere is this more evident today than the argument over the fate of Syrian refugees in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris that resulted in the deaths of more than 120 people. On one end of the spectrum is a view that sees every Muslim as a Kalashnikov toting, bomb vest wearing, destroyer of the western world. On the other end of the spectrum is a view that sees every refugee as an innocent child, or elderly woman, on the verge of starvation being left to die by heartless, angry racists. Those positions either focus on the need to protect ourselves from terrorists by keeping all refugees somewhere other than where we are or the need to supposedly be like Jesus and welcome all of them without hesitation. Those on the protection end of the spectrum are castigated by the other side as being hypocritical, unchristian, violators of Jesus command to love others. Those on the welcome them all in end of the spectrum are castigated as being foolish, weak, idiotic, and naive.

At the risk of being run over from both directions and castigated by each end of the spectrum, let me suggest that both are wrong and both misunderstand the teachings of Jesus.

First, both are wrong in thinking that memes, sound bites, 140 character tweets, and Facebook postings are the way to have a dialogue about this issue. Those things may make us feel like we stuck it to the “other” side and allow us to puff out our chest and claim the moral or intellectual high ground. But that is a fantasy and self deceiving. It does nothing for the refugees.

Second, both are wrong in thinking that this is an all or nothing issue. It has become normative in the debates of today’s issues, whether they be political, moral, social, or religious, to make a simplistic either/or argument for a complex problem and leave no room for a both/and solution. I have a theory that the reason this is a growing trend has to do with us becoming intellectually lazy. It’s just easier to make something an either/or issue and entrench ourselves in our ideologically or emotionally driven position than it is to actually engage our brains, look at the bigger picture and acknowledge that the other side may have a point or two worth considering.

Third, as this discussion enters the religious world and invokes Jesus I find that there is a major failure to wrestle with the totality of what Jesus taught. Calling people to embrace all refugees with open arms because Jesus was a refugee may tug at emotional heart strings or promote guilt but it is hardly presents a viable biblical answer for dealing with something as chaotic and even terrifying as several hundred thousand refugees on the borders of your country. Telling people they are unchristian for being afraid in that situation does nothing to help them get over their fear. On the other hand, the calls for no refugees what-so-ever fails to take into account that Jesus was serious when He said to love our neighbors and our enemies. He made those statements knowing full well that such love was dangerous and risky and yet fully expecting us to obey Him.

So what is the answer? I think it is to be found in the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:16 when He sends the disciples out into a dangerous world to do ministry. He said,“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”  Jesus acknowledged that the world is dangerous. That did not mean we withdraw and hide for our own safety. Rather, He intento On the other hand He did not advocate naively rushing off willy-nilly without considering the danger and taking some precautions. Jesus did not propose and either/or solution. He proposed a both/and solution. What He proposed was that we be both gentle and wise.

So how does that apply to the current crisis? Be gentle by taking every step we can to care for refugees, provide shelter, food, clothing, medical care and as followers of Christ, bring the message of the Gospel, make disciples and plant churches among refugee communities. It also means be wise, do what is necessary to make sure, as much as we can, that wolves in the midst of those sheep are prevented from using this crisis to make their way into our midst and spread greater evil.

It is equally easy to say either, “welcome them all” on the one hand or on the other hand “welcome none of them”. Both positions are in my mind, lazy, simplistic, and only make things worse. The hard answer is to think through what it would take to be wise and gentle at the same time and then do that. Governments need to do the work of protecting their people. Paul makes that clear in Romans 13. Followers of Christ need to do a better job of loving people. Do I even need to quote chapter and verse for that? Both need to find a way to work together better which, in a time of hyper-separation of church and state, may be the hardest part of all. As governments do the work of finding the wolves in the midst of the sheep, so the sheep can be taken in and cared for, there needs to be a place for the church to come and help provide some of the love and care that refugees need. But that means Christians must be willing to take the risk of serving those refugees and possibly being confronted by a wolf in the process. Now that is something I am confident Jesus would do.

 

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.

 

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.

IMG_20130208_111416

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.

 

 

Once again under the category of Stupid Things Christians Do, we have the story of a pastor complained about a tip for an Applebee’s waitress. And of course the story went viral which is what prompted this post. When the bill arrived it included an automatic tip for 18% due to the size of the party. The pastor wrote a note on the receipt saying, “I give God 10% why should you get 18”, then wrote zero in the additional tip line. Originally I thought she scratched out the 18% and gave nothing. Thanks to a reader who pointed out the error I was corrected. But that still left me thinking that the pastors response was just not the kind of story and behavior we want to connect with followers of Jesus.

Sadly, when you have a few billion people on the planet who call themselves Christians, there are going to be regular examples of people who embarrass the rest of us and give fuel to anyone who wants to attack, God, religion, or religious people. I am guilty of this myself on occasion. When I first heard this story I thought, no, can’t be. No pastor would be that short-sighted. Surely this is an atheist posing as a pastor in order to create a story, please let it be so. No such luck. It turns out an actual pastor of an actual church is the guilty party. We know this because she complained to the restaurant manager that the waitress violated her privacy by posting a picture of the offending note on the web. Now the pastor and her church are getting their fifteen minutes of infamy.

It was bad enough that the pastor in question complained to the waitress in writing and pulled God into the fiasco. Then she compounds it by protesting that the waitress is the one behaving badly. Because of her complaint the waitress was fired! She  lost her job because a pastor who acted badly in the first place complained that she was caught. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? (sorry, I had to scream at that point before my head exploded)

Here’s the deal. I understand that you may find the automatic tip of 18% to be a bit cheeky. But that is no reason to bring God into it. He is happy with the 10% He asks for and seems to have no problem with people being blessed with a bigger percentage. When the standard tip in the USA was 15% I never heard God complain about that. In fact as I read Scripture I am fairly certain you can make the case that God would love it if we gave all we have to people who are poor, or in need.

Second, we are told to love others as we want to be loved. Seems obvious to me that no one wants to be loved by receiving a note like that about how much someone loves God instead of you. Jesus gives us the Great Commandment to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and then adds that loving our neighbor as ourselves is just as important. He makes the two go hand in hand. It’s like what Sinatra said about love and marriage going together like a horse and carriage, “you can’t have one without the other”. So waitress stiffing pastor who claims such a love for God that you tithe, God is not impressed. You didn’t love your neighbor and tried to justify it by your love for God. That just doesn’t fly with The Almighty.

Jesus dealt with some religious leaders who claimed they couldn’t help their needy parents because they dedicated the money to God. He rebuked them soundly. I think He wanted to smite them as well but thought better of it. The point being, people have been using God as an excuse for sometime in order to not give to the needs of fellow human beings. God wasn’t buying it then and He isn’t now.

If anything, Christians, especially pastors, should be known as big tippers, givers to all in need, people who hold their resources in open hands for others to share. After all, those resources come from God for the purpose of meeting our needs AND blessing others. At Northland Church, one of the seven responses we think we need to make to God, based on who He is and what He has done for us, is to Live Generously. That means to give freely of our time, talent, and treasure to anyone in need, for the glory of God. After all, God so loved us that He generously gave His only son to die on a cross, be risen again, and ascended into Heaven, so we might have eternal life. Surely we can give a little bigger tip to someone who has served us in this life. Love your neighbor as yourself. It is that simple and clear.

For years John 3:16 had a seemingly constant presence and American sporting events, especially in the end zones of football games. The ubiquitous man with the rainbow-colored Afro held up his sign for all the world to see, week after week, game after game. Clearly it is the most famous citation of any passage in the Bible.

 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” John 3:16

My personal love for the passage extends to it being the verse that got me admitted back into The United States after a mission trip many years ago. I had taken a group of high school student into the mountains south of Mexico City for two weeks. By the time we returned and were coming immigration, my hair was even longer than normal and my full beard was well, full. It didn’t help that I was wearing old jeans and a rough cotton homespun hoodie when the immigration officer asked me what I did for a living. “I’m a pastor” I replied. Silence from the immigration officer as he looked at my hair, my beard, my hoodie and my jeans then my hoodie, my beard, and my hair again. At which point I heard, “quote John 3:16”. I did so flawlessly and with a sigh of relief that he didn’t ask for something like 2nd Chronicles 8:12. I rather enjoyed the puzzled look on his face so I let him know I was a youth pastor and all these teenagers behind me were the youth returning from a mission trip. His face lit up with a smile and he said, “that’s wonderful, welcome back kids” and he quickly stamped fourteen more passports and let us through.

But let’s not be lulled into a shallow view of this verse. It is far more than a cliché at sporting events or an easy ticket back into The United States. It is one of the most profound statements in the Bible. The first thing to notice about this verse, and something that most people miss, Jesus is the one who says this. These are not the words of a narrator telling us something about Jesus. These are the words of Jesus himself telling us something profound about himself, his mission, and his Father. Recognizing that little bit of information gives a much deeper and personal meaning to the words.

Think if it this way, in this short sentence Jesus is making it abundantly clear that he came into the world for one purpose. His mission was to come and die in order to open the door to eternal life for anyone who would put their trust in him. That is really what he means when he says “whoever believes in him”. Belief from a biblical point of view is all about trust. Putting your faith in Jesus is about trusting him, trusting that he is in fact God come in the flesh, that he is the savior, that he did rise from the dead, and that he will fulfill his promise to give eternal life to all who believe in him.

Certainly the message that God loves the world is a comforting one. But don’t stop there. Don’t breath a deep sigh of relief as if that somehow makes everything perfect and safe. That God loves the world is not a particularly provocative statement in our day. Most people only think of God in terms of his being loving. What is really provocative is the exclusionary nature of the second part of the verse. Jesus does not say that he came to give his life and the result would be that no one in the world would perish but that everyone would have eternal life. Rather he says that anyone who believes, trusts in him, would not perish but have eternal life. That is not something that most people find comforting in our day. Most people skip right passed that part of Jesus declaration. It is just too discomforting to ponder the implications. If eternal life is given only to those who trust Jesus, then it is not given to those who do not trust him. In the western world that is one of the worst possible things a person could say and believe. It is considered intolerant beyond measure. The theology of our day in the west is that all roads to God are equally valid. Pick whichever road feels best to you. It will eventually get you to God and be sure that along the way you never dare to tell someone else they are on the wrong road.

But it is Jesus himself who says that only those who trust and believe in him, who truly follow him, will have eternal life. He makes that clear in John 3:16 and in numerous other verses where he separates those who follow him and welcomes them to eternal life and those who don’t who he consigns to condemnation. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, is also the King of Kings and Lord of Lords who will one day return to this world he died for and he will bring with him his judgment. Consider what Jesus says just two verses later in John 3:18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. Those are certainly words to shake us out of our spiritual doldrums and ask if we are truly trusting and following Jesus or if we are taking false hope in “For God so loved the world”.

The love God has for you must be combined with the reality that God is also just and that eventually, one way or another, sin must be judged and condemned. This is where the most provocative piece of this verse comes in. God so loved the world that he came into the world through the incarnation of Jesus and willingly went to the cross in order to pay the price for your sin. That is what is contained in the seemingly innocuous words “gave His only Son”.  The Father gave His only son over to the hands of wicked men so they would torture him to death. That death was the price to be paid for sin and rebellion against God. God made that clear to Adam and Eve from the start. Jesus paid the price of that death so that those who do believe would be assured that they will truly live for eternity. You and I have sinned against God and deserve whatever punishment comes our way. Yet in His love, the Father has made a way for us to be reconciled to Him. The resurrection of Jesus from the grave and his ascension to the Father’s right hand validate his death and vindicate him before his accusers. They are also part of the assurance his followers have that they too will be raised up on the last day.

One final thought for those who are already followers of Jesus. This verse should motivate you to love your neighbor with a reckless abandon. It should move you to sacrifice for them so that they would experience the love of God and turn to follow Jesus. It should motivate you with the realization that they may not be on the right road and the road they are on may lead to perdition. Do not rest in the comfort of knowing that God loves the world without owning the truth that not all the world loves God and that you are an ambassador on His behalf, calling people to their only true hope, to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.

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.”

Yep, that’s the line that has the theological nerd world all a buzz. Of course it probably also has caused no small amount of questioning and consternation among the faithful as well as gloating among the skeptics. It all stems from a scrap of 4th century paper about the size of a business card on which those words appear. Of course the paper is just a fragment and doesn’t include what Jesus said to his wife or even the identity of the wife. Christianity Today has a very helpful article on this.

So what are we to make of this find? For some it is seen as vindication that Jesus really was married and that the early church, in the worlds longest running conspiracy/cover-up, was embarrassed by the fact of Jesus marriage and has destroyed and denied evidence ever since. But let’s deal in reality and what we do know. It is a long-standing tradition, from the very earliest generations of the church, that Jesus was never married. That tradition existed centuries before the creation of this 4th century fragment. Some argue that there is no historical evidence to back up the claim that Jesus was married, as if that is somehow significant . The fact that we have so much written about the life of Jesus with never a hint of a wife is what should be taken as being significant. The reverse should be where the burden of proof lies. If there is a 2,000 year old tradition of something, then those who deny it are the ones who need to show some proof that the tradition has no basis in reality and needs to be changed.

Some will claim that this fragment is proof that Jesus was married. Really? One thing I find amusing is that some of the same people who will deny the reliability of the Bible will assume the reliability of this fragment. The argument has been that since we do not have the original manuscripts of the New Testament authors and the earliest copies are from possibly the late 1st and certainly the early 2nd century, they are not reliable. Well if that is the case, why would anyone put stock in a business card sized fragment from the 4th century? I can only assume that it is because one was already predisposed to believe what they thought it said, no matter what logic or evidence said to the contrary.

But let’s assume there is some authenticity to the fragment. What then? Well there are a couple of options. First, the Bible refers to the Church as The Bride of Christ. Context is crucial to understand any statement. Given the fact that we have no context for the fragment, no idea what Jesus said to “his wife” in the missing pieces, and that we have no identification of the wife, it is certainly reasonable that Jesus may have been referring to His Bride, the Church. Without the missing pieces of the document we will never know. Secondly, let’s suppose Jesus was in fact married. Then what? Well my answer is, so what? You see, our ultimate authority is not tradition, as important and helpful as it may be. Our ultimate authority is the Bible and nowhere in the Bible does it ever address the marital status of Jesus, one way or the other. We know that Peter was married, and that Paul was not, because the Bible speaks directly to that. But it says nothing about Jesus. Which again I stress is significant. We have so much more written about the life of Jesus than we do about Peter or Paul, yet we know their marital status, one married, one not. It must be stated very clearly there is no Christian doctrine built on the marital status of Jesus. No matter of faith, theology, or accepted biblical interpretation is effected by it one way or the other. In fact, one could make the case that if Jesus was married this could fit rather nicely with Hebrews 2:14-18. That passage makes it clear that in order to be the perfect sacrifice for sin Jesus became like us in all ways, with the one exception that he never sinned. Now I don’t think the author of Hebrews was making the point that Jesus had to be like us in every single detail of life, as if the had to eat the same food we all eat, or dress the same way we all dress or listen to the same music we listen to. But if one wanted to push the thought to an extreme application, if you are single and Jesus was single, that could be a point of identification with you just as it would be if he was married and you are also married. However, in neither case is it a doctrinal issue that Jesus must have been one or the other.

In the final analysis, finding a 4th century fragment that has the phrase “and Jesus said to them, my wife”, is much ado about nothing. Although I am sure that for the next 40 years there will be untold numbers of television documentaries, books, blogs, and podcasts about this “incredible” find and how it revolutionizes our understanding of Jesus and proves a massive cover-up.

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.

I had a seminary professor who was what I call a true liberal. By that I mean, she really believed in and lived according to the idea that we all have the liberty to hold our own opinion of things, live by them, and express them. Our differing opinions, when shared and engaged, make us wiser and stronger. To her, disagreement was an opportunity for learning and growth. Being a true liberal she was always open to hearing what others said and even when she disagreed with them it was as a learning experience, characterized by respect in the midst of disagreement. The disagreements could at times be serious and important, from the nature of God, to the reality of the resurrection of Jesus, or even if the crucifixion was necessary for the forgiveness of sin. In a seminary those are hot topics and could at times produce a shower of sparks in debates between liberals and conservatives. But not with this professor. She had the respect of the conservatives because she would engage in serious dialogue and treat others as people made in God’s image and worthy of being treated with dignity.

During this latest cultural tempest over Chick-fil-a, their position on homosexual marriage, the protests and counter protests, I have often thought of that professor and wondered to myself, “where have all the liberals gone”. You may think that I am just not paying attention because clearly there are lots of them. Many of them are planning a kiss-in protest at Chick-fil-a stores across the country today. But that is not what I am talking about. I don’t mean people who are morally liberal as opposed to conservatives or evangelicals. I am talking about true, philosophical liberals who really do believe that everyone has the right to their own opinion, expression of it, and their version of truth. Those liberals are few and far between today. What I find in their place are people who are morally liberal but philosophically conservative. What do I mean by that? Simply this, a true liberal would not attack you telling you that your position is wrong and you are a hateful person for holding it. They would simply tell you that they disagree, and then tell you what is true for them and works for them. They would simply acknowledge that it is different from what you think or believe. What I see in the outrage against Chick-fil-a is a philosophical conservatism that says, your position is wrong, it is untrue, incorrect, and in fact dangerous, and hateful. In a rather obvious twist, obvious to me at least, I find many liberals engaging in the exact hate speech that they accuse Dan Cathy of spouting. Just this morning I read the report of on Arizona CFO getting fired after he posted a YouTube video of himself berating a Chick-fil-a drive through attendant over the company’s position on gay marriage.  So my request to liberals everywhere is simply this, be a true liberal. Be consistent. If you really want to live as if there are no, or few moral absolutes, as if people should have the liberty to do as they want, then you must allow the conservative the liberty to hold their positions just as you do. You have no philosophical grounds on which to tell them they are wrong for the positions they hold. Liberalism is about liberty, the liberty to think and believe and express whatever you want. Dan Cathy should have that liberty as should anyone else. It even gives mayors of major cities the liberty to say things that they later regret and realize they need to clarify or retract.

But I also want to say a few things to my conservative and evangelical friends. If you truly think that there is right and wrong, good and evil, and that there are moral laws we should follow, then follow them. Start with what Jesus said was the most important, love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Such love is not confined to feeling all warm and fuzzy about someone. The biblical kind of love, the Jesus kind of love, is the kind that acts lovingly, even when you don’t feel like it. If you are a conservative or evangelical then ask yourself these questions. Is there a LGBT person who considers you a friend? Is there an atheist who knows that they can talk to you about anything and that if they were in trouble at two in the morning they could call you without hesitation? Is there a Muslim or Buddhist who respects you because you first respected them? Is there anyone who is of a radically different lifestyle from you who knows that you love them because you have consistently served, encouraged. prayed for them, and treated them with respect and friendship? If the answer is no or you are not sure, then I suggest you skip waiting in line for your chicken sandwich and go do something that builds a bridge and demonstrates the love of Christ. I am pretty sure that Dan Cathy would gladly give up the profit on the sandwich if he knew you were investing in the life of someone who desperately needs to know that Jesus and you, love them.

You see, as much as it makes us feel triumphant that people needed to wait in long lines for a piece of chicken on Wednesday, such triumphalism will not bring people closer to Jesus. Our love and kindness will. That’s not my idea. That’s what the Bible says. “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Romans 2:4 It is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance. It is the love of the Lord that draws us to him. It must be noted that this word kindness is part of Paul’s’ argument against sin in the early verses of Romans. The particular focus of the end of Romans 1 is on homosexual practice and sin. Many Christians trot out those verses and use them to beat over the heads of proponents of same-sex marriage. Yet Paul, for all his strident words against sin, reminds us that kindness is what God most often uses to call us to him. That kindness is first and foremost to be made evident though followers of Christ as we treat others with kindness. That doesn’t mean we say everything is acceptable. It means that we graciously, humbly, lovingly hold to what we believe, including that we believe Jesus calls us to serve and love even our perceived enemies.

We conservatives and evangelicals need to take a page out of the playbook of that liberal seminary professor. We need to treat people, no matter how much we disagree with them, with kindness and respect. We need to demonstrate that we love them and will serve them and sacrifice for them in order to show them the love of Christ. I suspect that if more of us lived that way, there would be a true dialogue and not a parade of useless protests, counter protests, showing support by buying sandwiches or showing disdain by boycotting sandwiches.

I bring this all back to the point of this blog site, provoking a response to the sake of Christ. According to 1 Peter 3:15, Christians should be living life so differently, so hopefully, faithfully, and lovingly, that people who are not following Christ become intrigued by our faith, hope, and love and want to know the reason for it. It is then that we can point people to Jesus and say, “He loves me and because of that, I love you, and He wants you to know that He loves you too”.

I am coming to the end of a week in Burundi in Eastern Africa. I don’t know how many times I have been to Africa in the last 6 years. It is probably approaching twenty. I do know that I have been to eleven different countries from Egypt to South Africa. Without fail I am struck by the extreme contrasts one finds in Africa. It doesn’t matter which country I visit, or what leaders or everyday folk I speak with, the story is the same. This is a continent of incredible beauty and massive ugliness, abundant resources and crippling poverty, gracious hospitality and violent division, widespread Christianity and rampant paganism, sacrificial generosity and selfish corruption beyond measure. It is not unusual in the least to one minute be in awe of the natural beauty of Africa and the next be heartbroken at the ugliness of civil war and genocide that often overtakes parts of Africa. I regularly meet people who are eager to serve a guest and give the best of what they have but also hear unending tales of politicians and other leaders who stuff their pockets to overflowing, siphoning off foreign aid meant for their people, only to put it in off shore bank accounts.

More than once I have been asked what the answer is to the problems of Africa. My answer is the same time and again. Everything depends on leadership, and for Africa to realize its true potential everything depends of leadership from the church. As I see it, only an African Church that has leaders who live the radical faith of a follower of Christ, can begin to point the way out of the current state of affairs. With corruption being at the heart of economic problems in Africa, there is a desperate need for leaders in the church to first live above that corruption themselves and then be in a position to model and call for a new way of doing business. But if pastors can be bought off by politicians then they lose their credibility and their power to bring about change. Pastors and other church leaders must become servant leaders, serving others as Jesus did, not living as the chief who expects others to serve him. That kind of servant leadership then gives them the standing to be able to call other leaders, business, academic, and political, to also be servants of the people.

On a more corporate level, pastors need to begin to work together and not care who gets credit, or benefit from the work. The division among pastors in Africa is epidemic. I suspect that some of it is left over from the days of colonial missionaries who did not always cooperate with one another. But there has been fifty years of independence in most of Africa and it is time for Africans to work together, along with the rest of the Body of Christ around the world, so that together we can do more. The need for schools, hospitals, businesses that provide jobs and job training are beyond what any one or a few churches can do. But if pastors begin to set aside their own ego and pride and fear, then maybe, just maybe, they will be able to provide leadership that results in a partnership and synergy that really does begin to tackle the problems of Africa on a large-scale.

I realize that I am writing this as a westerner, and a white American to be specific. As such there are some who will immediately discount what I have to say or even react against it. I can live with that, in the hope that there are some, both in the west and in Africa, who will read this first with eyes of faith and not eyes of culture and colonialism. What I would hope is that what any follower of Christ says will be taken on its merits by any other follower of Christ and not cast aside because of cultural or ethnic bias. You see, we followers of Christ need each other. We are brothers and sisters in Christ first, and then somewhere further down the list of importance we are American or Burundian or Egyptian, or Kenyan, or white or black or any of the other distinctions we use to separate one from another. We need to see those distinctions not as things that divide us, but as blessings that together make us more than we could ever be apart from one another. That is the lesson of 1st Corinthians 12. We are all different by the will of God and those differences should make us stronger and more dependent on one another, not weaker and divided from one another.

I look for the day when Christian leaders, not only in Africa, but from every continent will rise above division and self-promotion and instead live for the sake of others and work together for the Glory of God.

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.

 

Just days before we boarded a plane for South Sudan, another fight broke out along the boarder between Sudan and South Sudan.  Three days and five flights later we arrived in Malakal, a boarder town that just a few months ago witnessed two days of street fighting between rebel infiltrators from the north and South Sudanese militia. It was just one more of countless such battles that have taken place during the decades long civil war that ended with independence for South Sudan in July of 2011. The war, which claimed more that 2 million lives, has officially ended, but the fighting has not. In fact Sudanese President Bashir has recently declared that he intends to retake South Sudan and incorporate it back into Sudan. I have no doubt that the South Sudanese will resist that prospect with all they have. The latest round of fighting was set off when Sudanese planes bombed a town in South Sudan. The south retaliated and actually captured Heglig, a town in Sudan’s oil fields. Since then the sabers have been rattling overtime. Security in Malakal is a constant concern as I learned when I opened the door of the SUV we were to ride in and found that I was literally riding shotgun. An AK-47 was placed between my seat that the middle arm rest. A bullet hole was in the windshield in front of me at forehead level.

Riding shotgun, well actually riding "AK-47"

The root of the problem in Sudan and South Sudan is that Bashir has declared that Islamic Sharia law is to be imposed on all Sudan. He originally was content to let the Christian south secede so that he had little or no interference with his plan. It seems he hoped to also drive out Christians from Sudan and force them to move to South Sudan. Yet, hundreds of thousands of Christians remained in the north and continued to live out their Christian faith and witness. Despite threats, loss of jobs, destruction of homes, and numerous other hardships, they remain. Not only do they remain, but their service and love of their Muslim neighbors has resulted in continual conversions from Islam to Jesus. So Bashir’s latest statement is that the conflict will end either in Jubba, the capitol of South Sudan or in Khartoum, the capitol of Sudan. His meaning is clear. One country or the other will have to conquer and impose it’s will militarily.

 

For three days in Malakal, Pastor Gus Davies, John Tardonia, Alan Carpenter, and I had the blessed honor of working with some of the most courageous and gracious people I have ever met. I have been to numerous countries over the last several years and encountered people in all sorts of situations. Never have a met a group of people who have endured so much, for so long, with such grace, courage, and even joy. The pastors and leaders that we are working with in Sudan and South Sudan have known nothing but war for their entire lives. They all know people, including family members, who are among the 2 million dead. Yet, they see nothing but opportunities to love their neighbors and their enemies. Often those two groups, neighbor and enemy, are one and the same. It seems that they view this fact as being convenient. Instead of needing to love a neighbor and an enemy, they get to love both in one person, half the effort.

Not only is the war part of daily life, but so is poverty, sickness, and deprivations that we in the west would find shocking. Consider two numbers. First, 95% of South Sudanese will never finish primary school, or what we in American call elementary school. Second, 50 out of every 1,000 women giving birth will die doing so. One person told us, “If you are sick and go to the hospital you will die. If you are healthy and go to the hospital, you will get sick and then you will die”. Yet as these wonderful people speak of the hardships in their lives they do so with a smile as they talk about all the doors such hardship opens for sharing the Gospel and loving the needy. They don’t seem to knotice that they are among the needy.

One of many South Sudanese pastors who inspired me with his joy.

At Northland Church we talk about the Church Distributed. By that we mean, every follower of Christ takes the church with them, everywhere, everyday, and that a gathering of two or three people in Jesus name is the church gathered. You don’t need buildings to love and serve people for Jesus and you can start churches anywhere, in a home, a business, under a tree. In Malakal we completed the second level of Distributed Church training for 74 pastors and leaders. In the 5 months since they attended Level 1, nearly 1,000 people have come to faith in Christ because of their efforts, and churches are being started in homes and numerous other locations. Among the trainees were fourteen from Sudan. At the end of the training we gathering them together to pray for them as they were returning north to an uncertain future. There was no fear, anxiety, or consternation in any of them, only the anticipatory joy of heading back into the lions den in order to conquer the lion with the love of Christ. One of them told me of being threatened with his life on numerous occasions. With a laugh he told me that his response is always the same, “I say to them, if you kill me I just get to go and be with Jesus in heaven that much more quickly”. I know that he says it with all sincerity and with a joyous smile on his face. The response is always the same. They either walk away or get this puzzled look on their face which opens the door to talking about the Jesus he loves so deeply.

During the time in Malakal we also met with the head of the Roman Catholic Diocese, the Anglian Bishop, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Sudan and the Minister of Health for Upper Nile State. Each of them demonstrated the same courage, faith, and joy that had become so common in our time there. All four are desperate for us to work with them in changing the culture of South Sudan. From training their pastors, of the 475 Presbyterian pastors less that 40% are trained, to providing medical care and clean water, the doors are wide open for ministry that will glorify God and change lives.

Since returning to Florida several people have asked if we were frightened to be there. The fighting going on was about 100 miles from Malakal. Pastor Gus and I have spoken often on this subject and the conclusion is always the same. When you know that God wants you to be someplace, then the safest place you can be is in that place. The most dangerous place you can be is someplace, anyplace, else. That doesn’t mean there is no danger. Things could go badly, quickly. But that is where one must trust that the Lord of the Universe, who called you to that place, has a better perspective than you do. Additionally, the South Sudanese are not nameless, anonymous people. The pastors we trained are our brothers and sisters in Christ. They are family. Our being there, if only for a few days, was a huge encouragement to them. They were reminded that they were not alone, that Christians from as far away as Florida were standing with them in the furtherance of the Gospel and the changing of the world. How could we possibly stay home in our comfort, knowing that family needs us? Putting up with a few days of no running water, 100+ temperatures with no A/C, and bed bugs that made my hands look like I stuck them in a fire ant mound, was not even worth fretting over if it meant being able to witness the grace and courage of these amazing saints.

Pastors having a tea break in Malakal, S. Sudan

Pray for them. Pray for Sudan and South Sudan. Pray that these pastors and leaders are able to change the culture and change their world. Pray that God will in deed supply all they need through the riches available in Christ Jesus our Lord. When you hear a news report or read a magazine article that mentions Sudan and South Sudan, don’t just gloss over it because it it over there, somewhere. Instead let that be the reminder that you too are connected with people there. Stop your reading if only for a moment and ask God to continue to bless them with grace and courage. While you are at it, ask Him to increase those things in your life too.

I have done all I could to avoid writing about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. It seemed obvious that there was no need for one more voice to be put into the cacophony of anger, confusion, and dismay over what is at the bottom line an unbelievably  painful tragedy for two families. But two things have led me to the conclusion that it was time. One is a book I have been reading called Think Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It is a psychological study that, among other things, details the universal human reaction to not having all the information. We are notorious at jumping to conclusions and filling in the gaps of information and we usually do it in the worst possible ways. I found myself constantly reflecting on the various reactions to each tidbit of news that comes out in this case and felt I was watching a real-time display of Kahneman’s work. People have jumped to conclusions about both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, the man who shot him. The second reason it became clear that I needed to address this issue is that I have heard very little from the Christian community, with the notable exception of an amazing presentation on racism by Tim Keller and John Piper. If anyone should be speaking to issues of racism, violence, and a community in turmoil, it is followers of Christ, because we should understand better than anyone, that ultimately when we all stand at the foot of the Cross, the savior who bled on it and died, did so for black, white, yellow, European, Asian, African, Latino, and all the other possible delineations of people. Jesus bled equally for you and me, for Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.

If anyone should be speaking out it is the Christian community because this tragedy has the potential to either tear us apart or motivate us to come together and finally defeat this ugly beast called racism. The only way I know to defeat racism is through the power of God that comes only through a life changing relationship with Christ. And be certain that when I speak of racism I am speaking of how people of every race are to some degree racist. I am not saying that everyone is a racist. I am saying that no race, creed, ethnic group or gender is without people in it who treat those outside their group with disdain, hatred, or even violence. The sinners that we are means that we all battle with the propensity to trust our own kind and be suspicious of those we think are different. Racism has its roots in our sin which is why only a relationship with Jesus, the one who washes away our sin, can ultimately defeat our racist attitudes.

In processing all that is swirling around us I was taken back to a series of sermons I preached years ago. The basic idea for them came from John Ortberg who did a series of “What Would Jesus Say To…” messages. As Sanford Florida has come into an unwanted spotlight   I wondered what would Jesus say to Sanford, and all of us, about what we are experiencing. A few things came to mind:

Jesus would surely say, “weep with those who weep”. (Romans 12:15) True compassion must in some way impact your heart in the same way it impacts those who are in pain. Trayvon Martin’s family is feeling incredible pain and they are weeping. But George Zimmerman and his family are also in pain and weeping. Certainly the pain is different but it is no less real. And Jesus didn’t say to weep with certain people who weep, and don’t weep with other people because you have a problem with them. As followers of Christ we don’t have the option of being selective about to whom we show compassion and mercy. You don’t have the freedom to opt out of weeping with Trayvon’s family because you think he first struck George Zimmerman causing George to shoot in self-defense. You also don’t have the freedom to opt out of weeping with George Zimmerman because you think he hunted down Trayvon because he racially profiled him and forced a confrontation. First of all, none of us know what really happened in that fateful 60 seconds. We may have some idea. We certainly have lots of people filling in the blanks with speculation, usually speculation based on their preconceived notions and not objectively on the evidence. Secondly, even if we did know, we are still not given the freedom to opt out of weeping for and praying for, both families.

Jesus would say, “Take the log out of your own eye” (Matthew 7:5) That wonderful saying was part of Jesus telling us that before you start trying to get a speck of dust out of another person’s eye you need to deal with the huge log protruding from your own eye. In other words, we all have this propensity to be able to point out the slightest flaw in another person while being completely blind to our own huge shortcomings and faults. So before you start blaming Trayvon for being a hoodlum or George for being a racist (of which you have no real knowledge to base either conclusion, so I refer you back to the jumping to conclusions presented in Kahneman’s book) take a long and deep look into your own soul. What kind of anger, hatred, bitterness, and even latent or not so latent racism resides there? What are your issues that are driving your reaction to all of this? Do you have a general distrust of all white people? Are you immediately cautious around black teenage males? Do you tend to blame problems on “those people” whoever “they” are? Even the best of us are still tainted by sin and have to be vigilant in guarding our own hearts and subsequent reactions.

Jesus would say, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31) When Jesus first said this, people tried to manage the expectations by limiting who qualified as “neighbor”. Jesus made it clear that your neighbor is whoever happens to be around you at any given moment. For those who wondered what it meant to actually love your neighbor Jesus made it clear that sacrificing for them and serving them in their need is loving your neighbor. At this moment, Trayvon Martin’s family and George Zimmerman and his family are our neighbors. They each are in a time of need. The needs are somewhat different, yet very similar. They need to know they are loved and that people who love them will stand with them to give comfort and strength. It has nothing to do with what version of the story you believe or who you believe. Loving your neighbor has everything to do with the fact that while you and I were still enemies of God, Jesus loved us enough to go to the Cross in our place. That love from God compels us to love one another, even when it hurts.

There is much more that I am sure Jesus would say to Sanford and to all of us, especially His followers. I suspect He would be calling for us to take steps in our own lives to knock down barriers, open up dialogue, reach across the racial divide and find out that “those” people are in the end, people. People like you. They hurt, they fear, they laugh, they weep, they dream. They do all the things you do and experience life just as you do. I think Jesus might also say that when the Trayvon Martin case fades from public prominence, and it will, followers of Christ must not let issues of racism, equality, love for neighbor no matter their color, fade from prominence in how we live. Check your heart and then check your actions. What are you doing to show the love of Christ to people who are unlike you? What are you doing to show that following Christ really does make a radical difference in how we relate to one another. What are you doing to show that we all stand as equals before the Cross of Christ?

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:26-28

This was read at the end of the service at Northland today by my good friend Vernon Rainwater. He had just finished a great message on rethinking our view of God. This extended quote from Dorothy Sayers is the epitome of what it means to be a Provocative Christian. Love this and hope you will enjoy it as well.

Dan

“Author Dorothy Sayers was never one to live by convention. The only child of an Anglican clergyman, she was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford University in 1915. After graduating from Oxford, she made her living writing advertising copy until she was able to publish more and more of her fiction. In the early stages of her career, she fell in love with a member of a motorcycle gang in England, and joined them in their travels far and wide. Perhaps it was her unconventional life that led her to highlight the more unconventional side of Jesus’s own life and ministry. In a collection of essays published after her death, she wrote:”


The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore — on the contrary; they thought him too dynamic to be safe… He was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers, and humble before Heaven; but He insulted respectable clergymen by calling them hypocrites; He referred to King Herod as “that fox”; He went to parties in disreputable company and was looked upon as a “gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners”; He assaulted indignant tradesmen and threw them and their belongings out of the Temple; He drove a coach-and-horses through a number of sacrosanct and hoary regulations;

He cured diseases by any means that came handy, with a shocking casualness in the matter of other people’s pigs and property; He showed no proper deference for wealth and social position; when confronted with neat dialectical traps, He displayed a paradoxical humour that affronted serious-minded people, and He retorted by asking disagreeably searching questions that could not be answered by rule of thumb.

He was emphatically not a dull man in His human lifetime, and if He was God, there can be nothing dull about God either. But He had “a daily beauty in His life that made us ugly,” and officialdom felt that the established order of things would be more secure without Him. So they did away with God in the name of peace and quietness. 
 
Dorothy Sayers, The Whimsical Christian: Eighteen Essays (New York: Macmillan, 1978), 17.

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”.