ISIS, JONAH, NINEVEH, AND US

Immigration and refugees were powder-keg issues in the 2016 presidential elections and remain pivotal today. A dear friend of mine, a former Muslim and native of the Middle East, who is now an American citizen with multiple ministries to Muslims, has a unique perspective on these issues. I asked his permission to share the following with you. I’ve withheld his name for reasons that will become apparent as you read. DS.

“The current political atmosphere has impacted ministry to Muslims and refugees. When I speak to churches about this subject, I find a growing number of believers who are apathetic to Muslims, and who are more interested in how awful Islam can be, than in why and how they can love Muslims. Some, who are interested in becoming missionaries, are reluctant to consider ministry to Muslims.

We need to ask ourselves these tough questions: Are we angry with Muslims, afraid of them, or do we love them? Is there in our hearts any hatred toward them? Do we pray for the salvation of the terrorists? What if an ISIS terrorist became a follower of Jesus? Would we forgive his or her atrocities? Could someone like the current Caliph of ISIS, al-Baghdadi, be saved?

We are familiar with the story of Jonah and Nineveh. Some may even know that modern Mosul, a stronghold of ISIS where the Caliphate was first declared, and now undergoing liberation by Iraqi forces, sits on top of ancient Nineveh.

Nineveh, during Jonah’s time, was not that different from Mosul under ISIS. Both were brutal, evil, and godless.

Jonah 1:1-2 says,

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’

How evil were the ancient Ninevites? Here is an example:

The head of Tiumman was fixed over the gate of Nineveh, to rot before the eyes of the multitude. Dunanu was slowly flayed alive, and then bled like a lamb; his brother Shambunu had his throat cut, and his body was divided into pieces, which were distributed over the country as a warning.[1]

ISIS does the same kind of barbaric and brutal things to its enemies today. Jonah did not like the Ninevites, just as most of us do not like ISIS, the modern Ninevites. He was reluctant to deliver the word of the Lord to them and tried instead to flee to Tarshish (in modern Spain), which was the end of the known world in his day. He wanted to avoid the mission altogether.

Are we also abandoning our mission to ‘deliver the word of the Lord’ to those we consider to be our enemies today?

I am not naive to the dangers of ISIS. I was one of those who gave early warnings about terrorist creeds, strategies, and tactics that you hear of today. My name appears on one of their published ‘hit lists.’ They have executed people I know and care about. I watched their executions on ISIS videos. Neither my family nor I feel safe, even in America.

But I think some of us are like Jonah. We are either trying to buy a ticket on a ship which will take us as far as possible from the Ninevites, or we have already set sail.

If we are to avoid Jonah’s mistake, we need to remember something: yes, all ISIS are Muslims, but not all Muslims are ISIS. In fact, ISIS atrocities are more disgusting to most Muslims than they are to us. Because of ISIS, Muslims are questioning their religion and attempting to reform it, or reduce it to simple cultural observance, like Americans with Christmas, or are abandoning it altogether.

Muslims are also children of Adam–like we are. They are born under the sin of Adam, like we are, and they need a redeemer, like we do. Let us not allow the atrocities of some Muslims cause us to reject all Muslims. You can hate Satan, but not his victims. May we all learn from and obey Christ who said: ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ Matthew 5:44.”

[1] Maspero, G. (Gaston), The Passing of the Empires, 850 B.C. to 330 B.C., London 1900, P. 413.

 

THE CERTAINTY OF UNCERTAINTY: Encouragement for Millennials Who’ve Hit A Wall

“I’m not happy with where my life is at the moment, and I’m not real sure what to do about it, but I’m working on it,” said my friend. I could feel his frustration, having been there and done that.

Similar conversations with a number of twenty-something friends who have run head-on into a string of disappointments have had me praying and thinking about how to encourage the millennials among us.  I know what it’s like to see thirty coming up on the horizon with little in the way of success to show for it. Now that sixty isn’t that far off, some constants stand out, not only in my life, but in those of the people I most admire.

Let’s call them three keys to handling the certainty of uncertainty.

First, a successful life is something that you build, not something that you have. Adjusting expectations to that reality is tougher today, where our social media personas only show the “A” side of life, than it was thirty years ago. It takes time, tact, and tenacity to build the skill sets, the relationships, and the track record that open the doors of opportunity. These things form the platform of a prosperous life. There are no shortcuts. Be willing to start small, but start somewhere, and build.

Second, expect setbacks. The old word for this one is prudence. Everyone loves Solomon’s advice in Proverbs, “Commit your way to the Lord, and he will direct your paths.” It sounds like clear sailing to serial successes. But we tend to forget his warning that, “Time and chance happen to them all.” I call that Black Coffee Theology, the certainty of uncertainty. It’s not that God isn’t paying attention or doesn’t care about your life. His eye really is on the sparrow, but he won’t suspend the effects of the fall for anyone until Christ returns. Until then, the cosmic Murphy’s Law remains: You will experience failure. You will be frustrated. But there is an up side: Failure and frustration teach us more, and faster, than success. Learn the lessons early, and well, and they will protect you down the road. On the financial side, build an emergency fund for the inevitable, and develop a back-up skill set that can pay the bills until the opportunity you are looking for appears.

Third, persevere my friends, persevere! Do not let the inevitable setbacks and difficult lessons convince you that you are a failure. Discern your calling, or at least choose a career path where your interests and aptitudes meet, zero in on that path and trim away trivial pursuits. Then take the long view and start putting one foot in front of the other. Lay your plans–your dreams too–before God, and watch, and pray, and live before him in trust one day at a time. Learn the secret of contentment in the day to day, but keep the goal ever before you and press on! Nine times out of ten, the people who succeed are the people who refuse to give up.

Finally, one last word from those of us who can see you in our rear-view mirrors: we believe in you, we believe in God’s good purposes for you, and we look forward to the day you go whizzing by us in the fast lane.

 

TO MAKE A GROWN MAN CRY

Bob Hughes stood on the porch on a sunlit November Saturday morning, looking out over the gathering of about fifty people who had come to celebrate, and choked up as he tried to finish the ceremony. The longtime director, and sole (part-time) employee of Tri-River Habitat for Humanity was reading off the names and organizations that helped build Tri-River’s fifteenth home in twenty years.

It wasn’t the names that brought the tears, just the gratitude. Bob knows better than most what a struggle, what a team effort it takes, and how many hurdles have to be crossed every time our small local chapter of this global ministry cuts the ribbon and hands over the keys to another harassed family. Permits, weather, coordinating volunteers, smoothing over misunderstandings, securing materials donations, following up endless details, and making sure that everyone gets properly recognized in the end is a process programmed to stretch the patience of Job. And though he will no doubt deflect this praise, Ole Bob, as he often calls himself, is better at it than most.

Bob’s aw-shucks, self-deprecating style and twinkle-eyed grin, combined with his white goatee, and somewhat Santa-Clause shape, make him easy to like. But underneath that cheerful, ever-encouraging demeanor is a truckload of smarts and quiet determination. The only thing Bob loves more than fishing the Outer Banks is seeing the words of Jesus fulfilled: “When you’ve done it unto the least of these, you’ve done it unto me.”  When it all comes together and a family of six can move in before Thanksgiving, well, that’s better than the icing on the celebratory sheet-cake. It’s enough to make a grown man cry.

I served with Bob and a half-dozen others of Halifax’s finest in his first few years with Habitat. We are blessed to have citizens like him and all the others who serve the boards of our volunteer organizations. As we enter the Thanksgiving season, let’s take a few moments not only to give thanks for their leadership, but to consider how we might follow in their footsteps.

THE DEACON & THE HOOKER

It’s a simple story told in Luke’s characteristically lucid style.[1] Jesus is dining with a Pharisee named Simon. Picture him as the successful, well-dressed chairman of the deacons and you’ll be in the ballpark. A woman steps haltingly into the room. Her name is not given but it is not needed. Everyone knows her, the local hooker. She is not composed, not there to impress or seduce. She is weeping with gratitude, on her knees over the feet of the reclining rabbi from Nazareth, pouring out years of pent-up guilt, little rivers of happiness and shame, down upon his ankles and between his toes. She bends further and wipes the watery dirt away with her hair. Then she withdraws an alabaster jar of expensive perfume and empties it on his feet, rubbing it in with her hands as the sweet aroma fills the room.

Simon is aghast. The Pharisees were known for their righteousness, their religious purity and high moral character. They were the successful middle class evangelicals of their day. They didn’t hang out with sinful people nor approve of those who did.  Scenes like this were too much for such men. “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is…” he grouses within.

Jesus knows exactly what she is, a broken woman experiencing forgiveness and freedom from guilt and shame for the first time in her life. But Jesus also knows something else: what Simon is, a successful man in need of humility, a man every bit as lost in his self-righteousness as the hooker had been in immorality. The only difference between the two is that the woman knows her sin and knows she needs a savior. Simon’s success blinds him to both.

Jesus tells Simon a story of two forgiven debtors, one who owed eighteen months wages and one who owed about two months. “Now which of them will love the forgiving moneylender more?” He asks.

Simon can’t help but answer, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”

Then Jesus says the most important thing in the whole story, the thing that reveals who he really is. “Correct!” He looked at the woman. “See this woman? I came to your house yet you have not offered me the least of common courtesies. But she has not ceased, since the moment I walked in, to show me the greatest love and devotion. Therefore I tell you, her sins which are many have been forgiven, for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”

In other words, “Simon, in the grand scheme of things I’m the lender, I’m the one that everyone is indebted to. I’m God. Your achievements in life and religion matter not at all. Your relationship to me is all.”

And as if to put an exclamation point on it he turns to the woman with something only God has the authority to say, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

It isn’t what we’ve done or not done in life that determines our salvation. It isn’t how religious we’ve been or how irreligious, our successes or failures. The only thing that matters is our ability to acknowledge our sin, to own the guilt and the shame, to the one who “holds the note” on it and trust him to forgive the one and remove the other. Then every room we enter will be filled with the aroma of our love for him.

[1] (Luke 7:36-50)

FINDING GOD ON LIFE’S BATTLEFIELDS

The summer of 2009 was an exciting time. I had just finished my first book, JUNGLE FLIGHT, my wife and I were taking a two week trip for our 25th anniversary, and the last week was to be spent at the largest air show in the world: The Experimental Aviation Association’s AirVenture (aka Oshkosh). There I would get to sell the book and meet someone who had walked with God through the battlefields of life: Gracia Burnham.

Gracia and I shared a table for the authors of Christian books on mission aviation. People from all over the world came up to greet her and ask for her autograph. (It didn’t hurt my book sales to be seated next to her either).

Gracia is a beautiful woman because her soul, like her name, is full of grace. If you know her story you might expect otherwise. She and her husband Martin were the missionaries, kidnapped by the Philippine terrorist group, Abu Sayyaf, that half the world was praying for back in 2001 and 2002. They endured an excruciating year together of hunger, squalor, brutality and several near misses with death before the final rescue attempt in which Martin was killed.

Here’s what Gracia said about how that affected her faith.

“I used to have this concept of what God is like, and how life’s supposed to be because of that. But in the jungle, I learned I don’t know as much about God as I thought I did. I don’t have him in a theological box anymore. What I do know is that God is God—and I’m not. The world’s in a mess because of sin, not God. Some awful things may happen to me, but God does what is right. And he makes good out of bad situations.”[1]

Gracia isn’t the only one who has faced trauma and come out on the other side with a sweet soul and a deeper understanding of God. Study the lives of Moses in Exodus, David in 1 Samuel, or Peter and the apostles in the New Testament. Each man met God in moments of great trauma.

We will also have our battlefield moments when we are shocked, angry, exhausted and numb and the demands just keep on coming. The bills have to be paid. The car has to be fixed. The grass has to get mowed. The job has to be done and we’re the ones to do it. We don’t have time to grieve, still less to whine. We have to lead. We have to absorb the bitterness and grief of others and keep on trucking. We have to help others make sense of the chaos. We have to help others find their vision and their purpose again and make progress on their own battlefields.

The hardest part is when God seems far away and our emotions are in total lock down; we can’t feel anything anymore.

We might be numb, but we still have a choice: to let the battle come between us and God, or to let it push us right up against him; to travel away from Him in our grief, or further in and farther on into the mystery of his majesty.

2 Cor. 1:8-9 reads: We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. 9) Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (NIV)

When that happens, when we stop relying on ourselves and our Sunday School flannel graph understanding of God, we begin to know Him who raises the dead. But here’s the thing: We have to die to ourselves before we can know him that way. When we want to find God on the battlefields of life, the rendezvous is always at the Cross.

[1] Corrie Cutrer, “Soul Survivor,” Today’s Christian Woman (July/Aug 2003), p. 50

 

THE PARABLE OF VANNA WHITE

Vanna White needed a new transmission. I guess I should explain that.

Tradesmen often name their trucks. The maintenance crew I worked with in the early nineties was no different. The ancient, white Ford Econoline 150 panel van that the carpenters used was so reliable, doing the same simple tasks day after day, well past her prime, that they called her Vanna White. Only now her transmission was slipping. It was time for a rebuild.

I put her on the lift, removed the big automatic tranny, dismantled it, cleaned it out, installed a rebuild kit in the old case, and hoisted it back into place; a six or seven hour job. Then I filled it with transmission fluid and took it for a drive. It slipped, right between first and second gear.

So I did it again, looking carefully for mistakes; and it slipped again. So I did it again. And again. And again. And again. It kept slipping! I was ready to quit!

Now let’s pause this parable and ask a question: Is there some part of your spiritual life that isn’t working? Are you continually disabled by a slip into sin whose source is invisible to you? Have you gone over the details again and again, tried as hard as you can to solve your problem, and failed?

Good. Coming to the end of our resources is the best place we can be because only then are we ready to receive the power to overcome the “sins that so easily entangle us.” The Apostle Paul explained it as the difference between living in the “flesh,” translated “sinful nature” in the NIV, versus living in the “Spirit.” (See Galatians 5:16-25). Jesus spoke similarly in John 6:63 when he said, “The flesh counts for nothing. The Spirit gives life…”

Everything about us, our bodies, our minds, our emotions and personalities, were permanently weakened by the power of sin. We “slip between first and second.” Until the day we physically die that power will remain. In fact the only way to conquer the power of sin is through death. That is the beautiful thing about the gospel. In Christ we did die, not a physical death, but a spiritual one. We died with him to the power of sin. When the Holy Spirit baptizes us into Christ his death and his resurrection become ours in spiritual fact (See Romans 6). The trick is to learn how to live in the power of those things.

Remember Vanna White? The sixth time I pulled the transmission from the old van I remembered another Ford E 150 in our fleet. The engine had died and we junked it, but not before pulling all other usable parts, one of which was the transmission. Automatic transmission casings are cast with hydraulic control circuits critical to their operation. If the case cracks in the right place, a place invisible to the naked eye, those circuits will leak under pressure and the transmission will slip. I pulled the new parts out of Vanna White’s original transmission case and installed them in the one from the van that had “died” and Viola! No more slipping between gears!

The problem most of us face in overcoming sin is that we try to stuff new parts into our old life. We need new parts in a new life. Because of the presence of the Holy Spirit within us we can overcome by exchanging our life with Christs. Only when we have given up on trying to improve ourselves by our own will power are we able to begin operating in the power of the Spirit. Only when we have exchanged Christ’s life for ours are we able to know his power to overcome.