Death & Eternity

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. -2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1-5

This has been a tough week. Within a couple days, I received news that one of our board members in a country in Asia had lost her battle to COVID. Her husband is chairman of our board in this country. I have preached in their church several times, and he has stayed in our home. They also wrote together one of our Basic Series Discipleship booklets on Love, Marriage, and Family. The book’s focus makes her death all the sadder to think that their life together on earth has been cut short. They also have a young daughter about the age of our daughters. 

A few days later, I received news that the co-founder and first President of the mission organization I lead, ServeNow, had also passed away from her battle with cancer. She also is a young mother who leaves behind three kids and a husband. 

These situations are so sad and tragic. There is no denying the sorrow, grief, and disappointment. But, these deaths are reminders that life on this earth is short, often too short. In fact, it just so happened that a couple hours before I received news of our co-founder’s death, I was recording a message for a country in Asia that goes out in three languages every week across the island. The weekly Scripture passage was from 1 Corinthians 4:16-5:1-5 quoted above. It is such a beautiful passage and timely reminder. It provides the perspective and comfort we often need in facing the reality of death, whether loss of loved ones or contemplating our own eventual death.

In this passage, the Apostle Paul masterfully balances the tension between our earthly suffering and eternal hope. We live in the here and now, but the here and now are temporary. The eternal is yet to come, but it is what we have to look forward to as believers in Jesus Christ. And Paul, while not diminishing the reality of earthly pain, does put it in perspective. Compared to eternity which will last forever, our suffering on earth is momentary. It gives way to our true home in the presence of God. We live in this tension every day. We are awaiting the transition from the earthly and imperfect; to the eternal and perfect. The paradox of the Christian life is that though we die, death does not have the final word. Just as the weakness of the cross gave way to the power of the resurrection, we have the same hope in Jesus. And that is why despite our earthly struggles, we do not lose hope in our eternal future.

But part of us does not like to face our earthly mortality, frailty, and finiteness. We have plans, dreams, ambitions, hopes, and desires. Life was not intended to involve death originally. We live with a restless uneasiness that death could strike at any moment but also live as if it is always far off in the future. I would argue, though, that facing our mortality and human weakness can provide us perspective and intentionality in the short time we have on this earth. It is why the Apostle Paul calls us to fix our eyes not on what is seen but unseen. Life on earth really only makes sense in light of eternity. This is the theme of my second book coming out in the fall of 2021. The working title is Everything is Meaningless: Finding Purpose in a World of Despair. It is a journey through some key themes from the book of Ecclesiastes, a book of the bible often neglected and misunderstood. 

But this earth, in its present condition, is not where we ultimately belong. Jesus will be creating a new heavens and a new earth. Just as he was raised from the dead to new life, we too will follow in his footsteps. A new body awaits us free of the sin, suffering, and sorrow of these present fallen bodies. Think of a hermit crab. When I was little, I was fascinated by these little creatures and often would try to secretly watch to witness them come out of their current shell to find a home in a new shell. They do this to find a home that will protect them better than their present one. During that transition, they are vulnerable and exposed; but soon, they take up residence in a new shell. 

This, to me, is an example from nature of the transition we go through in death. We have temporary tents that we reside in now. But God has prepared a better “shell” for us upon death. Death is not the end. Death is a transition. And the glory of what lies on the other side is unspeakable and indescribable. The bible does convey some imagery and information, but it seems all words and comparisons fall short. We just know it is good. It is our true home. It is where we belong if we belong to Jesus Christ. 

And that is why the Apostle Paul reminds us a couple times in this portion of Scripture that we do not lose heart or give up. Even at our weakest, his power is displayed most clearly in us and through us. Even as our bodies age and deteriorate, we do not need to live in denial or try so desperately to reverse the reality of aging. In fact, though outwardly we may be falling apart, inwardly, we can be renewed and made stronger and stronger in the image and likeness of our Savior. It is what we do not see that matters most because that is what will last forever. What we see is temporary. We often get this reversed. We live as if what we see is all that is or will be. My encouragement is what Scripture calls us to here and elsewhere, live life on earth in light of eternity. It is the only way to make sense of this earthly life and have hope for the future. Beyond that, it’s also true, because Jesus himself has conquered death. And he has assured those who believe in him that they will be with him for all eternity.

If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. -1 Corinthians 15:19-22

Trauma

In my last blog post, I wrote an article on depression, where I shared a little of my own experience. I wanted to follow that up with something tied to depression and perhaps understood even less: trauma. 

I want to be clear upfront that I am not a counselor or trained therapist. But as a pastor and someone who travels the world, I am aware of the profound struggles and suffering many people face. And let us face it, this is a traumatic time. There are more displaced people in the world today than at any other time in human history. The news runs 24/7, so at any point during the day, we can see, quite easily, what is happening anywhere worldwide. John Eldridge speaks of this as “secondhand trauma” in his book “Get Your Life Back.”

Rick Warren recently noted that 1/3rd of Jesus’ ministry was focused on “health care.” Jesus was constantly going around healing, and healing was a significant part of his ministry. I believe God is still in the business of bringing hope and healing to people worldwide, even amid the most traumatic experiences.

There is more that has come out in recent years about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While often associated with soldiers returning from combat, it is not something only those from a war-zone suffer from. Nor is it limited necessarily to one extreme traumatic event. It is possible to go through a series of events that trigger a PTSD response, even years later, in a cumulative way. I have talked with a pastor who felt that may be the case for me. Even though I have not gone through the kind of traumatic events I associated it with, he felt confident I may have some of the symptoms due to several events in the past that seemed to be affecting me years later.

That’s part of the reality with those suffering from PTSD: they have trouble separating the past from the present. For them, they get stuck in a loop where specific triggers will cause them to feel like what happened to them before is happening to them all over again. They often have a disproportionate emotional response and even physical reaction to those triggers. This has been true for me. One of the most helpful things I must constantly remind myself when this happens is that “that was then, this is now.”

But regardless of whether you have PTSD or not, the reality is many people have been through traumatic events, and we live in a time of trauma for many people. Not all who suffer trauma develop PTSD. Many, in fact, do not. But some do. And I do believe secondary trauma is a real thing as well, especially for those whose hearts are sensitive and full of compassion for the plight of others. It is a well-known reality that those in the social work industry, and those in ministry, can quickly burn out caring for and tending to others in their trauma and needs.

I have been reading quite a few books recently on both depression and trauma. As an author, my second book, which wrestles with the seeming despair of life, is being edited now. One of the books I read related to trauma, which, while not a Christian book, focused on post-traumatic growth verse post-traumatic stress. I found that focus helpful because one of the frustrating things about PTSD or depression is feeling “stuck.” However, focusing on growth that can occur while in or going through these things helped me gain a sense of not feeling as “trapped.” Though I may not be able to control being depressed or avoid all emotional triggers, I can grow through these experiences.

The picture on the front of one book I just read is a broken piece of pottery that had been mended back together. This comes from a Japanese philosophy called Wabi-Sabi. More specifically, this form of pottery is called Kintsugi. The idea is that pottery that has been mended together where cracked, with those cracks accentuated often with a gold streak, actually gives the piece of pottery more character and makes it more valuable. In other words, what would otherwise be viewed as broken and disregarded is instead what makes it more unique and defined. 

I would suggest that something similar could be seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. On the cross, Jesus endured horrific trauma. His hands and feet were nailed to a cross. Yet, in his resurrection, he obtained new life, and while his wounds were healed, the scars remained. The scars became beautiful reminders of what he had done for us, and it is by his wounds we are healed. He can do the same in our lives today. Even our most traumatic events can be transformed. He can take those who are broken and beat up and mend us back together again. It’s in our weaknesses that his power is demonstrated most. Here is how the Apostle Paul put it about a traumatic or painful issue in his life:

Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).

In the Western world, we tend to want to “fix” every “problem.” We seek the feeling of happiness, not the purpose of pain. And to be clear, I do not believe God wants anyone to be crippled by trauma or paralyzed by despair. But like the movie Inside Out, I think sadness is often considered only as an adverse dysfunction. We desperately try to keep sadness or suffering out of our lives at all costs. But what if sadness is sometimes the hero we all need, even if not the hero we may want? What if pain has its purpose? What if trauma can be transformed? What if growth occurs through suffering? What if character comes through challenges? What if Christ is strongest in us and through us when we are weakest? What if God is seen as most beautiful in our brokenness? 

Again, I do not want to suggest trauma itself is a good thing. One of the most tender promises in Scripture is Psalm 147:3, He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. Jesus’ wounds were healed. Pottery is pieced back together in Kintsugi. And Jesus was clear he came to bind up the brokenhearted. By the way, binding up someone’s wounds takes time and tenderness. It requires skill and focus. Jesus is not only a Great Physician, but he is also a Good Shepherd. We can trust him to bind up our wounds and heal our broken hearts. We can trust our lives in his hands as the potter and we the clay. He is an expert in fashioning and forming us into His image and likeness. He can take our trauma and transform it. He can give character and bring forth good out of even the worst of circumstances. We cannot change the past. But he can redeem our past, work in the present, and give us a future full of hope and healing.

Jesus, come and heal our hearts. Bind up our wounds. Tend to our brokenness. Thank you that you can transform our trauma. We need your healing in our lives and in our world. Amen.

Depression: A Gift and a Curse

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. -Psalm 42:5,11

For as long as I can remember, I have battled with cycles of depression to varying degrees. I recently just came through two of the worst and longest-lasting episodes in quite a while. Two of the lowest points in my life during these cycles were the day my first book, a book on Hope, was published and my master’s degree graduation day. What should have been two of the most joyful days of my life were instead two of the most depressing days of life.

Those moments make some sense as they are marked by a kind of completion and transition. But many times, depression has its own logic that does not make ordinary logical sense. For example, I am in one of the most productive, fruitful, and overall enjoyable phases of my life. I lead a thriving and growing mission organization serving thousands worldwide and reaching millions with the Good News of Jesus. I have four awesome kids in a great stage of their lives. I have a wonderful wife who balances me out. I am authoring books, live in the beautiful state of Colorado, and life is good! And yet, I often find beneath it all a lingering sadness even when it is not directly tied to any one thing or circumstance. Depression just is what it is, comes when it comes, and lasts as long as it lasts.

I am sharing this because recently, I had three conversations about depression with three different people in one week. One was with another leader I respect in the throes of a cycle himself. Another was with a family member going through depression. And the third was another family member who does not battle depression but expressing concern and wanting to know how they can help.

So, I wanted to take a moment to blog just a few thoughts about depression, especially some things we may not typically think about. I hope it is meaningful, whether you are depressed or know someone battling depression. The reality is COVID has exposed the need for greater emphasis on mental health, and depression is something a large portion of people in the world and throughout history struggle with. It is time we paid more attention to what is going on inside us and aware of what may be going on inside of others.

I titled this article “Depression: A Gift and a Curse.” I think everyone would naturally agree with depression being a curse, but how can I say it is also a gift? Speaking personally, which I know is not valid for everyone, I refer to myself as a “functioning depressive.” What this means is that typically I do not get crippled by depression. Yes, there are times and seasons where I have shut down or just want to stay in bed all day and do nothing, but often, I find that depression forces me to focus on things in ways I otherwise would not. For example, I have become more aware of my need to take care of myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I find that some of my best writing or messages come from seasons of personal struggle. I also become more aware of the struggles of others and find identification and the ability to relate at a deeper level. I also find myself seeking God more and leaning in more deeply to my walk with him, recognizing my need for him in my human weakness. It also pushes me to refuse to settle for shallow or simple answers to some of life’s biggest questions and struggles. For these reasons, I find depression to be a gift.

And I am not alone. Throughout history, some of the greatest prophets, pastors, poets, saints, musicians, artists, creatives, comedians, teachers, authors, and others have been people who battled intensely with depression. Think of Elijah in 1 Kings 19 after calling down fire from heaven. There he stood on the mountain top toe to toe with the false prophets of Baal with boldness and courage. And yet, right after this, Elijah runs in fear for his life, collapses under a tree, begins to feel sorry for himself, and wishes he were dead. Think of so many of the Psalms. What about Jeremiah, the prophet who wrote a book in the bible called Lamentations? Mother Teresa spoke of the dark night of her soul, a phrase borrowed from Saint John of the Cross long before her. Charles Spurgeon, the great British preacher, is well-known for his bouts of severe depression. The list goes on and on. Some of the most creative, talented, gifted, compassionate, and godly people were plagued by depression. Yet, they brought forth some of their most remarkable achievements amid their depression.

But depression is also a curse. It has its destructive side. It can lead down some dark, even deadly paths. It can destroy people’s health, self-esteem, confidence, and relationships. It robs of joy. It sits over you like a wet and cold blanket in a dreary and dark winter. It produces despair and inner anguish. Others who do not struggle with it have a hard time understanding it or being around those who are in it. It creates confusion, frustration, anger, and self-loathing. For these reasons and more, it is a curse.

For those struggling with depression or not quite sure how to understand those battling depression, here is something else I have been seeing more clearly. Depression operates with its own logic and in its own cycles. In other words, you cannot always tie it to specific events or circumstances. There is often not a simple solution or answer. And it comes and goes in cycles. During my last cycle, I saw this for the first time in Scripture. I was preparing for a message from Psalm 42 on depression when I realized the same refrain is repeated several times in that chapter and the next. That refrain is where the Psalmist is asking himself why he is so downcast. He seems puzzled as to why he cannot seem to shake his despair. So, he tells himself to do two things: “put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (Psalm 42:5,11, 43:5). Some people think you should just be able to “get over it.” But that is not how depression works. You can do things to help navigate and manage depression. But you cannot just “get over it.” Sometimes you need to keep going through the same reminders multiple times, just as depression comes in various waves.

I also do not believe there is usually just one solution to depression. Often it requires a holistic approach. When Elijah had enough and wanted to die, it says an angel of the Lord came to him and told him to “get up and eat” (1 Kings 19:5-6). Elijah did these two things and then went back to sleep. So, the angel of the Lord came back to him a second time and repeated the same process all over again (1 Kings 19:7-8). Then, he moved on to a location where God would tend to him spiritually, emotionally, and relationally (1 Kings 19:8-18). But notice the holistic approach used with Elijah and the repetition of certain things until Elijah came through this bout of depression. Elijah needed physical rest, food, spiritual and emotional care, and time. Depression is a process. It can’t be reduced to a quick fix. And while God may deliver some from depression, I don’t believe God always delivers people from depression. I do believe however he can bring us through it and care for us in it.

Much more could be written, but I am saving some of that for my second book being edited now. It is a follow-up to my first book, but perhaps a bit more nuanced and coming at Hope differently. It is a journey through the book of Ecclesiastes, a book of the bible I often turn to when I am depressed. It is due out in the fall of 2021, so stay tuned for some excerpts and updates! The working title is: Everything is Meaningless: Finding Purpose in a World of Despair. Stay tuned.

Creative Faith

One day Jesus was teaching, and Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there. They had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick. Some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” -Luke 5:17-20

Have you ever thought of faith being creative? Or how about the need for faith to be demonstrated in a creative way?

I think many times we get stuck in the same routines and traditions that we fail to think outside the box and find new ways of doing things. Or maybe we see certain needs but think we are powerless to do anything about it and we give up rather than get creative.

Not these friends in this story! I am inspired not only by their faith, but their creative faith. In fact, here are three things we can learn from their example:

1). They were caring: This was not an easy task to carry a paralyzed man to Jesus. They obviously cared about their friend and recognized he could not do this on his own. He was dependent upon their care for him if he had hope of being healed by Jesus. I wonder how many people are depending on us to care enough to carry them to Jesus, even if it might hard work, require some effort and energy, and take some time?

2). They worked collectively: It strikes me that it was not just one friend, but multiple friends who worked together in sync and collectively to fulfill this task. This reminds me that the work of the ministry and caring for others is not up to any one of us alone. We need each other and need to work together. We can share the burden together and show our care collectively.

3). They got creative: These friends could have easily got discouraged and given up when they arrived and saw the crowds were too big to get their friend in the normal way to Jesus. But instead of getting discouraged, they got creative! The crowd was blocking them from going in through the front door as usual, but they simply found another way by cutting a hole through the roof. Obstacles, challenges, crisis, and barriers should not cause us to give up so easily. Instead, we need to get creative and find new ways of getting people to Jesus. The message never changes, but our methods should.

This time of COVID has been a disruption and crisis worldwide to the normal ways of doing things. But crisis is a time for care, collaboration, and creativity. Let us continue to be like these friends in this story: caring, collective, and creative.

Pentecost: Unity Amid Differences

Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

-Acts 2:12

We recently came through the Pentecost season in which we celebrate the coming and gift of the person of the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit of God is perhaps the most misunderstood or not understood at all person of the Triune God. Yet, the Holy Spirit is just as needed today as 2,000 years ago!

We live in an age of bitter division, culture wars, heated political rhetoric and more. It is nearly impossible to say anything that will not upset one side or another. If people do not align with our every view, opinion, political persuasion, issues we are passionate about, or specific nuance of secondary theology we separate and seek to find those just like us (tribalism) instead of together striving to become more like Christ amid our differences.

But one of the things I have been reflecting on this year, is that when the Spirit of God came on Pentecost, he united very different people from many different nations and languages and occupations. Even among Jesus’s own disciples there were fishermen, business owners, a tax collector, a political zealot, and those who came from different backgrounds, experiences, and trades.

Pentecost means there is a way to be brought together around the person of Jesus, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, and the love of our Father in heaven. It means we can worship and fellowship with those different than us. It means God has made a way. Jesus is that way by which the Spirit empowers us towards that end and reaching out with his heart to others. You cannot choose your family. And neither can you choose your brothers and sisters in Christ.

When was the last time you worshiped with those who viewed life differently than you, spoke a different language, have a different culture and life experiences, or even a different political view?

If there is any hope today it is found in the Holy Spirit as he unites us around obedience and faith in Jesus Christ. Only then can our different personalities, perspectives, and cultures have a chance of making us stronger rather than divided.

Update From Nigeria

Greetings from Nigeria, the country with the largest population in Africa! I just wrapped up my first international trip in a YEAR due to COVID. It was so good to get back out there on behalf of ServeNow, the mission organization I lead. Being ServeNow has always heavily emphasized serving in, with, and through national leaders and churches, we have been able to carry on our work without skipping too much of a beat over this last year. In fact, we served far more people in the previous year over COVID than even the year before COVID! It may have looked different, but the impact is still just as incredible, if not more so than years past.

However, it was important for me to be here to lay the groundwork and cast the vision for launching, especially The Basic Series Discipleship Program in Nigeria. It was also crucial for me to meet with key leaders as many ministries prior have failed due to not doing so. It was also good to spend time personally with our main leader over multiple countries in Africa and those we are partnering and coordinating within Nigeria.

That said, I want to briefly touch on some highlights and personal testimony. First, this trip faced numerous challenges, stress, and drama even before it started! We had tentatively looked at November, but it did not work out then. We then were not sure about getting my visa back in time for this trip, but it worked out. Not even two weeks before the trip, my mother-in-law had a stroke that left her hospitalized. I was unsure whether I should cancel my trip in case my wife needed to fly out. I shared this situation with our team worldwide, and they began praying. The next day, we got a note from the doctor where he used the term “miracle” to describe the turnaround she suddenly had! There are still challenges ahead because of stroke, but for a doctor to use the word “miracle” says a lot.

Further, just twenty-four hours before my first flight, we became aware of some further complications and issues. First, I still had not received my COVID test results back needed to fly, and without it, I could not fill out the online health form required. I almost canceled around that and a couple other things as I was feeling unsettled. However, through my African brothers’ faith and encouragement, I decided to proceed to the airport, where all I could do was continue to wait and hope it would come through in time. I finally called the pharmacy where I got the test when they opened about an hour before it would be too late to board, but at first, they indicated there was nothing they could do. Before I was about to hang-up, however, the woman said, let me login into your portal on the back end and check the status. When she did, she suddenly said, “oh! Your results are here, but they didn’t e-mail you!” I was able to obtain them and worked as quickly as possible to fill out the online health form. However, that gave me problems, so I finally ran up to the check-in counter to get on the first flight. I made it just in time, at least to there.

When the first flight landed, I again rushed to figure out the health form problem needed to obtain a QR code to enter the country. Multiple attempts failed, so finally, I e-mailed them, noting my flight was only an hour away. Miraculously they responded back with my code right before boarding once again. Minus a few more issues and complications, I made it, and we went on with the trip.

While writing about this, looking back is one thing. Living in it was nerve-wracking. But it reminded me again that we are called to a life of faith amid uncertainty, not a certainty before we exercise faith. In Africa, they live with this kind of uncertainty all the time. As Americans, we tend to struggle with uncertainty. This situation also led me to reflect on the parting of the Red Sea for the Israelites. While my context is not at all comparable, I joked with staff that it was at least like facing “The Sea of Stress.” But in this classic story, the Israelites experience the truth of how God fights our battles and parts the seas in front of us that otherwise would prevent us from moving forward in what he has for us. But they had to trust him and wait on him even down to the last minute!

Once we got through all of that and other logistical situations, we launched in three different locations in three different languages at three different pastor/leader conferences. They were smaller in size than usual due to COVID restrictions but powerful with more watching live online. We also met with key church leaders, something critical to the success of ministry in Nigeria. Many other ministries have failed in Nigeria due to not understanding that cultural dynamic. This is another reason why working with national leaders is so vital. 

I could write much, but just to keep this brief, I will note that I committed to printing 5,000 books per language due to the size of Nigeria, per print run instead of 3,000. But even 5,000 is nothing in a country of over 200 million people. One church network we met with alone has 12 million members just in Nigeria. There are at least 15 others just like that one that are a part of the same network together. However, the fun thing is that beyond what we commit to, there is every possibility that as they start to see the impact, they may be able to print far beyond the number we are committing to with their own resources. Our initial commitment is critical to show we are here to genuinely serve, and partner together, not just sell them something. But now that the vision is cast, they may run with it!

Word is getting around fast, though already! Even within minutes of the second dedication, we pulled out of the conference area, and I spotted a security guard intently reading the book already! Others commented that this is precisely what is needed in Nigeria right now, a sentiment we hear all around the world. This may strike our American ears as odd when we think of the needs of the world. These basic yet solid discipleship resources help the church in its calling to be disciples who make disciples. And that is our ultimate calling. These books are needed in the US as in other countries, but that is another subject for another time.

Friends, I can honestly say the impact and demand for the Basic Series is something beyond our wildest imagination. As I shared here in Nigeria, our Founder has said what he sees happening through The Basic Series books and ServeNow in just our first 7 ½ years is more than what he saw in his first 50 years combined of global ministry! This is coming from a leader I consider legendary and transformational; whose stories and life is inspirational.

I can attest that week in and week out, we receive story after story of lives being transformed, churches being revived, pastors being encouraged, and communities being served because of what God is doing through ServeNow and the Basic Series. Even this week, while here in Nigeria, I received stories from Burundi, one of the poorest countries in Africa, of prostitutes coming to faith in Jesus. One of them, a Muslim, shared how she gave her life to Christ because of the Basic Series book on Jesus. Beyond even that, she is now reaching out to other prostitutes to lead them to Christ as well!

In writing this brief article, I hope it might encourage and inspire you to partner with ServeNow or commit to do so even more generously. There is a great need in the world. Still, repeatedly, the leaders we are with worldwide tell us the greatest need is what has become our foundational and flagship project: The Basic Things You Need to Know. From there, the outreach and impact are explosive!

***These books will go beyond where I, or other Americans should travel in Nigeria. They will reach into some dangerous parts of the country. Please pray for those being persecuted and those suffering under terrorist activity. Even while here, I saw video of a group of people taken captive right off the highway by a terrorist group where they are demanding money from the government in exchange for their lives.

***It will cost us $2,500 per language per book in Nigeria. To partner financially with ServeNow in the Basic Series click here: The Basic Series

Hope Rising: My New Book

Towards the end of 2020 I published my first book: Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World. In this blog post, I wanted to link a few subsequent interviews and videos about the book and encourage you to order a copy for yourself or for friends, family, or even “strangers” you come across.

I believe if there is one universal need right now in these turbulent times, it is true hope. The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:13 boiled down the Christian life to the three most essential and irreplaceable basics: faith, hope, and love. But where do we find that hope? Or, how can our hope be renewed? My book tackles those questions and more through real life stories from around the world via the international mission organization I lead called ServeNow, and stories from those I know here in the US.

One of the greatest joys for me right now has not only been seeing believers encouraged by this book, but using this book as opportunity to give out to those whom I do not know whether they are believers or not; or even strangers in general as I go about life. Almost every time, the reaction when seeing it is a book on hope is “isn’t that what we all need right now!” I am praying, and invite you to pray with me, that this book will be used to encourage believers, but also lead those not yet followers of Christ into the eternal hope we can only find in him!

Additionally, there are discussion questions in the back of the book that could be used in a group context. If you are part of a small group or book group this would make a great resource to utilize and discuss!

Below are some recent interviews to learn more. To order a copy or more of my book, or to share with others, you can click here: Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World. All profits and proceeds also go 100% to ServeNow to help continue our mission of “sharing Christ’s passion for the world by serving the most vulnerable through national churches and leaders.” There are no author royalties!

An Age of Cultism & Extremism

We are living in some extraordinary and shocking times of cultural, political, and religious turbulence. At the time of writing this, a group of self proclaimed “patriotic” Americans, some with signs incorporating Trump, Jesus, and Confederacy together, stormed the capitol, resorted to violence, destroyed property, attacked the police, and broke the law. They essentially attempted an insurrection egged on by the rhetoric of various leaders, including the President himself. The irony doesn’t escape me that this happened under the banner of the party and president who claimed to be the party of “law and order” and “back the blue.” There was even a gallows built and erected, upon which some wanted to hang Vice President Mike Pence, since he had betrayed their cause.

While some condemned this, this is not an isolated situation. This was a long-time in coming and building up. And sadly, I don’t think it’s the end of this level of behavior. The only word or phrasing that I think comes close to what pastors and leaders will have to deal with is the reality of an age of cultism. In my opinion, I think a case can be made that cultic like behavior is manifesting and growing more and more. At the least, which I have written about in past articles, we see identity politics influencing more and more people on both the right and left. In this article, I will briefly share some of those cult-like characteristics. However, I want to focus more on some possible solutions going forward. My fear is that violence and division will only increase, not decrease, unless a different kind of radical change happens in our hearts, lives, and worldviews. Really, at the root of it all is that of idolatry. Our hope is being misplaced. The level of fear and anxiety is disproportionate to reality, driven by much misinformation and misguided in its focus. It is also all being amplified and fueled by many 24/7 news agencies and social media. However, we can’t just blame news agencies or social media platforms. This is what we want. This is what we crave. This is what we keep fueling. More and more narrow-minded platforms and outlets are being created which only serves to produce deeper and more extreme echo chambers for the “enlightened.”

Before I dive into some of the cult-like tendencies I am seeing gripping and consuming more and more people’s hearts, particularly when it comes to politics and seeping into every aspect of life and relationship, let me share something quite personal and embarrassing. Years ago, I was part of a group that began displaying what others at the time, and I would also now admit and label looking back as cult-like tendencies. While there may have been good intentions and an attempt to model something different, we became extreme in our views, rigid in our perspective, self-righteous in our attitude towards those on the “outside,” and more and more isolated from others. These are some of the tell-tale signs of cult-like behavior. There is an attitude dismissive of any other perspectives or nuance, a sense of righteousness and indignation continuously fed and projected, constant confirmation bias, a bent towards seeing conspiracy theories everywhere with everyone, and a sense of being superior in insight or special knowledge. There is also a grievance dynamic where everything is perceived as more proof of both targeted unfairness and justification of beliefs. Over time, and building up enough, these can develop into cult-like symptoms or signs.

Further, when you add in a “charismatic” leader or leaders, their ways, words, and influence escalate things to a whole other level and degree. Before you know it, you have a revolution on your hands, and things turn ugly, or as we are seeing recently and over the past year, violent. All of this is, of course, justified in the minds and hearts of the adherer’s, and there is very little you can do to reason with people in this place.

So, what can be done? What are some solutions and steps going forward, at the very least, to protect ourselves and speak into what is happening? I think many are becoming more perplexed, unsure, and frankly discouraged about what can be done or said, if anything. Almost everyone I talk to is experiencing sadness and grief of broken relationships with family and friends over these dynamics sweeping across this country, again on both the right and the left. It is dividing families, friendships, churches, communities, and our country in ways that I can see headed towards a civil war again if we don’t figure out how to tone down the rhetoric and navigate these days ahead. Here are six things I think we can focus positively on:

  • Humility: We are not always right. Others hold views and perspectives different than our own. There is more nuance in life than we often are willing to admit or see. Even if we are “right,” the way we carry ourselves matters as much as whatever we may be articulating or standing for. Walking in humility towards others, seeing others as people made in the image of God regardless of their views could help keep us from growing self-righteous and rigid in our worldviews or political opinions. Seeking to find common ground is also crucial in the pursuit of humility, especially towards one another. 
  • Humor: My pastor made an interesting comment to me recently that the first thing to be targeted and go under extremist views is often humor and comedians. Think about it. Everyone right now is angry all the time about something. Humor, though, has a way of diffusing heated situations and bringing some levity back into the conversation or relationship. Maintaining a child-likeness is the way of Jesus, not a constant outrage or carrying the world’s weight around on our shoulders. It will also keep us from going insane! 
  • Guarding our Heart: There is a reason Solomon says in Proverbs 4:23 that we should protect our hearts, or keep a vigilant watch over our hearts, above anything else. Take it from both the wisest man to ever walk the earth and the fact this is inspired Scripture breathed on by God himself! We must practice self-awareness and emotional intelligence. What is happening on the inside is far more important than anything happening on the outside. It is out of the heart that the mouth speaks, and every attitude and action occurs. Being aware of our own pride, anger, greed, selfishness, etc., and tending to our hearts in both weeding out evil and practicing soul care is critical in the age and times we live in. Recognizing that, as John Calvin once said, “the human heart is a perpetual idol factory” is something that is an ongoing daily effort in this current fallen world. Today, we are keeping vigilant watch over everyone else’s “sins” but rarely allowing God to search our own hearts. Social media is the tool to call out and confess everyone else’s sins, verse confessing our own.
  • Discernment: This is a tougher one to explain. Those displaying cult-like symptoms will also speak much about the need for discernment and how they especially possess special knowledge. Any denial, fact-checking, or debunking is just further evidence of the blindness and deception others are under. The only thing I can say here is what John writes in 1 John 4:1, Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is not something limited to the first-century church or other countries somewhere else. This is true at all times in all cultures. There is a “spirit” behind all that people proclaim or communicate. The question is whether it is really the Holy Spirit or some other spirit seeking to influence our minds and captivate our hearts. So how can you tell? That would require a fuller blog article itself. Still, it involves keeping yourself in the Word of God and exploring the philosophy and beliefs behind the messenger. We need more critical thinking and discernment, not less. We are constantly bombarded with information overload from all angles full of bias, agenda’s, misinformation, and worldviews that underneath the surface are often unbiblical or leading to unbiblical places.
  • Refocus on the Gospel & Mission of Jesus: We seem to have lost faith in the power of the Gospel and focus on the mission of Jesus given to us for our time here on earth. There are many worthy causes by which we can flesh some of the calls and commands of Jesus out in our lives, but I think we have lost the big picture and our focus. Politics matters and has consequences, but it is secondary to being a citizen of Jesus and an ambassador of his, entrusted with the message of reconciliation to God (1 Corinthians 5). We are here to be followers of Jesus and make followers of Jesus, not a political party or candidate. The intensity and ever-lasting culture war battles and political battles need re-framed and put in place under the Gospel message. We are not here to proclaim American greatness; we are here to proclaim the glory and beauty of Jesus. We are not here to champion America First or Only. We are here to declare Jesus first and only. The church should be modeling the way of the kingdom and character of Jesus; not trying to force culture to conform or thinking political power is the pathway forward.
  • Prayer: At the end of the day, this is all a spiritual battle. The devil is clever, shrewd, cunning, and smart. He is not stupid and has been in the business of deceiving human beings, twisting God’s word, and misrepresenting God’s heart from the very beginning. We, too, are susceptible. We are not infallible. Bible knowledge alone is not enough. The demons know exactly who Jesus is, but they are still demons. And as Paul says, “We all possess knowledge. But knowledge puffs up, while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). I also need to clarify this point on prayer because those involved in cults or cult-like behavior also often pray, sometimes more so than others! But their prayers tend to focus on a specific agenda, not submission and surrender to the will of God and working of God even if contrary to their desires, expectations, or intended purpose. Today, you will find prayer inspiring jihad, violence, extremism, and tribalism. But I am saying we need prayer born of a pure heart to be close to God, where we can pour out our hearts and concerns to God while trusting wholly in God. Not to fulfill our agenda’s or do what we deem best.

More things could be added to this list, but I think that is a good start for many of us grieved by what we see unfolding in our culture and country in these extreme and cultish days. 

The Problem of Critical Race Theory

I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. -Colossians 2:4

Over the last couple of years, I have mostly been vocal about the dangers and idolatry of much of the evangelical conservative church wedding themselves to politics and its damage to our witness. I have also been vocal about our call as believers to serve the most vulnerable, whether refugees, immigrants, the disadvantaged, persecuted, or the oppressed. I have preached that racism has no place in our hearts, lives, families, or churches, even when it has cost me relationships and support.

However, there is another philosophy on the other side making a lot of inroads among a portion of the church and believers in the US. That philosophy is one called critical race theory (more commonly referred to as social justice or “wokism”). If you are not familiar with critical race theory, it is a worldview important to understand because it will help make sense of much of the rhetoric and current movement taking place under the banner of social justice. Many Christians have seemingly been embracing all or much of the underlining assumptions, terminology, worldview, and ideological framework by which this operates. Granted, I suspect many are not consciously aware of the philosophy under-girding it or how it conflicts at points with Scripture. Others may be lacking a theological framework to filter it. Still more may understand social justice differently and wouldn’t subscribe to what I describe below. In this article I am not attacking the people who have bought into critical race theory; but I do want to address the ideology and assumptions under-girding what we are hearing and seeing today.  

Before I dive in, I will admit that I was more sympathetic towards this type of rhetoric because I identify with language such as “justice” and believe the Bible calls us to pursue justice, especially on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed. However, what has shocked me as I dove deeper into studying critical race theory, is the redefining of specific terms to mean something different from what they have traditionally meant or that I believe Scripture teaches.

For example, racism is no longer defined as a discriminatory attitude or action towards others because of their skin color. Instead, it is now being equated with being white (being the dominant cultural group in the US). This means a white person such as myself, is implicitly racist and complicit in the plight of minority groups. For those who adopt a critical race theory worldview, there are only two groups of people: the oppressed and the oppressors. If you are in the dominant cultural group, then you are automatically in the oppressor category by the nature of your skin color. Ironically, this is the traditional definition of racism in discriminating against people because of their skin color. In a sense this worldview is leading some to reverse racism. That is partly why I find this ideology so dangerous and divisive.

In fact, as a white person, under this worldview, I should not be writing this or pushing back on any of this framework. By doing so, I am confirming that I am racist in the eyes of those who hold to this worldview. This is what is being labeled as “white fragility.” There is a popular book precisely titled that, that I have taken the time to read recently. Under this view, if I stay silent about my racist problem as a white person and do not do XYZ (yes, there is a rule-book for what white people must do and not do), then I am complicit and guilty. But if I challenge any of the assumptions underlining what any “woke” person says, I only prove my white fragility, and my racism is exposed. Only people of color or “woke” white people can clearly “see” this.

Under this framework, the only pathway forward then for me as a white person, is to confess I am racist because I am white, repent of my racism to people of color, surrender my “white privilege”, accept the narrative and experiences without critical thought, listen without defense despite charges, accusations, or perspective articulated, and follow the rules of “whiteness 101.” When studied carefully, these rules hold white people to a different standard than people of color, simply because of skin color.

There is so much more around all this than I will get into in this article but suffice to say it is sad to see how this framework for viewing the world is not only deceiving another part of the church, (many of whom are rightly frustrated and disillusioned with so much of it being usurped by political conservatism); but how it is also driving a wedge in relationships while I would argue distracting from real issues of racism and creating an inability to have honest discussions that are not one-sided.

There is no doubt real racism and inequality exists in the United States. There is no doubt that many evangelical Christians have especially worshiped at the foot of a golden political calf in extremely dangerous and damaging ways. There is no doubt there are many cultural blind spots and situations where we have stayed silent when we should have spoken up more courageously. There is no doubt there is some noble work being done to address these issues. I’ve had some of those conversations with people of color who do not subscribe to critical race theory. There are real issues.

But the influence of critical race theory, wokism or identity politics is not the solution. We can learn from aspects of this lens and understand the experience that many people of color have is quite different than others. But we must do so understanding that the underlining worldview, assumptions, and framework of critical race theory are fraught with contradictions, double-standards, and produces some bad fruit if we are not careful. I would go as far as to agree with others who have noted it is becoming a religion and religious movement itself (filling the vacuum created by the deconstructing and dismantling of prior grand narratives) but leading to isolation, new walls being erected based on skin color, and a view of the world without much, if any, nuance.

So what is the solution if it is not conservative evangelicalism or critical race theory?

Well, let me articulate what I think is needed first and is a major contributing factor. We need to be aware and discerning of all philosophy we come across and understand the underlining assumptions and worldviews. We cannot just accept anything at face value. However, in this case of critical race theory, that is essentially what is being called for if you are white. To push back at all would be to confirm you are racist, which is partly an intimidation tactic even if sincerely believed. Right now, this may not be popular, especially as “social justice” might sound like a positive thing, but I believe we need to be wary of all causes or movements and exercise great discernment in every case. Read Colossians chapter two carefully as this is what I am talking about and see as the danger here.

But how do we discern various philosophy’s as to whether they are genuinely biblical or not? Aren’t we, or others, prone to have our faulty interpretations or understanding? Absolutely. We must also be careful of reading into Scripture our cultural meanings, regardless of which culture we might be a part of. We all naturally do it, which is why the study of Scripture is so important, especially when you can do it with others diverse in culture, to help with cultural blind spots. But cultural blind spots are different than being labeled racist. Additionally, understanding Scripture’s use of terms like justice (and comparing to modern usage and meaning under critical race theory) and paying attention to the overarching narrative theme is critically essential. Being able to question interpretations or understanding and getting to the truth requires time and effort. Viewing the world from multiple lenses, not just one, will also aid in not becoming narrow minded in our focus.

For example, justice is undoubtedly a critical part of the theme of Scripture. Seeing the oppressed set free is part of the mission of Jesus. Serving the most vulnerable is a critical part of why Jesus came. But any of these isolated from the rest or when it is the only lens through which we view the world, form a different picture, and become something not entirely whole or even biblical. It easily leads to a new form of self-righteousness and works-righteousness that is exhausting in it’s demands and burdensome to it’s adherents.

While justice is a theme of scripture, the overarching narrative of Scripture is that of redemption from sin. Jesus came to redeem us and reconcile us to God. That is the Gospel message. Out of that does flow a thousand other Gospel implications and applications. For example, one implication is that by being reconciled to God, we are also reconciled to one another regardless of the color of our skin or any other distinction. Therefore, racism or any other “ism” has no place in the church is the application. But original sin is not racism or broken human relationships because of racism. It is rather, broken relationship with God because of sin. Racism is one of many forms or manifestations of sin. We all (not just certain races) have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) being separated from him and needing a Savior.

But when justice (or seeing the world divided in two groups of oppressed and oppressors) becomes the singular lens by which we view the world, the message becomes less about the Good News of what God did for us in Christ; and more about what I need to do to free myself (and other white people) from being racist. When the world is viewed this way, every interaction, every situation, every event, every relationship is then about race. Confirmation bias begins to settle in because you start to see race everywhere when only this lens is used. Much of what could be cultural/personality differences becomes amplified and intensified as issues of racism. The intent of someones heart, or content of their character and actions are no longer relevant.

I have also noticed a formula begins to emerge from “wokism”/social justice/critical race theory. There are rules, commandments, and expectations (some unspoken, some articulated) that must be followed, especially by white people. However, many of those are vague as to how much, for how long, and how often. Confessing our “whiteness” (sin of racism) to people of color, lamenting our racist history, and making reparations, for example, are specific actions called for. But these calls are not specified as to how long, or to how many people of color, or how many white people must do so, to atone for our collective and personal sin of racism before forgiveness is extended and healing can happen. The past, while certainly tied to the future and even still impacting the present in some harmful ways for people of color, binds us all from being able to move forward in the present and celebrate any progress. We are always guilty because we are white and so must be “vigilant” to stay “woke” about our whiteness. But this is circular reasoning and one that cannot be proven except by antidotes, personalized stories, and generalizations.

To be abundantly clear, none of this is to say racism is not real, that racism is not a part of our history, or that justice is not important. It is. We are called to pursue justice. But true justice flows not from a critical race theory worldview but as an implication and application of the biblical narrative. Neither conservative evangelicalism wedded to politics nor social justice wedded to critical race theory is the way forward. Both are identity politics that are dividing the church, relationships, and families verse uniting us in Christ.

Instead, I believe we need to stay centered and grounded in a biblical worldview that recognizes the world is in a fallen condition (racism being a part of that fallen reality but not the definition of sin) and the greatest need is transformed hearts and lives whereby we find our primary identity as brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of race or cultural distinctions. Where possible, we also should come to appreciate and demonstrate the beauty of that diversity that is representative of what heaven will be like when every tribe and nation worships together under the banner of unity in Christ. A new heaven and new earth is our ultimate hope when Jesus rights every true wrong and restores that which was broken by the fall for the redeemed.

That reality of modeling something of the beauty of heaven needs fleshed out more in each context and is worthy of deeper reflection and discussion. This side of Jesus’ return it will be messy because all people are messy. But for the purpose of this article, I wanted to at least articulate a cautionary warning about the worldview upon which critical race theory is founded and how as believers we need to understand and exercise discernment when it comes to the tenants and assumptions upon which it is built. For more on critical race theory from a biblical perspective I encourage you to check out the blog page of Neil Shenvi, an Indian-American: https://shenviapologetics.com/critical-theory-all-content/.

As a Child, Like a Child.

Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” -Luke 2:11

I have been reflecting on how exhausting 2020 has been on so many levels. That is especially true if the only lens through which we view the world, or all we focus on, are things like COVID, politics, or race. These things are a part of all our lives to one degree or another. But the hope and beauty of Jesus coming as a newborn baby is the promise of newfound life and new beginnings. Glad tidings of great joy for all people. Young or old. Rich or poor. Black or white. Male or female. 

The good news of Christmas, the Good News of the Gospel, is that Christ has come for all, and all can come to him by faith in hope and find rest for their weary souls. This is the very promise of Christ himself. In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

To whom are we coming? What yoke are we bearing? Who are we learning from? Is it Christ? We will know whether it is genuinely Christ or not by whether our souls are at ease regardless of our circumstances. We will know whether the burden we bear is that of Christ’s if it is light. We will know whether Christ is the One we are being taught by if we are experiencing hope, wholeness, and fullness of life.

If you are weary, Christ gives new life. If you have lost hope, Jesus restores hope. If you are exhausted, Christ provides peace. If you are straining and striving, Jesus brings salvation. If you are tired of the constant drama, heated political and racial rhetoric, tired of COVID fears, anxieties, and impact on life, Jesus calls us to rest in him and know his peace.

If you have ever held a newborn child, you know the feeling. You know the sense of hope. No matter how difficult or painful, all else seems to disappear and lose its power over our hearts and minds. The newness of life, the triumph of life, the optimism of life, the joy of life, the beauty of life, the marvel of life, the peace of life, the hope of life. A clean slate of new beginnings.

This Christmas let’s remember that Christ has come for us as a child. Let us come to him like a child! May Christ be born in us anew as we worship him anew. 

Baby Yoda and Jesus

Besides COVID in 2020, perhaps the next thing that has taken our culture by storm is “Baby Yoda!” Our family just returned from a trip to Disney World, and yes, we enjoyed Galaxies Edge where we got to pretend like we were in Star Wars! I even got singled out and questioned by Storm Troopers who demanded I show them my identification.

Anyway, back to Baby Yoda. I cannot help but think as Christmas approaches, there are certain similarities between this “special child” in a galaxy far far away and the real Chosen Child born here on earth over 2,000 years ago.

In fact, I think it is partly these overtures that play a role in stirring in our hearts for those into the new Mandalorian TV show. While I don’t believe these similarities are entirely intentional, I believe God is speaking even through culture in ways that ultimately point to Christ. This is similar in purpose by God for the benefit of those seeking like the wise men of old who followed the signs in the sky to discover this savior of the world. Likewise, for those looking today, they may end up seeing or finding the Christ child in a new way this year!

First, as I have watched the Mandalorian episodes, you can’t help but feel the intensity of the hunt for this child by the remnants of the evil empire that have alternative plans for this special being. Likewise, Herod, under the inspiration of evil demonic powers, being threatened by this news of a newborn king, hunted Jesus down after his birth, trying to snuff out his life because of the threat he posed. Yet, along the way, there were “protectors” in the form of both human beings and angelic messengers who fought for the child’s safety, just as the Mandalorian and some of his friends do for the “Baby Yoda” child.

Secondly, I think about our continual search for “the chosen one” or those deemed “special” who can provide some form of salvation in our lives. But as Star Wars has effectively and relatably proven to do, its Jedi “saviors” aren’t all “good” all the time. They all have their battles with the dark side, no matter how special, just like we do, no matter how gifted, with our sinful nature. Some, who started out with promise, went entirely to the dark side and fell, while others have been redeemed from the dark side. It is the story of us all. Some of us are consistently faithful like Obi-Wan Kenobi, others more like Anakin Skywalker who have fallen but been redeemed, others like Luke or Rey (and it seems so far Baby Yoda too…although his outcome is not yet known) who struggle but overcome their darkness, and still others like Count Dooku who fell to the dark side and was not redeemed. Here we can compare these characters with some biblical characters like Daniel, David, Abraham, the Kings of the Old Testament, Peter, Paul, and Judas. That is to say nothing about about modern day leaders and believers too.

But there is one, who while tempted like us all, never gave in to any sin or darkness. There is one who is The Chosen One in whom true salvation is found. There is one who is incorruptible and sinless. And he, too, was once born as a vulnerable human being. Our search for a Savior and salvation does begin with a baby. Our search for meaning, purpose, adventure, and battle revolves around this child. Just as the Mandalorian was swept into a much bigger drama than his own through his relationship with this child, so too are we swept into an epic battle much larger than our own galaxies. It is a story of deception, darkness, danger, intrigue, failure, but also devotion, love, sacrifice, redemption and hope. These are all themes of the greatest stories, movies, and drama’s; because these are all themes of the ultimate story and drama: The Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The birth of Jesus was not as some of our hymns portray it as a “silent night” or “peaceful night.” Instead, it was heaven and hell breaking in and breaking out simultaneously. It was a daring rescue operation that all revolved around the birth and the survival and eventual sacrifice and resurrection of this promised child. All things, including Baby Yoda and even Star Wars, point us to this ultimate story, a story that is still unfolding and that we are a part of even to this day. But do we have eyes to see and ears to hear?

May the force…wait…may the grace of God be with you this Christmas season!

2020 Reflections

2020 will be a year that will go down in history as the year of COVID-19! What a year it has been. 2020 has been full of challenges, uncertainty, disrupted plans, canceled trips, restrictions, limitations, hoarding, hunger, pivots, conspiracy theories, emotion, drama, protests, politics, riots, racism, and our rights. And all in an election year, which added fuel to the fire!

In this article, I want to reflect on some of these central themes and lessons I have learned from a Christian perspective and what I hope might be a helpful perspective for you as well.

  • PandemicsWhile we may have found 2020 to be unusual; the reality is pandemics have been a reality throughout human history. The Founder of ServeNow and I wrote a special edition Basic Series book (The Basic Things You Need to Know When our World Falls Apart) for our ministry. It begins by noting the historical context of pandemics throughout human history. I found that it greatly helped in keeping perspective. Crisis has a way of sucking you into the here and now with a tunnel vision that can stoke anxiety and fear in disproportionate ways. This was not the first, and it won’t be the last.
  • Uncertainty, Anxiety, Fear, and Worry: COVID-19 was quite unsettling when word broke out about the virus, and lock down measures began being implemented. At some level, I think we all have battled the various emotions this has triggered or evoked. Mental health and emotional health problems intensified even with fears over the virus itself. Suicide rates increased as people lost jobs and lost hopes. While I had good days and not so good days; I found the days when I paid attention to my emotions, went for walks outside, spent more time in prayer and reading God’s word, and took up writing projects that these activities significantly helped my emotional state.
  • Restrictions, Cancellations, and Disrupted plans: I am sure, like you, I had all kinds of plans for 2020! At our mission organization, we were just wrapping up our last fiscal year. We had just established plans for the next fiscal year ahead (April 2020-March, 2021). Obviously, many of those plans, including much international travel, went right out the window! This was a humbling reminder of many verses though in Scripture that speak about us making our plans but God directing our steps (Proverbs 16:9). Or, the reminder in James of our need to remember in humility that we are not God: Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them. (James 4:13-17).
  • Pivoting: I remember early on, knowing we would be faced with a critical choice in perspective. Would we focus on all we couldn’t do or all that we could do? A verse that became a key verse for me in 2020 was what the apostle Paul wrote to the Philippian believers from prison. Being in prison, he was obviously limited and restricted by external constraints forced upon him. In Philippians 1:12, he wrote the following, Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. How is that for perspective! We saw this happen as well, as we pivoted in some crucial ways. Since I could not travel internationally, we began utilizing technology in new or increased ways. Through Zoom calls, video messages, and devotional messages being translated, we reached MILLIONS of people more than in years past and precisely because of COVID restrictions. Additionally, I realized that this would be the year of any year to write my first and new full book, which I accomplished! It is now available for purchasing here: Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World. I even recently finished the first draft of a second book for 2021! The lesson here is that it is easy to focus on the negative realities enforced upon us that have been challenging and restricting, verse the opportunities we should take advantage of. We may be limited, but the Gospel will never be restricted if we focus on what we can do!
  • Hoarding and Hunger: It was frightening to watch two realities play out in two very different ways. In many locations throughout the US, people began hoarding commodity items such as toilet paper. But in other parts of the US or world, hunger became a real issue for millions of people. Official projections were that twice as many people would be facing acute starvation this year compared to last year, up an additional 130 million people. The lesson here was that we tend to self-preserve if we don’t intentionally combat that urge with compassion for others in times of crisis. There were, as there always are, notable exceptions to this. We even had a couple from our church drop off some toilet paper at our house to share with us knowing we couldn’t find any at one point!
  • Conspiracy Theories: Wow. This is a loaded point. We live in a time of misinformation, biased reporting, sensationalized headlines, and volatile emotions. What surprised me, though, was the number of professing Christ-followers getting caught up in conspiracy theories proving to be quite divisive, distracting, and damaging. I guess this shouldn’t surprise me, however. Rumors and conspiracy theories are not new even in the Christian community. At the end of the Gospel of John, there is a story that seems to highlight this vulnerability even among Christians to get distracted and caught up in this kind of thing. The story goes like this; as Jesus is speaking into Peter’s life in restoring him to following him, Peter sees John following at a distance and asks Jesus about him. Jesus responds with a comment that set off a chain of speculation among the other disciples. The text puts it this way in John 21:22-23, Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” How quickly our minds seem to be distracted by rumors, conspiracy theories, and the unusual!
  • Politics: I will keep this comment brief because I have hammered on this point all year. Evangelical Christians have done a lot of damage to their witness by their hypocrisy, prioritization of politics, and intertwining American politics with Christianity. While this is part of the American culture, we seem to have lost our way in our primary calling to represent Christ and reflect his character regardless of who is in power. We have become more concerned about our rights than rightly representing Christ. If you want to read more of my reflections on this, just take a look at several full articles I posted on this site on this point. The main lesson I take from this is that we have to stay focused on God’s purpose in our lives. We are here to be his witnesses and share his message, the good news of salvation, eternal life, the forgiveness of sins, and the kingdom of heaven. This is of greater priority than anything political. Be involved in politics for sure, but be careful that politics doesn’t become an idol that cannot save and ends up corrupting our calling and character. We need to trust in the Sovereignty and wisdom of God. As Daniel 2:21 says, He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning.
  • Racism: This year seemed to also expose and bring far more to the public eye the ugly reality of prejudice. Yet, this too became polarized by politics as it seems every issue has this year in the US. I wrote and spoke quite a bit on this elsewhere through the year, but it caused me to reflect a lot more deeply on the fact that in many cases we have failed to emphasize the fact that the cross of Jesus reconciles us not just to God but one another despite our differences. We have failed to cast a vision of the reality of God’s eternal kingdom and the diversity that will exist in heaven when people from every tribe, tongue, and language worships him around the throne. We still have a ways to go in modeling this reality of the beauty of his kingdom and heaven.

What have you learned in 2020? What are the major themes you see that have emerged? What is God teaching you? 

Hope Rising: New Book Announcement!

I am so excited to announce the arrival of my first book, Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World!

In this blog post, I want to give you a little of the backstory and context for why I wrote this book, along with the Founder (Lars Dunberg) of the mission organization I lead, called ServeNow

Several years ago, our Lars and I were meeting with a couple in their home in Texas. As we talked, the husband commented, “you know, what ServeNow gives me is hope.” As soon as he made this statement, I had a vision for one day writing a book on hope that shared the ServeNow story.

Later that day, as our Founder and I talked over a meal, I even mentioned to him that we needed to write a book together one day! That evening, we also came up with the phrase that is being used for our 3-year vision plan based on the dreams of our National Leaders around the world: Providing Lasting Hope. ServeNow does many different things in many different countries around the world. Still, no matter the specific project or program, what is really being extended to people is hope! And it is a hope that arises from the person of Jesus Christ himself working in and through his people worldwide. 

While the seed for the dream of writing this book was planted several years back, it was a project that was supposed to still be a few years away. Between a growing ministry, obtaining my master’s degree, travel, and tending to my family, it did not seem realistic or possible to take this additional task on yet. 

But then COVID hit! In the first week of the lock-down measures being put in place, Lars and I were asked by one of our leaders in Asia to write a special edition booklet as part of our Basic Series Discipleship program. The Basic Series is a set of 30 booklets, just 32 pages each called The Basic Things You Need to Know. They were written and designed so that anybody, at any level, anywhere in the world, translated in multiple languages, could read and grasps the basic truths of the Christian faith.

We had just finished the last book in the series when we got this request. Within a couple of weeks, we wrote, edited, typeset and had out for translation in multiple languages, a special edition book called The Basic Things You Need to Know When Your World Falls Apart.  

But as time went on and international travel was put on hold, I started feeling more and more compelled to work on this book now rather than later. One of the things I decided early on during COVID was that I would not get focused, paralyzed, and depressed about all that I couldn’t do with all the limitations and restrictions. Instead, I committed to staying focused and excited about what I could do, and even opportunities this may afford, even if not part of our original plans. 

And so, I started writing before I said anything to anyone else. One day, I wrote 10,000 words and another day even wrote 20,000. The main content just flowed! The hard work of revising, editing, citing, and other details would come later. But the more I wrote, the more excited I got and timelier I felt this book could be, especially as 2020 is also an election year. 

If there is ever a time that the world needs hope, it is now! On the back of the book, I wrote this: 

“The world feels more turbulent and hopeless with each passing day. Fear, anxiety, and despair darken and grip our hearts. From disasters and diseases to scandals and divisiveness. Where can we find real and lasting hope?

Hope Rising does not sugarcoat the stark realities of the world or the individual circumstances each of us may be facing. But it does tell real stories of hope rising from around the world, even from what seems to be the most hopeless situations. It’s also a call to each of us to bring hope to a world in need.”

Hope Rising is not just a book about ServeNow. Included in it are personal stories of both myself and Lars. I share stories from right here in the US, as well as around the world. This is also not just a book for those who may be hopeless or depressed. We all need our hope renewed at times, and we all need to be reminded of the hope we have ultimately in Jesus Christ. Young and old will benefit from this book; there is a specific chapter addressed to both the old and young!

There is also a call for us to become conduits of hope in a world desperately in need. I don’t know about you, but have you noticed more and more commercials and billboards for all kinds of businesses emphasizing the word hope? Even marketers are recognizing people need hope!

I encourage you to pick up not only a copy for yourself but consider buying a few copies to give as gifts this holiday season or to family and friends. As we write about in this book, there is another story out there not being told enough. It certainly is not making the daily news. We want to tell you that story because Hope is Rising! Join the movement and help spread the word!

***You can Pre-Order Hope Rising here: https://weservenow.org/books/.

Bigger than Politics

I really hope this is the last post for a while, where I feel compelled to write about American politics among professing Christians. But I cannot help but continue to be grieved over the idolatrous obsessive passion American Christians seem to have regarding elections, their rights, and political dynamics. That is not to say I am against Christians being in politics or whatever civic responsibilities or privileges we may have. Nor am I trying to diminish the freedoms we might possess. But it is to say we have elevated political engagement to a much higher status than it ought to be and wholly ignored more significant themes in Scripture (such as a focus on our character, Christ-likeness, our witness, obedience, faithfulness, fruitfulness, humility, justice, mercy, love, faith, hope, etc.).

In my opinion, we have so twisted Scripture and intertwined it with America and politics that I truly believe many of us are blind to how strange this mixing and elevation of politics really is. We cannot seem to separate our version of America from the kingdom of Jesus. We get our talking points from political media sources mixed with what could be at best biblical references or apocalyptic language. We talk about our founding fathers as if they were on par with the saints of the bible. But we are not letting Scripture purely transform our minds, hearts, and actions as followers of Jesus first and foremost. Rather, we use Scripture to back up our politics. Political rhetoric is what is truly molding and transforming us. I am not even talking about liberal verse conservative media. I am talking about both. We have given the media (who profits off our addiction to drama and controversy) on both sides far too much power and control over our lives, emotions, views, and even character. And we do not seem to see how we all are being played for fools; or we only see one side of it. Regardless, that all misses the bigger point.

What I want to argue is that there are themes in Scripture for the faithful follower of Christ that are far more important than who gets elected or what party is in power. Yes, presidents and parties and politics have a real impact on people’s lives now and for future generations. No, it is not wrong to participate in policy debate or elect officials who champion specific values. It is not even wrong to speak up and out against the abuse of power or for certain rights or values. But it is to say that whoever is president and whatever party is in control, and whatever the future may hold, we have a much higher calling as followers of Jesus to remain faithful to him, live as he has called us to live, and do what he has called us to do. And the priorities, agenda, and kingdom of Jesus are different from whatever party is in power and whoever is president. Republican or Democrat.

What would those priorities and agenda be if it is true that we are called to something more important and higher than politics? First, let’s examine what Scripture says God’s stated purpose for our lives, according to Romans 8:29. You probably know the verse before this, which states, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” But have you ever asked what God’s purpose is for your life and mine? And did you notice it is stated as a singular purpose, not plural or multiple purposes?

God’s purpose for your life and mine is revealed in the very next verse, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” I know that is full of some weighty theological language, but in essence, what Scripture says is that God’s purpose for his people is that we become like Jesus. That may sound boring to you, but the truth is, God is much more concerned about our character in this world and for eternity than our comfort or convenience while briefly here on earth.

If this is true, then we should be approaching every situation in life, including politics, as to how God is using those circumstances to conform to our character to become more Christ-like. Let me ask you, how have you become more like Christ in the last four years? Frankly, I have witnessed many of us perhaps becoming less like Christ. So, let me ask it another way. In the next four years, regardless of who is president or what party is in power, how will that serve the purpose of God to make us more like Jesus? That’s a bigger priority than politics, parties, or who is president.

Second, yes, we are called to pray for those in authority. But I will be honest. I see many Christians and Christian leaders not praying genuine prayers for those in power, but prayers that conform to their political views. For example, I was a pastor when President Obama was in power. I heard all the time people in my church tell me through gritted teeth that they would pray for President Obama. But following that begrudging thought, would come the inevitable caveat that they would pray he would be removed from office! But now, I see those same believers praying the opposite when it comes to President Trump and calling others to do the same. They are praying God protects him and keeps him in power. This is a double standard and hypocritical stance. We need to be consistent, and we need to pray as Scripture calls us to pray for those in power regardless of who they are or how they may or may not align with our political views. And take a look at what Scripture actually says should be the focus of our prayers:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.

Notice it has nothing to do with who is in power or what our political persuasion is or is not. The emphasis of our prayers is to be for whoever is in control that they will govern in a way that will create the kind of environment that allows us to live our lives in peace (verse anxiety), quietly (verse agitated), setting a godly and holy example (verse ungodly or unholy example). The emphasis is on our character, and the purpose is so we are effective in our witness to others. Because once again, more important than earthly politics is God’s eternal agenda of seeing men and women find salvation in Jesus Christ.

Remember, when the Apostle Paul wrote this, it was not under an ideal political environment. Paul, and the early church, were constantly being persecuted and many killed because of their faith. Yet, we don’t see Paul getting involved with political talking points, protests, or petitions. Yes, there are examples of him exercising his rights as a Roman citizen, but his focus was not political. Instead, he told the church to pray for God to work in every situation and in the hearts of those in authority and ultimately through their decisions in a way that would be conducive to creating a civil society and facilitating a witness on behalf of God’s people that would lead others to put their hope and faith in Christ. To be honest, I wonder who needs that prayer more though today. The government or God’s own people? For as much as we harp on elected governors, we have lost our way and witness equally as much!

So, let’s ask the question again. How has your witness been in the last four years? How many people came to faith in Christ because of your godly and loving example and care for their eternity? Whoever is elected for the next four years, will your focus be on political controversy and drama or lifting high the person of Jesus in a way that others are drawn to him?

Yes, we are to pray for the peace and prosperity of whatever country we find ourselves in. But we have a priority and agenda and reason bigger than our party being in power for whatever our earthly concerns may be. Yes, we are citizens of whatever country we reside in. Still, we have a citizenship greater than whatever temporary country we currently call home. We are part of a kingdom that is not of this world and a King that rules over all other lesser kings. And this King has his own Sovereign reasons and purpose for whoever he raises up and whoever he sets down.

Daniel, in the bible, understood this. Daniel was a man who served under several different kings and kingdoms. But he had a perspective more significant than anyone of those kings or kingdoms. He once prayed this prayer,“Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons;he deposes kings and raises up others.

God has his own Sovereign purpose and plans for whoever is in power! We are missing the point if we think it has to be one particular person or party. Sometimes those reasons or purposes can be hard to see, but even more so when we are blinded by our own political doctrine or agenda. Our job as followers of King Jesus is not to fight the good fight of politics; but to fight the good fight of faith, no matter what happens. In other words, we are called to remain faithful to Jesus no matter who is in power, and no matter what policies might be prevailing in the land. Some things are more important than politics.

I am concerned about this because what I continually see and hear is an unbelievable level of fear and anxiety among God’s people. We seem so afraid of persecution and our rights being taken away. Spin it however you want, but friends, we should be far more worried about the condition of our souls, character, witness, and faithfulness to Christ! There are things more significant and more important than politics.

I am not sure what it will take for us to have our eyes opened to the blindness, division, and even hypocrisy American politics have caused in too much of the church. It has not served us well. It has not served to help our witness. It has majorly damaged our credibility and corrupted our character. It’s a real problem. It’s ultimately a discipleship problem. We are far more worried about our temporary life, rights, circumstances, and future of our country than we are in remaining humble, obedient, faithful, passionate Christ-followers who stay fiercely loyal to him alone no matter what and no matter who is in power.

Are you praying for revival? That’s all well and good and right, but revival begins in God’s house, among God’s people. And what we need is not a revival where stand up and angrily demand our rights, but a revival of humility, godliness, character, and witness in this world in a way that draws others to also see the beauty of Jesus and uniqueness of his eternal kingdom. We need a revival of God’s people becoming more like Jesus no matter the situations they find themselves in. Some things are far bigger than politics. We need a vision that is greater than politics.

The Political Idolatry of the American Church

“We, Paul and Timothy, are writing this letter. We serve Christ Jesus.” -Philippians 1:1 NIRV

Let’s be real. Who are we really serving? Is it truly Christ Jesus?

I loathe election years, and in general American politics. But it is not politics itself that I see as the problem. Instead, it is the relationship of the evangelical church in the United States to politics. I believe the great sin of the American church is an obsession with power and politics.

And the reality is, both political parties use and usurp “Christianity” for their political purposes. Many political leaders have adapted biblical language and equated, substituted, or oddly mixed Christianity with America. And we seem to fall for it and not be able to see through it time and time again. But equating America with Christianity is near blasphemous and arrogant. I know it is a long tradition in American culture, but it is a very narrow view. To be faithful to Scripture, we must do better biblically with a global, historical, and eternal perspective, not America only or first or one political party.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats represent the whole and genuine faith of Jesus Christ. If you identify as Republican or Democrat, can you say anything good about the other side or call out anything wrong on your “side?” For example, can we be honest enough to acknowledge that both racial injustice and unjust rioting are happening in the US? We need to be against both. There is police brutality, but also police being wrongly abused. There are respectful protesters but also a lot of destructive rioters. Abortion is evil. So is the mistreatment of immigrants and refugees. It is not an either/or. Both/and are issues. If we claim that our primary identity is a follower of Jesus, we cannot lose our prophetic voice and souls in exchange for political power or parties. The true prophets of old never hesitated to speak truth to power even when against popular opinion or at risk to their careers, even lives.

Sure, vote as you want, but voting has become more sacred than the true sacraments to many evangelicals. It is as if it is sacrilegious not to be passionate about it. Politics seem to be the passion over the Great Commission. It has led to idolatry, shallowness, abuse, immorality, greed, selfishness, hypocrisy, fear, anxiety, anger, mistrust of others, etc. I would go as far to say that political hypocrisy and blind political loyalty associated with the church, has done more damage to true Christianity than true Christianity has done good for politics.

For example, sadly, and strangely, many prominent Evangelical leaders are curiously tied to political parties and intense on specific cultural war issues but keep being exposed for various scandals. This reality is a real problem and not isolated incidents. But why do they get to have the loudest voices? Why do they get to represent (misrepresent) Christ? And what good is it to pray in the name of Jesus if we do not represent the name of Jesus? One is more concerned about our rights and outward appearance. The other is about a right life & inner substance. As Jesus warned, “When you pray, do not be like those who only pretend to be holy.” (Matthew 6:5).

The current general state of the American church and her leaders reminds me of the Kings of Israel’s history and the depth to which Israel plunged. For as much as the “religious right” has railed against liberals, I am as sick and disgusted by their hypocrisy and double-standards as I am anything else, if not more so. American Christianity, in general, (with some notable exceptions arising and speaking out more) is in a disgraceful place that one day we will be utterly embarrassed and ashamed by.

Philippians 1:27 calls us to a higher standard. The apostle Paul, while in prison, penned these words, instead of politically protesting his rights,

Despite all the fearful rhetoric, God’s kingdom does not depend on a political party in power to advance. The kingdom of God will advance regardless or even despite what political party or leader is in power. That should not be where our hope, faith, or focus lies. God has his purposes for whoever is in power in each season. The prophet Daniel, taken captive by the Babylonians and forced to enter the service of a pagan king, even acknowledged this. He wrote, “He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning” (Daniel 2:21). Does anyone believe this anymore?

One thing is for sure regardless of who is president or what party is in power; the eternal kingdom and city of God looks more and more attractive every day! There is no King but Jesus! Caesar is not Lord. Jesus is Lord! He is the hidden treasure few seem able or wanting to find and sell everything for. Instead, we sell out for earthly kings and kingdoms. Do as you wish, but I pledge allegiance to Christ above all, before all, and Christ alone. I encourage you to do the same and follow him. All other leaders, movements, and parties will fail you.

***This article is basically a compilation of my last 20 or so tweets on Twitter. You can follow here if interested: https://twitter.com/BenFoley08.

A Lament for the American Church and Her Leaders

Everything that has ever been will come back again. Everything that has ever been done will be done again. Nothing is new on earth. -Ecclesiastes 1:9

Jerry Falwell, Jr. Bill Hybels. James MacDonald. Joshua Harris. Ted Haggard. Jimmy Swaggart. Jim and Tammy Bakker. Tullian Tchividjian (Billy Graham’s grandson). 

These are just a few of the more well-known, even celebrity type, evangelical Christian leaders who have fallen into scandal and disgrace in recent times. To be clear, this is not to say any of these leaders’ stories are or were over, but simply to note that each of these leaders had some major scandal exposed that they tried to keep secret. There are also of course many others, who have become so wedded to politics that they have destroyed their prophetic witness too.

But in the days of Swaggart and Bakker, these scandals shocked and rocked the Christian community. In recent years however, the shock is not as great as it once was. Instead, it is more of an attitude of “there goes another one” and “who will be next?”

What in the world is happening? What has become of the American church and her leaders?

On one level, I believe this is God’s purifying judgment on the church. All these leaders once spoke out against sin and immorality; while falling into temptation and discrepancy of morals (money, sex, power).

But they are icons that represent the sad state of God’s people. American Evangelicalism reeks of hypocrisy, politics, culture wars, shallowness, celebrity culture, and success defined by the American dream more than the Gospel of Jesus Christ and faithful obedience to him. Cleansing is needed. Soul-searching humility and godly repentance are sorely needed. Leadership, based on integrity, character, and purity of heart, not charisma, personality, and celebrity power is desperately needed.

On another level, there is nothing new under the sun. Scandal and disgrace have plagued humanity, and even God’s people and leaders for all of history. In Scripture, we see Adam blaming Eve and the devil to shift blame and responsibility. We see Samson, set apart unto God at birth, living a life of compromise. We see Noah’s son dishonoring his father after his father falls into drunkenness. We see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all succumbing to deceit and lies in certain situations. We find Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery out of a fit of jealousy and lying to their father about his fate. We find Eli, the high priest, not disciplining his immoral and unjust sons. We find even Samuel, a great man, and prophet, his sons, not walking in his ways. We watch as the very next generation after Joshua, forgets the Lord and falls into compromise with the idols of the nations around them in the book of Judges. We find David, a man after God’s own heart, giving into adultery, assassination, cover-up, and hypocrisy in a season of his life. We discover his descendants, the kings of Israel, struggling to remain faithful to the Lord or not doing what is right in God’s eyes. We find Israel; a people called to be a witness to the world, plunging into darkness and unrighteousness. It is a story of human tragedy.

This is nothing new. It is part of the biblical story and part of our history and legacy as God’s people. Even in each of our lives and families we have our own shame and scandal to one degree or another. It may not be as public as other leaders, but it is there. God’s people have not and do not always act like God’s people. The story of Scripture is not about the faithfulness of God’s people or even leaders, but God’s faithfulness and undeserved grace to his people, despite his people and leaders!

At the same time, this does not diminish our calling to be holy as He is holy. This reality of God’s faithfulness and grace does not remove our responsibility for purity and faithfulness. Jesus will have a pure bride. Jesus will cleanse his church. And Jesus will be glorified in, among, and through his people. 

After all, out of the ashes of failure and tragedy of sin, a perfect and pure Savior was born to save his people from their sin and shame. A Savior whose genealogy includes the messy lives of the people and leaders highlighted above. A Savior born in a way thought to be scandalous itself. A Savior who was sinless but was not immune to controversy. A Savior bloodied and beaten, crucified, and unfairly murdered by sinful man. A Savior who loved all perfectly but was not loved by all at all. A Savior despised and rejected by the very ones he came to set free.

These are embarrassing and sad days for the church of Jesus Christ in America. These are days we may look back upon with deep shame. But when that day comes, it may be what finally brings us to our knees in recognizing our need for the only one with power to save, heal, redeem, restore, and deliver. We need Jesus. Only Jesus. 

We Can’t Forget the World!

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. -Proverbs 31:7-9

I believe a genuinely biblical worldview must incorporate a global worldview, while at the same time faithfully applying and fleshing out our faith contextually. But we are poorer if our view of Christianity is only local and not global.

For example, take whatever challenges COVID has meant in the US and multiply that by at least 10X or more in other parts of the world. E-learning is not possible in many parts of the world where electricity, smart-phones, or technology as we know it is not available. Or, in the case of Uganda, I received 27-point requirement guidelines for what they must do to re-open schools. I can tell you it is a logistical and financial nightmare! Therefore, in some countries, children are not only going without education but going back into child labor situations.

Additionally, it has officially been projected that an additional 130 million people (double last year) could be facing acute hunger (starvation) this year worldwide. In just one Asian country where the mission organization I lead serves, it is estimated that 300,000 children could die in the next 6 months. 350 million people in this one country alone are being thrust back below the poverty line of less than $2 a day. Many daily wage earners cannot work their daily jobs due to COVID challenges. They depend on that income to survive day to day! As a result, across the world, suicide rates have also been escalating as people experience hopelessness. 

I am writing this because I believe we need more awareness and action regarding how COVID challenges affect the world, not just us here in the US. It is sad to report that for ServeNow, we are significantly behind where we were last year funding wise at this time, and yet the needs are more pressing than ever. Progress in many countries is not only being thwarted but pushed back in terms of poverty, child labor/trafficking, education, food, and suicides. We cannot forget the world!

Our teams are doing all they can to provide hope and care for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. We serve in some of the poorest countries in the world. Food and care packages are still needed. Skill-training programs and small business grants enable us to empower, especially women, in a sustainable way. The Basic Series special edition book, When Our World Falls Apart, that our Founder and I wrote one week after the world shut down are providing hope for thousands but still needs to be printed in more countries. We can provide tutoring and education for children. And this is in addition to other needs that have not gone away during this time, such as mosquito nets, bicycles for pastors with no other means of transportation, and soon winter blankets.

I want to keep the needs of the world and the poor in front of us even as we navigate our own challenges. Let’s not forget the rest of the world! 

To donate today to those most in need, visit our website here: www.weservenow.org

There is Always Hope

But the Lord didn’t want to destroy the royal family of David. That’s because the Lord had made a covenant with him. The Lord had promised to keep the lamp of David’s kingdom burning brightly. The Lord had promised that for David and his children after him forever. -2 Chronicles 21:7-8

On my blog site, I often post articles around some of the things I see quite disheartening in the American Church landscape. My last article was titled, We Have Lost our Way. Through those articles, I have received a significant number of responses of people having similar feelings, seeing the same reality, and resonating with the discouragement of the state of much of the evangelical church in the US in our focus and obsession with politics to the point of it destroying our witness, credibility, and character, while alienating and stereotyping people in need of God’s love and grace that we should be reaching most.

However, in this article, I want to share a word of hope and encouragement to those who feel entirely disheartened and discouraged. It is a word that struck me the other day during my devotional time in the book of 2 Chronicles. The book of 2 Chronicles, in general, reminds me of a lot of the times we are living in now. The problem was ultimately not with the culture, but with the church. God’s people had lost their way, were walking unfaithfully in their relationship with him and one another, and were not living as the light and witness they were called to be. The result was one of division and consequence in some truly tragic and preventable ways.

But amid those dynamics, I came across the verses above. Those two verses speak of God’s heart towards his people still being tender, despite their hearts growing hard towards him. It also reminds us of God’s faithfulness in relationship with us, despite our failure and unfaithfulness in relationship with him. However, the verse that most struck me and has stayed with me is how, the Lord had promised to keep the lamp of David’s kingdom burning brightly. Amid human failure, was still divine faithfulness! Among a people who had lost their way was a promise that not all was lost. Towards a nation living beneath their calling, was a word of eternal hope.

The Lord had promised to keep the lamp of David’s kingdom, burning brightly…

Despite the discouragement of where we are at today, there are people and churches burning brightly! Despite our personal failures, there is undeserved grace and hope. The Lord will have his people. He will purify his own. He will work in and through his people. And he will redeem and restore his people even from themselves.

The church (his people), despite our failings, is the means by which Jesus shines as the hope of the world. At times, we may have to believe this by faith. In our own lives, and at our lowest points, we may also have to cling to this promise. But it is true, and it will be true, for he who speaks it is the way, the truth, and the life! May he burn brightly in us again.

We Have Lost our Way

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  -Philippians 2:1-4

The other day while in my car, some “older” worship songs from the later ’90s or early 2000s came on. Songs such as “Be Glorified” and “Heart of Worship.” I am not one for nostalgia, but what captured my spirit and grieved my heart was a tone or spirit of humility in those songs of another age that I think we have completely lost in much of current American Christianity.

I do not know about you, but all I hear today is outrage. All I see are Christians who claim to possess the hope of eternal life, completely unhinged, obsessed with earthly politics, their own rights, and propagating fear. I see very little of Christ. I see very few representing well the message the Apostle Paul said we have been given of reconciliation and healing of relationship with God and one another (2 Corinthians 5:17-21). Instead, we argue, fight, and only care about airing our political opinions and views. I see little of even attempting to be peacemakers fighting to restore relationships (Matthew 5:9). Instead, we are widening the divide even over things like face masks. We judge and condemn and divide over non-essentials (Romans 14). We demonstrate so little kindness, compassion, or gracious tolerance of others. And I see so little of that which Jesus called us to in forgiving our enemies, loving even our enemies, doing good to those who hate us, and praying for those we perceive as our enemies (Matthew 5:38-48). Instead, we attack, spew anger, and curse others.

We have elevated lesser earthly values above more important kingdom values such as mercy, justice, grace, forgiveness, and love (Matthew 24). We have lost the spirit of Jesus who came not demanding his rights; but laying down his very life and “rights” for our sake and salvation (Philippians 2:5-11). I think we have become disconnected and disoriented from our primary passion for Christ and his eternal kingdom. I believe we have lost perspective and lost our way because it is not about us, it is about God being glorified in our lives. It is not about our rights above all or above the good or consideration of others. Our disproportionate passion for patriotism is destroying our witness, or at least has become of more importance than our representing Christ and his character to a broken world.

I want to get back to the heart of worship. I want to see only Jesus. I want to desire him above anything else and regardless of the cost. I want to live as we are called to in Micah 6:8 to, act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. I want to represent Christ well and be a bearer of Good News, reconciliation, restoration, healing, and salvation. I want to reflect his character and see his character revealed in and through my life. I want to hold what he values most as what I value most. I want to be a witness, regardless of the consequences. I want my confidence and trust to be in him and the inheritance he has promised, the future he has planned, the new heaven and new earth he will create, and the kingdom he has given to those called and loved by him. A kingdom that cannot be shaken.

Here is the truth: I am discouraged and disillusioned by American Christianity. We have lost our way. We have lost our humility. We are not showing the world Jesus.

 ‘I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.’ Mahatma Gandhi

“The world will be a different place when North American Christians follow the Jesus they talk about” -Daoud Nasser

If We Love Jesus…

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ -Jesus, Matthew 25:34-36

I read a great quote recently in the book Glocalization. The title of the chapter was “Follow Jesus on CNN.” The author explained that he believes Christians should go “where hell is breaking loose” and that that is God’s way of saying to his people “over here!” I absolutely love that and could not agree more! Because here is the simple truth of the matter: If we love Jesus, we will actively serve those most in need. Period.

The other day, while driving to the office of our international mission organization (ServeNow), my heart wanted to burst as I thought about Jesus and the day that I will stand before him. At that moment, it was as if my passion was suddenly renewed for serving those most in need around the world. That is what I love about ServeNow, it really is something more than just an organization. It is a means through which I, and others, can show in action our love for Jesus by serving the most vulnerable. Of course, we are not the only means by which love for Jesus can be shown, but that is why I appreciate the opportunity to lead ServeNow…because I love Jesus!

Take a moment with me and press the fast-forward button on your life. Go to the end (for we know how it ends!) and hit pause. Imagine this day when you will stand before Jesus, the King himself. Imagine what that moment will be like. At that time, we will not have the luxury of looking ahead, but behind. What did we do with our lives? How did we demonstrate our love for Jesus in the brief time we were given on this earth? Who did we serve in his name and for his sake? How many received hope because we acted out of our love for Jesus?

Or maybe you have lost that spark. Perhaps you have grown weary of doing good. Maybe you look at the world and see only despair. Perhaps you need your hope renewed, joy restored, and passion re-engaged. If that is you, look into the eyes of Jesus. Receive his love for you. Feel his passion pulsating through his eyes of fire. Think upon the cross. Do what Hebrews 12:3 calls us to do: Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Or perhaps you are in love with Jesus and itching to act on that love. Maybe you are looking for an opportunity, a means, a way. Perhaps you wonder what opportunities to act on or where you should go and who you should serve. Let me simply encourage you to follow Jesus’ example, who went around doing good. 

I believe we overthink it way too much. Or sometimes, we think our “small” actions are also insignificant. After all, a cup of cold water does not last very long! But the truth is nothing lasts forever except the work God does in our hearts and lives. No matter how small, every action is significant to Jesus, remembered by Jesus and will be rewarded by Jesus!

Where do you see a need? Meet it. Where do you see “hell breaking loose?” Run there, not away from there! If we love Jesus, we will serve him by serving the most vulnerable. We will not be tied up by political drama, despair, or other distractions. And if we are not helping those most in need, then perhaps we have lost our love for Jesus. If that is the case, fall in love with Jesus again. You will know it has happened when you find yourself serving him by serving others compelled and motivated by his love for you.

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ -Matthew 25:40

Climate Change: Hear me Out!

“Christians need to have a better theology of ecology” -The Future of the Global Church, pg.10

“What we most need to do, is to hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying” -Thich Nhat Hanh, Active Hope, pg.75

“For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. -Romans 8:20-22

On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse -Revelation 22:2

I have a confession to make. For years, I have considered any talk of climate change to be a joke, liberal talking point, and not something I personally should care or worry about. However, I have recently had a change of mind due to several books and what Scripture says about creation and how my choices impact the world, especially the poor. In this article, I am not looking at this from some political angle. Rather, I want to share some insights on how this especially should apply to Christians and those with greater wealth than most others.

First, as a Christian, we recognize creation as the work of God and something we all generously benefit from. We live in Colorado now, and we enjoy so much being in the mountains as much as possible. Before Colorado, we lived along the Jersey Shore and enjoyed the beach. Additionally, we are from Southern Lancaster County, rich with rolling green hills and farmland. For many of us, being out in nature is healing, restorative, and connecting us with God and his power. Thus, as Patrick Johnstone writes in his book, The Future of the Global Church, “As Christians, we should be passionate about God’s creation as his appointed stewards. We should be in the forefront in protecting and improving our environment and managing the finite resources of our earth-home. Yet, the debate on climate change is charged with emotion, partisan politics and economic protectionism…” (pg.10)

But why is this such a problem? Consider a few more quotes from Patrick’s book:

  • “The peaking of the world’s population at around 9 billion in 2050 will place huge demands on global resources and ecosystems” (pg.1). 
  • “Population pressure, climate change, global trade and travel all increase the risk of the spread of old and new diseases that could be disastrous for humans, livestock, wildlife, crops and plant life” (pg.8).
  • “The greatest crisis that faces humankind is not a shortage of food, water or health care or an excess of greenhouse gases but finding abundant, affordable supplies of eco-friendly energy” (pg.14). 
  • “The next 50 years are critical. Failure to find solutions could decisively tip the balance towards ecological catastrophes that would affect agriculture, healthy, biodiversity, climate, and the productivity of the seas” (pg.19)

Here is how all this translates to me and probably most of those who read this. For one of my recent master’s classes, we had to visit the website givingwhatwecan.org and plug in our income level to see how we compare to the rest of the world in terms of wealth. Even though I work for an international non-profit organization and my wife is home with our kids, we still came in as wealthier than 93% of the world! That is a sobering reality. And as Johnstone writes, “Industrialization and population growth strain global resources” (pg.19). In the book Active Hope, the authors note, “When more people consume things, we not only deplete resources, but we also produce more waste. The rubbish generated each year in the United States could fill a convoy of garbage trucks long enough to go round the world six times” (pg.20).

Here is what got to me in this: my materialistic actions may have an effect on climate change dynamics that affect the poor the most. For example, the day I was thinking about this, I got word of the worst flooding in at least the last 30 years in a West African country the mission organization I lead (ServeNow) serves in. And over the years, we have noticed an increase in the number of “natural” (man-contributed?) disasters around the world. For example, Patrick Johnstone writes, “Drought and floods affect many countries in both western and eastern Africa. Natural resources are still being coveted and extracted by powers outside the region with little regard for the long-term health of the environment or poverty reduction; desertification and deforestation, through logging and slash and burn agriculture, are decimating species, water supplies, grazing grounds, and farmland, and contributing to recurring food emergencies…” (pg.9). Maathai further adds, “The poor have long experienced the fallout of such greed and selfishness…while this structure has enriched the West, practicing it without caution has only impoverished Africa.” (pg.6-7).

Say what you want about the merits of climate change (maybe we have a defensive and dismissive posture to not have to examine our lifestyles?). Still, there is no disputing from a biblical perspective that our sin has thrown the earth off in ways that play out in real consequence around the world. Specifically, I would say our greed, selfishness, consumerism, and materialism. For example consider this shocking fact from the book Active Hope, “In 2010 the global arms expenditure was $1.6 trillion…spending 10 percent of this annually could eliminate extreme poverty and starvation throughout the world” (pg.107). In the book, The Challenge for Africa, Wangari Maathai, a winner of the Noble Prize writes, “The recognition that underlying almost every conflict is either a struggle for control over resources or a scramble to access them after they have become scarce is clear in almost every conflict…” (pg.249).

Whether you want to believe that or not, there is no denying our greed, selfishness, consumerism, and materialistic tendencies also harm our own lives. In the book Active Hope, I love a term they coined as “affluenza” and describe as “the emotional distress that arises from a preoccupation with possessions and appearance” (pg.46). The problem with this is that the constant need for “more” makes it harder for us to be genuinely grateful for what we do have. As the authors of Active Hope note, research has shown that people experiencing high levels of gratitude tend to be happier and more satisfied with their lives” (pg.43). Other authors have recently noted too that there is an interesting phenomenon happening in developed or developing countries. The better the world gets in terms of standard of living, the less hope we seem to have in life!

What does this tell us? In The Challenge for Africa, Maathai writes, “The tenants of modernity-with its belief that material goods, greater technology, and innovation at any cost will solve all our problems and meet all our needs are insufficient to provide an ethical direction for our lives” (pg.162). In other words, we need more than “stuff” to truly prosper. And, while “stuff” might improve some parts of our lives, it can destroy other parts of our lives (such as our soul, self, heart, even creation itself).

This is precisely what the prophets of old and Jesus himself and all of Scripture warns us about. This is not a popular Western teaching, where we promote “prosperity” and “plenty” above all else. But greed is deadly to the soul. Possessions are not what provides ultimate meaning, identity, significance, and purpose. We need to get back to compassion, generosity, and soul-care. No, wealth is not evil in and of itself. Still, we certainly have greater responsibility and accountability with what we do with it the more we have. The same is true of power. Wealth and power can easily corrupt if we are not careful to guard our hearts against greed and irresponsibility. And our ferocious appetites (we consume far more and disproportionately compared to most of the world) could have something to do with the disasters unfolding worldwide.

At the very least, I am writing this for my own sake and anyone else who happens to read it, to be more intentional, mindful, and responsible with our lives. In our individualistic culture, we typically fail to think about how our actions and lifestyles affect others. And the danger of being so comfortable is that we become complacent. But this begins to destroy both the world and our own souls; two things that God, our creator, cares about and loves deeply.

I will close with this quote from Johnstone’s book, The Future of the Global Church, that I think ought to spur us on to a love that manifests in action: “Global stability may depend on how we help the poorer nations to secure a viable, hopeful future, failure could lead to ecological disaster, social collapse and huge migrations of people” (pg.3). Could we already be experiencing the beginnings of this? And what can we do to be mindful of how our lives impact the poorest and most vulnerable among us?

Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” -Jesus, Luke 12:15

Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria…You lie on beds adorned with ivory and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves. You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments. You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph. -Amos 6:1

Tattered & Torn: A Nation Divided

Maybe I am one of the only ones feeling conflicted this Fourth of July as an American. It is tough to even articulate or know how best to put it. Perhaps you can chalk it up to the fact that I was born right at the cusp of the generation labeled “millennial’s.” As a result, I have been able to relate with two different generations without fully being able to identify solely with either. I also am officially registered as an “independent” politically as I can find points of commonality with both parties, but also points of significant divergence and disgust with each. Additionally, I look at current cultural events, clashes, issues, and controversies and can see merit in “both” sides concerns, while often not able to fully embrace some of the extremes I see playing out on either side.

For example, I am uncomfortable when I feel America is nearly worshiped, especially when it is considered almost “treasonous” in some circles to point out any flaws or call for reform (unless, of course, in keeping with our own political narrative). But I also feel uncomfortable when, as Americans, we cannot find any reason to take any pride in our country and want to burn it all down or point out only the “bad.” I feel torn in that I see the right often wants to hold on to white-washing history, glorifying the past, and not acknowledge any transgressions. At the same time, the left seems to want to rewrite history in such a way as to condemn it all, take out of context, and not learn from the good, the bad, and the ugly. History and people are complicated. Can we not learn from it all, appreciating the good, condemning the bad, and correcting what needs addressed?

I also admit that it bothers me the level of honor given in some American churches (that are conspicuously silent on other issues or not giving the same level of recognition to missionaries sacrificing their lives for the kingdom of God). But it also bothers me the lack of any honor given to the country in which we live and those in uniform or positions of authority.

Further, it is beyond wearisome to see endless social media posts condemning anyone not wearing masks (even one I saw asking God to help them love those who don’t), but also disappointing to see others mocking those who do and concerned only about their “rights.” How have masks become so controversially divisive that we walk away from long-term friendships and relationships and find it necessary to use it as a weapon against one another?

There is no doubt we are a very divided nation this Fourth of July in 2020. And I have no answers to offer in this post (not that I think will change anyone’s minds anyway!). Instead, I just want to acknowledge that this Fourth of July, I see a flag tattered and torn not by outside enemies, but its own citizens internally. I see hope, and I see despair. I see stains, and I see beauty. In this, I see a reflection of the paradox that lies within us as it’s people. We are a mixture, a mystery, a contradiction.

You may call that lazy, but I see it as honest. You may call me wishy-washy, but I call it balanced. You may call me uncommitted, but I see it as nuanced. You may call me a coward, but I see it as courage. I believe our extremes are unhelpful on either side. We do not need to stake our identity solely on being Americans. Still, neither do we need to disown and degrade everything about being an American. For all her people’s flaws, we also have our strengths. And for all our strengths, we also have our faults. Isn’t this after all the story of us all?

Our Father

“This, then, is how you should pray: “‘Our Father…” -Matthew 6:9

This weekend is Father’s Day weekend. At our home church, our pastor, along with another elder and me, recorded a Father’s Day message sharing insights and thoughts (along with far too many “dad jokes!”) revolving around being father’s. As I prayed about what I could contribute to the conversation, the main thing God put on my heart was something unique in how I have thought about it or taught it before. But it is especially relevant right now in the context of tensions around race in the United States and, frankly, cultural clashes around the world. I also want to note that what prompted taking the time to write this article was a conversation I had with a mentor of mine who shared with me what he was planning to preach this Sunday. What amazed us both was that separately, we both received the exact same message in focus! And that focus is a reminder of the first two words of what has historically become known as the Lord’s Prayer. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he told them to begin with two profound and powerful words: our Father.

Over the years, when I have taught on this, I have emphasized how revolutionary it was of Jesus to teach us to refer to God as “our Father.” So many other terms and names for God are used in the Bible for God, but nobody, until then, addressed God as Father. The term Father carries with it strong connotations that are wonderful to explore. However, many Father’s Day messages, of course, discuss our challenges with this, especially if we did not have a positive relationship with our human father. I usually have focused my messages around those themes, and what it means that God is our Father in terms of relationship with him. I often have used the “Prodigal Son” story too to talk about the Father’s love for both prodigal sons (the liberal son and the religious conservative son) despite both being lost. I believe it is still a critical message for an American Church that is deeply political in a way that I think is an unhealthy focus of priority and perspective. We need a more robust Kingdom orientation and consistent faithfulness to Scripture even when it might confront our political biases.

All that, however, to get to the main point of this blog article and this Father’s Day. What struck me (and others too apparently!) in a new way this year, especially considering cultural dynamics, is the word that comes before “Father” in the Lord’s prayer. It is the very first word Jesus taught us to pray. The first word is “Our.” This is more profound than we might recognize at first, and if you are like me, I have kind of missed and skipped over.

What Jesus was teaching his disciples and us, is that when we pray, we pray not only in terms of intimate relationship personally with God but in view of our collective family relationship with one another as God’s people and community of brothers and sisters in Christ. God is not just my Father. God is our Father together. We are brothers and sisters in Christ despite our unique differences and races. 

In a culture that is so polarized, divided, and at odds with one another, I believe this is a message needed now more than ever! When we come together in worship and prayer, we come together diverse and different, but united in terms of who we are in Christ and with God as our Father. We come equally as brothers and sisters adopted into the family of God. As we draw near to God in prayer, we also are brought close to one another. My relationship with God (and yours) is personal, but not private. My relationship with God affects not just me, but us together and collectively. Did you ever notice there is not a single “me” in the Lord’s Prayer? Everything is “us” or “our.” Jesus never intended for us to have our own little thing going on with God apart from community with one another and brotherhood/sisterhood together! 

In other words, every time we pray and come before our Heavenly Father, we should be coming together not only with our own needs but also with the needs of one another globally. When we pray, we come not only thinking of ourselves and our context but others and their struggles, which, as a family, also becomes ours even if different. 

When we pray, we come not only thinking about our relationship with God but our relationship with one another. We are reminded that to love God is also to love one another. 1 John 4:20, for example, could not be more explicit. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.

The church needs to be leading the way right now in modeling the beauty of unity within diversity. The church needs to be leading the way in modeling community and what it means to be the family of God and brothers and sisters in Christ. There are differences in any family, but there is also a bond more significant than those differences. We need to be a microcosm of heaven on earth within our churches because heaven will be filled with people from every tribe, tongue, and language! And we will be united by one thing: the bond we share as the children of God because of Christ’s great love for us. 

And so, this Father’s Day, let us remember, when we pray, we need to pray not only with our needs or relationship with God in mind. We need to pray as Jesus taught us. And that begins with two profound words… “Our Father.” 

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. -Ephesians 4:1-7

Race-Related Reflections

I looked and saw how much people were suffering on this earth. I saw the tears of those who are suffering. They don’t have anyone to comfort them. Power is on the side of those who treat them badly. Those who are suffering don’t have anyone to comfort them. -Ecclesiastes 4:1

I’ll keep this as brief as possible, but I wanted to share some recent and personal reflections on everything going on race-related in the US. I have hesitated a bit to share too much directly on social media (minus my Ben Foley page) for several reasons:

a). I questioned what difference it could make just posting. Most people already have their opinions and minds made up. Plus, would I then think because I posted I did my “duty?” Would posting in other words, just make me feel better but not change anything? Would it just offend everyone rather than helping anyone? However, if I have any gifts, it would include communication, so why not use my gift to try to add something of meaning? Shouldn’t we use whatever gifts God has given us to serve others according to the need and his leading? Aren’t we called to use our influence and speak up on behalf of others (Proverbs 31:8-9)?

b). I am a white male who does not have the same experiences as many within the black community. Therefore, it seems their voices are more relevant to hear from, listen to, and learn from (and not be selective in finding voices that may fit my political narrative). However, part of the problem is the silence, in general, from the white community/church in downplaying or dismissing this as a real issue in our culture or making it a mere political issue or something not relevant to the Gospel (see my previous post on Pentecost and how that relates to events going on today around race). Why can’t we acknowledge the simple truth that others cultural experiences differ from ours and for some that means greater challenges than others? Also, why do we (on either side of the political divide even within the church) have a selected set of certain “issues” or “causes” we will be vocally loud about, but not others? For those of as that are followers of Jesus, we need to work at being consistent with our voices, holistic in our approach, and faithful to Scripture in every issue, not just ones that line up with our political talking points. At the same time, issues have a complexity that is often overlooked in our entertainment driven culture looking for catchy sound-bites that often convey a false dichotomy. A major challenge we face is that we live in an either/or culture instead of often a both/and. Also, we are all at different points of our journey. That gives no excuse to racism or other evil’s, but it is to say our understanding, solutions, or experiences may differ one to another.

c). It is overwhelming the divide and trying to make sense of what the “right” response is. It seems whatever is said is “wrong” according to one group, and  “right” according to another. Political agendas and narratives influence both sides and every response. For example, if you speak out about systemic racism and police abuse, you are labeled a certain way politically, or your fidelity to the Gospel is questioned. (For the record justice is a part of the Kingdom of God, but so is redemption and salvation…and vice versa). But if you note (especially if you are white) that violence, destruction of property, and police harassment is not the way to go, you are perceived as part of the problem or labeled racist. (For the record it is my opinion in the current discussions, that if we speak out about these things we should be careful to be louder and clearer that we condemn the callous death of a black man by a white cop and the fact that some of that rage, even if the actions are wrong, is a symptom of a real and deeper cultural problem needing to be healed. There may well be a problem there if we can’t. At the same time, can’t we acknowledge there are other issues too without distracting from the main issue?). It is also hard to sift through all the noise, agendas, and people abusing and taking advantage of the situation for ulterior motives verse those at the end of their rope lashing out feeling their voices are not being heard, and nothing changes or nothing else works to get people’s attention. There are examples of both negative and very positive peaceful protests. There are also examples of politics on both sides, but also very faithful Gospel responses. There are many good cops and some who abuse their power. It just seems culturally, we are bent on pushing one narrative to the exclusion of all others and not allowing for any nuance or common ground on both sides. Why is this? What can be done about this?

I don’t have all the answers. But, all that to say, at the end of the day, I hope we can each learn something beyond where we started in our views, opinions, or despite political leanings. There is a way to hear others out, strengthen relationships (instead of destroying and dividing further) even if we still come away not fully agreeing. Also, if we never dive deeper into issues and others experiences, except becoming more entrenched in our predetermined views/cliches/experiences, how can we ever grow as a people, emphasize with one another, love one another, and gain a deeper appreciation for others and their cultural dynamics even if, or especially when, different from ours?

Pentecost: What Does This Mean in 2020?

“We hear all these people speaking about God’s wonders in our own languages!” They were amazed and bewildered. They asked one another, “What does this mean?”  -Acts 2:12

George Floyd, Minnesota, Pentecost. What do these three things have to do with each other? If you have been following the news recently, you know the connection between George Floyd and what is happening in Minnesota and other cities as I write this. But did you know this Sunday (May 31st, 2020) is also Pentecost Sunday? What does Pentecost, though, have to do with George Floyd and current events 2,000 plus years later from that historical event?

In this article, I want to submit to you that it has everything to do with recent developments. I also want to submit to you that the question asked by a bewildered crowd on the day of Pentecost is the same question we not only should be asking today but need to start seriously walking in as God’s people and the church of Jesus Christ because we are still missing it.

In Acts chapter two, we have the account of when the Holy Spirit came from heaven in accordance with the promise of Jesus. But what we often miss in that account is the fact that the crowd that gathered that day in response to recognizing something unusual was taking place was an incredibly diverse crowd from various countries, regions, backgrounds, and languages. Yet, that day, they heard the “wonders of God” being clearly communicated in their own native languages by the disciples of Jesus. These were the same disciples that before this event did not know those languages. What happened on Pentecost was a reversal of what happened at the Tower of Babel. Whereas languages were confused, and people scattered in Genesis chapter eleven, the opposite occurred at Pentecost. Everyone clearly understood and were brought together in unity despite diversity by the power of the Holy Spirit and the person of Jesus Christ.

But, they had a question that day that I think is still haunting us today and has not yet been wholly entered into even by the church of Jesus Christ in the United States. That question was, “what does this mean?” Peter would go on to address and answer that very question by boldly proclaiming the Gospel (which means Good News) of Jesus Christ (his death on the Cross for our sin and resurrection) and calling people to repentance (a change of heart and life). That reality resulted in a beautiful testimony of God’s power to unite diverse people and bring together in one family of selfless and sacrificial love for one another.

See, the coming of the Spirit and the Gospel of Jesus Christ means much more than knowing we will go to heaven when we die. It means Jesus has broken down every barrier that divides us. It means an end to racism, prejudice, and nationalism. It means the Cross has reconciled us to God AND one another no matter our differences. It means the confusion of Babel gives way to the clarity of the Cross. It means an end to discrimination. Pentecost means every barrier and wall that closes us off to one another is torn down. It means an end to hatred and hostility. It means true peace. It means we can walk in love towards one another. It means we all stand before God as sinners condemned, but brothers and sisters redeemed and forgiven by the blood of Jesus Christ. It means Good News of Great Joy for ALL people and ALL the world. It means a family for eternity made up of every tribe, tongue, language, people. It means a celebration of unity and beauty within diversity. It means God’s kingdom breaking forth and shattering the demonic structures of this world that oppress, enslave, and hold people captive.

The fire of Pentecost and wind of the Holy Spirit needs to fall fresh again and blow across this land to transcend partisan politics, liberal lies, conservative hypocrisy, white supremacy, and triumph over all that divides us. Deep cleansing and purifying are needed once more among the people of God and the church of Jesus Christ. A work of righteousness, justice, reconciliation, and healing is the need and cry of this generation. This takes a move of the Holy Spirit. An act of God. A call to repentance. Bold and unashamed proclamation of the Gospel. A reminder of the Cross. As the old hymn puts it, “What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”

Are we still, a couple of thousand years later, asking what Pentecost means? It is time to do more than ask about it. It’s time to walk in what it means: the very heart of our Father in whose image we all have been made and are called to reflect and represent to a dark, fallen, sinful, corrupted, and evil world that is deceived and blinded by the enemy of our souls and all that is good, true, holy, and just.

Read and meditate carefully on this last passage below. When was the last time you heard this preached? When was the last time you thought about the Cross and Pentecost not just in terms of relationship with God but also with one another? The Cross extends not only from earth to heaven (vertically) but side to side (horizontally). The Cross reconciles not just us to God individually, but one another collectively.

Here is what Ephesians 2:14-18 says: “Christ himself is our peace. He has made Jews and Gentiles into one group of people. He has destroyed the hatred that was like a wall between us. Through his body on the Cross, Christ set aside the law with all its commands and rules. He planned to create one new people out of Jews and Gentiles. He wanted to make peace between them. He planned to bring both Jews and Gentiles back to God as one body. He planned to do this through the Cross. On that Cross, Christ put to death their hatred toward one another. He came and preached peace to you who were far away. He also preached peace to those who were near. Through Christ, we both come to the Father by the power of one Holy Spirit.” -Ephesians 2:14-18 NIRV

I submit to you that we have missed this. We are not walking in this. We have not asked or discovered what this all means despite the benefit of 2,000 years since Pentecost and the Cross upon which Jesus died. Therefore, crowds are forming in protest and riots rather than unity and peace. Martin Luther King Jr, in fact, once said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Rage has its reasons, even if it does not make all its actions right. But we need to ask what it is that we are not hearing. We need to get to the root of the rage for healing to occur. We are not there yet. May God have mercy and forgive us.

Uncertainity

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.  -1 Timothy 6:17-19

At the time of writing this, the COVID-19 Virus is literally shaking and shutting down the world in unprecedented ways. Not only are travel restrictions being put in place around the world, but “social distancing” has become a new term for many of us in practice! Groups larger than 10 are being discouraged from gathering. Restaurants, sporting events, schools, churches, and other social and public meeting places are being closed down for a time. Grocery stores can’t keep up with the demand for many items, and even Amazon is restricting what it is shipping.

Meanwhile, the stock market is going wild in ways we haven’t seen since the recession of 2008. And all of this has been happening in what seems like the blink of an eye over an invisible enemy.

In times like this that are uncertain and unfamiliar, panic and fear grips hearts, and people begin to focus on their personal needs and concerns in a way that can lead to hoarding, selfishness, and self-preservation. In times opposite of this however, we can become arrogant and overly confident in the stock market or our comfortable lives that we take for granted.

That is why this passage caught my eye in a new way. Here, the apostle Paul encourages young Timothy to address the rich in this world. You may not think of yourself as rich, but if you live in the United States and are reading this, you are rich compared to most of the rest of the world! And we are explicitly called not to be arrogant (in times of prosperity) or to put our hope in wealth, which is so uncertain. Did you catch it? As we are all realizing right now, things can change in the blink of an eye, and that which seemed so certain, no longer is so sure!

But rather than this provoking fear, anxiety, and self-preservation in us, the rest of this passage is critical. We are to put our hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. God is not out to rain on our parade or spoil the enjoyment of life. He is the One from whom all good in our lives comes from and who enables us to enjoy life! But our hope must be in him, not the stock market, economy, our job security, or our bank accounts. Everything in this world is subject to uncertainty and change. Only God himself, however, is unchangeable and, therefore, certain and sure for us to put our trust in.

Secondly, Paul called Timothy to command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. This, however, is the opposite of self-preservation in uncertain times! And yet this is so critical during times like this that we not begin to focus inward and hoard for ourselves, but open up generously to others in need too.

I lead a mission organization called ServeNow. We work among some of the most vulnerable people in the world. In some ways, they go through “crises” like this all the time, and their life is one of constant uncertainty day by day. And we are getting requests from our directors in these countries sharing with us the needs and ways we could really serve and be a blessing right now.

However, I have been wondering how giving will be impacted since the USA is also going through this. Will people become less generous and think only of their own needs or life here in America? Will donations go down and will we have to cut back other programs, let alone not be able to respond to this situation for those with far less options or access than we have?

Therefore, this is a call to not stop being generous. This is a call to be careful not to lose compassion. This is a call to be rich in good deeds, even if you might be losing some earthly riches in the stock market. This is a call to not turn inward and act only in self-preserving ways.

And here is ultimately why: it is an act of faith and love that will not only benefit those most in need on earth but also result in true reward for you in eternity. The motivation Paul told Timothy to communicate to the rich was, in this way, they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

“They,” is me and you! Now is a critical time to ask ourselves; are we thinking only of our lives on earth or also others life on earth and eternity?

When Following Jesus Sucks

What I’m about to tell you is true. When you were younger, you dressed yourself. You went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands. Someone else will dress you. Someone else will lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to point out how Peter would die. His death would bring glory to God. Then Jesus said to him, “Follow me!” -John 21:18-19

Probably my favorite season of the year, according to the Christian calendar, is the Easter season. In the United States, there is nothing better than winter finally breaking and Spring beginning to burst forth with new life, color, and warmer weather! In many ways, it’s a reminder from creation that death gives way to life, as the resurrection followed on the heels of the crucifixion.

This year, however, I am being reminded not only of the joy of the resurrection and restoration. I am also being reminded of the reality of the cross we, too, are called to bear. I love focusing on how Jesus restored Peter after he had failed and denied even knowing Jesus. But God has been drawing my attention to what followed Peter’s resurrection, and I won’t lie; I don’t like it! Yes, on the one hand, it was exactly what Peter needed to hear to know he was fully restored and would not repeat his previous failure of denying Jesus. But on the other hand, I am not sure I like the outcome of how Jesus said his life would end: Peter being crucified himself!

But let’s be real. What this passage and statement remind us of is something you probably won’t hear emphasized in much preaching but it is true: Following Jesus can sometimes downright suck. Jesus flat out told Peter that he would be led in his later years somewhere where he would not want to go. He directly informed him he would not have control over what others would do to him (crucify him). Friends, may I remind you: crucifixion sucks!!!

And that’s the point. Following Jesus can be very painful and sacrificial at times. It is not just fun, glamorous, or pleasurable at all times. But the goal is not our comfort or pleasure; it is to glorify God. It is to demonstrate his power in our lives, overcoming even our human weakness, selfishness, and desires.

Lately, I have been traveling around the world and the US quite a bit. I absolutely love what I do, but there are times and days where I wish I could escape the weight of responsibility I sometimes feel (managing staff, raising money, signing contracts, putting reports together, navigating problems, facing many often competing pressures, etc.). Being an introvert, I get exhausted and weary to the point of sometimes dreaming of escaping in multiple ways. I can tell you of daydream’s of escaping to a remote cabin to just read books at a leisurely pace I can control. I can tell you about “dreams” of sleeping in, binge-watching movies for days with no responsibilities, going on a real vacation for whatever time and way I want, or simply not being away from my wife and kids so often. Sometimes I am envious of others and what can appear as a more comfortable, more luxurious life. Sometimes, I catch myself daydreaming of a simpler, slower-paced life. Too often, I get tired, defensive, frustrated, cranky, impatient, and complain too much.

But as God keeps reminding me of in this interaction with Peter, following Jesus is not about making our lives comfortable, convenient, or experiencing spiritual highs all the time. It is about growing up, becoming mature in our faith, being stretched by our faith in uncomfortable ways, and living a life of sacrifice and service like the One we claim to follow. It is often about surrendering, submitting, denying, and crucifying our wants, desires, fears, and preferences. Following Jesus is a call to give up our own way and realize life is not about us. We are not the center of the story. The glory of God is.

Yes, Jesus restores. But he restores us to a crucified life in which his resurrection can be displayed through our weakness. He also restores us to a life of service and sacrifice. 

This is not a popular message. Jesus even acknowledged Peter would not like it, and by extension, if we are honest, neither will we! And if you read on, you will see Peter doing all he can to distract and divert attention away from what Jesus was saying to him by putting the focus on someone else (we do the same)! But in stating that Peter would not like this, Jesus is giving us permission to be real. To not fake it till we make it. To not deny that it doesn’t disturb us. To not deny we would rather run from it. To not deny that we don’t sometimes wish it easier or different. But in the end, it is a call to accept that part of what it means to follow Jesus is that we grow up in ways that sometimes do suck. That God’s will for our lives sometimes leads us places, we would rather not go and are not comfortable, but by his grace, we can endure for his glory.

I don’t mean to say following Jesus always sucks. Much of it is glorious, satisfying, life-giving, even fun, and awesome. All other ways of life are, in the end, empty and void of real abundant life. But the reality is, following Jesus is not always awesome. It’s not always fun. It’s not always what we prefer. It challenges our fears and comfort zones. Sometimes it is very painful, even agonizing. Sacrifice and serving by nature involve some personal cost and denial of something that would bring us greater pleasure. 

But it is when we endure these very situations that we show our faith is now mature. It is when our following Jesus becomes more than fleeting feelings, but a faithfulness that reflects the faithfulness of our Savior towards us no matter the cost.

Jesus in the Himalayas

I just wrapped up a beautiful trip to several Asian countries! So I wanted to share a few reflections specifically regarding a couple day journey in the majestic foothills of the Himalayas.

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One of the most special days was a day where we trekked a couple miles by foot to get to a remote village where only five Christian families are to be found. It is a village as primitive but charming as you can imagine. From the homes to the ways they cook, to their daily lives, the contrast with much of the Western world could not be further apart.

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It was meaningful to talk with the first believer in this village and hear his story of how he came to Jesus. He was a witch-doctor in another village, but someone ended up sharing the Gospel with him, and he gave his life to Christ despite being outcast by his family and not welcomed at first in the village we were in. Another of the believers we talked to came to Christ because of this first man, but not until twelve years later! He hated Christians (thinking Christianity is a Western religion/god, which is a typical misunderstanding).

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Additionally, it was a great joy to visit this village that no one else would visit. We hosted a free medical clinic for people here who never can go to a doctor or afford even basic medicine. We also put on a program for forty of the kids from thirty families in a village reachable only by foot. I had the joy of sharing the Gospel with them, as well as giving out some children’s material that is engaging and interactive around Jesus.

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This trip was also a great reminder of why we do what we do and why I am willing to leave my family and children at times. In fact, I shared with my kids that while they are privileged to know Jesus and have access to nearly everything this world can offer, there are still many villages, people, and children who also need to know that Jesus loves them.

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 The Himalaya region and for that matter the whole world is full of unreached people that Jesus loves! One of our Asian teams earlier this year gave out winter blankets in another village where no one from other “faiths’ has been welcomed until that day with our team. Sixty families heard about God’s love for them in Christ for the first time! The. First. Time.

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We also gave blankets out in another remote mountain village, and I had the opportunity to share the Good News with people who are not followers of Jesus yet. In this village, the local pastor’s wife died a few years ago from a simple UTI infection. But lacking access to basic medicine that we take for granted, she did not survive. And yet, this pastor, with great joy in the Lord, continues to serve in this village faithfully and is overjoyed with us coming alongside him to share God’s love in word and deed.

Jesus is at work and walking himself in the Himalayas! Please continue to pray for the many villages, people, families, tribes, and children who have yet to meet him. And please pray for those going to bring that Good News to others in many sacrificial ways under challenging circumstances.

***To partner with ServeNow to show God’s love in the Himalaya’s and beyond, click here: ServeNow.

“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” -Romans 10:14-15

You are not Alone!

There is a surprisingly beautiful message of hope, redemption, salvation, and courage in the newest Star Wars, The Rise of Skywalker movie. I know die-hard Star Wars fans get caught up in great controversy over story-lines and direction of the movies (myself included!). Still, I found myself moved by a couple scenes around a very biblical and needed message in today’s world. In its simplest form, that message would be: You are not alone; they are many others.

Without spoiling the movie too much for those who haven’t seen it yet (although if you haven’t yet, you must not be a true Star Wars fan anyway!), there are a few beautiful scenes where some of the main characters are at the very end of their own whit and resources and find themselves giving in to feelings of despair and loss of hope. This loss of confidence arises from feeling they are all alone. However, in those moments of despair, when all hope seems lost, one way or another, someone (or many) suddenly burst onto the scene, reminding these characters that they are, in fact, not alone. Others are with them, and together, they will overcome evil instead of being overcome by evil.

These scenes remind me of passages right out of the bible. But I am not talking about the ones where God himself tells us he is with us. I am not diminishing those promises at all, but what I want to focus on in this blog is the fact that not only is God with us, but so are angels and other saints, both past and present. We are part of a much larger community and spiritual family than we often realize or remember. And it is this message that we are not alone that I believe needs rediscovered today. Let’s start with angels and then move to saints.

In 2 Kings chapter six verses fifteen through seventeen, we find a story where the servant of Elisha faces a moment of great despair. But the prophet Elisha is used in this situation to help his servant see a reality beyond what the natural eye can alone see. Here is the story:

When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. “Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?” the servant asked. “Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.” Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

In our modern world, many people have reduced life to just the physical and material. However, some are beginning to rediscover the supernatural and spiritual in our post-modern world. This is a fantastic story that highlights there are realities beyond the physical. And the encouragement for God’s people is that there are more angelic beings for us of greater power than demonic or earthly powers against us.

This is like another story found 1 Kings 19:13-18, but on a more human level. The prophet Elijah is depressed and discouraged. Here is the story:

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

Notice, Elijah felt all alone in his passion for the Lord. But notice in verse eighteen what God says to him: Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”

The message? Elijah: you are not the only one. You are not alone! There are others!

There is a powerful scene in the Rise of Skywalker, where one of the main characters has lost hope in the battle. He feels they are overpowered and all alone. Right at the point where he is about to give up and is apologizing to the few with him, one of the main characters from the original trilogy bursts on the scene with a massive following of other rebel fighters. The simple but battle altering message is a reminder that, in fact, he is not alone, and many from around the galaxy have come to help.

The last example I will give is found in Hebrews chapter twelve. In that chapter, we are reminded that we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” that have gone on before us and modeled for us a life of faith. I was reminded of this again in the Rise of Skywalker in a scene towards the end were the main character appears also defeated. However, as she lays there, she calls out for help, and suddenly the voices of many Jedi’s of the past start encouraging her to rise and assuring her they are with her. As she gets up, a particularly evil character tells this main character that “all the Sith live in him.” The Sith, for those not familiar with Star Wars, represent evil and the dark side. This character is trying to intimidate and place fear in her heart. However, with a sudden burst of strength and confidence from knowing she is not alone, she responds with, “and all the Jedi live in me!”

While in the literal sense, we can’t say the saints of past and present “live in us,” there is another figurative sense in which they do. Their example in Scripture is there as an encouragement for us. Their lives are meant to give us strength, confidence and courage. Their stories give us hope to press on. And besides the ones that have gone on before us; there is also the current community of God locally and globally sharing in the same struggle.

It is essential to know God is with us. But it is also biblically vital to know angels and saints are with us too. We are not alone. Our feelings are not the same as facts. Even what our physical eyes see does not always portray the full truth. You are not alone!

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. -Hebrews 12:1-3

The Fierce & Wild Judgment of God

One of the things contemporary cultural Christianity rejects or tries to ignore, downplay, explain away, or not honestly wrestle with is the fierce and wild judgment of God found throughout Scripture. Not only do we reject or ignore it, but we seem embarrassed by it. Because of that, we overemphasize God’s love to the exclusion of talking about his judgment and justice.

In this article, however, I want to address the reality of judgment and speak directly to it. I want to make the case that God’s fierce judgment is a significant part of and evidence of his passionate love. Further, I want to make the case that the reality of God’s judgment is something the American church needs to hear and reflect upon more deeply.

First, let’s just state the obvious in any real or even casual reading of Scripture. God’s judgment and warnings of judgment on people and nations are found all throughout the bible. Especially, but not exclusively, warnings of judgment abound in the prophetic books. And in those books, it isn’t a “tame” or “timid” judgment; it is a fierce, wild, startling, frightening, “no holds barred” kind of judgment.

Consider just this small section from the book of Nahum, which prophesies against Ninevah: “I am against you,” declares the Lord Almighty. I will lift your skirts over your face. I will show the nations your nakedness and the kingdoms your shame. I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle. All who see you will flee from you and say, ‘Nineveh is in ruins—who will mourn for her?’ Where can I find anyone to comfort you?” Are you better than Thebes, situated on the Nile, with water around her? The river was her defense, the waters her wall. Cush and Egypt were her boundless strength; Put and Libya were among her allies. Yet she was taken captive and went into exile. Her infants were dashed to pieces at every street corner.” (Nahum 3:1-10).

Does any of that unsettle you? Does any of this make you uncomfortable? What do you do with passages like this? When was the last time you heard a sermon even out of the book of Nahum? Has God changed? Have we “evolved” into a more civilized understanding of God?

Here are some of my thoughts on the judgment of God:

  • God’s anger, jealousy, and judgment are evidence of his love. A God who does not punish evil and evildoers could not be a God of love. Not calling to account, punishing wrongdoing, and bringing justice (part of which is accountability for perpetrators) would indicate a lack of care and love. Further, true peace itself is not possible with first judgment.

I just finished reading a book called South Sudan, the Untold Story. Throughout the book, the author made the case that for lasting peace to become possible, accountability would need to happen indeed. On the very last page, she writes, “Nevertheless it was clear to me that the gravity of atrocities committed meant that reconciliation would not be possible unless accountability was served. To many, peace would be a reality only when justice was in process…it was also clear to me that any attempt of skirting this responsibility, and relying on impunity for the perpetrators who had committed atrocities during the civil war would likely imply a return of new violence later, revenging what had happened to the victims, or in other ways making sure that the crimes were not forgotten. The cyclical pattern would continue(Johnson, pg. 286).

Why is there so much talk in Scripture of God’s judgment and our giving an account on the day Jesus returns? Because judgment is evidence of his love! Peace is not possible without an accounting. Justice for the righteous cannot be served without judgment of the wicked. A God who is not angry at evil and who does not judge wickedness is not a God of love or a God worthy of worship. A God who ignores injustice cannot be just and good. God’s fierce and wild judgment is evidence of his fierce and wild love.

Another book I just read, Networked Theology, puts it this way, “The hope also has judgment at its heart; there is here no evasion of the gravity of sin and offence, oppression and injustice. In the City, in the New Jerusalem, justice will be enthroned. In judgment the poor and the weak are to be vindicated and upheld. This hope challenges the existing orders of injustice, violence, and brutality.” (Campbell & Garner, pg.128).

  • God is slow to get angry and measured in his anger. His anger is not a reaction out of proportion to the actions of people. It is perfectly expressed and righteously administered. He is a God of deep emotion but in complete control of his emotions.

I add this point not to tame or downplay the fierceness of God’s judgment, but to ensure we don’t think God sins or goes overboard in his anger. Additionally, Scripture emphasizes again and again how slow God is to anger and judgment. He does not blow up or react immaturely or disproportionately. While sometimes hard for us to accept, his judgments are just and true.

This can only be trusted; however, if we believe at his core, God is truly good, and God is perfectly righteous and loving. When we come across passages that shock us, we will have to wrestle with the character and justice of God. This wrestling is something I want to encourage, not attempt to solve here. The bible is full of books like Job and Habakkuk, and characters like Jacob and others who do just that; they wrestle with God’s justice and goodness. I would put it this way: a faith without doubts or wrestling is a shallow faith. The bible invites us to identify with righteous men and women of old who wrestled with God and came out stronger in their faith because of it.

However, believing in the goodness of God can challenge us in another way. How can a good God allow evil and suffering in this world? For some, they struggle with the reality of God’s judgment; others, however, struggle more with the reality of God’s patience and grace. Here is a thought addressing those in that place:

  • God’s delay of judgment is not approval of actions or letting people off the hook for their actions. His lack of immediate consequence is not the passivity or lack of accountability. Judgment and accountability will come in his due time and process and should not embolden or encourage people to continue in wrongdoing.

Why does God allow evildoers to prosper? Why does he allow righteous people to suffer at the hands of wicked and abusive people? Why doesn’t he prevent it or stop it sooner? Why doesn’t he immediately and swiftly judge?

A hard pill to swallow for those caught in the grip of evil or suffering at the hands of the wicked is the reality that God wants no one, not even his fiercest enemies, to perish, but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:8-10). And Scripture is clear that it is his patience (or kindness) that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). It is important to remember that this grace and God’s kindness extended to sinners is something none of us deserve or are worthy of (or others less worthy of).

But God’s delay is not God’s approval. The apostle Peter puts it this way: But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.

He is slow to anger, but the day of his wrath is swift and fierce and all-consuming. The time to repent is now; because the clock is ticking. We don’t have to bear the wrath of his judgement since Jesus bore it for us. He took our place on the cross where God’s justice and mercy most fully meet. He suffered the penalty in full for all our sin so that God can justly forgive.

The theology of God’s anger and judgment is something needed and missing from today’s popular cultural Christianity. Perhaps because previous generations went too far with too much emphasis on this, it fell out of favor. It left a bad taste in people’s mouths or wrong picture of God in people’s minds as an always angry or scowling Deity. But the abuse of this teaching doesn’t negate the truth of this teaching.

While this subject is not popular, it is needed to provoke healthy respect for the Lord and one another. It is to stimulate to right living knowing we will one day give an account before the Lord and a day of judgment is in store for evildoers. It is healthy to prick the conscious of those contemplating evil with these reminders. And it is an opportunity to repent to be saved, forgiven, and cleansed from iniquity.

“So look to him, all you people in the land who worship him faithfully. You always do what He commands you to do. Continue to do what is right. Don’t be proud. Then perhaps the LORD will keep you safe on the day he pours out his anger on the world.” -Zephaniah 2:3 NIRV

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” -Matthew 25:31-33 NIV

A Call to Emotional Intelligence

Recently, I have not been blogging as much. One reason is because I been working on my master’s degree in Formational Leadership (emphasis on the heart and character of the leader), which requires a lot of it’s own writing and focus! But, a class I am taking right now and have been looking forward to for a while, is on Emotional and Cultural Intelligence. I have been looking forward to this class because I have come to recognize recently a couple of truths around emotional intelligence that I would like to share in this blog article. I believe what I am about to articulate, speaks to perhaps the single greatest crisis at the core of our current cultural issues. Let me state these two truths and then expand on them a little further:

  • The greatest current cultural, political, religious, societal, personal, family, organizational, leadership, ministry, social media crisis at present is a crisis of emotional intelligence. We are allowing our emotions to control us, divide us, and destroy us in many unhealthy ways.
  • I have come to realize that my most significant and personal regrets, failures, and mistakes in life, leadership, ministry, and relationships revolve around a lack of emotional intelligence, not so much spiritual depth or technical skill. The same is probably true for you too when you think about it!

If this concept of “emotional intelligence” is new to you, let me first provide some simple definitions. In Justin Baristo’s book, EQ Applied, he defines emotional intelligence as “the ability to monitor one’s own and other’s feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.” (Baristo, pg.8). Justin goes on to elaborate further, as other’s similarly have, that emotional intelligence basically consists of four areas:

  • Self-Awareness: the ability to identify and understand your own emotions and how they affect you.
  • Self-Management: the ability to manage our emotions in a way that allows you to accomplish a task, reach a goal, or provide a benefit. It includes the quality of self-control, which is the ability to control your emotional reactions.
  • Social Awareness: the ability to accurately perceive the feelings of others and understand how those feelings influence behavior.
  • Relationship Management: the ability to exert proper influence and handle the emotions of others maturely. (Bariso, pg. 9-10).

Each of these four areas deserves much more time exploring in and of themselves. However, for this article, I will not delve deeper than providing those simple definitions. I do want to clarify, though, lest anyone think this is just a secular self-help way of understanding our emotions; that the concept of emotional intelligence is found all throughout Scripture as evidence of true wisdom and spiritual maturity. 

The book of Proverbs, for example, contains short, pithy sayings, many of which speak to “emotional” or “relational” type emotions, actions, or behavior. Topics such as anger, being hot-tempered, exercising self-control, walking in fear of the Lord, restraining from sin or folly and seeking or walking in wisdom, patience and understanding are all addressed in the book of Proverbs. 

The Apostle Paul, in the book of Galatians chapter five, writes about the true evidence of the Spirit’s working in the life of a follower of Jesus and defines those characteristics as being, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22). What else are these other than manifestations of “emotional and relational intelligence?” And again, when Paul writes to young Timothy, a church leader, he calls him, among other things, to, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship…(2 Timothy 4:5). Not losing your cool and enduring challenges with grace, are calls to emotional intelligence!

When Paul addresses those who are qualified to serve as leaders in the church, it is imperative to note that spiritual maturity (character) and emotional/relational intelligence are emphasized far more than spiritual giftedness, talent, or skill. Paul writes, for example in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

Daniel Goleman, who popularized the concept of “Emotional Intelligence back in the 1990s, makes a compelling case for why emotional intelligence plays a much more significant role in our lives than we often realize. He writes in his book, Working with Emotional Intelligence, “in a national survey of what employers are looking for in entry-level workers, specific technical skills are now less important than the underlying ability to learn on the job” (Goleman, pg.12). Additionally, “of seven desired traits, just one was academic (Goleman, pg.13), and “the three most desired capabilities are communication skills, interpersonal skills, and initiative” (Goleman, pg.13). But perhaps the most potent argument Goleman makes is that “IQ alone at best leaves 75 percent of job success unexplained, and at worst 96 percent-in other words, it does not determine who succeeds and who fails” (Goleman, pg.19). Goleman summarizes, “emotional intelligence carries much more weight than IQ in determining who emerges as a leader” (Goleman, pg.19). 

From any perspective you look at it; I have come to see how relevant emotional intelligence is not just culturally, but even on a very personal level. But truth be told, I have not arrived in this area and have a tremendous level of growth to mature into. In fact, one of the things the Lord highlighted to me to focus on in 2020 is this area in connection with grace. First, I need to rest deeply in God’s grace and even show myself more grace; while extending more grace to others. Paul, once again, says to young Timothy, You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 2:1). Thank God we are not called to be strong in ourselves or our own giftedness, but God’s undeserved and unmerited favor! 

There are so many areas in our lives we all need to grow in when it comes to emotional/relational intelligence. From the way we communicate on social media, to the ways we treat our spouse, children or family, to how we interact with one another; we live in a time when emotions are high, conflict is great, division is strong, and political rhetoric is more driven by anger, fear, and outrage than anything else. As followers of Christ, we are called to a higher standard; a standard that reflects the very character, holiness and wholeness of God himself. May God gives us all, beginning with me, more grace!

Works Cited:

Barison. J. (2018). EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence. Borough Hall, Germany.

Goleman, D. (1998). Working with Emotional Intelligence. New York, New York: Bantman Book.

Christianity Today Controversy

He read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant, which had been found in the temple of the Lord. The king stood by the pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of the Lord—to follow the Lord and keep his commands, statutes and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, thus confirming the words of the covenant written in this book. Then all the people pledged themselves to the covenant. -2 Kings 23:2-3

Recently, there was an article (Found Here) published by the editor of Christianity Today calling for the impeachment of President Trump on moral and ethical charges and calling out Evangelical Christians who seem to be unwavering in their support and loyalty.

This article, of course, sparked and revealed a divide within the Evangelical community. Some praised Christianity Today for finally taking a stand. Others, including 200 high profile Christian leaders, condemned the article and wrote a rebuttal letter they signed together (Read Here). The President of Christianity Today followed up with an article (Found Here). At the same time, others like Eric Metaxas are going around on various shows to make their case for supporting President Trump.

I am writing this article to offer a few thoughts of my own, as unpopular as they may be for some. I will begin by stating that I did vote for President Trump in the first election. But my vote was more a vote against Hilary Clinton and the Democratic platform. I am officially registered as an “Independent” because quite frankly, I can’t fully identify with either party and have serious issues with aspects of both. With the last election, before President Trump emerged as the front-runner, he did bring a certain “entertainment” to the debates and lack of political correctness that many found refreshing. But as time went on, I began to grow disgusted and even horrified by what I referred to as a “circus.” However, I had far more problems with the Democrat candidate and platform then I did with the Republican candidate and platform.

Despite reluctantly voting for Trump, I have written and spoken out about some of his and his administrations “darker” side, especially when it comes to attitude, rhetoric, and treatment towards immigrants, and the way he makes some of the pettiest, childish and reprehensible remarks towards other people, degrading the sacredness of the image of God in other human beings. Many Evangelical Christians have either excused this behavior as just his “New York” style; or flat out celebrated that they have someone they perceive as a “fighter” on behalf of Evangelical interests.

President Trump, in fact, sees himself in this light as a President who has “done more for the Evangelicals” than any other President. And, in some core areas of significant concern to many Evangelicals, this is perhaps true. Whether you agree with or like some of his campaign promises or not, he has fulfilled many of those promises in a way that other presidents have not. This is something many of his Evangelical supporters point to in areas of some of their core concerns. It is important to note that for years they have felt their voices and concerns were not heard or respected. This explains much of the fierce support for President Trump in the evangelical community.

While I will write to some of this later in this article, I am not one of those who can only see either “all good” or “all bad” in most Presidents. Personally, I cannot understand or stand when depending on who is President, and whether we voted for them or not, we either say only good about them and defend their every move or action; or we blast their every step or action. Both sides of the political spectrum tend to do this. Still, for Evangelical Christians, this becomes especially hypocritical and hurts our credibility. Younger generations see through this hypocrisy despite how we try to spin it. And they have no tolerance or respect for it.

Yet sometimes we tend to see things only black or white. For example, despite having voted Republican my whole life, I have been accused of being an “Obama loving liberal” when I was pastoring a church, simply because I called on our church to pray for the President and those in authority as the bible calls us to. I did not vote for President Obama. I could not believe however, the justifications, excuses, hatred, prejudice, and animosity I had expressed whenever I called us to pray for him, by those proclaiming to be “Evangelical Bible-believing Christians.” It was enough to turn your stomach sour and lead to some profound discouragement in regard to the American church community, and I was a pastor within it! Shouldn’t we pray even more for those we disagree with, not vomit and spew forth hatred and animosity? How is that reflective of Jesus or faithful to Scripture?

That all said, here are some thoughts on the recent Christianity Today article, rebuttal, and response. Let me address the initial article which I have mixed feelings about. First, some have called into question the timing of the article considering an election year approaching, clearly partisan impeachment proceedings, and the author on his way out. Some have asked why it has taken so long and why the timing is now. Those may have some validity in them. Others, however, say “better late than never,” and so while disappointed it took this long, are still thankful something was put out there. I also am not sure about the argument made for his impeachment and that being the focus.

Calling out Evangelical Christians hypocrisy, however, in unwavering loyalty to President Trump and in excusing, celebrating, or justifying his behavior (when before the claim was made that “character matters”), is another thing. I believe this is what the follow up article by the President of Christianity Today accomplished in a much clearer way. There can be no denying that the Christian witness and our credibility especially to another generation and worldwide has been damaged severely. Why can’t we see or admit this if we voted for President Trump? What are we so afraid of? I know the answer to this, but feel we need to name it what it is; a historically rooted and ingrained fear within the American mindset disproportion to kingdom reality. We need to regain confidence and trust in the Sovereign reign and rule of Jesus as King of Kings.

The truth is, those of us who identify as Evangelical Christians in the United States are coming across as more concerned about politics than the person and way of Jesus. We come across as what I term “practical or pragmatic atheists” rather than faith-filled followers of Jesus regardless of politics. We come across as power-hungry instead of humble servants. We come across as driven by fear instead of love. We seem more passionate about “American greatness” than the beauty of the Gospel and Name of Jesus being made great around the world. We are perceived (fairly or unfairly) as racist, homophobic, nationalistic, and more.

It is my belief that there is a fundamental problem with much of the more conservative Christian community in the United States. (For the record, I have issues with much of the more liberal Christian community as well, but that is another subject for another time). While the conservative segment tends to rail against “liberal” and more “progressive” or “social gospel” leaning believers, I wish there was a more humble, gracious, and reflection posture that could be taken by many perceived “Evangelical leaders” today. We have serious issues of celebrity church culture, entertainment driven services, sexual abuse problems, political obsession, materialistic/pragmatic focus, lack of discipleship, global mission perspective, and much more.

I wish we could champion the Good News of the Gospel above all else and especially before politics and American interests. There is too much of a blending of Americanism with the Kingdom of God that transcends (yet encompasses) every culture or country. We seem to think it is the end of the world for Christianity and America if we don’t have our values being championed from the highest powers of government. Yet, historically, while not wishing it on any person or country, Christianity has flourished under persecution and when in the minority. Likewise, it has, historically, been corrupted and compromised when too close to political power.

I believe the real underlining issue is that politics is an idol within much of the American church culture. 

There is a certain obsessive focus on politics within the church. Even voting has taken on such a sacred level of “sacrament” that it is equivalent to a severe transgression and unacceptable in the eyes of many church leaders if a believer were to abstain from voting out of conscience. This has come to define the very essence of “civic duty.” There is more seriousness placed on this sacrament than the sharing of the Gospel and concern for our witness in this world representing another King and Kingdom. 

I believe what is most needed is a call back to unwavering loyalty to Jesus Christ as King and pledging our full allegiance to his kingdom and Gospel regardless of who or what party is in political power. Earthly kingdoms and kings come and go, but his kingdom is eternal and his Gospel the greatest and most urgently needed message in this world. I believe we need to recommit ourselves to his Word and our Witness of him in this world, without the fear that it is dependent on who is in power. Our God is Sovereign and all authority has been given to Jesus who tells us our mission is to go and make disciples of all nations; not be so obsessed with earthly politics, power, and presidents.

I believe we need to tear down this idol of fear and politics in our hearts and pledge ourselves to follow Jesus and stay faithful in our witness to him regardless of what happens in this fallen world. I believe we have and will continue to lose a whole generation who has no tolerance anymore for leaders who are more concerned about who is in power on earth than seeing a church pure in its witness for Christ and following the way of Christ. This is a real problem.

Therefore, in the end, I am grateful overall for the Christianity Today articles. I am, however, grieved by the defensive and reactive response by some prominent and key Evangelical leaders. In some cases, there is even projection being engaged in that smacks more of political games than honest understanding, dialogue, and discussion. Accusations of being “political” and “self-righteousness” and pronouncements of being “glad to be on the side of sinners” are just dishonest or, evidence of prideful blindness that only plays to the same base and pushes others further away. There is a certain “shaming” taking place that, again, is, in my opinion, a projection and defense mechanism to prevent dealing with the shame of the way we are hurting our witness by partisan politics. I have lost much respect for some in this camp that I used to hold in high regard and have even personally met or been blessed by their ministry or books or messages.

I am not saying Christians should have no part in politics or speaking truth to power. I believe some are called to politics. To be a Daniel amid a lion’s den, an Esther to protect people’s lives, a Joseph with vision to navigate challenging times, a Nehemiah to see people prosper, and so forth is a noble calling.

However, when I look at the earthly ministry of Jesus or John the Baptist before him or the many prophets of the Old Testament who served under certain kings, they had a prophetic ministry calling out and rebuking the sin of even God’s people and those in power. Turning a blind eye to sinful actions or attitudes or being selective in what we speak out against depending who is in power, has no place in our lives as followers of Jesus. Our number one priority as a follower of Jesus must be seeking first his kingdom and righteousness, not our own earthly comfort or even American patriotism.

May God help us renew our relationship with him, his word, his kingdom, our witness, and His Son above all and before all.

An Unsettling Christmas

During the Christmas season, we naturally like to talk about the more “positive” aspects of the Christmas story. There, of course, is nothing wrong with this and everything right about emphasizing this Good News of great joy which will be for all people that declares to us that a Savior has been born to save us from our sin. The world is in desperate need of this message of peace, comfort, assurance of deliverance and forgiveness, and God being with us.

However, many of even the most classic of Christmas hymns, songs, and movies, paint a picture and set up expectations that are not congruent with our experience or the first Christmas story. This may not be intentional. However, by focusing exclusively on the positive results or outcome of the Christmas story, we set ourselves up for confusion, disappointment, and even disillusionment when it comes to the real Christian life and experience.

The first Christmas was not a purely “silent night” but a time of harrowing drama.

The first Christmas (and subsequent ones after) for Mary and Joseph were filled with interrupted plans, inconvenience, plans for divorce, monumental decisions, angelic messages, spiritual warfare, drama, death threats, murder of toddlers, rejection, uncertainty, narrow escape, refugee status, confusion, bewilderment, chaos, danger, and so much more. Joseph and Mary were swept up into an epic story far more significant than themselves. This was far beyond anything they asked for or were looking for.

To be honest, (maybe because I just saw the concluding movie in the Skywalker series), it reminds me of the Star Wars saga. Yet this story is a true one based right here on earth, not a long time ago in a galaxy far away! In fact, this is one story of worldwide magnitude that is something more than every myth, legend, movie, drama, or story ever told. Any good story, movie, or legend, in fact, resonates with us because it contains themes that are found in the Gospel message. Themes such as light verse dark, good verse evil, oppression and deliverance, despair and salvation, redemption and restoration, forgiveness and mercy, adventure and danger, etc.

Now, I share all of this to make this simple but profound point: when Jesus enters our lives, it changes everything! When Jesus comes to us, all hell rages against us. When Jesus comes to us, we are swept up into a journey and life of faith that is full of challenge, struggle, battles, victories, and adventures beyond anything we could have come up with for ourselves. Our agenda and plans are interrupted and sometimes redirected. Decisions are made, and actions are taken that have monumental, generational, and eternal consequences. At times, Jesus can be very inconvenient to our desire for earthly comfort and ease.

The truth is, life will never be the same when Jesus is born in us and us in Him!

Yes, there is great and eternal joy you cannot find anywhere else. Yes, there is good news that is indeed the greatest ever proclaimed. Yes, there is comfort and assurance that only forgiveness of sin and salvation can bring. Yes, there is freedom from oppression and sin. Yes, there is a peace that is not of this world and yet can completely change the world. All of this is worthy to be reflected upon, received and celebrated.

But…let us not fail to recognize something Lucy asks about Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia and discovers about the nature of this lion that represents Christ. She asks, “Is he safe?” The response back to her and to us is one in which we only have to look to the first Christmas story to see: “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Uganda Trade School Dream

“This is an easy thing in the eyes of the Lord.” -2 Kings 3:18

I am just returning from a wonderful time and trip again to Uganda. It was here in Uganda that the mission organization I lead (ServeNow) began with its first project, a new toilet facility at one of the school locations! It was humble beginnings, and yet, just six years later, we never could have imagined all God would allow us the privilege of being a part of.

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My first trip with ServeNow after I agreed to this role, was also here in Uganda. Our Founder and I stood on a pile of dirt where a classroom had collapsed because of a storm. There was talk of closing this entire school center as all the classrooms were in such bad shape. However, our partner here decided to trust God and not close it. Then, as we stood there, our Founder, sensed God saying, “Do something about this” and so we went back to our hotel room and had a little competition to see who could raise more money to help rebuild that school! Six years later, we have restored six entire school buildings, are working on a 7th, and the number of children has increased from 200 to 1,000 just at this school location. It has become a testimony throughout the country of a dramatic reversal and God answering prayer!

But during this trip, God began to challenge my heart not to settle for what He has done, but rather to use what he has done to compel greater confidence and faith for the future. This year my faith was encouraged by the largest single gift we have ever received as an organization. But now I am believing for ten times that amount just for Uganda alone. Interestingly, I found out on this trip that that was the very same number our leader here told me he is asking for! Additionally, it is also what would be needed to make all the main dreams a reality that we had discussed and put on paper about three years ago.

One of those dreams that most resonated with our hearts on this specific trip is the dream of one of our partners adopted daughters. She wants to run a trade school for widows and young girls who either can’t go on to college or want to work with their hands. This young woman is just graduating with a degree in fashion, has already started her own business, and is very capable and gifted. Additionally, she wants to use her talents to help others. Along with her, and her sister who is working on her art/teaching degree, we stood on the land where that trade school could be built and believed God for the finances that would be needed for this dream.

This trade school would transform many lives in Uganda and serve as a real testimony to a new generation of the God who does indeed fulfill the desires of our hearts and stoop down to help the most vulnerable! Would you join us in praying that God will provide all that is needed in 2020 for this trade school?

“I love the Lord, for he has heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live.” -Psalm 116:1-2

Disciples who Make Disciples

“I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa; sharply distinct from the work of secular NGO’s, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa, Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.” -Mission Drift, Greer & Horst, p.36). -Matthew Parsi, Atheist

I just returned from my first trip to three West African Countries: Ivory Coast, Togo, and Benin. I was there because the mission organization I lead called ServeNow, was launching for the first time our core discipleship program, called The Basic Things You Need to Know. This is a series of 30 books, just 32 pages each, in 30 languages, through which anyone at any level can grasp the foundation truths of the Christian life as pertains to being a disciple of Jesus Christ.

These simple tools have been undeniably effective and fruitful every week around the world. For example, in the past five years, we have found for every 3,000 books printed, and in the hands of indigenous churches around the world, 688 people have come to faith in Christ! Churches we are partnering with have grown on average by 43%. Most believers (85%) in the churches being partnered with testifying to significant spiritual growth in their lives as a result of this series. Entire churches are being revived with a renewed commitment to Jesus Christ. Our National Leaders and pastors I meet with recognize this is the greatest need in their countries and among their churches. We are even working on getting them in audio format eventually for use in more oral or illiterate cultures.

But here is my concern and reason for writing this blog article. A survey was done recently by the Barna group, where it was shockingly discovered that over 80% of believers in the United States have no idea what the Great Commission is or really means, let alone engaged in making disciples. This begs the question: what then are we doing if we are not carrying out the very core mission of Jesus Christ? Who, or what, are we really following? If we are not making disciples, is it because we are not true disciples ourselves? If all our programs, church activities, and services are not producing those who look like Christ, then something is terribly wrong. And clearly, something is.

Before Jesus sent his disciples out in His name, He first called people to commit themselves to follow him and learning to live a new way of life. He didn’t call us to join a church first, or denomination, or follow a pastor on Twitter or Instagram. He called us to follow him, leaving behind our old life and all that is familiar to us for an intimate walk and faith-filled journey with him.

It is still a radical way. It is a way that requires putting Christ first in our lives above every other priority, preference, and political persuasion. It is a call to seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness, not protect our own empires, seek our own agendas, secure our own safety or love even our own countries, families or anything else more than Jesus. It is a call to resist going along with the ways of the world or culture around us and instead be transformed by the renewing of our minds as we offer ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God as our most authentic act of worship (Romans 12:1-3). He has promised that as we surrender and submit ourselves out of a deep trust in him, he will transform us, empower us, and equip us to reproduce other disciples who look like him too (Acts 1:8)

This blog article is a call for all believers to recommit themselves to being disciples of Jesus Christ, who make disciples of Jesus Christ. If we are not doing this, we need to question whether we are truly living as disciples of Jesus. Even providing aid, combating issues like human trafficking, seeking justice for the oppressed, poor, widow, orphan, refugee, serving the most vulnerable, giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name are all worthy and noble causes that we are called to as disciples of Jesus. I, too, have a great passion for these things. But our primary calling is not a cause itself; but Christ himself. He alone truly transforms lives. Spiritual transformation is even noted by the atheist I quoted at the beginning of this article, as what is bringing real change to Africa.

And the good news is that Jesus calls ordinary men and women. So often we think we are too insignificant or un-special to really be used by God. But this is not the testimony of Scripture. The secret is not in our abilities, but our obedience to Jesus and the promises of God. Jesus promised that as we do what he has called us to do (make disciples), he would be with us, even to the end of the ages (Matthew 28:18-20). But it’s as we go and begin to make disciples that we experience the reality of his presence with us. Brothers and sisters, this must be more than words and theory and promises on the pages of Scripture. The time to serve is now. The time to go is now. The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few!

***If you are struggling with how to engage in being a disciple who makes disciples meaningfully, let me encourage you to start with four simple things:

  • Commit to spending time daily with Jesus in prayer and in his word. Begin to get in the habit of consistently being in his word and putting it into practice. Start a bible reading plan that takes you through the bible in a year. Read a chapter of Proverbs every day with a friend and text each other one verse a day that is meaningful to you and how you need to apply it to your life or situation you are facing.
  • Begin to give intentionally to evangelism, missions, and discipleship. Jesus said, where your treasure is, there your heart will also be (Matthew 6:21). This means where you invest your money, your affections, passions, and interests will develop in those areas. To develop a heart for discipleship or missions, you must begin to give towards these things. Don’t start with where your heart currently may be. Start with what we are called to do, and your emotions will develop. Of course, I am biased towards ServeNow, but there are many other ways too!
  • Look for an opportunity every day to engage with someone in some way in conversation about Jesus. Forget about the words “evangelism” and “discipleship” but look to converse in relationship with others about Jesus. Look to encourage another believer. Pray for a co-worker. Invite someone to a study at your home. Ask someone to read tools like the Basic Series with you and meet to talk about once a week. Start small but be consistent, as this will lead to big things over time. Resist the temptation to seek a perfect life before walking in obedience. Discipleship is a life-long process and journey. None of us will fully arrive to all we are called to be until we see Jesus face to face.
  • Go on a mission trip or get involved in outreach in your community. Be proactively involved in seeking out opportunities and stepping outside what you have become familiar and comfortable with. Mentor someone younger than you. Share with them what you have learned, both by way of success and failure. Share joys and regrets, all revolving around walking with Jesus. Everyone should have a “Paul” in their life (someone older investing in you), a Barnabas (a peer with whom you mutually encourage one another), and “Timothy” (someone younger you are investing your life into). Seek out someone to disciple you and seek out someone you can disciple.

More than anything else, this world needs true disciples through whom people see more of Jesus and also become disciples.

A Call to Hospitality

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. -Hebrews 13:2

One of the areas I think much of the evangelical church in the United States needs to rediscover is the Scriptural importance of hospitality. We have a lot we could learn from our brothers and sisters around the world when it comes to hospitality. Some of the most generous and graciously hospitable people I know live in very different cultures than my own. They are often even among some of the materially most impoverished people in the world. But they always put me to shame with their hospitality and inspire me to want to be more like them in this area.

In this brief blog post, I want to make a case for the biblical importance of hospitality and even issue a prophetic warning about closing our hearts and homes to especially others different than us. Hospitality or the lack thereof is one measure by which we can judge a culture, church, or self-professing Christian. Hospitality is one of the core character traits that are necessary when considering and selecting leaders (1 Timothy 5:10). Of all people, Christians should be the most hospitable of all and are in fact commanded to show hospitality without grumbling (1 Peter 4:9) and without fear (Hebrews 13:2).

I just finished reading for my own personal devotions the book of Judges. The book of Judges is described as a time when, Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit (Judges 21:25). The book of Judges ends with an utterly shocking situation that I won’t get into here. But it was precipitated by the lack of hospitality among the people of Gibeah (Judges 19). A Levite man and his concubine were traveling back home when they stopped in this town, but no one took them into his home for the night (Judges 19:15). Finally, one man from another city who was living there did take them in (Judges 19:16-21). However, while they were in this man’s house some of the other men described as “wicked” came and demanded that the Levite guest be brought out so they could, have sex with him (Judges 19:22). Without getting into the morals of what happens next, the man’s concubine is given to these men in place of the man. The concubine is raped and abused all night and ends up dying the next morning as a result (Judges 19:23-28).

This story has similarities with a situation that happened in the book of Genesis. Chapter 19 tells the story of angels arriving in Sodom and Gomorrah before the cities were judged and destroyed by fire from heaven. Lot was the only one to show these “strangers” hospitality and take them into his house (hence where the line “showing hospitality to angels without knowing it” comes from later in the book of Hebrews). However, the men of the city surround the house and demand Lot hand over these men for the same purpose of sex as the men in Judges 19.

The Evangelical church has often focused only on the sin of homosexuality being the reason for God’s judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. While this was undoubtedly part of the sin of these towns and sin within our culture today, it wasn’t the only sin for which God’s judgment came. By the way, it’s important to note that in both situations, sexual abuse, like today, was also a major part of the issue.

But there is still more that Scripture specifically addresses that we often fail to consider as the sin of Sodom. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God began to rebuke his people for their spiritual idolatry and adultery (Ezekiel 16). In Ezekiel 16:49-50, God speaks directly to what the sin of Sodom was, Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.

In one word, you could sum up their sin with the word: inhospitable. They were selfish and cared only about their sinful self-interests. Their sexual immorality and sexual abuse was part of the equation. But so was their selfish indulgence manifested even in over-eating. They were full of pride and did not care about others. They were not hospitable but instead aggressive, abusive, and even violent towards others.

I fear America is going down this same path. We are spiritually complacent, nationalistically arrogant, overweight, overindulgent in selfish and even sinful pleasure, and unmoved by the suffering and plight of others different from us. Sexual abuse is coming more and more into the light of how extensive the issue really is.

And our lack of hospitality is seen especially in our attitude towards immigrants and refugees. Instead of opening our hearts and homes to demonstrate the grace of God to others, we have closed our hearts and homes to strangers out of fear. We see terrorists instead of angels. Just like Bethlehem in Jesus’ day, there is no room in our land for those that we should treat as if it were Jesus himself! But by rejecting others and refusing to show hospitality, we are actually rejecting and ignoring Jesus himself. There seems to be little room in our hearts for the One who himself was a refugee and is looking to make his home even today in our lives and hearts. We often fail to see that Jesus comes to us in the form of a stranger, refugee, immigrant, poor, and needy.

Scripture makes clear a nation is judged based on her compassion and hospitality; or lack thereof. As individuals, we will all also give a personal account. The way we treat others is taken personally by Jesus himself. The day is coming when Matthew 25 will become a reality. The question is, are we trembling at this coming judgment or ignoring to our peril? You and I can’t be neutral and will not escape accountability. We either are pro-active in showing hospitality or complicit and guilty in the suffering of others by our lack of action. Evil is not just intentionally doing horrible things. It is failing to do what is right in showing compassion and hospitality to others. We should also be warned that we shouldn’t expect God’s mercy towards us in eternity if we refuse to show God’s mercy to others on earth. Indifference is criminal. It is evidence of a heart unchanged by the grace of God. If God is preparing a place for us in heaven (John 14:1-2), surely we can prepare a place in our heart and even home, for others. Consider carefully the very words of Jesus:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Suffering

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. -Job 38:1

Perhaps the biggest obstacle for many people when it comes to the reality of God is something deeply personal that affects us all to one degree or another: suffering. It comes unwelcomed, uninvited, and out of our control. It strikes at the heart of all we hold dear and alters our lives forever. It is a relentless intruder and endlessly haunts us with when it will strike and to what degree it will inflict pain, stealing from us that which is good.

Why would a good God allow suffering? Why does an all-powerful God allow evil when he could stop it? Where is God in suffering? Why does God seem so distant, cold, uncaring, and silent, especially during times of distress? Is God even real? Why doesn’t He do something? The reality of evil and suffering is one of the deepest and oldest of human struggles. The book of Job, the oldest book in the Bible, is a relentless and raw wrestling with God over this very issue. And it is something I saw recently in the book of Job that leads me to write this article on suffering.

What I want to share is an insight into suffering and God that I never thought about before. It is a thought that I have personally never heard anyone quite approach this way when discussing suffering and the seeming silence and absence of God. Many have written extensively on suffering and why God allows it and how it does not disprove his reality. But I want to come at the issue of suffering a little differently.

I won’t be sharing any insights on why God allows suffering or evil, but I do want to speak to God’s behavior amid suffering. While many people testify to a sense of God’s presence in an unusually profound way during suffering, others testify to the opposite. Some feel they are drawn closer to God during suffering while others feel God draws apart from them when they need him most in their suffering.

One of the maddening things about suffering is God’s seeming silence. Why is God so silent in our suffering? While God does eventually speak to Job, we forget there are 37 chapters before where God is completely silent! Repeatedly Job cries out to God with the infamous “why” question and wanting to state his innocence and apparent injustice he was experiencing. But there is only silence from heaven for chapter after chapter. God seems absent. Disengaged. Unmoved. Uncaring.

But consider this. While there was only silence from heaven, there was no end of talk from earth. Job’s friends initially just sat with him and grieved along with him. They were present in his pain and let him know he was not alone. But then, they began to speak. One after another, they began to question and accuse Job of having sinned. Their explanations and theological insights were not completely wrong in and of itself, but they were totally misguided and misapplied to Job’s situation. In this way, they began to add to Job’s suffering by talking rather than continuing to sit with him in silence while he struggled through his pain.

And this is where my insight into suffering and God’s seeming silence and absence enters. I think we have confused God’s silence with God’s absence. I think his silence is evidence of His mercy rather than evidence of his absence. I think we have this all backward!

Think about it. What do we most want from friends in times of suffering and grief? Is it their well-meaning words which often ring so shallow, unhelpful and frustrating, or only their presence with us during sorrow and confusion? Job’s friends were a comfort to him when they just sat with him and entered his grief. Job’s friends added to his suffering when they opened their mouths and began to try to give explanations.

Even when God does eventually address Job and break his silence, he never gives Job a reason for his suffering. He never explains why Job was suffering or throws out nervous clichés to try to make him feel better. Sure, we are given insight at the beginning of Job into the behind the scenes spiritual drama being played out between Satan and God. But can you imagine if God simply told Job this was the reason for all his suffering? Do you think this would have made all Job’s suffering better?

Sure, Job’s later part of his life was blessed more than even his first part of his life. Sure, Job’s suffering was just a short season compared to the totality of his life. But God didn’t remind him to “count his blessings” or say things like “Don’t worry, things will get better.” God simply told Job of who he was and who Job was considering that reality. He reminds him that He was God and Job was not, and there are some things for which we can’t understand, and even if we did, it wouldn’t make things better or alleviate our suffering.

See, the reality is we aren’t really looking for answers in our suffering. We are crying out for relief. We are expressing our anguish and wishing the nightmare would not be true and that things would somehow go back to what was before our suffering. When Jesus cried out on the cross the universal cry of anguish in his distress, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Psalm 22) he wasn’t asking for a theological explanation of the cross and what was happening. He already knew why this was happening! Instead, it was something much deeper; the anguish of the seeming absence of God and cry for relief from his suffering.

God knows what we most need in suffering is not answers but God himself. We want answers; God reveals himself. The problem, however, is that we mistake his silence for absence. But nothing could be further from the truth. God’s silence in suffering is evidence of his deep compassion for us; not evidence of his lack of empathy.

God is sitting with you in your suffering. He is right there with you. In his grace, he allows us space to wrestle, to struggle with our emotions, to grieve and even lash out. His silence is not absence; it is God absorbing our pain. Answers won’t alleviate. Silence may be deafening as all we hear is our own anguish but spoken too soon words will only add to our suffering not ease our pain. There will come a time when God speaks, but it won’t be what you may think you are looking for. God hears not only our words but our hearts. He knows what we most need is God himself. Immanuel, God with us. And that is where Jesus, our faithful Friend, enters our world and suffers with us and for us. It is where the Spirit of God comes and comforts us with his presence as only his presence can do.

Sometimes his presence, however, is the misunderstood grace and gift of silence. Other religions may offer reasons; Jesus however offers himself, along with the promise that one day he will right every wrong, wipe away every tear, and undo all that is wrong (Revelation 21). 

Where is God? He is right there in the very silence itself. He is the silent friend we most need even if we think it is not what we most want.

A Day at the Border

“”In its fullness, justice is about right relationships-relationships that work. Injustice is about relationships that don’t. Justice for those whom philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff terms “”the quartet of the vulnerable.””-the orphan, widow, immigrant (including the refugee), and poor-is especially important to God. Injustice occurs when these people are left out, oppressed, or exploited. Justice occurs when they are included.”(Seeking Refuge, on the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis).

Two young kids. Two young parents. Take a good look into their eyes in the picture below. Their eyes were the first eyes that mine locked with when I arrived at the border. They had just spent their last day at the nearby detention center and finally were on their way to their sponsor family in another location in the US. They are here because they had no other choice. A criminal gang had taken over their land in Mexico. If they stayed, they would be killed. As many of them said, “”We would rather die on the journey trying, then go back and definitely die.”

Immigrants

The next two young men I met are from Cuba. They fled to Mexico, where they put their lives at risk for 83 days. They easily could have been kidnapped as cartels know those coming from Cuba have connections that they can demand ransom from. They finally were sent to the detention center here at the border where they waited an additional 104 days in deplorable conditions. It’s not because Homeland Security doesn’t care, it’s that they are overwhelmed and underfunded by the federal government. Today was the first day they were greeted in the name of Jesus, prayed with, given bibles, pick out their own clothes, eat a good meal, and take a private shower.

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At the end of their time here at the respite center (the only church of about 200 willing to use their church for this purpose), I had the honor of praying with them, for them and over them. I prayed over the next part of the journey not only on earth but the eternity God is preparing for those who trust in Him. The same God has watched over their journey thus far despite all its challenges and danger. He is the God who sees, especially  the most vulnerable, in their distress.

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Later that evening we crossed the US/Mexican border into Mexico. 2,000 people are living there just waiting in tents. There are no showers and only two port-a-potties. They were recently separated from their families and deported. They stay here however because in their own words, “It’s not the best, but it is the safest place for us.” They stay holding out hope of policy changing or their case heard. They have no idea where their next meal will come from as they are completely dependent on people bringing them food at of kindness and compassion. The church I was with serves a meal to about 500 people a week, but it is not nearly enough.

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One young man I met had to flee his home because guerilla soldiers threatened to kill him and his family. His wife made it across and is in Maryland legally. His case however is not going to be heard until December! Please pray for my friend that he can be reunited with his family.

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This was my first time at the US/Mexico border. I went because I had to see it for myself. The political rhetoric and media coverage surrounding this issue has been so polarized and confusing, I wanted to see for myself and meet real immigrants to hear their stories, not just statistics and political talking points. While I have been concerned about our attitude and actions towards immigrants (especially among a majority of American Evangelical Christians), I wanted to put real faces to the crisis.

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The pastor I met up with is right where God wants him to be for such a time as this. He was an illegal immigrant to this country many years ago from Guatemala. He is a US citizen now, but because of his background, he can connect immediately with those in whose shoes he once walked. He is not proud of it but he can relate to them because of it.

Immigrants

They serve about 250 immigrants a week, or 40-50 per day on average at their church that has been turned into a respite center (not counting across the border, in Latin America and even in Middle East countries!). Since April of this year, they have served 3,500 people at their church. While he meets their physical needs, he is laser-focused on meeting the greatest need of all, salvation and the forgiveness of sin through Jesus Christ. Of those 3,500 people, the 2,000th person just came to faith in Christ because of his church’s ministry towards them! Revival is here, happening among immigrants and even through immigrants, but many of us are just missing it!

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The guard who transports these people to his church told me he tells those he brings here that they are “”going to the house of God. This is ‘God’s house!”” I don’t believe he identifies as a Christian, but how refreshing that there are still people and places in the US who don’t just “”talk about God”” but show the reality of God’s love in a way others notice.

Contrary to much of the fearful rhetoric that goes around, these are not criminals. These are the victims of crime, gangs, corruption, and violence! To tell them to go back is to say to them to go die. While they wait here in the open, vulnerable to the elements, with nowhere to call home, another 300 more desperate people are deported for trying to cross the border just at this location illegally per day! While I am not advocating for “open borders” I am advocating for the church of Jesus Christ to be the hands and feet of Jesus in serving those in need and recognizing their plight and challenges.

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The main reason (within Latin America countries) is violence. People are fleeing because of gangs, crime, violence, corruption, and threats to their lives. Others are coming because of economic hardship. The pastor I was with said of the 250 people they serve a week, about 2-3 of them (1%) are from African, Asian, Middle East countries. But they all come at high risk to their own lives. Children are vulnerable to human trafficking. Others are vulnerable to being kidnapped and held at ransom. Women and young girls are in danger of rape. Their journeys are long and not always promising or welcoming. But there is one who has walked this journey before and His name is Immanuel, God with us, the Lord Jesus Christ himself who was also a refugee.

This current refugee crisis has reached historic proportions. It’s the biggest global crisis in the world. And there is far too much misinformation, fear and political games being played around real people, among the most vulnerable in the world. I have written about this before on this blog site. Others however, have written much better about it than I in trying to tackle misunderstanding with facts, rumors with truth, heated rhetoric with God’s heart and combating fear with God’s love. I won’t get into all that in this post. It is interesting however to note that the three most often repeated commands in Scripture are calls to worship the Lord, not be afraid, and take care of the foreigner living among you.

My goal in this article is to bring some humanity to this crisis. These are real people, some of the most vulnerable in the world, that need to be shown God’s love by God’s people, not dehumanized or reduced to political talking points.

Let me close with what I perceived to be a modern day parable of the American Evangelical Church as a whole when it comes to this issue. A few blocks on the US side from where we went across the border into Mexico was a beautiful church. The name of the church on the perfectly lit sign out front conveyed God’s love. However, the pastor shared with me that neither that church nor the other 200 churches around are really involved in serving immigrants. It’s too messy. It’s too dirty. It’s too uncomfortable. It’s too politically charged. That strikes me as a picture and parable of the US church in general. Beautiful external buildings. Conveying the right things about God. But often failing to put those words into human action and get our hands dirty like our Savior. I believe we can and must do better.

The needs, ways and opportunities are many. Not to reduce this to monetary giving, but there is at least $1,000 a week needed just for feeding about 500 people. That’s 10 people giving $100 a week. There is also an urgent need for light jackets/sweaters/hoodies and crocs as winter approaches. If you live in Colorado Springs area we will be collecting and shipping some to here.

One of the biggest and bigger needs is to build a real room with private showers, bathroom and bedroom in the outside section of the church which is serving as a respite center for the church. This would cost about $25,000. Take a look at the picture below to see why this is needed according to the current condition. And the list could go on and on…

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***If you would like to get involved with serving refugees, the mission organization I lead called ServeNow is one of many that is working to meet a variety of needs here and around the world.

Restoring Human Dignity

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. -Genesis 1:27

There is a growing crisis in America that is beginning to become “normalized.” It is manifesting itself in the dehumanizing political rhetoric we hear everyday and also in the gun violence that seems to play out on a near weekly basis in some city, school, church, store or location around the United States. What in the world is happening in this culture that has brought us to this point? How do we see real change?

There probably is no one easy solution, but there is a total inability for even any solution to be considered because it always turns into “political talking points” on both sides.

I believe at the heart of these issues is something captured and documented in a book I just read called The Lucifer Effect. One of my biggest take-a way’s was that once one group of people began to “dehumanize” another group of people, it is all downhill from there and has horrifying consequences. From Nazi Germany, to the Rwanda Genocide, to the treatment of prisoners, to racism, to abortion, to the current attitude and treatment of immigrates, to gun violence today…it all begins with seeing people as something less than human beings created in the image of God. This then opens wide the door to a culture and system that justifies the mistreatment and/or murder of various people.

We have lost all respect for human life and the sacredness of each person being created in the image of God regardless of our differences. We label certain groups and turn them into “issues” instead of human beings. We turn people into political talking points. For example, the plight of immigrants gets turned into an “immigration issue.” They are labeled as “rapists and criminals.” Babies in the womb are labeled as “fetuses” instead of human beings. And so rhetoric, prejudice, violence and murder are justified.

We need to start seeing one another as people created in the image of God, not problems that must go away. We need a sense of the sacredness of human life to create a sense of respect for one another regardless of differences. We need to see each other as real human beings instead of dehumanizing, labeling or grouping everyone together in categories that justify our attitudes and actions that disrespect and dishonor the image of God in every human being. And that is ultimately what this is: an attack on God himself.

Jesus was clear that his disciples are to be known and recognized for their love for one another; not just those exactly like us. Our call is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and love others as we love ourselves…even more so than “love for country.” A country is made up of people created in the image of God. It is idolatry to place “country” ahead of neighbor’s. And it is impossible to claim we love God if we do not love one another.

The apostle John made this quite clear, especially in 1 John 4:19-21, We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

C.S. Lewis famously once put it this way that should give us cause to pause in our dealings with one another: It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

Let’s get back to seeing the sacredness of every human being we interact with, talk to or about, and act towards.

American Christianity

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant,  being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. -Philippians 2:1-11

I believe this passage strikes right at the heart of the current problem with much of “American Christianity.” Let me cut to the chase: too many who identify as “America Christians” are putting “America” ahead of the “Christian” part. Yes, I am an American myself, but I am first of all a follower of Christ. I am a citizen of the United States of America; but I have a higher citizenship as a citizen of heaven. I was born an American; but I was born-again into the family of God when I trusted in Christ. This identity and citizenship in the kingdom of heaven is one that is eternal; while any earthly citizenship is temporary.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with being a Christian who is American; but there is a problem when I see myself as first an American and secondly a Christian. As a Christian first, my primary loyalty is not America, or the American way of life, but Christ and the way of his kingdom. And the way of Christ and his kingdom sometimes collides with the way of the American life. In fact, writing to Christians in Rome, Paul exhorted them not to be “conformed” to the ways of the world, but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds (Romans 12:1-2) as they surrendered and submitted their lives to Christ. We have to begin to see where we are confusing the American way with the Kingdom way.

Right now, we have a culture that is operating out of fear instead of faith. We are more concerned with our rights than God’s righteousness. We are afraid our “way of life” is being threatened instead of seeking first his way of life and laying down our lives for others. We are holding tightly to our earthly kingdoms instead of pursuing his eternal kingdom. We demand our “rights” and “interests” regardless of how that affects others. Comfort and security is more important to us than Christ-likeness and servant-hood. We certainly don’t trust God’s Sovereignty. Trying to obtain and maintain political power and privilege for our own sake trumps our call as followers of Jesus to lay aside our power for the sake of others.

At the heart of our problem is a failure to seriously consider the implications to our own lives of the incarnation of Jesus Christ portrayed in Philippians chapter two quoted above. We love hearing how Jesus came from heaven to earth to save us, but the astonishingly fact is not just that Jesus left the glory and perfection of heaven for our sake; but that we too are called to leave our comfort and “castles” for the sake of others as well. It’s not just the staggering truth that Jesus, the Son of God, humbled himself and laid aside his power and privilege for our good; but that we are to also humble ourselves, hold loosely to any positions or privilege we have, and also take upon ourselves the identity of servant for the good of others as children of God.

Jesus didn’t come demanding his “rights” be upheld. Rather, he allowed himself to even be crucified in order that we might be counted as righteous and receive his righteousness. Jesus didn’t come and demand others serve him so he could maintain power and privilege; he came as a servant and laid down his life for us. Jesus didn’t operate in a spirit of fear, afraid of losing his life; instead he submitted himself to God and surrendered his life that others might live.

Does this characterize the ethos and attitude of current “American Evangelical Christianity?” What is it that truly makes a country, or people “great?” Could it be that true greatness is found in the example of the humble, Incarnate, crucified Christ not the powerful, pompous and prideful Caesar we seem to be identifying more with? And what would it look like for you and I to follow Jesus’s example to live a life of “incarnation” to those around us? Jesus left it all and laid it all aside for your sake; now we are called to the same way of life for one another.

Tending to our Hearts

Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. -Proverbs 4:23

I live in the state of Colorado, where real grass does not grow easily! It takes a tremendous amount of attention and care. Within the first year of moving to our new home, the grass in our front yard was practically non-existent because we didn’t realize we had a sprinkler system that just needed turned on and we also didn’t realize how not having it constantly on would ruin all hope for the next year. Therefore, we had to have it dug out completely, put new grass in and start all over.

Even though grass does not grow easily, weeds have absolutely no problem! Our backyard, though seeming completely dead, now basically consists of only weeds and at some point we will have to start all over there too and be diligent and vigilant to tend to it with great care.

I share this as an illustration of our hearts. You could substitute my lawn woes with perhaps a garden. When we lived in New Jersey, we had a garden in our backyard, but we just didn’t take the time to tend to that either and enjoy the benefits of what could have been harvested. But anyone with a garden understands the need for working the soil, planting the right seeds in the proper season, watering the seeds, dealing with weeds and tending in many ways to whatever it is you are seeking to grow.

In other words, it’s a lot of work, time and care to see anything of value grow and be sustained over time in a healthy, fruitful way! The same is so true most of all with our hearts and relationship with God. Sin, like weeds, springs up so quickly and easily, choking life and fruit. Our hearts are in constant need of the nutrients of God’s Word and the water of the Spirit. Our relationship with God also needs guarded, protected and tended to with time, care and effort.

Often, however, it isn’t the big storms that do the most lasting damage, but the little things we allow to fester and grow. There is an interesting verse in Song of Solomon 2:15 that the lover speaks to his beloved where he says, Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom. Notice the cause for concern is the “little foxes” that while “small” have the potential to destroy the entire vineyard if allowed in and not chased out.

I wonder, what are the “little foxes” in our hearts that spoil the fruit God wants to bring forth in our lives out of relationship with him? Maybe it is a root of bitterness that has not been fully dealt with. Maybe it is pride, lust, anger, unbelief, unforgiveness or jealousy. These attitudes do begin to affect our actions and spring forth out of our lives into behavior that ruins fellowship with God and relationship with others, just like weeds or foxes begin to destroy grass/fruit.  Jesus put it this way in Matthew 15:18, But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.

What is in our hearts becomes manifest in our words and actions if not tended too first at the heart level. This is why Proverbs 4:23 reminds us that more important than anything else is guarding our hearts and tending to our relationship with God. It takes time, effort, care and focus.

One of the first steps to maintaining true fellowship with God is dealing with sin in our hearts and lives. Think of confession of sin as like the “weed killer” of our hearts. King David’s prayer in Psalm 51:1-2, 7-10 is a great model of asking God to truly cleanse him at the heart level:

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
    and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

What sin do you need to confess? In what areas of your heart does Jesus need cleanse? Where does the soil need tilled where hardness of heart has set in? Perhaps, you simply need to start all over and let Jesus give you a new heart! But then, what seeds need planted? Is God’s Word getting down deep inside you? Is the Spirit of God through prayer and waiting on the Lord preparing the way for new life to sprout and spring forth?

Yes, it is hard-work to tend to a garden or lawn. Everybody enjoys the fruit of these labors and wants to reap the rewards, but it requires personal responsibility, initiative and effort. Bearing fruit spiritually requires seeking and trusting the Lord daily and staying in close communion with Him. Above and before anything else, the most necessary thing in all of life, is not our activities, job, career, service or even actions. It is our heart and relationship with God. Everything else springs forth from that place, whether weeds that choke all that is good; or new life and fruit that can be enjoyed by all. Don’t hide from God in shame, run to God and receive his grace. Let him do a new work in your heart.

Faith & Understanding

“You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”  -John 13:7

I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am who I am. -John 13:19

His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. -John 13:22

But no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. -John 13:28

In this post, I would like to point something out that becomes quite obvious as you read the Gospel accounts, but is much more difficult for us to accept in our own lives. Notice how many times just in the verses above from ONE chapter, Jesus’ closest followers struggled with understanding what Jesus was doing or saying to them. Jesus even stated that while they didn’t get what he was doing or understand the significance of what was taking place, they would understand later.

Here’s the problem however for us: we want to understand with perfect clarity in the present what often only makes sense looking back on it as a past event.

As followers of Jesus, it is helpful to come to a place of understanding that we won’t always understand everything right away…and that is ok! Part of what it means to follow Jesus is to submit to an authority higher than own, to One who sees a picture bigger than we see, who knows the end from the beginning, and whose ways are not our ways and thoughts not our thoughts.

Can you think of any situations in your life that only make sense looking back on it now? I bet you can think of multiple examples, just as I can. I also bet there are current situations in your life that don’t seem to make sense right now. You wonder what God is doing, trying to teach you or show you. You may be confused and feeling quite vulnerable. You could even be thinking there must be something wrong with you or your faith because you feel weak, insecure or unsure.

But this is far from the truth! Following Jesus is humbling. It strips us of our pride and illusion of control. We may feel helpless and uncertain, but often, this is evidence that Jesus is doing something particularly significant that will only make sense in hindsight. When God works, it is beyond our current comprehension and this is part of what makes it the work of God!

But notice Jesus’ promise to his disciples in the first verses above from John 13. He told them that while they didn’t realize what was happening in the moment, they would understand later. As one of my professors (Wayne Cordero) put it just this last week to us, faith is living in advance what you will only understand in reverse. Think about that order. First, you live it. Only later do you come to understand it. We want the opposite though don’t we? But that would not be trust in God. It would be trust in our own understanding. God wants us to trust him in the present especially when we don’t understand.

Let me just share a quick snapshot of my life to perhaps encourage you. When I was 18, I went on a mission trip with some friends, where I rededicated my life to Jesus, along with a friend of mine on my baseball team. He and I became very close due to this event, although we went to separate colleges. However, during my first semester of college, I sensed the Lord tell me three things while worshipping one evening; go back home, go to bible college and start a bible study with youth my age.

So, I went home, enrolled in the bible college nearby the next semester, and this friend and I started a bible study with youth our age. The first week of bible college was a mission conference where the theme was “Living in Light of Eternity.” I was captivated by the reality of heaven and what it meant to live my life with an eternal perspective.

Three months later however, this close friend of mine was killed in a motorcycle accident suddenly and tragically. But because we were so close, I was asked to speak at his funeral. There were many people touched by the Lord through his testimony and our bible study exploded in growth for a season. My now wife was one of those. We ended up getting married and now have four children as a result! Additionally, people began recognizing a speaking/teaching gift in me, so I began speaking at various churches, leading bible studies, teaching, going on mission trips and changed my major to pastoral ministry.

That eventually opened a door for me to pastor a church in New Jersey for six years where we saw lives transformed and disciples made. That door (along with a connection to my wife’s family) eventually led to another door being opened to lead an international mission organization out of Colorado where lives are now being transformed all around the world! I also just started pursuing my masters degree in Formational Leadership, which I have been uncertain about, until I actually began (just last week!) and realized a focus on the “leader” and “character” is part of what is so needed in our culture where “leadership skills” is more of a focus than “integrity of heart” and a moral crisis of fallen leaders is leaving a wake of destruction all around us.

God’s hand and preparation through all those seasons is obvious looking back. But I can tell you there were MANY seasons and still are MANY times and situations, where things don’t make sense in the moment. There is also in the midst of it all, pain, hurt, disappointment, challenges, confusion, insecurity and many nights of wondering what God was doing. There have been (and still are) MANY moments of great uncertainty, lack of clarity and not understanding fully what God was doing or trying to reveal.

But God has not called us to master understanding prior to living by faith. Rather, it is as we live by faith that we gain understanding over time and usually looking back. God is calling us to trust him, especially when it doesn’t make sense or we don’t fully understand. This is the place where faith gets fleshed out and becomes trust. And this is deeply pleasing to Jesus. Keep going! Heaven is cheering you on and God is doing something significant that you will look back on in amazement!

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. -Provers 3:5-6

Security & Stability

If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation. -John 11:48

The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. -Psalm 18:2

We are living in the midst of a culture that is polarized, anxious and fearful. Even among Christians, there is a sense of insecurity and instability. In an age marked by the rejection of eternal, absolute, objective truth and one transcendent God; there is a corresponding lack of deep rooted trust, peace, security, confidence and stability.

The other morning while having devotions, I read the verse above from the Gospel of John and noted that even among the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, they were governed by a spirit of fear instead of faith. They were terrified that faith in Jesus would rob them of their earthly identity. Ironically, it is faith in Jesus that provides us with an eternal identity, security and stability. They rejected his eternal kingdom for their earthly positions, power, identity and kingdom and in the process lost everything anyway.

The same is happening today. While those who identify as “liberals” are rejecting truth and therefore missing out on the eternal blessing and inheritance of Christ and his kingdom; there are many “conservatives” who are mistaking and misplacing their hope in “America” and “nationalism” instead of Christ and his eternal kingdom that transcends any country, nation or people; while including people from every country, nation, tribe and language.

There is a great fear that we are “losing” our “country, position and privilege.” While culture at large has rejected at present, the tenants of biblical faith, virtue and truth, it is in God, and God alone, not country or culture, that we find salvation, security and stability. God is our refuge. He is our fortress. He is our rock. I believe we are focusing too much on culture instead of keeping our eyes fixed on Christ. Our minds are set on earthly dynamics instead of eternal reality. We are seeking temporary relief instead of lasting refuge. We have forgotten the truth of God’s Sovereignty over all things and that his is a dominion and kingdom that will endure forever!

Culture will constantly change; but God is unchanging. Outward circumstances shift, but Christ is steadfast. People will disappoint, but God is our deliverer. We may stumble, but Christ is our strength. We sometimes fail, but our faith in Jesus can be firm. Kingdoms rise and nations fall, but God’s kingdom will endure. People’s views alter, but truth is stable. The hope we have in Christ is the true anchor for our souls; not ideal situations.

Let’s not be ruled by a spirit of fear; but a spirit of faith in Christ. Remember the great hymn of the Reformers:

A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
doth seek to work us woe;
his craft and power are great,
and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,
were not the right man on our side,
the man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth, his name,
from age to age the same,
and he must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo, his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers,
no thanks to them, abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours,
thru him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also;
the body they may kill;
God’s truth abideth still;
his kingdom is forever.

4 Major Immigration Myths

Ironically, it might help to begin this post with something that could upset both sides on the two main political spectrum’s. First, the title of this article has probably already upset many of my conservative friends, as apparently 68% of white evangelicals believe that the US has NO obligation to accept immigrants (See Article Here). I find that revolting.

However, this article, and my views, are not some left-wing liberal propaganda either. I can tell you (much to the disappointment I am sure of especially my younger or more “progressive” friends) that I am not a liberal and take issue with much of the Democrat platform (especially their stance on abortion, which I find to be terrifying in their minimizing, justifying and even celebration in some cases of a terrible holocaust among the absolute most vulnerable people of all. See my article on Abortion here). Personally, I think if you are going to champion refugee’s at the border, then be consistent and champion children in the womb. And if you are going to champion children in the womb, be consistent and champion refugee’s at the border.

So…now that perhaps all my friends are disappointed, let me go on to the current immigration debate. While this has become a hot political issue in our culture with intense rhetoric, I don’t view it mainly as a political issue (of which there is enough hypocrisy on both sides to be completely nauseating). I see this as an issue in which we are dealing with real people, in real need, who are really vulnerable; and yet, we are filled (coming from both sides) with misinformation, fear and misunderstanding.

That said, it is an issue that absolutely requires political action (such as a new and updated immigration system) and of which politics plays a vital role. At the time of writing this, this article has come out: Trump Officials Pressing to Slash Refugee Admission to Zero. This is a problem, but the real problem is in our hearts and heads. Thus, I have written this article to try to speak into a few of the top common immigration myths I hear in our current rhetoric.

  • We are being invaded by people who want to destroy America and our way of life!

First, I think it’s important we remember our own history here. Could our subconscious fear and suspicion of others destroying our way of life perhaps have anything to do with our immigrant past in this country and treatment of Native Americans? Just saying…

That aside (as an issue in and of itself), this fear is unfounded. The vast majority of refugee’s would prefer not to leave their countries of origin if given a real choice. We might think America is the “greatest.” Others may admire certain realities. But home is often home. This is certainly true for most refugee’s seeking asylum. (Just talk to a real refugee). They are being forced out by religious persecution, war, systemic poverty, injustice, and violence often perpetrated by corrupt governments or gangs. Most love their countries and find it a last resort to seek a new life in a new country that is completely foreign.

If you have ever uprooted your family and moved to even another community or state, you know it is not easy. Even if in the same country, speaking the same language, there are cultural differences and fear of the unknown. I grew up in rural Lancaster Country, PA. After being married and having our first child, we moved just two and a half hours away to the Jersey Shore where we didn’t know anyone and weren’t from that community. We found out quickly that while there were many similarities, there were also many differences in the way we talked, in the values of the community, and certain ways of life.

Virtually all immigrants/refugee’s come to America because they believe life, for various reasons, would be better here than their home country. They come here specifically because of what they perceive the American way stands for and could mean in their lives; not to destroy it.

Yes, they bring some cultural differences and diversity, but this is not the same as destroying America or it’s “values.” If anything, the majority come with strong faith backgrounds, family values, a hard-work ethic and everything we would say is truly “American.” Plus, their diversity, adds a dimension of vibrancy that is healthy and what America is all about (E pluribus unum: out of many one)! Think of all the amazing food we now enjoy right here in America that have come from around the world (German, Italian, Irish, Indian, Middle East, Asian, Mexican etc). Our staff just got back from eating at a Little India/Nepal restaurant and it was wonderful!

Imagine how boring life would be if we were all robotically the same. Diversity is a good thing and within diversity there still can be unity. Heaven for example, will be filled with people from every tribe, tongue, language and nation (see Revelation 5:9-10), all united around the throne worshiping Jesus. Faith in Jesus does not eliminate diversity. Rather, it destroys all that so easily and unnecessarily creates fear and division between us, such as race, gender, age, socioeconomic status, etc (see Ephesians 2:14-17, Galatians 3:26-29).

Also, let’s keep in mind that immigrants who have entered this country legally, or refugee’s who have found asylum, have been required to undergo an intense immigration screening process and orientation that sometimes makes them more knowledgeable and appreciative of the American constitution and history than many natural citizens born in America who take being American for granted.

Ironically, this fear is actually nothing new. Did you know Benjamin Franklin articulated this very fear all the way back in 1751 when a wave of German immigrants started coming to America: “Why should [immigrants] establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens who will shortly be so numerous as to [change] us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion?”

That turned out to be quite the misguided fear didn’t it?

  • Immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, are taking away American Jobs!

This is blatant misinformation. Statistics show that immigrants actually help the economy not hurt it, and often expand or create jobs rather than “steal” American jobs.

As is pointed out in the book Welcoming the Stranger: A common frustration with illegal immigration stems from the presumption that undocumented immigrants fail to pay taxes while receiving governmental services. In reality, the reverse is often true: almost all undocumented immigrants pay taxes in one form or another, even though they are ineligible for many of the services that tax dollars support. As the book goes on to detail, undocumented immigrants pay close to $7 billion a year in taxes from purchases made in the US in addition to $3.6 billion in property taxes.

In addition, many immigrants become successful entrepreneurs. It makes sense, as the very fact that they risked so much to leave their countries shows initiative, determination, and resourcefulness. Some of the biggest companies in fact, from Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, Amazon have been created by immigrants to the US (See Article Here). Immigrants are often the one’s who fuel innovation, ingenuity, creative solutions and new jobs.

  • Refugee’s are people coming from countries of violence and therefore are dangerous to let into this country!

It is true that many immigrants are fleeing countries of violence. But it is mistaken to say that immigrants are violent and dangerous themselves.

First, they are the victims of horrible violence themselves. They are fleeing because they are on the receiving end. And even for those who have entered this country illegally, they are 44% less likely to be imprisoned than native-born US Citizens. When they are imprisoned, it is mainly because of being undocumented, certainly not because of violent crimes. Statistically, they are far more likely to have crimes committed against them while in the US than to commit crimes themselves in the US! (See article here).

Secondly, almost half of the refugee’s that have been legally accepted into the country over the last ten years have been Christians, many fleeing persecution in their countries. The vast majority of current refugee’s seeking refuge in the US are also Christian. This means for those of us identifying as Christians, we are rejecting our brothers and sisters in Christ! And what frightens me is that according to Jesus himself In Matthew 25; he takes it personally. Whatever we do (or do not do) for the “least of these” we do (or do not) do unto him. That’s some pretty serious words to dismiss so causally. It should give us pause before rationalizing or justifying our rhetoric and attitudes towards immigrants.

Thirdly, for those who are not coming into this country as believers, shouldn’t we as believers consider this a historical opportunity instead of a political problem or threat? For years, Christians have gone on mission trips to other countries or prayed for those in dangerous parts of the world. But now that others from these same countries are coming here, we protest instead of witness? What’s the deal?

I believe we have elevated “love for country” above “love for neighbor” and in doing so are buying into all kinds of misinformation, political propaganda, fear based rhetoric and are more concerned with maintaining our comfortable and complacent life-styles than doing the hard work of putting our love for God into action by loving our neighbors (and strangers) as ourselves. Perhaps we don’t grasp the Gospel, Great Commission, Great Commandment, and what it means to be a Christian as we think we do. Perhaps we are committing idolatry, elevating love for country above love for Christ, one another and others. Perhaps we have lost an eternal kingdom perspective and are operating from an earthly only mind-set. Perhaps our views are more informed by our feelings and political talk-shows than Scripture.

  • We have no responsibility to accept refugee’s from other countries that are a mess. Let them go back to their own countries and solve their own problems!

First, let me just start from a mere human compassion perspective. I find it shocking that this is spoken with such little compassion or empathy. Just from a sheer humane response perspective how can we be so cold-hearted as to dehumanize real people, created in the image of God, and view them as problems that need to go away? We are facing an historical global refugee crises (over 60 million people) and our attitude is that it is “not our problem” and “not our responsibility!” Is this how we would want to be treated? This is a very dangerous slope to go down when we stop seeing people as human, but see humans as problems.

Secondly, from a Christian/Scripture perspective: does that attitude sound like Jesus at all? Is that rhetoric and response reflective at all of God’s heart and Scriptures numerous commands from beginning to end regarding our treatment of the foreigner/refugee? (See Article here: What the Bible Says About How to Treat Refugees). This is Jesus in disguise and we are turning him away (See my Article: Welcoming the Refugee)! Jesus clearly taught us that our neighbor is anyone, anywhere in need (no matter how different from us) in the story of the Good Samaritan. We have a Christian responsibility. We can come to different conclusions (helping solve root problems in countries and work to create conditions that refugees can return etc) or sense of leading in how best this might be done, but we all need to be personally and collectively engaged in serving those in need.

One could even argue that the Bible (and history itself) is a story of immigrants/refugee’s that God used to bless the world or change the world. From Abraham, called to immigrate from his hometown to Canaan, to Joseph taken against his will to Egypt, to the Jewish people who left Egypt to take possession of the promised land, to Ruth and Naomi, to Esther saving her people in a foreign land, to Jesus himself and his followers who were dispersed by persecution, but brought with them the Gospel to the places they went. The New Testament even reminds believers that we were once “strangers” cut off from God but he welcomed us. And now, we are to live our lives as “strangers” on this earth, since our true home is heaven and we are citizens of his kingdom.

Thirdly, is this even an American response? Whatever happened to what is on the plaque of the Statue of Liberty itself:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Or, what about from George Washington’s lips himself: The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions, whom we shall welcome to participate in all of our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the employment.

Fourthly, let’s talk about these “problems of other countries” and what created them. It has been clearly demonstrated (See Article Here) that the current crisis we see at the border in Mexico has been at the very least, partly created by US intervention over the past half century specifically in the Northern Triangle of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador). This means we bear some responsibility and can’t just tell people to “go back and fix their own problems.” It is our collective responsibility. We need to deal with the immediate crisis and also long-term solutions dealing with root issues.

Fifthly, let me ask a simple question: is that what our ancestors did who came to the US? Did they turn back to fix their own problems in their own countries or did they enter the America’s seeking for a new start? Is this what you would want to tell your ancestors? Isn’t it a double standard and hypocritical to tell others to do the very opposite of what we did or want?

Lastly, let me ask two more questions in closing this article out. What are we really afraid of? Can we just admit our fears and seek true understanding while showing human empathy even while ensuring a safe, secure and just immigration policy? And secondly, can we see our own biases, prejudices, and arrogance in our rhetoric towards immigrants and refugees? Even if we think America is truly the greatest country on earth, what is it that has made it great? I submit to you a big part of it has to do with her immigrants and refugees.

***For some articulate books on this issue I recommend the following:

Where is the Fear of the Lord?

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction. -Proverbs 1:7

A few weeks ago I was speaking each evening at a camp in Arkansas, mostly aimed at middle-school to high-school kids. The first two nights after sharing I felt something was missing and by the second evening I spent a restless night in prayer. The third evening I decided to deviate at the beginning from my planned message. I spoke from Isaiah chapter six where Isaiah has an encounter with God, then shared some of my own testimony. In Isaiah’s case, he saw God, and convicted by the holiness of God, confessed his sin with a sense of utter fear and trembling. It was only after acknowledging his sinfulness and there being nothing he could do about it, that he experienced the grace of God and cleansing of his sin. Following this, Isaiah hears the voice of God and responds to the call to “go” to wherever and to whomever God wanted him to go.

When I was twelve years old, I had an encounter with God that changed my life and the entire course of my life ever since. While I did not see God as Isaiah did, I did become aware of his presence and without knowing what the word holiness even meant, I knew I was “in trouble” and that I needed Jesus. It was in that moment that I fell to my knee’s and said, “Jesus I need you, and I want to give my life to serve you.” While I wrestled throughout my high school years of the second part of that prayer, it was in that moment at twelve years old that something changed completely inside of me. I experienced a peace, joy and love of God and for God that I had not known before. I believe it was in that moment that I was born-again as Jesus said was necessary to be brought into his kingdom (John 3).

After high school, I returned to the second part of that prayer and rededicated my life to seeking the Lord with all my heart and serving him with my life. That has led me into now leading an international mission organization called ServeNow. I certainly am very far from being perfect or sinless, but I am aware that sin is sin and hopefully sin less in light of God’s holiness and grace in my life.

After I shared about Isaiah and my own story, I noticed a shift that moment onward at this camp among the campers. I used those two stories to speak about what I sensed was missing: a fear of the Lord. I believe in fact, that what is being lost or has never been experienced by many in our generation to begin with is a true fear of the Lord, leading to a real conviction of sin and resulting in a cleansing from sin and willingness to obey, serve and live for the Lord according to his word. After the camp, I heard two other pastors communicating messages that conveyed their concern too about the lack of and need for the fear of the Lord.

We live in a culture and age (even among professing and church-going Christians), where much like the book of Judges, people are doing what is right in their own eyes, according to their own standards, feelings and desires. There is a loss of respect for God, awe of God and reverence for God that leads to a real relationship with God. There is a lack of engagement in taking Scripture seriously, let alone even reading it anymore. There isn’t a sense of daily seeking the Lord first in our lives as more important than anything else and living in light of eternity. There is a nonchalant attitude towards giving, missions and praying. There is a lack of trembling at his word, being aware of his presence, and being convicted of our sin. There is barely any talk even of hell or the judgment to come from many pulpits.

I just started re-reading the book of Deuteronomy recently. Moses, the author of the book, begins by reminding the Israelite’s, the people of God, of their history with God. He writes of how God delivered them from bondage as slaves in Egypt. This is a picture of how we are all under the oppression of sin, Satan, and this world, until Jesus, our Savior, delivers us. Moses then recalls how they were led by God into the wilderness and to Mount Sinai, where they encountered the presence of a holy God and received the law of God. It was here that a fear of the Lord was instilled in them and they understood clearly what was right and wrong in his eyes, and how they were to live differently in this world as his people as a witness to the world.

While the Israelite’s were called to move on from this place to take hold of God’s promises, goodness and blessing in the promised land; I wonder, has our generation even experienced this place? Have we experienced God in such a way that we tremble in his presence, stand in awe of his holiness, are convicted of our sinfulness, and learn what is right and wrong in his eyes according to his word? Before good news is good we have to become aware of the bad news and how bad it really is. Before we experience God’s grace, we have to become aware of our need for his grace. Before we can know his goodness, we need to behold his holiness.

Many people think that having a fear of God is a bad thing. While there is an unhealthy fear of God that keeps us from coming to him or causes us to think he is not good; a proper fear, respect, awe and reverence for God is healthy and needed. It is in fact as the book of Proverbs points out, the starting point for all true knowledge and wisdom that leads to a life lived well in the eyes of God. We might have some knowledge about God but that is far different than actually knowing God. It all begins with a fear of him.

But we see the fruit of this lack of fear of God playing out right now. After all, if we don’t take God seriously, why would we take his word seriously? If we have no fear of God, why should we take sin seriously? If we have no awe of God, why seek God above all else? If we have no respect for God, why care about the things that matter to his heart? If we have no reverence for God, why listen for his voice and follow his leading in our lives? If hell isn’t real why be concerned for others eternity?

I believe what is most needed in our churches, culture and generation is a fresh awareness and experience of God’s holiness. We need to return to a healthy fear of God that causes us to take him, his word and ways seriously. We need to stand in awe of God again. And it begins with each of us getting on our knees or faces before God in holy reverence.

These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word. -Isaiah 66:2

The Playfulness of Jesus

How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number—living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic (play) there. -Psalm 104:24-26

This week I have been speaking at a camp in Arkansas and decided the theme of my messages would be “Jesus as You have Never Seen Him.” The second evening I talked about “Jesus, the Playful Comedian” and shared some situations where although we often miss it, Jesus used humor to highlight spiritual truth and seems to have a playful personality. In this article, I would like to build the case of this often overlooked reality. This is something I have only recently begun really seeing and thinking more seriously about (pun intended!).

First of all, just think of creation itself. Built into all of creation is a certain playfulness. From dolphins, to dogs, to cats, to many other animals, they love to simply play and exhibit playful characteristics. The passage this blog started with speaks to this truth when it says that a certain sea creature was created by God simply for this very purpose, to frolic or play! As human beings (especially children) we also love to laugh, play and have a good time. If creation truly does reveal certain attributes of God, then surely humor, laughter and play are one of those realities.

I think the problem (at least for me) is that the older we get the easier it is to lose our child-likeness. I shared with the kids at this camp that while it is a good thing to grow out of childishness, it is a horrible thing to cease being child-like. And what do children do? Children play! In fact, it seems that creation itself was God playing. Why after all, did he create all the kinds of animals he created, or different scenery, or make things look like they do? And why so many of certain things?

G.K. Chesteron, a well-known writer, once put it this way, Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

In Proverbs 8:27-31 is clear that God had fun when creating. While it was certainly awe-inspiring, it was not sober and serious. Read carefully the language and tone used as the world was being created, I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. Then I was constantly at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.

Rejoicing. Delighting. Filled with joy. Is this how we think of Jesus? Is this how we think of God? Is this how we think of creation? One author began by saying, the world is a vast and magical playground of jumping dolphins, spray-blowing whales, frolicking baby deer. Yes, the world, because of sin, is a battleground, but God created it first as a playground. It was sin that made us serious and caused us to lose our joy, playfulness and child-like awe.

And then there is Jesus himself. We miss what several scholars have noted as humor, because Middle East humor at that time was very different than what some of our cultures might find funny today. For example, when Jesus spoke about the hypocrisy of religious leaders (Matthew 7:3-5) he said it is like walking around with a plank or tree truck sticking out of their eye while trying to remove the speck in another person’s eye. His audience probably laughed or at least smirked at that imagery. Jesus didn’t have to describe it like that. He could have just warned about hypocrisy using normal language but it would not have been as memorable. Humor, satire and absurdity can help people remember spiritual truth. This is really what the best professional comedians do, and Jesus seemed to utilize this method at times as well!

There also appear to me to be moments of playfulness especially after Jesus rises from the dead and begins appearing (and disappearing) to his disciples. In one situation (John 21), Peter tells the others he is going out to fish. That night they catch nothing. As they begin to come back to shore, they see a figure standing there and he calls out to them, Friends, have you caught anything? When they say no, this man tells them to cast their nets on the other side. They do so and suddenly they catch a lot of fish. It was at this point that Peter makes the connection that this whole situation is strangely familiar to what happened to them once before a few years back when Jesus first called Peter to follow him (Luke 5). He suddenly recognizes the man on the shore is Jesus. Peter jumps out of the boat, swims the rest of the way, greets Jesus and then you know what Jesus does? He cooks them breakfast with some of the fish they caught.

This whole story is loaded with a sense of playfulness! First of all, who prevented the boys from catching any fish? Secondly, why did Jesus call out and ask them if they caught anything? Why did he then grill some fish for them and have breakfast with them? The man was just resurrected from the dead, but there he is doing something as ordinary as cooking and eating with friends! I imagine this all happened with a twinkle in Jesus’ eyes. He is playing with them!

In another situation, (Luke 24) some of the disciples are walking together on the road to Emmaus, completely depressed over the events that had just transpired with Jesus being crucified. They are also completely confused because some of the women were claiming to have seen Jesus alive. While they are discussing all these things, guess who turns up? Jesus himself. However, he very casually begins walking with them and asking them what they are talking about. He does all this in such a way that they are kept from recognizing that it is even him! It’s as if Jesus is amused by all this! Only later, when he breaks bread with them, are their eyes opened and do they recognize him. And then, just like he appeared, he disappears again!

My kids love playing hide and seek. What kid doesn’t? I think Jesus likes that game too. However, he doesn’t make it so hard for us that we can’t find him. The younger are kids were or are, the easiest we make it for them to find us. And if they begin getting frustrated, we sometimes even begin to give some clues to re-orient them towards finding us.

The same is true with Jesus. Scripture does speak of God hiding himself, but also clearly revealing himself. If we seek him with all our heart, he promises we will find him (Jeremiah 29:13). And he has given clues to all those who want to find him. Creation. The Bible. Transformed lives. Our conscience.

Maybe we have just sadly grown up from the joy of seeking and finding God. Maybe it is we who have walked away and become too serious. Maybe it is we who have lost our child-likeness that is required for real relationship with a playful God.

Jesus has a playful personality. The last proof in fact that I will submit to you is this: just take a look in the mirror if you doubt his sense of humor!

It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings. -Proverbs 25:2

What Jesus’ Ascension Means

Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. -Romans 8:34-37

In between Jesus’ death, resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit was an event that perhaps gets the least attention in most Christian circles today. However, it is the event that made possible the coming of the Spirit and also continues to provide protection and provision in our lives as believers today. When we fix our eyes on this truth, it is also where we find confidence, as it addresses our anxiety, fears, worries and needs. In fact, I believe it may be for lack of understanding this truth that we find so much insecurity in our lives today.

The event I am referring to is the ascension of Jesus and his “sitting down at his Father’s right hand.” This has been part of the historic Christian creed for centuries, but I fear too many of us really have no idea what this practically means in our lives today. So, may the Holy Spirit illuminate this truth and make it applicable in a way that we leave rejoicing in the security we have in Christ.

Did you ever wonder what Jesus has been doing these last two thousand years? We have been waiting his Second Coming for all this time, but what is Jesus doing? At a surface level, “sitting down at His Father’s right hand” sounds quite passive doesn’t it? Is he just kind of chilling in heaven, while the world seems to come unglued and our lives feel out of control?

The truth couldn’t be further from this lie! The imagery being provided by Jesus “sitting down at his Father’s right hand” simply speaks to his finished work on the cross in paying in full the penalty for our sins. In regard to satisfying our sin debt, there is no price left to pay. As Jesus cried out on the cross, it is finished!

However, we all know we continue to stumble and fall short of God’s glory even upon being saved. We also face all kinds of battles, spiritual warfare and very challenging situations or difficult circumstances beyond our control. And this is where the ascension and continual faithful intercession of Jesus comes into play. As the passage above states, Jesus is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. The application and assurance given immediately following this is that this is why we need not have any fear or doubts, because nothing in life, no matter how challenging, will ever be able to separate us from God’s love. Because he has ascended in complete victory, we too are more than conquerors through the One who has perfectly loved us and completely overcome on our behalf!

I like to remind my children that Jesus is doing two primary things right now. He is praying (interceding) for us and preparing a place for us. We have even imagined what kind of place he is preparing for us and spent time dreaming about what that might be like. But we have spent less time focusing on Christ’s intercession for us, even though that is what currently provides all things for us right now, and protects us from all that would threaten to separate us from God’s great love for us.

While it would take too long to cover all aspects of what Jesus’ ascension means for us today, one of those aspects is that because Jesus is Sovereign over all, there is no greater authority above him. This is what gives us assurance, security and confidence in knowing that not only is God for us in principle and with us through his very presence in the person of the Holy Spirit, but he also possess all authority over every other authority that would threaten us, accuse us, condemn us or undo us. One of my favorite Hymns puts it this way:

Before the throne of God above
I have a strong, a perfect plea;
A great High Priest, whose Name is Love,
Who ever lives and pleads for me.

My name is graven on His hands,
My name is written on His heart;
I know that while with God He stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart.

When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look, and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin.

Notice, Christ’s ascension enables us not to look within to summon a strength and confidence we don’t possess in and of ourselves (as self-help therapy tries to falsely assure us of), nor around at our circumstances (which can change suddenly at a moment’s notice), but upward to the only Perfect and Faithful One who rules and reigns as Sovereign over all. Our confidence comes not from within, not from around, but from looking upward to Christ who has triumphed over all and rules over all!

It is in the reality of Christ’s ascension as rightful heir to the throne and triumphant conqueror over sin and death, that we find confidence in our lives today. It is because he ever lives to intercede on our behalf that we find courage to face whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, fight whatever battles we fight, or deal with any situations that come our way. It is because of his ascension and intercession that we find security that he is able to fully save, sustain, protect, and provide for our every need.

It is because Christ has ascended in triumphal victory, now crowned with glory and honor (Hebrews 2:9) that we find assurance that we too are victorious and more than conquerors, as he did this all for us out of his great love towards us. It is because of his ascension that we find assurance of our salvation and belonging to his family forever. It is because of his ascension and intercession that we can be confident that all the mercy, grace and wisdom we ever need are available to us in and through Christ who serves as our merciful and faithful high priest in heaven (Hebrews 2:17-18). We can be strong in intercession and prayer because he is perfectly strong in intercession and prayer for us.

As the world is being shaken and all seems like chaos around us, we need not be shaken or afraid, for Jesus has ascended and is faithfully interceding on our behalf.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven,Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. -Hebrews 4:14-16

When You are Led Into the Desert

Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. -Mark 1:10-12

At the time of writing this article we have just celebrated Pentecost, or the coming of the Holy Spirit. I wrote about this in my prior article (Pentecost Insights). What an amazing time for the people of God! When the Spirit comes, he comes in power and gentleness, lives are transformed and the wonders of God are proclaimed! The Spirit of God makes real the presence of God to the people of God.

But often, we stop here as believers. Pentecost really is the culmination of the promise Jesus made to his disciples following his crucifixion and resurrection which are celebrated during Passion Week just fifty days prior. But then…we seem to wait till Christmas to reflect deeply on any other truth we can glean about the life of a Christian.

Therefore, I would like to focus on what happens after the Spirit comes and fills his people and we go forth into the world. I believe a lot of our confusion, disillusionment and despair comes from a lack of teaching and understanding about how the Spirit leads his people.

Here is the bombshell: The Spirit of God does not lead the people of God to “safe” or “comfortable” places. Rather, he often leads his people into “dangerous” and “uncomfortable” places!

Notice what happened right after the Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism and the Father voiced his approval and delight in his son. At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

Wait…what? The wilderness? With the wild animals? To be tempted by Satan? Without physical food or drink for forty days? Doesn’t sound very glamorous does it?

A careful reading of Scripture (and even autobiographies of saints through the ages) reveals this is not an isolated experience. God calls Noah to build an ark because a flood is coming. And while yes, they are kept safe in the boat, the floods and storm rock the boat back and forth for 150 days! I am sure that wasn’t very comfortable with all those animals in there for that long too!

When God called Abram to leave his country for a new country, promising to bless him and make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and sand on the seashore, Sara remained completely barren for 39 years following this promise. Joseph, when given a dream from God, was 17 years old, but waited 13 more years, seemingly forgotten and languishing in Egypt (some of that time in prison) before he became prime minister.

Moses, before God appeared to him in a burning bush, spent 40 years tending sheep in the back-side of a desert. David, from the time he was anointed the next king, to actually becoming the next king, waited around 15 years, most of that time being spent hiding in the desert, mountains and wilderness from the jealousy of King Saul!

Jesus himself, lived in obscurity for the first 30 years of life before revealing himself as Messiah and beginning his earthly ministry. And preceding him, his cousin John LIVED in the dessert, eating a strict diet of locusts and honey until the time came for him to prepare the way and announce the coming of the Messiah. And the early church was persecuted and scattered after the coming of the Spirit in the book of Acts.

The desert is a familiar place for the most anointed people and leaders and prophets of God! Of course the desert speaks of hiddeness, dryness, uncomfortablness, challenge, danger, even isolation. Yet, this seems to be the place the Spirit of God himself leads his most trusted servants. It seems to be their “proving ground”, the place their character is forged, sharpened, and strengthened. It is the place they are tested and tried, and although feeling weak, emerge with a strength of spirit unrivaled by others who have grown up in more pleasant circumstances.

But let’s not pretend the desert is where we want to be. Mother Teresa spoke of it as the “dark night of the soul.” Scripture speaks of it as a place of spiritual warfare, temptation and hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. It is the “boot” camp for the spiritual solider. The place where you are pushed to physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion.

So, here is a word of encouragement. The desert can become the most holy of ground and place of most intimate and meaningful encounters with God. Think of the Psalms that were inspired as David was on the run hiding in the caves, mountains and wilderness. Think of Moses, on the back-side of the desert encountering the holy presence of God himself in the burning bush.

And notice again “who” else was present with Jesus in the wilderness: the angels were there ministering to him and strengthening him for the battle. It sounds so simple as to be obvious, but we forget we don’t need strengthened by God unless we are in a position of needing strengthened by God! We don’t need refreshed by the Spirit if we are not in need of being refreshed. We don’t realize our need for God if we don’t sense our need for God!

Sometimes we assume something must be wrong if we find ourselves in dark, dangerous, uncomfortable, dry places. Sometimes we think God must be angry with us or we are being punished. Sometimes we wonder if God has forsaken us, abandoned us, given up on us, or forgotten us. But rather than assuming something is wrong, perhaps we should assume something might be right!

Yes, God’s people can find themselves stuck in the wilderness like the Israelites because of their unbelief and sin. But there is a difference between being stuck verse being sent. The Israelites were initially sent, by God, into the wilderness, not to get stuck there and die, but to encounter him and live! Jesus himself, immediately after being filled with the Spirit and hearing the approval and delight of his Father, was sent by the Spirit into the wilderness…for a time! It was just a season. I am sure those days, especially while fasting and being tempted seemed to drag on, as dry, desert and dark seasons for us seem to linger too long. But, take heart, you who are loved by the Lord, it is just a season!

And let the season and it’s purpose do it’s work in you. Growth happens when we are uncomfortable. Character is forged in the desert while being tempted and tested. Seeking God happens when we are aware of our need for him. Encounters with God happen when we “turn aside” from the normal routine of life on the back-side of the desert. The view from on top of the mountain can’t happen unless we first scale the mountain. And the intention of God is not to destroy you or leave you to die, but to empower you for service according to his purposes in the lives of others.

Notice, that Jesus went into the desert full of the Spirit, but when he emerged, he came forth not just full of the Spirit, but in the power of the Spirit: Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. -Luke 4:14-15

You are not being punished but equipped. God is not angry with you, he is pleased with you. You are not being abandoned, your character is being forged. God has not given up on you, he is entrusting you with his kingdom power! Don’t give into despair, seek God. He will strengthen you, sending even his angels to minister to you!

Pentecost Insights

Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased. -Mark 1:10-11

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. -Acts 2:1-3

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been reflecting more than usual on “Pentecost”, which is when Christians celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. I wanted to take some time to put some of my recent insights in writing for what it may be worth to those who read this. It’s been interesting to compare the similarities in the descent of the Spirit of God on Jesus at his baptism as he began his earthly ministry; and the descent of the Spirit of God on the people of God as the early church was birthed and began it’s earthly mission.

First, in both cases, there is language used that involves “intensity.” In Jesus’ case, heaven was seen being “torn open.” The imagery reminds me of what happens at the birth of a child when entering this world. There is a sense of “violence” which is the very word used in Acts 2 when the sound that is heard is described.

Another way perhaps to think of this is that there was an observable “disruption” that took place when the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus and then later the early church. When the Holy Spirit comes he “disrupts” our lives and things change! You can’t have the Holy Spirit without there being transformation, change, and our lives being “disrupted” by God. An encounter with God will change the trajectory of your life!

Secondly however, there is also a kind of gentleness that clearly comes through both of these passages. In Jesus’ case, it explicitly says the Spirit descended on him “like a dove.” There is a quietness, ordinariness, innocence, purity and gentleness contained in that imagery. With the first disciples, there were tongues of fire, but note that it “came to rest” on them in a gentle way that didn’t destroy them.

In other words, the Holy Spirit may have come “suddenly” “dramatically” “disruptively” and even “violently”; but also “gently” “tenderly” and “sensitively.” Combining these two realities together we could say that when the Holy Spirit comes, he comes in a disruptive, life-transforming way, but also in a gentle and tender way upon his people.

Third, in both cases there is a burst of outward divine pleasure and activity. In Jesus’ case God the Father can’t help but beam with delight and declare his pleasure in his Son. In the case of the disciples, the presence of God clearly fills the place where they were externally. When the Spirit came upon Jesus, there was a physical form (like a dove), and when the Spirit came on the early believers, “tongues of fire” took form and rested on them. When the Spirit came upon Jesus, the voice of God was heard, and when the Spirit of God came on the disciples, a “sound like a blowing of a violent wind from heaven” was heard. In both situations there is a “tangible” sense of God’s presence and noticeable activity from heaven outwardly. In other words, when the Holy Spirit comes he makes real to us the reality of God. Jesus is the word made flesh; the Holy Spirit is the divine made noticeable to us.

However, there is also a clear internal reality in both cases too. When the Spirit comes upon Jesus, he is filled internally with the Spirit, as are the disciples in the upper room. In both cases the result was an inner fiery passion for the glory of God. Jesus would go on to speak with a fire for the things of God and the disciples would go on to boldly declare the wonders of God. When the Holy Spirit comes he fills his people with a holy fire for the glory of God that we can’t help but share with the world! The Holy Spirit infuses boldness and enables us to declare the Good News to all people.

So, to conclude, we cannot dismiss the very real and observable activity of God that he ushers into our lives. When the Spirit comes, he comes with power and gentleness. When the Spirit comes, he fills us with a sense of the Divine Presence of God inwardly and externally. When the Spirit comes, it is heaven interacting with earth. When the Spirit comes, there is a passion and fire that rests on and fills God’s people to declare his glory to all people. When the Spirit comes, he disrupts our lives and transforms our lives. When the Spirit comes, he fills us with the reality of God and sends us out to take that reality to others.

I encourage you to forget (or frame differently) any “charismatic” verse “non-charismatic” debate. (It’s actually often only in certain circles and not in every country that this is even a distinction or issue). John, the forerunner of Jesus, made clear that Jesus would baptize his people with the Holy Spirit, which was the greater fulfillment than his water-baptizing of people (Mark 1:8). The word “baptize” speaks of being immersed and submerged in water. This is what the Holy Spirit does in our lives spiritually. He immerses us in the reality of God. He enables us to die to self to live fully to the glory of God as water-baptism also represents and is a commitment towards. The Holy Spirit is the one who makes that external commitment an inward reality in our lives.

Rather than being afraid, embarrassed, confused or ashamed of the Holy Spirit, we ought to celebrate his coming and embrace his activity in fullness in and through our lives. Yes, he is a “disruptive” presence in our lives, but he is also “gentle” in his dealings with us.

Come Holy Spirit and immerse us in the reality of the presence of God! Fill us to overflowing with the praise of God and enable us to declare with courage and confidence, the glory of God to others!

Ukraine Mission Trip 2019

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. -Jesus, John 10:10

I just returned from a fantastic trip with a small team from the US to Ukraine on behalf of ServeNow, the mission organization I lead as President. I thought I would share a few personal highlights of this trip as a means of conveying the needs we saw, but especially the ways God is working in transforming real people’s lives and hearts in Ukraine.

The first story I will share has been quite a remarkable journey. A few years ago, our Ukrainian Directors had it on their hearts to provide a skill training program around baking for young girls in vulnerable situations. The young girl behind the inspiration for the bakery training was an orphan named Anita. We met Anita on this trip as she was home for Easter (pictured below on the very right next to me). Anita is now serving in the war-zone, having felt called by God there despite the constant danger to her life!

Anita

But years ago, she told Tanya, our Ukraine Director, that at a very young age she saw friends of hers being raped, caught up in prostitution, and swept into human trafficking; and so to protect herself she began to dress like a boy, talk like a boy and act like a boy for a time. This is a vicious cycle for a high percentage of orphan girls in Ukraine.

When Tanya heard this she felt ServeNow had to do something to protect girls like this by giving them a practical life skill. At the same time, the wife and husband who adopted Anita and other orphan girls (the wife is pictured on very left of above picture with me and Tanya and Anita), had been praying for their girls to have the ability to learn baking skills. Over these last few years, we have been offering a bakery skill training program in answer to those prayers, and on this trip met the 3 newest graduates (pictured below with a bakery graduation gift)!

BakeryGraduates

But the remarkable part of this trip in connection with this project, was how it seems God is bringing together the collective dreams of multiple parties towards a full cafe/bakery training program. Over the last few years, we have been looking for and discussing our own building/cafe. However, nothing was coming together or working out despite our efforts and prayers. This was also causing discouragement on the part of our bakery teacher and her husband who have this dream on their hearts; along with the rest of us.

But during lunch with the pastor of a local church (where we have held some of our bakery training classes in the past), we learned of their new church building plans that would include a cafe which we could operate and be able to provide training from if we are able to work out a partnership agreement! This would benefit the local church (which is our goal in every project) as a way of serving the community and creating a bridge with the local church, while costing us less than purchasing/owning our own building.

The remarkable thing is that our new teacher’s father, who is on our board in Ukraine, shared with our team through tears in his eyes how he had told his daughter he had had a dream where the bakery would be inside a church and that she was not to worry about trying to figure out a location for all this, as it would happen in God’s timing! It certainly left us excited that perhaps this could be God’s solution…

The next story I would like to share happened while we were at our directors local church for Orthodox Easter where I preached, and then spoke the next day at their church charity picnic. The church was having this special picnic to help raise money to pay for the train tickets of some of the kids ServeNow brings to a summer camp each year. We met a couple of those kids at the church and even got to hear some of them recite some verses of the bible and hear one of them (Liza) sing which was extremely special. Ever since the camp, she has been taking the bus often by herself, to come to church in the next village (since her village doesn’t have a church). She loves to sing and has an amazing voice. I told her she is famous in America because I have shown video of her singing to many people!

SummerCampKids

But what really touched my heart was how her and a friend had their own table at the church charity picnic where they were selling items they had made so other kids could go to camp this year! I bought a picture from one of them to help support their efforts! Ukraine is a very poor country, and this is not something typical for churches to do. So, it was a very special event and moving to see them raise enough funds for 16 train tickets!

SummerCampKids1

During that same picnic event I also had a conversation with a couple who has it on their heart to start a literacy program with nearby Roma/Gypsy people. This is something we have been talking about for the past several years as a huge need within this community. The cool part would be that the wife is one of our cosmetology graduates! She has started her own business out of her home, being she has six kids of her own.

Speaking of our cosmetology training…

That same day, I have to admit I had a brand-new experience that I was a bit nervous about. I had my first manicure and pedicure!

BenNails

The only reason I did this is because of who it was done by. Several years ago, our Ukraine Directors shared with me the story of Luda, a refugee from Crimea (pictured above about to do my nails!). Because of the invasion of Crimea by Russia, Luda and her husband were forced to relocate. However, she had a specialized job that did not carry over when she was forced to flee. After trying several jobs, she decided to take cosmetology lessons. She then had a dream to train other refugees and women in need of a skill, so they too could generate needed income. We helped her to do just that and have had several classes go through the training already. As a result she opened her own beauty salon, called Dream in Style, hiring some of the graduates!

Cosmetology1

It was quite amazing for me personally to see the salon and meet some of the women we helped provide training for! It struck me that just a couple of years ago this was just a one-page piece of paper on my desk and a dream in the heart of a refugee! But to hear how this has completely changed the lives of women, and to hear some of their stories was touching. We were also able to welcome the two newest students who have just begun their training and hear their stories.

Cosmetology5

One of them grew up in an orphanage. While in school, she fell in love and got married. However, her husband was an alcoholic and abusive and so she has been living alone in what you can barely call a one-room “apartment” with her two daughters. But, a couple summers ago, her two daughters were at one of our summer camps and have been going to a local church ever since and now her mom is able to go through our cosmetology training!

The other woman lost her husband and was pregnant at the time with their third baby who also tragically died. She is also a refugee from the war zone. Before they shared their stories with our team, I had shared with them the story of Ruth and Naomi which seemed to resonate with them. Later, one of them posted the following: The Lord gives us only good people! I meet the wonderful Americans yesterday who believe that dreams come true. These wonderful believers help me to gain a new profession! I am grateful to every good person who is now in my life and help in such a way so I do not fall into depression! You are my incentive to life! Thank you for my new life and new awesome friends! I believe that now I will be fine and my dream will come true!

The last thing I will focus on is the medical equipment and wheelchairs we help provide to hospitals and disabled people throughout Ukraine. Many hospitals lack even enough beds or the beds they have are absolutely horrible for patients. We saw medical equipment and furniture dating back 30-40 years/to Soviet Union Days!

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While hospitals have wonderfully dedicated staff, doctors and nurses, they do not receive the medical equipment, medicine, or funding they need to adequately function. Attempted reforms have been put forward in recent years, but state funding only provides a bare minimum that hardly even covers the cost of electricity and very low salaries. Some hospitals don’t even have hot water!

Additionally, disabled people cannot afford to buy a wheelchair. Some try to make their own kind of wooden slab devices with wheels (if lucky) to at least get around some in the house, while most are not able to leave their room/house at all!

Larisa for example, one of the women we visited, was not able to leave her room for 8 years because of not being able to walk! This was devastating to her because she loves being outside. It was as if she became a prisoner in her own room. However, this all changed for her recently, when we were able to provide her with her own wheelchair! She was so excited to tell us that now she can go outside again.

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Peter was another elderly man we met who is disabled. When he was very young he stepped on a landmine left over from World War 2 times, right near his home where we were. It was only recently through ServeNow that he received his first wheelchair for outside use. His sister, who helps take care of him, made sure to tell us that now he can help her as she has helped him all these years! As we were leaving, a team member said they would be in our prayers, but they said they would be praying for us so we can help more people! That made us more excited about another 100 wheelchairs that will be released from customs soon for others like Peter in Ukraine!

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While there is much more that could be shared from this trip those are a few of my personal highlights. It was a reminder to me of something I felt personally called to: “Make the God given dreams of others a reality.” While that is not something I can do, God is doing it through all involved in ServeNow, whether through giving, praying or serving. He is a God who answers prayer, cares especially for the most vulnerable, gives us the desire of our hearts as we delight in him, and brings to pass every promise he makes to us, providing all we need to do whatever he calls us to do through his grace!

To God be the glory, great things He has done!

***The team that went with me is wanting to raise funding for another “container” of medical equipment for hospitals and wheelchairs for disabled people. You can help bring hope to a world in need with them here: Help Change the Lives of the Most Vulnerable in Ukraine.

To learn more about ServeNow and get involved click here: www.weservenow.org. Or feel free to e-mail me personally: bfoley@weservenow.org.

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