Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Persecution Pathway

     I feel I can no longer be silent on the subject to persecution. I’ve often been asked why such evil can exist in the world. I have written extensively on that in my book The Humiliation of Job and in my book Musings of an Armchair Theologian. I do not wish to revisit those complete arguments as the idea of evil in the world and why God allows it to happen is a question that could dominate this blog along with thousands of others and we would still not come to a complete consensus. I think it’s important that we differentiate between persecution and evil. And that’s what I intend to do in this blog.

     Recently members of ISIS (a radical Islamic terrorist organization) kidnapped 21 Coptic Christians in Libya and then beheaded them on camera. And as if that act could not be made worse now the news is saying that there is over 100 maybe even as many as 400 Christians that have been rounded up by the same organization. If they are true to the character they have displayed in the past they will more than likely use these Christians to further their atrocities.
     One of the questions the springs to mind when I hear this (one of many questions) is what should be the Christian response to this news? Another question is what is God’s response to this? One last question that I think needs to be answered is; is persecution part of God’s plan for the Christian church today? I hope to address all three of these questions in the remainder of this blog.
     What should be the Christian response to this news? I think that the answers to this question should be at least twofold. The first part of the answer to this question should be that we as the Christian world should condemn this as an act of extreme terrorism. In condemning this we ought to as a complete body offer a prayer’s for those that have died in those that are about to die. We should pray for the families, and we should pray for the captors. This should be a single universal response from the Christian world.
     The reason I say that is we are taught by the apostle Paul in several of his epistles that the church is the body of Christ. As such when one part of the body is injured the rest of the body should respond and feel it. It should bring about pain and remind us that this is not our home, and no matter how comfortable it feels at the moment we should never forget where our true allegiance lies. When Jesus was questioned by Pontius Pilate as to the nature of his kingdom Jesus responded that “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36)
     Now we all know and believe that Jesus was and is God. As such he is the creator of all that is therefore he could say that his kingdom and domain was the entire universe including the subtle ball of mud that we currently ride around the sun on. But Jesus was not being tongue-in-cheek or sarcastic in his response ultimately we also know that His kingdom will fully be realized only at the end of days. Our home, our true home, is with Jesus.
     While we walk this earth though we do so with others as part of the body of Christ. When one part of the body hurts there should be a mechanism or a network of “nerves” that transmit that pain to the rest of the body. We should grieve when one of our own dies. This should be our first and public response.
     There is another component to this and that brings us to our second question: what is God’s response? The apostle Paul in the book of Romans chapter 5 says that we should exalt in our tribulations. We should understand that the tribulation brings about endurance or perseverance. And that endurance provides the fertile ground from which grows character and not just any character brick character that is steadfast and proven. And from that plant we call character the flower of hope blossoms. His hope is amazing it’s what we are all about while we walked this earth waiting for the day that we step into glory and embrace our master, Savior, Redeemer, the lover of our soul Jesus Christ!

     God poured out his love on us through his son Jesus Christ. And after Jesus left he gave us the down payment, with a foretaste of what true heaven will be like by allowing us to have the Holy Spirit dwell within us. The problem that many of us face in first world nations like the United States is that we have not really had to suffer persecution in a long time. This does not mean that we will be free from persecution until Jesus comes back but at this present time we don’t face that kind of persecution.

     But even a cursory reading of the New Testament anyone can tell that the concept of persecution in the lives of believers is part of our DNA. Many of the first and second century writers, who themselves were the subject of much persecution, wrote about the fact that persecution is how their faith deepens in the church expands. I believe it was Tertullian that wrote that quote that the blood of martyrs is the foundation of the church.

     God did not spare even His own son. If we call ourselves a Christian we should not be surprised when persecution comes. In China when a member of the house church movement is arrested and sent to prison for their faith they have a completely different view of that act from us. According to the book the Insanity of God by Nik Ripken the Chinese believers look at prison as their seminary. Often times in order to be a true leader in that movement one has to be in prison much like our pastors today should attend seminary. They come out of prison on fire ready to share their experience of the persecution and this might explain why the church in China has had explosive growth in the last 50 years.

     This leads into the last question that I posed (I do not pretend to believe that these are the only questions that need to be asked just the ones I felt I needed to ask). Is persecution part of God’s plan for His church today? The short answer is yes and no. To deal with the no first I can only say this but nothing evil comes from God. God does not wish that any should perish but that everyone should come to know the saving knowledge of his son Jesus Christ.

     Now to tackle the yes. I do believe that for those that are truly called to serve God (I’m not talking about pastors only but everyone that feels the urging of the Holy Spirit to follow him) that persecution is part of the discipleship process that draws us closer to the heart of God. For those that have undergone persecution whether it’s a form of mild marginalization that we see here in the US or whether it is having your head removed from your body it all works to deepen our relationship with God.

     I’m not encouraging anyone to seek out persecution, but when it comes we should not run from it either. There is a pathway through persecution they can only be taken with in the arms of our Savior Jesus Christ. He says his burden is not heavy but for anyone who is truly followed God that statement grates on her nerves. Because it is not easy following Christ, to quote the newswoman Megyn Kelly, “Christianity is not for wimps.” That statement is never more true than today. So how do we reconcile the words of Megyn Kelly in Jesus Christ? It’s simple, it’s all about how we have trained our mind and body for God.

     If I were to ask you to pick up an instrument you have never touched before and handed you a piece of music that you had never heard or seen and asked you to start playing that would be hard. In fact calling it hard would be an understatement for most of us. That you take that same piece of music and you sit down every day in practice on that same instrument when you are asked to play it at short notice it then becomes very easy. The same can be applied in our walk with Christ the closer that we walk with him now in times of relative peace will allow us to easily follow him in times of trials, tribulations, and persecution.

     I’m a Little League baseball coach and one of the things that I taught all of my players was that we practice how we play we play how we practice. This the same principle we find in our walk with Christ. The deeper our relationship with Christ the more be able to endure the darker times that will come in our life. Whether it is the death of a loved one with a loss of our freedom due to our faith we can stand on the promise that Jesus gave us in the statement that his burden is not heavy.

     I know there are a ton of other questions that we could ask but I will close simply with this. As the body of Christ we should pray daily and urgently for those that are held captive by the evil that is ISIS! But we should also pray for the captors because they don’t know that they are playing with fire. They think that they have captured 100 or more Christians and that they had the opportunity to do what they will with those men and women. The truth is God has sent 100 or more missionaries into their camps to proclaim his excellent message of grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

     Truth is no weapon formed by man or Angels can harm any Christian without the express permission of the creator of the universe. Those ISIS terrorists are literally holding lightning in a bottle and it is my prayer that salvation will break out in a wildfire revival fashion where those Christians are being held and that those terrorists will come to know Christ, repent of their sins and seek to follow the true God of the universe the rest of their lives!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

To Live or let Die...?

                “Pastor I have a question, I’m 86 years old and my husband is also 86 and he is not doing so well. I love him very much and when he goes home to be with Jesus I’m not sure that I want to stay here without him. Is it all right if I go to the hospital and have the doctors and my life?”
                “Pastor I have a question, I’m not sure how to say this but I have been diagnosed with end-stage pancreatic cancer and the doctors have told me that there is nothing they can do to save my life. The only thing they can do is give me an extra few months but in doing so it’s going to be very painful. Is it okay if I tell the doctors no and just try to make myself comfortable before I pass into the next life?”
                “Pastor I have a question, I have a fast-moving brain cancer that will require the doctors to do a complicated and risky surgery and even then they can’t guarantee they’ll get it all. If they attempted no matter what I will be left without a significant portion of my memories and my mental acuity. Should I go for the surgery knowing that I will forget everyone that I love, or should I simply allow the cancer to kill me with my memories intact?”
                “Pastor I have a question, my wife and I have just returned from the doctor and they have told us that the baby that my wife is carrying will most likely have Down syndrome. They want us to do an abortion, is it right for us to do that?”
                These questions I have actually been asked in the course of my ministry. This morning the idea of writing this blog started to percolate in my brain. I put off thinking that I just didn’t have time and this is an area that is so controversial that I wasn’t sure I really wanted to take up this fight. Once I arrived in my office and sat down to go through my emails I saw a brochure from an organization here in Alaska dealing with an upcoming vote for physician-assisted suicide. I felt that this email and brochure was a confirmation from the Holy Spirit that I needed to weigh in on this topic.
                I spent the last several years living overseas in a very liberal and dark country. The country was Belgium and they were one of the first to legalize same-sex marriage and euthanasia. The very first question that I wrote in this blog was from a dear Christian lady who was a member of my church there in Belgium. She knew Jesus and she had spent her life helping to raise the children that passed through the doors of that church. She’d become one of my children’s surrogate grandparent. I was taken aback when she asked if it was okay for her to die after her husband left this world. I was even more shocked that the government would allow that. The Belgium is a socialist country and for people that are old or infirm they don’t really contribute to society as a whole they are only a drain so I guess it makes some kind of weird sense that they would make a way and encourage people to just die.
                After I left Belgium I heard that they had passed a law making it legal for parents of children who are mentally handicapped, specifically with Down syndrome and other types of mental illnesses that keep children from living normal lives, to have their children “put to sleep.” When I heard this I went livid.
                For the last several months I have been part of a ministry action group made up of chaplains that serve the sick and dying. Several of the chaplains that would meet via a teleconference worked in hospice. The question came up very similar to the second question that I wrote down in this blog. And I was shocked that my colleagues would be so blasé about the question and even in their response. The overwhelming response from these chaplains was to say it was okay to die.
                For me that makes me angry. I challenged my colleagues about this issue and their response was to quote from the apostle Paul where he says to live is Christ but to die is gain; that was their justification to say that it was okay to die because death would be gain. This of course does not now nor did then sit well with me. When I think of all that Christ did for us and the fact that he went to the cross to die in our place for our sins that we might have life and life more abundantly I cannot accept death in any form that is initiated by us and in our timeline as being good.
                I made it a point to say to my colleague then that Paul was not teaching that it is better to die but rather that was his personal wish was to pass away into heaven and spend eternity with Jesus. That’s what he wanted to do but that’s not what Christ wanted for him to do. It wasn’t up to Paul when Paul was going to leave this earth, it was up to Jesus. Paul was content not to have his deepest wish to see and hold his Savior for eternity at that moment because he knew it was better for God, the growing infant church and for all of humanity for him to stay there alive.
                The book of first Corinthians chapter 15 near the end Paul talks extensively about what Christ did on the cross and how the sting of death is sin. And how sin is what Christ came to destroy if that’s the case that he also came to destroy death as well. Jesus speaks in a few places in the New Testament about the topic of death and what he came to do about it. To Mary and Martha in reference to Lazarus he said he was the way the truth and the life and that even though people may die here if they follow him they will live forever. But with that said Jesus still turned to the two that was sealed and called forth Lazarus that he may live a little bit longer and thereby give glory to God with every breath he took.          
                I’m not saying that death isn’t a part of our life, it is. If Jesus does not return then at some point all of us will taste of death. But until death comes for us I believe deep down in my soul that we are to fight against death! Death is the enemy that Christ destroyed on the cross. Death came into this world by the sin of one man death was destroyed from this earth by the sinlessness of Jesus Christ the second Adam. When death finally takes me I will step out of this body and into eternity gladly and with no regrets. But until that day I pray every breath I take, every action I do, every word that I write or say will bring glory to God!
                The final thing I have to say about the topic of physician-assisted suicide is this: is a rebellious and sinful act to take anything that is solely in the province of God out of his hands and ours. I say this rebellious and sinful because it is up to God to choose how many days we have not us. When we choose the day of our death we take from God what is his and his alone. We are not the captains of our own fate, we are not the rulers of our own destiny we are servants and slaves of the Most High God! Servants and slaves do not do their own will but the will of their master. Paul talks extensively of this both with his writing and actions.

                This may be a hard thing to hear if you are going through painful procedures that may or may not prolong your life. I think the ultimate question that we should be asking ourselves is: how is this suffering bringing glory to God? In our society were so use to always seeking our own pleasure, our own happiness, or the very least a comfortable state in which to exist that we often don’t realize that there is a sweetness in suffering that allows us to identify more fully with Christ. I’m not an advocate for modern medicine or any alternative naturopathy. And I’m also not saying that we should take every advice that every doctor gives us but I am saying the longer that we are breathing the more opportunities we have to glorify God.