Monday, November 30, 2015

A Word from a Relief Worker on the Ground in the Middle East

The Planned Parenthood shooting has taken the spotlight off of last month's hot topic of Syrian refugees and the Paris attacks. I think it works a little better to discuss such things after the initial outcry has settled down, so the timing is good for me to post this interview with a friend who works with a Christian organization that aids refugees in Jordan. My friend worked with refugees for four years in the States before traveling overseas. He has first-hand experience on the ground in Iraq and is currently working remotely in Yemen as well.

I posed to him some questions after articles were published drawing into question the aid given particularly to Christian refugees. Were Christian refugees ignored or pushed away in favor of Muslim refugees? Here are my questions to my friend and his answers from his first-person experience on the ground in Jordan. It really helps to talk to someone with specific experience instead of speculating about such things, and I feel fortunate to know someone personally I could ask. 

Question: Are you able to directly aid fleeing Christians?

Answer: Yes.  And it is a basic humanitarian principle among UN agencies and NGOs that we provide aid regardless of ethnicity, gender, religion, etc.  One of the most difficult things instead is that, with limited resources, you have to choose to some extent whom you can help and whom you cannot.  Therefore, “the most vulnerable” is often the guiding principle.  It is in fact an integral part of the mission statement of my organization. The idea behind “the most vulnerable” is that in conflict or disaster, there are many people affected from all walks of life.  If there are those that can be supported by family, by government, or by other social structures, then we skip them and seek those who have no other support.  Think of the Biblical principle of supporting "widows and orphans in their distress." 

Question: Do fleeing Christians have options through Christian aid groups?

Answer: Yes.  There are many groups, especially church-sponsored ones who focus specifically on serving the Christian population.  Your question makes me curious to know if fleeing Christians actually care who is providing the help.  I'm sure it is encouraging when they meet a brother or sister in Christ, to have that experience of solidarity and support, but I also suspect that when people are in need, they are going to seek aid wherever they can get it. 

Question: Are people forced to choose between aiding one group or another?

Answer: No.  Again the humanitarian principle is to remain neutral and provide aid to whomever needs it. 

After answering my specific questions, my friend went on to give me his thoughts on the Christian response to the refugee crisis.
I have a lot of thoughts about what the Christian response is to all of this, but I get so impassioned about it, that I hardly know where to start. But here are some basic ideas. 
I believe that there is significant biblical evidence to support a mandate to serve and welcome refugees. 
I believe that fear is the opposite of love and that God is the great example of sacrificial love at great risk to Himself. 
I believe that the only way to contradict terrorism and hate is to engage with the communities and countries where some of those people come from. 
A couple verses I really like in view of current events are from Romans 12 and John 1. 
Romans 12 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 
John 1 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
From Wendy: Thank you, friend. I won't say your name publicly here, but I know your heart for Jesus, and because of your love for Jesus, your heart for refugees in the Middle East. I am proud to know you.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

What does Scripture Say about Refugees?

A lot of people are arguing about what to do with Syrian refugees. Many people are afraid of terrorism. Others are horrified by the lack of compassion that fear seems to cause. Many want our government to be open to immigrants. Many want it to be closed. Some people want our nation to reflect Christian values. Others do not. And these lines are not drawn in consistent ways.

One focus I haven't seen much in recent Christian articles is what the Bible actually says about a believer's response to refugees and immigrants. I've seen memes on the Good Samaritan and sarcastic references to Mary and Joseph as rejected travelers. I've seen impassioned pleas by Christians for compassion and others warning against it. But does the Bible actually give us restrictive requirements for a Christian's response to refugees?

Consider first Old Testament Law.
Deuteronomy 10 NAS 17 For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe. 18 He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. 19 So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. 
Leviticus 19:33-34 ESV 33 “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
God commanded His children to show hospitality to and solidarity with refugees and immigrants – basically anyone who wasn't native to their lands – because they too had been strangers in Egypt and should understand the particular struggle that comes from being displaced from one's homeland.

But these instructions are from the Old Testament Law, and New Testament believers are no longer under the Law. Both Jesus and the Apostle Paul are clear that Jesus fulfilled the Law, and we are no longer restrained by its instructions or the punishments it demands for those who break it. Yet, Christians still don't believe in murder or lying, adultery or gossip. We still set aside a day to worship the Lord, and we still give a portion of our money to support our churches. Why do such Old Testament ideas linger in New Testament practice? Because these instructions from the Old extend into the New. Even as Jesus says He fulfilled both the righteous instructions in the Law and the punishment for those who break it, He continued to teach what righteousness in the New Covenant looks like, and it sometimes looks very similar to righteousness in the Old.

When Jesus says He fulfilled the Old Testament Law, does He give us any indication of how He wants us to think particularly about aliens/immigrants after His death and resurrection? Does Jesus teach only that we are no longer bound by the Old Testament instructions on aliens/immigrants? Or does He teach that the underlying principle is still binding?

Jesus actually solves this for us quite clearly in the Gospels.
“‘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; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to 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? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me’” (Matthew 25:35-40 NASB)
Jesus seems to intensify the implications for care of strangers. He lifts up the act to something done more than just FOR Him. It's now something done directly TO Him. He gives a sobering assessment of those who forsake this practice as well:
41 “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; 43 I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ 44 Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ 45 Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’
The author of Hebrews reinforces Jesus' teaching.
“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 NIV)  
In conclusion, we could argue for compassion toward refugees based on the Greatest Command or as an extension of Christian pro-life values. We could argue for treating a refugee the way we would want to be treated using the Golden Rule or make a case for the political value of welcoming refugees as the very undoing of ISIS' best strategy. But the fact of the matter is that we shouldn't need to make any such arguments as Christians because we are constrained by something much simpler, the Bible itself. God not only says to care for refugees, He says that when we do it, it is the same as caring directly for Him. That is profound!

The Bible instructs as clearly on treatment of refugees as it does on the murder of babies in the womb. It speaks as clearly about welcoming refugees as it does about fornication, lying, or drunkenness. God's children obey Him when they care for the displaced, and they disobey Him when they don't. Thankfully, Christ paid the penalty for the sin of turning away from the refugee and has broken the chains of sin and fear that cause us to ignore these Scriptures. We have now, in Christ, the freedom to obey.

As in my previous post, I want to encourage those who are currently discouraged by the state of the vocal Church on this issue. Again, we have good news in Jesus. God is sanctifying His Bride, and He is growing Her in righteousness. Jesus is not just drawing people to faith in Him, He is also changing them. He's sanctifying His Church by His grace, and He's making Her more like Him day by day – including the Church's reception of refugees. As I observe beyond the vocal minority, way more Christians want to minister to refugees than not, globally and locally. In fact, hundreds of thousands of refugees daily receive help from Christians and Christian organizations.

In the end, Jesus will present His Bride glorious, clothed with the righteous works of the saints. And I believe that among those works adorning her bridal gown will be thousands upon thousands of cups of cold water given to the downtrodden refugee in the name of Christ.
Proverbs 19:17 Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.
* A friend noted after I posted this that some Christians want to limit these instructions on care of refugees to those who share Christian beliefs. However, Jesus also gives us the parable of the Good Samaritan, which makes clear that both race and religion are not prerequisites for obeying such commands. In fact, the Good Samaritan appears to have no knowledge whatsoever about the character of the person he helped. Again, Scripture is straightforward about our obligations.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Kingdom of God is at Hand

This post is my official rebellion against the negativity among Christians around the rise of ISIS. I mourn the losses experienced in Paris last week. I also have strong negative feelings toward the policies implemented before and after the 2nd Iraq War that opened Pandora's box to the scourge that ISIS has become. But God's kingdom is still at hand, friends! And it will bless us all to take a step back and see the forest, not the single tree right in front of us, when it comes to God's advancing kingdom.

Since the year 1900, did you know that global life-expectancy has more than DOUBLED?! For a long time, it only grew in industrialized nations, but now it is growing worldwide and is approaching 70 years. This is a powerful statistic when you consider that the first outcome of the fall of man was the death of our human bodies. God's common goodness to mankind, often directly through the growth of hospitals that accompany the growth of Christianity in new areas, continues to push the specter of death off and give people more and more chances at life. This is part of God's kingdom coming.

Not only are humans living longer worldwide, actual faith in Jesus is growing worldwide too. It is growing among Catholics and Pentecostals, but it is also growing among Protestants. The issue for whites of Anglo-Saxon descent is that it is not growing as much around us. It is growing in very large numbers in the global south and east. Look up, white Anglo-Saxon, from the dying blades of grass right in front of you and you'll see a glorious, healthy prairie. The global Church is growing!

God's kingdom is coming, and His will is being done. Of course we are not seeing it happen uniformly everywhere. We also are more informed than ever of just exactly what problems are going on where. But even though we daily HEAR through the media of more sin and terror, that does not mean that more sin and terror actually exist.

My encouragement today is to put off the Left Behind view of the last days. Nowhere in Scripture does God indicate that believers will be huddled in a corner, marginalized and irrelevant waiting for Jesus to return. The kingdom of God is unstoppable. Jesus will accomplish exactly what He said He would, and He is doing it even now.
Matthew 13  31 He presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; 32 and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.” 
33 He spoke another parable to them, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened.”
Do you believe Jesus? Then shake off your negativity and move forward in confidence in Christ. We can offer hope, not resignation, to those hurting through the sin and violence of terrorism.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Jesus Fell Asleep

As I was reading from the book of Luke this morning, a phrase in the middle of the story of Jesus calming the waters struck me, "he fell asleep."
Luke 8   22 One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” So they set out, 23 and as they sailed he fell asleep. And a windstorm came down on the lake, and they were filling with water and were in danger. 24 And they went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and the raging waves, and they ceased, and there was a calm. 25 He said to them, “Where is your faith?” And they were afraid, and they marveled, saying to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even winds and water, and they obey him?”
Jesus fell asleep right in the middle of a scary trial for His disciples. At first reading, this feels callous on His part. Or oblivious. Or passive-aggressive. I've experienced people who have mocked others for not understanding a future outcome or used their ignorance against them to humiliate them. But we know that is not Jesus' character. He's about to be bloodied and humiliated for these very same disciples. With love and compassion, He will lay His life down for them and freely offer them cleansing through His sacrifice. He is not the passive-aggressive sort.

Instead, I think Jesus' response in this boat is simply one of peace. He knows of the coming good outcome, both of the miracle of calming the waters and the growth of needed faith and confidence in His disciples. Jesus was eternally minded in a temporal world. He was at peace that the temporary discomfort and fear His disciples were experiencing would resolve in ways that were eternally good for them. And so He slept.

Throughout Scripture, God has had periods of time where He seemed asleep. Maybe, in heaven, He actually was. This is not to be confused with oblivion, where the incompetent king falls asleep and the kingdom falls apart without his knowledge. God's sleep is a sleep of sovereign peace, for the record has been written and it will come to pass as the ultimate will of the King of Kings is always carried out. God sleeps in peace. And again and again, He arouses Himself in time to put things in order as He always intended.

Joseph, Ruth, and David give us micro pictures of this, as each in their own lifetime saw the resolution of things after periods where God seemed asleep in their struggles. But they also give us macro pictures of this, as each contributes to a story that lasted much longer than their lives, that wasn't resolved until Jesus came onto the scene thousands of years after their death.

For centuries, earnest Christians faithfully following Jesus have experienced a God who seems asleep at times, sometimes for long seasons in their lives. In the disciples' case in Luke 8, He literally was asleep. In my life, it has seemed He slept as I needed direction. Sometimes, He felt asleep as I needed deliverance from a trial. But as time goes on and I can look back, I recognize that He really seemed asleep because He was at complete peace in how He was moving in my life—what He was teaching me and how the circumstances would resolve for His purposes in my life. He didn't give me direction for a year because it was the absolute lack of direction that would funnel me into His next steps for my life. He didn't deliver me from my trial because the trial itself was my path. He is at peace with His plan for my life. He loves me, so I can be at peace too through His grace. It blesses me to think of my God with a sovereign micro plan over my finite earthly life that feeds into His macro plan for His kingdom purposes. And it blesses me to think of Him completely at peace with the circumstances He has put in my life, so much so that He can sleep knowing that His purposes are good and they will be carried out.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

When Submission Becomes Sinful

In this guest post, Rachael Starke works through Scripture on submission to show us the limits of submission according to the Bible. We undermine the value of submission in the home as the Bible teaches it if we don't also embrace its Biblical limits. 

In the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting and the growth of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, many Christian leaders doubled down on sermons and blog posts referencing Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. Resisting arrest or even questioning the way a state polices its citizens was tantamount to resisting the authority of God. But just last month, many in that same community responded with horror at a report in the New York Times that the U.S. military in Afghanistan was systematically turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse of boys by Afghan militia leaders. Soldiers were instructed to view the abuse they witnessed as within the bounds of local Afghan law, and those who tried to speak up or intervene were disciplined or discharged. Far from restraining evil, particularly evil committed against children, the U.S. Military was actively complicit in it, punishing as wrongdoers those who attempted to do good to prevent it. Suddenly, the danger of making a human institutional authority absolute was all too clear.

There has been a similar round of conversation lately about submission as it relates to gender. Instead of submission being attached to the specific context of marriage, submission is being attached to womanhood as a defining characteristic, as leadership is to men. In that view, a woman’s submission to her husband is absolute, so as to reflect the church’s submission to Christ. And in life, that view teaches that a woman is to avoid vocations, actions or even words that will in any way guide or correct a man, or in some way dilute his inherent ability and masculine need to lead her. God’s work through women who lead, and even lead in rebellion, such as the midwives of Egypt, or Deborah or, my personal favorite, Jael, is dismissed as a collection of anomalies from the Old Covenant era. But it’s a New Testament story of God’s punishment of a woman’s submission which exposes clearly the wrong teaching that submission is some kind of definitive aspect of general godly womanhood.

Acts 4 and 5 describes the joyful generosity of the early church as they sold what they had to share with those in need. In an act that was far more about sinful pride than avarice, one man in the church named Ananias sells some property just as others have done, keeping some of the profit but behaving as if he was giving all to God. Many presume that Ananias’ wife, Sapphira, was complicit in the decision to keep back some of the profit. But the text makes no such presumption. The decision to sell the property was Ananias’ and Sapphira’s together. But the decision to keep back some of the profit was his, albeit a decision Sapphira knew he had made. Ananias chose his course, and Sapphira submitted to his choice.

Had Peter viewed Sapphira as simply a woman under her husband’s authority, he may not have felt it even necessary to ask after her involvement in her husband’s decision. But instead, in an interesting moment of pastoral acuity, after Ananias’ duplicity has been exposed, Peter actively inquires after Sapphira’s role in the matter. When Sapphira hides behind her husband’s lie, she discovers that, rather than being covered by her husband, she has become complicit with him. Speaking out would have honored God, even as it exposed her husband as having acted dishonorably. But in hiding behind her husband’s lie, Sapphira revealed that she was looking to her husband as a higher authority than God. Sapphira’s submission to her husband was sinful, and God demonstrated His ultimate authority by taking her life for it.

This story should serve as a strong exhortation to women struggling for discernment in the midst of their husband’s sin against them or others, whether through consumption of pornography or abuse of alcohol or physical or sexual assault, and especially against their children. Just as Sapphira was called to heed Proverbs 19:9, women are called to heed Psalm 82:3-4, even when the wicked hand or voice raised in anger at their child belongs to their husband. When those charged with serving and protecting abandon that call and look away from evil, or actively participate in it, we are called not to submit, but to stand up, especially for those who are unable to stand up for themselves. In those moments, it is not submissive silence, but strong words rooted in a love for justice and mercy, that true womanhood is most eloquently expressed.

Psalm 82
Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;
    maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
    deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”