Saturday, October 9, 2010

A pagan gets it right

The Star-Ledger, the state-wide newspaper in New Jersey, ran an article on pagan celebrations and the increasing openness of pagans and wiccans to be more public in their beliefs. It was not critical, just a news story in the ‘Living’ section describing a gathering of pagans in the Pine Barrens to welcome the planting season.

“The celebration, symbolizing a phoenix rising from the ashes, features a young woman fluttering around the circle grasping twin rods enfolded in a white sheet like wings. As she takes gliding steps, emulating a creature in flight, she’s showered with birdseed tossed by members of the crowd.

Standing in the center of the circle are Kokopelli and Maeve, the priest and priestess leading the ritual. Kokopelli (full name, Arne Erickson) is wearing holly-colored clothes and a garland to embody the spirit of the Green Man, a figure of fertility and renewal. Decked in a black gown and purple bandanna, Maeve (Peggy Sahulka) is invoking the goddess Aphrodite.

Maeve says, “She changes everything she touches. We are the flow, we are the ebb, we are the weavers, we are the web. Changes. Touches. We are changers and everything we touch can. . . “

“Change,” the crowd completes the sentence.”

I have no desire to ridicule them or their practices. . . in some ways it is instructive, the desire to find meaning and transcendence is in the heart of man. But in view of the richness of glory in Jesus Christ, for me their practices and beliefs just don’t resonate. What caught attention was a quote from one of the participants,

 “I’m a recovering Catholic, born-again Pagan,” says Lorenda Knisel, a journalist from Abescon recruited to portray the phoenix during the afternoon ritual. “In Christianity, the sacred is something you have to strive for after you die. It’s a morose way to be, having to wait for this promised afterlife in heaven. I want to be happy now. I want to see the divine in myself now, in this body, in this world.”

First response after reading her quote was how she had missed it. . . she had been exposed to some Christian teaching and even considered herself Christian, and yet for her there was no life in it. It was something “you have to strive for” and the promise of Christianity is reached only after you die.

She also had it exactly right. . . “I want to be happy now. I want to see the divine in myself now, in this body, in this world.” The promise of Christianity is that something of God – Christ - comes into my life, something outside of what I am in myself brings life and resource within that makes me new and more than what I could ever be on my own apart from Him. He is as real and definite as anything else Lorenda hopes to know in this world, and He has more life than anything found in nature.  And He can be seen. . . God can open the eyes of the heart to see the beauty and glory in Christ and we can know life in Him now.

Lorenda is exactly right, it is a morose way to be, always striving in this life for something you can not reach or touch or know until after this life. . . how frustrating, knowing there is sacredness and yet always feeling apart from it. Knowing that happiness lies in being a part of the Divine and yet not finding it. In Christ, the divine comes within in a real and living way now. . . for the one who is alive in spirit in Christ, there is peace & hope & joy & life for the soul.

In her desire for life in things, she had it right. . . she had just missed it.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Philosophy of Suffering & Persecution

Am currently part of an online workshop looking at persecution in the world and as part of that had to write a personal philosophy of suffering & persecution. . . 

It was in the 1990’s that I first became aware that Christians were persecuted and harmed simply because they were Christians. From my viewpoint as a regular church-going Christian who was unaware of these things and who had never suffered for the faith, I could not wrap my head around the fact of it or why it was happening. And then I met some of these believers at a VOM conference. There was a Vietnamese woman, not much older than a teenager, who told her story about her family losing all their possessions and being expelled from their village because they did not give up their faith, and how (incredibly) she was going back to her home after the conference was over. The truly amazing thing about her however was not just the facts of her story but the joy she had and how genuine she was, how real her faith was. It was a genuineness I lacked.

Background and Challenge of Suffering & Persecution

Since then, I have come to realize that persecution, and suffering for that matter, is the normal course of things in a world that is not yet according to Christ. In a world where the devil has authority and people are in the flesh & apart from God, conflict is the inevitable response in this world to the people God has made alive in Jesus Christ. Suffering and persecution are assumed and promised in the Bible; Jesus said that His followers will have trouble in this world and they would be hated, even murdered, by others on account of Him. And what is surprising is not only the fact of having trouble, but that God often called His people into conflict and suffering when He could have directed otherwise.

Acts 16 tells the story of Paul while in Asia receiving a vision of a man from Macedonia telling him to come and help. After agreeing with Silas, they sail to Macedonia but when they get there they don’t find a man, they find women. A slave girl with a spirit of divination follows them around for days, embarrassing them by forcefully proclaiming them God’s servants. When Paul casts out the spirit, her owners take them before the authorities, where the crowd joins in attacking and beating them and afterwards they are thrown in prison. God called them to Macedonia; what a challenge to faith to be called to suffering.

The challenge to my head and heart was that the Bible also called for joy when faced with suffering; “Consider it all joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of various kinds (James 1:2); “…we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings (Romans 5:  ); Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad. . .” (Matthew 5:11). In the Acts 16 story above, Paul and Silas are found singing and praying after they were beaten and thrown in prison. In Philippians 1:29, Paul even writes that it is a gift from God, more and seemingly better than just believing in Him. How were pain and tears and the hatred of others not only God’s plan but also something to be desired?

Two things helped me towards an answer. As I became more familiar with stories of the persecuted church, there was something about them that was so attractive and appealing; the courage and boldness in telling the gospel in the face of threats, the love shown to their persecutors, the joy even when losing everything. There was a beauty in them that was more than them. It was when I started to realize that it was a display of Christ - that it was the Lord in them – that part of the answer came.  The courage and love and joy seen in them is what Christ in this world means. The “love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” from Romans 8  is seen most clearly in those who are faithful and true in Christ no matter the circumstances.

The other bigger vision that helped me answer the question was that God’s overriding purpose is that all things will be filled with Christ, that everything in this universe will reflect His Son.  Ephesians 1 says, “…according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth.”  Later in Ephesians it talks of “…Him who fills all in all” and “…that He might fill all things.” When the kingdom of this world becomes the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, everything will be according to Christ, everything will reflect the character of Christ. If true, then there is something eternal – something of the Lord - in those who in faithfulness bear unjust suffering and yet love. Love to persecutors is not merely the temporal response of the faithful to suffering meant only for this world, rather it is the depth of love which is of God which is eternal. When a faithful believer loves his persecutor, there the spiritual presence of God in a genuine way is displayed in this world. . . there is the reality of Christ in them.

Seeing Christ in the faithful who suffer, and viewed thru the lens of the inevitable conflict between what is of this world and what is according to Christ, takes suffering out of the merely circumstantial and gives suffering an eternal value, and spiritual values in those who are faithful. 

A Story

Noora is an Egyptian woman, married to a Muslim sheik, a man important in the local mosque. When Noora converted to Christ thru the witness of her sister, she became afraid that her husband would find out she had become a Christian. Eventually when he did find out, he beat her so severely that her gallbladder ruptured. She was forced out of her home with no belongings. Her husband divorced her and her family disowned her. . . Noora said that had they been thirsty that they would not accept a cup of water from her.

After some time, she met & married a Christian man and together they minister in Egypt and help other believers. When asked about everything she has gone thru, her testimony is. . . "The secret of joy is having a real link with Christ. How can we be anything but happy?"

Her testimony is what is compelling to me, that of happiness and joy in the midst of great suffering thru a genuineness in Christ, “…a real link with Christ.” I believe that at the heart of it all is the issue of the heart. . . is Christ real within, is there life because He is present. If so, then He is the secret not only of joy, but also of peace and patience and wisdom and strength and faithfulness. Paul in 2 Corinthians 4 talks about this secret as a treasure, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” Christ within is the life and power and treasure within, given by God to us jars of clay. But then Paul goes on to say that this treasure of Christ within is seen in times of affliction, perplexity, persecution and being struck down. “We are afflicted, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…” In all these situations of going down and going under things in this world, Christ is God’s but not that there will be life for His people in this world in the hardest situations. That is the testimony of Jesus in this world, that in the midst  of death and going under that Christ means life; the testimony of Jesus is resurrection, that there is life. If I am a follower of Jesus, I can find in Christ, and not in myself, the resource to bear all the suffering and pain and disappointment that comes against me in this world and thru it all, go thru and be found genuine and even have joy. But it will only be in Christ and not in myself that the life and resource are found.

The verse continues, “…always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our bodies.” The ‘but not’  of Christ, the life that is Christ - in not being crushed, not being in despair, not being forsaken, and not being destroyed - is seen in me if I carry in my body the death of Jesus. There is life in Christ for me, and not only for me but also to be manifested for others thru me, if I am willing to bear the death of Jesus. He invites me in all the gospels to follow Him by utterly denying myself and taking up my cross daily, calling me to lose my life so that I will find life in Him. In John 12 the Lord puts it positively, “…whoever hates his life in this world will keep it…” and in Luke 14 He puts it negatively, “…any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be My disciple.” It is what is found in the life of the Lord; often He makes the statement that He doesn’t take the initiative, that He only speaks what He hears the Father saying and does what He sees the Father doing. Never is the Lord doing what He in Himself could do as of Himself, but always it is out from the Father, and in doing that He is the example for those who would follow Him. If I find in Christ the resource to bear suffering, and turn from that in me that would react in violence and vengeance from my anger, there is life within my soul that is a testimony of Jesus in the world. Paul in Ephesians 4, writing about unbelievers who react in ungodliness in this world, says, “But that is not the way you learned Christ – assuming that you have heard about Him and were taught in Him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self. . . and to put on the new self…” The truth in Jesus is that there is life in Christ for me as I daily turn away from what I am in myself, all that is unlike Him, and find in Christ a new life that will mean life to others.

God’s Purpose in Suffering

It helped me to consider God’s purposes in suffering in view of God’s greater purpose of glorifying His Son in all things, that all things would be filled with Christ and be conformed to the character of Christ. When I first realized that Christians were persecuted, one of the questions that bothered me was why did God allow His people to suffer in this way? If the purpose of God was to call a people to Himself and save them, why didn’t He keep them from suffering or just take them to heaven rather than let them go thru suffering? It was helpful to me to realize that God must have a purpose in the suffering; that in view of God’s purpose of having a people like Christ in a genuine way, there was a benefit to His people in taking them thru the suffering.  1 Cor. 10:13 says that God makes us able to bear things, that the way of escape is thru the hard thing; He doesn’t take us out of suffering but thru it. The Holy Spirit often takes me thru a hard thing in order to learn Christ; in going thru trials and suffering I find a way forward and life in Christ. And what is true of each believer is true of the church, His body, and probably from a better perspective, it should be said that what is true of His church is true of every believer. God has a purpose in His church and in each believer that in genuine way that Christ would be all.

In an outward way as well, God means for the excellence and glory of His Son to be seen and magnified; that in the world and universe but also to angels and spiritual hosts, that the superiority of Christ would be known and acknowledged and worshipped.  Paul in Ephesians 3 writing about the unsearchable riches of Christ and the mystery hidden in God, follows with, “. . . that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose He realized in Christ Jesus our Lord. . .”  God the Father means to glorify His Son, as Colossians 1 says, “…that in everything He might be preeminent.”

Man’s Purpose in Suffering

I believe that man’s purpose in suffering is derived from God’s purposes for it. If God uses suffering in the life of the believer to conform them to Christ, then the response of the follower of Jesus is not only to not be surprised or afraid of suffering and persecution when it arises, but in faith and trust embrace whatever God calls us to. If the Spirit leads me into a hardship it will often be to something that is beyond what I can handle; I find that I don’t have the resource in myself to get thru it. But in that hardship I can turn to the Lord and find in Him what I need. In the turning to God to find my resource and my way forward, I follow Jesus who looked to Father in all things.

But it is not a merely personal or individual matter. When in view of Christ I embrace whatever God calls me to, be it hardship or suffering or persecution, and I am faithful, there is a display of Christ in this world. In 2 Corinthians 2 Paul writes, “…thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other fragrance from life to life.”  If I will follow Jesus wherever the Spirit leads, yes there may be hardship and suffering, maybe I will be persecuted for having been there, but in the following there is the learning of Christ and the display of Him.  Left to me I would only want to go where it meant others would be saved, but often we are lead among the many so God can save the few; God’s purposes in me are best served when I go regardless.


There is a mystery to these things and the ways of God are often beyond knowing, but there is a purpose in these things. For those who in answer to the call of God follow Jesus in this world, there is often hardship and sufferings and sorrows. But in those who are faithful, there is the learning of Christ and becoming like Him. In view of the purposes of God that Christ be all, there is great comfort in knowing that “He must reign until He puts all His enemies under His feet.” (1 Cor. 15)  I can embrace whatever God calls me to and know that whatever the circumstances, and whatever the outcome in the circumstances, that God’s purposes are being worked out in me, in His church and in the world.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Learning Christ

When the occasion & opportunity arises, there is the privilege to speak at churches on behalf of Voice of the Martyrs about brothers and sisters who live in places where it is hard to be a Christian. In many countries today, it is either illegal to be a Christian, places such as North Korea, Saudi Arabia & Afghanistan. . . or if not illegal, the government is unwilling or unable to protect its citizens who are Christian, as in India, Columbia & Laos. And yet in these hard places there are those who follow Christ, who are faithful to the Lord. And in those brothers and sisters who are faithful, if God gives eyes to see, you can see Christ. If God opens the eyes of the heart to see the beauty of Christ, you can see Him in them. 

This past Sunday had the pleasure to be with Living Word Church in Hewitt, New Jersey. . . a great body of believers led by Pastor Tim Barnes who is truly humble and genuine. When first there not many years ago, there was one service and now there are three. It has grown steadily and the growth was of the Spirit. . . not according to methods and programs but on the basis of Life and according to Christ. It is always a pleasure to enjoy fellowship at Living Word. The link below is to the message given. 

NOTE: The original link from June went bad but was able to go back to Living Word in August; the top link will hopefully work. 

Monday, May 3, 2010

Maryam & Marzieh and the Fruit of Prayer

Sometimes prayer for others seems so unreal & distant, especially when praying for brothers & sisters overseas never met and whose lives and situations are so foreign. How to know what pressures that another faces when from another culture? Sometimes prayer for others seems so presumptuous on our part. Sometimes it seems futile as the believers are nameless and their particular circumstances are unknown.

Last Saturday we prayed for North Korea, for believers in the prison camps and for those living in secret in probably the worst place on earth for believer and unbeliever alike. In the face of severe deprivations and the horrors of that place, the prayers were that believers there would know and find resource in Christ to make it thru. . . that they could be a display of Christ in that place.

And yet prayer has a power and life if the Spirit directs. There can be a burden for others given by the Spirit where in the strength of Christ we can bear for others. There is a striving in prayer that brings resource and relief in Christ in the lives others. There is a ministry of prayer like that of Epaphras that bears fruit in the body. . . “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.” (Col. 4) Not just that a prayer list is prayed over but that there is a striving in prayer. . . a continual faithfulness of brother for brother that bears them in prayer not just during a meeting, but will carry them and their burdens with them till their burden is lifted and their circumstances change. And in that bearing of others, there can be life. Not just the help and resource to the one prayed for, but also life to the whole body of Christ.  

Maryam Rustampoor (27) and Marzieh Amirizadeh (30) were arrested in Iran last year for converting from Islam to Christianity. They spent 9 months in Evin Prison, suffering from untreated medical conditions. During that time, they appeared before a Revolutionary Court and there bore a faithful testimony with a boldness found in Christ. A portion of the transcript follows:

During one tense moment in the questioning, Maryam and Marzieh made reference to their belief that God had convicted them through the Holy Spirit. The prosecutor, Mr. Haddad told them, “It is impossible for God to speak with humans.”

Marzieh asked him in return, “Are you questioning whether God is Almighty?”

Mr. Haddad then replied, “You are not worthy for God to speak to you.”

Marzieh said, “It is God, and not you, who determines if I am worthy.”

"We will not deny our faith," the women later responded to demands that they sign documents recanting their faith, "if we come out of prison, we want to do so with honor."

Two Christians women in an Iranian Revolutionary Court. . . bold witnesses for Christ. They were released from prison in December with the understanding that they could be called back at any time to face trial.

In November had the pleasure of being with a group of saints in Benton PA who came out on a cold evening to pray for persecuted brothers and sisters. It was a small church in a rural area and it was not in their regular schedule to meet in this way. We prayed for brothers and sisters who were suffering in places that did not offer much in the way of relief, sisters like Maryam and Marzieh. For most there that night they were unfamiliar with their stories and suffering and yet the prayers and tears that went up on their behalf were humbling.

Some weeks later when Maryam and Marzieh had been released, there was great joy in sending a note to the pastor telling of their release, and his joy in telling the body in Benton, and their joy in seeing prayers answered. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1 of all the troubles he had faced in Asia and of the despair he felt. . . of being under the sentence of death and yet finding in God the resource to go forward, that God would provide. He requests prayer from the body, “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.” Paul asks for prayers from others so that when God helps thru the prayers, that praise to God would result. If some believers pray, God will act and help, and others will hear of what God has done and give praise to Him.

What life in things. . . out of the troubles of one comes the praise of many. The way of God in Christ is life. . . God has his purposes when He leads us into hardship. For Paul it was to learn to rely not on Himself but on God who rescues, and it is the same lesson for us. And yet there is a going thru things. . . if God leads into hardship, He provides in Christ the resource to make it thru. . . the hardship of the circumstances are not the end of the story. And His leading us into hard things is not meant only for us but that we would be a testimony of Christ to the body and in the world. Our joining in prayer with the sufferings of others in the body is meant for life in His body and a testimony in this world.

And yet how we let the unfamiliarity and our lack keep us from praying. . . how few Epaphras’s there are in the body. The Spirit will be life in our prayer and thru our prayers if we are faithful. Jesus said in John 15, “If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me. . .” There is no following of Jesus without the cross and the lesson of the cross that everything is found in Christ and nothing in me. . . no learning of Christ without renouncing all. It is the same principle in the prayer life. . . that going to prayer for others is not about lists but about life. God provides the resource and the requests in the life of prayer of the one who wholly follows the Lord. What blessing in this life to be involved in the work of the Lord in this way. Remember to keep Maryam & Marzieh in prayer. . . on 13 April they were called back to court to face charges of apostasy. They are awaiting the decision of the court. Go to the Lord on their behalf and find life in Him in this.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Cost of Not Following Fully

The call of the Lord is for a forward movement. . . that we press on and go. . . that as we follow Him the cross becomes an instrument of death whose fruit is life in us. What great promises in following Jesus in this life. . . union with Him in this life, becoming like Him. The pain of letting go and the costs of doing so pale compared to knowing Him in this way. And while the blessedness of union opens new horizons and invites us onward, there are great costs, great loss, in not following Him. . . of stopping short. . . of not going on with Him and knowing Him in greater and greater measure.

How easy it is to not follow the Lord. . . so much comes up to distract and turn away. So much is just surface with us, there is no depth of the Lord in us, so much is not genuine. And yet the purpose of God is for more of Christ within. The gospel is often presented as an easy thing and yet Jesus says that there are costs for those who follow. . . not just His cost in dying on the cross but our cost in knowing Him fully. Jesus invites but also says there is a cannot to following Him. . . a block to things, an abyss to what is possible. That to be a disciple, to come after Him, to become like Him, has a cost. . . there is an utterness to following Jesus. “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. . . anyone who does not renounce all that he has cannot be My disciple.” What big cannots they are. . . what cost to being a disciple. . . touching everything at the deepest point. How much hinges on the utterness of our response to Him. And what failure and lack awaits when we are half-hearted. . . when the heart is not fully devoted. . . when the Lord is one of many desires and not the only desire of our heart. Following Him in this life makes clear where we are in this matter of heart devotion to the Lord. . . what is genuine in us and where we are hypocrites. The Lord gives explanation by way of example why there is no discipling into the Lord if there is no coming after Him by way of the cross. . . “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ ” The cost of not being able to finish what is started. . . of not making it thru. What a high thing we are called to in this world. . . nothing less than the full measure of Christ. And yet there is no reaching that without taking up the cross and coming after Him. The promise of God is for knowledge of Him in Christ and that in increasing measure. . . and yet the promise mocks if there is no utterness on our part to follow Him. There is no getting thru, no maturity about us. . . a son of God who remains a child. There is a tragedy, a weakness to things, when stopping short of the full intention of God. Even the world mocks, “This man begins to build and was not able to finish.” What cost, what loss, in starting but not going on to completion.

The lack of utterness on our part has other costs. “Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.” There is a cost in settling for things. . . of not going into the battle at all and making peace when the call of the Lord often means risk. If the response to facing risks and hard circumstances is to first find the resource in ourselves, and not finding the resource, we often settle, we make peace. And yet the call of the Lord to follow Him utterly is that we not look to our own resources at all, but rather find in Christ the resource to make it thru. . . that regardless of the circumstances we follow even if the prospects at the beginning are poor. In our following, if we find ourselves sitting down and considering the outcome and the prospects for success, often we will never even go into the battle and so never win the victory. There will be a making peace with the thing that confronts us and we settle for a weaker condition. . . the defeat of not following the Lord utterly, where regardless of the cost we go on. The Lord has promised to be strength and hope and life in the situation. . . he is that resource to us as we go on. But in not going thru we never find the resource in Him and we never know Him in increased measure. Not making it thru and settling for less than the Lord intends is a great loss. What loss of power and life in us when we do not go on with the Lord. How little the Lord can go on with us when we are not utterly following Him. The Lord sums up this teaching, “So therefore, anyone who does not renounce all that he has cannot be My disciple.” There is no learning of Christ, no coming into greater measure of Christ within, without the utterness on our part that means renouncing all we have, all we are, denying ourselves. . . that at the heart of what we are, that what we are falls down and is put off. There is strength in denying ourselves. . . there is firm ground in renouncing all that we have and doing so utterly. There is something about being all in that is attractive. Someone with a full hearted devotion who is all in regardless of the cost wins the admiration of others even if they don’t agree with the cause. The Lord looks for that devotion in the heart. . . that single-mindedness where Christ is all. The Lord is all in with those who are utterly out for Him.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Christians celebrating Ramadan

A few months ago, the story came out that Christians were joining with Muslims in the celebration of Ramadan. For Muslims, Ramadan is a time of seeking after Allah thru prayer, meditation & fasting. . . a yearning for something more. Most Christians did this as a show of support & to foster a more sympathetic relationship between Christians and Muslims, but there were many for whom this meant more. . . a spiritual exercise, a true seeking after fellowship with God.

The story should be startling, but one has the sense that today it is not. The celebration of Ramadan mentioned in the story seems to go beyond secular enjoyment and respect, as is often shown for Christmas around the world. It seems from the article that some Christians are seeking for something more spiritual. . . to grow spiritually from a ritual dedicated to Allah. And yet, at the heart of things, the promise of God is life in Christ. . . that it is the living presence of Christ alone that makes us alive to the things of God. While tolerance and respect for the rights of others for their own religions and rituals is to be encouraged, and it is a measure of a good soul not to hate others for their beliefs, this should not be confused with finding spiritual life or growth. Here in New Jersey, which has a variety of religious expression, the very large Hindu population celebrates Navratri, in honor of a goddess. Everyone is invited of course. While it may be an interesting cultural exercise to visit the festival, and it may promote peace and understanding, which is commendable, I would not expect to find spiritual life there. . . Christ is not there. In the story, author Tony Campolo expressed the belief that those who do good to others already unknowingly know Christ misses the point of things. There are many 'Christians' who do good works who are not alive in Christ either. The call of Christ is that we deny ourselves & follow Him. . . not merely that we do good things to others to the best of our ability. . . but rather that in Christ we learn like Paul, "I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh." We are meant to turn utterly from what we are in ourselves, and find in Christ life. The power of His resurrection is meant to be in our lives. . . there is a life for our souls in Christ. But that life & growth that comes only from utterly denying oneself and following Jesus, does not come unknowingly. And it is never the call from other religions. It is not doctrine that separates, it is the presence of life.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sung Cua Po, Suffering & the Power of Life

In November, Sung Cua Po embraced Christ, one of the few of the Sung clan to do so. He lives with his wife & children in the village of Ho Co in northwest Vietnam, an area that is mainly Hmong, where ancestor & spirit worship is prominent. For this, police of the Na Son Commune incited area residents to abuse and stone them, as well as other Christians in the village.

For this, Po and his wife, Hang thi Va, were arrested on December 1st and Po was beaten, receiving 70 blows to his back & head. They were fined 8 million dong (US $430) and a pig of 16 kilos. Po’s motorbike & cellphone were confiscated. On December 15th, Po & his wife were taken by police to his extended family, where his clan brought severe pressure on him to recant his faith.

Under additional threats from the police, Po denied his faith, signing recantation documents. “I folded – I signed when police threatened to beat me to death if I didn’t recant,” he said. “Then they would seize my property, leaving my wife a widow, and my children fatherless – without a home.” Following Po’s written recantation, authorities subjected him to further family and clan pressure and “fines,” as well as rites to satisfy traditional Hmong spirits said to have become upset when he offended them by becoming a Christian.

As a final sign that his recantation was genuine, Po was to offer ancestral sacrifices on February 13th, during the lunar New Year celebrations. No word on whether Po made that sacrifice as a final mark that he denied the faith arrived until April 1st when Compass Direct reported that Po never made the sacrifice during the new year celebrations. On March 15th, police destroyed the family’s home and on March 19th, Po and his family fled into the forest. It is hoped that they were able to connect with other Hmong Christians who will help them.

That Po at first succumbed to the pressure of police and clan and family. . . the prospect of losing your home or your life. . . is not surprising. As a new believer in Christ, maybe as one without the comfort and support even of other believers, what inner resource is there to resist such pressures? How circumstances can fall on one and bring an end to all hope. . . no answers, no way out, no strength to get thru. What confusion and distress. . . the promise of life and hope in Jesus was met immediately by the crushing reality of persecution. For Po, circumstances closed on him quickly with intense pressure, the prospect of losing everything can weigh heavily. . . as a believer of only a few weeks, it is not surprising that he recanted.

What is surprising is that he did not make the final sacrifice to the spirits during the village celebration. Having gone so far down the road of leaving the faith, there was something that kept him from going further. The original pressures would still be there and would most likely be more intense. The villagers most likely thought Po’s case was solved, with only the sacrifice as something of a final mark that the problem of Po as a Christian was resolved. How fierce the reaction from the village when realizing that Po would not sacrifice and instead would follow Christ. . . what intense hatred for this one. The destruction and burning of his house is the natural course for such hatred.

In Ephesians 3, Paul writes, “. . . according to the power at work within us. . .” There is a power at work within. . . something immense and vital operating in the believer in Christ. Something greater than this world that gets us thru this world. . . a going on and a going forward when every other resource and power and hope proves impotent. The word is “. . . to those who are called. . . Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.” Christ is the power of God in us that calls us on and forward, that when circumstances and everything within say there is no way, that the power within is working and strengthening and showing a way forward and providing a new prospect. Something rises up within that brings hope and encourages and draws one on. It is “… by the power of an indestructible life,” mentioned of the Lord in Hebrews 7.

There is for those in Christ, something irresistible and eternal that rises up within. . . that faces the hardest obstacles and the heaviest burdens and overcomes. That’s what being in Christ brings, a life not of ourselves that has the power to take us thru and bring us home. How easy it would have been for Po to have given up and made the final ancestral sacrifice. . . how much easier on him and his family to have escaped all the pressures. Having made the initial denial, it would not be a far step to make the final one. But Christ within means resurrection and life. Against all the troubles and persecution, in Christ we rise. Although the troubles often do not go away, and for Po his troubles increased, there is in Christ the capacity within to face things and be faithful. . . to go forward and not sink under. The Lord proves Himself faithful even when we are not. Even if we fall for the moment, the life of God within remains and in Christ, we can find the strength to go on. It is our testimony, that in Christ we rise. Against all the troubles and failures in this journey, Christ means life within.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Stillness is the most alive thing when Christ is all

So much gets in the way, so much comes up, in fellowship with the Lord. It is too easy in seeing the Lord to pursue after Him apart from Him. . . to hunger for Him in a genuine way from the heart but then follow Him apart. So much anxiety and lost peace. . . what stress and strain there is. . . what feelings of disconnection from Him - even when the desire is for Him - when the pursuit of Christ is done apart from Him. The harder the effort often seems to put one further away. In the spirit, such turmoil and twisting, with no place, no solid place to stand. What frustration and failure!

Fellowship with Christ. . . union with Christ. . . is never meant to be pursued apart from resurrection. There is a “law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus”. . . there are principles given by the Lord that mean life – the presence of Christ - to those who live accordingly. The negative side to this is that apart from these there is no life in Christ. No matter how sincere the desire for the Lord, the result is frustration when He is pursued apart from the way He Himself has made manifest.

In each of the gospels, Jesus makes this invitation: “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me.” The Lord calls for denial of oneself if there is to be a following of Him. In another place, the Lord puts it in the negative, “. . . any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14) “If anyone would. . . let him” and “anyone who does not. . . cannot”. . . there is a force to Jesus’ words, it is an invitation with an imperative. “All that he has” - all that one is - is the utter denial in view here. There is nothing that is not touched here. . . no aspect or feature of what we are that is not touched upon. Everything we are apart from Christ is what is to be given up. . . it is meant to put off and let go and fall away. There is meant to be a release of all that if there is to be freedom in Christ.

And yet in that place where all which is apart from Christ is denied and renounced and given up, there is life. . . Christ in a living way is present. Where all inner resource has come to an end. . . when there is no way forward on my own. . . when no prospect for going on is seen. . . Christ is the way and Christ is the life. And it is at the end of all hope and resource in what we are that Christ is seen and known in a living way.

Paul says in Philippians, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” and in Romans, “ …I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” And yet how easy it is to hold onto that in ourselves that the Lord says to deny. . . to clutch and grasp onto even a shred and refuse to let it go and find life. So much inside clamors for this. . . how easy to be deceived.

Psalm 46 says “Be still and know that I am God...” There is a stillness that is alive. . . there is a place of rest in Christ that is not emptiness and passiveness but a place of union with the Lord who is life, where union means life and refreshing and renewal. In stillness there is a going on in the Lord, and in rest one finds purpose.

Is it not the living presence of the Lord Himself that is the answer to all the frustrations and failure, all the emptiness and longing of the heart? Is it not the Lord Himself who is rest to the soul and the answer to all searching? How much opens up to us when we are in Him? How peace fills, how hope encourages, what strength going on, when Christ is all.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Pastor Lou & the Encouragement of the Cross

Pastor Lou Yanqui and his family host a house church in Qingshuihe, a town in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China. He was arrested on 17 May 2008 on charges of “utilizing superstition to undermine the law,” and on 15 December 2008 he stood trial. The judge ruled that the evidence was insufficient and the case was not clear, and even though the prosecutor asked that the case be dismissed due to “changes in facts and evidence,” Pastor Lou’s case has been sent back to the Public Security Bureau for more investigation and he remains imprisoned. Pastor Lou’s daughter, Lou Tiantian, 18, was beaten by court police when she tried to speak with her father as he was being put into a police car after the trial. She was taken to the hospital where she received medical treatment and then released. Despite Pastor Lou’s imprisonment, his house church, his wife, Wang Wenxiu, and his children continue to meet. When told that Christians around the world were praying for their family, Wang asked friends to pass on this message to the international community: “Please thank them for us because this [imprisonment of Pastor Lou] is God’s best will. It is His promise. It is the grace of the Lord. How could we be worthy of awakening so many brothers and sisters’ prayers for us? The Cross of Jesus encourages us to move forward. I am very joyful and full of gratitude for all of the prayer support. ” It is an amazing testimony in the midst of such trial to say, “It is the grace of the Lord. . . The cross of Jesus encourages us to move forward.” Apart from Christ, often going thru trials have the opposite effect of stopping and halting, even a shrinking away in the face of obstacles. And yet the call of the Lord is to go on, finding in Christ alone the resource to go thru all things in this world. The apostle Paul knew great suffering, yet his stance in this world, was “. . . I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3) Sufferings and troubles and trials in this world press so hard against the soul and apart from Christ are meant for disabling and destroying. And yet in Christ, in union with Christ, is found the power of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. . . that the Lord means life even in the hardest of things. For all the conflict that this world means for the follower of Jesus, there is God’s “but not”. . . “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; stuck down, but not destroyed. . .” (2 Corinthians 4) For everything in this world that is meant for stopping and turning back and turning away, there is in Christ a way forward and a going thru. Paul’s testimony in Philippians 3 is . . . “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. . . that I might gain Christ, and be found in Him. . . that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death...” It is grace to have such a revelation of Christ within that everything that this world views as a way forward is rejected. . . that in going thru this life suffering in this world can be embraced as grace from the Lord. . . something given for our good, even necessary for our growth and a greater measure of the Lord within. To view the cross of Jesus as encouragement. . . that there’s a moving forward by way of the cross. . . is to have come into spiritual riches that this world neither sees or understands or offers. How much life is there in Christ, and a testimony of the Lord Jesus, in those who in view of all the hardness and trouble and suffering, embrace it and bear it and press on. . . not that hard things are merely endured but rather embraced. James wrote, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds. . .” Paul wrote in Romans 5, “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings. . .” Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5) May the Spirit give sight and bring revelation and knowledge of the greatness of the Lord Jesus Christ. May the cross be a banner that will lead on. . . something embraced and taken up, even to the denying of self and a following of Jesus. May hunger and thirst for righteousness be satisfied on the path of faithfulness that often means hardship and trouble and suffering . . . and life in Christ. Remember Pastor Lou, his wife Wang and their family and church, pray for them. It is the testimony of such as these brothers and sisters that is so needed in the church and to the world. Pastor Lou can be remembered in a tangible way by writing to him in prison. Often prisoners do get the letters and it is an encouragement to press on, that they are not forgotten. Sometimes the outside attention brings about their release. Pastor Lou Yuanqi Huocheng County Detention Center Yili City Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Utterness of Christ being All

A portion of St. Patrick’s Lorica:

Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

How wonderful. . . what tremendous values to come into when Jesus Christ is such a focus, when He is all. It reminds of Colossians 3, “Christ is all, and in all,” and Ephesians 4, “. . . that He might fill all things,” and Colossians 1, “. . . that in everything He might be preeminent.”

There is an absoluteness, an utterness, about Him that calls for an abandonment of all that we are and have in ourselves in this world. How unique and apart from what we are is the Lord Jesus. . . and what promise we have in Christ that we can be like Him.

And yet, how often is there a holding back and a holding on to what we are. . . how much living in the flesh in the pursuit ofow often is there sin and a holding backing the pursuiti Christ? How easy to get comfortable and fall back into the flesh. . . to walk with the Lord, lose sight of Him and go on anyway, on our own, apart from Him. How often we miss the way when Christ is not all.

The call of God to His people in this world is to be a spiritual people, to be alive in Christ and to leave behind the things of the flesh. There is a living according to the flesh and a living according to the Spirit. How utterly apart these are and how often God’s people try to do both. There is death at the heart of things when we live according to the flesh. . . how things do fall within when living according to the flesh. How much is there a stop to growth and going on in the Lord when living in the flesh.

Romans 14 says, “. . . whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” There is possible a living in Christ in this world, a living on the resources in Christ received in faith. Sin is not just the wicked things that are done. . . it’s living from our own resources apart from Christ, looking to oneself to make it thru things, trying to get thru this world to God on our own, thinking that we are sufficient in ourselves. . . it’s the wicked thing we are in ourselves.

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet will he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.” (John 11) It is possible in this world to believe in Christ and not live in Him... it is possible to have received from the Lord and not live according to Him. . . to believe in Him and yet be unfaithful. What frustration, what failure, to know the Lord and to sin, to not live from faith. . . what a sense of death hangs over things. Thanks be to God for His mercy and forgiveness when we sin and for His grace that cleanses us and makes a way forward in Christ. And yet there is the promise of Jesus of living and believing in Him, of being faithful, and never knowing that sense of death that touches us when we sin and live apart from Him. Abundant life in Christ is possible in this life now.

How blind to try to follow Christ in the flesh when the call of Jesus is the utter renunciation of ourselves, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me.” (Luke 9) In following the Lord in this world, there is a way forward in the utter renunciation of what we are in ourselves apart from Christ. . . to learn the lesson that the Apostle Paul did, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” (Romans 7). There is life and growth in abandoning whatever hope or strength or resource we see in ourselves and fleeing to Christ. How much life in the Lord Jesus is found in turning from ourselves and abiding in Christ alone! How much peace and hope in Christ when we remain faithful to the Lord. May Christ be all to us and in us. . . may His Spirit lead and guide us into greater and greater measure of Christ as we follow.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The work of God is faith in Christ

Life in Christ is meant by the Lord to be not the hard thing we so often make it to be. Living in this world as Christians becomes very difficult apart from Christ. There is a block to things. . . even the simplest things become laboured and confused if we try to sustain a Christian life in this world apart from a living union with the living Christ. How much frustration there is about things when thru the resources of the soul alone one tries to follow Christ. . . how much desperation and scrambling to get on top of things, to be right about things, and often even more so even as the Spirit testifies that the way forward is not the way chosen. How rebellious is the soul apart from Christ.

The promise of Christ is that there is a way forward that is without confusion and those struggles that we find as we seek to follow Him on our own resources. The testimony of those persecuted for their faith is that in spite of opposition and hardships and troubles in this world, that there is peace and joy in the midst of things for those who remain faithful. . . that despite the hardest of circumstances there is a life in the Lord Jesus that means peace and hope and a going on with the Lord and a going thru to God. It is only found in Christ. . . He who offers, “Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matt. 28) There is a peace about things as one faithfully follows Christ thru all things the Lord leads one into.

Apart from a living union in Christ, it is so easy to fall back on our own resources and strike out on our own, to follow what we think best, to do things for the Lord, all the while apart from Him. . . knowing the Lord isn’t necessarily following Him. How much of our lives here are taken up with trying to do things for God apart from Christ? And at the end of all the efforts. . . how utterly frustrating, how little fruit and of no real account with the Lord.

Missions work has become so much more than God intended or has blessed. In the hands of men, there are missions organizations, programs and colleges and degrees. . . with the intention of being a work for God. Having seen in the Bible a goal, something has been taken up for God but apart from Christ. Not that there is no spread of the gospel thru His Church. . . the testimony and faithful witness of Christ in His followers has meant new disciples and an increase of the Kingdom in this world. But Missions often becomes a thing more of man than of God. Paul wrote, “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. . .” (2 Cor. 1). The simplest, most uneducated, follower of Jesus - although persecuted and suffering – who yet remains faithful, who can love their persecutor, who remains true in Christ and to Christ, has a testimony and impact in this world that no degree can give.

Men asked Jesus what they should do to be doing the work of God. Jesus’ answer was, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” (John 6) The work of God is that Christ would be received in His people, that in a genuine way, what is true about us, at the heart of what we are, is Him. The work of God – the work of His Spirit in manifesting Christ – is that He would have something true of Himself in this world, in a people who bear His image, who in an ever-increasing way are transformed into His likeness and come into fuller measures of Christ.

The work of God in this world has become about so much more that is other than what God intends. Receiving Christ and bearing witness to Him as we follow Him and are faithful in our lives here is the work of God. There is a triumph in Christ now as we faithfully follow the Lord thru all things.