Monday, January 16, 2017

Benny is a good Samaritan

“Many people learn history. Very few people learn from it.”

That was one of the statements Benyamim Tsedaka made in our 90-minute meeting for lunch a few weeks ago. Benyamim, who prefers to be called Benny to make it easier for Americans, is a 125th-generation Samaritan who knows his history and is on a mission to help others know it as well, so lessons may be learned and tragedies avoided.

The Samaritans are a tribe of Israelites that once boasted more than a million people in the 5th century, and dropped as low as 141 in 1919. Now there are 800 Samaritans, but that number is growing again. From the ancient tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh and Levi, the Samaritans live in or near Mount Gerizim in Israel, and follow only the first five books of the Old Testament, or, the Pentateuch.

Benny says the Samaritans and Jews are two brothers of the same nation, and he travels throughout the world for two months every year, meeting with world leaders and representing the Samaritan people. When he and I met with JL Williams and Margaret Wooten (the Wootens are Benny’s "adopted family" in Alamance County), he had just come from a meeting with one of the members of President-elect Trump's transition team.

Benny has quite the resumé. He served in the Israeli Air Force in the 1960s. Since 1969, he has served as chief editor of The Samaritan News, and has published 122 books. He is a choir director, the honorary chairman of the Samaritan Basketball Team, and since 2007, he has chaired the Samaritan Medal Committee for Peace and Humanitarian Achievements.

Benny spoke at length about the need for the Samaritans to have support from our nation. When he met with 6 members of the State Department in Washington, D.C. last month, he told them, “We are between two sides and need the U.S. and Great Britain to support us. We do not have an army. We are for peace.”

Benny and I disagree about who Jesus Christ was. The Samaritans see him as only a prophet. Christians believe Jesus is who he claimed to be: the Son of God and the Savior. But there are many things we can agree on, and I enjoyed learning from Benny about the Samaritans.

A Samaritan male baby is circumcised on the 8th day, as Scripture teaches. Benny said an incubator is considered an extension of the womb, so a premature male will be circumcised exactly 8 days after leaving the incubator. Every Samaritan child studies the Pentateuch in school. He or she learns to read it in ancient Hebrew and in modern Hebrew. They are able to speak and to read the ancient language, and conclude reading the Torah at 6 or 7 years old.

He said there is no conflict there between the older generation and the young, because hypocrisy is not tolerated. He laughed as he said, “I always say to a young person, ‘Show me what I am asking you to do that I am not doing myself?'”

The stages of marriage are clear. First, a young man and woman must receive the consent of their parents. Then, they are engaged. Finally, they are married. Sounds just like America, except that step one is rare these days, wouldn’t you say? Maybe we are missing something, because Benny says that in the last 100 years, there have been fewer than five divorces among the Samaritans.

Benny Tsedaka is on a mission as a good Samaritan to teach the world about a precious people. I wish him the very best.

He was ready to preach, pray, or die

When I was 15, I saw the New Directions perform on a Sunday in Advance, N.C. There were 25 young people, not much older than me, singing about Jesus and giving testimonies about how he had changed their lives. The leader of this interracial group was a man with longer hair and bushy sideburns, a bullhorn voice, and a passion for preaching like I had never heard. His name was JL Williams. I was mesmerized, and thought to myself, “I would love to be a part of a group like that.” Who knew that 11 years later, JL would ask me and Cindy to lead the team? For three summers, we recruited, trained, and led young people to churches and prisons and inner cities throughout the East Coast, and into Haiti at summer’s end, sharing the Gospel through song and preaching. From that experience I was led to help start a church in 1987, with JL as one of the original leaders for Antioch.

I was mesmerized again on Dec. 31, which would have been JL’s 75th birthday, when more than 1,000 people gathered at Lamb’s Chapel to celebrate his life and remember the impact he had on so many. JL died on Dec. 28, and three days later there were men from India, Nepal, Zimbabwe (via video) and Haiti who had somehow made it to Burlington so they could share their love for this man, and their gratitude for his ministry. They were among the hundreds of pastors whom he discipled in other countries. It was said at least three times in the two-hour service: “JL was a connector.” Everywhere he went, and he went everywhere, JL connected leaders to one another, and mission needs to mission givers. He took countless businessmen and women on “Kingdom adventures” to Africa and Asia. He raised millions of dollars to feed orphans, fund schools, dig wells, and build churches. He believed that ministry to the soul was most important, but that a man could listen better with a full belly, so JL did all he could to minister “to the whole man with the whole Gospel.”

It started in the late '60s when his brother Ed invited JL to come to Burlington and run some programs at the local YMCA. In 1968, JL formed what became known as the New Directions, and hundreds of young people from Burlington and eventually from other states and countries, learned to follow the Lord by following JL around the country. I asked JL once if he would disciple me. He smiled and said, “Come and go with me; discipleship is not a program, it’s a way of life.” In 1998, JL asked me to lead a ministry team to Haiti, and promised that if I did, he would take me with him to Africa. The next summer, I invited Scott Hahn, a new graduate of Elon, to go on that African adventure with JL that took us to Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Since then I have made more than a dozen trips to Africa, taking my wife and each of my children at least once, and many others as well. JL’s legacy includes hundreds of Americans who pray and give and go into all the world because of his influence.

JL was famous for saying, “We always need to be ready to preach, pray, or die.” He did the first two countless thousands of times and loved Jesus with a passion, so when it came time to do the third, he was ready.

If JL were here today, he would want to ask, “How about you? Are you ready?”

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

It started with a cake

We have been together to Africa on a mission’s trip, our paths rarely cross. But I love talking to this man because he is one of those individuals who live, it seems, on a completely different plane than the rest of us. I could tell you lots of stories, but I will just share this one.

One day several years ago, Eddie was doing two things that he enjoys the most, walking and praying. Suddenly the Lord interrupted Eddie’s prayers with this thought: While you are praying for missions and missionaries overseas, why not also pray for your neighbors? Eddie said, “OK, I will do just that.” He thought about it for a few minutes and decided to pick the hardest case on the block, a man who was known and avoided by everyone because of his drinking. He was rarely sober but he held down a job, even owned a business. Eddie began to pray for him every day, that God would touch his heart and open it to the gospel of Jesus Christ. He found out one day that the man’s son was celebrating a birthday, so Eddie went to the store and bought a birthday cake and left it in the bag and hung it on his neighbor’s door. Eddie knew he would be coming home for lunch and sure enough, the man called him about 30 seconds after he arrived.

“Did you leave that cake hanging on my door?” the man asked.

“Yes, I did,” Eddie said.

“Why’d you do that?”

“Well, because we are neighbors and I have never really gotten to know you. I knew it was your son’s birthday, so I just wanted to do something neighborly for you. I wanted to show you that I care about you.”

There was a long pause. Then the man asked Eddie if he thought you could still go to heaven if you never went to church. Eddie said yes. “Would you come over and talk to me about that?” the neighbor said. Eddie replied, “You mean now?” The man did mean now, so Eddie told him he would be right over.

Eddie knew his neighbor, who owned a tire store, was wearing coveralls, so he put some coveralls on, too. Then he went over and knocked on his neighbor’s door. When he walked in, and surveyed the scene, the man asked Eddie if he had ever seen anything like it. Eddie said, “Well, only in bars. I admit that I have never seen a house that was, uh, decorated quite like this.” Every wall was plastered with beer signs and beer clocks and beer ads.

They had a long talk that day. Not long after that, the neighbor showed up at Eddie’s home Bible Study. Then, he laid down his addiction to alcohol. Eddie grinned as he talked about the drastic changes that had taken place in this man’s life after he believed the gospel and surrendered to Jesus Christ. I grinned as I thought about this friend of mine, winning the war on sin one lost soul at a time. I am challenged in my own witness when I hear stories like that. I hope you will be, too. As we stand on the threshold of 2017, here’s a great idea I didn’t come up with:

“Go into all the world (or your own neighborhood) and preach the gospel to every creature.” You can always start with a cake.

Monday, December 26, 2016

God moves into surrendered hearts

One verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” goes like this: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

“How will this be?” That’s the question Mary asked the angel Gabriel when he announced the news that she would give birth to a baby boy. It was a legitimate question since Mary had never been with a man. She was betrothed to Joseph, a young carpenter who lived in Nazareth and whose ancestors came from Bethlehem. But they had not consummated their marriage. Mary was a virgin.

Have you ever compared the two visits by Gabriel in Luke 1? Look at the similarities between his visit to the priest, Zechariah, and to the young Jewess, Mary. In each case, he came to foretell a miraculous birth. For Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, the birth would be a miracle because, to be real honest, they were just too old to have a baby. In Mary’s case, she was not able to conceive because she was a virgin.

In the two angelic visits, Gabriel told the listeners that sons would be born. He even told them their names. He told them their sons would both be great. John, born to Zechariah and Elizabeth, would be great because of the things he would do. Jesus would be great. Period. He was the Son of the Highest, the Holy One, the Son of God.

It is interesting to note the two responses to Gabriel’s message. Gabriel told Zechariah that he had just come from God’s presence, so this news came right from the top. Zechariah asked anyway, “How shall I know this?” In other words, he asked for a sign. “Prove it to me, Gabe, old buddy. I don’t believe it!” Mary responded quite differently. She asked, “How will this be?” Her heart believed what God was saying to her; she just didn’t understand it.

Do you see what is happening here? It doesn’t make sense to Zechariah that he and his wife could have a child; therefore he refuses to believe without a sign. It does not make sense to Mary that she can have a baby and still be a virgin; but she chooses to believe the Lord while seeking to understand. It was Zechariah’s unbelief that motivated his question. It was Mary’s belief that motivated hers.

How did Gabriel respond to each? Zechariah was escorted quickly offstage by Carol Merrill where he received the consolation prize of a tongue that would not work for nine months. Gabriel said to the priest, “You will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” Mary’s quest to understand found answers: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

Zechariah’s unbelief led to the sound of silence. Mary’s belief led to a surrendered heart. God moved right in and took up residence. He still does that today, in every heart that is opened to him.

May Christ’s presence fill your heart and your home this Christmas.

Monday, December 19, 2016

This is your trigger warning

I wrote this (now updated) column 10 years ago, when “The Nativity Story” came out. It remains one of my favorite Christmas movies.

Hey, lean in closer. I want to tell you something, but I have to be careful. There are lots of those right wing Christians running around here, and I don’t want them to hear what I am about to say. The last thing I need is to be hounded by those people, you know what I mean?

OK, here’s the deal. I know it’s time for “the holidays,” and I just want to warn you about a certain movie that just came out and that you definitely don’t want to see or let your kids see. Under any circumstances, I’m talking. There is no way you should go see this movie because it is highly offensive. I mean, I go in there taking my whole family to see this movie when it comes out, because I think it has something to do with Native American history or something, you know? I had no idea that I was going to be subjected to this blatant violation of the separation of church and state! I mean, here we are, eating our popcorn and enjoying upcoming previews to great flicks that won’t offend nobody, you know what I mean? Movies like this “Trolls” flick or whatever. Yeah, and there’s one about some beasts that is supposedly fantastic. And there’s one about a Bad Santa. I mean, any movie about Santa is fun, you know what I mean? It’s probably good, clean family entertainment that’s not going to be trying to cram some kind of religion or something down your throat.

But this Nativity movie was just plain nasty. It was right up in my face with this whole thing that Christmas is about Jesus or whatever. It made me so mad I could see red. And I really hate when that happens. I try to calm down quick because you know, red is a Christmas color, and whenever I see red or green I have to look down or cross my eyes, so I don’t think about Christmas. Those born-agains got some nerve, you know what I mean? Trying to take over the best time of the year and make it into some religious fanatic fairytale.

So I’m sitting there, you know, with my family, right? I mean, I plunked down like 50 bucks so we could see this Nativity movie, and I wasn’t about to just walk out and throw away 50 bucks. What do you think, I’m crazy or something? So, we sit there and watch this movie, and you have got to be kiddin’ me. I mean, this lady, no, this young girl gets a visit from some guy in white looking like he was an angel or something, and this guy is telling her that she’s going to get pregnant, but there won’t be no man. Yeah, right. But here they go, trottin’ off to Bethlehem because some king wants to get more taxes. Now that part I can believe! Anyway, this young girl has a baby, and every shepherd in the county shows up looking like they’ve never seen a baby before. And these wise guys come too, giving the baby gifts like he was a king or something. The truth? This movie’s offensive. Don’t go. Stay home. It is just wrong.

“And she gave birth to her firstborn Son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Go Get Some Free Christmas Music!

Hey all! I know, it's been a while. I apologize. I have no excuses. 

But I haven't been completely wasting my time. And to prove it, here's an album a friend and I just finished for our church. It's FREE right now on NoiseTrade and we'd be honored if you downloaded a copy and shared it with friends. Merry Christmas!