Monday, August 29, 2016

The Lord came to Mohamed

Mohamed-Ibrahim Yatarra was born and raised as a Muslim in Mali, West Africa. The oldest of 14 children, at 5 years old he was sent to school to learn the ways of Islam and to study the Koran. His father was a schoolteacher, and a strict disciplinarian. Mohamed remembers watching his friends playing soccer outside on many afternoons when school was over, while he was kept inside, studying. When he was 14, Mohamed ran away from home and fled to his uncle’s house, in another city. His uncle was a Christian pastor and, surprised to see Mohamed, he welcomed him to join the family for lunch and said, “Before we eat lunch, we will pray.” Mohamed was impressed but shocked by this. He had been taught that Christians never pray and are evil people. But during that week, he heard their prayers and was moved by them. He saw their devotion to Jesus and was drawn to it. He participated in a Vacation Bible School at his uncle’s church and learned many Bible verses and songs about Jesus. The teaching impressed him, but at the end of the week when the invitation was given, he did not go forward. He told himself, “Mohamed, this is not for you.”

When the week was over, his uncle told Mohamed that he needed to go back home. When he returned, his friends came to see him, and the first thing he did was take out the New Testament his uncle had given him and he started reading to them. He was not a Christian, but wanted to explain to them what he had seen and heard. His father was listening and became very angry, and sent him back to the Koranic school, telling him that maybe this time he would learn how to be a good Muslim. “My father was trying to brainwash me,” Mohamed said, “and it worked.” He forgot his sidetrack into the Bible and studied the Koran. Two years later he was sent to high school in the same town where his Christian uncle lived, so he stayed in his house. Once again, he was drawn to Christianity, and found himself torn between the religion of his father and the faith of his uncle.

He read Muslim books and Christian books trying to understand, and would often defend Jesus to his Muslim friends. “I was very confused,” he said in his testimony at Antioch last Sunday, “because I also defended Islam to my Christian friends.” One night, he prayed, “God, I want to know the truth. Is it Islam? Is it Christianity? Maybe there’s another religion, I don’t know. I just want to know the truth.” Immediately he remembered a Bible verse he had learned four years earlier at Vacation Bible School: “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy.” That night, the Lord came to Mohamed, and this young man’s faith was settled once and for all.

His father disowned him when he heard of his conversion, but Mohamed continued to visit his father to show him honor. After his marriage, he asked if one of his younger siblings could come and live with him and his new wife, but his father said no. “You will try to make him a Christian.” A year later, his father passed away and since Mohamed was the oldest son, he was given the privilege of raising his younger 13 siblings. Today, all but two of them are following Jesus.

The Lord came to seek and save the lost. In every nation.

Monday, August 22, 2016

He chose me despite my weakness

I remember it like it was yesterday. It is my fourth-grade class with Mrs. Wade and time for recess. Every day, it is the same. When the teacher announces recess, I am at once fearful and elated, filled with dread and excited at the same time. Why? I am excited and elated because I get to go outside and play, one of my passions even to this day. I am fearful and filled with dread because I am one of the smallest boys in the class, and I know that recess means kickball. I know that kickball means that the two biggest boys in the class will announce that they are captains and start choosing their teams. The girls will stand off to the side and giggle as the boys make their selections from among the rest of us young pre-pubescent males who are standing there, trying to look tough and athletic. Not me. I am standing behind a row of taller boys, and occupying my full attention by gazing at my right foot. Anyone who is observing this whole scene would have to write in his notes: “The short, skinny kid, Fox, is staring at his right sneaker like it’s his job. What is going on with him?” What is going on is that I know what will happen. Every single boy on that field will be chosen until there are two left, me and this other little kid named Albert or Edgar, I can’t remember. Then the two self-appointed captains will argue over who gets me and who gets the other kid. The girls on the sideline, in the meantime, are whispering to each other and giggling into their hands. I am dying. The selection process is finally over, and the game begins, and I can relax and go hard after every ball. I always tried to make up with hustle and effort what I lacked in size and skill.

When Jesus came to his hometown to preach there for the first time, he opened the Old Testament to Isaiah and read a passage about the coming Messiah that included this statement: “He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” This is not an economic designation, this word for "poor." Rather, it is a word that points to “those who for any number of reasons were relegated to positions outside the boundaries of God’s people.” Jesus came to proclaim good news to people who knew they were outside of God’s boundaries - all of us are - and who knew they were lost and needed a Savior - all of us do.

I am back on the kickball field, and I expect to be picked last. In terms of size and skill, I am poor, outside the boundaries of those who would be included in the athletic category. And then one of the captains overlooks a whole row of bigger, stronger boys who are smug in their expectation of being picked first. He finds me through the crowd, standing on the back row, looking at my feet, preparing myself to deal with the shame of being picked last or next to last. And he says, “I’ll take Mark.”

Of course, it never happened to me in kickball. I still got picked last. But it did happen to me with the Lord. He saw past all my sinful pride and rebellion and said, “I’ll take Mark.” He preaches the gospel to the poor, to the least likely, to the lowly. He proclaims good news to people like you and me.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Receiving the Word can change your life

Rosaria Butterfield was a radical feminist, a lesbian, and a college professor who wrote about queer theory when her world was turned upside down. She was shown kindness and hospitality by a pastor and his wife, and after two years of being loved by them she came to know Jesus Christ as Lord. Butterfield is now a pastor’s wife, a mother, an author and a sought-after college speaker. Included in all that change was her attitude about the Bible. When Butterfield first started reading it as a professor, she did so not to hear what it had to say but to critique it, and to better understand how to discredit it in her classroom. In a recent interview with Marvin Olasky, editor of “World Magazine,” Butterfield said that during her feminist days she taught thousands of college students to despise the Bible. Now she has the opportunity to go on campus and face the fruit of her life, and she said, “I am really grateful that God has given me a chance to go and set the record straight.” At one time she was quick to reject the Bible, and now she is quick to hear it. That change in her life has made all the difference.

A side note of interest: Butterfield said she used to tell her students, “Look, if you want to argue with me about a book that I have read and you haven’t, I win! That’s it! No contest.” Now she says the same to students about the Bible and challenges them to give the book six months, to really read it with an open mind, and see what happens. “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword,” and it brings radical change to those who “receive (it) with meekness.” Just look at the new life and work of Rosaria Butterfield.

The thing is, you can’t hear what the Bible says unless you are ready to listen. We used to teach our children to never walk into a room talking. If you do, we told them, two things are bound to happen. One, you will interrupt what is going on in the room. Two, you will not be ready to listen and learn from what is being said.

I was at the Y this week, and the poor guy who was in charge of a few kids for their summer program had a live one on his hands. I’m guessing this boy was around 7, and he was supposed to get his swimsuit on so they could go to the pool, but he wouldn’t do it. Here’s how their conversation went, word for word. “Do you want to go swimming?” “Yes.” “Then put on your suit.” “No.” “Then you will sit with me on the side of the pool.” “No.” “Those are your two choices. Put the suit on and swim or sit with me on the side.” “No.” They went through this routine three times until finally the boy just took off running out of the locker room and down the hall. My first thought was, “Dude, whatever they are paying you, it's not enough.” Later I thought, “Lord, is that what it’s like, far too often, for You to deal with me?” That boy heard every word the camp staffer said to him. Every mumbling word. And he received with meekness exactly zero of them.

Listening to God’s Word is one thing. Receiving it with meekness? Now, that can change your life.

Monday, August 8, 2016

You can choose to be unoffendable

What if you made a choice not to get offended? When someone cuts you off in traffic. When your spouse is rude or your boss is demanding or when the person in the checkout line decides to tell his life story to the cashier, while you wait and are late for a meeting? What would it be like to pull something besides anger out of your toolbox when others do something to annoy you or even hurt you?

That’s the premise of Brant Hansen’s book, "Unoffendable." He writes, “OK, this may sound like the dumbest thing you’ve ever read, but here goes: You can choose to be unoffendable.” Some of you may find that offensive, but hold on. What would your life look like if all the energy you put into getting angry and holding onto grudges and feeling bitter and shutting people out was not spent there but on enjoying life and people and God’s creation?

Hilly is the character in the movie "The Help" that you cannot help but dislike. She is racist to the core, and treats the black woman who works for her like trash. Aibileen is good friends with Hilly’s maid and says to Hilly one day, “Ain’t you tired, Miss Hilly? Ain’t you tired?” It’s a classic scene and that question cuts to the heart of it for all of us. Aren’t we tired of keeping people at arm’s length because they are different? Or of drilling down into everything others say to see if there’s anything there that we should be offended about? Aren’t we tired of having to turn the other way when we see “that” person one aisle over in the drugstore? Aren’t we tired of measuring people’s worth by how much they agree with us or how much they can help us succeed?

Let’s face it, anger is easy to use, but it takes a lot of energy. It takes energy to justify our anger. It takes energy to keep it simmering so the coals don’t cool and we start forgetting how we feel about that person who hurt us. It also takes a lot of energy to quit a job because we’re angry. And to find another one. Or to end a relationship. Or to move. The sad truth, though, is that for some, anger becomes a lifestyle. Hansen writes, “We run into this in our small church community: people come to our group, and they’re tremendously excited about it! They love it! They love us! It’s great! And they want to share! So they tell us about their past church, and how messed up it was because of whatever, and then the church before that, and this other group they had to leave because people were doing such and such -- gee. Think they’ll soon find fault with us too? Of course. It’s a way of life. We get offended; we get disillusioned; we leave. Over and over and over.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can choose to be unoffendable. That does not mean we reduce ‘truth’ to the lowest common denominator. It doesn’t mean that there is no truth with a capital T and that everybody’s “truth” is equally valid. Jesus made it clear that He is the way, the truth and the life. He made it clear that unless you come to Him as a little child, you cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven. But Jesus was a friend of sinners. He did not hide from those who opposed Him. He went close. He loved them. He chose to be unoffendable. We can, too.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Evidence God is working in Moldova

Kevin Jordan and I had the privilege of preaching in four churches and presenting five seminars in Moldova last week to men, encouraging them to be spiritual leaders at home. Situated between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova is the poorest country in Europe and struggles mostly because of corruption in the government, not because of a lack of resources or a poor work ethic. Here are some of the things we observed in this former Soviet state.

The people are hospitable. In one village, we brought a pack of large diapers to a woman who cares for her 12 year-old grandson. A mistake by the doctor who delivered him left the boy disabled, and he cannot walk, talk, or care for himself. After we spoke with his grandma through an interpreter, and prayed for them, she insisted that we eat some fresh goat cheese she had made that morning.

The people of Moldova are hard-working and the men want desperately to provide for their families. We met Victor and Svetlana and their three children, and helped him with a well he is digging for his family. As we wrestled with two concrete sleeves and finally managed to drop them into the well, Victor led the way, despite having a ruptured disc in his back. His teenage son gladly chopped firewood to build a fire in their outdoor kitchen, so that Svetlana could serve us tea. Several years ago the temperatures dropped to 35 below in Moldova, and did not get above zero for more than two weeks. I imagined this proud family, living in a house with clay walls, a clay floor and a porous roof, trying to provide food for the family in the sub-arctic outdoor kitchen.

The evangelical church is making a difference. The state church is Orthodox, and you can see their domes and crosses on beautiful church buildings in even the poorest of villages. They are everywhere. And nowhere. The Orthodox priest in Victor’s small village has never come by to meet them or pray for them. In fact, if you want the priest to pray for you in Moldova, you have to pay. Instead, the pastor of “Jesus the Good Shepherd” church came from miles away and went door to door with his people in Victor’s village where there is no evangelical presence. They were impressed to help Victor and Svetlana, not because this family may be able to ‘come to their church one day,’ but because they wanted to show them the love of Jesus and help them in His name. Victor and his family are not believers.

In Moldova, everyone will tell you he is a Christian. The Orthodox Church is predominant, even though only handfuls attend each Sunday. If you ask Moldovans if they are believers, the vast majority will say no. In fact, when a family in a village comes to Christ, they are labeled ‘heretics’ by the Orthodox Church, and therefore by their neighbors. The primary religion is works-based, and a mix of tradition and superstition. Those who have heard the Gospel, that Jesus did everything necessary on the cross for our salvation, and therefore we are saved by grace and grace alone, are few. But that number grows.

We saw much more than this, but space does not permit me to tell it all. Want to hear more? Come to Antioch on Sunday morning, Aug. 21 at 10. We will share pictures, videos and stories about this country and her people.

I thank God for the privilege of serving in Moldova. He is at work there.