In missions, there is a lot of discussion about reaching the unreached peoples of the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Depending on what source you read, there are anywhere between 5,000-7,000 unreached people groups around the world. This amounts to roughly 2.7 billion people. There is an area where most of these people call home. In global missions, this area is commonly referred to as the 10/40 window (located between 10 and 40 degrees latitude north of the equator) which is comprised of northern Africa, the Middle East, and most of Asia. Many missions sending agencies focus on sending their missionaries to these areas of the world. These countries are typically dangerous to Westerners, especially to those who are preaching the Gospel where some can be kicked out of the country, imprisoned, and in some cases face execution. There is a large need for Christian workers to go to these hard to reach places and introduce the abundant life of Jesus Christ into these people's lives for the first time… offering them salvation, hope, and joy that comes through having faith in King Jesus.
But, what about the billions of people around the world that do not fall into the 10/40 window? There are many countries in the world that are considered "reached". But, many of these countries have such a low population of believers of Christ that they are really no different than some unreached countries. In many of these countries that have been reached, generations have since passed and now we have a new segment of society of either unreached people groups or devout atheists. For example, here in the country of Albania where we serve it is considered a "reached" country. But, the percentage of born-again, truly transformed believers of Christ is nearly infinitesimal (less than 1%). Right out the front door of our house there are hundreds of people in our neighborhood who have never heard the Gospel before. But many of their parents or other family members have seen the Jesus Film many years ago. When Communism fell in 1992, missionaries from the West flocked to Albania eager to introduce millions of Albanians to the Gospel of Christ for the first time. This, after being closed off to the West for 40+ years. Every village in Albania had been essentially reached. There was even an influx of thousands of newly professed believers of Christ. And, Albania was figuratively checked off the "unreached" list by many missions sending agencies. As a result, many of these missionaries left, with little or no follow up. Many churches that were planted early on have since died out. And now we are once again back to square one, a country with a very small population of believers and with a large segment of society whose generation today have never heard the Gospel.
And, of course there are countries that have long ago been considered Christian countries, once beacons of light to other countries around the world sending thousands of missionaries to the darker recesses of the world. Most of these "Christian" countries exist in central and northern Europe, but also including North and South America. However, in these countries we are now actually seeing a reversal of people coming to faith, where the Christian population is actually declining and many are leaving the Christian faith and the church they once grew up in. Many have become disenfranchised with traditional “Churchianity” and are embracing alternative religions or no faith at all. For the first time last year in America, Protestantism was no longer the dominant religious faith, being outnumbered by a combination of other faiths or no faith at all. As a result, missionaries from other countries like South Korea and Nigeria are actually sending Christian missionaries to the US and Canada, introducing Americans to Christ and involved in new church planting efforts around the country. And in Europe, in countries like The Netherlands and Germany, churches are now being converted into mosques, museums, and market places. And, some of the highest populations of atheism are no longer found in Communist countries, but in places like Czech Republic, Estonia, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, France, and The Netherlands.
So, what do we do with all of this? What do we do with the declining population of those who profess a faith in Christ? What do we do with the increasing population of atheism? Well, global missions should truly remain global, not confined to a certain segment of the world's population; encompassing the entire globe, not just a focus on the "unreached" people groups of the world. I propose we open the window a bit more. Let's not limit it to the 10/40 window. Let's open it up 20 degrees more to include the former "Christianized" countries of the world such as Europe and North America. The way I see it, if we don't open the window, we will be calling America and Europe "unreached" countries 25-30 years from now. And, I mean that literally; where generations will have passed, and newer and younger generations will have never heard the Good News of Christ.
This leads me to another question. How do we reach those who are already reached? How do we reach out to those who have indeed heard the Gospel before but for whatever reason have chosen to reject its message? My guess, and I’m not claiming absolute certainty on this, is that many of these “reached” people are hearing a form of Christianity that is both westernized and institutionalized. A form of Christianity that finds it basis from an Enlightenment-era form of reasoning, focusing more on morality, debate, the afterlife, and following a list of do’s and do nots. And, I don’t believe this is the same Gospel message that Christ taught. People need to see love in action. Not only do they need to hear it through proclamation, but it needs to be modeled and demonstrated through our lives and our actions. They don’t only want to hear what you have to say unless they truly know you care about them… now. People want to know how can a belief in Christ possibly benefit and change their life now, here, while on earth. One of my favorite quotes that I think best encapsulates the paradox of abundant life now and life after death is this:
“Few people are interested in a religion that has nothing to say to the world and offers them only life after death, when what people are really wondering is whether there is life before death.” (Shane Claiborne)
We need Christians to not only mobilize around the world to distant and far off countries, but to remain in their own cities, towns, and villages. We need Christians to share the Gospel through both word and deed in their communities. And, I don't mean the stale, institutionalized form of Christianity to be propagated. I mean, the get-in-the-trenches, get-your-hands-dirty form of missions. Where we no longer focus on rules and morality, but focus on helping others, loving the least of these, and bridging the gap between the haves and have nots. We need to stop obsessing over immorality and obsess with loving others no matter who they are. And, I’m willing to bet this will require leaving the comforts of our own environment and our own biased socio-political ideologies. We need to bring the Light to the darkness and not expect the darkness to be the Light before we bring it.
A couple of examples come to mind of what it looks like to bring the Light of Jesus Christ to people through both word and deed:
I am reminded of my friend Don who lives and works among a shunned people group called the Roma, otherwise known as Gypsies. He has relied solely on faith to open a workshop in the slums of Tirane, Albania, enabling local Roma and Albanian men with new works skills and an opportunity to provide a better income for their families. At the same time, he spends time investing in the spiritual lives of these men through sharing the Gospel and conducting small Bible studies in his home or workshop.
I am reminded of Pastor Jeony who also lives and works near the slums in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. He has helped facilitate a school program that enables children and their parents to receive an education and job skills, allowing them to leave their lives working in the disease-infested city trash dump. This educational program doesn’t go without hearing and learning about Christ. Each morning the children gather at the school to sing praises of worship to Jesus and learn more about God through the reading of Scripture.
Closer to home I am reminded of Shane who essentially moved from the comforts of his middle to upper class background and decided to live among the homeless of Philadelphia. This led him to start a new community revitalization project in what many would consider a gang-infested, drug-laden, and impoverished neighborhood. He, along with several others helped restore what was dismissed as hopeless, into a newly revitalized beautiful community where the homeless now live and thrive. All of this was accomplished alongside the teaching about God’s love, grace, and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
Faith in action. This is how I believe we reach the reached with the Gospel message. There is certainly a place for the public proclamation of the Gospel, especially in unreached countries. But, in places where the Gospel is already being promulgated in churches, on TV, the radio, and bookstores; love in action is where people will truly see who Jesus is. And, this is what I believe the new wave of missions is to look like. Incarnational and holistic approach to ministry. Bringing justice where there is injustice. Enabling the poor to leave poverty. Reaching out to the disenfranchised, the unloved, and the oppressed. Helping men, women, and children see themselves for who they are, loved by God. Restoring them into the people that God intentionally desires them to be… created in His image, reconciled, rescued, and redeemed. Not for just the life after we die. But, for the life here and now. Making all things new. And, bringing God’s kingdom onto earth just as it is in Heaven.
In 1986 when I was a senior in high school, a new movie was released all across theaters in America. This film portrayed a life that became the envy of just about every young man. It involved cool motorcycles, hot babes, and fast jets. If you haven’t already guessed, the movie was “Top Gun” starring Tom Cruise and a relatively unknown actor at the time named Val Kilmer. After seeing this movie several times I knew this was the same life that I too wanted to live, especially if it got me fast motorcycles and Kelly McGillis. While some of my motives may have been naïve and driven by a high level of testosterone, I knew for certain that I wanted to see the world and receive my college education all the while defending this great country of ours. And, with the support and encouragement of my family and friends, I signed up for active duty service in the United States Air Force.
While I didn’t quite become the studly pilot portrayed in “Top Gun”, I did become an Air Force medic. I had received many decorations and awards during my tenure, shot expert marksman on both the M16 and .38, went through medical training school, and was well on my way to what seemed like a successful career in the Air Force. Most of my time serving in the Armed Forces was spent during times of relative peace. However, on August 2, 1990, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded the tiny nation of Kuwait. As a result, America revved up its military engines preparing and deploying thousands of its troops and readied its war machines in what was known as Desert Storm/Desert Shield. American patriotism skyrocketed and the war drums all across America were beating steadily. I, and thousands like me were ready to do combat and if necessary draw blood. In the middle of this huge operation, I was put on 24-hour standby while stationed at Fairchild AFB, WA. With my bags packed, immunization records updated, power-of-attorney and Will signed and notarized, I was ready to go… just waiting for the phone call from my commanding officer. Well, I did receive the phone call, but it wasn’t to give me the green light to go. Instead it was to notify me to stand down because the war had ended. Iraq had surrendered and pulled out of Kuwait. I was totally disappointed. After all, this was one of the main reasons why I signed up in the first place.
Six months later, in October of 1991 while on temporary duty assignment at Sheppard AFB, TX something happened to me that forever changed my life. I had a chance encounter with Jesus Christ. And, this jolted my world. As a result, I was drawn to my knees asking for forgiveness, repenting, and surrendering my life to Him. It was at this time that I promised I would forever serve and follow after Him. Over the next couple of years as I continued to be transformed while growing in my faith I began to think more about and understand what it means to be a disciple of Christ. By my first year of being a Christian I had read through the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation, seeing how God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation unfolded from start to finish.
It was during this time of growing, reading Scripture, and being discipled that I was first introduced to the non-violent ways of Jesus. I soon began to have difficulty reconciling violence and the use of guns, military service, and war with Scripture and the Jesus that I had come to know. I struggled with many passages like:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matthew 5:38-39)
Not only in time of war or combat, but in any other type of aggressive conflict our first and natural reaction to any offender who seeks to harm is to retaliate. How can I reconcile this with the words of Jesus who tells us to actually turn and offer our other cheek to them? As a soldier I could not do this since I was commanded to retaliate against any kind of aggression.
Furthermore, Jesus tells His disciples:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-45)
How could I as a soldier possibly love an enemy combatant with orders to shoot and kill him by my superiors? And, not only does Jesus tell me to love my enemies, but to pray for them. While at the same time Romans 12:14 tells me to actually “bless” my enemies. I can’t do this with the possibility that I may be ordered to capture or kill an enemy combatant by my commanding officers.
Many other verses I struggled with. For example:
“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” (2 Corinthians 10:3-4)
My weapon is not an M16 or .38. My weapon is not an AR-15 or 9mm. In fact, God tells me that none of my weapons are of this world. So, what am I doing practicing my shooting skills aiming to hit the silhouette of a human target at the gun range? No, as disciples of Christ our weapons are of divine origin, incapacitating our enemies not with bullets, but with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, the Word of God, and prayer. (Ephesians 6:14-18).
While there are countless more passages in Scripture defining the non-violent ways of the Christian, I’ll end with this one:
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12)
My beef isn’t with Saddam Hussein, Iraqi soldiers, Muslims, or any other flesh and blood people group. My beef is against Satan and his minions who corrupt people, cause others to stumble, and create the many injustices of this dark world. So, while I may have liked to get my hands around Saddam Hussein or any other evil dictator, the source of the problem lies in the spiritual realm. And, that is where my fight belongs.
After much prayer and wise counsel, I had finally come to the conclusion that I could no longer carry out my duties as an armed soldier in good conscience. Therefore, I made the decision to begin the process of ending my career in the military. I spoke with my First Sergeant and told him of my decision. After several lengthy conversations he recommended I begin filing for Conscientious Objector (OC) status for discharge. But, as "fate" would have it, by this time President George H. Bush Sr. began offering early out options to all active duty servicemen with no questions asked as a way of reducing our nation's military defense spending. I took that opportunity and received an honorable discharge after 6 years of active duty service in our nation’s Armed Forces.
Today, I am by definition a pacifist. I refuse to partake in anything that promotes, encourages, or supports violence or death. I refuse to own or use a gun. I refuse to be a part of our nation’s love obsession with guns and violence. I am pro-life… for life both in the womb and out of it. This includes supporting laws that seek a ban on abortion, tighter restrictions against guns, and overturning our nation’s death penalty laws. Neither do I support war. As a pacifist, the question is almost always raised by others, “What would you do to protect your family against a hostile entity?” Pacifism does not mean passivity. This does not mean that I would idly stand by doing nothing to save my family or any other person for that matter against an intruder. It means I would find the means of incapacitating an offender, or if needed, sacrifice my own life in order to save the life of another. This is what I believe it means to be a pacifist, and this is what I believe it means to be a disciple of Christ.
I know I am a minority. And, I do not expect other Christians to agree with me. In fact, more often than not, I am met with opposition, sometimes with hostility. And, that is okay. Because it only provides a better opportunity for me to be the peaceful witness that God has called all of us to be. Nevertheless, it is my hope that my brothers and sisters in Christ will someday understand the peaceful and non-violent ways of the King we worship. That someday they will fully understand what it means to serve the Prince of Peace with their peaceful actions and words of peace. And, that their only allegiance is not to a flag or country, but to the Lamb that was slain for them. That they will not ascribe to the powers of Caesar, usually exacting force or dominance over others. Instead, ascribing to the power under and servant life of the carpenter from Nazareth. I look forward to the day when there will be no more violence and bloodshed. When there will be no war and no death. A day when our Lord will reign on His throne on a new earth not by might and not by force, but by His peace and love that will transcend the world, to every tribe and every tongue and to all the nations, bowing and singing praises to our King Jesus.
On this beautiful day here in Tirane, on the 1st day of the year , I reflect back on the year 2012 with great rejoicing and contemplation. As Frank Sinatra once sang, "It Was a Very Good Year". Looking back, it was indeed a very good year. It was a year where we witnessed a huge move of God right here in our Roma community. Earlier in the year, we saw seven young men (Erjon, Ilir, Indrit, Rildi, Xani, Masarjo, and Ledio) profess a new faith in Jesus Christ. These guys were later baptized and to this day consistently attend our Bible study each week in our home. Some of these guys have even brought visitors with them as they are understanding what it means to go out and make disciples of others. During the summer, we saw three neighbors come into a new relationship with Jesus Christ. One of these believers, Nazifi, whose wife Bona was already a believer, has been very excited about his new faith and is eager to see a community of believers grow in his neighborhood. In November, our friend Bushi, who lives amongst the Roma on the river also professed a new faith in Christ. His wife, Ejla, already a believer, is our househelper who comes to our home four days a week to not only work for an income, but spend one-on-one time being discipled by Marcella. Our teammates Don and Krystal who live about 5 minutes from our home have also seen a handful of men, women, and children come into a new relationship with Jesus this past year. Perhaps the most exciting thing to see is this new community of believers come together and worship as one body. Led by our team leaders, Dave and his wife Julee, this past year we have had a handful of gatherings hosted at our home and at our neighbor Nazifi's house. Each time there has been a sizable gathering of worship, fellowship, and learning as we come together to give honor and praise to our King. These are some exciting times and all of us look forward to seeing what God will continue to do in our community this year.
Compared to more "rougher" places to live, Albania is a relatively easy place to live. But, it can also be at times very difficult especially living in an impoverished community. As a family, God has sustained us and carried us through this year where we had to rely on Him and His grace day-by-day. Although in most part there were many highs this year, there were also some lows worth noting. For example, we experienced the coldest and wettest winter on record in Albania's history last year. As a result of these record freezing temps, our water pipes froze and bursted, leaving us without water for several days. Many days we often experienced complete power outages, leaving us without electricity (and heat) for many hours and sometimes up to a day. We experienced a few problems with our vehicle this year, getting into a few major fender benders (none of which were our fault), and dealing with mechanical problems. Our car is just shy of 10 years old, and we hope it will last several more years here. But, it definitely has taken a beating since being here in Albania. As one friend recently told me, "it has become Albanianized!" The engine light always remains on and it has enough rattles, shakes, and noises to make Chitty Chitty Bang Bang sound like a smooth Cadillac.
These lows were certainly offset by many highs. In March, we attended a mandatory team conference in Croatia. This was a wonderful time for our family to reconnect with our team and also spend time visiting a beautiful and unique country. In the summer, we traveled back to the US to reconnect with our family, friends, and supporters for 7 weeks. This was also an opportunity for Morgan to receive a checkup by her neurologist for her Myotonia Congenita. The good news is that she is doing very well and it hasn't progressed much. We also found out her medicine is readily available here in Albania. In September, Coleman and I visited Istanbul for a week, where we got to spend quality one-on-one, father-son, time together. This was a crucial year for Coleman since he officially became a teen for the first time. In October, we spent a few days in Vlore, where we also got to visit some neighboring villages and cities to see the many beautiful sites Albania has to offer.
This year was the year for visitors for us. We had two staff members from our home sending church (121 Community Church) come visit us to offer encouragement, see how we're doing, and to see where we serve. For the first time we finally got to meet our Pioneer's Area Leader from Bosnia, Jim Baumgardner. He spent a week with us, teaching a church-planting conference, spent much time getting to know each other, and planning and praying about the future direction of our time here in Albania. We also received two wonderful ladies from our home sending church who spent a week with us. They got to experience what life is like here and observe the wonderful ministries God already has us involved in. Finally, Marcella's mother and sister recently stayed with us for a week, where our kids spent much quality time with them. They also came bearing many Christmas gifts that we were able to enjoy this season, giving us a small taste of home.
As I sit here and enjoy the sounds of our kids playing together, I am reminded about how adaptable kids are. Perhaps even more so than us adults. Our kids have transitioned extremely well to Albania, where they each have acquired many close friends. We give many praises to the school they attend at GDQ. Without GDQ and the wonderful staff, I'm not convinced our kid's transition would have been as smooth. They each have a few close friends that they often spend time with. I am particularly struck by how close Coleman has become with his fellow classmates, all of which are missionary kids, and how naturally they have all bonded. I see great joy in Coleman's demeanor whenever he is with them. Likewise, both Morgan and Drayton also love their close friends and the thought of any of them leaving for whatever reason saddens them. Each of our kids have one or two local Albanian/Roma friends they have likened to as well. We are very grateful for God's provision in this area of our lives.
Marcella and I had a good year. Health wise, it seems Marcella has acquired some significant allergies by living here. And, I have borderline high blood pressure that I need to be careful with. But, overall our health is fine. We remain united and supportive of one another, eager to see what God will do with us as a married couple, as parents, and diciplers. We already see great opportunities to minister to other parents and married couples here. We each continue in our full time language studies and hope to begin transitioning a bit more into ministry by this summer. Not sure what that will look like quite yet, but are continuing to yield to God's leading on that. Our primary mission is simple... to make disciples and help form a church that is self sustaining and duplicatable. Getting there is what is challenging, but we can only rely on God and His purpose to make that happen.
Looking ahead, over the next 5-6 months I will be praying, planning, networking, and strategizing toward a direction that I feel God is leading me in. I don't want to get into any details yet since at this point it is only a vision. But, let's just say it has to do with something that will offer a long term solution to help the Roma come out of poverty. If God is behind it, then I am certain it will come to fruition. As things move along and come together I will share this with you in greater detail. In the meantime, please be praying for discernment and wisdom as I begin moving in this direction.
Finally, we hope 2013 will be a better year than 2012 for many of you. I know of several people who were laid off and are suffering economic hardship... I am confident God will provide. I also know of several who are going through trials of cancer and other illnesses... I pray God will truly heal you. Furthermore, I am grieved by certain events that occurred in my home country last year. Violence and anger has seemingly permeated our land. I hope more lives will be spared both in the womb and outside of the womb. I hope Americans will become more united. And, I hope the church in America will become more involved. There is no greater time than now for the church in America to become more engaged with society. Making change not through legislation or petty politics, but by getting into the trenches of society. Getting their hands and knees dirty, meeting people where they are and effecting their lives in such a way that people truly want to know more about this man of peace we call Jesus.
Today is 12/12/12. Kind of a cool date that we won't see again for another 100 years. Is this a significant day of interest? Well, from God's perspective every day is a significant day. Every day has meaning and purpose. He has designed each day for His will to be done in people's lives as He strengthens those who are in Christ, and seeks to reconcile new relationships with those who know Him not. So yes, today is indeed a significant day. But, with all the mayhem and hoopla over the end-time euphoria and with many looking to the Mayan calendar to signify the end of the world as we know it, what does God's word, the Bible, say specifically about the number 12 and last days?
First, a disclaimer. The Bible is not some magical tome that one can tap into to determine specific dates and times for future events. The Bible does indeed describe events that will occur at the end of times. But, it does not give specific dates and times. In fact, Jesus himself states, "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Matthew 24:36). So, let us dismiss any claim that the Bible sets any date and time for the end of the world to occur. Nor, is there any "reading between the lines" using numerology to determine hidden secrets and mysteries. This is something often practiced by both pagans and gnostics alike, but is not something recommended for Christians to partake of (Deuteronomy 18:10-14, Acts 19:18-20).
So, when we look closer into Scripture, what is the significance of the number 12? And, how does this relate to us today and tomorrow at the end of times?
We know there were twelve tribes of Israel (Genesis 49). Jacob, the grandson of Abraham fathered twelve sons eventually becoming the names of each of the tribes of Israel. Their names are: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Isachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph, and Benjamin. Each of these sons, along with their respective tribes, played a significant role in God's historical plan leading to reconciliation and salvation through Christ. For example, it was from the tribe of Judah that Jesus came. It was Joseph who played a role in what would become the Hebrew's exodus from Egypt. And, it was from the tribe of Levi that the Levitical priesthood was established. All of these events pointing to a future High Priest and Lamb... our King Jesus.There were twelve judges who judged and led Israel spanning a 300-year timeframe. God used these judges and the events that transpired under their reign to rebuke, discipline, and to restore peace with the Israelites. Some of the significant judges include: Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Abimelech, Jephthah, and Samson. The theme played out all throughout the Book of Judges is this: the people are unfaithful to God and he therefore delivers them into the hands of their enemies; the people then repent and entreat God for mercy, which he sends in the form of a judge; the judge delivers the Israelites from oppression, but after a while they fall into unfaithfulness again and the cycle is repeated. This too points us to Jesus, a great Judge who we will all stand before someday, a day where He will judge both the living and the dead (John 5:27, 2 Tiimothy 4:1).
Twelve is the age that Jesus first presents himself to the public. He is found "in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers" (Luke 2:46-47). And, it was also at this age that Jesus refers to God as his Father. His divine sonship, and his obedience to his heavenly Father’s will, take precedence over his ties to his family. (Luke 2:49). This is a significant claim and evidence that Jesus did indeed claim to be the Son of God.
There were also twelve disciples/apostles.
It was through these twelve that Christ taught His grace, truth, and demonstrated His love and mercy available to all people. These twelve would be instrumental in proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ, teaching and making disciples throughout Israel and beyond it's borders to "the ends of the earth". Some of these disciples would go on to author books of the New Testament, and most of these disciples would suffer martyrdom at the hands of those who sought to suppress the spread of the Gospel.
The Book of Revelation says that 12,000 from each of the tribes of Israel (144,000) will be marked with a seal for protection against God's wrath in the last days (Revelation 7:3-8). It will be during this tumultuous time that the earth will be transformed from calamity and evil will be weeded out, eventually leading to a New Jerusalem and a new earth where Christ will someday reign with peace.Speaking of the New Jerusalem, the Bible says the city will be fortified with high walls "with twelve gates where twelve angels were stationed and on which names were inscribed, the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites" (Revelation 21:12). Furthermore, this new and wondrous city will have twelve stones as it's foundation "on which were inscribed the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb"
(Revelation 21: 14). The greatest buildings, castles, structures, monuments, and wonders of both the ancient and modern world pale in comparison to what we will someday see in Christ's kingdom on earth. Until then, in the words of Mercy Me, "I can only imagine".
So, rather than 12/12/12 becoming a date causing great anxiety, concern, and doom-and-gloom. It instead can be a time to cause us to pause for a moment. A moment to allow us to reflect, rejoice and marvel at God's great plan that He has orchestrated for you and me. World events that have transpired and will yet to occur all pointing us to a Savior, a great King, that has saved us and reconciled us to a loving God. I look forward to that day when I bow down in humble adoration before our lovely King Jesus who will sit upon the throne in a New Jerusalem. Not reigning by violence, bloodshed, oppression, and greed. But ruling by His grace, peace, and majesty. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus.
American Christians have for centuries envisioned a Christian utopia in which their society is governed by Christian officials with Christian laws and morality in place. After all, this is what the Puritans from an oppressed Europe envisioned as they made their way toward the New World during the early 17th century. The vehicle through which American Christians both yesterday and today often use to attempt to create and maintain this utopia is not through the church, but through the American political system; to which they also believe was divinely orchestrated by the very hand of a Christian God. Any deviation or opposition to their perceived Christian political or social order is considered evil, ungodly, or even Satanic; often branded with the label of “liberal” which almost always have negative connotations to them. These Christians often resort to exclusion and isolation as the means to distance themselves from others who either oppose or simply think differently from them. This often leads to a form of “us vs. them” tribalism causing strife and division. Sadly, much of this envisioned utopia is driven and powered by fear-based rhetoric and propaganda. They claim that if their society does not submit to or agree with their political and social order, then surely their country will crumble, ultimately falling into the very hands of the Devil himself.
This brand of Christianity comes from the idea that God will establish His kingdom on earth. It will be established through human power and might leading to a form of theocracy in which the Christian God will rule their nation through divinely elected Christian men and women. This is the very same ideology that permeated 1st century Judaism as they waited in eager anticipation for their prophesied Messiah to deliver them from the great oppressor and establish a great Jewish utopia. When Jesus the true Messiah came to Jerusalem not on a majestic steed with pomp and circumstance, but instead on an obscure colt with only a few ragtag disciples trailing behind, the Jews were most assuredly disappointed. Only later did they witness this Jewish King being flogged and ultimately executed upon a Roman instrument of death known as a cross. Little did they know that the Kingdom of God was indeed in their midst. But, the way in which Jesus became King and Lord over all was not by might, power, and politics, but through the sheer love, grace, truth, peace, sacrifice, and service toward others. Not a single sword was raised, nor a single political action signed; His kingdom was ushered in by individuals willing to love and serve others at the expense of sacrificing their own lives just like their King.
How many American Christians today envision their utopia in much the same way in which 1st century Jews did? We Christians seek to establish a Christian kingdom through our elected officials, political action committees, and social protests, turning a blind eye to the King who sits atop a colt in our midst. But, it is only when our society witnesses the true kingdom power of Christ in the form of holistic, incarnational ministry, and evangelism will our society truly be transformed. When we Christians seek to love and serve all people from all walks of life, even those who we may deem our enemy, will the true power of Christ radiate like a beacon of light on a hill capturing the souls of those who need Him most. Until then, the American church has a lot of introspective soul-searching and idol-smashing to do... namely the idolatry of the American political and government system found within the confines of the American church.
Politics and government in of themselves are not evil; in fact they are established by God himself (Romans 13:1). But, when they become the vehicle, or the alternative, for which the Christian church should be otherwise interacting with and engaging our society, then it becomes evil. For then it merely becomes yet another government imposed policy. And, we know lives are not changed by forced policies, but only by the voluntary freedom of the soul. After all, the reason why the American government is so large today, is not because of some liberal socio-political agenda or conspiracy, but because we the church have delegated Jesus' command to "love thy neighbor" to Uncle Sam. It’s time we the church give Uncle Sam the boot and change our society not through the might of Caesar, but through the power-under, servanthood, and humility of Christ. Not through the institutionalized civic religiosity of Constantine, but through the down and dirty, in-the-trenches, relational aspect of kingdom Christianity.
In America, when someone chooses to follow Jesus, not much is at stake in the way of danger or persecution. For this, I have been very fortunate and thankful to live in a country with such religious freedom as this. However, in places like Albania where we currently live, when someone chooses to make this same choice they must also give serious consideration to the cost. They know this is not some spontaneous decision to be made based on some emotional plea or moving speech made by an evangelist. They know they may very well be ostracized and teased by others in their community for their new faith in Jesus. And, in some cases they may be disowned or shunned by their own family members.
Two weeks ago, four young men made a public profession of their belief in Jesus Christ. I peered into the eyes of one of these young men that I have recently been discipling as he thought through what it means to become a Christian. And, for a fleeting moment I believe I sensed some fear and apprehension in him as he truly considered the cost. This week, one other young man has surrendered his life to Christ. Covered in tattoos wearing a mohawk, he comes from the "rougher side of town" where drugs and gangs are the norm. He is proud to be a new resident in the kingdom of God and knows what this may entail as he goes back each day to face his friends. Considering the cost.
One of the young men who has been coming to our Bible study who is not a believer... yet, comes from a Muslim home. He tells me his parents are Muslim and he is having to be careful to come to our gatherings. Considering the cost. Another young man who recently professed a belief in Christ has been proudly displaying his necklace with a cross on it to show everyone that he is a new Christian. Last week, a man approached him and angrily ripped the necklace off of his neck saying he didn't "want to see that shit around here!". Considering the cost. And, one other young man who is also a Muslim has been consistently attending our gatherings for numerous months. He tells us he believes that Jesus existed, is real, but is not certain He is the Son of God. Nevertheless, he is drawn to our gatherings each week to hear more about this man we call Jesus. Considering the cost.
I am laying witness to what I believe is a great move of God here in our little obscure neighborhood in east Tirane. I am humbled by the young men that God has placed into my life; both those who are new believers in Christ, and those who are earnestly seeking the Truth. I have seen with my own eyes the transforming power of God in these men's lives. And, even though I am supposed to be the teacher who is bringing a message of hope to them, they are in fact teaching me many things. Namely, what it means to truly consider the cost to become a disciple of Christ. I firmly believe these young men will someday become the core of what will become a new church in our community, and who will one day be a great light upon this dark neighborhood. A light where people will see the never ending love, grace, and hope found only in Jesus Christ.
* If you think about it, will you please pray for: Rildi, Erjon, Ledio, Indrit, and Ilir. These are the young men that have recently considered the cost and surrendered their lives to Christ. But, please also pray for Sabi and Masarjo who are both Muslim and are being drawn to Christ, but still have questions and are uncertain at this time.
About a month ago, I finished reading a book by one of my favorite Christian authors, Max Lucado. The title of this book is “God Came Near”, arguably his best written and perhaps most popular book. One of the chapters in this book he aptly names “Women of Winter” in which he recollects the biblical stories of several women whose lives were deeply changed by their encounter with Jesus. These were not your ordinary women, certainly not the pillars of their communities. In fact, they were shunned from society, social outcasts, untouchables. There is the Samaritan woman at the well, the woman who had a bleeding problem, and of course the harlot who poured perfume on Jesus’ feet. Three women. One rejected. One dying. One lonely. By the world’s standards these three women could give nothing in return. They’d served their purpose: borne their children, fed their families, pleased their men. Now it was time to push them out into the cold until they died, making room for the young and spotless. That’s where Jesus found them. Shivering in the icy sleet of uselessness. The raw winter of life.
As I was reading this chapter I couldn’t help but think of a particular Roma lady in our neighborhood. Her name is Zana. To most people around here she is a nobody. An outcast. Poor. Too many kids. A beggar. A nuisance. In fact, her own husband has pushed her out of his home along with her seven children. Were these children all from the same father? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I have my doubts. Ironically, Zana also has a disability. She can barely walk with a pronounced limp to her step. And although she is likely not much older than 30 years old, she looks like she is at least 50 with tanned leathered skin and wrinkles spread across her face. Zana can be found in the center of town each day, with a blanket spread out upon the sidewalk as she sits down with her hand held out begging for money. Somehow through all of this hardship she manages a smile on her face each time we see her. She has invited us into her shack of a home and served us coffee while her little children are playing in the trash heap behind her home where flies and feces can be found. She never seems to worry much about what ails her or her family. There seems to be a confidence that carries her each step of the way. I am deeply moved by the tenacity of this little woman.
Society doesn’t know what to do with these women. Sadly, even the Church doesn’t know what to do with them either. These women might find a warmer reception at the corner bar or tavern than in a Sunday school class. But, Jesus would find a place for them. He would find a place for them because He cares. And He cares unconditionally. No one would have blamed Jesus for ignoring the three women. To have turned His head would have been much easier, less controversial, and not nearly as risky. But God, who made them, couldn’t do that. And we, who follow Him, can’t either.
To the woman at the well:
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14)
To the bleeding woman:
Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed at that moment. (Matthew 9:22)
Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (John 12:3)
Roma rummaging through trash heap.
In 2008 I had the opportunity to serve the poorest of poor. There is a people group in Honduras known as, "the people of the dump" who literally live, eat, work, and sleep in the city trash dump. Inside this trash dump there exists disease, human excrement, germs; where people can be found working near mangy dogs, cows, and vultures. The smell is nauseating and the flies are numerous. Many people have called it, "Hell on earth". Here in Albania there exists something similar. Although the Roma don't live in a city trash dump, they live right on the banks of a river that acts as a city trash dump. People from all around come here to eliminate their trash in this small neighborhood that seems hidden from the rest of society. Like Honduras, disease, feces, and germs exist here. Mangy dogs can be seen fighting over half-eaten food. Adults and kids often rummage through this trash seeing what they can round up for themselves. In fact, their houses are made from this same scrap material. I can't imagine waking up everyday to this life. It's no wonder many of the Roma revert to alcohol and drugs... draining out their depression and hopelessness. They often ask, "Where is God in all of this? He's not here." Hell on earth.
Alleyway in Roma neighborhood.
Jesus often spoke about hell throughout the Gospels. We get the English word "hell" from the Greek "Gehenna". And, Gehenna means "Valley of Hinnom" (Nehemiah 11:30). During Jesus' time, this was a literal place existing on the outskirts of the city of Jerusalem. It is believed this place acted as the city trash dump. It was also the place that many pagans sacrificed children to their gods (2 Chronicles 33:6). Here, there was "gnashing of teeth" often associated with dogs fighting for scraps. Fires were used to burn corpses and other waste. Jesus' audience included 1st century Jews, and they knew of this place that He often spoke of. They associated it with a place nobody dare venture into. It was for all intents and purposes... Hell on earth.
Three boys from the Roma neighborhood.
I don't want to get into some theological discussion about hell. There is enough of that already going on. But, what I do want to focus on is the hell that many people are already living here on earth right now. It's hard to imagine places like this actually exist. Especially during this 21st-century we live in, with the numerous technological advances and modern comforts we have. We have the ability to tap into resources we've never had before. We have the ability to end poverty, hunger, and disease. And although there are a great many organizations and ministries already doing this, there is not enough. Nearly 2,000 years ago Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God more than any other topic. And, I believe Jesus equipped us with the ability to bring the kingdom of God to people who are living in hell on earth... now. He charged us with caring for "the least of these". As I gaze upon the Roma neighborhood and see a lone naked child rummaging through the trash, I am overwhelmed with raw emotion. I ask myself "Why?!". Why, does this dear child deserve this? I don't have an answer. But, I know that the only way this child will be helped is by God calling out more people from the comforts of their own lives and bringing them here to work. Bringing the kingdom of God to these people. Letting the light of Jesus Christ pierce the darkness they now live in.
Roma hous made of scrap material.
Please, will you prayerfully consider joining in this work? Consider this a plea. We don't need money... yet. We need people. We need you. We need people who believe in the words of Christ to care for the poor, the widow, and orphans. The message of love, grace, and compassion. The message of hope that cannot be found in programs, organizations, or strategies, but only in Jesus Christ. We need people willing to jump into the trenches, get their hands dirty, and help lift up the very people that Jesus is drawn to. Mother Theresa once said, "First we meditate on Jesus, and then we go out and look for him in disguise amongst the poor." We see Jesus everyday in the Roma begging in the streets of Tirane. We see Jesus in the naked Roma boy digging through the trash heap. We see Jesus in the drunk Roma man wallowing in his sorrows on the side of the alley. And, we see Jesus in the helpless Roma woman who is beaten by her husband. Will you join us? Will you come see Jesus with us?
"The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."