Angry. Sad. Grateful. Compassion.
These are some of the emotions and feelings expressed by many of the precious little children that watched our video about the Roma at this week's VBS.
Hundreds of children came through our classroom this week to see and hear about our work among the Roma in Albania. They learned about what a missionary does, who the Roma are, where Albania is, and how they could help... in a tangible way.
One child said that when he grows up he is coming to Albania to start a new school. Another said that he wants to bring cars to Albania so that the Roma can get around town. One girl said that she is going to bring new homes to Albania. And, another boy said that he is going to stop complaining when his parents ask him to do chores. Yet another girl said she doesn't want any more toys because the Roma kids don't have any.
From the mouths of babes.
The name of our project at this week's VBS was Hapa Dollapa. Albanian for open the closet. A kid's game in Albania much like hide n' seek. But, this was also the name that we chose for a pantry that we are establishing for our tiny Roma community we work in. A closet that will contain food, medicine, diapers, clothes, blankets, wood for heating, and other basic necessities that the Roma lack but need on a daily basis.
For many of the children at VBS, it was the first time they saw poverty. And, it spurred them to action. Over $4000 was raised this week. I was told that many children simply brought in their allowance with pockets full of loose change. One boy said that all he had was a quarter. And one girl joyfully proclaimed she brought $10 million dollars!
No matter how much or how little was brought in by each child, it was seeing their hearts and the joy on their faces that was humbling to see.
Jesus had a special liking to children. And, it is obvious why. He said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3)
So, thank you for allowing us to see a little glimpse of the kingdom of heaven this week... through the precious mouths of babes.
Here in Albania, it is quite common for households to own and raise chickens and roosters, among several other farm animals like goats, sheep, and cows. We ourselves live between two houses with these animals. Often throughout the day, we hear goats bleating, cows mooing, and... roosters crowing. Aside from being awakened by the loud call of the rooster each day, it recently prodded me to reflect upon something a bit more profound.
He is perhaps one of the greatest and most well known disciple of Jesus. Known to be zealous, strong, present at Pentecost, taking the Gospel throughout Jerusalem, the Roman Empire, and becoming the leader of the first church in Rome. A man on fire, in love with Jesus, bold, a protector of the Messiah, and eager to see the Good News of Jesus transcend upon the known world of his time. He was so moved and made alive by Jesus that tradition states when he was later executed at the hands of Roman persecutors, he refused to die like his savior and insisted that he be crucified upside down on the cross.
Peter. The rock. The very man that Jesus told he would build his church upon and that the gates of Hades would not prevail (Matt. 16:18).
But sadly, he is also more known for something else. A bit more dark. Sinister. Less heroic. Weak. Lacking in integrity. And human.
It all centers around a rooster's crow. We all know the story. Here is the text:
"Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said.
But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
Then he went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.”
He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!”
After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.”
Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!”
Immediately a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.
This is the same man and only disciple to publicly declare Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God (Matt. 16:16). The same man who told Jesus that he loves him, not once, not twice, but three times (John 21:15-17). And yet, Peter denied Jesus just as many times as he said that he loved him.
What a coincidental paradox.
Peter said he loves Jesus three times. Peter denies Jesus three times. And, Peter realizes this after the rooster crows... three times.
And, still Jesus forgives Peter, loves Peter, and even laid his life down for him. The incomprehensible and unfathomable grace and love of God.
Here is something worth pondering...
Peter went on to live another thirty years after Jesus. Much of this later part of his life is described in the Book of Acts, as an early leader and planter of churches in Jerusalem, and beyond the borders of Israel into Rome.
How often do you suppose he heard a rooster crow during these later years of his life?
While passing through the streets and markets of Jerusalem. While on the road to Rome. While napping on the seashore of the Mediterranean. While trekking through the hills of northern Italy. While laying in wait in an obscure jail cell in Jerusalem. Being awakened at the early dawn sunrise of a Tuscan sun.
A rooster crows. His eyes open. He turns his ear. What did he hear? What was that? A rooster crowing off in the distance.
What goes through the mind of a man who once denied the Savior of the world three times?
Or, did Peter feel something else? Something more freeing and liberating.
A reminder of grace.
How often do we hear our own roosters crowing from a former time in our life and are reminded of something we would rather forget?
The hardened heart.
The angry spirit.
The taunting of a classmate.
The feelings of revenge.
The adulterous affairs.
The ugly divorce.
The embellishment of our achievements.
The failure of significant relationships.
The destructive lifestyle.
The false hopes.
The obsession of high achievement.
The betrayal of a friend.
When you hear your own rooster crowing how do you feel? What feelings do they invoke? How do you respond?
It is my own opinion that Peter's life was a reflection of how he felt about the rooster's crow. He was truly a man in love with Jesus. A man that experienced an unconditional love like no other, forgiveness, and a joy that transformed his entire being. And, these, I believe spoke much louder to him than the mere crow of a rooster.
I don't think there is nothing wrong of being occasionally reminded of our past. Because it gives us a wonderful reminder of where we once came from... and where we are now... and only by the grace of a loving God.
So, the next time you hear your own rooster crowing. Stop. Smile. And, give thanks and glory to God for delivering you from a dark time in your life to a life of light into God's extraordinary Kingdom.
There is a passage in the Bible that REALLY scares me.
For years it has raised a bit of fear and worry from within. The text is haunting and I know many of my friends who say the same thing. It has been the subject of great debate, theological equations, and has questioned if whether or not we are truly "once saved and always saved".
But, most recently I had a revelation of sorts that has dispelled these fears and conundrums. Call it an epiphany. Intuition. Or insight from the Holy Spirit. But, whatever it is, it has since affirmed what I should have already known about God.
Here is the spooky passage in question:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
For years I thought to myself, there is no assurance, no matter what I say, do, or how I live my life that I will enter into the kingdom of heaven. That I can be professing with my mouth, proclaiming Christ to the ends of the earth, making disciples, planting churches, serving the least of these, caring for the sick, the poor, the destitute and still not make it through the pearly gates of Heaven when the time comes. I can spend hours praying, reading my Bible, memorizing verses, going to seminary, and preaching dynamic sermons, and still be turned away. I can be a Billy Graham or a Mother Theresa and still not be recognized by my Savior. Ouch! That hurts.
What then can we ever say or do that will appease the Judge?
The first part of this passage tells us that there will be people, assuming most will be Christian, coming before King Jesus informing Him that they have proclaimed His name, given lip-service, and perhaps said some really cool things about Jesus. The second part of this passage describes a people coming before King Jesus pleading their case about how much they have done for His kingdom: prophesying, driving out demons, healing... and who knows what else. Perhaps these same Christians with good intentions have studied their Bibles, know their theology, helped rebuild homes for the poor, given a hot meal to the needy, volunteered at the orphanage, and given thousands of dollars to charity.
Super Christians with a capital "S" embroidered upon their chests.
Surely, these Christians who have proclaimed the name of Christ and have done many great things in His name will be counted among those with whom Christ will say, "Well done thy good and faithful servants". Surely, many crowns will be awaiting to be placed upon their heads while a great multitude of angels sing Handel's Hallelujah Chorus. A glorious day that many believers look forward to.
A day when Jesus says to them:
"Away from me, you evildoers!"
((sound of a record scratching))
Wrong line. Can you say that again, please?
"Away from me, you evildoers!"
Wait a minute.
You mean to tell me that we can say and do many things in the name of Jesus and still not be guaranteed eternal life in the kingdom of heaven? There's got to be something we're missing here.
There is a small snippet from this passage that we often overlook and pass off as a smug remark from Jesus. It's subtle. Easily overlooked. Read into something else. But, it is KEY. It is the ANSWER. It is this:
"I never knew you."
Let those words sink in. Read it very slowly.
I... NEVER... KNEW... YOU.
I'm reminded of the father who goes off to work everyday at 5am every morning and doesn't come home until after dark. He's a hard worker and has climbed up the corporate ladder. Making a six-digit figure income. He provides for his family. Always food on the table. They have a nice house with a pool. Two cars. The kids have all the latest and cool toys. He serves at church and plays a mean round of golf.
But, his wife and kids don't know him. They don't see him. He's aloof. Too busy. Catching up on work over the weekends. Playing golf with his buddies on Saturdays. Serving at the church on Sundays. Emotionally distant. Doesn't know that his son aced his spelling test on Tuesday or that his daughter scored a goal at the soccer game on Saturday. Unaware that his wife cries each day in the bathroom with the door closed because she is alone. Or, that his kids simply long for his warm embrace complete with the scruffy whiskers and scent of his cologne.
I... NEVER... KNEW... YOU.
Likewise, we can be great sayers and doers of Jesus and still not know Him. Jesus wants to know you. He doesn't want to know how many souls you are saving or how many Scripture verses you are memorizing. He wants to know you. He doesn't care that you wrote the most beautiful hymn or penned the most poetic prose. He wants to know you. If Jesus could only take one thing with Him, it wouldn't be the Bible, a cathedral, or church building, Calvin's Institutes, or Matthew Henry's Commentary Series. It would be YOU. He wants to know YOU more than anything else.
So, the question for you is...
Do YOU know Him?
I mean REALLY know Him. Not the gospel story. Not that He was born in Bethlehem. Or, that he fed 5,000 people. Or, what He said in Matthew 24. Or, the precise understanding of His crucifixion. But, do you REALLY know Him? Do you know Him in a way that is different from the way you know your spouse, your best friend, or sibling? In many ways its indescribable. But I know it involves this: unconditional love, complete trust, and unwavering faith.
Do YOU know Him?
Do you know Him in such a way that at any given moment of the day, you can knock on His door and share anything with Him, the good, the bad, and the ugly? After all, He does have an open-door policy. Do you know Him in such a way that you actually long to be in His presence the moment you awake, and then walk with Him every moment of your day? Being with Him not just during your morning devotional or prayer time. But, when you are sitting on the toilet, taking a shower, doing chores, walking through the store, laying down, hiking a nature trail, playing checkers, or making love to your wife. After all, God can be found in the beauty and joys of life. But, He can also be found in the mundane and ordinary.
Do YOU know Him?
Knowing Him involves placing your past, your hurts, your wounds, your scars, your weaknesses, your anger, your despair, your expectations, your bitterness, your control at the foot of the cross and saying, "I am yours". He says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest". The abuse you endured as a kid, the taunting from bullies, the secret sin that nobody knows about, your prejudices, the broken relationships, the physical and emotional pain, your regrets, your deepest fears, even your doubts about Him... go ahead... place it at the cross. Then, let Jesus speak into your life. After all, He is the lover of your soul. Praise Him when you are awake and allow your soul to praise Him while you are asleep. Glorify Him. And, like a child proud of his Daddy, show Him off to others... through His creation, your words and actions, and your love to others.
Do YOU know Him?
To know Him involves participating in His life and His kingdom. To experience in His suffering, the mocking of others, feeling different, being rejected by your family and friends. Experiencing His pain, His death, His burial, and resurrection. Dying to yourself, being reborn, becoming more like Him. Living vicariously through Him with reckless abandon. Feeling, experiencing, and knowing the power, life, and love of Jesus. The Apostle Paul said it best:
"I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead."
But, more than anything else remember this: Jesus wants to know you. But, do you know Him?
I remember growing up as a kid, living in an affluent neighborhood in suburban America, and all the innocent fun I had. My friends and I lived precariously through one another, freely roaming the streets of our neighborhood on our bikes and skateboards. We would play outside all day; football, basketball, soccer, hunting, fishing, Hot Wheels, Star Wars action figures, you name it. Often times our parents allowed us to stay out way past dark during the hot summer Texas nights. This is when the fun really got good where we played hide n' seek and my favorite... German Spotlight. This was a time when America was a bit different from what it is today... or so it seemed. A time when people left their doors unlocked, sitting outside drinking iced tea, kids weren't getting kidnapped, and sexual predators didn't lurk around every corner. Perhaps it was my youthful innocence that blinded me to some of these things, but life was fun and there was absolutely no danger.
However, there were always a few neighborhoods in our part of town where my parents rightfully told us to never go into. These neighborhoods often were found on the outskirts of our community and were usually comprised of lower working class people. Most of these neighborhoods consisted of minorities such as Hispanics and African-Americans. It was usually in these neighborhoods where crime seemed higher, including news reports of murder, kidnapping, gang activity, and drugs. Many of these types of neighborhoods still exist throughout America today. And, ever since my childhood I have always been afraid to venture into them, avoiding them at all costs. Even as an adult I recall finding myself lost a time or two in these types of neighborhoods; both in south Dallas and Northeast Houston and remembering my heart palpitating a bit faster as I tried to quickly navigate my way out of them. I still avoid these neighborhoods even as a 45-year old grown man. I have great fear of these neighborhoods. And, if I am real honest with myself I likely fear the people that live there too.
Now imagine these same types of neighborhoods in Albania. Places where as a white Albanian your parents always told you to never go into. Like America, most of these places are comprised of the lower working class, namely "black people". These black people in Albania are better known as Roma or gypsies. It is in these neighborhoods where your parents told you there is murder, violence, drugs, gangs, and kidnappings. One white Albanian once shared with us that his parents told him it is in these neighborhoods where you will get kidnapped, beheaded, and all of your belongings will be sold as merchandise. Even as missionaries to the Roma, living in one of these Roma neighborhoods, on several occasions we were admonished by white Albanians that we shouldn't live here. It's way too dangerous and we could get killed. The same fears that I had both as a kid and adult in America exists among many white Albanians here in... well... Albania.
The main reason why I am sharing all of this is that I have been greatly inspired in many ways by several white Albanian men and women who have been put into my life. They have demonstrated to me what it looks like to overcome fears and prejudices. Over the course of several years, these two men have joined us in ministry to the Roma. They have ventured out of their comfort zones and are serving in these "dangerous" neighborhoods. It's a big deal to see a white Albanian to not only go into a Roma neighborhood/community, but to converse with, make peace with, and show love to the Roma. And, it is I believe, a sign of a transformed life by way of the power of the Holy Spirit that now resides in these great men and women of faith.
I am firstly inspired by my good friend and brother in Christ, Anri. He has been an integral part of our ministry to the Roma. He and his wife Dori lived in our home located in the heart of a Roma community while we were away for two months. Not only did they live in our home, but while we were gone they made many new friends with the Roma, helping to lead several of them into a new found faith in Christ. Anri and Dori have also ventured into other Roma communities much poorer than where we lived, developing new relationships, and showing and sharing the love of Christ to them. Anri and Dori have even prodded their church into becoming more active in their faith in reaching the "least of these". Many of the Roma that have encountered Christ through Anri have a great respect for him. And, this is powerful. There has been no greater example of the love and power of Christ that I have seen thus far here in Albania than what I have seen through both Anri and Dori.
I am also greatly inspired by another Albanian believer that I have come to know in recent months. His name is Genis, and he pastors a small church here in the heart of Tirana. His church was one of several that we met with in raising awareness about the Roma. Over much prayer and consideration, Genis and his church agreed to adopt a large Roma community in south Tirana. A small group of believers from this church were eager to begin serving their newly adopted Roma community. For whatever reason this group hasn't transpired yet. But, this hasn't deterred Genis from pursuing the Roma community that he has committed to. Not only is he shepherding and leading his church, which is a large task in of itself, but he alone is taking the time to go out to his adopted Roma community each week, meeting with new families, drinking coffee with them, and finding ways to reach out to them with the love and grace of Jesus Christ. I have enjoyed watching this young man be guided by the Holy Spirit, overcoming his own fears, and seeing the new relationships that have already begun to form.
Too often we missionaries from the West come to foreign lands assuming we have all the answers, dispensing all the knowledge we have obtained to those less "enlightened" than us. Oh, how wrong can we be. We have a lot to learn from them. Not only from the very people we are reaching and serving. But, from those who are a part of the Body of Christ comprised of men and women from every tongue and nation. I have learned a great deal from Anri and Genis, my Albanian brothers in Christ. Seeing their love in action and seeing their own fears be demolished. I don't know that I will ever find myself thrust into those off limit neighborhoods back in America. Perhaps I will someday. But, if I do I will have two men that will always remain in my memory... Anri and Genis. And, I will know, because of their examples, that it is indeed possible to overcome both our fears and our prejudices, allowing others to see the love of Christ more clearly.
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.
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 it is up to the true followers of Jesus to pre-establish His kingdom upon the earth. This is accomplished through human might and power 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.
Works. We are not saved by them. We are saved only through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). But, the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament are replete with examples and commands to love and serve others through our deeds and actions. It is not enough to only have faith in Christ to be a Christian in the truest sense. To be a Christian, we must have faith in Jesus Christ, yes. But, there should be something tangible to show for this. This outward showing of our faith is what the Bible often refers to as “fruit” (Matthew 7, John 15). And, this fruit is most demonstrated in the way we interact with the world and those around us.
The way I see it, as especially evident throughout the Gospels, is that there are two ways that we can be a great example of sharing and showing the love, the grace, and the truth of Jesus Christ. It is through both word and deed. And, there is no better example to look to than Jesus himself.
Almost always, Jesus showed His love to others by having compassion upon them. He healed the blind, the deaf, the lame, lepers, and paralytic. He dined with sinners and saved adulterers. He had compassion upon a bleeding woman, and wept with Mary and Martha. He brought back to life a young man named Lazarus. And, He healed a little girl with a high fever. He fed thousands of people with bread and fish, and cast demons out of many who were possessed. He looked to a widow for a lesson on faith. He loved those who were outcasts from society, including a Samaritan woman at the well and a prostitute who poured perfume on His feet. And, even while Jesus was dying He showed mercy for a criminal who was being crucified on a cross. This not to mention the greatest act of love the world has ever known… Jesus offering himself as a sacrifice for all of mankind in order that we may be forgiven, saved, and reconciled to God. He did all of these things through His deeds and actions.
Not only did Jesus show these acts and deeds of love by example, but He also shared with His disciples a story expressing the urgency and necessity for us to serve and love others.
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'” (Matthew 25:35-40)
Another way in which we serve and love others is through word. Or, simply put, telling others about the Good News of Jesus Christ. We tell them about Jesus not out of obligation, but because we genuinely care enough about them to tell them about Jesus and why He came and died for us. To tell them that there is indeed hope, there is more than what this world has to offer, that there is an abundant life much greater than this. And, it is found in a life surrendered to Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ last words before ascending to Heaven to be with the Father were these:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:17-20)
We make disciples of people by sharing our faith, telling them about Jesus, and teaching them the importance of living in obedience to Christ. Yes, Jesus showed love to people by acts of kindness and compassion. But, He also proclaimed truth. Sometimes with such great passion that people were awestruck. So too, we should be eager to tell others about Christ.
So, what do we do with all of this? Do we quit our jobs, sell our homes, give everything away, say goodbye to our friends and family, and move to Africa to become a missionary? Well, quite frankly, for some of you that may be YES. We must all remain open to how God will lead us to be a salt and light to this world. If that means giving up everything here, to go over there, in order that they may see and hear about Jesus, then so be it. We are ALL called to serve others and tell them about Jesus. There is no thinking about it or waiting for a special calling from God. He has already called all of us. Nor, is missionary work reserved for those “special holy” people. It’s for everyone.
For some of you life changing service may simply mean to be much more involved at your church. It may mean that you devote more time to serve your community. It may mean that it’s time to share your faith with that coworker that sits in the cubicle right next to you at the office. For others, it may mean to prayerfully consider going on a short term mission’s trip to Mexico next summer. For others, it may mean to adopt a child from Compassion International or get involved in Big Brothers/Big Sisters. For some of you it may mean showing a random act of kindness by raking your neighbor’s leaves or volunteering at a local nursing home. Maybe it’s time to be involved in a prison ministry or soup kitchen to feed the homeless. Maybe you adopt an orphan from Romania or get involved with a social justice project rescuing little girls from sex trafficking in Cambodia. Maybe you take up the cause of the unborn by counseling pregnant women who are considering abortion. Maybe you consider getting involved with Meals on Wheels and deliver food twice a week to those who are confined to their homes. Perhaps you volunteer at a Children’s Hospital or help out at the Special Olympics each year.
And, last but not least, maybe it’s time… time to prayerfully consider moving to another country where people have never heard the Good News of Jesus Christ. Hard places like China, Indonesia, or Pakistan, where MILLIONS of people have never heard the name of Jesus. I adjure you to consider these things and ask God not when, but where He wants you to serve now.