Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A miracle of grace

I've experienced God's grace in numerous amazing ways in my life. Tomorrow, my  husband and I celebrate an extended season of grace beyond anything we could ask or deserve.

On November 20, 1994 my husband and I said "I do" in a little church in Fort Smith that we "borrowed" because at the time we were unchurched. I can't even begin to tell you how much grace has been poured out on our lives. Even before I began walking with the Lord, I saw His hand on our marriage.

For over 7300 days of my life, I have woken up next to a man [ok, technically most days I've woken up after him by a couple of hours, but still ... ] ... next to a man whom I have never doubted, for a single moment, loves me deeply and would willingly "take a bullet" (his words) for me.  Even more significant, he does lay down his life for me in countless demonstrations of sacrificial love all the time.

For over 7300 days of my life, I have heard "I love you." More days than not, I've also heard, "You're beautiful."  

For over 7300 days of my life, I've experienced extended grace, and I am oh so grateful.

As a married couple we have experienced grace together for 20 years now. On paper, we shouldn't have made it. We both made mistakes and came to our marriage broken individuals. But over the last 20 years I have learned that grace flows best when it has some nooks and crannies to seep into ... when there are cracks to seal and chipped edges to mend. I'm not perfect, he's not perfect. But we're perfect for each other. And I am inordinately grateful for the partner God has given me. Our marriage, like any, is unique to us. It might look kooky to the outside, but it works. And the main reason is simply ... grace. Unmerited favor. We got it wrong before we got it right, and we still mess up. But we've learned that God's grace is bigger than that and we've learned to let that grace flow to each other. And for that, I am incredibly grateful.

20 years in, we could tell you some things about making a marriage work. Tidbits like carving out date time, being kind to each other, being open and honest, making decisions together, trusting each other's strong points -- all are true and important. But none would get anywhere without the grace of God - and without us extending that grace to each other.

Because of grace, we can love beyond our human ability. We can enter into 1 Corinthians 13 love that is not about emotion or response but about actively seeking each others' good. Because of grace we can choose to forgive. Because of grace we can serve God together and focus on a purpose beyond ourselves. Marriage can have meaning and significance beyond our happiness.

But in God's grace, He has also given us SO much joy. He has given us the emotions that go with love and marriage that is not only significant, but fun!

I do love the husband God has given me. I love that he happily prepares breakfast every morning and gets truly excited when I ask him to fix  "Bob-let" (a special cheesy omelet that takes extra time). I love that he seems to spontaneously know the practical outworking of Scripture while I hash it out with my word study books. I love that his gift of faith overflows to every aspect of life. I love that after 20 years of marriage he still thinks of me as his princess. I love that every. single. day. of our marriage I have felt loved and treasured. I love knowing that he will always be the one to check out the weird noises and that he reminds me constantly to be more security conscious.

I love that as much as he treasures and protects me, he doesn't have me in a "doll house". Just as much as he takes care of me, he also respects and supports my dreams and interests. In fact, he encourages me to pursue things beyond what I would even consider knowing that God has bigger things for me than I would envision for myself ... because I am not a risk-taker and have trouble dreaming big!

I love that he enjoys hearing my many opinions on just about everything, that as much as he teases me about being opinionated he wouldn't have it any other way. I love that he makes sure the newspaper is on the table at breakfast and asks me to tell him things from it. I love that he looks forward to the "Bob list" I keep throughout the day and is disappointed when the busy-ness of life keeps me from jotting things down to share later.

I love that he enjoys hearing the details of my work day and sharing the details of his. I love our traditions and our reading together and our constant interaction in each other's lives. I love that he gets excited to talk to his kids and grandkids and sends me emails with multiple exclamation points about the conversations. I love watching him call around and tell grandkid stories after every visit. I love his pride in the technical skills of his youngest daughter, the servant's heart his son has, and the multitasking talents of his oldest, including her ability to bend people in two at their request (aka personal training).

I love that he never lets "conventional wisdom" hold him back and that he started training for marathons at age 62. I love the look he gets on his face when he talks to someone about Jesus and when he is fundraising for St. Jude. I love his prayers for divine appointments and his unbelievable gift of faith.

I love that he always has my best interests at heart. I love that he had as much fun on our "Little House" vacation this summer as I did. I love that he drove most of the trip and I got to enjoy watching the prairie out the window.

Most of all, I love that this man gets up every morning to spend time with God before he spends time with me. That spiritual leadership has helped me in so many ways.

Our marriage is still a miracle of grace, and I treasure every second.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Job, Assisted Suicide, and Words Meant For the Wind

"Do you intend to reprove my words, 
when the words of one in despair belong to the wind?" 
(Job 6:26 NASB)

Sometimes, out of deep suffering, people say things they don't mean. Job - the poster child for righteous suffering - was no exception. Among the words he uttered out of his pain were these tragic pleas:

"Let the day perish on which I was to be born, and the night which said, 'A boy is conceived.' 
Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?" 
(Job 3:3, 11 NASB)

"Why is light given to him who suffers, and life to the bitter of soul, 
Who long for death, but there is none, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures," 
(Job 3:20-21 NASB)

In the darkness of his pain and suffering, Job wishes that he'd never been born and longs for death, even thinking it wrong that he has to go on living. In ways I cannot grasp, Job could relate to those whose suffering leads them to ask for the pain to end, for the blessed relief of death. He knew what it meant to lose the will to live. 

And yet he lived on, honestly working through his struggling and pain, remaining blameless before God. That's why Job's words in Job 6:26 are so instructive about how we react to the words of those in deep suffering. Job says these sorts of words "belong to the wind". In other words, they should just be carried away like the wind carries away debris. 

In an exceptional blog post on this verse, John Piper explains:
There are words with roots in deep error and deep evil. But not all grey words get their color from a black heart. Some are colored mainly by the pain, the despair. What you hear is not the deepest thing within. There is something real within where they come from. But it is temporary—like a passing infection—real, painful, but not the true person.
What Piper writes of individuals who lash out at us out of pain is also true of those whose words of despair take them in the direction of assisted suicide. Sure, some might truly want to die. Others might be speaking out of the pain and suffering, or out of a desire to not "be a burden".

That's why the church (and our society) should strongly oppose assisted suicide. Will there always be people whose pain makes them want to end their own lives? Of course. We cannot always stop that -- but we should not step in and make it easier, either. When we take it upon ourselves to determine the genuineness of someone's professed wish to die, we step into the realm of the spiritual. We take a great risk at saying that we know "the deepest thing within". We put ourselves in God's place.

It's important to remember that when God finally speaks into Job's situation (started in Chapter 38), He affirms what Job has said about God -- but still reveals to Job areas where he was speaking out of turn. When Job responds, he repents:

Then Job answered the LORD and said, "I know that You can do all things, And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. 'Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?' 
Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 'Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask You, and You instruct me.' I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; But now my eye sees You; Therefore I retract, And I repent in dust and ashes." 
(Job 42:1-6 NASB)

We know from Job 42:7 that Job spoke rightly about God - so he is not repenting of anything false against God, like his friends would have to do. Instead, Job repents of talking about things he couldn't understand. Things like the meaninglessness of his suffering. Things like how it would be better to die.

Job never knew why he suffered. We see the spiritual battle behind the scenes in Job 1-2, but there is no indication that Job knew about that. Much is made of Job's restored fortunes, but the real victory for Job came not in understanding his suffering or in being restored. Instead, the real victory came in growing to know God more personally - not just hearing, but seeing. Job uttered words that were meant for the wind -- but on the other side of his pain, he found a deeper relationship with God. As people of God, we should weep with those whose pain makes them weep, and then walk alongside them into a deeper understanding of their Creator. What we should never do is promote actions based on words meant for the wind.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Death with Dignity

If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
- 1 Corinthians 15:19-26 (ESV)

Death is an enemy.

Before we can grasp the joys of heaven and the promise of eternal life, we have to see death for the enemy that it is. We were not created to die. As I wrote in my last post, death, destruction, pain, and toil are aberrations from the good, perfect, life-filled world that God created - aberrations caused by sin.

In our heart of hearts we know this to be true. We feel the tearing away when we lose a loved one. We mourn when we someone "too young to die" loses a life. Even our biological "fight or flight" mechanism hard-wires us to run from death and toward life.

Yes, Jesus has defeated death - but let's not forget that death is not "normal". Phrases like "circle of life" and "death as a part of life" may comfort, but apart from the hope of the resurrection in Christ, they are deceptive and meaningless. We pass from life to life only by holding Jesus' hand.

What breaks my heart the most about the decision of a young woman with cancer to publically advocate for the right of people to "die with dignity" - and then yesterday, to move forward with that decision and choose death - is that the story of this young, beautiful face for the "right-to-die" proponents just edged the culture of death in this country further off the cliff. I don't pretend to know how bad her symptoms were or how much suffering she was enduring. I leave to others who are choosing to walk through pain until a natural end of life to discuss the issue of suffering.

What I know is that "death with dignity" is not defined as "choosing when and where I die". That's not a choice we get to make. We were created for life, and until the day God, who breathes life into our bodies, determines that we've breathed our last, we should walk in the direction of life. That doesn't mean we choose every treatment, but at the very least it means we don't hasten the process. "Death with dignity" means we don't fear death because we  are holding Jesus' hand walking through those final days.

I've witnessed death with dignity up close. My mother-in-law went to be with the Lord 7 1/2 years ago. My husband and I were blessed to be in the room with her. After all the measures to bring healing to her body failed, it became clear that her time to go was near. My husband and I stayed in her room for the final hour and a half, talking, telling stories, and singing praise songs. Lucid until the end, she fixed her eyes on us and transitioned from worshipping in this life, to worshipping in the next. Peace filled the room - peace that was a witness to the nurse outside the door. She lived a ministry to her very last moment on earth.

Don't be fooled by the deceptively beautiful language surrounding assisted suicide. Death is still an enemy, no matter how we dress it up. Assisted suicide is a dangerous proposition as some European countries are learning. Death with dignity isn't about choices. It's about relationship.

Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through His death He might destroy the one holding the power of death — that is, the Devil —
- Hebrews 2:14 (HCSB)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Oh Glorious Day

"As Augustine said, evil is negation; love and beauty are the realities."

This sentence from this article has rung through my head all night. I think about the onslaught of efforts to be "real"; the "gritty realism" and "authenticity" movements that seem at times to glorify sin and elevate evil to a place of dubious honor. In this sentence, I feel my brain was set aright once again. I remember that Paul wrote "Now we see through a glass darkly". Among the many things that means, I now understand that one aspect of the darkened glass is that we think the dark things of this world are the normal ones. They are not. They are the aberration.

Back to Genesis: "And God saw that it was good." Everything was created good. Humanity, in God's image, was created "very good".

After the fall: Death. Destruction. Pain. Toil. All aberrations. All negation.

"And they all lived happily ever after." There is a reason our souls long for stories that end this way. Because deep down, we know that's the way it's supposed to be.

Looking through the glass darkly, we catch glimpses of the way things were meant to be all along, and will one day again be in the new heavens and new earth. I don't want to fall prey to the lies that glorify the negation. May my heart be drawn, as Paul also wrote, to dwell on "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think on these things" (Philippians 4:8).

Darkness is not dark to Him, because He is light. Darkness does not overcome the light. Light. Always. Wins.

Oh Glorious Day.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Reflections on a journey: Laura Ingalls Wilder, South Dakota, William Wilberforce, and Rich Mullins

We just returned from a vacation – only our second in almost 20 years of marriage. My husband and I are Little House aficionados, and we have long dreamed of a “Little House” vacation where we would see the various museums around the country. Four years ago, as a graduation present when I completed my master’s program, we went on our first vacation – a quick trip to nearby Mansfield, Missouri, where we spent a couple of days immersed in Laura & Almanzo’s life in the Ozarks, where she wrote the books and lived 64 years of her adult life. 

On our 19th anniversary last November, we made the decision to plan a trip for our 20th. We didn’t know how much God would provide for, so we researched and planned and ultimately settled on De Smet, South Dakota, where five of Laura’s books are set and where she met and married her husband Almanzo. De Smet was a pioneer town, so we knew there would be a lot of history about our country’s westward expansion, as well as all the ‘Laura stuff’.  We excitedly booked our trip and looked forward to it for months – talking about it daily for the past few weeks as we re-read the Little House series in preparation.

I thoroughly expected to love the Laura stuff. What I didn’t expect God to teach me so much that goes far beyond a connection to our country’s formative Westward Expansion years.
-         I didn’t expect to see so many life lessons while on vacation, to have my mindset transformed about things like agriculture and political primaries and simplicity and so much more.
-         I didn’t expect to find my heart expanded to love another place so much.
-         I didn’t expect to leave with such a sense of awe and worship as I said farewell to a part of God’s creation I’d never seen before.

I certainly didn't expect to leave infused with such hope.

The people of De Smet are probably the most unpretentious, down-to-earth people I’ve met. Talk about “salt of the earth” – they are living on the Dakota prairies. De Smet unashamedly embraces and celebrates its past, while continuing to quietly impact the present through farming and other ventures. There is a simplicity and patience to farm life – from all we could see people generally don’t do anything they can’t really afford, and repairs/upgrades are done as money is available. No fancy cars, no fancy stores, and we didn’t see a large ornate church in the place – just people who work hard and wait when waiting is needed. Truly, the heartland.

I quickly fell in love with what I called the undulating prairie – it’s hard to describe, but as the wind blows the grasses or crops, the prairie looks like it is waving, almost like the waves of the sea. It is beautiful and incredible to behold and I watched it for hours out the window of the car.

During the trip, I continued reading Amazing Grace by Eric Metaxas - the story of William Wilberforce and the abolition of the slave trade in England. I read about the incredible circumstances that only God could orchestrate to connect individuals who actually considered slavery wrong and wanted to do something about it – connecting them with each other, and bringing about events that no human could imagine.

As we headed home, we popped in Rich Mullins "Songs" and soon came to “Calling Out Your Name.” I watched the prairies waving, “calling out His name” as only God’s creation can do. And suddenly, a line I’d just sung past before jumped out at me:

From the place where morning gathers
You can look sometimes forever 'til you see
What time may never know
What time may never know
How the Lord takes by its corners this old world
And shakes us forward and shakes us free
To run wild with the hope

To run wild with the hope
The hope that this thirst will not last long
That it will soon drown in the song not sung in vain

I thought of Wilberforce and William Grenville and Hannah More and Granville Sharp and John Newton and John Wesley all the rest – people God used, in one way or another, to transform the world. For not only slavery was affected. This was one of the hingepins of history, where God truly did “shake us forward, shake us free”  - not only from slavery but from the culturally acceptable religious hypocrisy that allowed it and so much more to flourish. 

As I listened to Rich sing, and watched the prairie grasses calling out God’s name, and thought of Wilberforce, and remembered the faces and people we met alone our journey to the heartland  – I felt hope rising within me.  Hope that some of the struggles our world faces now will one day be historical footnotes to a great story that God is writing. 

In Luke 8:26-39, Jesus heals a demon-possessed man.  The man’s transformation evokes a strange reaction in the people of his village: 

Luke 8:37 NIV Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left.

Fear. Imagine that. Someone who was demon-possessed, kept in solitary confinement and guarded, is suddenly in his right mind – and everyone was so afraid they asked Jesus to leave. (The loss of their livelihood when the pigs ran off the cliff was certainly a factor as well.) As I thought about the “shakings” that God brings about to “shake us forward, shake us free” I realized – not everyone wants to be shaken forward. Because with it, comes a loss of the familiar. The people of Gerasene literally preferred the “demon they knew” to the Jesus they didn’t know.

This is a truth of any dramatic freedom: It will be resisted by some who hold on to the familiar darkness rather than wade into the unknown light. As they hold on, it might get worse on the way to better (2000 years of church history and current persecuted believers can testify to that).

And yet, I’m still hopeful. I still think of the prairie grasses waving. I remember that Psalm 119:9-91 tells us that all things are His servants. Some willingly, some unwillingly. 

I’m wild with the hope that He will indeed shake us forward, shake us free.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Corrie Ten Boom

Today is the anniversary of Corrie Ten Boom's birth and death (she died on her birthday).  I'm not huge on "heroes" - I learned early in life that all our heroes have feet of clay (thank you Mrs. Baker, 11th grade English) - but Corrie Ten Boom is definitely on my short list. She would absolutely be seated at my dream dinner table.

If you don't know her story, read or watch The Hiding Place and the upcoming film Return to the Hiding Place. Corrie is one of the "Righteous Gentiles" honored in Israel for hiding Jews during WW2 and suffered in a concentration camp for her decision to do so.

But that isn't why Corrie is one of my few heroes. Corrie Ten Boom left that camp and spent the rest of her years as a "Tramp for the Lord" going around the world with a single message, "Jesus is Victor". In the early days of my walk with Him, I devoured every word I could find that she had written. God used her simple illustrations to instill in me an example of relationship and trust that I still strive for. One day I read a poem that, though not original to Corrie, was used by her in a dramatic fashion during her talks. She would hold up a weaving and show a tangled underside, with the threads all jumbled, while she recited words that hit me so powerfully I memorized them on the first reading:

My life is but a weaving
Between my God and me
I do not choose the colors
He worketh steadily

At times He weaveth sorrow
And I in foolish pride
Forget He sees the upper
and I, the under side

[at this point she would turn the weaving around to reveal a beautiful crown]

Not till the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly
Will God roll back the canvas
And unveil the reasons why

The dark threads are as neeful
In the Master's skillful hand
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned.

My late mother-in-law heard Corrie speak in Tulsa once, but I never had that privilege. I hope that in heaven, though, I can be seated at her table at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Not so that I can hear her story though. I just want to be close enough to see her face as she worships Jesus, because I know written in every glance will be one phrase, "It was worth it all."

Rest in peace Corrie.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Understanding the "silent war" on religious liberty: A must-see video

From the outset, let me make clear that this is not a political post. I'm not trying to convince you to support any party or candidate. This post is part of an ongoing conversation about religious liberty in the West that I've tried to be part of in the broader context of global persecution. Please do not attack or promote candidates in your comments. That will not further the conversation. 

In my previous blog series on persecution, one of the posts gave a picture of what persecution in the 21st century world looks like. In that post, I shared what I have learned from others who have made a point of studying and researching this topic: Persecution in the West - Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand - looks very different than persecution in other parts of the world. Persecution in the West typically doesn't look bloody, but it's no less serious. People of faith are marginalized by an increasingly (and often intentionally) secular worldview which brings some presuppositions to the table - ideas that directly conflict with Scripture, setting up a certain challenge for those who adhere to Biblical faith. A few of these challenges include:

  • Private Affair: The idea that faith is private and should not impact a person's public choices or actions. This is often called the "naked public square" approach (as opposed to an "open public square, where all ideas have an equal chance to be heard). 
  • Relativism: The idea that faith is a matter of opinion and preference is pervasive. While the idea that individuals are free to choose their beliefs is a basic tenet of free society, this type of relativism elevates the "human rights" of individuals to such an extreme that sharing one's faith is offensive - and increasingly challenged on legal grounds. 
  • Anti-Christian elites: There are some secular political elites who are intent on bringing a "neo-secular inquisition" (Professor Rocco Buttliglione's phrase, quoted in Boyd-Macmillan, p. 217) to professing Christians.
  • Anti-absolutes culture: Increasingly, the West is hostile toward religions with uncompromising ethical beliefs. There is an "anti-absolute militancy" (Boyd-MacMillan, p. 219) that presents several lies as norms. If these are challenged, marginalization and persecution occur.
It's rare to hear a speech on a national level that highlights the unique aspects of these challenges to religious liberty. While President Obama rightly spoke out recently on the persecution of Christians globally, his remarks were linked solely to the obvious, blatant persecution outside our borders. Others that do speak to the religious liberty challenges of our post-modern, post-Christian western culture often fail to present a complete picture, instead focusing on the political aspects or taking a fear-mongering approach. The reality is that the religious liberty challenges in the West are much less obvious because they are bloodless and don't yield dramatic photographs of people beaten or abused for their faith. Yet they are real enough and serious enough as they are.

These challenges are real, and they need to be pointed out. For the church to be an advocate for those experiencing severe persecution, we must have a voice. For the church to be a light in the darkness, we must leave our four walls. For the church to fulfill the great commandment and the Great Commission, we must open our hearts, hands, and mouths to share the Good News with those around the corner and around the world.

So I was happy to hear about a speech on a national level that focused on religious liberty. When I heard the speech I was amazed. Here was a political figure - some say potential presidential candidate - who was not only speaking about religious liberty, but hitting all the key points that scholars have recognized about the secular West.

Below is the speech by Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana. He begins speaking at about 15:00 mark and speaks for about 35 minutes, followed but a question and answer time. (For those unable to view, here's the transcript.) Some of the key elements of this speech, from my perspective:
  • Jindal makes clear on more than one occasion that this isn't a Christian issue. This affects everyone of any faith at all. 
  • He accurately puts diversity of belief as foundational to who we are as a country, noting: "These days we think this diversity of belief is tolerated under our law and Constitution. But that’s wrong. This diversity of belief is the foundation of our law and Constitution."
  • He gets the order right: "America does not sustain and create faith. Faith created and sustains America."
  • He observes that a war, silent or otherwise, on faith in the public arena is a war on good deeds and social action, for faith has driven countless changes in this country. 
  • He highlights three strands of current legal challenges that should concern anyone of any faith.  
  • He draws from current issues at the state level to show both potential problems and potential protections.
  • He clearly notes the important distinction between freedom of worship and freedom of religion. That single word change makes all the difference, legally. 
  • He advocates an open public square, not a naked one. 
  • He challenges Americans not to settle for a silent faith locked away inside the walls of our religious institutions.
This is an important speech.  Watch it and pray. Remember the words of Daniel 11:32: "The people who know their God will stand firm and take action." Know Him, stand firm, and take the appropriate actions He leads you to take.

Boyd-MacMillan, Ronald. Faith that Endures: The essential guide to the persecuted church. Revell, 2006. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Persecution: Why It's Personal to Me Now

Hebrews 13:3 ESV Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.

1 Corinthians 12:26 ESV If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

I'll be honest: For many years, "the persecuted church" was an abstraction to me. My journey of awareness began where so many of my journey start - in my head. Scripture says the persecuted are part of the body, and I should suffer with them. I heard about the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church and figured that was a good place to begin.

And, it was - but God didn't want me to stop there. Over the past few years, God has taken that beginning and developed my understanding. A research paper for graduate school, some in-depth readings, and a blog series gave me a deeper understanding of the theological and practical issues involved. Open Doors gave names and faces to persecuted Christians, and I came to understand their struggles and endurance even more. Still, while "the persecuted church" had moved from my heart to my heart, it remained more of a "cause" for me, something that I was supposed to "do something about." I began to pray daily and seek for ways to be very intentional in my advocacy for persecuted Christians as well as for religious liberty worldwide.

Then came the day I heard about an Iranian-American pastor imprisoned for his faith. I heard he had a wife and two children. I read his story. I prayed for him, as I had many others over the years. Our church held a prayer vigil. And one cold Sunday night, I stayed up late to catch a West Coast broadcast. I heard this pastor's wife speak. She told his story, and her story.

Naghmeh Abedini personalized "the persecuted church" for me. As I watched her, I didn't see an abstraction. I didn't see a cause. I saw a wife and mother who had the difficult task of watching her kids' disappointment on Christmas when they didn't get the only gift they prayed for - daddy's return. I saw a woman who had struggled through the harder years of marriage, settling into her relationship with her God and her husband, only to have him torn from her arms. I saw a strong woman who was authentic about her vulnerabilities. I saw someone I could relate to. I saw someone who could easily be sitting next to me on the pews on Sunday mornings or across from me at Wednesday Bible study. In her honesty, I saw myself.

I realized that God had taken my understanding persecution to a new level. He answered my prayers for the persecuted in a way that revealed His heart like nothing I could have imagined. I didn't know to ask for it, but when it happened I knew it had His fingerprints all over it: He caused me to take persecution very personally.

That's how He takes it, you see. In Acts 9, the resurrected Jesus confronts persecutor Saul on the road to Damascus where he was headed to take his next Christian victims. Jesus' words to Saul? "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting ME." (Acts 9:4). By giving me a gut-level identification with Saeed & Naghmeh's plight, Jesus is letting me take persecution the way He does - personally. After years of praying and advocacy, for the first time I am really beginning to grasp what it means to remember the prisoners as if I were right there, and to feel someone's suffering as my own.

In Faith That Endures, Ronald Boyd-MacMillan gives some great tips to help persecuted Christians in tangible ways, along with warnings of what NOT to do. One of his warnings is to avoid letting the persecuted church be simply a cause. Let's face it: We've all seen a good cause become disjointed from the people it's about. The cause becomes the cause, rather than the people affected along the way.

Similarly, "the persecuted church" can become a politicized cause, a PR cause, a fundraising cause - anything but individuals loved by God who are part of the body of Christ He asks us to serve. Boyd-MacMillan relates a tragic story of a Chinese house church pastor who was called to Washington to receive a human rights award. Politicians joined the gathering, and speeches highlighted abuses of power that failed to relate to the current situation in China. The pastor told Boyd-MacMillan that no one had asked him his story or tried to get current information; instead, "they just wanted to hand me the award." (p. 236-237)

This story would be bad enough on its own, but Boyd-MacMillan's next words caused me to really sit up and take notice: "This experience has been multiplied in advocacy contexts a hundred times. I am weary of looking into the eyes of the persecuted believer being honored and seeing the question, Why doesn't anyone take an interest in my story." (p. 237)

I'm glad God has moved my understanding of persecution from head, to heart, to gut-level identification. By His grace, I will continue to be a strong advocate of the persecuted church and of the importance of maintaining our religious liberty so that we have a voice to speak out on behalf of those who suffer the most for the sake of Christ. There is nothing wrong with Spirit-led action. But I want to always remember that, whether I know their stories or not, there are people with families and dreams and needs, making heartbreaking decisions for their faith, every single day.

On Valentine's Day, Naghmeh Abedini shared a picture that  I cannot shake from my mind. It's a picture that I believe God has firmly planted in my memory so that I will always take persecution as personally as I do today. May this story and photo speak to you as it has to me. May God bless you to take persecution very personally.
Saeed's family in Iran is allowed to visit him from time to time, and on the last visit he asked his family to contact Naghmeh's family to arrange a Valentine's surprise for his wife. He wanted her to know she was loved and he hadn't forgotten. After a day with the children, she arrived home to this scene:

Candles, a photo of her and Saeed, flowers. Reminders of the love they share, a love that spans the ocean, a love that prison bars cannot hold back. When I see this photo, I don't see an abstraction or a cause. I see two people who love each other deeply -- but they love Jesus more. And because they love Him more, they won't do the one thing that could cause them to be together. Saeed could deny Christ and be freed - but he won't. And Naghmeh doesn't want him to.

Does she want him home? Absolutely. Does she need him? Desperately. Does she want to face more questions from kids who miss their daddy and just don't understand? Of course not. But more than all of that, she doesn't want to take the easy way out. She, and Saeed, want to endure for the glory of God, for the ministry He has for them during this season, and for the reward of hearing Him say, "Well done."

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Fighting Selfish Ambition

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:13-18 ESV)

Like anyone who has followed Jesus for a while, I am keenly aware of just how far He's brought me. I can recount a number of areas where I am just not the same person, thanks to His transformational power to deliver me.

Undoubtedly, though, the most powerful area of deliverance I've experienced is in the area of selfish ambition. I grew up in a Christian home but while church was part of my life, and I even read my Bible on occasion to meet a checkbox requirement for Sunday School, I don’t remember ever truly loving Jesus.  What I do remember most is how much I thought of myself, how competitive I was, how full of selfish ambition. Undoubtedly, I was on the throne of my life. At my high school graduation I was proud and eager to enter a world I was sure that I would conquer. I intended to win the Pulitzer Prize by the time I was 30 and have my name known. To make sure of that I went to a school where I could be a big fish in a little pond – and all that time, I considered myself a Christian.

God has a way of getting our attention, though, and for me the next seven years were painful, dark years with one silver lining: I came to the end of myself. By age 25 rather than feeling proud, I was miserable and ashamed. I finally found something I wanted more than that Pulitzer Prize: A fresh start. I wanted to live a life without the regrets that constantly whispered in my ear.

About that time I married my sweet husband, and God began to do a work in me by prompting me to seek Him for wisdom on how to build a good marriage. Then, God brought across my path an in-depth, verse by verse study of Romans. This study is designed to take two full years, but I blew through it in somewhere around 10 months. We also started attended a church regularly, and got involved in a Sunday School class. God began blowing my mind with His Word. He showed me through Romans 1-3 that I was a sinner, despite my belief that I was a Christian. Then Romans 4-5 showed me what it means to be saved, and I cried through Romans 6-8 to realize that He does the sanctifying work in my life. You see, I had somehow absorbed the false message that we are saved by grace but after that were on our own. I already knew I couldn’t trust myself, so I was feeling pretty hopeless until those chapters. Sometime in 1997, somewhere between Romans 1 and Romans 8, I quit religion and started trusting in Jesus for my salvation. I realized that I had to trust totally and completely in His finished work on the cross for every aspect of my faith.

Ever so slowly, He began to transform my mind and my actions. I was so confused by what was me and what was Him that I would literally write out Scriptures such as Galatians 5 and make a chart – these are deeds of flesh, these are fruit of Spirit. I learned to look at that and ask Him to help me to do the things on the right (the Spirit) not the things on the left. For years that Scripture hung by the sink. For some reason I had lots of fleshly thoughts when I did the dishes :)

He has so completely transformed me, I cannot even put it into words. Pretty much everything about me is opposite of how I used to be. One of the biggest areas is that selfish ambition I told you about. See, when I got saved that didn’t leave me overnight. There were lots of sins that did – things I never once struggled with again – but that one hung around. I just Christianized it and decided that I was going to be a famous speaker. HA. God patiently kept teaching me, showing me more of Himself and His Word, revealing the gifts He’s given me and the call He has on my life. 

Soon, God used the crucible of parenting and caregiving to purify me, refining that selfish ambition out of my life, making me know how to recognize it when it rears its ugly head. For a season, God called me to lay down all ministry to focus on the needs of my step-daughter and my mother-in-law. My earlier goals seemed so far behind me, yet something in me still struggled. I knew I was being obedient, but I felt so obscure. 

At some point near the end of my mother-in-law's life, I was studying the life of John the Apostle. We see John first as a “Son of Thunder”, one of Jesus’ inner circle, with a desire for recognition in Jesus’ kingdom. He was the closest one to Jesus, and was charged to take care of Mary after Jesus left. We see John busy in the early chapters of Acts – preaching, being thrown in jail, healing a man at the Gate called Beautiful – but then he disappears from the scene. We don’t know much until his writings appear, after all the other apostles were dead. We can assume he was active in the Jerusalem church (where Mary was based) because he became a bishop over Ephesus. But other than serving his church and taking care of Jesus’ mother, John remained relatively obscure for decades. That spoke to me deeply, and sitting in my mother-in-law’s house watching over her one day, I penned these words:

Lessons from Obscurity
I asked You to give me something to do for Your glory, something grand and magnificent.
You gave me a wounded child and said "Believe".

I asked You for more, for a grander task.
You gave me a husband with dreams and said "Hope".
I wanted to reach even higher and sought a broader place to serve.
You gave me a sick mother-in-law and said "Love".
The bigger the vision you have given me for the world
The more you remind me that faith, hope, and love begin at home.
I have the faith to do big things for You.
Do I have the faith to be obscure?
Today, I am a transformed women. I am learning to live for His glory and His purpose and not my own selfish ambition. I am learning to trust Him with my future. That young, proud girl with selfish ambitions of winning a Pulitzer has become a woman at 44 who truly, honestly has no 5 year plan. I don’t even have a one year plan. I have learned enough to know that I want my words to fall to the ground and His words remain. 

The apostle Paul realized that selfish ambition temptations don't go away when we come to know Jesus. He wrote to the church at Philippi:
Philippians 2:3 ESV  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
That's my deepest desire for this blog - that, as public as it is, it won't be a place for selfish ambition. I want to encourage and "stir up" other believers toward a kingdom mindset, toward being world Christians. Over the years, the purpose for this blog has shifted. Initially started to encourage missionaries, this blog for one year hosted a daily prayer through Operation World (found in the 2012 Archives) and most recently a series on persecution (found in the 2013 archive). For this season, I'm really not sure what the blog will look like. I just know that I don't want selfish ambition to drive my posts. Wherever it's going, I look forward to the journey - a journey that won't end until the throne room.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"The World Was Not Worthy of Them": When the persecuted church is lost in the noise

...But others were tortured, not accepting release, to obtain resurrection to a better life. And others experienced mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, sawed apart, murdered with the sword; they went about in sheepskins and goatskins; they were destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (the world was not worthy of them); they wandered in deserts and mountains and caves and openings in the earth. And these all were commended for their faith...
Hebrews 11:35b-39a, NET

Last night, a major political speech by the president of the United States ignored several US citizens being held prisoner by foreign governments. Two of these men, Kenneth Bae and Saeed Abedini, are held for reasons related to their Christian faith. To say that I was disappointed that they weren't mentioned, directly or indirectly, or that their relatives in the US were not invited to represent them at the speech as a signal to the world of our intention to see them freed, is an understatement. 

As so often happens, though, in the aftermath of my emotional reaction God dropped His Word into my heart. The phrase came to me in the translation I first read it: "men of whom the world was not worthy". I found the passage in its context above and was greatly encouraged, and my reaction was sobered. 

You see, refusing to recognize those persecuted for the sake of the Gospel says something significant. It says that the person that is being ignored is lost in the noise. Sometimes it's the noise of good things; sometimes it's the noise of political things; sometimes it's the noise of evil things. But their stories are missed, not because they are unimportant. They are missed because "the world was not worthy of them". Remembering the persecuted, praying for them, calling attention to them and advocating for their release is the job of the church. Sometimes the world will listen - but when they don't, there is still hope. 

For even when "the world is not worthy", God still hears our cries, sees our hearts, and has compassion for those in these horrible situations. He commends them for their faith as they are faithful to Him. Whether it's Kenneth Bae, Saeed Abedini, Asia Bibi in Pakistan, or countless thousands whose names we won't know until heaven - God hears their cries and counts their tears. He will lift up their heads. He commends their faith. This is the hope of the Gospel.

This morning I have faith that God is still at work in Saeed Abedini's life and Kenneth Bae's life. He's at work in your life, and in my life. My prayer for the president and all the other political leaders who allowed their stories to be lost in the noise is that God will forgive them because they don't know what they are doing. They don't realize how personally Jesus takes the persecution of His church, His body. 

Attention wasn't called to these men last night. But I pray that this morning, God will lift up their heads and whisper to their hearts, "Child, it's ok. I commend you for your faith."

Monday, January 27, 2014

Monday 1/27 prayer and advocacy for Saeed Abedini

As regular readers know, I have committed to pray regularly for Pastor Saeed Abedini and, on Mondays through March 8 (the day his wife Naghmeh was originally slated to protest, but changed her plans after much prayer and counsel), to advocate on his behalf using the resources God has given us through our rights as American citizens.

Today, my prayer for Saeed has been Barnabas' exhortation to the church at Antioch:
Acts 11:23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with devoted hearts
I am praying that whatever Saeed's circumstances tonight, he (1) is true to the Lord and (2) has a devoted heart. Out of everything Barnabas the Encourager could have exhorted the fledgling church at Corinth to do, this was the priority. This is what matters most.

But following the example of Paul, we still pray and work to bring him home, knowing that any movement in the human realm is because God affects the hearts of the leaders involved. So with that in mind, here is what I wrote to our Congressman, Senators, and President Obama tonight (adjusting as needed for each individual). Please join me in praying this will be received and acted upon! 


Thank you for your kind response to our email of last week. We wanted to give you an update that Naghmeh Abedini will not protest on March 8. She made this decision after reconsidering the effects of the protest on her children, Saeed's situation, and the body of Christ which she desires to see in unity, not division. We respect and affirm this decision.

However, there is still a way you can "stand with Naghmeh" even though she is not physically standing outside the White House. In testimony to Congress she stated that she knew she would fight Iran for Saeed's release, but never dreamed she would fight her own country. She has also stated she feels abandoned by her country. This should not be!! I encourage you to contact her directly, hear her story, and let her know that she is supported and that there are individuals working to free Saeed.

I further encourage you to ask President Obama to take the same step to show support. We understand that everything that goes on to release Saeed cannot be made public. That is understandable, but by contacting her, you can help Naghmeh feel that she is not alone in her battle. She will sense support from the highest levels of our government. We have heard buzz that President Obama might mention Saeed in the State of the Union address. This is a great step, but the actions need to back it up, and contacting Naghmeh would be a great step in that direction.

Thank you again for your service to our country and the people of Arkansas.