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.