Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Ransoming hostages and posting bail get God’s attention

I have been closely following the European refugee crisis due in part to my regular teaching of mission courses in the UK and around the world. Two years ago I visited the refugee camps in Calais, France, where I met refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Iran and many other countries (see update) who were seeking entry into the UK.

Months before visiting Calais I had run into Ismahan, a friend from Ethiopia living in Paris. She had visited us at Tierra Nueva back in 2009 before moving to France. It was then that I connected her to a church in Paris where we have close ties. When I saw her I told her about my plans to visit Calais and asked if she had any contact with East African refugees in France.

Ismahan became distressed and told me that her 15-year-old brother was being held captive in Libya and was in grave danger of being killed. She shared how her brother had paid a trafficker to bring him from Ethiopia to Europe. In Libya he’d been captured by pirates, who were demanding $12,000 ransom. She asked if I would accompany her to a part of Paris where there were lots of refugees. She hoped to find someone who might know how to effectively get ransom money to the traffickers to secure her brother’s release.

That afternoon we headed to a metro stop where East African refugees are known to congregate. Almost immediately we met an Ethiopian man who introduced us to Eritreans who’d arrived that day from having just crossed over by boat from Libya to Italy. He guided us to an abandoned school where over 500 refugees from many countries were squatting in crowded, miserable conditions. We ended up praying for a number of people there, and the reality of the European refugee crisis suddenly became all too real for me (see past update). We raised some funds to help pay the ransom to free Ismahan’s brother, and she was able to arrange her brother’s release.

On our recent trip to Paris this Fall, Ismahan introduced us to her brother Aydarusse, now 17, who has finally made it to France (photo above). He told us how his captors held him in a shipping container full of other mostly young migrants in the desert for three months (read more here). His captors regularly tortured him and the other prisoners, some to the point of death. They would hang him and other hostages by their wrists and whip them on a daily basis—calling their family members threatening to sell them as slaves, or sell their organs if they didn’t send money immediately. When his captors finally received their ransom Aydarusse was released, put on a boat full of migrants.

“There was nobody to guide the boat full of refugees,” he said. “They just gave us the GPS coordinates for Italy and sent us across the Mediterranean.”

The boat behind them capsized and hundreds of people drowned, including one of his close friends. He made it across to Italy and spent a year in a refugee resettlement camp before Ismahan was able to arrange his passage to Paris. Since his confinement in Libya, he has been suffering from anxiety and seizures. Though he considers himself a Muslim he asked us to pray for him. What a privilege to have this opportunity to hear his story and minister the love of Jesus to him!

On November 5 during a layover in Paris from Ethiopia I preached at a special international service with French, Japanese and Egyptian congregations gathered at Eglise Protestante Unie du Marais (watch here in English and French). I had been asked to preach on Isaiah 58, the biblical text at the heart of my pastoral call.

I shared how I’ve been struck afresh by God’s word to the prophet: “Cry loudly, do not hold back; raise your voice like a trumpet, and declare to my people their transgression and to the house of Jacob their sins” (vs. 1).

Why is the prophet to speak so strongly about the people’s sins?

The people considered themselves in active pursuit of God through spiritual practices, but they were frustrated: “Why have we fasted and you do not see? Why have we humbled ourselves and you do not notice?”

God, too, notices his people’s spiritual quests. “They seek me day by day and delight to know my ways.” They ask me for just decisions, they delight in the nearness of God” (58:2). However God is not impressed, seeing and exposing social sins blocking their relationship with him and with each other.

“Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire, and drive hard all your workers. Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist.”

Isaiah exposes and denounces spirituality devoid of social compassion and equity. Here God dismisses religion practiced by people who’ve hardened their hearts to the plight of the poor. Isaiah’s message seems highly relevant to our times.

I wonder what the equivalents of this would be today. I know how easy it is for me to justify consumerism, and hostility around politics. Today’s growing lack of civility sadly includes many Christians, and tough attitudes towards immigrants, certain kinds of transgressors and national enemies are certainly on the rise.

Through the prophet God calls the people to a spirituality that involves them becoming agents of freedom to people who are oppressed. 

“Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”

            According to Isaiah 58, abundant life, recovery and deep spiritual connection with God will happen when we take action against injustice and engage concretely with people in need around us.

Then your light will break out like the dawn, and your recovery will speedily spring forth; and your righteousness will go before you; the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.”

Hearing God’s voice and being guided spiritually are intimately linked towards acting compassionately to hurting people around us.

“And the Lord will continually guide you, and satisfy your desire in scorched places, and give strength to your bones; and you will be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.”

            As I shared these thoughts and the story of Aydarusse, Ismahan suddenly noticed that her brother was standing at the back of the church with a big smile on his face. The whole congregation broke out in cheers. Many had contributed so he could be released.

            Currently I am in contact with a Salvadoran pastor named Giovanni who had to flee El Salvador due to his prison ministry to gang members. He himself is a former gang member and was being targeted and persecuted by law enforcement. Upon entering the United States this past August he was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, and is being held in detention. Giovanni continues to share his faith with fellow detainees and is making a big impact. However he has just been given the opportunity to bail out to pursue his claim for political asylum, but needs $5000 for bail. Consider helping him bail out so he can rejoin his wife and son, now in Washington State (see our Gofundme campain here).

May you open your heart afresh to the living God and to vulnerable people around you during this season, as you celebrate the birth of Jesus, the world’s Savior.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Blessed are the leakers

Followers of Jesus have a spiritual obligation to bring into the light offenses or injustices otherwise hidden from sight. While discernment is certainly needed in knowing how and when to speak, prohibiting leaks is like silencing the prophets, who in Scripture carried out a function in Israel similar yet far beyond that of WikiLeaks or the best investigative journalism.
Jesus himself taught: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled,” affirming all who long for truth and justice. This hunger and thirst will lead us to walk in the light ourselves through personal confession and repentance, and also to expose injustices that affect the vulnerable.
Think of confession of sin as the exposure of our own hidden secret attitudes and actions that the Holy Spirit brings up. The Spirit sounds our hearts, “leaking” our sins into our conscious awareness, bringing conviction and inviting confession, renunciation and new, life-giving choices.
The writers of Scripture exposed or “leaked” classified, seemingly uncensored information about Israel’s patriarchs and matriarchs, political and religious leaders and the people as a whole. Incest, adultery, deception, murder, massacres, corruption, idolatry, power-grabbing schemes, rape, treason and every imaginable injustice and sin was brought into the light vocally and in written form for all the world– past, present and future to see.
The prophet’s role in Scripture included exposing injustices and confronting perpetrators. The prophet Nathan brought a message from God to King David, exposing his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah. Isaiah, Jeremiah and every other prophet exposed both known and hidden sins and injustices of kings, and announced God’s judgment as consequences.
Leaking has always been a high value for prophets, who bring the final judgment into the present, demanding that things change now in alignment with heaven. Keeping evils hidden in the interests of national security brings no security at all, from a divine perspective. The prophet brings the high demands for truth in the innermost places as a precondition for real security—which is eternal.
There are justifiable reasons for keeping some information confidential. But oppressive policies, lies, actions bringing harm and other injustices should and will come into the light, as Jesus says:
“There is nothing covered up that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known. “Accordingly, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed upon the housetops” (Lk 12:2-3).
Prophetic exposure of injustice continues in the New Testament. John the Baptist was a prophet and a leaker. He exposed and denounced Herod’s affair with his brother’s wife—which cost him his head. Jesus too knew people’s thoughts and often revealed them, and exposed in graphic detail the hypocrisy of Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, priests and the High Priest and secular leaders. These leaders were exposed as opposing and calling for the crucifixion of God’s promised Messiah Jesus, the Son of God himself. Jesus described people’s rejection of himself, the Light of the World, as the ultimate exposure of evil:
“This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil” (John 3:9)
One sure sign of Scripture’s inspiration is the radical honesty and vulnerability of Biblical writers to tell what looks like a lot of embarrassing truth—which most certainly exposed the Jewish people to anti-Semitic assaults (too often even from Christians!) throughout history.
The Bible’s WikiLeak-like exposé of the sins of God’s people must be read as an invitation to transparency for us today. We mustn’t scapegoat Jews, Christians or anyone, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Let us allow Scripture’s public prophetic judgment to expose our personal, racial and national sin.
The good news is that evil actions do not disqualify perpetrators from God’s call and longsuffering pursuit. Jesus was and still is a friend of sinners, and God’s forgiveness and mercy for the undeserving is available and is far superior to human justice.
So there’s no reason to hide, and followers of Jesus must be the first to acknowledge and renounce personal, collective and national sin. We must be like transparent participants in a twelve-step group, presenting ourselves in humility with full disclosure. “Confess your sins one to another” (James 5:16).
“If you continue in my word, then you are truly disciples of mine,” taught Jesus. “And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (Jn 8:31-32).
The Apostle Paul writes: “Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them.” This is certainly what Amnesty InternationalHuman Rights Watch and many other watch groups do and must continue to do. Other famous leakers like Edward SnowdenChelsea Manning, Julian Assange and even former FBI director James Comey have exposed dark deeds of corporations, officials and governments to the news media through WikiLeaks, calling for public accountability and the redress of wrongs.
So we must welcome quality journalistic reporting that exposes today’s evils—like recent journalistic exposés showing how US and UK weapons manufacturers make cluster bombs used to kill children in Yemen, and how the US military refuels Saudi Arabian planes used to drop these bombs. Holding perpetrators of injustices accountable can lead to life-saving policy changes.
Because we know that Jesus died on the cross to save sinners, we can confidently approach the judgment seat, knowing that “if we confess our sins, he [Jesus] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9).
Rather than participate in cover-ups, remaining silent, denying difficult truths as “fake news” or calling on authorities to punish today’s leakers, let us re-examine our own prophetic heritage in Scripture and hunger and thirst for righteousness. Rather than seeking personal and national security, may we be willing to be persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Jesus promises that those that so act will be filled and theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Submission as Resistance: Romans 13 in the light of Psalm 2

The prophetic witness of Christians before the State has too often been muted by a surface reading of the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 13:1-7, with its infamous “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God” (Rom. 13:1).

Added to this are Peter’s words: ”Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right” (1 Pet. 2:13-14).

It is critical that we read these verses about submission in their larger contexts and in the light of Jesus’ and the Apostles’ missionary activity and teaching. When you also deliberately engage with other Scriptures about governing authorities, like Psalm 2 and Revelation 13, a uniquely revolutionary form of resistance emerges that can inform our action in these challenging times.

What is often missed is that Paul and Peter called followers of Jesus to submit to the pagan and brutal Roman Empire. That submission included respecting the rule of law as long as it didn’t counter the higher allegiance to Christ, honoring those in authority, and humbly accepting the consequences if disobedience was required. Jesus, Peter and Paul were all arrested, beaten, and imprisoned for their missional activities, and Paul wrote at least four of his Epistles from prison.

Yet Paul still viewed all categories of rulers and authorities governing the world as part of the originally good creation, made by Christ:

“For by him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things have been created through him and for him” (Col. 1:16).

These non-human entities were viewed as subsequently fallen and rebellious, as the beast which Revelation 13 graphically portrays-- but still in operational until the end.

So Paul and Peter are calling for Christians to be in a kind of subjection to whatever government or political party is in power in these times towards the end of history—whether that be a democracy, a caliphate, a fascist dictatorship, a monarchy or maybe even a mafia or gang network that rules a failed state. 

Paul and Peter were recommending a course of action so that fragile new faith communities could survive and advance in hostile terrain, while simultaneously bearing witness to Jesus. "If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all people" (Rom. 12:18). Their counsel is in part like advice given to prisoners serving a prison sentence, or to people on probation or engaged in drug court who must obey the rules to avoid further trouble.

Their call must not be read as a religious leaders' endorsement, a statement suggesting State actions reflect God's will or as suggesting a cozy alliance between religious and secular leaders.

Jesus, Paul, and Peter called for allegiance to God as highest power: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk 10:27).

Nor do these texts mean that Christians must obey laws that go against conscience, be silent about injustice or hold back from their highest callings as Jesus’ disciples.

Jesus resisted authorities when he healed on the Sabbath, cleansed the Temple, and strongly critiqued religious leaders. Peter and Paul went right on preaching when told not to, and willingly suffered the consequences. The first Christians refused military service and worship of Caesar as Lord and suffered torture, imprisonment, and execution.

Paul appears to have often considered governing authorities his enemies, writing strong words regarding enemy love right before Romans 13: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” and end with “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12:14, 21).

Jesus' revolutionary submission

Jesus models a quiet authority and confidence before the Roman governor of Judea Pontius Pilate, after he informed him he had authority to release him or crucify him with: “You would have no authority over me, unless it had been given you from above” (Jn. 19:11)—ultimately from himself!

The Apostles saw Jesus’ subjecting himself in self-giving love on the cross as the deathblow to the ruler of this world-- the beginning of the end of the reign of the rulers and authorities, which will be judged and finally destroyed (1 Cor. 15:24-27).

Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 must be read in the light of Psalm 2, which begins by asking a question that Christians in America and in many other nations should be asking:  “Why are the nations in an uproar and the peoples imaging a vain thing?”

"Why do we as Christians get so caught up in endorsing political candidates and parties, mirroring the hate-filled political divisions around us?" 

My sense it that many Christians are not adequately informed about the final destiny of the powers and our own unique prophetic vocation.

The Psalmist reminds us of the macro divine perspective: “The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against his anointed” (Ps 2:2). 

Jesus experienced hostility from rulers and authorities, and prophesied his followers would experience the same (Mk. 13:9; Lk. 12:11)-- which they did (Acts 4:5). Martyrdom was normative then and is on the rise now.

Christians are called to be subject to governing authorities not because they are good or represent God's agenda. Our citizenship is in heaven. Peter urged believers to see themselves as “aliens and foreigners” right before his words about being subject to authorities, who he sought to evangelize:

“Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:11-12).

Christian submission to rulers and authorities must be done from a perspective of open-eyed realism about both the rebellious, hostile orientation of the powers against the reign of God and Jesus' greater sovereignty and victory.  

“He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord scoffs at them. Then he will speak to them in his anger and terrify them in his fury, saying, “But as for me, I have installed my King upon Zion, my holy mountain” (Ps. 2:4-6).

Jesus is that King, the Son of the Father, come to open the way for us to receive our authority and receive our inheritance as daughters and sons.

“I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you. ‘Ask of me, and I will surely give the nations as your inheritance, and the very ends of the earth as your possession” (Ps. 2:4-8).

Jesus was installed “King of the Jews” there on the cross. Jesus’ submission to rulers and authorities to the point of death on the cross was God’s secret weapon against Satan and the rebellious powers. God “disarmed the rulers and authorities, he made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through him [Jesus]” (Col 2:15).

The Psalmist's prophetic warning is still in force, putting all Christian submission and resistance into the larger context of Christ's victory and destruction of the non-human powers.

‘You shall break them with a rod of iron, you shall shatter them like earthenware.’” Now therefore, O kings, show discernment; Take warning, O judges of the earth. Worship the Lord with reverence and rejoice with trembling. Do homage to the Son, that he not become angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!

Psalm 2 brings hope to Christians subjecting themselves to unjust rulers as we know Jesus’ submission wins as all authorities will themselves finally submit to Jesus Christ as King. May we learn from the suffering Christ to step into longsuffering prophetic witness now.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Informed from above

For a number of years my daily prayer and study time includes reading online national and international news articles, preceded and followed by readings from the Psalms, Gospels and Epistles, and often from the Torah and Prophets as well. Reading the news, however, can become an addiction, especially in times of turmoil.

The narrower path of seeking wisdom from above involves listening prayer, faith, intercession, and continual discernment-- activities that require time and sometimes can’t compete with carefully crafted and entertaining media propaganda.

Even the best news coverage of current events is always incomplete, leading me to read deeper to seek understanding. Since the news media rarely focuses on good news and never on testimonies from the front lines of ministries committed to advancing the Kingdom of God, deeper analysis can lead to negativity: anxiety, fear, despair, anger and cynicism.

For years I have sought to practice what Swiss theologian and resister to Nazism Karl Barth reputedly advised young theologians. ‘Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.' More than ever these days I am seeing the need to deliberately and prayerfully interpret current events from Scripture.

The first Psalm calls “blessed” the person who “does not walk according to counsel of the ungodly, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers.”

As I witness the USA (and other nations) severely divided, with people of opposing viewpoints citing their trusted sources and debunking others as under the sway of ‘fake news’ or propaganda, I’ve become convinced that Psalm 1 is highly relevant to our current national scene.

“What does it mean to walk according to the counsel of the ungodly?” I’ve been asking myself. The “ungodly,” sometimes translated “wicked,” is from the term rasha in Hebrew. Its opposites are “the righteous” and those who pursue justice and righteousness. The ungodly are not just obvious thugs, but designate people not following the ways of God, the proud and arrogant (Isa 13:11), rulers (Isa 14:5) and the rich (Isa 53:9).

The “counsel (boule in OT Greek) of the ungodly” refers to advice that is not coming from the righteous, or most importantly from God. The Greek Version of Isaiah 55:8-9 reads: “For my counsels (boule) are not as your counsels, nor are my ways as your ways, says the Lord. But as the heaven is distant from the earth, so is my way distant from your ways, and your thoughts from my mind.”

Jesus spoke often about contrasting sources of intelligence. “He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth” (Jn. 3:31). “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world” (Jn. 8:23).

“Standing in the path of sinners” refers to agreeing and participating in policies and lifestyles informed by unrighteous counsel, which is “from the earth” and “speaks of the earth.”

“Sitting in the seat of scoffers” is a popular pastime in America these days. In our highly polarized nation, the media and ordinary people daily pour contempt on opposing leaders and their followers. There is something almost irresistible about sitting in the seat of scoffers as hate and superiority can be intoxicating. Mocking or judging can give you a feeling of power and control, and the illusion that you are doing something rather than being stuck in paralysis, doing nothing.

But there is something positive and life-giving to be done! The Psalmist continues: “But their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.” Don’t worry! “Law” here is not referring to laws or rules but comes from the Hebrew word Torah, referring to divine teaching- designating even the first five books of the Old Testament.

Pursue delight day and night- the Psalmist is saying, which in times of negative media bombardment can help us “not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21).

Delight in God’s teaching can be pursued through prayer, study, contemplative reading of Scripture and worship. Once we have tasted delight we will desire more. This can lead us into a continual, day and night pursuit of divine counsel leading to a blessed life.

The one who mediates day and night will be “like a tree, planted by the streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season. And its leaf does not wither. And in whatever that one does they prosper” (Ps. 1:3). In contrast is the bleak prognosis for the wicked, who “are like the chaff that the wind drives away… The way of the wicked will perish” (Ps. 1:4-6).

So how do we step deeper into a lifestyle of preparation? How do we meditate on the word day and night?

Interestingly the word for meditate in Hebrew is haga, meaning “moan, groan, murmur, utter.” Haga suggests deep engagement. Meditating is less an intellectual activity and more a deep vocal or silent ruminating, which seems more possible as a continuous activity.

Adding to this, the Apostle Paul writes: “Pray in the Spirit at all times.” In Romans 8:23 the Apostle suggests a link to Psalm 1. He says that “we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons.” The term “groan” (stenazo in Greek) means “to sigh, murmur, pray inaudibly: — with grief, groan, grudge, sigh,” which is quite similar to the definition of the Hebrew verb haga. Later in Romans 8:26-27 Paul speaks about this even more explicitly:

In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

Praying in the Spirit then can be associated with a kind of internal groaning that overlaps with meditation. We can engage in a kind of ceaseless prayer and meditation “in the Spirit,” even when we are sleeping or working with our minds, as meditation and prayer can be done with our spirits apart from our minds.

I encourage you to try this out, deliberately seeking the wisdom that comes from above leading to abundant life, over the earthly wisdom and human counsel. See if this helps you tune into messages of hope leading to fruitful resistance to the encroaching darkness of these dangerous times.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Receiving the life-changing seed

Sunday afternoon I led two back-to-back Bible studies in Skagit County Jail on the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13. After introductions and an opening prayer, a volunteer reads the first nine verses. As I listen a strategy unfolds for the mere twenty minutes that remain.

I ask the fifteen or so men where Jesus was, who else was there and what they were doing in the story. Since nobody seems to remember, we read the first two verses again. Then people piece together the details.

Jesus had left his house and was sitting by the sea. Large crowds came around him so he got in a boat and sat down. The whole crowd was standing on the beach listening.

“Ok, let’s pretend I’m Jesus and here’s my boat,” I say, jumping up on a table pushed up against a disheveled bookshelf in the jail’s multipurpose room. How about if you guys all stand, pretending you’re on the beach listening.” All the men stand up, and I pretend I’m teaching.

“So what happens in this story that Jesus tells?” I ask the men.

Together we talk about what a sower is, and how in the parable the sower throws seeds out on four kinds of ground. Seeds fall beside the road, which end up getting eaten by birds. Seeds fall in rocky soil, which spring up but then dry up fast in the hot sun. Seeds fall in the sticker bushes, which get choked to death. Finally seeds fall on good soil, which is fruitful.

“Who do you think the sower and the seed might represent?” I ask the men. Standing there looking at me sitting on the table (in the imaginary boat) the answer seems obvious. Jesus is the sower and they’re the soil. The seeds are Jesus’ words. I invite the men to take a seat and continue.

“So seeds go into ground, but we’re not ground, are we? How do invisible words enter into us?” I ask.

“We hear them,” someone says, and I remind them that Jesus ends his parable saying “He who has ears, let him hear.”

“So who has ears?” I ask, and everyone looks around and someone says, “we all do.”

So the sower scatters seed in all these places, which represent all kinds of people in different states of openness. If Jesus reveals God, what’s God like according to this story?”

“God doesn’t discriminate, he scatters his seed to everyone,” someone says.

“He’s generous and doesn’t judge. He teaches everyone,” someone adds.

“So he doesn’t say—‘no, I’m not giving that guy anything, he’s a sex-offender. Not that guy either, he’s addicted to porn. Not him either, he never goes to church and is a felon,’” I say, and then suddenly realize I’m speaking to inmates from the sex-offender pod. Nobody seems offended though. It feels like I’ve got their full attention.

We talk about how Jesus believes in the people, including us. He tells anyone who has ears, “hear.” There’s still a little time left so I invite someone to read the next verses.

“And the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted.”

“So the disciples want to know why Jesus speaks through these not-so-easy to understand stories,” I say. “Does his answer sound kind of harsh, even discriminatory?”

The men look down at their Bibles silently, some of them probably thinking that the good news they’ve barely heard is about to be snatched from their trampled path souls by the birds.

I ask if anyone knows what a disciple is and nobody answers. I ask a man in front of me what’s his profession, and he answers: “I’m a chronic alcoholic.”

I acknowledge his confession but probe deeper, learning that he’s a mechanic. I tell him that if I came to him and asked if I could shadow him because I wanted to learn how to work on cars like he does and he agreed, I’d be his disciple.

“That’s like an apprentice,” a guy who says he’s a metal worker chimes in—and people get it.

“So the disciples come to Jesus with their questions and concerns, and he helps them understand,” I summarize.

“When we don’t understand something, we can come to Jesus and ask him. Of course we can’t see him. But we can tell him and ask him for wisdom and understanding. That’s called prayer. Jesus tells them in other places: ‘Ask and you will receive.’ ‘Seek and you will find.’ ‘Knock and the door will be opened,’ I say.

“Any of us can speak to Jesus or the Holy Spirit by faith. If you do this God will give you clarity, like Jesus says: “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.”

“What if Jesus is just saying that if you don’t understand something and don’t ask, you won’t get the clarity?” I ask.

The men seem to like this answer, so I dare to have them read the next verse and ask them what they think it means. Someone reads:

“For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.”

A heavily tatted-up guy probably in his late twenties humbly offers an answer.

“When we have faith and ask, God will give us more and our faith will grow. If we refuse to trust we end up with nothing.”

The guards pop the doors announcing time’s up, and we haven’t even prayed. I nod to the guard and ask if we can have one more minute to close with prayer.

“Any of us can be Jesus’ disciple if we want to learn from him.” I say. “You can be that good soil that receives the seeds of his word. He wants to tell you the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. While you’re in this jail you can be hearing and receiving his words, taking in these seeds. You can ask Jesus by faith and he will give you in abundance,” I say.

I invite the men to tell Jesus right then and there if they’d like to be his disciple to learn from him. Many of the guys are nodding that they want this. I bless the seeds of God’s words that have gone in, and prohibit the enemy from snatching them away. I bless whatever faith they have and then notice the guard peaking in through the door. Time’s definitely up and men file out. I feel God’s gentle presence and wait for the next group, wondering what’s going to happen.

Only three men come in for the second Bible study. A guy in his mid forties gets all choked up begins to cry when we talk about how Jesus doesn’t discriminate, but speaks to everyone in whatever state we’re in, calling us to listen, to receive the word so it can be fruitful.

He says that his mother-in-law, who he lives with, is a really religious person who goes to church every Sunday, and reads the Bible and prays every day.

“All the time she hugs me and tells me she wants me to live a long life. But I’ve been completely closed, feeling nothing. All I think about is where I’m going to get that day’s supply of heroin,” he says, sobbing.

“She doesn’t know, or I guess she probably does know that something’s wrong,” he reflects.

I’m deeply moved, and so are the other two guys. The man who’s crying suddenly realizes that these hugs are like seeds that are still there, waiting for the soil to be ready. Suddenly his heart is open, and the seeds of love are penetrating into the softened soil of his heart.

I ask if I can pray for him and the others, and people nod yes. I bless each of the men, asking the Holy Spirit to fill them, to cover over the seeds, make them germinate and grow, and become fruitful. I leave feeling like I can feel seeds germinating and growing, bursting out of my heart.  Let whoever has ears to hear, hear.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A fresh look at Jesus’ final judgment parable (Matthew 25:31-46)

Jesus’ parable of the judgment of the nations is often presented in ways that associate our treatment of anyone who is hungry, thirsty, a foreigner, naked, sick and imprisoned as synonymous with how we treat Jesus. Many Scriptures clearly call us to care for the poor, excluded, immigrants and prisoners. But numerous details in this parable suggest a different interpretation.
Jesus here teaches on the future judgment of non-Jews (the nations=ethnos), whom he commissions his disciples to evangelize and make disciples of before he departs (see Matthew 28:18-20). This parable is not about the judgment of nation states as institutions (though they will be judged), but about Jesus’ future response to how people treat his followers who go out spreading the word.
In this parable the King, who is also a Son of the Father in Heaven, returns and is enthroned. He calls non-Jews together and like a shepherd he separates sheep from goats. He says to the sheep, identifying himself as their shepherd:
“Come, you who are blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
“For I was hungry… thirsty… a stranger… naked… sick… imprisoned” and “you gave me food… drink… hospitality… prison visits.”
These “righteous” don’t understand when they had done this for him, this Son of Man– the shepherd King. They hadn’t recognized him or made the associations he names.
“The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me’ (Matt 25:40).
Who exactly are the King’s “brothers” and also “the least of these” in this parable?
For most of my ministry I read this as referring to anyone in the category of hungry, sick, naked, a foreigner, or prisoner. This interpretation puts permanent pressure on all non-Jews to serve everyone who fits into these categories—or else you will be accursed and sent into “the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:42).
Is this the motivation Jesus is suggesting we should have as we minister to the poor, immigrants, refugees and prisoners? I don’t think so. God’s abundant and tender love for the poor and excluded is the only sustainable motivation.
I think that this parable is about God’s judgment of non-Jews who receive or reject followers of Jesus as they go to fulfill Jesus’ commission to make disciples, baptize and teach.
The King states “to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mineeven the least of them, you did it to me.”
In Matthew Jesus consistently refers to his disciples as his brothers distinct from blood brothers/sisters (see Matt 12:48; 28:10).
A key Scripture is Matthew 10:40-42, where Jesus says to his disciples:
“The one who receives you receives me,” and “whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink… shall not lose his reward.”
Jesus also calls fellow believers to treat one another as brothers and sisters (Matt 18:15 35; 23:8) of our common Father in heaven.
Western Christians may find identifying Jesus’ followers as the hungry, thirsty, naked, foreigners, imprisoned of this parable difficult due to our distance from the ragged and persecuted state of early Christ followers and today’s persecuted believers and precarious ministry workers. Yet Christians today are marginalized, persecuted and martyred like never before in history in many places throughout the world—including inside our prison system.
Jesus’ disciples who carry on his mission were sent out in vulnerability, without money, extra clothes or even sandals (Matt 10:10), as persecuted “sheep in the midst of wolves”—a big challenge to us now. They were often strangers and even foreigners as they went from village to village and to foreign lands, fleeing persecution (Matt 10:16-23). They were dependent upon people’s hospitality (those people of peace who received them). But they were often rejected, persecuted, imprisoned and martyred (Matt 5:10-12).
In Jesus’ parable, receiving them equals receiving him—a total identification. Jesus’ identifying himself, the King with the “least of these” represents his deliberate inclusion of the humblest of his recruits who go out on mission. When we receive a humble disciple of Jesus, Jesus says we are receiving the King, the Son of the Father himself.
May we welcome, provide for, care for and advocate for those who minister in Jesus’ name. May we intercede for the persecuted church worldwide, and be inspired ourselves to join the company of Jesus’ brothers and sisters—even the “least of these,” knowing that even if the world does not always receive us, Jesus has our back.

For further reflections on this, see my chapter eight of my new book, The Beautiful Gate: Enter Jesus’ Global Liberation Movement, which can be ordered here.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Lamenting False Saviors: A Good Friday Reflection

There is a grave danger this week for those watching global events– to become excited and drawn into alignment with pretender saviors of the vulnerable. Today I am trying to deliberately contemplate how Jesus came into Roman occupied Jerusalem as Savior of the World, in contrast to global leaders like Assad, Putin and Trump. It seems we must continually decide who saves and how it is effectively accomplished.
The US bombing of the Syrian air force base in retaliation for Assad’s use of chemical weapons to kill 80 defenseless civilians brought together liberals and conservatives. Both groups and many others share outrage at a horrific crime and guilty perpetrators. The defense of innocent children was the pretext and rallying cry. Abuses then and now are certainly barbarous and must be stopped, but how?
Today a fleet of US Navy destroyers, aircraft carrier and submarines accompanied by Japanese warships heads to the Korean Peninsula to intimidate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un ahead of possible nuclear weapons tests. Would Jesus council these acts of intimidation and possible bombings and invasion to remove this dictator should he refuse to back down?
I readily admit that destroying weapons of destruction like MiG fighter jets appeals to me. But leveraging the use of violence and fleets to threaten more violence and calls to remove thug dictators in defense of women and children move us all closer to more death and chaos.
We can certainly see evidence that US intervention to remove dictator Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya brought further violence and chaos to these countries. And we must remember that the United States of America and the United Kingdom are the #1 and #2 weapons producers in the world—so can their council be trusted?
The US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson said earlier this week that the USA would come to the defense of innocent civilians “anywhere in the world.” Considering our track record in Iraq and Afghanistan it is unlikely that our way of defending will bring peace. Better that we begin by taking logs out of our own eyes.
Barely two weeks ago the US was directed by Iraqi security forces to bomb two buildings in Mosul, Iraq that that were full of women and children, killing over 200. US forces have recently been active in combat in Syria in which defenseless civilians have lost their lives (see this article). In our attempts to save we kill, as violence begets violence, spilling over and consuming unintended victims.
Closer to home thousands of unaccompanied minors fleeing gang violence in Central America are being deliberately kept from crossing the US-Mexican border, or are being deported back into life-threatening situations.
Should Assad and Kim Jong-un refuse to bow to pressures and continue forward with their plans, how will the US administration respond? Will war erupt that will take yet more lives and breed more chaos? Today the USA dropped a 22,000 pound bomb (its largest non-nuclear bomb) to eradicate ISIS fighters in Afghanistan, and I cringe as I anticipate the results. Now is the time to expose efforts to unite people against demonized enemies.Today on this Friday of Holy Week we’d do well to remember how the crowd was easily rallied by religious leaders against Jesus as they called for his execution. In taking the place of the innocent victim as God in the flesh, Jesus subverted forever the scapegoating mechanism that brings false unity to punish and kill. It’s now up to us to continue to live in the freedom of that subversion.
Jesus absorbed human hostility at his crucifixion, interceding for us in our blind violence: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Let us agree with the mission of Jesus, who “draws all people to himself” in a true, redemptive unity rather than going along with calls to beat up on more bad guys. Let us find inspiration and empowerment from the resurrected Prince of Peace, waging peace alongside the vulnerable instead of war against the guilty. And the resurrected victim Jesus promises to be with us, to the end of the age.
For further reflections on Jesus’ mission, see my new book, The Beautiful Gate: Enter Jesus’ Global Liberation Movement, which can be ordered here.