Monday, September 21, 2015

Refugees in Europe

Syrian refugees (picture from Wikipedia)
The refugee situation in Europe has frequently made international news over the past few months as Muslims fleeing the terror of ISIS have flooded into Hungary, Germany, and Austria.  Yet, despite the recent increase in news reports, the refugee flood actually began long before ISIS became a household name.

Over two years ago, Syrians fled into Europe trying to escape the civil war in their country.  Tens of thousands of refugees came to Europe seeking our help.  They came to Bulgaria, Greece, and Italy, among other countries.  I am sad to say that throughout Europe, they have been met with a mixed welcome.

Some view the refugees as a threat.  They think that perhaps ISIS militants will take advantage of the refugee crisis and sneak into western countries to do evil things.  Some view the refugees as a strain on the available resources of the countries they are entering.  Some see them as doctors, shop keepers, businessmen, teachers, and farmers who have had to flee for their lives and have suffered greatly at the hands of evil men and women.

What should the Christian response be to such a complex situation?  The Biblical answer is quite clear.  Many times, throughout the Bible, God's people were commanded to look after foreigners.  Among such passages are Leviticus 19:35, Deuteronomy 10:1, Deuteronomy 27:19, Zachariah 7:10, and Jeremiah 7:6.

It may be a complex situation, but the Christian's response is not.  We are to help those in need.  When the refugees come to our country, we are to help them.

Now there may be a few objections at this point, so I will address them:

Objection 1:  What if there are sleeper terrorists embedded with the refugees?  We have to keep these people out.

Response:  Yes we should try to keep terrorists out of our countries.  However, that it not the job of the Christian.  That is the job of government agencies.  We are to help the refugees.  That is our command.

Is it possible that some day someone you helped may try to hurt you?  Absolutely.  In fact, if you are truly following Christ, trouble is not just a possibility, it is a promise (John 15:20).  Does this change our command to help those in need?  No it does not.

Objection 2:  What about national resources?  We can't help everyone.

Response:  That is right, we cannot.  Yet, have we really reached that point?  Western countries still have ample resources to help those in need.

However, let's say it gets to the point where the refugees come to your country and find your country is not able to help them anymore because they lack the funding.  What will happen?  The answer is that they will go around your country to a place where they can be helped.

How do I know this?  Because this is what has happened in Bulgaria.

Two years ago, refugees entered Bulgaria in the thousands.  It did not take long for everyone to realize that we were ill-equipped to help them.  Then they started going around Bulgaria through the former Yugoslav countries into Hungary and eventually into Germany and Austria.

We all have limited resources.  Yet we also have a choice as to what to do with those resources.  Wouldn't you rather use them to help those in need?  Isn't it better to use what we have in obedience to God?

The Biblical response to any refugee situation is simple.  We help them.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Judgement Flip

As she sat in our living room, she prayed, “Please send people into our lives who will confront us on our sin.”

What a strange prayer.  It was prayed by one of our closest friends recently when she and her husband spent some time in prayer with Sasha and me.  Earlier in the day we were talking about the biblical response to sin.

To be more accurate, we were talking about the biblical response to the sinner.  There are two responses, and it all depends on who the sinner is.

If a person commits a sin and he is not part of the Church, we are not to judge him.  After all, we would be just like him if it were not for the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives.  On the other hand, if he is part of the Church, we are to judge him.  

This topic is addressed in several places in scripture, but it perhaps summed up the best in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters.  In that case you would have to leave this world.  But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler.  Do not even eat with such people.

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?  Are you not to judge those inside?  God will judge those outside.  “Expel the wicked person from among you.” (NIV; emphasis mine)

Our friends who were visiting that day were dealing with some fellow believers who were behaving in a sinful way.  Recently, we have also had to deal with unrepentant immoral behavior by a fellow believer.  Jesus outlined what to do when you come across sin in the Church.

If a brother or sisters sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you.  If they listen to you, you have won them over.  But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”  If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or tax collector.  (Matthew 18:15-17 NIV)

Keep in mind that this is a procedure to be used with Christians only.  Those who are not Christians cannot be held to the moral standards of those who have a personal relationship with God.  We are not to judge those outside the church, but we are expected to judge our brothers and sisters.  As Solomon said in his wisdom, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted.” (Proverbs 27:6)

This is where we as Christians often make a critical mistake.  We are not to judge those outside the Church, and we are to judge those inside the Church.  Yet we reverse it.  We judge the world as if we are in the place of God, and we ignore the immorality in our midst.

As a result, we fall into a dangerous trap where church leaders slander their brothers and are not held accountable for their actions.  Brothers and sisters fall into immorality and we are told that we should just accept them as they are.  Greedy swindlers are given places of honor in the congregation.  Drunkards are not confronted out of fear that they might not come back to church if we say something.

At the same time we disassociate with those outside the Church who are stuck in their cycle of self-destruction.  We avoid those who need us most.  We do the very thing Paul seemed to consider ridiculous.  We “leave the world.”

I have seen too many righteous men and women fall because of ignored immorality and un-confronted sin.  As a body of believers, we need to gently correct those who mistakenly slip in their walk with the Lord.  We need to get in the faces of brothers and sisters who willfully disobey the God’s moral law.  We need to disassociate from those who un-repentantly continue in immorality.

Our brothers and sisters in Christ should be a gift to us when we go astray.  They should keep us on track.  This is why I join my sister in her prayer.

“Please send people into our lives who will confront us on our sin.”

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Accepting is not Loving

Almost every day, we hear about immorality.  Why?  Because we live in a world of sinners.  I am one of them.

A common response to immorality is to say about the sinner, "We just need to love them and accept them the way they are."  This statement makes no sense to me.  If you do love someone, and they are engaged in willful immorality, how can you possibly accept them the way they are?

If we believe that sin is destructive to the sinner, then we should have every desire to see it not happen.

Imagine a man named Tyler who suffers from substance abuse.  To put it in layman's terms, he's a drunk.  Perhaps something in his genetic makeup causes him to drink too much, or perhaps he is merely the victim of his own bad choices.  Either way, he passes out drunk every night and drinks his breakfast the following morning.

Now, Tyler has two friends.  The first one accepts him the way he is.  He doesn't offer Tyler any help with his substance abuse problem because Tyler was born that way.  He says, "I love Tyler and I accept him the way he is.  We need to be more tolerant of his lifestyle choices and just love him.  If we talk to him about his drinking, it will just drive him away."

The second friend disagrees.  He says, "Tyler is on a path that leads to destruction.  I am going to do everything I can to get him help because I love him."

The first friend will undoubtedly get along better with Tyler. 

The second friend will likely be yelled at by Tyler with phrases like, "Who are you to judge me!?" and "I don't need your help!  There's nothing wrong with me!  I'm happy living this way."

Tyler may end up hating the second friend and loving the first.  Yet,the first friend is an enabler.  He is avoiding difficult conversations for the sake of maintaining their so called friendship.  It is the second friend who is brave enough to face the name calling to make Tyler's life better.

The first friend shows love by accepting or ignoring Tyler's actions.  The result is cowardice and indifference that only makes Tyler's situation worse.  The second friend shows love by not accepting Tyler's actions and offering help.  He gives Tyler a way out by confronting his sin.

The first friend spoke of love and showed none.  The second friend showed love and risked backlash.  Only the second friend really loved Tyler.

If you really love someone, you will confront their sinful behavior.  You will seek to end their immoral lifestyle.

If you really love yourself, you will say nothing in the hope that the sinner will like you.  Self-love can easily be masked as a love for someone else.  True love faces the difficult conversations.

Interestingly, some make the argument that we should accept sinful behavior by referring to Jesus.  Jesus showed great love for sinners.  He let prostitutes touch him.  He ate with swindlers.  He talked with the woman at the well who jumped from sexual partner to sexual partner.  Surely we should emulate His model and let people live however they want to.

Yet, read the text carefully.  Jesus directly confronted the woman at the well for her sexual immorality (John 4:16-19).  The swindlers He ate with gave up their sinful ways (Luke 19).  The prostitute came to Him, not because she wanted acceptance, but because she needed forgiveness (Luke 7).  Jesus tells people to stop sinning (John 5:14), and whey they are persistent in sin, His response is anything but accepting (John 2:13-16).

Jesus did not come to grant acceptance to sinners.  He came to give us a way out of our sin.  Like Tyler's second friend, He was met with hostility by those who did not want to change their lifestyle.  Jesus chose painful love over comfortable acceptance.  He took the harder road.

If you truly love someone, and they are willfully living in immorality, the most loving thing you can do is talk to them about it.  The least loving thing you can do is accept them for who they are.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Why Do Full-Time Ministry?

I often get asked why I decided to spend my life living thousands of miles away from the place I grew up to teach the Bible.  Though seldom said, I suspect the question often comes with a number of assumptions.  Today I would like to address those assumptions, not for my sake, but for the sake of my brothers and sisters around the world who have given their lives to full-time ministry.

Assumption 1--You must be in ministry because you could not cut it in a secular line of work:

This is a common misconception that stems from two flawed assumptions.  The first assumption is that ministry organizations are so desperate for staff that they would take anyone even if they are utterly incompetent.  I cannot speak for every Christian group out there, but I know my employer has a very strict screening process.  It is true there are people in ministry who do not belong there and should find another line of work, but the same could be said of any vocation.  In fact, I have been in many places of business that seem to be so desperate to find staff that they will take anyone.  You are much more likely to find incompetent employees at a secular job where they just need someone to man the counter and care little for the credentials of such an employee.  In my experience, most mission organizations have very strict hiring policies and would not knowingly hire someone who can't cut it.

But there is another assumption that goes with this line of thinking.  That assumption is that ministry is a kind of last option for a vocation.  Perhaps the ministry worker tried business and didn't have the savvy to make it.  Perhaps he tried teaching but didn't have the smarts.  Perhaps he tried to be a doctor but couldn't make it through pre-med.

I was once asked what lucrative career I gave up to serve in ministry.  My answer was that I gave up all of them.  I'm not saying I could do any job out there.  There are many I could not.  But there are hundreds of other roads I could have taken.

Many of my fellow ministry workers have masters degrees.  Many are doctors.  Many of them could be making a lot more money if only they would work in the secular world.

So why don't they?  Why not go for money over ministry?  Why not seek fame or accolades and instead become a little known Bible teacher in a far off part of the world?  Because these very smart competent people also believe that money, fame, and trophies are all meaningless in the end.  They truly believe what they teach, and thus they give up what cannot be kept to gain what cannot be lost.

Assumption 2--Trying To Earn Heaven Points:

Many are willing to accept that we in full-time ministry do indeed actually believe, and they pity us.  They think we are trying to earn favor with God.  Perhaps they think we are trying to earn our way into heaven.  That thought may be true of some religions, but it has no place among Bible believing Christianity.  The Bible clearly teaches that salvation is by grace alone through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9).  It also teaches that all people (apart from Jesus) are sinners (Romans 3:23) and deserve death for their sins (Romans 6:23).  We are saved by Jesus death and resurrection, and this salvation cannot be earned.

Some may agree with these key theological points, but then assume that we are somehow trying to gain special favor with God.  If you fall into that category, remember this important point: There is nothing we can do to make God love us more or love us less.  He loves us, not because of what we do, but despite what we do.

As a self professed sinner who messes up on a regular basis, I find this comforting.  If God's love for me was based on my performance, I would fall short.  Every day, I would find myself falling further and further from God if He was looking at my actions to justify His love for me.

Assumption 3--The Ulterior Motive:

The idea of giving up all the things that seem so important to the world is so far out there, that sometimes ministry workers get accused of having less that good intentions.  A while back, a neighbor of mine told me that he avoided church because if you go to church they will learn how to manipulate you.  Sometimes ministry workers are believed to be after something bigger.  Almost as if we are part of some vast conspiracy.

I will not deny that there are religious groups out there with the primary intent of manipulating people.  For that matter there are secular groups that do that.  Internet companies gather information to sell you customized advertising.  Businesses learn the local culture with the intent of selling you their products.  Entertainers include messages of their political agenda in their movies, music, and TV shows.  Governments develop programs to encourage some actions and discourage others.  Religious leaders seek power by trying to create followers who will give them their time, resources, and even lives.

The entire world is full of people trying to get us to live and act in certain ways, and they all have one thing in common.  They are trying to get you to do something that will in some way help them.

I entered ministry, not to get others to do what I want them to do, but to get them to follow God's plan for their lives.  A skeptic may ask, "How do you know God's plan for my life."  I would answer that I do not.  I am not out to teach a set of rules or a specific behavior.  It is my goal to show people how to have a personal relationship with God.  We were made for this.  I do want someone influencing the lives of those around me.  I just don't want to be the one doing the influencing.

No doubt we can easily find ministry workers who are control freaks.  I have been known to try to take control of others myself from time to time.  However, this comes as a result of my sin, and is not a reflection on why I am in ministry.

Why I Entered Ministry:

If the above assumptions are all false, they why do people go into full time ministry?  I cannot speak for everyone, but I can speak for myself.

The story of how I came to be in ministry is a long one, that for me began when I was about 6 years old when a friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer.  But that's a story for another time.  My motive for being in ministry is not wealth, fame, power, or anything else that will be nullified by my eventual death.  My motive for being in ministry is because I know the meaningless of life apart from God, and I do not want anyone to experience that.  I want people to know, as I do, why they were created, and live the full and eternal life they were intended to live.

To that end, I gave up the possibility of ever being rich to serve the owner of everything.  I gave up the chase for respect and fame to give glory to God.  I gave up the quest for power to serve the omnipotent Creator.

Why did I give up my life to do full-time ministry?  Because that is what I was created to do.