All the People We’ll Meet this Christmas

18 12 2019
Christmas Guy

Photo by Stte Funn on Unsplash

As I’m working on writing my fourth novel, starting a new trilogy on the topic of hope, I’ve been studying Johnny Enlow’s RISE teaching on bringing God’s kingdom into the 7 mountains of culture: government, business, education, religion, media, arts & entertainment, and family. As a teacher, I’ve been especially fascinated by his ideas on education.

Today one point that jumped out at me was when Johnny wrote that the student is always more important than the information. How many of us have had teachers who made us feel like our lack of mastery of the material made us sub-human and destined for an insignificant life? Hopefully all of us also had at least one teacher who lovingly modeled that the information was only important as it helped us move forward into a life of significance and destiny.

This reminds me of how God relates to His rules and to us. Have you ever felt that your lack of mastery of God’s rules put you on His naughty list and kept you trapped on the sidelines of life?

The reality is that Jesus declared, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) The person is always more important than the rules to God.

Or how about one of my absolute favorite Scriptures, the story of the woman caught in adultery? (John 8:1-11) Those who saw the rules as most important wanted to stone her; Jesus talked to her as a person needing his mercy.

I had an opportunity to practice what I was learning recently as someone threatened me with a lawsuit regarding something I’d mistakenly posted on my blog and promptly removed over a year ago. At first I was shocked by the person’s aggressive and unreasonable demands. I went to the Prayer Room and spent some time discussing it with God. His word to me was that the person was more important than the negotiations. Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” isn’t about Americans trying not to hate ISIS who live far away—it’s about loving the people around us who don’t treat us the way we’d like.

Our negotiations lasted about two months, because I was in no hurry. I needed time to pray for the person each day and ask God what I could share to help them return to His path of significance and destiny for their life. I have no idea if anyone else was praying for them, but at least for this season they got one faith-filled intercessor on their side. I hope I was just the voice they needed at the time they needed it.

I’m writing this in the midst of a busy Christmas season. Is it just me, or can the holidays bring out the worst in us? Could we take a moment to prepare our hearts for all the people we’ll meet this Christmas? How beautiful it would be if we could remember that the overwhelmed cashier is more important than the mistake on our bill; the mother juggling packages and a crying baby in the post office line is more important than the delay to our packed schedule; our impossible-to-please relative is more important than our desire for a “perfect” Christmas.

Perhaps a moment when we make them feel important again is the gift they really need.

Remember that God sent His Son to us at Christmas not because we were well-informed or well-behaved, but because in spite of us being NOT well-informed or well-behaved, He chose to love us anyway. He chose to see each and every one of us as precious, significant, diamonds-in-the-rough, people with a glorious destiny.

Now it’s our turn to see the same in all the people we’ll meet this Christmas.





A Halloween to Remember

31 10 2019

halloween.jpgHalloween—the dentists’ favorite holiday…

My American friends who take a walk through their neighborhoods today will be greeted by an assortment of scary decorations in front of their neighbors’ homes: carved pumpkins, skeletons, witches, ghosts, gravestones, giant spiders, black cats, even skulls placed on a stick. In American culture, decorating homes like this is a fun way to celebrate a holiday that is mostly focused on children dressing in costumes and getting free candy.

I sometimes wonder how a new immigrant to America might respond when he sees this. Imagine someone fleeing a war-ravaged nation where gravestones and skeletons are reminders of the horror they left behind. Suddenly they have to face the same images every day in their neighbor’s front yard.

I also wonder why Americans enjoy these macabre decorations. Is it because these are things we no longer fear? Perhaps generations past were haunted by such realities, but now we feel safe in our modernity?

If so, maybe these decorations serve a positive purpose—to declare our victory over the horrors and fears of our past. We can use Halloween to remember that we’ve been brought “from darkness into light” as the Bible says.

But I’d like to encourage us on this holiday to also remember those who are still traumatized by recent horrors, and offer a prayer for them.

Living in Indonesia, we’ve had to deal with 8-inch spiders invading our home, a ghost haunting our school, and real witchcraft destroying people’s lives. But even worse, the image of a skull on a stick reminds us of the horrific genocide that occurred the year our daughter was born.

A conflict between the indigenous Dayak people of the interior of our island, and the immigrant Madurese, turned into a vicious ethnic cleansing of the central province, sending tens of thousands of Madurese fleeing into our port city and then fleeing our island altogether. Roughly 100,000 people ran for their lives with what they could carry on their backs. We helped feed some of them at the harbor waiting for boats to take them off-island. It broke our hearts to hear that some of them were offering their children for sale for the price of a meal because they couldn’t stand to see their children starve.

But the worst memory for many people in our area was that the main road between our city and the central province was lined with spears, each spear holding a severed human head. This was not even 10 miles from our home.

Thank God, today the Madurese are slowly trickling back into the central part of our island and are at peace with the Dayaks. God’s healing power is stronger than man’s evil.

But let’s remember the suffering people of the world today—in Syria, Congo, the Rohingya of Myanmar—there are many for whom skeletons may represent their own loved ones.

As you bless the costumed children of your neighborhood with candy, please pray a prayer of blessing for a hurting world still trapped in the darkness, for those who long for a day when the horrors of the past are far behind them and they can experience true peace. Make this a Halloween to remember them.





Justice for Religious Minorities

7 08 2019
micheile-henderson-03NMNUqHPdE-unsplash

  Photo by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash

 

 

How should the majority religion treat those of minority religions in their land?

My experience in both my home nation of the United States and my residence nation of Indonesia is that those of minority religions are often treated unjustly:

  • It is difficult to get permits to build houses of worship
  • Minority houses of worship are often protested, and sometimes vandalized or forcibly closed
  • It is more difficult to rent a home or get a job
  • Anyone leaving the majority religion to join a minority religion may be persecuted
  • The government is quick to address perceived threats from the minorities, but sometimes overlooks both threats and actual violence from the majority faith

In other nations which are less pluralistic, such as certain places in the Middle East, discrimination against the religious minorities is even more apparent, and at times, deadly.

If only there was a standard of conduct towards religious minorities that all nations and communities could agree on…one in which the majority religion agrees to protect the minorities’ homes, their houses of worship, their jobs, their legal status, their freedom of worship, their freedom to choose their own religion, their right to be conscientious objectors in time of war, their freedom from any compulsion by the majority…but what national or community leaders would dare teach their majority constituents such a standard? Would your pastor or mayor speak out in support of this? Would your imam or ayatollah bravely take a stand?

There is one religious leader who has courageously stated and enforced such a code, and it might surprise you who I’m talking about. I’m talking about the Prophet Muhammad.

One of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world was built at the foot of Mt. Sinai in Egypt, St. Catherine’s Monastery. The monks claim that Muhammad visited them several times and maintained friendly relations. Muhammad wrote a letter to them now known as the Ashtiname, or Covenant of Muhammad, and this document has become the basis for much modern-day peacemaking discussion, especially by Muslim religious leaders, and even cited in a controversial case in Pakistan defending a Christian on trial! Here’s what one translation of the letter says:

“This is a message from Muhammad, son of Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them.

Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries.

No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.

No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray.

Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation of (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).”

In all my years living in Indonesia, oh how I have longed for a Muslim leader to start a speech like Muhammad’s letter above: “Christians, we are with you!” Muhammad’s Ashtiname—a Persian word meaning “Book of Peace”—is the standard Muslim majority nations and local communities should aspire to in how they treat religious minorities.

The standard for Christian majority nations and local communities comes from Jesus: “Love your neighbor as yourself…love your enemies…do to others as you would have them do to you…by welcoming the stranger, you welcome me.” (Matthew 22:39; Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:31; Matthew 25:34-45) In other words, “Muslims, we are with you!”

If you live in a community where you are in the religious majority, I appeal to you to consider the religious minorities in your midst and care for them with the high standards set by Muhammad and by Jesus





World Religions Quiz

24 07 2019

WhatsApp Image 2018-11-09 at 5.18.27 PM(10)How much do you know about world religions?

A Pew Forum study of nearly 11,000 Americans done this year found that most of us can’t even correctly answer half of a basic world religions survey.

Think you can beat the average? Take the survey here.

I thought I should take the challenge since I teach a World Religions class to high school students. I was relieved to get a perfect score. 🙂

Besides teaching, I am also involved daily with Muslims in Indonesia, and occasionally take time to chat on issues of faith with an online interfaith discussion group. I’ve learned a lot from those interactions that I never learned in books.

Here are my 3 takeaways from the survey results—

  • Most of us don’t know much about the beliefs of those of other religions.

In fact, as a Christian I’m embarrassed to say that in general, Jews, atheists and agnostics know more about others’ faiths than we Christians do.

Why? Pew Forum found that it wasn’t related to Jews, atheists and agnostics having higher education (though they do). I suspect that it comes down to who we choose to interact with and whether we’re willing to ask honest questions.

  • The #1 greatest factor discovered by Pew Forum backs up my theory: personally knowing people from other faiths is the single most significant determining factor as to understanding the beliefs of other faiths. Out of 32 questions on the full survey, those who only knew members of 0-3 other religions scored an average of 8.6 right answers. But those who knew members of 7-9 other religions scored a whopping 19.0 questions right, far above the average.
  • How this connects to peacemaking is also interesting—Pew Forum added a “feeling thermometer” of how respondents felt about those of other faiths. Not surprisingly, the more we know about another’s faith, the more warmly we feel toward them; and the less we know about their faith, the more cool or even suspicious we might feel toward them.

If we apply this principle to social issues such as the anti-Semitic graffiti in Santa Monica this week, or the 26 times mosques have been targeted in liberal, multi-cultural California in the last decade–with everything from arson to death threats to bomb threats to actually stabbing a worshiper–my guess is that whoever is behind such horrendous deeds has never tried to make a Jewish or Muslim friend.

While taking a World Religions class can be helpful, the most meaningful thing we can do toward building a world of understanding and peace is to make a friendship with someone who believes differently than we do.

Watch for opportunities this week—if your heart is open, you might be surprised at the situations God will bring across your path to meet someone different than you. Or if you’re really adventurous, go on a John 4:4 adventure, and intentionally go where people are different than you. Then write and tell me what happened!

[The complete summary of the Pew Forum survey can be found here.]





World Refugee Day–Faith over Fear

19 06 2019

Praying With RefugeesA bomb threat at the hotel where we were supposed to teach English caused us to cancel our classes one day. Thankfully, there was no bomb, and we could carry on teaching English here in Indonesia.

That’s the closest I’ve come to a bomb.

I’ve never watched missiles fall from the sky and wipe out my city.

I’ve never watched my apartment building crumble in a cloud of smoke, and wonder where I could go to be safe.

I’ve never lost track of family members—not knowing if they were killed in the mass destruction, or lying wounded somewhere, or taken to a refugee camp with no way of contacting them.

I’ve never been forced to leave everything I know and flee to a foreign land, giving up my dreams of the life I wanted for the new goal of just staying alive.

I’ve never been a refugee.

June 20th is World Refugee Day. It’s a time to take our eyes off ourselves for a moment, and consider our hurting “neighbors.”

Last year on June 20th, the United Nations reported that 2017 had record numbers of refugees around the world, 68.5 million people. That’s a new person displaced every two seconds.

God’s heart for refugees cannot be ignored. In the Bible, when a neighboring nation like Moab (modern-day west Jordan, but at the time an enemy to Israel) was attacked and had to flee their homes as refugees, God let us in on his emotions in Isaiah 15-16: “Oh, how I grieve for Moab! Refugees stream to Zoar…” The Moabites beg Judah, “Give the refugees from Moab sanctuary with you. Be a safe place for those on the run from the killing fields.” And God responds, “I’ll join the weeping. I’ll weep right along with Jazer, weep for the Sibmah vineyards. And yes, Heshbon and Elealeh, I’ll mingle my tears with your tears!” (Message translation)

Jesus himself was a refugee. His family fled Herod’s killing spree for the safety of Egypt. Aren’t we all glad Egypt took Jesus in, and didn’t turn him back at the border?

Taking in a refugee family can be a scary step of faith. Just ask Wolfgang and Chantal Massing, who were hesitant at first to disrupt their comfortable lives, but their faith in Christ prevailed. They invited a Syrian refugee family into their home and their hearts.

I love Chantal’s challenge to all of us: “Trusting more than fearing has got to be learned.”

On June 20th, what can we do to celebrate World Refugee Day?

  • Pray for refugee families, for peace in their homelands, for just immigration laws that welcome the hurting and the stranger.
  • If you know a refugee family, reach out to love them today.
  • Check to see if there are organizations in your city that help refugees, and ask them how you can get involved. Chantal started by donating items—she wound up with a gorgeous Syrian baby who called her “Grandma.”
  • Contact your government officials in support of legislation that helps refugees (ask me for more information if you’re interested).

My family has been blessed living in Indonesia by a wonderful Muslim family that took us in to live with them our first 3 months here, helping us to figure out how to do life in a whole new world. They became like a second family for us. Where would we be today without them?

Their kindness is exactly what Jesus expects of his followers when he charges us, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:35-40 ESV)





Isra Mi’raj and Your Supernatural Encounter

2 04 2019

HeavenHappy Isra Mi’raj to all my Muslim friends today!

For those Muslims who live as minorities, I pray for a peaceful day of celebrations. My heart was broken with all of yours by the tragic shootings in Christchurch, NZ. I’m thankful for the gracious response of the Anglican Christians who demonstrated the true heart of Christ by opening their doors for Muslims to come and pray while their mosque was closed, and the hundreds of volunteers who are providing food, transportation, free legal advice, and other demonstrations of practical love.

For my many Muslim friends who live as the majority in nations such as Indonesia where I live, I hope you’ll be ready to come alongside your suffering minorities with a similarly generous, peace-loving heart.

For my Christian friends who don’t know what the Isra Mi’raj holiday is about, it commemorates the Prophet Muhammad’s supernatural journey in one night to visit both Jerusalem and heaven. It includes a symbolic purification of his heart by Gabriel, meeting several of the most famous prophets in heaven such as Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and meeting God.

Can ordinary seekers of God ask for supernatural encounters, such as meeting a prophet, or visiting heaven? Or are such encounters reserved only for the most holy?

I personally have never met a prophet face-to-face or been taken up to see heaven, but I know many people who have. A quiet housewife I’ve known for years suddenly encountered Jesus walking into her kitchen. Two junior high girls in our church were caught up into heaven for several hours and described to my pastor amazing things they would have had no other way of knowing. There’s an entire book of the Bible called “Revelation” that tells how Jesus’ close friend John visited heaven, and was told about the future of humanity. There are literally thousands of documented cases of ordinary people having supernatural experiences like these.

A 20-year-old Indonesian girl who was living with us saw a crowd on the street and stopped to find a young man having an epileptic-type seizure. She drew near and prayed for healing. The man stopped shaking and jumped up, asking, “Where did he go?”

“Who?” our friend answered.

“The man dressed in white. The man who touched me and healed me.”

No one in the crowd, including our friend, had seen this supernatural being, but the epileptic man saw him and received a healing touch. A supernatural encounter such as this might be only a prayer away.

Would you like to visit heaven? Talk directly to Jesus? Why not take this holiday of Isra Mi’raj as an opportunity to ask God for a supernatural encounter. Jesus taught us, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

If you have already had such an encounter, or if you pray this prayer and receive one, please tell me about it in the comments section below!

Happy Isra Mi’raj! Happy supernatural encounters!





Curing the Christmas Blues

15 12 2018

IMG_20181216_081000197The holidays can be the toughest time of year. Especially if you’re alone.

As I write this, my wife is out of town helping a friend through surgery. My daughter is taking off on a train trip with her friends. And my son is an ocean away at university. Being alone at Christmas can make you long for the days of bickering over which Christmas movie to watch, awkward political conversations with the in-laws, and fighting both weather and traffic to visit grandma’s house.

No wonder people struggle with depression at Christmas. Being with extended family is stressful. Being without family feels extra-lonely at Christmas.

Before all the vibrant reds and greens drift into forgettable grays or those depressing blues, here are two ways to save Christmas:

  • Do something you like

In C.S. Lewis’s novel The Screwtape Letters, an older demon guides a younger demon in how to ruin a person’s life. In Chapter 13, he warns the demon to keep the human from reading a book he enjoys, or taking a walk out in nature that he loves. These simple pleasures come from God, and make the human feel “that he was coming home, recovering himself.”

Unacceptable, the older demon warns. “All the healthy and out-going activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at least he may say…’I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither  what I ought nor what I liked.’”

The demon continues: “Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years [or a holiday!] not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why.”

This Christmas, make it a point to do something you like—read a novel, take a walk, bake Christmas cookies for someone, decorate a Christmas tree just for yourself—there are a million pleasures God has given us that can bring joy to our world.

  • Engage with the human race

In the Ted Talk “How to Make Stress your Friend” by Kelly McGonigal, I learned that the neural-hormone oxytocin is released when we’re under stress; however, it’s also released when we hug someone. Kelly’s conclusion is that “when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support. . . Oxytocin makes you crave physical contact with your friends and family, it enhances your empathy, it even makes you more willing to help and support the people you care about. . . So when you reach out to others under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone, your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover faster from stress. I find this amazing, that your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience—and that mechanism is human connection.”

Whether it’s the stress of traffic, shopping, and annoying relatives, or the stress of loneliness, our human tendency to run from the pain and isolate ourselves actually makes things worse. We need people—if not someone who cares for us, at least someone to care for.

So my second piece of advice for curing the Christmas Blues is to connect with someone you love, even if it has to be by Skype or phone; and reach out to someone who needs to be loved. Babysit someone’s kids, serve Christmas dinner at a shelter, ask in your local retirement home who is unlikely to have family visit, and listen to their stories for an hour. Or check which university students near you can’t make it home for the holidays (like my son!) and invite them for dinner. You won’t just be a blessing to them—you’ll discover a stress resilience inside yourself that leads to joy.

As C.S. Lewis reminds us, wasting our holidays on “nothing” would be a shame. Joy comes when we stay active doing things we enjoy, and when we give and receive love.

Merry Christmas!