Dr. Strange’s Witchcraft and Ms. Marvel’s Djinn—a Review

We all have a longing for what’s beyond us, for the supernatural.

This longing can only be truly fulfilled in experiential relationship with a loving, supernatural God. But it can be “entertained” by books or movies. Prime examples on Disney+ right now are Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Ms. Marvel.

Everyone knows that Disney loves their magic. They believe in the supernatural. However, Disney has always been careful about how they present the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam)—they are willing to take more liberty with other belief systems or the occult. Some Christians feel that Disney has an agenda to promote the occult. I disagree. I think they simply calculate that poorly representing one of the major faith groups among their customers could do irreparable damage. So rather than criticizing Disney, I think that Disney films can be used to teach many truths about the occult that people of faith can agree with.

The following points, taken from Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and from Ms. Marvel episodes 1-3, are based on my understanding of the Bible and 25+ years of experience ministering in a Southeast Asian culture. WARNING: there are a few tiny spoilers here…

First of all, Christians and Disney agree that there is a spirit world. Disney just can’t be a fully reliable guide for us on how to interact with it, because they exclude Jesus from the equation.

But what’s left does warn viewers about some powerful truths:

1. The Scarlet Witch tells Dr. Strange that using dark magic “takes a toll out of the user.” The more she used it, the more evil she was willing to do to achieve her goals.

This has also been our experience working in a world of witchdoctors and shamans. Many of them offer healing and other small supernatural feats—for a price. Not only does the hurting person have to pay in money (or some bartered goods), but frequently they go home healed in one area but sick in a new way. For example, my good friend Ishak experienced a shaman “miraculously” heal his broken arm, but struggled with mental illness ever since.

On the contrary, when Jesus healed in the Bible and when he heals people today, it’s always free, no strings attached, no regrets. We’ve seen Jesus heal people of paralysis, hallucinations, tumors, and violent mental illness, to name just a few. It cost them nothing but simple trust in Jesus.

2. Using magic to resurrect the dead results in zombies—unnatural beings that aren’t fully alive.

I’ve never seen this, nor do I wish to. But I would like to see someone that Jesus has raised from the dead, because in both Biblical and modern accounts (even among people I know personally), those people are fully alive.

3. Our dreams may intersect with reality in ways we didn’t expect. The Scarlet Witch demonstrates this through “dreamwalking,” which is a way to interact with events somewhere far away while you dream.

I’ve heard of this concept in various forms in the occult. I’ve also heard of a similar phenomenon from a Christian pastor, Richard Wurmbrand.

Pastor Wurmbrand was arrested by the Communist government in his native Rumania and spent part of his many years in prison in solitary confinement. One thing God assigned him to do in order to maintain his mental and spiritual health was to preach to himself. He memorized many sermons while in prison so he’d be ready to preach again when he was released.

When he was finally released, others encouraged him to travel to the West to raise up prayer for the persecuted church. That’s where I met Pastor Wurmbrand and heard some of his amazing stories.

He shared that when visiting a church in middle America, someone came to him after the service saying something like this:

“Pastor Wurmbrand, my spiritual father, I’m so glad to finally meet you in person. Thank you for leading me to faith in Jesus.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You visited me in a dream ___ number of years ago [the time when he was preaching to himself in prison] and preached the gospel to me.” The person quoted some lines from a sermon that Pastor Wurmbrand had memorized in jail. “And I gave my heart to Christ.”

Using magic to manipulate dream effects is a bad idea; but God may be doing things through our dream lives that we would never have expected.

In another example, one night my wife woke up after dreaming her old college friend from Liberia was running with fire all around him. She immediately began to pray earnestly for him. Years later when they met, he told her of running for his life in the Liberian civil war, begging God to tell someone to pray for him—at the exact time that my wife received the dream.

4. Trying to defeat one supernatural evil with a stronger supernatural evil is risky.

From my experience, I would say that this is not beyond the realm of possibility. The people we serve frequently invite spirits to protect their family from evil caused by spirits from other families. It wouldn’t surprise me if this has some small measure of success, because demonic spirits may not play nice together. Yet the result is more and more fear, more and more bondage, never confidence of complete victory.

In contrast, those who follow Jesus have a clear pathway to victory over darkness, because Jesus “came to destroy the works of the devil” and told us that we could “overcome evil with good.”

Ms. Marvel also includes a supernatural element, the appearance of the djinn.

Christianity tends to lump all supernatural forces into good—angels, or bad—demons. Islam also has angels and demons, but includes another category of spirit beings called djinn, from which we get the English word “genie.” They can choose to honor Allah or choose to be evil.

Unlike angels whose goal is only to serve God, and demons whose goal is to war against God, the djinn may have their own selfish agendas. This is the case in Ms. Marvel.

Among the people we serve, legend has it that when a great Islamic teacher came to our area to spread the faith, he brought a djinn with him from Saudi Arabia. His hometown welcomed the djinn with a feast in his honor. Now many years later, that town is the most extremist in our whole province. The police reported that one of the Bali bombings was planned there, and terrorist training camps were found just outside the town. Is this a coincidence, or does this djinn (or demonic spirit) have his own non-Islamic agenda??

To summarize, one redeeming factor from Disney is that we learn that even good-intentioned people can get into big trouble messing around with witchcraft, and that we should not be too quick to trust “spirit guides” who may have an agenda other than our good. Both of these truths put a spotlight on how great it is to be connected to Jesus. There is real supernatural power available to us through Christ for miracles, which are always free and always life-giving; and Jesus is a safe guide for us because his willingness to die for us proved that he always has our best interests at heart.

I don’t recommend Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness for children under 13 because of the explicit witchcraft and occult scenes. If you watch this film with your kids, it might be wise to follow up with a conversation such as in this blogpost.

However, I highly recommend Ms. Marvel for anyone 8 and above. So far in the first 3 episodes, the djinn are not presented as darkly as many other Disney villains. Meanwhile, I wish everyone in the West would watch this show with your kids because of the terrific portrayal of Pakistani American culture, including little bits of the Islamic faith. It’s a bold break with the last 30 years of Disney movies to gently present a community with an Abrahamic faith, and at least through the first 3 episodes, they’ve presented it brilliantly.

A Non-Violent Movement in Ukraine?

We’re all heartbroken by the war in Ukraine, and praying for peace. For those of us who promote non-violent solutions to conflict, is there any hope for this to happen in an invaded nation like Ukraine?

You might be surprised at what is already happening!

I want to refer you to this excellent article from my colleague, Bryan Carey, at Peace Catalyst International. I hope you’ll read it!

https://www.peacecatalyst.org/blog/2022/3/14/ukraine-reflections-pacifism-violence-and-nonviolent-resistance

A Muslim & Me: An Interview

I sat down for an interview with a Muslim friend recently that went something like this…

Q: I’m curious to understand more about your faith.

A: Feel free to ask me anything.

Q: Tell me your thoughts about God.

A: We should start with that he is eternal, he is spirit, and he created all things for his glory. He’s holy and just, but also merciful and loving. He is the only God and apart from him there are no others. He’s revealed himself to us through creation, through prophets, and through holy scripture. He desires our whole hearts in surrendered worship to him.

Q: Tell me your thoughts about heaven & hell.

A: At the end of our time on earth, we will all face God at the judgment day. It’s God’s mercy that saves the believers and takes them to eternal bliss in his presence in heaven, while those who reject God will be sent away from his presence to hell.

Q: Tell me your thoughts about angels & demons.

A: God created these spirit-creatures. The angels are loyal to God and serve him in many ways, including delivering messages to men and taking note of what men do. The demons have turned against God and look to cause trouble in the world, especially for the believers.

Q: Tell me about your religious activities.

A: It’s important that our faith is both personal and communal. At home I take time to read the scriptures and pray every day. Once a week I join my community at our house of worship to worship God together. I recite our creed to remind me of our faith’s timeless truths. I give to the poor. I fast regularly. If I’m able, I hope to journey to the Holy Land one day.

At this point in the interview, have you figured out which of us is asking the questions, and which is answering? So far, my Muslim friend’s answers to my questions are all similar enough to what I might have said as a Christian to have this interview go either way.

This illustrates how much in common both religions have! There are plenty of places for us to start conversations and find connection points.

Q: Tell me some of the modern socio-cultural issues that are important to you.

A: One of my biggest concerns is the increasing secularization of society. Our culture—often led by our entertainment, media, and government—seems to be drifting away from strong morals. Sex outside of marriage is becoming more common even for people of faith. I feel that gender confusion is being pushed on our children at a young age. I’m concerned that our youth too easily accept abortion as the best solution to unwanted pregnancy. The rise of legalized drugs and addiction to social media bothers me. I’m concerned about the government closing down houses of worship. Religious hate crimes seem to be on the rise. In the face of all this, I think it’s important for the believers to demonstrate to our culture by our holy lives a more noble way. And we need to be engaged in the political arena to keep these issues before the public.

Again, when discussing social issues, many of the things my Muslim friend is concerned about also are issues I’m concerned about. More common ground for dialogue and for working together.

Q: Finally, tell me your thoughts on peacemaking.

A: Our God is a God of peace. It’s time for people of various faiths to come together in mutual respect and work together for the common good. We can be exclusive in our faith while being inclusive in relationships. If we believe in our hearts that our faith is right, okay. But if we believe that means that God loves us more than others, we have become arrogant. We can’t limit God’s limitless love if he chooses to love all the other people too that we think are lost.

Well said, my Muslim friend!

Are there topics this interview could have included where our beliefs would diverge? Sure. The divine nature of the Messiah, and his role in man’s redemption, are two key areas that my Muslim friend and I would look at from different perspectives.

But from this short interview, I hope you can see that the gap between Christians and Muslims both theologically and culturally is not a huge one. If you know a Muslim at your school, workplace, or neighborhood, why not put this to the test and genuinely ask them their thoughts on these issues? You might find someone who thinks a lot like you.

And just maybe, if you’re lucky like me, in time you’ll call each other “friend.”

Doorways into Terrorism

“I am no longer a terrorist.”

The first speaker at our peacemaking event had been a member of JAD, the same terrorist group behind the Surabaya church bombings in 2018, famous for using children as young as nine years old as suicide bombers. After a series of bomb attacks, there was a nation-wide net thrown for JAD members, and our speaker got caught. He had been storing weapons and handling transport, so his sentence was lighter than some others.

In prison, moderate Islamic teachers spent time with him studying the Qur’anic verses often used by jihadists in their textual and historical context. His “deradicalization” was effective. When he was released just over two years later, he swore to uphold the nation’s founding principles and its stability. The government helped him financially to get a new start, hoping that he wouldn’t return to his previous network for help. Now he travels and speaks, warning people of the dangers of religious extremism.

I was also asked to speak at this event, and share about the launching of my book SOMEONE HAS TO DIE in Indonesian. After sharing about the book, I presented the many motivations of young people to join extremist groups, or “doorways” to extremism.

The 7 doorways I shared for the Indonesian context of jihadist groups can also be applied more widely to white supremacist groups in the U.S., neo-Nazis, or even gangs. By expanding the context, I’ll also expand the motivations to 10 reasons young people are successfully recruited into extremist groups.

  1. Ideology—the more they study the belief system of the extremist group, the more they are willing to give their lives to defend its principles (Remember that the belief system of an extremist group does not represent the mainstream beliefs of that religion or culture.)
  2. Revenge—specifically for personal loss, such as “they killed my brother”
  3. Injustice—a sense that their group is treated unfairly by another
  4. Fear—concern for personal safety, or fear of losing their group’s position or cultural values
  5. Lack—there is a financial or material incentive to join the group
  6. Belonging—the group accepts them as a valued member
  7. Purpose—the group gives them a sense of accomplishing something grand, beyond themselves
  8. Fame—fulfilling the group’s assignment for them gives honor to their name
  9. Pain—personal suffering (for example, at home) needs a place to be expressed; killing your abusive parent is shameful, but channeling that pain to kill an enemy is praised
  10. Power—the group gives powerless individuals a sense of power over others

Our speaker entered an extremist group through the doorway of ideology. We’ve watched others in our community enter extremist groups because of lack, belonging, pain, fear and injustice.

Once they’re in the door, the group can use all the other motivations listed here to affirm their decision to join, and to convince them to do heinous, violent deeds to others while feeling completely justified.

What conclusions can we draw from this list?

  1. Extremists prey on hurting people. Whether it’s the victim of child abuse, the lonely kid at school, the boy getting bullied on the street corner, or the new immigrant struggling to adapt to their neighborhood, it’s up to us to identify those around us who are hurting, and walk alongside them with love, healing and guidance. If we don’t reach out to them, an extremist group will.
  2. Protecting an entire generation from extremism will require collaboration, a net wide enough to catch all at-risk kids. It’s foolish to expect that a church youth group is the answer. We need the church youth group and the mosque youth group and the Buddhist temple youth group and the school extracurricular clubs and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and the Big Brother program and the government social workers and on and on—these are not our competition, these are all our allies! We may not agree on everything, but all these groups teach kids to respect themselves and others, to solve problems peacefully, and so on. These groups produce young adults who are able to discuss our issues of difference respectfully, while being willing to work together for the common good.

If you’re not currently involved in reaching at-risk youth in some way, may I ask you to consider donating to a group that is, or support an individual that you know that is, or at least pray for our youth to find their needs met in the right places?

And pray for those currently trapped in extremist groups, from jihadists to gangs in the inner city—that God will show them the way out, as he did for this ex-JAD speaker who is no longer a terrorist.

Someone Has to Die in Indonesian!

I’m happy to announce that my first novel on terrorism and peacemaking in Indonesia, SOMEONE HAS TO DIE, is now published in the Indonesian language (Bahasa Indonesia), and on sale here.

I’ve been blessed with some amazing endorsements from leading Indonesian Muslims such as Abd. Rohim Ghazali (Executive Director of the Maarif Institute), Azaki Khoirudin (CEO of IBTimes Indonesia), Diyah Puspitarini (Head of PP Nasyiatul Aisyiyah) and several others.

God willing, once Covid restrictions are withdrawn, I hope to do several book discussion events (acara bedah buku) in several cities across Indonesia.

For now, those of you who read Bahasa Indonesia can enjoy this short excerpt from Chapter 7.

Syukran menggeram. “Dasar bodoh. Hentikan omong kosong kalian dan gunakan otak kalian sebentar saja. Aku sedang berbicara soal jihad.” 

Sontak Hafiz menanggapinya. “Benar. Aku setuju dengan Syuk. Kapan kita akan berhenti main-main dengan silat dan mulai melakukan sesuatu untuk melawan para kafir ini dan mengambil kembali negara kita? Aku membaca di majalah Sabili tentang remaja di Jawa yang meledakkan gereja karena dia mendengar orang-orang kafir itu akan membawa tiga ekor babi besar ke kotanya untuk jamuan mewah. Gila! Kalau seseorang membawa babi ke kota kita, kita harus melakukan hal sepadan untuk memberi mereka pelajaran.” 

Tadi pagi di sekolah Hafiz mencuri perhatian yang seharusnya  menjadi milikku. Sekarang dia mau mencuri ideku tentang jihad. Syukran mengisap rokoknya dalam-dalam, kemudian menurunkan nada suaranya seperti sedang menceritakan sebuah rahasia. “Itu masih tidak ada apa-apanya. Saat masih muda, ayahku pergi ke Afghanistan. Dia bilang, suatu hari Mullah Omar memerintahkannya untuk melakukan perlawanan sambil membawa granat dan pisau. Katanya, orang-orang Kristen di suatu gereja telah merobek Al-Qur’an dan mereka pantas diberi pelajaran. Ayahku menyelinap lewat jendela di bagian depan gereja dan meledakkan pendeta dan jemaat di baris pertama sampai hancur. Lalu dia berlari ke pintu bagian belakang dan ketika semua orang berlarian keluar, dia menggorok 57 orang tepat di leher dan membiarkan mereka jatuh bertumpukan di kanan-kiri pintu. Salah satu pria yang dia tusuk sedang membawa kitab Injil. Ayahku merobeknya menjadi dua bagian dan meletakkan robekannya masing-masing di tumpukan mayat itu sebelum akhirnya menghilang.” 

Semuanya terdiam sampai akhirnya Juki berdeham dan bertanya, “Kenapa ayahmu tidak pernah menceritakan kisah keren seperti itu di kelas?” 

“Ayahku terlalu sopan untuk pamer seperti kebanyakan orang.” Syukran sekilas menatap mata Hafiz, kemudian memalingkan wajahnya. “Dia memintaku berjanji tidak akan menceritakan kisahnya itu. Tapi aku yakin dia tidak akan keberatan jika aku hanya menceritakan satu saja.” Pada saat itu, Syukran merasa rasa hormat teman-temannya kepadanya semakin bertambah, seperti cairan merkuri dalam termometer yang kian melonjak di bawah cuaca panas Kota Banjar.

Mata Fani mengawasi dua orang pria yang berjalan menyeberangi jalan. Salah satunya membawa botol berisi minuman keras hasil racikan sendiri. Syukran menyadarinya dan ikut mengawasi dua pria itu. Fani bergumam, “Seandainya ayahku bisa sekeren ayahmu. Dia tidak melakukan apapun selain minum dan memukuli aku dan ibu.” Semua orang tahu ayah Fani adalah seorang pemabuk yang kerap melakukan kekerasan. Meskipun mereka suka mengganggunya, mereka semua melindungi Fani seperti adik sendiri, setidaknya ketika dia berada di luar rumah. 

“Syuk, apa kamu mau pergi ke Afghan seperti ayahmu?”

“Mungkin suatu hari nanti. Ayahku tidak akan memberi tahuku apa-apa. Aku harus mencari tahu sendiri.” 

Juki melempar puntung rokoknya. “Mungkin perekrut dari JI yang kita lihat tahun lalu akan kembali.” 

“Yang aku ingin tahu, kenapa murid JI semuanya adalah orang Jawa? Kalian tahu pelaku-pelaku bom Bali yang salah satunya Noordin M. Top, mereka semua berasal dari Jawa. Kenapa tidak ada pembunuh orang kafir yang berasal dari Banjar?” 

Hafiz mengangkat kedua tangannya seakan-akan meminta teman-temannya untuk diam. “Sudah lama aku mempersiapkan pengumuman ini. Perkenalkanlah amir masa depan pertama yang berasal dari Banjar.” Ia membungkukkan kepalanya sedikit, berharap mendapat tepuk tangan. 

Udin tidak bisa menahan lagi. “Baik, semuanya, inilah dia satu-satunya Amir Cacat kita—“Sang Pemimpin Pincang”. Dalam usahanya membunuh presiden Amerika, dia tak sengaja menembak kakinya sendiri.” Udin tertawa terbahak-bahak dan mengundang gelak tawa dari yang lain. Ia menepuk lengan Hafiz dan menyorakinya. 

Hafiz berusaha membela dirinya sendiri. “Hei, hanya aku dan Syuk atlet yang paling baik di sini. Kalian pikir mereka akan merekrut anak gendut seperti Kiki?” Kiki adalah anak yang paling gemuk di ekskul silat. Ia selalu berdiri di barisan belakang supaya terhindar dari teman-temannya yang suka menggodanya tanpa ampun. “Atau yang berengsek seperti Udin, yang ototnya cuma ada di mulut saja?” 

“Setidaknya mulutku tidak perlu dibungkus es batu dan di arak naik motor seperti tadi pagi! Kamu mirip seperti nenek-nenek yang kakinya terjepit di tas belanja!” Mendengar olokan Udin, Fani tertawa yang paling keras sampai tubuhnya terjatuh dari beranda, mengundang teriakan yang lebih meriah lagi. Beberapa orang yang berlalu-lalang mengendarai motor hanya melirik mereka. Tapi orang-orang di Kelayan Dalam sudah terbiasa melihat orang-orang mabuk kapan saja, sehingga mereka tidak berusaha mendiamkan mereka. 

Juki melanjutkan pembicaraan mereka: “Memang benar. Mereka ingin merekrut atlet. Ingat bom Marriott di Jakarta tahun 2009? Aku membaca bahwa pelaku pengebomannya adalah anak sekolahan bernama Dani. Dia adalah pemain basket, pintar, dan dari sekolah yang bagus. Tidak seperti kita.” 

“Ya, kalau dia bisa melakukannya, kenapa kita tidak?” Syukran menantang teman-temannya. 

“Iya, kenapa bukan aku?” Hafiz menambahkan. 

“Iya, kenapa bukan aku juga?” Udin setuju. “Kalian sebaiknya membawaku juga, soalnya kalau kita mati sebagai syahid dan bertemu 70 perawan di surga, aku akan jadi satu-satunya yang paham bagaimana menghadapi mereka.”

Book Review: The Beekeeper of Aleppo

This week I found myself writhing in pain and crying out—in my dentist’s chair. The infection was so deep under the tooth he couldn’t seem to get it anesthetized. I kept telling myself, “This nightmare will soon end; just hang on for a few more minutes…”

And then it was over. I went back to my comfortable home, took some pain pills, and started planning all the great things I was going to eat as soon as my jaw felt better.

But there are people in this world for whom the nightmare never seems to end. There is no comfortable home to return to. There are no pain pills for what they’ve lost. There are no happy plans for the future.

I’m talking about war refugees—and in this case, Syrian war refugees.

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the onset of civil war in Syria, causing what World Vision calls, “the world’s largest refugee and displacement crisis of our time.” Six million fled their homes for other areas of Syria, and nearly 6 million more fled the country. A few of the lucky ones made it to America, England, or other countries prepared to help them start a new life. Millions more are stuck in official refugee camps, or unofficial tent communities, or in villages overrun with refugees where there is insufficient infrastructure, much less employment opportunities, for them to even start again.

They are stuck between one life lost, and little hope for another to ever begin. For them, the nightmare has no end.

In her number one international bestseller The Beekeeper of Aleppo (2019), author Christy Lefteri introduces the world to one such Syrian refugee family. Nuri was a beekeeper. He lived a pleasant, peaceful life with his wife Afra and son Sami—until the day war came to Aleppo. A bomb killed his son and blinded his wife. His bees, his city, his entire world was destroyed. His only option to stay alive was to flee.

Nuri and Afra’s journey takes them through a war zone, refugee camps, and sneaking across borders with smugglers whom they’re never sure they can trust. Along the way, they encounter many colorful characters. Their efforts to leave Aleppo to escape suffering actually expose them to a myriad of other types of suffering that most of us cannot imagine. They thought they had lost everything in Aleppo—not true. They lost even more of themselves on the refugees’ journey to nowhere.

Christy Lefteri’s experience as a volunteer at a UNICEF refugee center introduced her to the true “homeless” of the earth. Their horror stories no doubt aided her in compiling this fictional account of one Syrian refugee family. Their tale is told in hauntingly beautiful prose.

Lest you fear that this book will depress you, I assure you that there are enough moments of beauty and humanity to give the reader pause, to wonder at the courage and endurance of these precious souls.

And perhaps, this book will give the reader fresh courage to approach the new foreign family that just moved into the neighborhood, or who are playing with their children at the park, and ask them how they’re settling into a new life. Because refugees don’t just need a new home and a new job—they need a new community where they are loved, where they belong.

That’s when their lives will really begin again.

Fallen Heroes–What We Learn from Ravi Zacharias’ Downfall

After nearly 50 years as one of the world’s most famous Christian apologists, Ravi Zacharias (deceased) has now been exposed for sexually abusing many women, and threatening them to keep his horrendous deeds hidden.

This news dropped like a bomb across the Christian community. Millions had been strengthened in their faith through Ravi’s ministry. I used his materials in a high school class I taught on World Religions.

When I heard the news, I had a flashback to when I was in my twenties and was deeply influenced by the Christian worship leader, Kevin Prosch. At one event where Kevin was leading worship, he only got through part of the second song when the Spirit of God fell upon that place and for the next three hours all of us were caught up in an ecstatic realm—some saw into heaven, some fell on their faces weeping—and for the first time in my life, what I had always known about the love of God became my experience, and changed me forever.

A few years later, Kevin publicly confessed his sexual brokenness that had hurt several women and destroyed his marriage. I was devastated.

We all have “heroes” that turn out to be mere mortals; or worse, maybe even “villains.”

In the two cases above, one managed to “escape” to heaven without facing the music here on earth—the other repented and turned his life around. I imagine that standing before God will be a very different experience for them—one exposed and ashamed; the other radiant with the joy of the redeemed.

When these failings happen, the Church’s usual lessons are, “Be careful!” and “Be accountable!” Worthy reminders, for sure.

The World’s usual response is “Pull their books/music off the shelves, their hypocrisy invalidates their message.”

But does it? I still sing Kevin’s songs. I’ll still reference Ravi’s logical arguments for truth.

Their credibility went up in smoke, but what is pure and true in their message will endure the flames.

This leads us to a question rarely addressed by either the Church or the World—why would God give such knowledge, talent and influence to people He knows will use it to abuse others for their own gain?

This isn’t only a modern question—why give Solomon divine wisdom and limitless wealth if he would end up worshipping the idols of his 700 wives and 300 concubines?

Why invite Judas to join the 12 disciples in the first place if he would end up as Jesus’ betrayer?

My answer—God’s love and humility is so astounding, that He will stoop to any depth to enter into our screwed-up world.

Solomon’s dedication of the Temple brought a visitation from God. Judas seemingly healed the sick and cast out demons with the rest of the disciples.

And God couldn’t wait for a generation that was ready to follow His Messiah, so He sent Jesus to a generation that crucified him.

Today, God can’t wait for an army of morally pure, completely selfless, all-loving people to carry His message to the world, so He slips it in between our foolish ambitions and pursuit of our own pleasure, and somehow His message manages to shine through.

As Kevin Prosch wrote in “So Come”:

               You’ve taken the precious from the worthless…

               You’ve chosen the weak things of this world to shame that which is strong

               And the foolish things to shame the wise

I remember one time my kids complaining about a church we visited. I understood—I had felt God’s presence more clearly in a mosque than in that church. But I told my kids, “The amazing thing is that if you look hard enough, God is in this church too. He’s infiltrated the movie studios, the music industry, the bars, the prisons, and even the Christian seminaries. In some places you have to look extra hard to find Him, but He’s there.”

So here’s my lesson from reflecting on my fallen heroes—Oh, the depth of God’s love and humility, to choose to be carried into our cities on the back of an “ass” over and over again, because He couldn’t wait for us to encounter His love just a little bit more today!

A Drama for Inauguration Day

As we prepare for the U.S. presidential Inauguration Day, so many thoughts and emotions are swirling through me, it’s hard for me to write them all down. Peacemaking is needed in our nation now more than ever.

Fortunately, another writer has captured many of my feelings in her powerful short drama.

I’d like to introduce you to the talented teenage writer, Ashley Newman.

My Hatred for Politics

Characters:       Ashley: An American teen 

                        God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

Scene 1

(The scene opens on a girl on a bed with a white light shining on her. Stage left a soft red light shines, stage right a soft blue light shines. Muffled yelling plays over the loudspeakers getting gradually louder. She sits up and everything is silent. Putting her head in her hands she exhales and speaks.)

Ashley: I’m standing in the gap again. Why do I always put myself in this position? 

I’m unable to choose a side, recognizing truth and malice in both,

Unable to make up my mind, yet knowing if I do, I won’t feel any more at peace. 

(She stands up and begins walking from side to side)

There’s no love that attracts me to either side.

(A projection of Instagram fills the background. She stares down at her phone and scrolls.)

Angry social media posts filled with hatred are the only things in my feed now, 

Calls for unity cloak agendas that widen the chasm rather than bridge it.

(She looks up, staring vaguely at the back of the room)

Friends that were inseparable for three years suddenly can’t stand the sight of each other, 

And any word said becomes offensive for every and no reason. 

(She sits cross-legged in center-stage)

Everyone wants unity, but only if they win.

Calls for peace fill my screens, but the sounds of rioting outside my window is the only thing I can hear. 

(Sounds of yelling gradually increases again)

Ultimatums regarding both sides increase, as inauguration day draws nearer,

And the promises of harmony become progressively hypocritical. 

(The yelling is cut, as Ashley cups her hands over her ears. She stares on the ground, hesitates and speaks) 

I just want to see my friends laugh together again. 

I just want to have a conversation without passive-aggressive comments about someone saying something that offended this person who took a stand or didn’t.  

I want to see humility and genuine compromise and peace in this country’s leaders.

(A gentle voice resembling Morgan Freeman’s speaks)

God: You are right where I want you. 

(Ashley slowly looks up. She stands up and begins pacing.)

Ashley: I just wanna belong, Jesus. 

I want to see the truth about politics that seems to be so clear to everyone else. 

God: Don’t lose your humanity.

(Quickly replying, barely acknowledging his words, Ashley says)

Ashley: Jesus, when will my friends love each other again? 

God: Pride takes mountains of heartache to overcome. 

Ashley: (Angrily) Well that was specific 

God: Do not forget that these (The red and blue lights on the sides flash slightly and muffled yelling quietly turns on again) are all mine. Every single one I see and I love. 

Ashley: (She stops pacing and contemplates what he said. Her anger gives way to peace. She closes her eyes and begs) Jesus, give me your compassion. (She walks over to her bed, lays down, and curls up on her side. The yelling mutes and faint crickets are heard. The lighting dims and the curtains close.) 

What America Needs in 2021

I watched the US presidential election as a man caught between two horn-locked bison slowing the flow of progress.

The two pursuits of my professional life—peacemaking and revival—have deeply connected me with two very divergent communities of Jesus followers. One group follows Christ in pursuing peacemaking, speaking out for social justice, and serving the poor and the strangers among us. The other group follows Christ in pursuing revival, seeking a moral reformation of society, and frequently, advocating for the rights of the unborn. I can see Christ in all of these pursuits, and love all these passionate friends of mine.

The problem comes when one of them, from either group, says to me, “What we really need is for this man to be president (or to not be president).”

The implication is that God’s agenda on the earth needs key political leaders in agreement with it in order to fully succeed. But is this true?

Leo Tolstoy, an outspoken critic of his own tsar in Russia, addressed this issue brilliantly in his short story “What Men Live By.” God sent Michael the angel to take the life of a woman who had just given birth to twins. She begged Michael for her life, claiming her children needed her. Michael trusted the woman’s assessment of her situation rather than obeying his assignment from God, and let her live. For this he was exiled to earth until he learned three important lessons.

One of the lessons was that “it is not given to man to know his own needs.” In the end of the story, we find that God had already prepared a neighbor woman who had just lost her own baby to take in the twins, bringing healing to her and happiness to the children. God knows what we need better than we do.

When people tell me that what we need for God’s agenda to succeed in America is for a certain person to be president, I’m reminded of the words of the psalmist, “Do not put your trust in princes.” (Ps.146:3)

Has any historical revival ever been started by a king or president? Haven’t revivals always started because ordinary people obeyed God’s assignment to pray, to preach, or to serve others?

Has any significant social justice movement ever been started by a king or president? Isn’t it more common that ordinary people obeyed God’s assignment to start grassroots movements of compassion and justice, and the politicians were some of the last to jump on the bandwagon?

We don’t need any human being on the throne for God’s Kingdom agenda to advance on the earth, because He is still on His throne, King of kings, Lord of lords. “Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end.” (Isa.9:7)

Jesus accomplished everything his Father asked him to do (Jn.17:4) in spite of opposition from all the political and religious leaders of his day. Following Jesus in our spheres of influence could result in political leaders seeing the righteousness of our cause and lending support, or it could result in us being crucified. Should knowing the result in advance make a difference to our obedience?

We don’t know what we need—except that we need to remain faithful to following Jesus in whatever calling he gives us, and trust that God knows best what we—and what America—needs in 2021.

If Jesus Emigrated to Modern-day America…

Photo by Brennan Burling on Unsplash

If Jesus emigrated to modern-day America, would we Christians even notice?

Most of his ministry wasn’t in houses of worship. In fact, he upset the religious by breaking one of their rules to heal a man’s withered hand. I wonder what rules he might break if he came to one of our Sunday services?

Jesus spent his days out where the people were—in the streets, by the lake, on a mountain, or in the homes of “sinners.” If he hung out at the fish market or at a celebrity’s party, would we Christians ever come across his path?

Would we find Jesus marching in the streets, waving a banner for social justice? Isaiah 42:1-2 says, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.”

Or would he bring justice by filing lawsuits against the government, or mobilizing voters to end government oppression?

None of these are how Jesus stood for justice the first time he came. He never spoke a harsh word against the Roman oppressors—he saved his harsh rebukes for the hypocritical leaders of his own religion. It’s hard to imagine Jesus today condemning a particular political party, the media, the teachers’ union, the immigrants, or any other modern group on which we blame our problems. Yet so many of us Christians invest so much of our time and so many of our words fighting these perceived enemies, we could entirely miss Jesus calmly telling someone to put down his sword.

Would we find him at Costco, where we Christians stock up on our emergency food supplies, or at the gun store, where we pick up a pistol and extra ammunition to protect ourselves and our food supplies for the days when Christians are persecuted and anarchy reigns?

When we Christians boycott our gay cousin’s wedding, might we miss Jesus there too, turning some water into wine?

Then where would we find Jesus in modern-day America? Could we find him if we looked in the right places?

We could start with the sick—the hospice, the shut-ins, those with physical or mental handicaps. More of Jesus’ ministry was invested in healing the hurting than almost anything else.

We could look among those bound by chains—everything from those who manifest demonic influence to those caught in destructive addictions. Jesus dramatically turned their lives around.

We know he fed the hungry crowds. Perhaps we’d find Jesus among the poor.

We could look wherever those shunned by society hang out—like the Samaritan woman at the well, or the tax collector at his booth. What are those places in town that good Christians like us would never go? If we did, we might find Jesus there.

We could try gathering with others who were hungry for God, no matter their backgrounds. Of the many people who followed Jesus, we know of at least one who wanted to overthrow the government (Simon the Zealot), one who used a corrupt government position to get rich (Matthew the tax collector), one demonized woman (Mary Magdalene), two with murder in their hearts (James & John, wanting to call down fire on an entire village), and so on. They weren’t united by common theological positions, like our Sunday services are. They weren’t even all nice people! Jesus didn’t invite them to join his synagogue service once a week. Instead, he promised that whenever and wherever they would gather “in his name” there his spirit would be in the midst of them.

We Christians in America are busy doing our church things, fighting for this cause or that, protesting and suing and demanding our civil rights. None of these things are wrong, and some of these may come from a good heart. People might even applaud us for being good Americans, or good Christians.

But these activities don’t look like Jesus. Is it possible that we’ve forgotten what he looks like?

If Jesus emigrated to modern-day America, I’m afraid we Christians might be walking a path that rarely crosses the path chosen by our Savior.

So are we really “following Jesus”?