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”?

Partnering with God

Photo by Mark Potterton on Unsplash

This week my son generously offered to help me redo my website.

I was reminded of when he was small, and wanted to help. In those days, his help was limited to following my commands: “Hold this. Hand me that.”

Now he’s an adult. He knows what I like. But he also has his own preferences. So my new website design partly reflects me and partly reflects him.

And I love it!

God’s desire was always for us to grow into maturity, moving beyond obedience to commands, and into a true partnership. We learn what He likes, and He enjoys combining with what we like to create realities that reflect both of us.

An example one of my favorite pastors likes to use is King David choosing to move his capital from Hebron to Jerusalem, also called “the City of David.” The Bible never mentions God commanding David to do this—it seems to be of David’s own choice.

However, after David’s death, God reveals to Solomon that He never before chose any particular city, but now He chooses Jerusalem (2 Chron. 6:5-6). So who chose Jerusalem? Looks like they both did!

I’ve felt this partnership with God so closely when writing my novels. Every day before I write, I ask Him to partner with me, and ask Him to inject what He wants into the stories I write. Then I write what’s on my heart, while adding anything I sense is on His heart. The result is writing that goes beyond myself, yet reflects both of us.

I see my wife partnering with God when she serves the street kids and the poor who come to our door. My wife wants to feed them, doctor them and hug them. Then God whispers, How about making birthday cakes for them? Many don’t know their own birthdays. Their lives are rarely celebrated. So my wife lets them pick a day to write on our calendar for an annual celebration complete with a birthday cake!

Could we partner with God each day at the office? We might begin the day praying like this: “God, today I want to get to work early and pray over the office. Help me to be patient with my boss and kind to everyone. How about You? Anything You want to do that I can help with?”

God whispers, Bob was supposed to spend this week on a cruise with his wife. It got cancelled. I’d like to comfort him today. Could you ask him how he and his wife are feeling, and just listen to him for Me?

I believe God not only wants to help us with our good desires, but He’d like us to help Him with His. Then every day becomes a true partnership between us.

Building God’s Kingdom was always supposed to be more than a Father and Son operation. When we partner with God, we take our mature roles in the Father and Sons business.

New Release–HOPE BREAKS THROUGH

HBT front I’m happy to announce that the Hope Trilogy is now complete!

After the book’s description, please keep reading about this profound writing journey for me.

Purchase at Amazon: Hope Breaks Through

Also available on iBooks, Nook and others

From the back cover:

The tension in the town of Hope builds to a climax in this thrilling conclusion to the Hope Trilogy. A major setback for those pursuing a citywide transformation drives them back to the House of Prayer and opens them to new partnerships with others. Change begins to infiltrate the spheres of business, education, media and the arts, resulting in all-out war with a corrupt government. Teenagers Kelsey and Harmonie are once again at the epicenter of shaking their city as they investigate a murder and fight for social justice, determined to see their town finally come into its destiny.

The Hope Trilogy is written for those who are hungry for God’s revival and transformation of their communities.

What a surreal journey!

I’m stunned at how the themes God gave me to write on last year and early this year, resulting in these 3 books, are so timely for our moment in history. The HOPE Trilogy addresses dealing with the sins of the fathers, racial injustice, race-motivated riots, police abuse of power, transformation in the 7 mountains of culture (government, media, business, education, religion, arts & entertainment, & family), the power of a citywide house of prayer, and angelic involvement in bringing revival and transformation.

It carries a prophetic vision for America’s broken places in 2020 to be awakened, healed and transformed.

We’re living in extraordinary times. There is a call for us to awaken to a past we’ve yet to overcome, a present pregnant with possibilities, and a future world that looks so much better than what we have now! God’s heart is to make all things new. Time to imagine and build a transformed world.

If you know someone who needs a fresh injection of hope right now, please buy these books for them!

Get the whole series at Amazon

Riots and Revival

praying man
Photo by Marquise Kamanke on Unsplash

Riots motivated by racial injustice destroy a town . . .

. . . was a scene from my 2nd book of the HOPE Trilogy, published three weeks ago.

At the time, I would not have guessed I’d be spending the Saturday night before Pentecost under a citywide curfew as the National Guard had to be called in to restore order in my own city.

My HOPE Trilogy is about a small town in Colorado that experiences revival and transformation. But when the light comes, it first reveals all the evil hidden in darkness so that it can be dealt with. Only then can the town become a “city set on a hill” that draws others to its light.

Right now there is more prayer going on for revival in America than at any time I can remember. I believe God is hearing and answering our prayers. He’s revealing very specific things we can repent of, such as (but definitely not limited to):

  • systemic racism
  • pervasive gender bias and mistreatment in schools, sports and the workplace
  • a health care system that was designed to take good care of the rich
  • an unhealthy exaltation of our national economy: considering it our top priority in how we vote, and equating a strong economy with national “greatness”

I disagree with those who glibly promise, “We’re the greatest nation on earth—very soon we’ll bounce back from this.” I believe their confidence is misplaced.

I would prefer to hear our leaders say, “These shakings of our nation we brought upon ourselves. Our best solutions must begin with a National Day of Repentance. Those of us in power positions (law enforcement, legal system, law maker, boss in the workplace) must shepherd others in fear and trembling, fully aware that God may remove us and raise up new shepherds for His flock.”

For all those with authority over someone else, it’s time to take to heart the words of Jesus, that our nation will be judged on the final day based on how we treated “the least of these.” (Matthew 25:31-46)

When the L.A. Riots of 1992 happened, I was a young man, patrolling my neighborhood at night, stunned that such a thing could happen so long removed from the Civil Rights Movement.

Now my adult children are trapped in their homes at night, watching the exact same scenes unfold. Another generation has passed, and we still haven’t changed.

Will we repent and learn the lessons of #MeToo, the Covid-19 virus, and the riots of Pentecost weekend 2020? If we do, we’ll still have many other issues to work on before we can call ourselves a “great” nation. But we’ll be on the right path.

Or is what we really care about a restored economy? Once we’re out spending money on shopping and entertainment again, will we keep putting off dealing with these social issues for another generation?

The path toward revival, and to becoming the kind of nation that passes the tests of judgment day, begins here: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” (I Peter 5:6)

And what steps do we need to take after that?

You’ll have to read book #3 of my HOPE Trilogy to find out. 🙂

New Release–HOPE IN THE BALANCE

HITB frontI’m happy to announce that book #2 in the Hope Trilogy is now available!

Purchase at Amazon: Hope in the Balance

Also available on iBooks, Nook and others

From the back of the book—

The small town of Hope is shaken when teenagers Kelsey and Harmonie uncover its skeletons of the past. Will those secrets tear the town apart, or will they become a path to healing? Meanwhile, it appears someone is willing to use any means necessary to take over their town. The girls look for new allies to save Hope. A House of Prayer arises to confront demonic forces, leading to glimpses of angelic activity. As the intensity of the warfare increases, people on all sides are being pushed past their limits. The future of Hope hangs in the balance.

The Hope Trilogy is written for those who are hungry for God’s revival and transformation of their communities.

Check out these readers’ comments on the Hope Trilogy—

“Very good example of redemptive Christian fiction.” –Nike Chillemi, Christian mystery author

“Gripping…I read it in one day…I could not put it down.” –Carol Brown, Christian author

“I instantly fell in love with the characters Kelsey and Harmonie. Every time I thought I had the answer, I’d find out a new twist which would lead me in a different direction. I loved every minute of it!” –Tiffany Hersh, Christian book reviewer

If you’ve read book #1, please post your own comments below!

Cliffhangers

climber-4048_1920
Image by Hans Braxmeier

Snap!

With one deadly snap of his fingers, Thanos turned half the world—and half of my favorite characters—to dust.

If you’re a Marvel fan like me, the cliffhanger ending of Avengers: Infinity War (Part 1) felt like someone threw me over the cliff and I’d have to wait a year to hit the bottom. I laid awake nights trying to figure out how my favorite characters could come back to life again.

Whether you’re a fan of movies like Avengers or Harry Potter, TV shows like Game of Thrones or Heroes, or books like Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring trilogy, you’ve no doubt come across the cliffhanger ending. You want to scream at the writer for making you wait for the resolution. But you also feel the anticipation build as you can’t wait to see or read the next part of the series.

Suspense writers often employ this technique at the end of chapters, to convince the reader to keep reading just a little bit longer. So do TV shows, hoping you’ll binge watch just one more episode.

Would God ever do such a thing?

The Gospels all end with Jesus coming back from the dead—what might he do next? Acts answers that question, but leaves us with Paul sharing the gospel in prison—then what? Will he make it out alive?

In my HOPE Trilogy, I’m trying to develop this part of my writing craft. So for those who finish a book and want to scream at me, I know your pain! But I hope the excitement it builds in you to read the next book is worth it.

Anticipation can become a complaint of how long we have to wait, or a wide-eyed wonder of what surprise might come next.

Remember when you were a child, how excited you felt on Christmas Eve? It’s the child’s annual cliffhanger. It holds the promise of something wonderful tomorrow.

We all understand what the Psalmist felt like in Psalm 13 when he cries out, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

  • looking for a job
  • longing to be married, or to have children
  • desperate for this COVID-19 lockdown to end

Even the earth is living in a cliffhanger moment, according to Romans 8:18-21 (The Message):

That’s why I don’t think there’s any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times. The created world itself can hardly wait for what’s coming next. Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in until both creation and all the creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead. Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens.

For those who live in “joyful anticipation,” cliffhangers prepare us to fully appreciate the reward when it comes.

What if on the other side of COVID-19 there is revival? a great harvest? “glorious times ahead”?

So whatever it is that you’re waiting for, why don’t you engage your imagination, excitedly wondering what might happen next . . . and get ready for the big reveal!