The Circle of Compassion

circle of hearts“Johnny’s” obvious skin disease meant the other kids usually kept their distance. The fact that he was mentally a bit slow, and had dropped out of school to scavenge trash he could resell to support his family, didn’t help him in making friends either. But neither of these disadvantages could keep this teenager from falling in love.

Our house was Johnny’s safe place, where everyone was included in the circle of love. He dropped by, knowing he’d get a hug from my wife—probably the only one he knew who would touch him with affection—for some dating advice.

“I really like her, but she won’t even talk to me,” Johnny shared. “How do I make her like me?”

My wife responded, “You can’t make someone do what they don’t want to do.”

“Oh, is that sin?” Johnny heard a lot of sermons in his Muslim community about sin, but never seemed to have a clear understanding of what sin was.

“Not because it’s sin, but because you care about her,” my wife explained. “What if I asked you to steal something for me, would you do it?”

“Stealing is sin,” Johnny shook his head.

“I mean, think about how you’d feel if I asked you to steal…”

“I wouldn’t feel good in my heart,” the boy replied.

“Right. Because I care about you, I don’t want to ask you to do something that makes you feel bad in your heart. I only want to ask you do things you feel good about. Make sense?”

Johnny nodded. But it was still a leap to get back to the girlfriend issue.

“So you care about this girl, right? If you ask her to like you, and she doesn’t feel good about that, you shouldn’t force her to like you. Only ask her to do things she feels good about.”

Johnny picked at his peeling skin. The defeat in his eyes indicated he understood. My wife offered to pray with him.

Later when she told me the story, I was struck by how winning someone’s romantic affections often fails when we start with what we want, but will occasionally succeed when we step into that person’s life to find out what they want.

I also saw a parallel picture of how we Christians, even motivated by “love,” often make the wrong choice in how we share the Good News of Christ. We want our friends to know Jesus so badly, we’ll encourage them to make a decision to follow Christ before they’re ready, or to go against their family, even to sneak around behind their family’s back to read the Bible or attend a Bible study. Inside, they may not “feel good” about this, but will do it to please us because we “pressure” them into it, even using Bible verses to back us up. Surely there is a more loving way.

Gregory Boyle, in his amazing book, Tattoos on the Heart, calls us to this deeper and wider type of love:

Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away….Kinship is what God presses us on to, always hopeful that its time has come.

One reason that Johnny and hundreds of other Muslims visit our home is that we’ve cultivated a habit of caring about what they care about. They share their dreams of getting married, going to college, seeing their parent get off drugs, the end of abuse in their home, or just knowing that tomorrow they’ll wake up with food in the house. “We’ll stand with you in prayer for that,” we say. And we pray together.

One day a new Muslim guy joined our weekly interfaith men’s prayer meeting. As we all shared our prayer requests, he confessed that he’d beaten his wife last night. “Of course, I was drunk…and she deserved it,” he explained. “But I guess I shouldn’t do that. You can pray for me.”

“All of us married men here know how hard it is to love our wives,” I sympathized. “We’ll stand with you in prayer for that.” He didn’t need a rebuke or a sermon. He already wanted to change! For several weeks we prayed with this brother for breakthroughs in his marriage (while my wife checked on his wife). And God answered him. He stopped beating his wife. And she was absolutely thrilled that he was attending our prayer meeting!

The day came when we shared our prayer requests and he had a completely new one—“I don’t feel God close to me, and that’s what I want more than anything.” You know our response: “We’ll stand with you in prayer for that.” Ah, the loving, wooing call of God was getting through, and this man was now ready to respond.

If we’d kept this drunken wife-beater out of our circle, we wouldn’t have had the privilege of witnessing this holy moment. But in the “circle of compassion” we found a kinship. We stood together with him in the mess. And we were still standing together when God’s love broke through.

Is there anyone you’ve been keeping outside your circle of compassion? Would it “feel good to your heart” to widen that circle just a little more?

Another Award for A Violent Light

I’m happy to announce that A VIOLENT LIGHT has picked up its third award–the 2017 Global Ebooks Gold Medal for Best Religious Fiction. Though the issues I address in the book are not easy for many American Christians to hear, the recent heightened tensions in Charlottesville, Virginia, remind us that White Supremacy is alive and well in America.

One of the tragic aspects of what happened in Charlottesville included this posting reportedly found on a well-know Neo-Nazi website right after the event: “Trump comments were good…he said he loves us all. Also refused to answer a question about White Supremacists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”

(President Trump did condemn the KKK and Neo-Nazis by name two days later.)

This mixture of White Supremacy and “Christian” faith is very disturbing to me. Yet it is very real. Just as many radical Muslims quote their Scriptures to support their evil atrocities, Christian White Supremacists quote the Bible to support their racism and violence as well. Religion and violence have a troubled history. The absolute opposite of this would be Jesus, who never let his religion get in the way of his radical love.

If you want to explore these issues further, A VIOLENT LIGHT is the thriller you need to read!

 

Leaving One’s Culture for Jesus, or Bringing Jesus into One’s Culture?

pacifist-71445_1920Does following Jesus mean someone should leave his culture behind, or should he instead bring Jesus into his culture? I pondered this question while reading this week the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi writes about an experience in his youth, when he had friends from various Hindu sects, Jains, Muslims, but not Christians: “I developed a sort of dislike for it [Christianity]. And for a reason. In those days Christian missionaries used to stand in a corner near the high school and hold forth, pouring abuse on Hindus and their gods. I could not endure this. I must have stood there to hear them once only, but that was enough to dissuade me from repeating the experiment. About the same time, I heard of a well-known Hindu having been converted to Christianity. It was the talk of the town that, when he was baptized, he had to eat beef and drink liquor, that he also had to change his clothes, and that thenceforth he began to go about in European costume including a hat. These things got on my nerves. Surely, thought I, a religion that compelled one to eat beef, drink liquor, and change one’s own clothes did not deserve the name. I also heard that the new convert had already begun abusing the religion of his ancestors, their customs and their country. All these things created in me a dislike for Christianity.” (p.31)

Living in a Muslim-majority nation, sometimes we see the exact same situation (substituting pork for beef) and the exact same reaction—a Muslim converts to Christianity and changes his diet, his dress, and begins denigrating his family’s religion and culture—which leads to his entire community disliking Christianity even more. Is this what Jesus meant by following him?

One of Gandhi’s most famous quotes is, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians.” Can you blame him? If Christians preached that following Christ meant beef, beer, hats and condemning everyone different from them, how is that “Good News” to a Hindu?

What if Gandhi had been allowed to just meet the Christ of the Gospels and had chosen to follow Jesus within his culture—maintaining the same diet, dress and respect for those around him? In his process of following, would not Christ be able to transform any area that needed change? Shouldn’t Jesus be Good News to everyone, even Hindus?

Do we Christians unwittingly posture ourselves today the same way they did in Gandhi’s day? Do we expect Muslims to take off their head coverings to follow Jesus? Do we refuse to associate with groups at the office over what they consume (alcohol, tobacco, drugs, etc.)? Are we perceived as the most condemning people of other’s beliefs or culture, quick to explain why other people (besides us) are going to hell?

What would it look like to change our approach to only bring Good News and let Jesus take care of transforming whatever he thinks needs work? Could Jesus hold his own in a Hindu or Muslim community? Could he find a place in a Liberal media office, in a gun-rights group, at a homosexual wedding or in Hollywood? Could it be that people in general are pre-conditioned to fall in love with Jesus, “the desire of all nations” (Hag. 2:7), if we could just introduce him and get ourselves out of the way?

And if Gandhi and the world are right, that the most condemning people are Christians, how is this following Jesus when the Bible claims Jesus came not to condemn the world but to save it (John 3:17)?

Let’s face it—Christians do not have a superior dress, superior diet, or superior culture—and the way we act sometimes, we should in no way claim to have a superior religion! The Good News that we do have is Jesus. And he’s Good News for everybody.

What do you think?

The Atheist Muslim

The Atheist Muslim book“The left is wrong on Islam. The right is wrong on Muslims.”

This tweet by Ali Rizvi, author of the new book The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason, was followed up by an interview with Vox that was one of the most honest, objective, insightful discussions of modern Islam I’ve read in a long time. I’d love for you to read the whole interview!

Rizvi was born in Pakistan and raised in a “moderate to liberal Muslim family.” He now works as a doctor and author in Canada. He is a liberal who is critical of liberals; a Muslim who is critical of Islamic ideology; an honest intellectual that represents a large population of modern Muslims seldom heard.

In the interview, Rizvi discusses the difference between Islamic ideology and Muslim people living in an Islamic culture. He addresses Trump and the Travel Ban, ISIS and terrorism, the search for Muslim identity, and what a reformation within Islam might look like.

Now back to his tweet: “The left is wrong on Islam. The right is wrong on Muslims.” Rizvi explains—

“On the left, people were saying that if you have any criticism against Islam, then you were a bigot against all Muslims. On the right, it was like, there are a lot of problematic things in Islamic scripture, so everyone who is Muslim must be banned, or profiled, or demonized. Both sides weren’t making that distinction between challenging ideas, which has historically moved societies forward, and demonizing human beings, which only rips societies apart.”

Have you noticed this in your interactions about Islam or Muslims? I sure have. Actually, I’ve noticed it in conversations about Christians or homosexuals as well. Liberals tend to label any critical analysis of ideas as intolerant, while conservatives sterotyped or demonized people because of their association with such ideas. (Although when I talk with atheists about Christians, there’s somewhat of an ironic role reversal.)

Have you ever heard the term, “Islamophobo-phobia”? Rizvi continues—

“Several white Western liberals have confided to me that they agree with what I say, but won’t say it themselves because they’re afraid they’ll be labeled bigots or Islamophobes. I call that ‘Islamophobo-phobia,’ the fear of being called Islamophobic. It’s a great way to shut down the conversation and silence people with colonial or white guilt.”

One of the strengths of this interview, and no doubt the book, is that Rizvi enlightens us as to the ongoing conversation millions of Muslims around the world are having about these issues right now. They are wrestling with their own identity, culture, ideology, faith and the future of Islam. Rizvi concludes the interview like this—

“Today, this conversation and this movement is happening within the Muslim world. It doesn’t just include the hijab-wearing women and bearded men you see on your TV. It includes the beer-drinking Muslim colleague you work with; it includes the Muslim girl at college who had doubts about her religion’s views on women; it includes agnostics, atheists, and free thinkers like me who want the freedom to change our minds without literally having to lose our heads. There are many voices in this conversation, and you don’t have to choose. Just let it happen.”

What can we do? Be a sympathetic listener to your Muslim friend as he or she processes their own faith journey. Ask sincere questions without making assumptions or generalizations. And share your own journey of questioning within your own religion.

For those of you whose curiosity is piqued to read the interview, I’d love to read your comments!

Top 10 Books Every Christian Should Read

I’m an avid reader, with a tremendous appreciation for how so many books have greatly impacted my life. But there are certain books that are transformational—they either bring the most important things into crystal clear focus, or take us to new places that we absolutely must go.

These books may not get the notoriety of Christianity Today’s or Amazon’s Top 100 Lists, but I guarantee they will all rock your world!

1. How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity by Morgan Guyton

The Pharisees had the Scriptures but had created a religious culture that kept the common folks from God—have we done the same today? This book is ripping me up right now!

2. Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle

Los Angeles gang members’ hearts get melted by the raw love of God—I cried through the whole book. Read my review here.

3. The Seven Mountain Renaissance: Vision and Strategy through 2050 by Johnny Enlow

A prophetic, insightful and hopeful view of the glorious Bride God is forming us into and how this maturing Church will be powerfully impacting all aspects of culture by 2050. Read my review here.

4. Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism by Carl Medearis

Whether talking to a Hezbollah terrorist or a gay activist, Carl convinces us that Jesus would rather hang out with them than visit Carl’s church! Read my review here.

5. The Supernatural Power of a Transformed Mind Expanded Edition: Access to a Life of Miracles by Bill Johnson

“Jesus is perfect theology,” Bill states, then gives us a “mind-makeover” to step into a supernatural life with Him.

6. Praying for Strangers: An Adventure of the Human Spirit by River Jordan

What if every day we took time to stop and pray for a stranger? River Jordan did, and it changed her life. Read my review here.

7. Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta by Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa’s personal letters and thoughts reveal long struggles in the darkness, along with a determination to see Jesus in the face of the dying and “offer Jesus my smile.

8. Culture of Honor: Sustaining a Supernatural Environment by Danny Silk

A revolutionary book on moving from punishment-based discipline to honor-based relationships without fear. Read my review here.

9. Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr

For those over 30, the second-half of life requires a new way of thinking, and Rohr is a brilliant guide.

10. Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin’s Path to God by Brennan Manning

Walking through darkness, taking risks, releasing our need for clarity—all these require deeper levels of trust—not in Biblical principles, but in a faithful Father who is completely trustworthy.

Click on any book below to buy it for yourself or a friend, or add it to your Wish List for your next birthday or Christmas gift! You’ll never be the same.

Anti-Muslim Protests Planned Across America

photo from http://www.rawstory.com

On June 10, 2017, in 22 major cities in America (Yes, you, Houston! Seattle! St. Paul! Kansas City! Raleigh! Orlando! etc.) a group called ACT! for America is planning anti-Muslim “March Against Sharia” protests. This conservative group expresses their prejudice against Muslims with the typical fear-mongering outlandish claims about an Islamic conspiracy to take over America; that “tens of thousands of Islamic militants now reside in America operating in sleeper cells, attending our colleges and universities, even infiltrating our government” and asserting that radicalized Muslims “have infiltrated us at the CIA, at the FBI, at the Pentagon, at the State Department.”

The website for one Florida branch of ACT! for America even makes this highly offensive claim: “It is not ‘fanatical’, ‘radical’, or ‘extreme’ Islam that we are fighting, but normal, orthodox, canonical, typical, accepted, traditional Islam.” This is pure prejudicial hate-speech against all the upstanding Muslim-American citizens around us who ACT! wants to deny their freedom of religion.

This group’s solution is to ban ALL Muslims from entering America, and to pass Anti-Sharia laws in every state before it’s too late and America falls to Global Islamization.

[Interestingly, my award-winning book A VIOLENT LIGHT introduces a similar group with a similar name (“Act Now to Save America”) though I hadn’t known at the time that ACT! for America existed.]

What can we do to show our support for our Muslim neighbors? Here are some ideas from my contact at the group Shoulder to Shoulder:

  • Rather than planning counter-protests or vigils or anything like that (which could add fuel to ACT’s desire to gain media attention), it might be more fruitful to use the fact that it’s Ramadan to encourage interfaith Iftars [fast-breaking meals] on the nights of June 9 and 10 in particular, and we could help pitch these to local and national media as the “counter-protests”, in that they are ignoring the fearmongering that ACT is doing and instead, getting together with neighbors to celebrate a beautiful time for the Muslim religious calendar.  Of course, just encouraging interfaith partners to connect with their Muslim contacts in these cities to find out what they are doing/thinking is the first step.
  • Muslim Advocates is working on a letter that could be sent to mayors, police chiefs, etc., to alert them of the anti-Muslim marches and to make sure they understand that these are hate groups leading them.  We could encourage faith leaders at local levels to be part of the group that sends/delivers those letters, showing community leaders that a broad segment of their constituents (not just Muslims!) are concerned about this.
  • ReThink Media is willing to help us with drafting and pitching op-eds from local clergy in some select cities.  I will do some outreach to clergy on our rapid response list, but if you have people you’d like to recommend to me in any of the cities displayed on this map (where protests are planned), please let me know.  We’d want the op-eds to run the weekend of the protests, not before, so that we don’t give them extra publicity.

Is your city on the map? If so, and if you’re interested in doing something in your city, perhaps Shoulder to Shoulder or I can link you with others who are also committed to religious freedom and loving your neighbor.

photo from http://www.muslimmatters.org

Is your city not on the map? Then I recommend you begin now to make friends with the Muslims in your school, workplace, neighborhood, park, and city. Don’t let the nightly news convince you that all Muslims are out to kill you. They’re not. Get to know a Muslim and find out the truth for yourself.

If you are a Christian and with the goal of self-preservation want to close your nation, your city and your heart to Muslims, I suggest that your fear is too great and your God is too small. Ask God to enlarge the capacity of your heart to love–whether you consider Muslims your neighbors or your enemies–Jesus offers no second option for those who follow him.

And please pass this on to other groups or churches in your city. Letting our Muslim neighbors know they’re cared for as an important part of our multi-cultural America is the best way to keep them from being radicalized by angry, disenfranchised extremists.

 

Awards for A Violent Light

After seeing my 2nd novel win awards, I was thrilled to see my 3rd is doing just as well. In the category of “Religious Fiction,” A Violent Light was a finalist for the 2017 National Indies Excellence Awards. And it won the 2017 Next Generation Indies Award.

My hope is that these awards convince new readers to try this book, and allow God to take them to a new place of understanding and desire for peace.

You Can Go to Hell

“I can’t wait for the Day of Judgement when Jesus is made to stand before Allah, his Lord and Creator. And is made to testify against you infidels. He will denounce your worship of him and disassociate himself from you all. Then, Hellfire for eternity for all of you who worshiped Jesus…”

These are the words of my Muslim acquaintance who had gotten himself into an argument with some Christians that quickly deteriorated into mutual swearing, name-calling, and arguing over who was headed to Hell.

Later he sort of apologized to them and explained his frustrations: “You’ll have to excuse me for my rather blunt tone. I deal with Christians regularly. I get so annoyed and frustrated when they constantly tell me that my religion is false, I’m going to hell because I refuse to bow down to Jesus, ‘Muhammad was a false Prophet,’ ‘Islam is a death cult,’ ‘Allah is the moon god,’ etc. I’ve heard it a million times and quite frankly, I’m sick of it. It’s an eye for an eye out here. If you Christians want to tell me that my religion is false and that I will burn in hell for eternity because I refuse to worship Jesus. Then I’m just gonna give you what you gave me, straight intolerance and disrespect.”

Honestly, while watching from the sidelines, I felt some sympathy for the guy. No one likes to be attacked, and in his eyes, he was responding in the same spirit that the Christians treated him. If they thought they were successfully convincing him of their “superior truth,” they were sadly self-deceived.

I decided to enter the conversation for the first time, but to come in the opposite spirit.

I apologized for how we Christians are so often guilty of hate, unforgiveness and judgment, all of which create a veil through which it is hard for people to see our Jesus, who only ever acted out of love, forgiveness and healing of others, even those who hurt him. As I gently turned the conversation back to Jesus, this man’s tone softened, and he surprisingly agreed that neither he nor Muhammad himself could live up to Jesus’ standard—he quoted Jesus’ words about “turn the other cheek,” “pray for your enemies,” and “forgive seventy times.” It turns out that this Muslim may know as much about Jesus as the Christians who were arguing with him. But the way they talked about Jesus fell far short of the beauty of Jesus himself.

The Bible tells us that part of seeing Jesus’ glory is in seeing how he is “full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Jesus spoke truth graciously. And the only people he ever argued with were his own religion’s leaders, never with someone from another religion. From what we read in the Gospels, there is no basis to assume Jesus would tell this Muslim man that he is going to hell. It’s far more likely he would look for a way to bring healing and blessing into this man’s life, and see if he’d come back for more.

After our brief dialogue, this previously enraged Salafi Muslim had completely calmed down and offered this:  “I have to thank you. Because you opened my eyes to something. You taught me to be less harsh and more compassionate and understanding towards Christians… Because of you Jim and you alone, I have decided to ‘lower my wing’ in humility and be more patient and understanding towards Christians. As opposed to being harsh, blunt and intolerant. Thank you and may God bless you.”

A transformation had taken place. A small part of that veil was torn, inviting him to come closer. I thanked him for his gracious words, and began praying in my spirit over our next encounter.

Before we parted, he added this spontaneous prayer of blessing for me: “I wish you all the best in your spiritual journey to eternal salvation. And I pray that God blesses you and that He bestows upon you mercy and makes your life long and prosperous. Take care and God bless!”

Another Award for A WAY OUT OF HELL

A WAY OUT OF HELL takes its 2nd award this year, this one a 2017 eLit Award for Religious Fiction. It’s encouraging to see the recognition this book is getting, hopefully not only for the quality of the writing, but also for the power of its message. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount continues to carry some of the deepest wisdom for mankind today, including how we face threats like prejudice, religious extremism and ISIS.

If you haven’t read it yet, you can order it here:

Purchase at Amazon: A Way Out of Hell

(also available at iBooks, Nook, Kobo and other e-book sites)

Please tell others about it!

Andrew Garfield finds Jesus in SILENCE

     I write a lot about loving your neighbor, or even loving your enemy, in the context of Christian-Muslim relations, where everything from prejudice to outright violent persecution is a daily reality for millions of people of faith. This crucible of the human experience is not lost on Hollywood either.

But rather than make a politically controversial film about Muslims persecuting Christians or vice-versa, Director Martin Scorsese brought to life the horrifying persecution of Christians at the hands of the Japanese shogunate 500 years ago in his film entitled SILENCE.

In the film, Andrew Garfield plays the role of a Jesuit priest tasked with searching for his mentor (Liam Neeson) who is rumored to have abandoned the Christian faith. To prepare for the role, Andrew studied diligently with a Jesuit father, James Martin. In a fascinating interview, Andrew shares that those studies became more important to him than the film, and what transpired through the studies surprised him.

“What was really easy was falling in love with this person, was falling in love with Jesus Christ. That was the most surprising thing,” Andrew says.

Andrew wasn’t a Christian when he started the film. But he recognized a certain pain in his heart. “The main thing that I wanted to heal, that I brought to Jesus, that I brought to the Exercises [the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola], was this feeling of not-enough-ness,” he said. But in meditating on Jesus’ life and words he found himself being transformed.

“I feel like this is what God is showing me,” he said. “I’m praying that I’m freer to offer myself vulnerably…and that these other voices, whether they’re internal or external, don’t have the same power over that flame, over the ability to offer that purest, vulnerable, cracked open heart…in service of God, in service of the greater good, in service of love, in service of the divine….If I can make storytelling a service, if I can be of service, and be as humble as I possibly can while doing it…”

He concludes, “There were so many things in the Exercises that changed me and transformed me, that showed me who I was…and where I believe God wants me to be.”

Meeting Jesus does tend to have that effect on people…

Back to the film…I absolutely loved it! The story presented two levels of religious conundrums. At the first level, Garfield’s character is challenged to deny his faith in Christ or die. He chooses his faith over his own life.

But then a more difficult choice is presented—to deny his faith in Christ, or others will die. This young Jesuit priest has to wrestle with whether it’s more Christlike to publicly bear witness to your faith though it will cost others their lives, or to sacrifice what is most precious to you (your public faith) in order to save others.

I won’t spoil the movie with what choice Garfield’s character makes. But I’m curious which choice YOU think is better—if you’re told to deny your faith or ten people will be executed, what do you think Jesus would want you to do? Post your comments below.

And then, check out the movie SILENCE.