Friday, April 22, 2016

An Unexpected Invitation

As one influential mission leader in our day has commented, “too many Christians are not even talking to Muslims!”  That is not the case with our worker Steven [name changed], who has labored for more than thirty years in a predominantly Muslim country. Steven is constantly looking for openings to speak with Muslim religious leaders. And he has had many opportunities to give a testimony in front of influential people. Some of these muftis and imams have established an association that seeks to build better understanding between the various religious groups within this particular the country.  They invited Steven to an inter-religious conference in the capital city, and invited another ReachAcross leader from Europe, David [again name changed], to attend with him. David’s description of his time at this convention (edited for this blog), shows us that the Holy Spirit can give us unexpected opportunities if we are open for them.

Initial Skepticism
Steven was skeptical at first, because such conferences usually don’t deal with the real issues, and resulting pronouncements often don’t lead to real action. Christians in the country encouraged him to attend, however, and he was able to invite other theologians to go with him—which was the reason that David was able to join him. The convention that resulted was held under the umbrella of the national Minister of Religion and attended by 200 delegates. Those who had organized the event—very professionally, as it turned out—seemed  positively impressed by the attention it received, as well as the large number of attendees.

Impressive Gesture
The national Christians were very appreciative of the fact that they had been recognized and invited to the event. Various denominations were represented, including a Catholic archbishop. It included a Jewish representative from Great Britain, who at the closing ceremony was invited to sit up on the stage with the Minister of Religion and other guests of honor. This was an important gesture—the organizers seemed to really desire to work toward achieving peaceful coexistence between the various religious groups. They were prepared to deal with public threats initiated by extremist groups. They wanted to initiate a process that would continue in various work groups and publications.

Addressing Discrimination
The program at the conference addressed important aspects related to coexistence and tolerance. Muslim leaders spoke openly about the situation of religious minorities in the country as unsatisfactory. Unfortunately the talks did not generally get down to the real challenges of local religious minorities. But it was an unusual opportunity to speak openly about such weighty matters before such a distinguished group. David was able to give examples out his experience regarding the peaceful existence of Christians and Muslims together in West Africa. Good responses followed.

Please Pray for Me!
John 1:1 in Arabic
But the best was yet to come: David had some really deep and worthwhile conversations with imam from the Middle East. This man heard for the very first time that there was such a thing as a Bible translated into Arabic!  Meetings with  hosts, local muftis and imams, were very warm and cordial, as they expressed a very heart-felt hospitality. One of the imams hugged David and Steven as they all parted company and asked them to pray for him. After a long conversation about very personal topics (such as faithfulness in love and marriage), a local journalist commented that he had harbored false ideas about Christians.

And so God opened the way to a completely unexpected opportunity to meet with influential Muslim leaders and tell them about Jesus!

Authored by a ReachAcross leader

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Muslim Background Believers in Jesus

They aren't perfect. They can even be legalistic, and at times, almost unbiblical in their total
rejection of everything Muslim. I have known Muslim Background Believers (MBBs) in Jesus who would not even use the traditional greeting, 'as-salaam-allaykum', even though it comes straight out of Scripture (Jesus said, 'Peace be with you!' when he came to His disciples after His resurrection). Do they, at times, 'burn their bridges behind them' in their zealous love for their new-found Savior? Most, however,  want to reach their own people, and need those who will walk along side them and help them make sense of their new world. The following article may help us understand better what MBBs go through (for security reasons, names of persons and people groups have been altered):

Mustafa, a young Muslim man in West Africa, got to know and began to follow Jesus. Since we were traveling a long distance together, he had time to tell me about how he had been kidnapped and tortured by his fellow students at the Qur’an school—in an attempt to bring him back to the ‘true faith’. Their imam had insisted that they not kill Mustafa—they were only to bring him back to reason. But they mistreated him so badly that they thought they had actually killed him, and threw him out of their car on the side of the road. Later on his own family tried to poison him because he refused to give up his faith. It was this very evening that he had asked Christians whether they ever fasted like Muslims do during the month of Ramadan, and as they shared with him the biblical basis for fasting, he decided not to eat anything that night. The next morning he discovered that his food had been poisoned, and had he eaten it, he would have died.

Abdul, a Suranese man who follows Jesus, sat with me in his village in West Africa with several of his Muslim friends as we drank tea together. His elderly grandfather joined us, and greeted all with a friendly handshake—all, that is, except for his grandson. He related with contempt how he had followed a different way. It is very difficult for us as individualistic Westerners to comprehend how humiliating such rejection is, and what consequences it can have in daily life.

In an Arabic-speaking country in which people are living on the edge of existence because of civil war, two men are shot in the open street because they have publically begun to follow the Lord. Both leave a widow and children behind. Muslims who come to Christ are often excommunicated, mistreated, threatened, and at times even lay down their lives. Why do they have to pay such a high price for their faith in Jesus?

Leaving Islam
Islamic law demands capital punishment for apostates, even though many Muslims themselves are completely against such strict application of its requirements. The death penalty is backed constitutionally in only a few countries, and thus is seldom carried out by governmental authorities. But it is still often understood as a duty of all Muslims and is carried out simply by lynching, if pressure fails to bring the apostate back to Islam.  Other kinds of intimidation or harassment to which believers are often subjected include the loss of employment, possessions, inheritance or even one’s spouse or custody of one’s children.

Family Honor
Most Muslim cultures regard the inter-connectedness with their social milieu, and loyalty to the same, to be of much higher value than the freedom of the individual. This means that leaving Islam is basically seen as a betrayal of the family and a defamation of family honor. And many times the only way to restore that honor is through drastic measures, even to the point of a [so-called] ‘honor-killing’. In many Muslim countries such murder crimes are not prosecuted, even if the law calls for it. In many cases the family members of those who decide to follow Jesus simply declare them as being dead, and even carry out a ritual funeral for them.

Belonging to Jesus
Countless Muslims who come to faith in Jesus experience what the Apostle Paul describes in 2 Tim. 3:12: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted . . . .” They hold fast to their decision in spite of persecution because they have gotten to know the living God, and because they have experienced acceptance from Almighty God and have assurance of His love. They have received an unshakable hope in knowing that this God is their heavenly Father. They know that their lives are in His hand, and that He can protect them or take them to Himself, where every tear will be wiped away.

Monday, February 15, 2016

That's Livin', Man!

For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. (1 Thess. 3:8)

I don't know when or where I got it, but some preacher told the (certain apocryphal) story of a rich man who was buried in his big, red Cadillac convertible. As the car was rolled down into the huge, deep ditch, with the corpse at the wheel, someone yelled out, 'hey now, that's livin', man!'

Whether in irony, jest, or blind seriousness, it brings up the question as to what real life is, and we have a clue in the Apostle's statement about some co-workers of his returning to him from the more northern parts of Greece. Timothy (and Silas, too, it seems, see Acts 18:5) brought news that the Thessalonian believers were staying the course in their faith in Jesus, despite severe testing and persecution; it was as though Paul could breathe again.

Sounds peculiar, doesn't it, coming from a man who also asked a rhetorical question (for emphasis!) 'who can separate us from the love of Christ?' (Rom. 8:35). And what about Phil 4:6, 'do not be anxious about anything'!

I guess balance is the key. Some things did concern the great missionary greatly: 'And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.' (2 Cor. 11:28) People were apparently his great concern, people for whom he had so often put his life on the line, people whose eternal destiny was wrapped up in trusting the priceless message of salvation which he had brought to them at great cost.

I don't claim to have been a part of any ministry that achieved what Paul the Apostle's did, but I think I have discovered what 'livin' is, and it ain't a Cadillac! In fact, as we sometimes putter around the country in our old van with nearly 180,000 miles, I'm very grateful to the Lord for the experience of knowing it is He who sustains us and brings us home, not a nice, new vehicle.

But compared to my friend, 'Raymond' that I wrote about last time, I'm a novice in the faith (in fact I'm probably still a novice, apart from any comparisons!). A few days after I wrote that last blog piece, suddenly he calls me. I had been nearly three months since he called, and I was worried! 

Raymond was upbeat; he had gotten moved. Still in solitary confinement (OK, they don't technically call it that, but when you cut through the jargon, that's what it is), he gets two envelopes and two stamps a month. Maybe. He used one last month to write to his mother, and one to write to me. (This month he hasn't gotten any yet.) But they were really nice and pushed the telephone up on a small cart close to his window so he could use the phone and call me. A week later, he called me again.

The interesting thing was, that first call came about five minutes after I had walked in the door from spending an hour fasting and praying for Raymond together with another ReachAcross board member. I had not been especially encouraged during that time of prayer (though the hour passed quickly)--I'm a doubting Thomas if there ever was one! 

As far as I know, Raymond is still there in solitary. He gets out a few hours a day though now to walk around, that is unless some inmate in the prison doesn't do something stupid (like stab another inmate or hit another inmate with an ax. Where do they get these things?--usually smuggled in as contraband by guards who work for nearly minimum wage and really don't much care whether they get caught or not.) They can be locked down for days on end if the prison warden decides to, or doesn't have enough staff (no prison in this state has enough staff, by the way).

So what's 'livin'? Knowing God through trusting in the saving power and presence of Jesus, according to John 17:3: 'And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.' It's the joy that keeps you going when you've been betrayed and falsely accused. It's the confidence you have in spite of the fact that you haven't consistently lived up to God's moral standards, and have never quite done what you should have done.

And evidently it is also the hope that prison cells, lock-downs, and trying circumstances beyond our control are not the end of the journey.

And the assurance that our lives are making a difference in those of others.

Thanks for praying for Raymond!  He still needs it!

For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy. (1 Thess. 2:19-20)

U.S. Director

Friday, January 15, 2016

Remember Those in Prison

Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. (Hebrews 13:3)

Dear Friends,

Sorry for using another metaphor with Tolkien’s Hobbit tales. For the uninitated reading this, hobbits are very much like people, only shorter, live in a green, lush countryside they call ‘the Shire’, and have round doors on their homes. Those who are familiar with this fiction will know that the above idyllic scene of hobbit comfort was not the main context of the story. The final scene of his book, Return of the King, has the hobbit Frodo battling with the last bit of strength that he has at hell's doors. In the end, he is saved not by his effort, but by intervention from without that one would have never expected—a picture of Grace working in the midst of human horror.

I use this picture because, as I write this, our brother Raymond, missionary in prison,  is in a Frodo-type situation. He has battled against false-accusations and been thrown into solitary confinement for his troubles. Imagine a cell the size of a large cleaning closet, moldy walls, one window but no lights, and pitch dark at night. Guys scream obscenities, break out the window, and just for kicks, break the fire-sprinkler pipe. You can never get away from the noise. One prisoner raps about killing an entire family. Another breaks through the concrete wall with goodness knows what. Raymond writes that sometimes it's helpful to have the noise--it drowns out his own sobs. 

No visitors allowed, except for a voluntary, weekly, 10-minute one from a prison chaplain, if he feels like it, or doesn’t forget. 

There are men who have been in this situation for years.

You do get a shower, once every ten days or so. A guard leads you down the hallway on a leash, treating you like the dog that you are assumed to be.

Raymond wrote, “I wish we could have met during the first 14 years of my faith . . . I prided myself back then of being a victorious Christian. People who knew me back then will tell you I was a loving, approachable, humble man of integrity.” Raymond has forgotten that we did meet, in 2008, when he first started the prison-initiative theological training program. From those who know him now (I’m not allowed to visit him), he hasn’t changed, he is still a man of integrity, a man I look up to. His criminal deeds lie well in the past, he is a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).

My heart breaks because I feel partially responsible; in encouraging Raymond to visit Muslims in solitary confinement, I should have realized he was entering a spiritual battle that was like sending him into a buzz-saw. Without adequate prayer support, anything can happen, and obviously did.

Please pray for Raymond. Scripture says that we must ‘through many hardships enter the Kingdom of God’ (Acts 14:22). Obviously those on the ‘front lines’ of service suffer more than others. Some get thrown into Job-like situations that mirror the sufferings of our Lord. He wrote that he 'hates his life' now. 

But those of us looking on can join in, too, through our intercession. 

Just one more thing: I'm writing to Raymond every day now--the only thing that gets to him is snail mail. Today I wrote that I want to be there in heaven when Jesus pins that Ultimate Medal of Honor on him. Then I'll take my little ribbon (if I get one, but I'll be happy just to be inside the door!), and together we can throw them back in worship at Jesus' feet.

What a day that will be! Finally home! The Shire won't compare with that Garden-City! And Raymond and I can have a good long visit. And though I'm not sure of my Scripture references here, I think I'll have a good cup of tea, and he can finally have coffee with cream and sugar, whenever he wants.

U. S. Director

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Injured in the Line of Duty

Interesting. I was just typing an e-mail to our prisoner in the Lord, Raymond. You know, the guy that Jesus found on death row many years ago. He was going to commit suicide back then, but instead of being dragged down to death by despair over his sins, he was transformed by Grace. Now he's gotten permission to visit some of the inmates in solitary confinement, one of them who has been there for seven years.

I guess it doesn't get much lower than that. 

It reminded me of something else, but bear with me just a moment in order to establish the connection. In the last few weeks, I was privileged to visit a brother of a friend, a man dying of brain cancer. It all started because of a love God has given him and me of the original languages of the Bible. Decades ago during my seminary days, I had a very good Hebrew teacher who taught us particularly some of the Psalms, as well as Isaiah 52:13-53:12. So I made it a life-long project to memorize Isaiah 53, among other passages, in the prophet's language. It has taken me most of my life, and probably will continue to do so, since I'm still trying not to forget what I've learned! 

Anyway, the first time I went over to John's (not his real name) house, we looked at Isaiah 53 together. Then he said after a couple of hours together that he'd like to look at Habakkuk. Wow, that took some work, but it was good stuff. How could God allow evil like that, Habakkuk asked?

Next time, we started Jonah, because John knew the text of Jonah well. He pointed out to me that the word 'ra', or 'evil', is used for violence in Jonah (not the usual Hebrew word for violence, by the way, but I can't use the usual word here, since it might cause undue difficulty--it appears in other, modern languages, too). Violent Nineveh (1:2); violent storm (1:7); finally, in 4:1, 'violent, evil, Jonah'. In essence, God says that Jonah's nationalistic, favoristic attitude towards Israel and against those sinners of Nineveh was from the pit (not in line with John 3:16, for example).

We studied on, pretty much got through the whole first chapter in our three hours together. But I realized I was going to really have to put myself into it and make sure I had all the verbs analyzed well in advance, so I put extra time into the text of chapter 2.

We never got there. The day came I was supposed to go over, and John's brother called me: 'He would like to see you, but can only talk for a few minutes.' John was fast losing strength. So we could only talk about one verb in Jonah 2, which is translated 'surrounded', 'enveloped', and usually in a negative sense. The waters surrounded him and the fish was dragging Jonah down, pulling him into the pit of death. But there was a greater power surrounding him, the chesed, covenant love of God, and he got tossed up on to the shore of Greater Service. 

Only a few days later, John got tossed up on to the Eternal Shore where Jesus was waiting for him.

Now back to Raymond. He's been lifted up to greater service, too. Just not the Final one, just yet. Thankfully, because we need him (check out Philippians 1:23-24!).  I was in the process of sending him a small Christmas present over the Internet. Something to help him get a few cups of coffee with cream and sugar. (Prisoners don't get coffee with cream and sugar, it seems. They usually only have five minutes at chow time, anyway. It's a 'get in there and out, now!' sort of atmosphere. Coffee, if it is there, is black only.)  

Raymond doesn't have much family left, and basically nothing in terms of personal possessions or income. Not like some prisoners who seem to be able to buy whole bunch of cigarettes for $10 apiece--not that Raymond is interested the least bit in tobacco.

I just wanted him to enjoy a few cups of coffee with sugar, and to know that we think of him; he's like family. A brother. Like John was. 

Anyway, I was thinking of Raymond, descending down into the pit of one of the worst prisons in his state, trying to reach out to the worst of humanity (you can only talk to prisoners in solitary through a hole in the door, and you never know if you're get a razor blade or human excrement tossed at you). 

I was interrupted by a  phone call from someone raising money for local law enforcement hurt in the line of duty.

A worthy cause. But I explained to the caller that I was just about to send a gift to one of those prisoners that everybody hates, because they are evil, and the cause of all the grief to law enforcement in the first place. My point was that law enforcement is good, but Transformation through Christ is better.

The caller listened without saying a word while I gave him a 2-minute Gospel presentation about the Christ of Isaiah 53, who died for evil people like me. And him. And Raymond. He thanked me politely, and hung up. 'Maybe next year,' he said. 

And wouldn't you know it, just as I hung up the phone, on came the aria from Handel's Messiah, 'I know that My Redeemer Liveth.'  The One Who pulls up from the Pit of Despair and sets us on the shore to New Service. The One who surrounded us the whole time we were in the Pit in the first place. The One who was truly 'injured in the line of duty.'

'Behold your God!' Indeed. Not the remote God of Islam, but the One who, through Death, lifts us up into Life and Service.  

John is home. Raymond, not yet. Me neither. Evidently we still have jobs to do.

But I'm so glad to be the brother of both of these.

Our Redeemer Lives!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Keep Calm and Think Biblically

Several times recently I have been asked by concerned Christians questions along the lines of “will Muslims take over in the UK/the West?” or “how should we respond to the violence of Jihadists/ Islamic State etc?”. My precise answer depends upon the circumstances but is usually along the lines of “keep calm and think biblically.

What do I mean? There is a danger that we allow our thinking to be manipulated by the secular media or the agenda of people who want to scare us into supporting their particular cause. So here are some suggestions for a calm and biblical approach to Islam and current world events:

1) There is no God-given reason why the UK or any other country should not become Muslim. Most of the countries of the Middle East and North Africa now considered to be Muslim were once considered Christian. Why should our fate be any different? Do we really believe that somehow we deserve God’s favor more than other nations? Not only is this unbiblical, it is also racist! Already our so-called Christian countries are in practice aggressively secular. Political leaders, even some Church leaders, deny key Christian truths and society generally is often anti-Christian. Simply because our culture is familiar does not make it any less dangerous to us;

2) The statistical analyses used to “prove” that Muslims will take over at some future date are usually flawed. For example they often assume that immigration rates will continue at high levels, birth rates of future generations will remain high for Muslims but low for others and that western Muslims will not become secularized and effectively leave their faith. These are huge assumptions that are really just guesses. As I write we cannot accurately predict the results of the May 2015 general election never mind events decades into the future. Interestingly, most big world events are not predicted by the “experts” (think of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the 2008 economic crisis, 9/11 etc – who saw them coming?). On the other hand confident predictions are usually useless – think of WMDs in Iraq!

3) While anti-western violence and rhetoric makes the headlines, it is often a mask for internal political strife. We need to realize that there is a battle for the future of Islam – in brief, there are alternatives which range from outward-looking modernizing reforms (such as Turkey under Ataturk and the ideals of some reformers in the “Arab Spring”) to backward-looking ideas from the 7thC (e.g. the Taliban). This internal strife explains why Muslim militants kill more Muslims than Christians. We need to understand that most Muslims are not the perpetrators of violence and oppression but victims.

4) In Matthew 24 Jesus teaches us to expect false religions, wars and persecution. He tells us this precisely so that we don’t get blown off course. We need to see the recent history of the West, during which serious persecution has been rare, as an abnormal period, not typical Terrible though contemporary Islamic violence is, can we really say that it is worse than the horrors of the twentieth century (Hitler or Stalin or MaoTse Tung or Pol Pot for example)? We need to keep a sense of perspective and hear what Jesus says – expect these things and don’t panic.

5) We also need to remember that our God is sovereign over the nations (e.g. Psalm 47:8), and when they plot against him he laughs at them (Psalm 2:4). We must therefore trust in him and not give way to fear. Perhaps the Muslims will take over, after all while only a minority are violent it is a missionary religion, but on the other hand who can say that God in his infinite wisdom will not bring extraordinary blessing and save many Muslims? We really should trust in Almighty God and not assume that he is impotent. Already we do see that some Muslims are very disillusioned by current events and this has led to some coming to know the Savior.

So if we are to expect false religions and wars and persecutions and to trust in the Almighty God, what then should be our response to Islam and current events? Here are some ideas:

- Pray for and support practically if possible all who are oppressed and persecuted, especially Christians;

- Prayerfully develop a way of thinking that isn’t a knee jerk reaction to the things we hear. Instead find comfort in the knowledge that God knows what he is doing;

- Learn to love Muslims. Here in the UK the vast majority of Muslims are ordinary people trying to get by like everyone else and elsewhere many are poor and oppressed. They all need the Gospel;

- Seize the opportunity of Muslims in the UK to reach out to them. Instead of worrying about them, share the Gospel with them. The Great Commission applies to Muslims and not just Muslims overseas.

Finally, I am reminded of that great hymn by Arthur Campbell Aigner:

God is working his purpose out
as year succeeds to year:
God is working his purpose out,
and the time is drawing near;
nearer and nearer draws the time,
the time that shall surely be,
when the earth shall be filled
with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea.

So don’t be frightened by current events, we have a great God who knows what he is doing – keep clam and think biblically.

'Peter,' (a UFM worker with Muslims in the UK), first published in Four Corners the in-house magazine of UFM (Worldwide) 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Telling the Story--to Muslims, too!

During this past year, one of our national directors made a visit to the Middle East. His observations are very insightful and helpful, so we’ve summarized them for you.
In many countries we are left with a struggle of trying to understand why radical Islam is so attractive to young people, and on the other hand to try and engage in some preventative measures.

I landed in this particular country three times during my trip, an island on the Persian Gulf that serves as a turnstile for masses of humanity traveling to many different countries. One impression stayed with me: there is no such thing as ‘Islam’ as a single identity. Although the 1.6 billion adherents to this religion do have an Ummah, or ‘community,’ they represent a huge diversity. In the airport I saw Muslims from Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt, the Gulf States, Central Asia, and many African countries as well. They all adhere to the same religion, but there is a great variety in the way they live it out.

Fear is a Bad Advisor
I often meet Christians who live in dread of Islam and Muslims. Neglecting the many different facets of this religion, they try to generalize their way through to what can only be a very ‘flat’ conception of it. The problem is that this only tends to produce more fear and distance between us as Christians and Muslims as people. But telling Christians to ‘stop being afraid!’ probably won’t help, either. Ultimately, it has to do with our own faith in Christ. Should we let our fears paralyze us, or lead us to wise and loving actions?

Our Answer is Jesus
During my visit, I had the opportunity to talk at length with five Islamic scholars. As we enjoyed coffee and dates together, they explained to me the ‘advantages’ of being a Muslim. They wove their arguments skillfully together, and told me why Jesus cannot be the Son of God, and why the concept of the Trinity has only caused confusion about God in Western minds, and that there is only one logical conclusion to make of the whole thing: to follow the Qur’an as the final revelation from God. I didn’t want to start an argument, so instead, I asked a few questions, and in the process of that, contradicted their statements at just a few, critical points.     

Personal Testimony

As I started to talk about my own personal relationship with God, these men suddenly perked up their ears. I asked them if I could share about why I am following Jesus, and when they gave me permission I realized that they were listening very carefully to what I said. I told them the story (Mark 2:1-12) of how four friends brought a lame man to Jesus. I related to them how he forgave the man’s sins, knew what the religious leaders were thinking, and healed the man with one single command. Muslims know as well as we Christians do that forgiving sins, knowing others’ thoughts, and the healing Voice are all divine prerogatives.  This Gospel story shows that Jesus is not simply a good man or a prophet. And for the first time, most likely, these very religious men, who have spent a lot of time interacting with ‘Christianity,’ heard a story from the Bible. 

I’m sure that Jesus will not let them off the hook!