Youcef Nadarkhani has a choice to make.
He can renounce his faith, he can say that Jesus is a prophet among many.
Or, he can hold to the reality that Jesus is Savior of the world.
One answer leads to freedom. The other could bring certain death.
You can read about Nadarkhani’s plight here, though there’s a good chance you will not hear about it in church.
A recent Barna Research poll suggests that a majority of American pastors will not tell you about the persecuted church [READ HERE]. Apparently, bad news is not good for business.
Something dies in us when we turn a deaf ear to our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ. We need to understand that the body of Christ was not born in America and that throughout the world our brethren are laying their lives on the line in dangerous places.
Places where loving people can get you killed.
The love of Christ compels these saints to plant themselves in harm’s way to help set captives free.
Sometimes our freedom in Christ carries us into captivity as it has Nadarkhani. Sometimes it simply requires that we pray for a brother we do not know who suffers in a place we’ll never see.
You and I have a choice to make. We can step into the gap or we can walk away. One leads to freedom and the other to certain death.
Last night I dreamed I was at an occupy protest. I was standing in a parking lot surrounded by young people who carried signs and shouted slogans.
And I wept.
In my dream my heart broke for this generation. So much promise. So much energy.
So little life.
And so, so very close to the Truth.
What compels a Columbia student to take to the street to protest the order of things?
What draws a young mother to such a scene?
I want to ask as Jesus did, “What do you seek?”
Significance? Justice? Compassion? Security? Community? Relevance?
These are the heart's legitimate longings - longings that cannot be satisfied by men.
I agree that this world’s order must change. And one day it will.
But change requires that we vacate the center of our hearts, not occupy a middle of a park.
As I write this I am surrounded by thousands of young adults who are occuping 515 Garson Drive in Atlanta. They have descend upon this place carrying the same questions as do their peers on Wall Street and in Woodruff Park.
But they are not here to protest, they are here to worship.
For, these have discovered that salvation is not found in man’s plotting or planning - but in the person of Jesus, the True hope of this generation.
(John 1:38, Revelation 21:4)
Jesus says not to worry.
Easy for Him to say. He's God, right? I might not worry either if I could multiply loaves and fishes. I'd settle for simply muiltiplying paychecks.
Jesus, however, is also fully human. Jesus "did not consider equality with God something to be grasped... but made Himself nothing... in human likeness" (Philippians 2).
With human likeness come limitations. Our limitations. Limitations are invitations to anxiety. Anxiety rushes in to that canyon of a gap between your best efforts and your happily ever after, where things are scary and lonely and out of control.
Throughout the gospels we see a Jesus to Whom we can relate. He gets angry and cleans out the temple courts. He cries over the death of his friend. We see Jesus in the garden in such terrible pain that He is sweating blood.
Connect these dots. Jesus says not to worry, but it's clear He has plenty to worry about. He feels the same pressures we do.
He knows what it is like to be surrounded by circumstances, repressed by rumors and stained by slander.
Still, Jesus says "do not worry...".
Because worrying is praying to yourself.
Rather, Jesus says, we should place our hope in God. We should seek God's kingdom ahead of our solutions and His righteousness ahead of our rights (Matt. 6:25-34).
Prayer, I'm told, is a conversation with God.
If that's the case how come lately when I pray I keep seeing in my mind a bag of Bar-b-que potato chips?
I don't see chips when I talk to people. But then, I don't have to fill in the blanks when I talk to people. I can see, hear and touch them. But where there's a blank space - that's where the potato chips sneak in - and a whole lot of other stuff.
Maybe it's just me, but I get distracted when I talk to God.
I come to Him with the best of intentions. I picture Luther spread eagle and face down on a stone floor crying out to the Lord. I imagine the Apostle Paul, chained to a guard, interceding on behalf of the saints. I see Augustine and Tozier prostrating themselves before their Creator.
And then there's me - half awake and half-hearted, kneeling uncomfortably within the comfort of my climate controlled house, thinking about anything and everything except the Person whose face I "seek". Ever been there?
There are probably a thousand reasons I get distracted before God, but one (the chip thing) sticks out from the rest.
When I eat potato chips I hear them "crunch". When I speak with God I often hear nothing. I can taste chips on my tongue, lick the salt from my fingers and wrinkle the bag when I'm through. I like that. I like the fact that I can consume a bag of chips and move on with my day.
Not so with God. To taste God I must sit still. I must relax before Him with no agenda save to enjoy His presence.
We do not consume God. He consumes us! He is our everything! He is our comfort and our hope, our tomorrow and our salvation, our Creator and friend. He is our everything!
He's all that... and a bag of chips.
He poured Himself into a single word that captures His essence and His mission, His reason and His purpose for us. This word is the closest we will ever come to capturing God.
This word is... love.
If God made Himself simple, then why do we make Him complicated? Why do we wrap Him in all these other things?
What of all the good working, generous giving, prophetic teaching, dynamic preaching, merciful serving, and strategic evangelizing? All these "ings" are nothings if they do not first find their centers inside the love of God.
Paul wrote more succinctly, "the greatest of these is love."
I have spent the greatest portion of my sabbatical from so-called ministry learning to be loved by God. This, I am discovering, sets the boundaries for my own capacity to love others. In other words, if I desire to love God and others more deeply, then I must choose to experience His love for me more completely.
I cannot give what I don't have and I do not have what I refuse to receive. Same with you.
So, what's in the way?
For me, at least, the misunderstanding of two words has obscured my view of God.
The first, is ministry.
Many if not most of us (we who call ourselves Christians) will expire in this place where motion and activity - things we call ministry - have squeezed the life out of our passion for God. Here, I believe is why:
When we rely upon the things we are doing or the communities where we are soaking, a sense of autonomy can slip in under cover of night. When satisfaction with our service or complacency in our communities replaces our desperation for God, our hearts harden around the idea that the love of God is supplemental, not fundemental. Our ability to love others is proportionately impared to the degree that we have lost sight of our desperate need to receive God's love.
In sum, your ministry may be an idol and you may be making servants of the people you claim to serve.
As Blackerby notes, "We either love men or we use them."
Speaking of love.
I have long struggled to receive the love of God because I have pressed against Him the American template for the same.
I've failed to biblical-ly challenge the notion that God's love is a whimsical and emotionally charged sentimental blubbering over the top of some cresecendoing score.
The love of God is nothing of the sort. It is willful and deliberate. Self-sacrificing and furious. It is from Him, by Him and for Him. There is nothing soft and syrupy about a love that pins Himself to a Cross.
And there is nothing small about His raging pursuit of a man who would choose only to receive a fraction of the portion He offers.
Someone once told me that "friendships are about something". That is, there's something in the middle - some glue that holds them together.
Office friendships are about making money. Sports friendships are about the final score.
Sometimes though, that something in the middle is confused because what we think a friendship is about and what it's really about are two different things.
Nowhere does this get more clouded than in Christian circles where people say they love Jesus but act like the devil, biting and devouring one another.
Rich Mullins sang, "There are people who are friendly but will never be your friend, sometimes this has bent me to the ground."
If you've had any relationships past your remote control then you've experienced the disconnect between the pictures you see and the subtitles your read.
Somethings just don't make sense. And when they don't you're left holding a bunch of fill in the blanks with no answer key. "Why would he say that?" "Why would she do that?" "I feel used."
Be careful here.
Your thoughts can carry you down a number of dead-end alleys where you're going to want to fix the situation or the other guy.
Why not fix instead the churning in your heart?
Today we must get past scoring and winning and being right. And we must decide if we are willing to be used by God even if that means we are to be used by men.
We gain two things when we are willing to be used by God:
1. freedom from bondage to the things that offend us
2. willingness to suffer for those who persecute us
Both of these conform us toward the image of Christ, our True friend.
Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance. Psalm16:4-5
The sun was slipping low in the sky this afternoon when the family gathered on the front porch for several minutes of pointless conversation - a rarity in our home. For this brief window of time noone had a deadline to meet or a problem to solve or a drama to unpack. We just sat and enjoyed each others' company.
As a dad I treasure these moments when the kids are home and the play is pointless. I drink in the scene like a thirsty man gasping for water. Little else soothes my soul as does this. The heart of a father beats for moments such as these.
"When you get to heaven, Little Friend, which is where I live, Abba will not ask you how many prayers you said or how many souls you saved. No, He'll ask, 'Did you enjoy the fajita?'"
Today, I enjoyed the fajita.
When you are married to the love of your life for twenty years you want to do something special for her. So to celebrate our anniversary I booked a bed and breakfast on Tybee Island. The brochure looked great. A little yellow house tucked beneath the shadow of a mammoth tree draped with Spanish moss.
Just outside the frame and immediately past the advertising though, sits the rest of the story. The bed and breakfast is hemmed on two sides by a nursing home. It gets worse. The advertised "beach access" leads you straight to a sign that tells you death awaits those who enter the water. No joke.
Life is grand if you stay within the frame. But venture out, and it gets scary.
Kelle was thinking about what sits outside our frame when we were eating dinner at Corleone's last night.
"What are we going to do the next twenty years that we didn't do the first twenty years?" Kelle asked.
"Have surgery," I replied.
"No, really. We've had full lives. We've done just about everything we desired to do. What's next? And why aren't you being your normal, contemplative, reflective self?"
"I'm practicing being shallow," I said.
"Might I ask why?"
"Because shallow men have more fun. They don't consider what's next or the brevity of their days. They just hang out in the moment and enjoy life. It feels pretty good. You ought to try it."
"And when, exactly, did you decide to be a shallow man?" Kelle asked.
"About the time I gave up on church," I said.
"That was a long time ago. So why the sudden change?"
"Took a while to work its way to the surface."
The truth is, I was doing a little reflecting.
I was considering the nature of love and how it deepens and changes expression over time. I thought about how many different ways you can love a person.
There was the frame of our courtship which was all a fire with romantic pursuit. There was that frame where the kids were little and we were learning to walk inside the good works the Lord had prepared for us since before the foundation of the world. (That would be raising our children in the Lord).
Then there is this frame in which we now sit. The children are transitioning to adulthood. Rebekah has her own apartment. Caleb is considering colleges. Joshua is stretching into his man world. Our baby, Jonathan, turns 13 in a few weeks.
Cash is flowing. Schedules are stuffed. Life is exciting and full and moving fast. But what about the next frame, the one just outside the picture on the brochure?
For this short window of time, inside this frame, everything is just fine. Better than fine. I'm enjoying a wonderful dinner with my soul mate. And I am discovering that love grows to fill whatever frame you're in. It deepens and widens and nestles into the crevices of the architecture that surrounds you.
Love is so much more than affection and feelings. It shows itself in commitment and valor, in patience and empathy. Love is bigger than the frame.
True love, the kind that Jesus displayed for us, stretches through time and space and reaches through sin and death to grab hold of us in a vice grip that never lets go.
As Jesus said, "I will never leave you. I will never forsake you."
His grace is sufficient for whatever frame we're in.