Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Unsung Heroes - Linda Gibbons

It was Martin Luther King, Jr. who said that "An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law."

If that is indeed the case, then Linda Gibbons has demonstrated that she has no peers in Canada. This 63 year old great-grandmother will soon have spent more time behind bars than Karla Homolka and many other convicted murderers. Her crime? Silently praying within sixty feet of a Morgantaler abortion clinic in Toronto. She actually at times has had the nerve to hold a sign asking "Why Mom, when I have so much life to give?" For this she is treated like a common criminal.

Linda is now behind bars awaiting her appeal before the Supreme Court of Canada. Over the past 17 years, she's spent almost 9 years in a prison cell, and has been incarcerated for the last 26 months. She could be released today if she would agree not to protest near the clinics. She refuses to agree to these conditions on principle, believing that the demand is a contravention of her freedom of expression.

So while in prison Linda provides counsel to the younger women she calls "her girls," trying to help them break out of patterns of drug abuse and life on the streets. She is proud of the fact that she has saved three babies from abortion while on the inside. Speaking to an interviewer she said: “Wherever I am, I am free to do God’s work. I can be on the outside or in the inside. It doesn’t matter. I don’t feel burdened by what I’m doing.” (For the full article go here.)

It seems that our legal system really doesn't know what to do with Linda precisely because she has the courage of her convictions. The supposed issue at hand is a "temporary injunction" which was put in place in 1994. Ummm, at what point does that become permanent? Our judicial system doesn't seem to want that issue before the courts so they are charging her with everything except contravening that injunction. She's been charged with "obstructing a peace officer," and "disobeying a court order." These charges allow the courts to not deal with the question of the merits of the temporary injunction. So Linda stays.

Why is she so passionate? Others have taken the same stand as she has, yet took the opportunity for release when offered. “I didn’t have the courage to break the injunction,” says retired high school teacher John Bulsza, of London, Ont., who was named in the original injunction in August 1994. “Everyone of us should have protested with her and this case would be history. She’s our Gandhi and we’re letting her take the fall for the rest of us.”
Linda herself had an abortion when she was a young woman and doesn't want anyone to have to deal with that. She also was born with a cleft palate and underwent successful surgery as a child. She wonders, with the advanced pre-natal testing as advanced as it is today if she might not have been aborted if born later. So she stands in defense of the unborn at every opportunity. She doesn't fight, she doesn't yell. She doesn't threaten, harass or argue. She simply bears silent witness to what she feels is the genocide of millions of Canadian babies. Her lawyer believes that she is a "prisoner of conscience." Others are not so impressed, believing that Linda is getting her just desserts for thumbing her nose at the law.

When thinking of Linda's plight, I can't help but draw comparisons to Martin Luther King, Jr., with whose quote I opened this piece. Some may not think the comparison appropriate, but that would depend on your view of the rights of the unborn, I suppose. When King was imprisoned, the rights of blacks weren't recognized by everyone either. He stood against what he felt were unjust laws, willingly paying the price for finding himself on the wrong side of, what he considered to be, unjust laws. One of the obvious differences is that Linda is not a dynamic leader with a national profile like King was. She does not have the speaking or writing ability which allowed him to clearly articulate his position. Linda quietly lives out her beliefs, for her it seems there is no other option.

At the time of this writing, the case has been adjourned to April 12. It will be interesting to see if the top court of our land is comfortable allowing a 63 year old great-grandmother to be held indefinitely behind bars for breaking a temporary injunction put in place way back when Bob Rae's NDP ran Ontario. One thing can be said for Linda Gibbons, she is one person who has the courage of her convictions.

Related Articles:
Unsung Heroes - Ralph Edmund
Unsung Heroes - Sandra Tineo
The "A" Word

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Unsung Heroes - Ralph Edmund

Here is the second article in my series on unsung heroes. These are people whose stories need to be heard. They are making a difference where they are, often under very difficult circumstances.

Ralph Edmund was born into privilige in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. That is a rare thing indeed, but rarer still is the fact that Ralph, with opportunity to live in luxury in North America, has chosen to give his life in changing the country he loves for the better. After High School in Haiti, Ralph graduated magna cum laude from Baruch College in New York and returned to his native Haiti to develop a homegrown pharmaceutical company.

Farmatrix started with $2,000 in funding and 3 employees. At the time of the earthquake in 2010 the company had over 80 employees and grossed over $2 million. What is most remarkable about Ralph and his partner Alain Vincent is the way they do business. They determined from the beginning that they would not participate in the common Haitian practices of paying bribes, cheating on taxes, etc... As Christians, they would build their business "the right way." The result has been remarkable.

However, being successful in Haiti carried with it some very real dangers. Gangs are rampant, and prey on people of means. Kidnapping, robberies, even murder are common occurrences. Ralph's life has been in jeopardy numerous times. On one occasion, while stopped at a busy intersection, a man with a 9 mm gun ran toward his car and began firing. Four bullets went into the car, one almost hit his spine and his chaffeur was hit and almost killed. On different occasions both his sister and sister-in-law were kidnapped and held for ransom. Their families have since left Haiti, yet Ralph stays.

With Ernso Jean-Louis and Sylvie Theard, successful Christian entrepeneurs, Ralph established Haiti Partners for Christian Development, a branch of Partners Worldwide. Their goal is to connect rich and poor through mentoring partnerships. Ralph has worked in some of the toughest areas of Port-au-Prince, promoting dialogue between gang members, businesspeople and political leaders. He also spends time mentoring young entrepeneurs, amid the constant challenges.

When asked what keeps him in Haiti he responds, "I am building things... I have hope." He also said, "I don't want to run from the problem - I want to be part of resolving it. Even though I may have only 10 businesspeople who will stand with me, we will stand together as part of the solution for Haiti."

Why would we call Ralph heroic? Because he willingly places himself at risk for the sake of creating positive change in his country. No-one would blame him for leaving; for finding safer environs and building a personal fortune. Even after the 2010 earthquake damaged his factory, Ralph chose to stay and has rebuilt. He has larger goals in mind. "My interest is the time we spend sharing our lives, so that we can build a community together. Then if that community becomes a healthy and strong country, that is up to God." This is how God's kingdom is built - one person at a time.

Learn more about Ralph Edmond and business development in Haiti in the book My Business, My Mission: Fighting Poverty Through Partnerships by Doug Seebeck and Timothy Stoner.

Related Articles:
The Great Paradox
Unsung Heroes - Sandra Tineo
Urban Onramps
Life On The Other Side

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Great Paradox

Jesus said some things that seem very hard to understand. One of those statements comes in the form of a paradox, found in Matthew 16:25: "For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it." Hidden in this statement, I believe, is the key to fulfillment in our lives. In order to understand this verse, or any other, we need to look at it in context.

Jesus was preparing to go to the cross. More than that, he was preparing his disciples for the events that would shortly take place. He said that he would suffer at the hands of the religious leaders; he shared that he would ultimately die. The Apostle Peter, always thinking with his mouth, was again the first to speak, and he said what everyone else was likely thinking. He said, "Never Lord, this shall never happen to you." Jesus' response was shocking. He declared that Peter was a stumbling block to him and was actually being used as a tool by Satan.

This was a remarkable scene with deep meaning. The truths represented here in the verses that followed I believe hold the key to truly understanding the Christian life. Jesus understood his purpose: "to give his life as a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:28) Any other plan, while obviously less painful, would have the devastating consequence of leaving the world without a Saviour. Jesus went to the cross, recognizing it was necessary for God's will to be accomplished, and knowing that, in the end, he would be raised up. He was willing to endure whatever cost for the sake of humanity. He chose to lose his life to find it.

He challenges us to do the same. This is that part of Christianity that many (most?) do not understand. It's not about religion, about empty tradition and ritual; it's about following Jesus Christ and joining him in bringing about God's kingdom on earth. It's not about blindly following some ancient symbol of heroic sacrifice either; it's following a living Saviour, who actually indwells his people by the Holy Spirit. It's not about receiving Jesus so that we can get rich and have all of our problems solved; it's about recognizing that God can use everything in our lives - the good and the bad - to bring about ultimate good in our lives.

So here's what he's saying: Jesus is telling us, first of all, that God's priorities must be our priorities. That's why his prayer to his father in the garden of Gethsemane was "Not my will, but yours be done." He was willing to submit his will to his Father's will. He invites each of us, in our own setting, to willingly lay down our priorities and submit them to God's higher purpose. And here's where the guys in the cheap seats start screaming.

How is it that God would ask (expect!) us to lay down selfish pursuits for a higher purpose? Doesn't he know that it's all about us? Haven't we all been told (especially in North America) that we deserve to be waited on hand and foot? Here's a news flash - true Christianity is counter-cultural and also counter-intuitive. Jesus Christ came to be a servant and his followers are called to serve as well. The reasons he can ask this of us are manifold: he created us, he knows us intimately - our individual gifts, talents and abilities. He also knows the purpose for which he created us; how we can fulfill that purpose, and has the power to bring that to pass. With all of that, yes! he calls us to lay down our lives in order that we may live.

Here's the kicker, we really can't grasp this truth without simply surrendering to it, and that is so hard for we who live in this Me-first culture. So what we've tried to do is remake Jesus in our own image: a safe, nice guy, who had tremendous insight into human nature and wants us to behave ourselves. Jesus did not come to make bad people good: he came to make dead people live! (See John 10:10) If you call yourself a Christ-follower, follow. While the sea of humanity muddles around in the valley, he's carrying his own cross up a hill, giving his life for others.

Items of Interest:
Remember My Chains
Unsung Heroes - Sandra Tineo
What have you got to lose?
What Is A Christ-follower?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Remember My Chains

A few times on this site I have written about the plight of Christians in different parts of the world. There have been a few reports over the past few weeks, that have caught my attention, which have not been widely reported by the popular media. What is normally reported is what is referred to as "religious violence" between Christians and Muslims or Christians and Hindus, etc... Digging a little deeper, what this usually means is that Christians have been attacked by a group representing whatever the religious majority of the country or region involved.

This article is not designed to absolve the Christian church of all guilt; we are all familiar with the crusades and other shameful periods in church history. Suffice it to say that those who participated in these and other regrettable chapters over the centuries were actually acting against the teachings of Jesus Christ. Thankfully, church leaders have gone to great lengths to try to make amends for these events, though they took place in the distant past. The full text of the apology issued to Muslims is given below. If you wish to read more on the "Reconciliation Walk," click on the link.

"Nine hundred years ago, our forefathers carried the name of Jesus Christ in battle across the Middle East. Fuelled by fear, greed and hatred, they betrayed the name of Christ by conducting themselves in a manner contrary to His wishes and character. The Crusaders lifted the banner of the Cross above your people. By this act, they corrupted its true meaning of reconciliation, forgiveness and selfless love.

"On the anniversary of the first Crusade, we also carry the name of Christ. We wish to retrace the footsteps of the Crusaders in apology for their deeds and in demonstration of the true meaning of the Cross. We deeply regret the atrocities committed in the name of Christ by our predecessors. We renounce greed, hatred and fear, and condemn all violence done in the name of Jesus Christ.

"Where they were motivated by hatred and prejudice, we offer love and brotherhood. Jesus the Messiah came to give life. Forgive us for allowing His name to be associated with death. Please accept again the true meaning of the Messiah's words:

"'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.' As we go, we bless you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ."

I'm thankful that there are good things happening in the area of reconciliation, but what I'd like to do today is to draw our attention to the millions who are suffering for their Christian faith in the world today. According to estimates, there are an average of 171,000 people being martyred for their Christian faith every year. As I said earlier, rarely do we hear of these through normal news channels. Let me draw attention to a few of them.

March 24, 2011 - (Mauritania) A report was received from Mauritania that a Christian Pastor named Ahmadou Abu Bakr was murdered by Islamists. He left a wife and three children, now in hiding. He had been kidnapped sometime before. His bullet-riddled body was discovered on March 6. It was reported that he was the fourth Christian martyred in that region of Mauritania since 2009. There was no report of arrests made.

March 23, 2011 - (Pakistan) As Christians gathered to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their Salvation Army church in Hyderabad, Pakistan, a group of young Muslims gathered nearby and began to harass young women who were making their way to the service. When some of the men came out to protect the women, some of the Islamists left and came back with weapons. They opened fire on the Christians, killing Younis Masih and Jameel Masih and seriously injuring two others. None of the identified attackers had been arrested by police. This comes on the heels of the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian member of government in Pakistan. Bhatti was an outspoken critic of the anti-blasphemy law, used by Muslims to imprison Christians and other minorities. A Christian imprisoned for blasphemy also recently died in prison after being regularly beaten.

March 23, 2011 - (Iraq) A report by Sarah MacDonald tells us that conditions for Christians in Iraq are so critical it's been described as "near-genocidal." Since 2003 more than 500 Christians have been murdered. Islamic activists have targeted Christians in an effort to purge the country of a Christian community dating back almost 2,000 years. The increasing pressure on Christians has caused many to flee the country, bringing the estimated Christian population from about 1.3 million in 1991 to about 500,000 today.

March 23, 2011 - (China) ChinaAID reports that yet another Chinese house church was raided on March 13, 2011. 12 Christians were arrested, 2 of whom still remain in detention. They are Weng and Zhang Yongkuan. Police confiscated all Bibles and other books. Thousands of Christians remain in prison or in "re-education camps" in China. Many disappear, never to be heard from again.

March 22, 2011 - (Nigeria) The Stefanos Foundation, an organization established to support the persecuted church in Nigeria, reports an attempted bombing of a church on Sunday, March 20, 2011. The timer on the bomb apparently malfunctioned and it blew up prematurely, killing two attempted Islamic terrorists. Earlier that day, three Christians had been murdered at Duala Junction and six other Christians were being treated in hospital for stab wounds. Muslim elders in the region declared a jihad (holy war)on Christians on December 28, 2010, stating their intentions to cause such mayhem that the government would be forced to declare a state of emergency.

As you can see, these are all reports from within a less than one-week period. The following video on behalf of Christian martyrs was prepared by Voice of the Martys Canada. Please pray for Christians around the world who are suffering for their faith.

Items of Interest;
Shahbaz Bhatti - Christian Martyr
Modern-Day Martyrs in Turkey - A Reprise
Modern-day Martyrs in Turkey

Ravi Zacharias and Dr. John Lennox take on Stephen Hawking cont.

Here is the third video in this series for you serious students who have gotten this far.

Items of Interest:
Ravi Zacharias and Dr. John Lennox take on Stephen Hawking
If God Is Good, How Could This Happen?
Book Review: "Why I Still Believe"
Book Review: "Has Christianity Failed You?"

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ravi Zacharias and Dr. John Lennox take on Stephen Hawking

Here are two videos well worth watching that deal with Stephen Hawking's claim that God was not necessary for the beginning of the universe. For those of you who like to wrestle with the big questions, here you are:

Articles of Interest:
If God Is Good, How Could This Happen?
Book Review: "Why I Still Believe"
Book Review: "Has Christianity Failed You?"


I was reading my friend Dewayne Hamby's blog about the impact a recent message by Andy Stanley had on him, and it got me thinking. What are the moments that I remember that had a profound impact on my life? There have been a few of them, but one immediately leapt to mind - first a little background.

I began my pastoral ministry at a very young age, and have learned many of my life-lessons the hard way - by experience. By 25 I had already pastored two churches, assisted at another and was starting out as a Youth Pastor in Jacksonville, Florida. Like many young people starting out, I believed that I had all of the answers - or at least a lot of them. I was of the opinion that the reason I didn't have more success in my ministry was a lack of opportunity, or resources, or the right people around me, or... You get the picture. My Senior Pastor in Florida signed us up for a Pastor's Conference (I believe in Birmingham, AL) featuring John Maxwell as the keynote speaker. At the time, John was already well on his way to becoming a household name in the area of leadership development.

John began to speak, and I believe I had a front-row seat. It was one of those times when it felt as though John (and God through him) was speaking directly to me. I don't remember all of the details, as this was 23-24 years ago now. But what I do remember has had a lasting impact on me.

John spoke about personal responsibility and about being honest with ourselves. One of the quotes that I remember is this: "Your problem is not the problem, you are. Face it and fix it." He was talking about pastors who spend two years at a church and then, all of a sudden, hear God "calling" them to move on. Then two years later the cycle repeats itself, and so on, and so on... He went on to say that the reason for this cycle is that most pastors enjoy a "honeymoon" period at a new church, and once three years were up, the problems they faced could no longer be blamed on their predecessor. I have to admit, this was one of those "ouch" moments for me. I thought back over my few years in ministry and realized that there was a lot of truth to what he was saying.

I made a number of commitments as a result of that conference. One of them was a commitment to develop my leadership abilities, another prominent theme of the conference. From that one commitment has followed many lessons learned that have radically changed my life and ministry. I have made it a part of my life to attend at least one leadership conference a year and read leadership material on a regular basis. Another commitment was to not run from my problems but to face them head on and with grace. This has lead to two long-term pastorates, both of which have been extremely rewarding.

It's amazing the difference that one lesson can make. I am eternally grateful to John for his influence from a distance. Thanks from the guy in the front row.

Articles of Interest:
Book Review: "It Came From Within!"
Are You Listening?
Deliver Us From Mediocrity
The Rebekah Principle

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Unsung Heroes - Sandra Tineo

I've decided to do a few blogs on unsung heroes. We live in a hard world, but there are some people who unselfishly and sacrificially give of themselves to make the world a better place. One of those people is Sandra Tineo.

Sandra was born and raised in a slum of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, called Aguas Negras. Translated into English, it literally means "Black Water," and is named for the sludge that often runs through the streets, and often the homes of this poor community. I got to meet Sandra a few years ago when I was on a fact-finding mission for our church.

Like many others who meet Sandra, I was left with a lasting impression of a woman who loves her people and has a red-hot commitment to improve their lives. She told me that her activism started innocently enough; she asked her pastor, in a better part of town, to start a satellite church in Aguas Negras, because she believed in the power of the local church. When he said "no" she was devastated. But as she continued to pray, she felt God telling her that it was she who was supposed to begin this work - this was her calling.

That was her first venture into community transformation. Since that time Sandra has started a school, and organized health workshops and medical clinics. Sandra is an unassuming woman, simply looking to meet the needs of the people as she sees them. She has stumbled into a holistic approach to community development. Recognizing the need for jobs, she started a cottage sewing industry for some of the ladies. Seeing the need for greater communication, she opened a room with computers with internet capability for the locals.

Growing up in this neighborhood, right at the mouth of the San Carlos River and below the cities sewage lagoons, she had first-hand experience with sewer water running through the streets and even the homes of many in the community. She began to seek out partnerships to build better homes that were built above the flood levels, or often simply to raise the floor level three feet and do necessary repairs.

Touring through the neighborhood with Sandra it's clear how much she is loved. In the streets and in every home she is greeted with a smile; children call out her name. Recognizing her gifts, at least one North American Church has offered to put her on their staff and continue to allow her to work among her people. In typical Sandra fashion she declined because, in her eyes, it would have put her above the people she served.

So she continues to work where she grew up, helping where she can. When someone needs medical care, she will try to connect them with an agency or a donor that can assist. When a crisis arises, Sandra meets it with the faith that has allowed her to build a thriving ministry in a slum. She has been called the Mother Teresa of Puerto Plata for obvious reasons. Their motivation was/is to serve Jesus Christ through serving the "least of these." A true unsung hero - Sandra Tineo.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Apostle to the Irish: The Real Saint Patrick

Here's an article from Charles Colson about the real story behind St. Patrick:

Apostle to the Irish: The Real Saint Patrick By Charles Colson
Breakpoint Ministry -- If you ask people who Saint Patrick was, you're likely to hear that he was an Irishman who chased the snakes out of Ireland.

It may surprise you to learn that the real Saint Patrick was not actually Irish -- yet his robust faith changed the Emerald Isle forever.

Patrick was born in Roman Britain to a middle-class family in about A.D. 390. When Patrick was a teenager, marauding Irish raiders attacked his home. Patrick was captured, taken to Ireland, and sold to an Irish king, who put him to work as a shepherd.

In his excellent book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill describes the life Patrick lived. Cahill writes, "The work of such slave-shepherds was bitterly isolated, months at a time spent alone in the hills."

Patrick had been raised in a Christian home, but he didn't really believe in God. But now -- hungry, lonely, frightened, and bitterly cold -- Patrick began seeking out a relationship with his Heavenly Father. As he wrote in his Confessions, "I would pray constantly during the daylight hours" and "the love of God . . . surrounded me more and more."

Six years after his capture, God spoke to Patrick in a dream, saying, "Your hungers are rewarded. You are going home. Look -- your ship is ready."

What a startling command! If he obeyed, Patrick would become a fugitive slave, constantly in danger of capture and punishment. But he did obey -- and God protected him. The young slave walked nearly 200 miles to the Irish coast. There he boarded a waiting ship and traveled back to Britain and his family.

But, as you might expect, Patrick was a different person now, and the restless young man could not settle back into his old life. Eventually, Patrick recognized that God was calling him to enter a monastery. In time, he was ordained as a priest, then as a bishop.

Finally -- thirty years after God had led Patrick away from Ireland -- he called him back to the Emerald Isle as a missionary.

The Irish of the fifth century were a pagan, violent, and barbaric people. Human sacrifice was commonplace. Patrick understood the danger and wrote: "I am ready to be murdered, betrayed, enslaved -- whatever may come my way."

Cahill notes that Patrick's love for the Irish "shines through his writings . . . He [worried] constantly for his people, not just for their spiritual but for their physical welfare."

Through Patrick, God converted thousands. Cahill writes, "Only this former slave had the right instincts to impart to the Irish a New Story, one that made sense of all their old stories and brought them a peace they had never known before." Because of Patrick, a warrior people "lay down the swords of battle, flung away the knives of sacrifice, and cast away the chains of slavery."

As it is with many Christian holidays, Saint Patrick's Day has lost much of its original meaning. Instead of settling for parades, cardboard leprechauns, and "the wearing of the green," we ought to recover our Christian heritage, celebrate the great evangelist, and teach our kids about this Christian hero.

Saint Patrick didn't chase the snakes out of Ireland, as many believe. Instead, the Lord used him to bring into Ireland a sturdy faith in the one true God - and to forever transform the Irish people.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Short-term Missions - Good or Bad?

I've been reading a lot lately about the subject of Missions. I'm finding, more and more, that the practice of sending teams on short-term missions is being called into question. It used to be thought that this was one of the best ways to share the love of God with those less fortunate - send a group of compassionate people into a needy area to accomplish a prescribed task and build relationships.

However, some have criticised this practice, (see article) saying that there are rarely long-term positive effects and that, often, it creates an unhealthy dependence on foreigners on the part of locals. It also can draw long-term missionaries away from "real" ministry in order to accommodate short-termers' need to "get something done."

As a pastor, and one who has spent some limited time on the field, I see both sides of this argument. On the one hand, I appreciate that the problems of the majority world (developing countries) are far too complex to solve overnight or in a week or two. On the other hand, I've seen the benefit that exposure to the mission field can have in a person's life; often, it's transformational.

I believe that the answer is both/and. As a local church, we've set a goal of having all of our youth be a part of a short-term missions trip before they graduate from high school. We've taken youth to Northern Ontario to run basketball clinics, do church repairs and community outreach. We've sent teams to The Dream Center in the inner city of Los Angeles and worked on skid row and ministered to children in the streets. We've also sent teams to work with Haitian refugees in the hills above Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic. They've built homes, fed children, helped in schools and built relationships.

The reason we've established this goal is that we believe exposure to those less fortunate helps us to expand our worldview and become more compassionate as people. Our hope is that a taste of missions will encourage generosity throughout our lives and even provide the spark for some who will devote their lives to full-time missions work. We also hope that our teams will see the good that is being done elsewhere and adapt some of these tools to help in our own community.

At the same time, we look for ways to be involved in long-term missions. That may mean supporting a North American missionary in another country or providing on-going support and partnership with Christian workers native to those countries. One of the key words emerging lately is that of relationship. Missions, at its base, must be about building long-term, healthy, relationships with people who have the potential to bring about real change.

I know that my 9 week stay in Malta in the early '90's and my trips to the Dominican Republic and The Dream Center have profoundly changed the way I see the church and its role in the world. It has helped me change the way that I think about people, and to understand that each person deserves to have the gospel presented to them in a way that they can understand.

I'd really like to hear from those of you who have been on short-term trips yourself. Where did you go? How has it affected you? What do you think was accomplished? Do you recommend the experience to others? Let me know your thoughts.

Articles of Interest:
Dream On
Life On The Other Side
Dominican Republic - 2010

Monday, March 14, 2011

Is Heaven For Real?

Here's an interview with the little boy that the book "Heaven Is For Real" is based on. I loved the book. Let me know your thoughts.

Articles of Interest:
Book Review - "Heaven Is For Real"
Akiane Kramarik
Drawing Heaven

If God Is Good, How Could This Happen?

I wanted to start this blog with a video by Ravi Zacharias because, in my experience, nobody answers it better than he does. I'm writing this because of the state of our world. On the one hand, today there are new reports of explosions at one of the nuclear plants in Japan, which is still reeling from the after-effects of a massive earthquake and tsunami. On the other hand we have, in effect, a civil war in Libya and civil unrest throughout the Middle-East. We add to this the continuing challenges to our world of HIV/AIDs, starvation, environmental issues and economic concerns and it's little wonder that some ask the question, "if God is good, how could this happen?"

The problem of evil has long been a sticking point for people as they try to understand God. I believe that Ravi handled it much better than I ever could, so I'd like to move on to the follow-up - what is God's answer to evil?

When Jesus walked this planet He said very clearly in John 16:33 - "In this world you will have trouble." We live in a fallen creation, this world is not the "good" world that God originally created. As the guardians of this planet, our mismanagement and rebellion has brought about devastation. That was a result of our choice and our choices. There is a villain in the story who was given entrance through that very first disobedience. Jesus tells us in John 10:10 - "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."

Jesus here was pointing to a spiritual reality with physical manifestations. We see effects like family breakdown, alcohol and drug addiction, child abuse and other social ills and we ask the question, where is God in all of our human suffering? The answer to the question is found first in the person of Jesus Christ. The Bible speaks of Him as "God in the flesh." As John 1 tells us, He who spoke the world into being, became one of us and lived among us.

For those who say that God does not understand, read the Gospels. Jesus was born to a mother in a socially awkward position, and lived the first few years of his life as a refugee. He suffered with his nation under the iron fist of Rome. He was raised in obscurity, shunned by the "powers that be." When he entered public life he was ridiculed by the religious and political leaders of his time, often because he identified with social outcasts. Though popular for a time, the tide of opinion turned against him when he refused to opt for a military or political solution, yet was seen as a threat to leaders.

He suffered the betrayal of close friends, the hurt of false accusations, the shame of a public trial, flogging, beatings and cruel torture. He then faced the humiliation of a crucifixion, designed to strip the victim of the last vestige of human dignity. He did this while having the power at any time to save himself.

In God's plan, Jesus had to feel the full weight of human pain. As Hebrews 4:15 tells us, he dealt with all that we have to face, yet without sin. He also bore the weight of all of our sin. Not only did he suffer with and for the innocent, but also the guilty, that all can be reconciled to God. Where is God when we suffer - suffering with us? This ought to be seen through his church, as we follow in his steps.

From the very beginning it has been God's desire that His people would model what it means to truly be human. When Jesus announced his ministry, he declared that he had come to "preach good news to the poor... to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:17-21) He was speaking of the establishment of His Kingdom - the renewal of Creation as it was intended to be. Everywhere his people go they are to continue this process - not by force or compulsion, but through serving. I recognize that there is both a present and a future fulfilment to these verses, but for now let's deal with the present.

The early church, at least at times, followed the example of their founder. In Acts we find that those who were wealthy shared with the poor so that none lacked. When Roman women would leave their unwanted babies by open sewers to die of exposure, Christians would take them in and raise them as their own. When epidemics would sweep through towns and villages and the healthy would leave, Christians would stay and care for the sick and dying. They fed the hungry, cared for widows and orphans and accepted outcasts into community. In so doing they changed society.

God's call to us has not changed. Jesus said that "whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me."(Matthew 25:45) So, when the question is asked, where is God in all of this that is happening around us, perhaps the question ought to be, what are we doing about it? What ought to be our approach to a world in trouble? In Matthew 7:12 Jesus said, "do to others what you would have them do to you." It was good advice then, and it's just as relevant today. What has God blessed you with? How can you use those resources to best help those who are hurting and in need? Now go do the right thing.

Articles of Interest:
The 'A' Word
Are You Listening?
Follow Me!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Book Review: "What Good Is God?"

Book Review: Philip Yancey, "What Good Is God? In Search Of A Faith That Matters" New York: FaithWords, 2010. 287 pages.

I've long been a fan of Philip Yancey, a New York Times bestselling author. It's hard to believe that it's been over 25 years since "Where Is God When It Hurts?" was first published. This latest book was inspired by some real-life drama, as Yancey was scheduled to speak in Mumbai, India on the very day that terrorists invaded the Taj Mahal Hotel, killing 172 people. On the plane ride home he began thinking about the times he's been invited to speak in places experiencing trouble or tragedy(1). The book is more a compilation of these ten stories, featuring his speaking notes from these events.

I found the reading fascinating, partly because it was not hypothetical "in theory" teaching, but real world stuff, happening now. That is really where the question must be answered: what good is God?

He begins in Blacksburg, Virginia, home of Virginia Tech, and site of the mass murder of 32 people by Seung-Hui Cho, a Korean student. Yancey was invited to speak on campus by a pastor who ministered in an on-campus church(16). Many were asking the question "where is God when it hurts?" the title of his first book. So, what do you say in such a setting? Interestingly, Philip had to speak wearing a neckbrace because of a serious car accident some weeks before(13). We all suffer, some more than others; the question is: what do we do with that suffering? Some give up, some live in denial that it ever occurred, but some grow through their pain and bring those lessons with them into life(32). With God, no experience we encounter is beyond redemption.

His second story takes place in China, where Yancey had the privilege of meeting with several leaders of the underground church(46), which now is estimated at 80 million strong. These courageous leaders stood in shocking contrast to the Western "Christian" business people looking to open doors of opportunity for their respective companies in the newly emerging giant that is China's economy. It was to this second group that Philip was allowed to speak publicly. He challenged those Western leaders to discover what many Chinese already had; that what made the West successful was the Christian values that embued society(60). The warning was implicit, when we abandon God we abandon much of what has made our society great.

He then moves on to an unlikely venue, a conference in Green Lake, Wisconsin on Ministering to Women in Prostitution. Before speaking, he spent an afternoon listening to the stories of the former professional sex workers(70). Women from all over the world shared their experiences, all of them demeaning. Before he finished, he asked the women how many of the women in prostitution that they knew wanted out, the answer: "all of them."(74) He then spoke on the theme of grace, that "the Bible heralds the sure promise that no matter who I am and what I have done, the door to transformation swings open before me."(85) The Bible is full of examples of this, including Rahab, a prostitute who was listed in the geneology of Jesus Himself.(86) As she was, so are we all "trophies of God's grace."(88)

Part 4 takes place in England, and is centered around the legacy of C.S. Lewis, whom he called "Apostle To The Skeptics."(93) Yancey was asked to speak at Cambridge University for a conference sponsored by the foundation named in Lewis' honour. In a message entitled "Straddling Two Worlds"(103) Yancey spoke of Lewis' ability to bring together the physical and the spiritual; to help us understand that the joys we experience in this life point us to greater joy in the life to come. His point is that our lives matter - in the here and now. What we do today has an impact, and C.S. Lewis understood this.

Part 5 is particularly interesting for some of us who also had exposure to a legalistic religious setting. Here Yancey speaks of his days in an ultra-conservative Bible College during the volatile sixties. Aptly called "Life In A Bubble" he recounts the good and bad of being secluded from the dangers of society while learning theology. Though he had been critical of the school in previous writings, he was asked to come back and speak at a chapel service. The title of his talk was "I Wish I'd Known"(127) and was broken down into 4 parts:" "I wish I'd known how to appreciate two worlds at once."(128) "I wish I'd known how to nurture the inner life."(130) "I wish I'd known more humility."(134) And finally, "I wish I'd known grace here."(136)

Part 6 brings us around the globe again to South Africa.(144) He speaks of his previous visits to speak at Rhema church, a large (35,000+) influential church in Johannesburg. There are interesting insights into the challenge of changes in South Africa since the fall of apartheid and the attempted blending of society. Also interesting is the trial and error of the church as the leadership tries to cope with the growth while learning themselves. Fittingly, his message was titled, "Growing in Grace."(155) He talked about three stages of the Christian life: Child, Adult and Parent.(157) There are applications here not only individually, but also corporately. For the church, he could speak to the change that he had seen from his first visit and the emphasis on the prosperity gospel to new Aids clinics, schools and educational institutions. As we grow in grace we move from an emphasis on self to being others-focused. As Yancey said, "Jesus did not come and die so that we could live happy and self-indulgent lives to show the rest of the world our self-contentment. No, he came as an example for us to follow in his steps."(167)

Part 7 takes us to Memphis, site of civil rights clashes, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and home to the revolutionary Church Health Center. The backdrop to this chapter was the last U.S. Presidential election. Yancey would speak to supporters of the Church Health Center on the night after Barack Obama was elected President. There were many voices giving many different perspectives and views on the world. In this setting he would speak on the subject of truth.

Here is my favorite "takeaway" from the book. Philip shared of the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine in 2004. Even though the Soviet empire had collapsed, reforms were slow to come in the Ukraine. Even though reformer Victor Yuschenko had suffered from dioxin poisoning, he still ran against the president in a national election. The corrupt regime resorted to out-and-out fraud to reverse the results. That evening the state-run television station reported that Yuschenko had been defeated. However, in a little corner of the screen was a translator for the hearing impaired. She signed: "Don't believe what they say. They are lying and I am ashamed to translate these lies. Yuschenko is our President!"(184) Word quickly spread by text message and soon people were protesting in the streets, finally resulting in a new election and a new government. His application was that the church ought to be like the translator in the corner of the screen, speaking truth into a culture that is used to hearing lies.

Part 8 brings us to the Middle East where Yancey toured numerous countries. He was struck by the contrasts between the old and the new, the land of the bedouins on the one hand and the towering city-scapes of Yemen on the other. Here if you mentioned Christianity to a Muslim they would likely think of David Beckham and Madonna. The religion of Islam tends to unify religion, culture, law and politics and many Muslims assume that Christianity does the same.(213) Therefore, Beckham and Madonna are Christians and therefore Christianity is vulgar and excessive. There is a heavy price to pay by converts from Islam to Christianity in the Middle East. His message in Bahrain was given to people from many countries in the backyard of a Christian's home. He spoke of the fact that their plight was similar to that of the early church, which began under Roman rule and oppression. Yet by simply living out their faith in a hostile environment, treating slaves as human beings, elevating women to positions of leadership, caring for the sick and adopting orphans they were literally able to transform society.(214) God can change the world through people who believe enough to act.

Part 9 brings us back to the U.S., this time to Chicago for a convention for Christian 12-step programs. He spoke to the fact that each of us is susceptible to temptation. As Augustine said: "Evil passes your door first as a stranger, then enters as a guest, and finally installs itself as master."(242) Recovering addicts are well aware of this, and can teach the church many things, qualities like honesty, transparency, accountability, and grace. All of us are fallen, and all of us need grace and community to help us stand.

Part 10 finally brings us back full circle to Mumbai. Yancey was scheduled to speak in downtown Mumbai on the same day as the terrorist attacks on the Taj Mahal Hotel. An impromptu meeting was scheduled instead at a church near where he was staying where he spoke on the subject "Grace Under Fire." Similarities were drawn between the attack in India and the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. Both gave "a vivid picture of a world that does not operate by the rule of grace."(271) In this kind of setting the message of Jesus stands in stark contrast. "In a world divided by race, culture, class, language and religion, Jesus set loose the most powerful force in the universe, the force of grace."(272) In fact, grace has the power to set loose both the oppressed and the oppressor.(277)

Philip Yancey writes, "May the church be known as a place where grace flows on tap: to sinners, to rich and poor alike, to those who need more light, to outcasts, to those who disagree, to oppressed and oppressors both."(282) Well said Mr. Yancey, well said.

Articles of Interest:
Book Review: "Why I Still Believe"
Book Review: "It Came From Within!"
Book Review: "Has Christianity Failed You?"
Book Review: "The Power Of A Whisper"
Book Review - "Heaven Is For Real"

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The "A" Word

Abortion is one of the most volatile issues out there, and most people like to avoid the subject like the plague. I have to admit that it's a topic I don't like to think about because of the emotions that are quick to rise to the surface. However, over the last couple of days there were two recently released articles that brought the issue to the front-burner once more.

The first was from Canoe News which reported that, in Canada, women aged 15-19 reported 150 abortions per every 100 live births. In other words, abortion is now being used as birth control among our youth. The second article, from Newsweek, reports that in Asia there are now 100,000,000 more men than women. This disparity has resulted largely from selective abortions and infanticide. Boys are more valued in Asia and, therefore, many (most?) choose to abort girls.

I think that these two stories go together because they really show the progression of thought once we devalue human life. It was one thing to excuse people's ignorance when abortion first rose to prominence. After all, the fetus was thought to be just a blob of tissue, and certainly not a person. But as modern technology has advanced we have found out how quickly the human fetus develops within the womb.

This in itself is illustrative of the catch 22 situation in which we find ourselves. On the one hand, we're now able to do "in utero" surgery in one wing of a hospital while performing abortions on babies of the same gestation in another wing. This, in my mind, is nothing short of schizophrenic. If a child is viable enough to have surgery, how can they not be human? And if they are human, how can they not be worthy of protection?

Then we look at the situation in Asia, with 100 million more boys than girls. I've read articles where people have complained about selective abortions - that it's not right to abort based on gender - and I agree. But if it's wrong to abort a child because it's female, is it not also wrong to abort a male? What makes it wrong? It is either wrong or a matter of preference, but you can't have it both ways.

I hear and read in popular media that this issue is settled and Canadians don't want to talk about it. I don't believe that. My experience is that many people are not informed and many do want to talk about it. As stated earlier, we know a lot more today than we used to, yet we still allow almost unlimted access to abortion for any reason. My firm belief is that future generations will look back on this issue the way we look back on those who held slaves. They'll shake their heads and wonder how civilized people could ever do such a thing.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Book Review: "Why I Still Believe"

Book Review: Joe Boot, "Why I Still Believe: (Hint: It's The Only Way The World Makes Sense)" Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006. 159 pages.

Joe Boot, the author of "Why I Still Believe" wass the Canadian Director of RZIM Ministries (Ravi Zacharias). He is the founding president of the Ezra Institute for Contemporary Christianity in Toronto where he currently serves as senior pastor of Westminster Chapel. As such, he is well-versed in apologetics, speaking around the world in universities, churches, colleges and conferences.

This book is a little different from the normal works of apologists(defenders of the faith) as it deals not so much with rational proof for Christianity, as with building a case that Christianity is the most reasonable worldview. His rationale, with which I happen to agree, is that the presuppositions of Christians and non-Christians are so far apart that there is little common ground on which to build an objective argument.

So Boot takes the time to compare the worldviews, making the case that the Christian worldview, alone, provides satisfying answers to life's ultimate questions. As C.S. Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

He begins his book by showing that much of what we believe, Christian or not, is based upon pre-suppositions. For example, he notes that even scientific journals admit that the big bang theory of cosmology is based upon a number of hypothetical entities - things that we have never observed. They are unproven pre-suppositions, without which the theories would fall apart. As an article in the New Scientist Journal stated: "In cosmology today, doubt and dissent are not tolerated and young scientists learn to stay silent if they have something negative to say about the standard big bang model."

These pre-suppositions exist in most, if not all, areas of science and of religion. The premise of evolutionary theory, for example, is that there must be a naturalistic explanation for all life forms. All evidence is therefore understood through that filter, the questions arising from the Cambrian explosion notwithstanding... So, in all disciplines and walks of life a certain amount of faith is required, but I digress.

Joe speaks about his upbringing and the different views to which he was exposed as a child and a youth. There was a steady bombardment of ideas that ran contrary to the Christian beliefs of his parents. He found himself, from an early age, wrestling with the competing worldviews he encountered. He realised, as I have, that of all of the worldviews out there, Christianity is the one which seems to be a lightning-rod for criticism. Some of that criticism is due to the hypocrisy of some Christians and Christian organizations. But some is also due to the very direct truth claims which fly in the face of our modern views of "tolerance." When Jesus claimed to be "the way, and the truth, and the life" He drew a line in the sand, stating by implication that all contrary views are false.

I love his chapter Ridicule and Rebuttals, in which he speaks of the attitude of Christianity's critics. I'll let him speak for himself in a lengthy, but well-written paragraph. (I love the sarcastic tone). "Have I never heard of Charles Darwin and macroevolution? Do I not realize that the Bible has been disproved - Richard Dawkins says so! Have I been living on Mars for the last thirty years? Have I not encountered the work of David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietsche, Karl Marx, Aldous Huxley, Anthony Flew, or Bertrand Russell? Am I unaware of French existentialism? What about Camus, Sartre and Derrida? Do I not realize that such people, and many other thinkers, have shown the inadequacy of arguments for God, the miraculous, and biblical history? Have I not read that 'God is dead,' that religion is just the opium of the people? Have I not understood that all religious language is meaningless or that Christianity is not empirically verifiable? Surely I am conscious of the loneliness of humankind in the universe, that all is meaningless, and life is only what I define it to be or make of it? Humankind has come of age; we are autonomous, free, self-determining. And surely I understand that history itself and all religious claims are mere power plays to control and manipulate others. All is relative; there can be no objectivity in history: that's objectively certain! There are no absolutes, and that's absolutely final! It's all a matter of personal interpretation. What's true for you isn't necessarily true for me. Joe Boot, you really have been living in a box; you are so behind the times! Your parents merely passed on to you their human projection of a 'father figure' due to their insecurity and poor relationship with their parents; what you now depend on as 'god' is a psychological disorder - Freud taught us that. No, I'm afraid this biblical concoction of God will not be tolerated in our tolerant society. It's back to school for you, Joe Boot."

I love this paragraph because I've heard so many of the lines myself from people who cannot believe that I, an educated person, could actually believe this Christianity stuff. I see a great deal of my own journey in Boot's story. I left the faith of my childhood in search of truth only to arrive back home after other worldviews had left me empty and needing more. The more I learn of God, His Word and His world the more I am convinced that Christianity is true. His use of a quote by Cornelius Van Til at the beginning of a chapter called No Apology is appropriate here: "Faith is not blind faith... Christianity can be shown to be, not 'just as good as' or even 'better than' the non-Christian position, but the only position that does not make nonsense of human experience."

Boot then gives some helpful tools to actually assess the validity of worldviews, much of it I believe from Ravi Zacharias. I have some of this information in an older blog if you're interested. The point is that Christianity is not only true - it works in real life, which is where all worldviews should be measured.

I encourage you to read this book, particularly if you're on a search for truth. If you're one of those that I hear from on occasion who have rejected Christianity for whatever reason, I really would like your feedback on this one. If you are a Christian, I believe that this will help to bring some things into perspective for you.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Shahbaz Bhatti - Christian Martyr

Shahbaz Bhatti, the only openly Christian Member of Parliament in Pakistan, was murdered by Islamic terrorists on March 2, 2011. He had been threatened repeatedly for opposing Pakistan's blasphemy law which had been used as an excuse by Muslims to have Christians and other minorities arrested and imprisoned. He was a courageous man of God.