Luther’s Big Anniversary

This year marks 500 years since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther – a German monk and professor of theology – nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This act is considered the official beginning of the Reformation.

To celebrate this anniversary some European countries have declared special events and programs. Ukraine, for example, has declared an official program called R500 that includes special teaching in public schools about the Reformation and Protestants. This is particularly interesting considering how Protestants in Eastern Ukraine have suffered persecution from separatist authorities.

In honor of this anniversary I’ll be posting some of my favorite quotes from Luther over the next few months. I grew up going to Lutheran school, so I have some familiarity with him and affinity for him.

Luther’s Large Catechism begins with some insight about the first commandment:

The First Commandment: Thou shalt have no other gods before Me

That is: Thou shalt have and worship Me alone as thy God.

What is the force of this, and how is it to be understood? What does it mean to have a god? or, what is God?

Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the heart; as I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust be right, then is your god also true; and, on the other hand, if your trust be false and wrong, then you have not the true God; for these two belong together faith and God. That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.

Therefore it is the intent of this commandment to require true faith and trust of the heart which settles upon the only true God and clings to Him alone. That is as much as to say: “See to it that you let Me alone be your God, and never seek another,” i.e.: Whatever you lack of good things, expect it of Me, and look to Me for it, and whenever you suffer misfortune and distress, creep and cling to Me. I, yes, I, will give you enough and help you out of every need; only let not your heart cleave to or rest in any other.

To read the continuation, click here.

New York Times Article on Muslim Refugees Converting to Christianity

From the NY Times: The Jihadi Who Turned to Jesus

Something I have often written about and talked about is how when Middle Eastern refugees come to Europe and the West, for many of them it is the first time they have ever met Christians or even had the opportunity to hear the gospel or the freedom to read the Bible in their own language. We experienced this ourselves in Hungary, where we saw muslim refugees from Iran, Afghanistan and Kosovo convert to Christianity through our work in a refugee camp.

The New York Times posted this article recently about the conversion of a formerly radical muslim from Syria who converted to Christianity in Istanbul – an very interesting read especially in light of my post yesterday about my recent day-trip to Istanbul. His conversion was influenced by several factors, including his brother, also a formerly radical muslim, who had gone to Canada, where he met Christians and converted to Christianity.

Could it be that since these countries and cultures haven’t allowed Christianity to spread freely within their borders, that God is now bringing them to Europe and America precisely so many of them can hear the gospel and be saved? I believe so. I’ve written about that here: In Longmont We Met a Refugee from a Muslim Country. Here’s Her Story..

The question is: what will we Christians do with this opportunity?

“Should I Not Have Compassion on that Great City?”

Greetings from Kyiv, Ukraine! I have been in Europe for the past week on a ministry trip to visit some ministries that White Fields Community Church partners with in Hungary and Ukraine, with the focus of my trip being here in Ukraine.

I got a good price on a multi-destination ticket with Turkish Airlines. Part of the reason for the low price is that it included a 12 hour layover in Istanbul. I can understand why for some people that would be a terrible inconvenience, but for me on this trip it was a great added bonus! Recently I’ve been teaching classes on the history of Christianity, and Constantinople is a big part of it, so I looked forward to the chance to get to see the “New Rome” and the old capitol of the Byzantine Empire along with the Hagia Sophia – the largest Christian church in the world for nearly a thousand years, and a building that changed architecture.

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Inside the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), built in 537 AD!

Istanbul, with 14 million people, is the largest city in Europe. During my time there I went to the Asian side of the Bosphorus Strait, and from there I could begin to get a glimpse of just how big this city is. It was great preparation for the conference I was coming to teach at in Kyiv on the topic of “Vision for Our Cities.”

I was reminded of the message of the Book of Jonah, which is summed up in the final verse, where God says to Jonah, “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?”

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Looking across the Bosphorus from the Asian side, toward the “Golden Horn”

Jonah’s view of Nineveh was that it was a city full of terrible sinful people who did terrible sinful things, and that they deserved God’s wrath. He was frustrated and upset by the fact that God wanted to offer them a chance to repent and receive mercy. But God spoke to Jonah at the end, and pointed out that Jonah was more concerned about plants than he was about people. God, on the other hand, cares more about people than plants – and so therefore, how could God not care about a city full of his most masterful creation, whom he loves? God wanted Jonah (and us) to understand the way that he feels about people, and about cities full of people: he loves them and we should too.

“And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?”

On the streets of Istanbul and in the public transport areas I saw a lot of refugees from the Middle East. While I was in Turkey, the United States issued a ban on bringing laptops and tablets onto flights originating from 10 airports in 8 muslim-majority countries, including flights originating from Istanbul, something which will affect me on my flight home. The ban came as the result of the discovery of a plot to put explosives into an iPad.

As I walked through downtown Istanbul towards Taksim Square, I began wondering what it would be like for someone to do Christian ministry in that city. I was surprised at how European it was; aside from the mosques and minarets, most of the city looks like any other large European city.

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Galata Tower and a typical European neighborhood in Istanbul.

At the same time, I remember the news about German missionaries who were killed in Turkey a few years ago, and I realize that it would not only be difficult, but also dangerous for someone to do Christian ministry there.

Cities in general are “humanity magnified.” And because of that, there is inherently a dual nature to all cities: on the one hand they are full of the pinnacle of God’s good creation: people who are made in His image – on the other hand, we are fallen and so cities also have more brokenness, danger and sin.

The story-line the Bible tells is one which can be summarized in four points: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration. That means that because of Jesus there is hope for humanity.

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Istanbul: very European and yet unquestionably Muslim

A Google search helped me find some international churches in Istanbul. I pray for their safety and for them to have effective ministry in this great city. May we truly understand the message of the Book of Jonah and may God give us His heart for cities like this one.

A Modern Myth

51vrjuzftllI just finished reading N.T. Wright’s How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. He is a great thinker and while I may not agree with him on everything, I do appreciate his writing. Here’s a quote from How God Became King which I found particularly insightful and encouraging regarding the “modern myth” of the failure of Christianity and the attempts to relegate it to the realm of private religion rather than the revolutionary message it truly is.

“The failure of Christianity is a modern myth, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of telling the proper story of church history, which of course has plenty of muddle and wickedness, but also far more than we normally imagine of love and creativity and beauty and justice and healing and education and hope. To imagine a world without the gospel of Jesus is to imagine a pretty bleak place.

Of course the reason the Enlightenment has taught us to trash our own history, to say that Christianity is part of the problem, is that it has had a rival eschatology to promote. It couldn’t allow Christianity to claim that world history turned its great corner when Jesus of Nazareth died and rose again, because it wanted to claim that world history turned its great corner in Europe in the 18th century. “All that went before,” it says, “is superstition and mumbo-jumbo. We have now seen the great light, and our modern science, technology, philosophy and politics have ushered in the new order of the ages.”

That was believed and expounded in America and France, and it has soaked into our popular culture and imagination. So, of course, Christianity is reduced from an eschatology (” this is where history was meant to be going, despite appearances!”) To a religion (“here is a way of being spiritual”), because world history can’t have two great turning points.

If the enlightenment is the great, dramatic, all-important corner of world history, Jesus can’t have been. He is still wanted on board, of course, as a figure through whom people can try to approach the incomprehensible mystery of the”divine” as a teacher of moral truths that might, if applied, actually strengthen the fabric of the brave new post-Enlightenment society. But when Christianity is made “just a religion,” it first muzzles and then silences altogether the message the Gospels were eager to get across.

When that happens, the Gospel message is substantially neutralized as a force in the world beyond the realm of private spirituality and an escapist heaven. That indeed, was the intention. And the churches have, by and large, going along for the ride.”

(N.T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, HarperOne: 2016, pp.163-164)

Hungary Becomes the First Country to Officially Defend Christians Persecuted by ISIS

Some good news coming out of my former home, Hungary, this week:

This week, Hungary, which has during the past year come under pressure for its handling of Europe’s mass migration crisis, has become the first government to open an office specifically to address the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Europe.

“Today, Christianity has become the most persecuted religion, where out of five people killed [for] religious reasons, four of them are Christians,” Catholic News Agency (CNA) quoted Hungary’s Minister for Human Resources, Zoltan Balog, as saying. “In 81 countries around the world, Christians are persecuted, and 200 million Christians live in areas where they are discriminated against. Millions of Christian lives are threatened by followers of radical religious ideologies.”

I’m glad to see someone standing up for these persecuted Christians in the Middle East. It’s about time. Good on you, Hungary!

For the article about it in Christianity Today, click here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/september/first-country-to-officially-defend-christians-persecuted-by.html

Follow-up on Bibles for Refugees

A few months ago, when the refugee crisis was at its peak in Europe, White Fields Church collected money to purchase Bibles for refugees, mostly from Iran and Syria, who had come to Hungary and had either become Christians or were interested in Christianity.

Bibles, especially Farsi (Persian) Bibles are expensive and hard to come by, but we were able to send 50 Bibles in various languages to those working on the ground with these refugees. Last summer, my wife Rosemary was able to meet with some of them in Debrecen, before the refugee camp there was closed this November. Since then most of the refugees have been moved to Bicske, near Budapest, and Békéscsaba in South-East Hungary. Those in Bicske are coming now every Monday to Golgota Budapest to learn the Bible and have Hungarian lessons.

The friends of ours in Budapest who help them asked me if Travis and I could come down and meet them today since we were in Hungary and our church had purchased these Bibles for them.

After breakfast with some friends from the Eger church, Travis and I took the train to Budapest, met with some friends at the church, and then went and joined the refugee Bible study, which was in English with translation into Farsi.

After Bible study, I got the opportunity to speak to the group. I told them about how Rosemary and I had spent years doing refugee ministry and we had seen several people from Iran come to faith in Jesus, and how we had also seen some of those people have their lives threatened, one man was attacked and almost killed, for their new faith.

For these people, the Gospel really is a matter of life and death – of all or nothing. As a result of becoming Christians, their lives will be at risk from their fellow countrymen for having converted and they will likely be disowned by their families and communities. However, though they may lose everything for following Christ in this life, they will gain eternal life in the next. Is it worth it? They would say: Absolutely.

One of the men, when they received the Bibles that our church sent them, held it up and said: “In my country I could be killed for reading this! Think about how powerful the message of this book must be that they want to do everything to keep us from reading it!”

One of the things I told this group, was that we were glad that we could provide for them the Bibles that we did, and that if they needed more, we would be happy to provide those also.

After I spoke to the group, I prayed for them. And after the prayer, Lisa, a missionary with Calvary Chapel in Hungary came over and showed me an email she had just received as I was speaking, from the Hungarian Bible Society, that they had located 30 Farsi Bibles, but they weren’t cheap. Lisa showed me the email and asked if I was serious about providing more Bibles…

We said yes, and we were able to purchase 30 Farsi Bibles for these young believers who have never owned a Bible of their own before. One of the men had received a New Testament in his language before, but was eager to read the Old Testament. Another man had received a Bible from us back in September, but had given it away to another man who wanted to read it and needed another one for himself to read.

Can you imagine not having access to a Bible? Or your faith being a matter of life and death? That is what these people face for their decision to follow Jesus.

God is doing a great work amongst these people, and he is going to use them to be evangelists to other refugees in Europe. These people are our brothers and sisters in the faith. Please pray for them and consider ways to support them. The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.

 

Thoughts on the Refugee Crisis in Europe – and How You Can Help

Hungary has been in the news a lot lately because of the refugee crisis going on right now in Europe. Because my wife and I lived there for so long, many people have been asking for my opinion on what’s happening, so here goes:

What is happening right now is going to shape the future of Europe

This is something of historic proportions. Estimates range from 300,000 to over 1 million Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan migrants and refugees having entered already into Europe over the past several months. Countries like Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic are mostly homogeneous nations; they have had almost no muslim population to speak of. Until now, muslims in Europe have been based solely in the Western countries. That is now going to change.

I don’t believe that most of these migrants are muslim radicals; the great majority of them are people fleeing atrocities and horrible circumstances, which is very understandable. However, since the floodgates have opened up, there is no saying who all is coming into Europe right now, and I’m sure there is a mixed bag, with some of those radical elements being part of it, seeing a wide open door to Europe and taking the opportunity. Conspiracy theories are rampant as to the idea that this is a muslim invasion of Europe, but honestly, really radical muslims in Syria and Iraq who want an Islamic state would probably be most inclined to joining ISIS anyway, since that is what they want.

Long term solutions and short term responses

The long term solutions to this problem are certainly not something I’m qualified to give, but I would assume that peace and stability in Syria, and the defeat of ISIS is a big part of it.

The Dublin Agreement, which says that the first European Union country a migrant enters is responsible for registering them and then processing them is, in my opinion, unfair. It serves to protect the wealthy countries of North and West Europe and keep the burden on the poorer countries of Southern and Eastern Europe. I’m glad to see the Dublin Agreement being ignored and reconsidered. I do think the suggestion of Donald Tusk of Poland is fair, that the countries of the European Union should share the burden of these refugees. Some countries are not really affected by it, while others bear the brunt of it.

However, since the Dublin Agreement has been being ignored, with Austria and Germany accepting thousands of refugees who were “stuck” in Hungary, I expect even more refugees to come, as word of that spreads, and there is an apparent open door into Western Europe for anyone willing to make the journey. None of these people want to stay in Hungary. They are trying to go through Hungary into the wealthy countries of Western and Northern Europe.

In the short term, the response of Christians in Europe to the refugees has been amazing. I do believe that as Christians our calling is to love and serve those right in front of us, no matter their creed or nationality, and many of my friends and former colleagues in Hungary and Serbia are doing just that. Below I have included a link for how you can support their efforts.

The response of Hungarian citizens to the refugees in their country has been outstanding. They have treated them with love and respect. The video that was on the news yesterday of a Hungarian camerawoman at Röszke tripping and kicking refugees was despicable and not at all characteristic of the Hungarian people. This woman was filmed tripping a man carrying a child, so that he and the child fell, and later kicking a young refugee girl in the stomach as she tried to run by. It turns out this woman worked for a far-right wing news source, and even they didn’t approve of her actions and she was fired.

My wife Rosemary and I worked with refugees for years in Debrecen, Hungary – and what we found was that for many of these people from majority muslim countries, coming to Europe was the first time they had been exposed to Christianity and for most of them it was the first opportunity they had to hear the Gospel and read the Bible. We saw many people convert to Christianity, and I do believe that this may be a great opportunity for these muslim people to come to Europe and hear about Jesus. The work of Christians in loving them will make great strides towards this end. Pray that God would use this crisis as a way of bringing many of these people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

How you can help

Our friends at Calvary Chapel Bible College Europe in Vajta, Hungary – only a short drive from Röszke, the major flashpoint for refugees entering Hungary, are providing food and blankets, among other things, to the refugees who have been being kept at a temporary “camp” on the border, which is just a fenced off corn field, where refugees, including many children, are sleeping on the ground in increasingly cold temperatures. For the last few nights it has been 10 degrees Celsius / 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Here is the link to where you can donate to support their efforts.

We also have friends in Szeged, Hungary, only a few kilometers from Röszke, and they have been very involved with the refugees as well. Here is a link to their blog where you can follow what they are doing.

Pray for the refugees and those serving them in the name of Jesus!