Why Ethics Depends on Origin

In my last post I mentioned how much I appreciated the intellectual integrity of Penn Jillette for saying that he respects Christians who share their faith and evangelize, because if you really believe the gospel, then the only appropriate response is to share it with others.

Today I’d like to address the opposite approach: a very common and yet completely contradictory set of beliefs about the meaning and value of life.

I recently came across this quote from well-known atheist Steven Pinker, author of the book, “How the Mind Works.”

“When it comes to ethics, ethical theory requires free rational agents whose behavior is uncaused. Now, ethical theory can be useful even though the world as seen by science does not really have uncaused events.” – Steven Pinker

Do you catch what he’s saying? He’s essentially saying that ethics are useful to society, but that they really have no basis in reality. In other words: ethics help society function, but in a view of the world in which there is no God who created you, ethics are completely baseless.

To put it simply: if there is no God who created you, there is absolutely no rational reason for saying that you are any more important than a stick. And you really have no original thoughts or creativity. Everything you do is programed, nothing is uncaused. You are just a hunk of matter, and therefore your life is utterly insignificant.

And yet, Pinker is saying that in spite of this, we should live as if human life is special and we as human beings are valuable, because it is helpful to the functioning of society, even if it isn’t true.

Here’s the point: an atheistic/humanistic worldview is incredibly conflicted.

On the one hand, modern Western society is obsessed with self-esteem. Our schools put a huge focus on telling kids that they are unique and valuable. We affirm that every life has innate value. And yet, at the same time we have a secular worldview which says that if there is no God, you still have to live as if human beings are significant, even though in reality they are not at all.

In other words, if your origin is insignificant and your destiny in insignificant, then the conclusion is that your life and everyone else’s life is insignificant. However, at the same time we are told to believe that we must pretend that it is.

That’s not intellectual integrity, that’s intellectual schizophrenia.

Atheism has an inherent problem with human rights: on the one hand our modern Western culture believes in individual human rights, and yet on the other hand, there is a push for an existential and eschatological narrative which undermines the very foundation for believing in equal individual human rights.

I have written more on this subject here: Atheism and Human Rights: An Inherent Problem.

Christianity, on the other hand, tells us that human beings were created by God, in His image, and therefore our lives have innate value and purpose – even if there is nothing that we can contribute to society, such as in the case of handicapped individuals.

Furthermore, the message of the gospel is that the lord of the universe left His heavenly throne and came to the Earth in order to save us by giving His life in order to redeem us — which means that you and your life have more value than you can even comprehend.

Modern Western culture has held onto the belief in individual value and human rights, something which has its basis in Christian doctrine and theology, while trying to eschew Christian doctrine and theology in the areas of origin, existence and destiny.

Ethics depend on origin. If you believe that human life has equal and inherent value, please remember where that idea comes from: the Word of God.

True Colors

I saw a quote today posted online that said this:

“Occasions make not a man fail, but they show what the man is.”
Thomas à Kempis

A Conversation

It reminded me of a conversation I had with my dad a few years ago. We were talking about a prominent pastor who had committed sin which resulted in him to losing his position and ministry along with the respect of his peers.

I commented to my dad, “I guess he showed his true colors.”

My dad wisely and graciously responded, “Maybe those aren’t his true colors. Maybe that was just something he did in a moment of great weakness and darkness.”

In other words: I was suggesting that the good things this man had done for years were really just a facade, and finally his true self was revealed. My dad on the other hand was suggesting that maybe the terrible things the man had done were more of an anomaly than the true essence of who he was.

The Issue

Should we determine a person’s character based on their worst moments or on their best moments?

That’s not a very easy question to answer.

Surely no one would say that we should judge Adolf Hitler’s character based on his best moments. However, all of our greatest cultural and even faith heroes are people who had dark moments in which they did bad things. Martin Luther King Jr. committed infidelity. Moses was a neglectful father. Martin Luther had a racist rant. The list could go on.

Despite the fact that we like clean-cut distinctions, to label people either “good” or “bad” – the messy reality of life is that all of us do both good things and bad things. We commit sins which hurt others and grieve the heart of God, and we do wonderful things which benefit others.

So, which you is the real you?

An Example

David and Saul. Both were kings of Israel. Both were chosen by God for the people. Both began very well – and both committed grievous sins which had tragic effects for both their lives and the lives of many others because of their position as king.

And yet, one of them is called “the man after God’s own heart” whereas the other is remembered as an anti-hero with no concern for God. 

It could even be argued that David’s sins were worse than Saul’s. Saul attempted murder, but David actually committed murder and adultery.

However, the great difference between the two men is that David, when confronted with his sins, was quick to repent and turn back to God. Saul, on the other hand, when confronted, stubbornly persisted and resisted God.

This response to God of humility and willingness to repent – this fundamental desire to live for God and please God, seems to be at the heart of what separates these two men.

The Promise

There is a sense in which I agree with the above quote from Thomas à Kempis, and yet I am hesitant about what I perceive to be its inference.

I agree with the quote in as much as it is saying that ALL people are fallen and therefore the reason we sin is because we are sinners at heart; our very nature has been corrupted and opportunities to sin simply reveal this fact.

However, it seems that the inference of this quote is that in a given situation, some people fail and others do not – and this reveals their fundamental character. Furthermore, a person who does not fail in that given situation should feel a sense of pride that they are fundamentally better than those who did fail.

If this is indeed what is being inferred, this attitude, while commonly held,  is contrary to the gospel.

The message of the gospel, that God took on human flesh in order to pay the price for your sin and redeem you, has 2 simultaneous effects on the person who really understands it:
1) it makes you incredibly humble – because it tells you that you are not fundamentally better than anyone else. You are made of the same stuff and you are in the same boat: a sinner who is hopeless without a savior,
2) it makes you incredibly confident – because it tells you that you are loved by God, and that He is wholly committed to you, forever.

The promise of the gospel is that if you will repent of your sins and turn to God – like David did – and put your faith in what Jesus did for you, then not only will God justify you, but He will also redeem you, and as part of that He will sanctify you, from the inside out by the power of His Spirit – and the end result will be that the “true you,” the version of you free of sin, which He created you to be, will ultimately be revealed.

Romans 8:19 says, For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.
1 John 3:2 says, We do not yet know what awaits us when He appears, except that we will be like Him.

The real you is the you that you are in relation to God – the you whom God declares you to be – and if your faith is in Jesus, then the you whom He is making you into by His Spirit: the version of you without the corrupting effects of sin which have marred the image of God that you bear.

The promise of the gospel is that it will be so for those who have embraced God’s offer of salvation in Jesus.

Politics and Identity

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Over the past few weeks, I, like many of you, have been following the political developments in the U.S. In such a caustic and antagonistic climate, I would much rather be known for my stance on Jesus Christ and the message of the gospel than for my personal convictions about political matters. That is the drum that I will beat and the hill I will be willing to die on.

Why is it that the political climate is so caustic and people are so divided? According to many sociologists, philosophers and theologians, the issue is one of identity: namely, that one of the most common ways that people create identity is through “the exclusion of the Other.”

According to Zygmunt Bauman, “We can’t create ‘Us’ without also creating ‘Them.’ Social belonging happens only as some other contrasting group is labeled as the Different or the Other. We bolster our identity by seeing others in a negative light and by excluding them in some way.” (Modernity and Ambivalence, p. 8)

In other words: I can feel I am one of the good people because I know I am not one of the bad people. Therefore the “Other” must be degraded, excluded and/or vilified in order for me to have a sense of self-worth.

Croatian theologian and professor at Yale University, Miroslav Wolf, in his book Exclusion and Embrace, says that the reason we indulge in these attitudes and practices is that by denouncing and blaming the Other it gives us “the illusion of sinlessness and strength.”

One great example of this, Timothy Keller points out, is: “If I find my identity in working for liberal political and social causes, it is inevitable that I will scorn conservatives, and the same goes for conservatives regarding liberals. In fact, if the feelings of loathing toward the opposition are not there, it might be concluded that my political position is not very close to the core of who I am.” (Making Sense of God, p. 145)

In order to do this, Wolf says, we must “over-bind” and “over-separate”: To over-separate means to fail to recognize what we do have in common, and to over-bind means to refuse other people the right to be different from us.

This practice is common in many areas, not just in regard to politics.

Keller goes on to say: “If my identity rests to a great degree in being moral and religious, then I will disdain those people I think of as immoral. If my self-worth is bound up with being a hardworking person, I will look down on those whom I consider lazy. As the postmodernists rightly point out, this condescending attitude toward the Other is part of how identity works, how we feel good and significant.” (Ibid.)

Jesus himself gave an example of this:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14 ESV

Jesus is describing people who excluded, degraded and vilified others for the purpose of bolstering their own sense of self-worth, value and identity. However, much to their surprise, Jesus tells them that God does not play this game – in fact, he is very much opposed to it, because it is rooted in pride and self-justification rather than humility.

What then is the solution?

The solution is this: we must find our identity not in being better than others, but in who we are in God’s eyes, because of what Jesus has done for us. We need an identity which is centered on the Cross.

The fact that Jesus went to the cross to die for our salvation is both a profound statement of our sin and failure, and at the same time the greatest expression of love and of our value to God. In this sense, my identity and value is not based on me being better than other people – rather it does not allow me to see myself as better than others. I, like them, have sinned and fallen short. My value, according to the gospel, is that God loves me so much that he was willing to pay the greatest cost and hold nothing back; he is that devoted and committed to me.

May we be those who find our identity in Christ, rather than in our political or other affiliations, and may the way Christians express their political views not be a hindrance to the message of the gospel.

Addison’s Walk

I took my family for a walk the other day down a path called Addison’s Walk: a mile-long footpath around an island created by the river Cherwell in Oxford, England. The island and the path are part of Magdalen College, one of the 39 colleges that makes up Oxford University.

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It was there on Addison’s Walk that CS Lewis and his friend Jack, AKA J.R.R. Tolkien, had a conversation late one night after dinner, which Lewis later said was a turning point in his journey from atheism to Christianity.

Tolkien and Lewis both taught at Oxford and they were both part of the Oxford literary society known as “The Inklings”. The Inklings would meet regularly at two pubs in Oxford: the Eagle and Child, which they nicknamed “Bird and Baby”, and the Lamb and Flag. Both pubs are still there today, on opposite sides of the same street. At their meetings, the Inklings would discuss literature and share their writings with each other. It was at the Lamb and Flag that Tolkien read his first drafts of The Lord of the Rings.

Lewis and Tolkien shared a love for stories. They both felt the power of stories, and Tolkien had written a book titled, On Fairy Stories, which discussed how even in a scientific age, an “age of reason,” for some reason, people still desire to hear and to read fictional stories, even stories which talk about a supernatural world. The reason for this, he said, is that the characteristics which make up all the stories which people love: good overcoming evil, escaping time, overcoming physical limitations, interacting with non-human creatures and other-worldly beings, etc.; these reflect the deep longings of the human heart.

The reason we can’t get enough of these stories, Tolkien argued, is because deep down we believe that this is the way the world SHOULD BE, even if it’s not the way it currently is. The reality of life is that good doesn’t always win, that eventually we are separated from those we love, and so on – but even if this is how things are, it’s not how we believe that they should be. And so we love to read stories which describe life the way we believe it should be.

CS Lewis agreed with Tolkien on this point, and believe that this was indeed the power of stories. However, Tolkien took it one step further that night on Addison’s Walk: he told his friend CS Lewis to consider the gospel story of Jesus Christ. This story, he said, contains all of the elements which make every great story great: love which overcomes death, life out of death, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, overcoming physical limitations, the promise of a world where things finally will be the way they should be… Lewis agreed.

Then Tolkien went one step further: he said, the gospel story of Jesus Christ is not just one more good story which points to the underlying reality, it is the underlying reality to which all other stories point.

The gospel story of Jesus Christ is not just one more good story which points to the underlying reality, it is the underlying reality to which all the other stories point.

CS Lewis then asked how he could be sure, to which Tolkien encouraged him to look at the historical facts surrounding Jesus’ resurrection.

It was that conversation which CS Lewis credited with leading him back to Christian faith. He went on to be one of the most effective apologists for CHristianity in the 20th century, partly because he was so intelligent, partly because he had been an atheist and was personally familiar with the arguments against Christianity, and partly because he was a layman and not a Christian minister.

I walked with my kids along Addison’s Walk, along the River Cherwell, and I told them the story of how Clive Lewis and Jack Tolkien had taken that walk along the same path, and I told them how Tolkien had shared with his friend this message of the gospel, and how all the things which cause us to love the stories we love point to “the true story of the world” – the story of Jesus and what he did for us.

As I did, my voice cracked a little bit as I tried to hold it together; you see, my heart has these deep longings as well. The promise of the gospel is that these things will not only remain longings, but one day they will once again be true, because of what Jesus did for us.

Carried by a Donkey

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On Sunday mornings at White Fields, I am currently teaching through the Book of Exodus. This past Sunday, we studied Exodus 13 in our study titled “A Cloud by Day and Fire by Night” (audio here).

After bringing the people of Israel out of Egypt, God established 2 annual feasts that they were to observe so they would never forget the deliverance He had worked on their behalf: the Feast of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Here the people of Israel were told that when they come into the Land of Canaan (the Promised Land) they were to sacrifice to God the first-born of both man and beast.

But wait! There are a couple problems with that…  First of all, human sacrifice was forbidden and considered an abomination. Secondly, some animals were considered “unclean” and therefore they could not be sacrificed either.

The solution?  The first-born of the humans and the first-born of the unclean animals both had to be “redeemed,” through an act of substitution. Specifically, it is mentioned that unclean animals were to be redeemed by substituting a clean animal in their place. In the text, an example is given: a donkey, as an unclean animal, could be redeemed by substituting a lamb in its place.

The donkey is a picture of me: pretty stubborn, not very cute, but worst of all: unclean by nature and condemned to death, but I have been redeemed, I have been saved by the substitutionary sacrifice on my behalf of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.

But there’s one more part to the story of the donkey:

Hundreds of years after the Passover, Zechariah the Prophet prophesied about the coming King of Zion – AKA the Messiah, that when he entered into Jerusalem, he would come on the back of donkey.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

Why a donkey? Many people believe that in contrast to conquering warrior kings who would enter a city on the back of a horse, an animal of war, by entering Jerusalem on a donkey, the message would be that the Messiah came in peace. Indeed one of the names he is given by the Prophet Isaiah is “Prince of Peace”.

Several hundred years later, Jesus of Nazareth came to Jerusalem, and he entered the city on the back of a donkey, declaring Himself to be the Messiah – and he was received as the Messiah by the people.

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me.
Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:1-2,8-9)

Now here’s the thing: Just as Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, an unclean but redeemed creature – he still enters into the cities of this world in the same way: carried by those who are unclean, but redeemed.

Christian, you are that donkey!

The way that Jesus has chosen to enter into the cities, the homes, the workplaces of this world, is by being carried on the backs of us “donkeys”: creatures who are unclean by nature, who have been redeemed by the sacrifice of the lamb on our behalf.

Paul the Apostle reminds us that God loves to use the foolishing things of this world (see 1 Corinthians 1:26-30), and that includes us: “redeemed donkeys”.

4 Strategies for Families Divided by Politics

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We live in a highly charged political climate, where many people see those on the opposite side of the political divide as being “what’s wrong with America.”

But what about when this touches your family? How can you have a family get-together without it deteriorating into arguments, awkwardness, alienation and hurt feelings? Is the only solution to just ignore the “elephant in the room” and not talk about politics?

This week I did an interview for the Longmont Times-Call newspaper on this subject. The article will come out on November 20. At the same time, a family I’m connected to is dealing with this exact scenario: their family is divided politically and it is straining their relationships.

Here are 4 simple strategies that can help families divided by politics:

1. Establish ground rules

In almost any mediation situation, the mediator will begin by establishing some ground rules for the discussion. This can be done in a family setting as well.

Here are some examples:

– No accusations allowed, only perception-based statements.

Rather than, “You people are ________” say something like, “This stance comes across to me as __________”.

– Discuss issues, not identities.

Rather than “Trump supporters are  ________” say, “I disagree with this policy because __________”.

– When it starts to feel negative, stop.

Take a break. Politicians come and go, and even they are willing to work together. Don’t let politics divide your family. It’s not worth it.

2. Zoom out to see the big picture

A political campaign is a marketing campaign. Each side is trying to get you to buy what they’re selling. To do this, they employ many strategies, particularly hyperbole and portraying the other side as dangerous and evil. But as soon as the campaign is over, they change their tone drastically. Why? Because they understand the nature of political campaigns. The problem is, many people don’t understand this the way politicians themselves do.

For example: In the final weeks of the campaign, President Obama said that Donald Trump was “very dangerous” and “a threat to democracy.” Trump called Obama “a disaster”, “the founder of ISIS” and “the most ignorant president in our history.” But then this week, the tone changed completely. Obama said Trump will be his president, that they were on the same team and that he was committed to helping Trump succeed. Trump said of Obama that “he is a very good man”.

It’s a game, a contest – and each side wants to win. But when it’s over, they know how to turn off the personas and work together.
It’s similar to a football game: for 60 minutes the players on each side try to crush each other. They use intimidation tactics, they hit each other as hard as they can – but when the game is over, they exchange jerseys and hug.

It’s often been noted that in congress, after heated partisan discussions, they all go eat lunch together in the cafeteria, and people from different parties who were at each other’s throats in the negotiating room, sit down and eat together.

Here’s the point: Politicians themselves understand campaigns for what they are. It would help us to do the same.

3. Affirm the noble values of the other person’s position

People who care about politics generally do so because they genuinely care about other people. They want to make things better. They’re passionate, interested and thoughtful. Most people who hold political views consider themselves to be heroic and compassionate. In other words, people all across the political spectrum believe that they are opposing evil and advocating for the good of others. In the end, we all want many of the same things, we just differ on how we believe those things can be achieved.

To take the teeth and the animosity out of a political discussion, it helps to affirm the noble values inherent to the other person’s position, and acknowledge that you hold those same values yourself.

For example: someone might say, “I support this political party because I care about the poor” or “…because I believe that all people are created equal” or “…because I consider life sacred.” Rather than take that as an insinuation that people who differ from them politically don’t care about those things, simply affirm that you do. Affirm all of the noble values that the other person cares about – and explain that you also want those same end goals. Then you can begin talking about strategies to achieve those goals, having taken many of the accusations and value judgments out of the equation and creating a less emotional, more rational discussion, because you’ve shown that you’re both interested in achieving the same ultimate goals.

4. Diffuse the tension by inviting the other person to tell you their views without argument

Love, the Bible teaches, is not a feeling, it is an action: a self-sacrifical, giving action. Because people love to talk about themselves, one of the greatest expressions of love you can give a person is to invite them to explain their views to you, and you only listen. No arguing. No interrupting. Just listening.

Maybe that would feel like a small death to you, and it may very well be an exercise in dying to yourself – but that is how God expressed His love for us: by suffering and dying for our sake.

Hebrews 12:2 tells us that it was for the joy that was set before him that Jesus endured the cross. So, in the end, there was something in it for him, but it wasn’t a selfish motive – it was for the sake of us (him and us together) that he did it. He subjected himself to suffering for the sake of repairing our broken relationship with him — which was, by the way, our fault alone. But yet, he reached out, he offered to suffer and die for the sake of the joy of a restored relationship with us.

Even if it feels like a small death, or you suffer through listening to your family member share their views with you – one of the greatest acts of love you can give them is to listen intently without saying a word, then affirming the good values and principles in their views. You might just find that the other person is so surprised and honored that you took the time to hear them out that they are most open to listening to you in return. And rather than being toxic and divisive, your discussion can be healthy and amiable – even if you still agree to disagree on the methods and strategies.

Have you experienced a similar situation?  Do you have any other suggestions or strategies?
Leave a comment below!

2 Thoughts for U.S. Christians in the Wake of the Election

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Someone needs to take 2016’s keys away, because it’s not acting normal.

The Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl without an offense. Brexit happened. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series. And now Donald Trump just won the presidential election. What kind of bizarro world are we living in?

Here are 2 thoughts for Christians to consider in light of the election:

1. Our country is divided and we are called to be peacemakers

Here in Boulder County, voters overwhelmingly voted Democrat. 71% voted for Hillary Clinton. The majority of the City of Longmont went for Hillary. Republicans took control of the House and Senate nationally, but Democratic candidates won almost every seat they ran for here in this area.

Nationally, as of right now Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Right before the election 61% of people said that they considered Donald Trump unfit to hold the office of president, which means that most people in our country are deeply concerned with the results, including some of the people who voted for Trump themselves.

Furthermore, this election was very divisive. I read a post on social media from a young woman today that said, “Every vote for Trump was a direct assault against me, my friends and my loved ones. I will not forget it.”

For Christians, no matter what your political stance, I think we must avoid the “us and them” mentality. Such a mentality encourages people to make value judgments about other people which are often not fair, such as “Liberals think that __________” or “Trump supporters condone __________.” Those generalizations are often, if not usually, untrue, and the reason for a person’s decision for how they vote is usually much more nuanced than people on the other side make it out to be.

I liked what President Obama said during his speech today, “This was an intramural scrimmage; we are all on the same team.”

Jesus taught his disciples, “Blessed (literally: “Happy”) are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). Helping people make peace with God is at the core of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. An “us and them” mentality which divides people over political issues will only hinder that from happening.

Whoever loves God must also love his brother. – 1 John 4:21

Furthermore, resentment towards others hinders people from having a relationship with God. 1 John 4:20-21 says: If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. Yes, even someone who holds different political views than you.

We are called to be peacemakers, between God and people and between people and people. Let us not be those who perpetuate divisions, but those who encourage reconciliation.

2. Getting caught up in politics can hinder your true mission

President Obama said to the nation today, “Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, we are all Americans first.” As Christians, we go one very big step beyond that: We are not Americans first, we are Christians first.

As Christians, we have a calling to be ministers of the gospel. Jesus said to his disciples, “Just as the Father sent me, so I also send you.” (John 20:21) When people think of Christians, we don’t want them to associate us with a politician or a political affiliation or party, we want them to associate us with Jesus and the gospel message of the love and grace of God.

In a country as divided as ours is right now, it is very possible for politics to become a stumbling block and a hindrance to people being willing to hear the message of the gospel from those they disagree with politically. We can’t allow that. Our mission is so much more important.

Christians need to strive to be known not for alignment with a particular party or stances on economic policy or gun rights, but for our concentrated focus on the mission of God and the message of the gospel. This is not to say that Christians should not have opinions on such matters, it is to say that we must not allow these things to be associated with what it means to be a Christian.

May God bless our nation and help us who call ourselves Christians to faithfully follow Jesus, communicate his heart and carry out his mission.

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)

In Longmont We Met a Refugee from a Muslim Country. Here’s Her Story.

Pew Research Center reports that the United States admitted a record number of Muslim refugees in 2016. 38,901 Muslim refugees entered the U.S. in fiscal year 2016, making up almost half (46%) of the nearly 85,000 refugees who entered the country in that period, based on data from the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center.

In a previous post, I mentioned what I would do if refugees moved into our neighborhood. This past week, we met someone who lives in our neighborhood who came to the United States as a refugee from a muslim country.

Last Friday, our kids were invited to 2 birthday parties on the same night. I took one kid to the one party, my wife took the others to the other party.

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Kosovo

At the party my wife went to, she got to talking with one of the parents and came to find out that she was born into a muslim family from a muslim country, who had come to the US as refugees. The country? Kosovo.

After growing up in New York City, this woman married an American man, and together, the two of them became Christians.

This woman’s parents, at that point, refused to speak to her, but once she had children, her parents started coming around more often.

This woman and her husband now live in Longmont and they are involved in supporting various Christian ministries, churches and missionaries in Kosovo and travel there from time to time.

Here’s the point: this is what happens to good number of muslims who come to the United States: they meet Christians, they hear the Gospel, they become Christians, and then they begin to reach out and support Christian missions in their country of origin.

08-21-14_the_green_prince_mainIf you haven’t yet, check out the movie The Green Prince. It’son Netflix. It’s about Mosab Hassan Yousef, a Palestinian and the eldest son of Sheik Hassan Yousef, one of the founders of Hamas. The Green Prince, is the film adaption of the book, Son of Hamas: A Gripping Account of Terror, Betrayal, Political Intrigue, and Unthinkable Choices, tells the true story of how Mosab was recruited by Israeli intelligence to work against Hamas.

But what is particularly interesting about Mosab’s story, as is documented in the book and the movie, is how in 2007, Mosab left the West Bank and came to the United States. Living in San Diego, he was invited by some acquaintances to come visit their church. There he heard the gospel, the message of God’s love, and he met Christian people who embraced him. In 2008, Mosab publicly announced his conversion to Christianity, putting himself at risk by doing so.

Now guess what he does: He reaches out to Arabic speakers with the message of the gospel. Talk about legit: a son of Hamas speaking in Arabic about Jesus and the hope of the Gospel. That’s powerful for people in that culture, and in ours as well.

“Religion steals freedom, kills creativity, turns us into slaves and against one another. Religion can’t save mankind. Only Jesus could save mankind through his death and resurrection. And Jesus is the only way to God.” – Mosab Hassan Yousef

With all of these refugees from muslim countries coming to the United States, there is an incredible opportunity: for the first time, many of these people will be able to hear the Gospel, to meet and be embraced by Christian believers, and to choose for themselves what they will believe.

May we who call ourselves Christians be found faithful to act towards them as Jesus would, and may we be used by God to help them find love, liberty and salvation in Christ. Lives and destinies will be changed, and maybe even the world as we know it.

The Problem with Facades

In Exodus 34, we read an interesting story: when Moses went to meet with God on the mountain to receive the tablets of the 10 Commandments, it caused Moses’ face to glow.

It says that when he came down from the mountain, the people were frightened to see his face glowing. In another place we are told that they couldn’t look upon it, because the glow was so bright.

behind-the-veilBut then an interesting thing happens; if you read the text it says that Moses would first let the people look at his face (or at least see that his face was glowing), then he would cover his face with a veil (supposedly for their sake), and then whenever he would go in before the Lord, he would remove the veil, get “charged up,” then come back, let the people see that his face was glowing again, and then put the veil back over his face.

Now, think about it: If the reason Moses covered his face was for the sake of the people, so as not to blind them by the glow on his face, then why let them look at his face first, and only then cover it up until the next time he went in before the Lord?

There is something implied there which is made explicit in another place in the Bible: in 2 Corinthians 3, Paul tells us that the reason Moses covered his face was because he didn’t want the people to know that the glow was fading away…

In other words, Moses hid behind the veil in order to keep up an appearance before the people, that wasn’t really true. Moses didn’t want people to know that he was just like them. He liked having people look up to him and be in awe of him, so he hid his face, lest everyone see that the glory was fading.

It was a facade.

That’s what a veil is: it’s something you hide behind. It’s a kind of mask that you use to cover up your blemishes, lest people see the real things about you that might change their image of you.

As a pastor, I see this a lot.

There are many examples of this today, in our own culture. Oftentimes people are willing to help other people deal with their “messiness,” but they don’t want anyone to know about the messy things in their lives. People tend to be quick to offer help, but reticent to admitting that they need help, or accepting help when it’s offered. They’d rather keep up a facade that they’ve got their stuff together, that their face glows with the glory of the Lord, even when that’s not the case.

In other words: “Life is messy, and that’s okay – as long as it’s not my mess.” “Community is about serving each other, and that’s great, as long as it’s me serving others and not me being served.”

Veils hinder true fellowship and community. Facades can hinder people from getting help when they need it. If your curtains are on fire, but you don’t want to call the fire department, lest your neighbors see that there was a problem at your house, then the fire will spread until the entire house burns down. All too often, that’s exactly what happens.

If your curtains are on fire, but you don’t want to call the fire department, lest your neighbors see that there was a problem at your house, then the fire will spread until the entire house burns down.

Furthermore, when leaders put up a facade, like Moses did, that things are better than they actually are, or that they are more spiritual than they actually are, it creates a culture which encourages people to not be honest about where they are really at. I believe that people deserve to have leaders they can look up to, and that they should expect more from leaders: to be a leader means to be out in front; after all, how can you follow someone, unless they are a few steps ahead of you? However, it should be authentic and not contrived. What Moses did was contrived.

In Genesis 3, we read about the first time people tried to cover up their shame: Adam and Eve had been naked and unashamed until they rebelled against God, but when sin came into the world, they were overcome with a sense of shame, and they tried to hide it by covering themselves with leaves. Leaves are good for a lot of things, but they made terrible coverings. They’re itchy. They’re drafty.

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Here’s what God did: he said, “I will make a covering for you,” and he made them coverings of animal skins. Do you know how you get animal skins? By killing an animal. In other words: because of their sin, an innocent creature had to die, in order to cover their shame.

Are you picking up what the story is putting down? The only way for us to be covered, is by the death of another. That other, the ultimate covering for our sin and shame, was Jesus – the “lamb of God.”

Any of your attempts to cover yourself will be not only uncomfortable and drafty, they will be insufficient and unhelpful. Facades create unnecessary barriers which hinder fellowship and growth. Embrace the covering of Jesus, and pursue authenticity rather than facades in your relationships and in your spirituality!

A Refugee Story of Our Own

60 years ago this week, the Hungarian people rose up against the Stalinist government of Hungary and the Soviet occupation.

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Toppled Statue of Stalin in Budapest

The revolution ultimately failed, and in the wake of it, my wife’s father, Ferenc, fled Hungary along with some 200,000 people, and became a refugee. Ferenc was able to escape across the border into Austria along with a friend thanks to the help of a local villager who helped them navigate the minefield at the border. Unfortunately they later received news that this man had been caught and executed.

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Those who fought and those who fled were known as 56-ers (Ötvenhatosok).

Time magazine named the Hungarian Freedom Fighter the Man of the Year in 1956.

The revolution began on October 23, 1956 with rallies and protests. When the  ÁVH (Hungarian secret police) fired into the crowd of protesters in front of the parliament building, people formed militias, armed only with rocks and molotov cocktails, but were later able to break into military weapon storage and get guns. The revolution spread throughout the country, and on Oct 28, 1956 Soviet troops withdrew from Budapest. The Hungarians thought they were free, and began to establish a new government, but on Nov 4, in the middle of the night, the Soviet army rolled into Budapest and crushed the revolution completely and finally.

One of the saddest parts of the story of the revolution, was that the United States had been broadcasting into the Eastern Block via Radio Free Europe, telling people there that if they were to rise up against the Soviets, the US would support them. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, because at the exact time when the Hungarians did rise up, the US was in the middle of negotiations about the Suez Canal and needed the support of the Soviet Union, and they weren’t prepared to turn the Cold War into World War III.

My father-in-law, Ferenc, was able to get refugee status in Austria and petitioned for asylum in the United States, and was among those who were accepted. The United States said they would accept 100 young men who were willing to work. They took them on a B-52 Liberator, and after a stop-over somewhere in Africa, they were brought to a military base in New Jersey. Asked where they wanted to live in the United States, they chose Chicago, because it was the only American city they had heard of.

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B-52 Liberator, the plane Ferenc and other refugees were brought to the US in

Ferenc later gained US citizenship, got married and had 2 kids. He went to college and worked in the tech industry. He loved Hungary, but understood he couldn’t go back. He also loved America, because of the opportunities and the freedoms he enjoyed here.

It was also in the United States that Ferenc heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ and became a Christian. He was born in Hungary during World War II and raised in the Stalinist era of communist Hungary, which meant that although he identified as Roman Catholic, he never practiced it. Upon coming to the US, Ferenc began attending Catholic mass, but the real turning point in his life came when his son, my brother-in-law, was invited as a teenager to a church by some friends. My wife and her brother had gone to Catholic church growing up with their parents, but as they got older they had stopped attending. Tony, my brother in law embraced the gospel message of who Jesus was and what he did: the Divine Son, dying in our place, for our sins, so we could be forgiven, justified and redeemed; rising from the dead that we might have eternal life through him.

Tony invited Rosemary, my wife, to come to church with him, and she did. He also invited his mom and dad, who were much more hesitant to come because of the charismatic nature of this particular church.

Ferenc, however, listened to what Tony said about Jesus, and so Ferenc looked for a church where he felt comfortable going and learning more. He ended up finding Calvary Chapel in Vista, CA – and Rosemary began attending with him.

Rosemary remembers the time when her dad really understood the gospel for the first time. She says that he was emotional, having been touched deeply by the love and the grace of God towards him, and at the same time somewhat angry, saying: “I went to church for years…but I never heard the gospel!   Why did they never tell me that I needed to repent of my sins and put my faith in Jesus, and that God extends grace and mercy and eternal life to those who will receive it?” 

I went to church for years…but I never heard the gospel!   Why did they never tell me…? – Ferenc Kovács

Ferenc attended Calvary Chapel in Vista for years. While he attended there he met another man, István, who was also a 56-er. About this time, the great changes were taking place in Eastern Europe which led to the end of Communism in those countries. Calvary Vista led the way in sending teams to preach the gospel and to plant churches, first in Yugoslavia and then in Hungary.

Ferenc was so excited to see what God was doing, and he wanted so badly to go to Hungary and tell his fellow countrymen the good news of the gospel, and the message that God loved them and that Jesus had died for them. Unfortunately, he never got that opportunity. Ferenc suffered from Juvenile Parkinson’s Disease, a devastating condition for a man who had formerly been an avid athlete and soccer player. Ferenc died from complications from Parkinson’s in 1996, at the age of 59, but not before seeing his daughter go on mission trips to Hungary. His friend István did go to Hungary and spent years working with Calvary Chapel in Budapest.

We ended up working together in, of all places, a refugee camp

In 1998, Rosemary moved to Hungary to work with Calvary Chapel, spreading the gospel and planting churches. It was there that I met Rosemary in 2001. We ended up working together in, of all places, a refugee camp, in Debrecen, Hungary where we ministered several times a week to people mostly from muslim countries, who had never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. We provided for them materially through donations, and we also offered them Bibles and held Bible studies, translated into several languages. Over this period of time, we saw people from Kosovo, Iran, Afghanistan and several African countries become Christians after hearing the gospel clearly presented for the first time in their lives and having the opportunity to read the Scriptures for themselves.

Today, we have a modern-day refugee crisis. We’ve been told that they are a “Trojan Horse” – and maybe some of that rhetoric has some truth to it, but I also know that people were sceptical of people like Ferenc, my father-in-law, who came from a Communist country – and guess what: during the Cold War, some spies and people with bad intentions against America did come to the US pretending to be refugees. It doesn’t change the fact of Ferenc and many other refugees’ stories of escaping oppressive regimes and not only finding freedom, but also having the opportunity for the first time in their lives to hear the life-transforming message of the gospel.

I see the current refugee situation through this lens: the lens of my wife, her brother and my late father-in-law. I see it through the lens of the many people who became Christians in the refugee camp I worked in, who had never had the opportunity to hear the gospel or the freedom to become Christians in their home countries. I see it through the lens of the Iranian refugees I met in Budapest last year, whom White Fields church bought Bibles for, because they were hearing about Jesus and getting baptized, changing their names and evangelising other refugees.

I’m not afraid of refugees – my father-in-law was one. The mass exodus of people from Syria is a difficult and messy situation, but here’s what I’m going to do if Syrian refugees move into my neighborhood: I’m going to befriend them, love them, show them kindness and seek to share with them the life-changing message of the gospel, a message which they likely have never heard before. I hope you’ll do the same.