Tag Archives: gospel

CHRISTIAN ARRESTED FOR EXTREMISM BECAUSE HE OWNS A BIBLE

One day soon, you may see a headline like this one in the New York Times, or in your hometown newspaper, or on the Drudge Report. For now, this headline comes from Uzbekistan, but after you read the story and think about the language of public discourse in the USA, you may discover that it would be no stretch at all for this headline to be about you.

The news from Uzbekistan is this. One article of the Criminal Code of Uzbekistan outlaws “keeping and storing extremist materials with the purpose of further distribution.” To Christians in the USA, a Bible would not be called “extremist,” and the possession of it would not mean that its owner was an extremist. However, in Uzbekistan, the Bible is regarded as a severe threat.

In fact, Uzbekistan’s government harshly suppresses all religious activity of any variety—Muslim, Christian, and all other groups. In the current year, Uzbekistan is the 15th most dangerous country in the world for Christians, but this government does not limit its threats to Christians. Uzbek law requires all religious groups to be registered, and the requirements for Christians are at least no more onerous than the requirements for other religions. The requirements for registration filter out very small groups such as independent house churches and other small congregations who cannot meet the standard for numbers of members. The law further requires that all religious material, Bibles, devotional books, Sunday School lessons, and so forth be inspected by the government, and only approved materials may be possessed. Only one version of the Bible is approved, and only people belonging to registered religious groups may possess even that version. Some tiny Christian churches refuse to attempt registration, because the penalty for continuing to meet after a rejected registration is more onerous than the penalty for illegal gatherings of unregistered groups.

The guiding philosophy of Uzbek law surrounding religions is that the government considers the practice of religion to be extremist activity. In the eyes of the deeply secular government, the threat of extremism justifies extreme control. Religious registration requires that the groups give the government a great deal of information, including lists of members, and registered organizations are held accountable for compliance with laws surrounding buildings approved for religious meetings and the use of approved religious documents. In order to be approved, religious documents, including the Bible, must be published by approved publishers, sold in approved bookstores, printed in approved translations, and so forth. Failure to comply on any point is grounds for the accusation of promoting extremism. To offer to pray for someone in a public park is extremism, because the park is not an approved location for religious activity. To invite someone to receive Christ into his heart is extremism, because proselytizing is forbidden. To tell five little children playing in your yard the story of Noah and the Ark is extremism, because no children may be taught religion without written permission of their parents and no religious teaching to anyone of any age may be done outside an approved location for religious education. To read a Bible on the bus is an act of extremism if the Bible is not an approved translation which you acquired at an approved bookstore which verified that the publisher is on the government’s approved list. To have a lot of Bibles of any translation in your house, along with a pile of tracts and a few devotional magazines is to give evidence of personal extremism, and makes you subject to the accusation that you plan to distribute the materials and incite further extremism.

It is in this context that Majid (not the real name) was arrested for possessing unauthorized materials that are considered to be extremist, with the intent to distribute them. It brings to American minds the image of drug dealers and their paraphernalia. The comparison is appropriate. The government of Uzbekistan has its roots in the former Soviet Union, where political leaders learned that “religion is the opiate of the people.” Uzbek government does not want its citizens to be addicted to religion, and they regard religious activism the same way Americans regard street gangs that peddle drugs.

Majid is, unfortunately for him, a repeat offender. He was arrested once before for possessing extremist literature with the intent to distribute it. In the eyes of the Uzbeks, that experience should have taught him to eschew any further infractions, but Majid loves Jesus and wants to share Jesus with everyone. After he was released the first time, he made diligent efforts to acquire more Bibles and more Christian books to share. A second arrest makes him liable to greater fines and longer imprisonment. Prisoners in Uzbekistan should not, by law, be abused, but Christians arrested for extremism historically suffer beatings and even torture.

What does this story have to do with the USA?

In February of this year, Barna Group released a study of the way the culture in the USA views Christians. After 1000 interviews conducted in August 2015, Barna concluded that the culture strongly feels that a Christian, if not already an extremist, is a threat to become one. The responses of those who were interviewed established several points on which the culture’s perceptions of Christians is troubling.

  • Nearly half of non-believers consider Christianity to be extremist.
  • The behaviors that are considered extreme include many very common behaviors of Christians, even some behaviors that are considered integral to the fabric of the faith.

What sort of behavior qualifies as extremist in the eyes of the American public?

Here are a few examples:

  • Refuse to bake a cake to be served at a wedding reception for a same-sex marriage, on the grounds that your religious principles forbid you to participate in a same-sex marriage
  • Tell a fellow passenger on a bus about Jesus and invite that person to receive Christ
  • Tell your children that homosexual behavior is abnormal and sinful
  • Silently read your Bible while waiting in the boarding area at the airport
  • Tell your children that they are born sinful
  • Pray aloud in a grocery store for a woman who just told you her husband was terminally ill
  • Believe that homosexual behavior is abnormal and sinful (Presumably this attitude motivates you to teach this principle to your children, which makes you extreme on two counts.)
  • Protest a government policy that requires employers to pay for medical treatments and devices which the employer considers immoral on the basis of his or her faith in Jesus and commitment to biblical truth
  • Protest government subsidies for abortion providers on the grounds that abortion is murder of a human being
  • Quit working for IBM and become a missionary to Haiti
  • Have no sexual relations with your fiance’.
  • Tithe your income
  • Go to church and worship with other Christians every week

 

Most Christians will have trouble seeing any item on this list as extreme behavior. Sadly for Christians, this list is not exhaustive. It is merely a sample of the sorts of things considered to be extreme or to be incitement to extremism.

It is precisely such perceptions that lead a government to devise laws that require religious organizations to register and laws that tightly control the content and publication of religious materials, including Bibles. If the attitudes described above really are extremist, why wouldn’t it be normal to arrest someone who had a houseful of Bibles and other religious materials, with the obvious intention to distribute them to many people, thereby inciting others to his or her own level of extremism.

It is easy for Christians to say that it is Satan’s fault that people have this view of Christians and Christianity. Such accusations are flung out by long-suffering tongues through bitter lips. Christians are not wrong to recognize that Satan works hard to twist the perceptions of non-believers, but Christians must recognize that Jesus did not call us to be angry with the people who think this way. Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28).

The popular way to deal with rejection like this is to apologize to the public and promise never to do it again. If that statement is accompanied with a comment that it was never your intent to threaten or scare anyone, that would be nice, and it would be even better if you said that you realize your words were hurtful and your actions were scary, and you plan to change everything so people feel better about you.

The problem is that the behaviors considered “extreme” by non-believers are central to what it means to be Christian. We are called to live our faith every moment of every day, in all places at all times. We are called by Christ to be the same no matter where we are. It is the highest hypocrisy to pray in church that sinners suffering Satanic enslavement to homosexuality will be released from that bondage and then go into the public forum and celebrate gay marriage. If we do things like that, we know we are betraying Christ, and we know that we are betraying our sacred responsibility to be messengers of Christ’s salvation, grace, forgiveness and transformation for sinners everywhere. We cannot pretend publicly to comply with the moral relativism of the culture and only secretly speak and act in harmony with our faith.

Just as Majid in Uzbekistan bravely continues to prepare to share his faith with others, even though proselytizing is against the law of Uzbekistan, we must continue to prepare to share our faith with others, even though the culture rejects our “extremism.” Just as Majid continues to discuss the Bible with other people in places not authorized for religious education, we must continue to share Jesus on buses and in airports and in the grocery store. When challenged, we must remember to love those who challenge us, to pray for them, and to bless them in every way possible. Why?

While the apostle Paul was imprisoned in Caesara, a visiting king named Agrippa asked to hear this famous prisoner speak. Paul told Agrippa how he met Christ and became a faithful follower of Christ, and then Paul said to Agrippa, “do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe” (Acts 26:27). Agrippa was taken aback and said, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian” (Acts 26:28). Agrippa clearly recognized the truth in Paul’s words, and Paul yearned deeply for the king to open his heart to that truth. His response to Agrippa’s hesitation is the reaction we should have to all the attacks and misconceptions and even lies that non-believers tell about Christians. Paul said, and we should say, “I would to God that not only you, but also all who hear me today, might become both almost and altogether such as I am, except for these chains” (Acts 26:29).

Majid demonstrates the right way to deal with the misconceptions of believers. He goes right on being a faithful Christian. It does cost him. In Uzbekistan, arrest and imprisonment for breaking the religion laws is often accompanied by stiff fines, fines that amount to years and years of normal wages. Majid knows that he is subject to this suffering when he obeys Christ and shares the good news with people. Each of us knows that if we live the way Christ calls us to live, we are subject to severe cultural harassment, and in some cases, we may even be subject to legal complications. We may be accused of discrimination,. or we may simply be charged with noncompliance with regulations. If the culture becomes more assertive in its characterization of Christianity as organized extremism, the rhetoric will become more hateful, and the laws may even become more stringent.

We have civil rights as American citizens that citizens of Uzbekistan do not have. We have much more voice in the legislation and administration and the processes of justice than Uzbek citizens have. As Christians, we have the right and the responsibility to advocate and take action and vote. We must be active, vocal citizens, but our rhetoric must always be the rhetoric of truth spoken with love. We may be accused of extremism according to the cultural definition of extremism, but we must live in a deep, integral relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ that assures we put the extreme demands of spiritual warfare in the hands of the all-conquering Christ.

By Katherine Harms, author of Oceans of Love available for Kindle at Amazon.com. Watch for the release of Thrive! Live Christian in a Hostile World, planned for release in the summer of 2016

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Fewer People Claiming to be Christian Might be a Good Thing

Statististics show that it is not as popular to be a Christian in the US as it used to be

Numerous groups study US demographics. The studies do not probe the convictions of the people interviewed. Instead, they rely on the self-identification by individuals interviewed. The precise numbers reported vary slightly from study to study, but overall, it is clear that fewer people self-identify as Christian today than in 1990. The American Religious Identification Survey in 1990 reported that about 86% of American adults self-identified as Christian, but by 2008, that proportion had fallen to 76%. Other studies report that increasing numbers of American adults claim no religious connection at all.

Christians in general have deplored the drop in numbers of Christians in the population. They likewise complain of the erosion of Christian values in the culture or of real aggression against Christians. Courts are full of cases that involve various aspects of the cultural conflicts that demonstrate that US culture no longer considers Christian values and practices to be the norm for the country. In fact, despite ample evidence that the population of the original thirteen colonies was predominantly Christian, it is not uncommon for contemporary American citizens to say that this nation was never a Christian nation. The younger the demographic, the more likely it is that American adults will claim no connection with religion in any form.

Christians who hold a Christian worldview should rejoice that the word Christian is coming to mean a distinctive worldview

In a 2009 report, the Barna Group defined a Christian worldview:

For the purposes of the survey, a “biblical worldview” was defined as believing that absolute moral truth exists; the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches; Satan is considered to be a real being or force, not merely symbolic; a person cannot earn their way into Heaven by trying to be good or do good works; Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe today. In the research, anyone who held all of those beliefs was said to have a biblical worldview.

The surveys of American Christians from which this report was drawn revealed that only 9% of Americans hold the worldview described above. This statistic correlates closely with statistics that show marked declines in the number of people who regard the Bible as sacred or as a source of useful guidance for daily life.

Nevertheless, if people used to say they were Christian out of habit or fear of the culture rather than out of faith, then maybe the declining numbers mean something good. Maybe the change in the statistics actually means that people do not want to self-identify as Christians if they really do not choose to live by Christian teaching.

In an article in Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer points to four positive trends for Christians that make the statistics sound a lot less bleak:

  1. The word “Christian” will become less used and more clear
  2. The Nominals will increasingly become Nones
  3. Christians will increasingly change cultural tactics
  4. More robust churches will result from nominalism

When these points are probed, Christians who live in relationship with Christ and accept Christ’s call to a life of discipleship should anticipate that it may not be more comfortable to share Christ in the future, but it will almost certainly be easier to communicate the truth than it is when people believe that being a church member is equivalent to being Christian.

When people confuse church membership with being a Christian, it is harder to share Christ

Many Christians have discerned that friends needed Christ only to hear, “I’m already a church member,” when they bring up the subject. As long as people believe that church membership is Christianity, it is very hard to talk with them about a relationship with Christ. They already believe that they have their world in order. Many people hold the view that God will reward them for being faithful in church attendance as long as they say they are sorry for telling lies and gossiping. They have so thoroughly trivialized the meaning of being a Christian that it is a daunting task to make the gospel even comprehensible. Many American Christians have no more idea what Christianity is than the Pharisees had, for the same reason: they think it is about keeping the rules and obeying the church hierarchy.

It will be easier to confront someone with the truth about Christ if that person happily identifies as not Christian

For most of the history of the USA, it has been comfortable and culturally desirable to be a Christian. People who say that their religion is Christianity, even though they do not know Christ at all, are comfortable just the way they are. They have no interest in being transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. They do not want to be bothered by their religion. They claim to be Christian the same way they claim membership in a gym or a country club, a membership that can make no uncomfortable claims on them, even if they do suffer pangs now and then over missing church, failing to work out regularly or not doing their part for the country club’s annual charity drive.

Today, the culture is smirkingly scornful of Christians. Their faith is seen in some circles as childish behavior, equivalent to clinging to an old teddy bear. In other circles, Christianity is aggressively targeted for having “imposed” its “rules” on people who want nothing to do with it. More and more, it is unpopular to claim to be a Christian. The popular choices are either to have no religion, or to be spiritual but not religious. In this context, many people who used to claim to be Christian are now abandoning that claim. Some Christian leaders speak of the change as “falling away,” but the truth is that the people who now assert their disconnect with religion seldom had any faith to “fall away” from. They simply got tired of the pretense. The people who leave frequently open blogs where they regularly rip away at their own pasts, openly declaring that they never believed in any part of their past “Christian” lives.

Christians always should applaud the truth, even the ugly truths. It is better for everyone when people do not claim to be Christian when they do not know Christ.

It is not a benefit for a church to be filled with “members” who have no relationship with Christ

Church leaders and grassroots members alike feel sad when membership numbers decline, but they should actually rejoice when people who have no faith in Christ stop claiming to be Christians or to be church members. Church members, and especially church leaders, who have no faith in Christ can lead churches in very bad directions. For example, church leaders who do not believe that the Bible is the inspired revelation of God, given by him for guidance in faith in life, have promulgated numerous heretical changes in churches across the USA.

In 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America declared, ““The scriptural witness does not address the context of sexual orientation and lifelong loving and committed relationships that we experience today.”In plain language, the ELCA stated that humans had outgrown the Bible. They had evolved to a place where they knew things God forgot to address in his revelation of himself. When any person who claims to be Christian feels that the Bible is an ancient, obsolete book about “the sacred” and not God’s guide for faith and life, then that person simply does not need to be a member of a Christian church. It is not a good thing for a church to have members that feel this way. The departure of “members” who feel no relationship with Christ and find no value in the Bible is no loss to the church.

It is good for the Kingdom of God when people who are outside that kingdom know and acknowledge that they are outside.

When Jesus was talking with Nicodemus, a Pharisee, he explained why he had come into the world. Jesus said, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17 ESV) Jesus came to live in time and space because he loved people. After his death and resurrection, as he ascended to heaven, he said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV) Jesus wanted everyone who followed him to do what he had done. Christians are not saved in order to increase the membership in churches. They are not saved in order to give bigger offerings. They are not even saved in order to send food to Haiti or drill wells in Rwanda.

Christians are saved in order to love people as much as Christ did. They are called to share Christ with everyone they meet. The ultimate shape of each person’s calling is unique, so some do feed the hungry and some do drill wells. Some teach Bible schools and some treat lepers. However, no matter what they do, they are not doing it in order to fulfill any social obligation or to enhance the image of any church. Christians do what they do for the love of Christ and for the love of the people Christ died to save. It is not good for people who do not know Christ to think that church membership is a substitute for knowing Christ. It is not good for people to believe that they can outgrow God and simultaneously be part of his kingdom. People who believe that they are already part of the kingdom do not respond eagerly when Christians proclaim as Christ did, “the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15 ESV)

If learning to be more Christ-like is important to you, visit the new blog “Love God and Others” launching today.

A Verse for Meditation

Torah ScrollFor the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.  Luke 19:10

  • Who are the lost? Can you name someone who is lost?
  • If an atheist accused you of being judgmental by calling someone “lost,” how would you explain what being “lost” means?
  • Most people know that “Son of Man” is another name for Jesus. How would you explain that name for Jesus to a secular thinker?
  • Do you feel defensive about being a Christian? Does it upset you that people go to court to remove crosses from public view? What does this verse say about your attitude toward people who make fun of Christianity? What does this verse say about a Christian attitude toward people who assault Christianity in the courts?

A Hymn for Meditation

hymnalI Love to Tell the Story

  1.  I love to tell the story
    of unseen things above,
    of Jesus and his glory,
    of Jesus and his love.
    I love to tell the story,
    because I know ’tis true;
    it satisfies my longings
    as nothing else can do. 

Refrain:
I love to tell the story,
’twill be my theme in glory,
to tell the old, old story
of Jesus and his love.

2.  I love to tell the story;
more wonderful it seems
than all the golden fancies
of all our golden dreams.
I love to tell the story,
it did so much for me;
and that is just the reason
I tell it now to thee. (Refrain)

3. I love to tell the story;
’tis pleasant to repeat
what seems, each time I tell it,
more wonderfully sweet.
I love to tell the story,
for some have never heard
the message of salvation
from God’s own holy Word. (Refrain)

4. I love to tell the story,
for those who know it best
seem hungering and thirsting
to hear it like the rest.
And when, in scenes of glory,
I sing the new, new song,
‘twill be the old, old story
that I have loved so long. (Refrain)  

Katherine Hanley

  • Can you “tell the story” in two or three sentences? What if someone sent you a text message asking, “What is that ‘gospel’ you keep talking about?” How would you respond?
  • Can you “tell the story” to a friend who needs it, because her addicted son just tried to kill himself?
  • Can you “tell the story” when someone asks you to sign a petition supporting the rights of people who believe in polyamory to marry? Can you pour God’s love into this moment with a story?
  • Do you love telling the story? Why? Can you tell people why you love to tell this story?
  • Can you tell your story with passion and integrity when your own child accuses you of being rigid and old-fashioned because you refuse to permit her boyfriend to sleep over in her bed?
  • What story do you tell your neighbor when you are invited to help demonstrate against the state government cuts in social services?
  • What story do you tell yourself when your best friend viciously turns on you and accuses you of being a bigot because you believe that marriage is exclusively the union of a man and a woman?
  • What story do you tell to a fellow Christian who asks, “How can you say that God is with me when he just let the love of my life die a brutal death from cancer? Why wasn’t he with her?”

The End of Time Doesn’t Matter

Baptism of Christ. Jesus is baptized in the Jo...
Baptism of Christ. Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River by John. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s readings:
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-10
1Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36
 

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Luke 21:33 

As the day of Jesus’ death approached, he packed a lot of guidance and instruction into the time he had left in the flesh. The gospel for today includes comments ranging to the end of time. A lot of people spend a lot of time trying to figure out when that moment will come, but that is not the reason Jesus said these words. When he said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,” he meant to be lifting the concerns of the disciples out of the rut of prophetic decoding.

It is easy for people to be lured into attempts to sort out the prophecies in an attempt to put the date for the end of the world in their calendars. People like calendars. The popularity of organizers and self-help books about time management attest to human fixation on taking control of the flow of time. Yes, I said control of the flow. Human beings do not like the fact that we can’t get a grip on time and slow it down or speed it up at will. Time is completely beyond our reach. Yet humans organize and prioritize and multi-task endlessly in an attempt to control time, anyway. The fact that nobody knows when it will end is distressing. How will we ever get everything done by then? Jesus wanted people to know that his message transcends time. If time is out of control, his word is true. If time is over, his word is true. We don’t need to know when time will end. It is irrelevant to his claim on us and our faith in him.

Those words have two additional values for Christians.

First, no matter what is going on in our lives, Jesus’ words do not lose their power or their relevance. When we become physically ill, we take medicine. There are many different medicines to take, and it is important to use the right one for each disease. Sadly, it is also important to use them with discretion, because some medicines lose their effectiveness with repetition. The words of Jesus apply in all places at all times, and they never lose their effectiveness. His words are true, always.

Second, even if everything in time and space dissolves into eternity, the words of Christ continue to be true and relevant. Nothing that happens now or in eternity changes the message of Christ. Human project management is big on deadlines and milestones. Work must be done as required. We love projects that come in on time and under budget. For that accomplishment to have any meaning, we need to know the point at which the project would be considered a failure. Yet Christ tells us that it doesn’t matter when time ends. His call to us, his claim on us, his words to us do not change just because time ends. When John was given the vision he recorded in Revelation, the crucial element in the vision was the presence of the slaughtered lamb at the right hand of God in the heavenly throne room. Christ and his words are as relevant after history ends as they are today.

Then why did Jesus even bring up the “end times?” His point is not to send us into a calculating tizzy. His point is to remind us that there is no time to waste. We need to be doing his will and living his way right now. We need to get started. We need to be busy doing it right now. His point was not to tell us that we have some certain amount of time to share his love with the world so we can organize our time in little packets and meet some milestone. He wants us to start sharing his love right now and keep doing it till we go to meet him through the doorway of death or until he does, in fact, return.

When Jesus burst on the scene, the gospel writers record that the Holy Spirit fell on him at baptism, and after that, as he roamed the cities and countryside, he talked about “the kingdom of God” coming near. Jesus the Messiah was God in the flesh, and when he came near, the kingdom did, indeed, come near. After Christ’s ascension, the Holy Spirit fell on his followers, and in Paul’s words, their bodies became temples for the Holy Spirit. The first century Christians, and twenty-first century Christians and Christians in the future till the end of time bring the kingdom with them wherever they go because of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Our work is to be the kingdom in the midst of humanity, sharing the love of Christ with everyone we meet. We don’t look in our organizers to see if today is a “witness to Christ” day. Every day is a day for our testimony, because every day Christ’s words are true and Christ’s love is relevant.

It isn’t easy to be faithful. People resist Christ’s words. People resist Christ’s love. People actually become angry when we bring the kingdom of God near. Jesus had the same experience. He brought the kingdom near to the scribes and Pharisees, and they conspired to crucify him. We risk the same fate. Sometimes the resistance is mild, as when someone told me recently that I should not be talking about religion in a conversation about what government ought to look like. Sometimes the resistance is fierce, like when Nigerian church members were ambushed as they left church one Sunday; some were killed, and many were wounded, just because their Muslim neighbors resented the existence of a Christian church in their neighborhood. We must be prepared for people to be upset or even violent in reaction to our faithful testimony.

Jesus told about the way the world will end, and told us he would return, so we would have that truth to build our hope. That information prepares us for the way things really are. The fact that we can’t possibly know when or where to expect to see the end should take the panic away. We don’t have a deadline or a milestone to worry about. All we need to do is be faithful every day. One day he will come again, and when he does, nobody will fail to see it. In the meantime we simply do the one thing he has asked us to do: share his love with everyone we meet. His message will always be timely and relevant, because, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but [Christ’s] words will not pass away.