Wednesday, July 31, 2013

No Justice for Abedini

Iranian-American Pastor Saeed Abedini with his wife, Naghmeh, and his two children. While
(Photo: American Center for Law and Justice)  
Last month Naghmeh Abedini (see photo) celebrated her ninth wedding anniversary alone at home in the U.S., while her husband, Saeed, suffered in Iran's notorious Evin prison. He has been in prison since he was arrested in September 2012 while building an orphanage.

His crime was supposedly "endangering national security," but it is quite obvious that Abedini is being held for his work as a Christian leader. While he is not the only Christian imprisoned for his faith in the Islamic Republic of Iran, he is probably the most noteworthy, if only because of his American citizenship.

Reports from sources in Iran indicate that Saeed has been tortured and beaten. Then he was denied medical care as the Muslim doctors who were called refused to treat him. Yet President Barack Obama remains strangely silent, leading to a call for action from Franklin Graham, head of Samaritan's Purse. “Many in the international community are expressing outrage over this blatant example of religious intolerance,” said Graham, who also heads the international relief organization, Samaritan’s Purse. “I ask that our government do the same and demand that Pastor Saeed Abedini be released and allowed to return home to his wife and family in the United States.”

We, in the West, have little to no idea of the horrifying experience many Christians go through in many parts of the world. Iran, China, Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria and many other nations have been the site of incredible injustices as followers of Christ have been falsely accused, beaten, tortured, imprisoned and often murdered. According to Philip Yancey, "Human rights organizations claim that more Christians were martyred in the twentieth century than in all the rest of history combined."

Christian Freedom International has provided a map and information on their website detailing the worst offenders (the five I listed above made the Top 10 offenders list). While I highlight the plight of Abedini, most Christians in these countries suffer silently, unknown and out of the minds of all but their family and friends. High profile cases like Saeed's often result in release because of political pressure - I hope that happens in this case. Last year we were talking about Youcef Nadarkhani, who was freed, then re-arrested, then freed again; then arrested again. He is currently free, for who knows how long.

Regardless, as a follower of Christ, I must constantly remind myself to pray for those who are being persecuted for their faith. The Apostle Paul, no stranger to persecution, wrote to the church in Colosse from prison and concluded his letter this way: "I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you." (Colossians 4:18) 

Around the world today, hundreds of thousands of Christ-followers would say the same - "Remember my chains." As those privileged to live in one of the freest countries on the planet, we ought to do all that we can to promote the cause of justice for those unable to speak for themselves. Become informed, and use whatever influence that you may have to bring pressure to bear on those who can make a difference. And pray. As John Wesley said, "You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed."

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Falling Idols

Ernie Harwell, the legendary sportscaster for the Detroit Tigers, said that "Baseball is a lot like life." That's true in many ways, but I'm thinking this was not what he had in mind. The baseball world is waiting for the next foot to fall in the doping scandal which will hopefully mark the end of a scandal-plagued era. A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez) is rumored to be facing a multiyear or even life-time ban from baseball for using performance enhancing drugs. Only recently Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, the 2011 National League MVP, was suspended for the remainder of this season for the same thing.

The expectation is that a sizable number of the top stars of Major League Baseball will be called to account for their behavior, after a lengthy investigation aimed at cleaning up the sport. One of the questions being asked is, will this convince the other pro sports to clean up their games as well?

Cheating is not a baseball problem; it's not a sports problem; it's a human problem. It extends into every area of our society. According to surveys in U.S. News and World Report:
  • 80% of “high-achieving” high school students admit to cheating.
  • 51% of high school students did not believe cheating was wrong.
  • 75% of college students admitted cheating, and 90% of college students didn’t believe cheaters would be caught.
  • Almost 85% of college students said cheating was necessary to get ahead.

In 2012 scores of students were asked to withdraw from Harvard University after an investigation into allegations of cheating. It is, indeed, everywhere, with the common theme being that it's only wrong if you get caught. How did we arrive here?

I had an uncle who was a farmer in a rural community in Ontario. Every once in a while we would sit down for a conversation. During one of those chats he started reminiscing about the good old days when people could be trusted. He believed that your word was your bond and would close deals with a hand shake. He would never have thought of "fudging the figures" or altering the scales to make more money on a crop. In fact, he would rather lose money than to go back on his word. While not everyone in his generation acted with the same integrity, a great many did. What has changed?

C.S. Lewis spoke of this in his book "The Abolition of Man." Lewis was criticizing the removal of values from the education system in particular and society in general. Education without values, in Lewis' mind, would produce men and women with head knowledge, but no hearts - no chests. What he said back in 1943 resonates in 2013: “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”

This leads to the question, what is our basis for values? Unless we find an appropriate answer to this question, it is simply a matter of opinion. Is it wrong to cheat? Why? Who is hurt if a player is using anabolic steroids, or whatever the drug of the day is, to enhance his performance? What does it matter if a student cheated on their exam in university? Does it make a difference?

It makes a difference if it's your doctor and he or she doesn't know what they're supposed to know upon graduation. It makes a difference if it's your investment broker playing fast and loose with the facts and your money. As C.S. Lewis said, "A great many of those who 'debunk' traditional...values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process." We hear of government corruption and ponzie schemes and we shake our heads in disgust. We know it's wrong. But why is it wrong?

Without a universal standard, it's simply a choice: somebody trying to get ahead. Yet we have this sense, all of us, that this is morally wrong. Where does that come from? The question inevitably leads us back to God - the lawgiver. While we may have removed him from public discourse, we are having a hard time living in the vacuum left behind. We long for the days when men had chests. Think about this when you teach your children, and don't be surprised if, after removing objective values, you end up with men and women with no integrity.

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Friday, July 26, 2013

A Word of Encouragement

We live in a world that can be pretty inhospitable at times. One of Jesus' least popular promises was that "in this world you will have trouble." Isn't that the truth? Some days can really wear on you.

I have been feeling tired and a little run down lately, as the pace has been hectic. This is, of course, largely self-inflicted as I tend to take on more than I can chew. Add to the physical wear and tear the emotional baggage we pick up along the way, the inevitable people problems and the occasional speeding ticket and we can start to feel like things are in a bit of a tailspin. What can we do when it begins to feel like the wheels are coming off?

One of the best pieces of advice I can give is this, when things aren't looking good to you, change your perspective. When life is dragging you down, look up. I have found this to be one of the most helpful things that I can do.

The Psalmist David, no stranger to difficult times, wrote in Psalm 121: "I lift up my eyes to the mountains — where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth." Have you ever stopped and thought about the God who is revealed in Scripture? As David states, God is the maker of heaven and earth. Genesis 1:1 simply begins with the four words "In the beginning, God..." It's a simple statement of fact, a declaration, if you like.

Before anything was, there was God, eternal, the uncreated Creator of all that we see.  David Coppedge writes that "astronomers estimate that there are as many galaxies outside the Milky Way as there are stars in it. The Hubble Ultra Deep Field, taken in 2004, imaged 10,000 galaxies in a cone of space so slim you could cover it with a grain of sand held at arm's length. Integrated over the entire sky, that would mean there are more than 100 billion galaxies in the visible universe, many with more than 100 billion stars each. According to Psalm 147:4, God calls them all by name."

Yet this God, the God who also formulated the intricacies of human DNA, is concerned with you. He sees every sparrow that falls, and he sees everything we are going through as well. In Matthew 11:28 Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." 

I find that it always helps, in the middle of whatever mess I have created or have had dropped in my life, to ask the very important question, where is God in all of this? If you don't see him in your picture, you need to invite him in. Jesus said in John 10:10 that "the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."

This doesn't necessarily mean that all of your problems may be solved - it may actually be quite the opposite. But what it will mean is that your main and foremost issue will be resolved - that of your relationship with the God who loves you. His answer to the pain and the suffering on this planet was to enter into our experience and suffer with us. He triumphed over death and the grave, defeating the adversary we couldn't handle on our own. He said, "I will never leave you, nor forsake you." 

What has God done for you? He has given you Himself. He has given you his presence. For those who trust in him, he has guaranteed their future. God loves you, yes you! Warts and all. He loves you in spite of your failings and even in spite of your outright disobedience. Some of you just need to sit back and let that soak in for a while. GOD LOVES YOU! Love him back. As Michael Green said, "Jesus did not come to make bad people good, but to make dead men live."

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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Quotes from "Light in Dark Places"'ve been collecting quotes for over thirty years and I'm often asked for copies of the quotes I use. A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of attending RZIM's Summer Institute at McMaster Divinity College entitled "Light in Dark Places." In this post, I'll provide some of my favorite quotes from the week, organized by speaker. I have included quotes at the bottom of the article from some others that were quoted by the conference speakers. I hope you enjoy them.

Lee Beach
"A life beautifully lived is the most powerful argument we have for Christ."

Stuart McAllister
"Something unexpected happened - the resurrection - and it has changed the nature of reality."

"Looking good and feeling good has replaced doing good and being good."

"Western culture will sing its last song, in the words of Frank Sinatra, 'I Did it My Way.'"

"We all want judgment for the other person, but mercy for ourselves."

"The church is a cradle to help God's people be God's people."

"If your faith isn't worth dying for, it's not worth living for."

"You can either be rebels without a pause, or rebels with a cause."

John Patrick
"If Newton had not had his God, he would not have gone looking for his laws."

Anna Robbins
"Our network of relationships forms our identity."

"Everywhere is somewhere in God's kingdom."

"I don't have the truth; the truth has me."

Michelle Tepper
"God exercises his mercy and upholds his justice at the cross."

"Often when we say we want justice, what we really mean is that we want revenge."

"Only the author of life has the right to define the meaning of life."

Steven Studebaker
"Neither ignorance nor selfishness are Christian virtues."

Ravi Zacharias
"There are four absolutes that converged on a hill called Calvary: evil, justice, love and forgiveness."

"The laws of nature are written by God in the language of mathematics." - Galileo

"Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind." - Albert Einstein

"Comparison is the mother of clarity." - Os Guinness

"God is never late, never in a hurry, and always on time." - Selwyn Hughes

"He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." - Jim Elliot

"A humanly speaking hopeless situation is irrelevant when God's involved." - Tom Tarrants

"Everyone says forgiveness is a great idea, until they have something to forgive." - C.S. Lewis

"Jesus did not come to make bad people good, but to make dead men live." - Michael Green

"Human beings are logical - but slowly." - Unknown

"Our past may explain us; it does not excuse us." - Unknown

Please feel free to share your favorite quotes in the comments section.

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Light in Dark Places

A couple of weeks ago, my colleague and I attended a week long conference put on by RZIM and hosted by the McMaster Divinity College. The theme was "Light in Dark Places." The experience can best be described as drinking from a fire hydrant. I'm still processing a lot of what I heard, but I'd like to highlight a few of the takeaways from the 32 sessions, some of which are likely not what you'd expect from an apologetics conference.
  • Personal growth requires investment.
This is not an earth shattering revelation, but a gentle reminder that real growth comes at a cost. That cost may be monetary, as in tuition, conference fees, materials, etc. But it also involves, perhaps even moreso, an investment of time and energy.

I'm reminded of a conference I attended a few years ago during which someone spoke of the idea of leverage and creating space. If something is worth learning or doing, and there are only so many hours in a day, therefore something must be sacrificed in order to make it happen. That may mean getting up a little earlier each day or spending less time with television or whatever it is that wastes your time.

Author and speaker Charles Swindoll, many years ago, made the decision to rise one hour earlier each day and to spend that time in writing. He has now written more than seventy books and become one of America's most respected pastors. An hour a day is a powerful thing. What changes do you need to make to allow your top priorities the time they deserve? 
  • There's no substitute for reading.
I have a lot of books. Almost every visitor to my office comments on my rather large library. Yet when I attend conferences such as these I invariably add another 10-20 books to my must-read list. Information is power, and to be able to have that information at your fingertips is invaluable. I find myself humbled in the presence of men and women who have such a great grasp of their subject that they are able to recite from memory a seemingly endless supply of pertinent information.

This is not intended to shame anyone - not all are cut out for academia - however, each of us should take advantage of our opportunities. As Mark Twain said, "The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read." It has been said that one hour of study per day in any subject will make you an expert in a couple of years. Try it with something you're interested in.

For those of you who commute, aren't audio-books just the greatest thing since sliced bread? Pop a CD in or download a podcast and make use of that time to expand your mind and your horizons.
  • How you live your life matters.
I'm going to finish off with this one. No doubt many of the thoughts I'm currently processing will find their way onto future blogs, but this is important. I know a lot of people who like to argue. I know a lot of Christians who seem to think that they can bully someone into the Kingdom of God through the sheer weight of their intellect. They're wrong. It is a truism that people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Apologetics is really about people. It's about helping people in their search for truth. Sometimes it's easy to forget that we are dealing with people, not just facts. As 1 Peter 3:15 says, "But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect." To quote Lee Beach, one of the conference presenters: "A life beautifully lived is the most powerful argument we have for Christ."

Jesus said, in John 8:12, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” A close examination of the life of Christ is paramount to anyone planning on participating in furthering His Gospel. His was a life of service, of humility, of compassion and sacrifice. When He invited us to join with Him in His cause He didn't offer the perks of power - prestige, wealth, popularity. Rather He said “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me." (Luke 9:23)

We'll give the last word to Stuart McAllister - "How you live speaks volumes to others." Go shine a light in a dark place.

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