Category Archives: follow Jesus

A Coptic light in the Mideast darkness

The Middle East has experienced much darkness during the last years. But a light is drawing attention.

Christians make up between 15-20 percent of the population of Egypt; most are members of the ancient Coptic church. The nation’s leaders talk about all citizens being part of one family, but reality has been otherwise. Muslim demands are often appeased at the Christian minority’s expense.

How should the church respond? Surely they should call for fairness and justice. However, efforts by young Coptic Christians to demonstrate for equal rights after the 2011 Arab Spring were literally crushed under military tanks. Now a different response from the church is having dramatic impact.

On Palm Sunday ISIS suicide bombers attacked two Egyptian churches, killing 44 persons and injuring over 100. At St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, the bomber was prevented from entering the sanctuary by a guard, Naseem Faheem. Coptic funeral after ISIS suicide bombing in April 2017So when the bomber detonated, Faheem was the first to die in the blast. A few days later Amr Adeeb, perhaps the most prominent talk show host in Egypt, aired an interview of the widow saying “I’m not angry at the one who did this. I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you.’” Adeeb sat in stunned silence, searching for a response. Finally he said, “Egyptian Christians are made of Steel! … How great is this forgiveness you have! If it were my father, I could never say this…” Millions marveled with him across the airwaves of Egypt.

Such a word of forgiveness differs radically from the prevailing Middle Eastern culture based on honor and shame, demanding revenge.

Christian forgiveness began to rivet Egypt in 2015 after ISIS executed 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya and the victim’s families publicly forgave the terrorists. This grace is winning the hearts of the nation. Ramez Atallah, president of the Bible Society of Egypt, told a CT reporter that many Egyptians are seeing Christian forgiveness to be exactly what their country needs to “keep Egypt from becoming like Lebanon during its civil war.” Forgiveness, not justice, is the only possible path to peace in Egypt. An insistence on justice can never bring about reconciliation since each side tallies justice differently than the other. What one thinks would even the score, the other would see as a new injustice to be avenged.

Jesus is still the light of the world! And the darker the world, the more brightly we see the light of his way of love and grace even to one’s enemy.

Jesus’ way to deal with insult and criticism

Here’s a personal story from when I worked as a substitute rural mail carrier many years ago. I ran across it while preparing for a sermon in a series on the impact God’s love has as it fully sinks into our mind and heart. It’s adapted from my journal.

     Mail volume ebbs and flows. One day we rural carriers got a lot of mail and got it late. Back then (before automation) we had to put every piece of mail into delivery sequence before leaving the post office for the route. The more mail, the more sorting, and the later we started delivery. Toward the end of the route that day, I was running about two hours behind normal schedule and Mr. Green was waiting for me at his mail box. “I don’t know what you’ve been doing, but it sure as @#$! wasn’t delivering mail.” He thought I had been goofing off! And I had worked harder that day than for a while.rural
     I’m a people-pleaser. And was also sensitive to running late on the route, feeling that my brain ran a few megahertz slower than other carriers’. So his criticism went deep and kept replaying through my mind the next weeks. I found myself a little tense and edgy every time I came to his mail box. And getting a little jolt each time I saw one of his letters while sorting.
     Finally I decided that this had gone on too long. I gave myself an assignment, a simple spiritual discipline: every time I thought of Mr. Green and his comment, I would tell myself: God loves me and was pleased with my hard work that day. Initially that truth didn’t have as much energy and emotional grip as my frustration and anxiety did. But as I continued to feed my faith in God’s love, I soon could think about Mr. Green with inner calm and compassion. I was following Jesus’ strategy: “He left his case in the hands of God, who always judges fairly” (1 Peter 2:23).
     We mail carriers sometimes share war stories. I told another carrier about Mr. Green and how I dealt with it: by telling myself that God was pleased with me even if Mr. Green wasn’t. She responded by telling me of a time that a trucker honked and yelled at her because he thought she pulled out in front of him. She too had left it bother her a while, letting his anger toward her replay in her mind. But then she dealt with it, she said, by telling herself that she doesn’t care what he thinks.

Which strategy should we use when unfairly accused: rest in God’s love and let his assessment matter most? or tell ourselves that the other person doesn’t matter?

Following Jesus’ way—letting our case in the hands of God who always judges fairly—is far healthier. Both my strategy and my coworker’s strategy allowed us to let go of anxiety over an insult. But only the approach that Jesus modeled enables us to give the angry person “the gift of non-anxious presence”—to both let go of the other’s anger and yet be fully engaged with them.

No easy answers on Mennonite police chief

Thursday evening I told Karen, “There was a shooting in Hesston!” She had seen the news too: “And several are dead, and many critically wounded.”

Mass shootings are becoming much too common. But this one felt close to home: Hesston is basically a Mennonite town. The year before we met, Karen lived a few blocks from the factory where the shooting took place. One of the factory owners was our sons’ college dorm residence director; his wife was a friend and co-worker of one of our daughters.

I was also taken aback that there was violence in a Mennonite-owned factory. Wouldn’t a plant with an office full of Mennonites known for working hard at peace-making and whole relationships typically avoid such bloodshed? Even if they would hire ex-cons, like the shooter?

But this part of the story struck me most: the bloodshed was kept from being worse by the Hesston police chief—who has a Mennonite last name and membership in one of the nearby Mennonite churches. He got to the scene fast. And didn’t wait for backup but at great personal risk called the shooter to come out and killed him when he returned fire.

Did that police chief do right? There are no easy answers:

  • The country sheriff and Kansas governor called the chief a hero, stopping many further deaths. Yet he himself, steeped from boyhood with a sense that killing is sin, surely struggles with what he has done. As Kurt Horst, a pastor in Hesston, told a reporter, “We are thankful for the lives he saved, but we grieve for what he had to do to save them and the impact that may have on him.”
  • I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pacifist who joined a plot during WWII to kill Hitler. He believed he was breaking the moral teaching of Jesus. Yet felt he must: to do nothing would let him maintain personal holiness but let great evil fall on many others.
  • It’s clear that God ordains police as “servants” to “bear the sword” against evildoers (Rom. 13:4) to limit violence and greed; without a police presence, society descends into anarchy. Yet Jesus calls his followers to “do good” to evildoers rather than destroy them (Matt. 5:43-45; Luke 6:27-36). Paul and Peter do too (Rom. 12:19-21; 1 Pet. 2:20-23; 3:8-9).
  • Mennonites typically avoid serving as police, knowing they might be called upon to exercise deadly force and unable to see how taking an evildoer’s life would be to “do good” to them, as Jesus instructs. Yet would it be desirable to have a police force or a military with no Christians in the ranks? Yet violence can only stop something; it cannot bring a positive well-being, shalom. Force was not Jesus’ calling—nor is it the calling of us who choose to be marked by the teaching and spirit of Jesus. That calling is to embody God’s gift of grace.

How this preacher got a bit more mellow

One of the handy things about being a preacher for 36 years is that often my current sermon text is one I’ve preached on before. Sometimes I can harvest ideas from the old sermon. Sometimes I’m appalled at how I said things, and marvel at the grace the congregation showed a young preacher! The most fun is when I find personal anecdotes that flood me with memories.

Last Sunday I preached on Hebrews 10:23-39. Back in the mid 1980’s, when April was two years old and Rachel a few months old, I had preached on verses 36-37 about persevering in doing God’s will because in just a little while Jesus is coming and will not delay. That sermon manuscript had an anecdote that is especially vivid now that our family has two grandchildren under four months! It’s something that had happened the day before.

On Friday afternoon April developed a fever. She cried off and on all night and all yesterday. (I’ll spare you the details. Imagine the worst possible scenario, and you got it!) In the middle of all that, at one point, I was holding Rachel. I went outside with her, kicking the screen door open. I had to get away from it all. I was saying, “Lord, I’m supposed to be calm, filled with love?!”

One of the things God said to me (since that week I had been mulling over this Scripture which talked about Christ coming again ‘in just a very little while’) was, “If you knew I was coming in an hour, how that would that affect your attitude? How important would your comfort be? Or would you focus on doing as much as you could to please me?”

This preacher is of course older, wiser, more mellow, more mature now. A bit! Some of what helps keep such meltdowns away nowadays is that delightful status called grandparenthood where Karen & I get to send our grandsons home to their parents at night! But some of it, hopefully, is an ability to step outside of my present emotions and to look to my values, to the person I want to be: not one who is selfish and angry and destructive but one who loves and nurtures those around me because Jesus is Lord and I am choosing to live like Jesus and please him. One day I will stand before Christ the King and give account of my life. I want to be aware of that eternal dimension and make daily choices in light of it. Bit by bit I’m letting that future transform my present.

We’re designed to walk in the Spirit

If you were to give a one-sentence description of human life, what would you consider most important to say? This is the truest and most life-giving description that I see: Humans are designed to walk by the Spirit of Christ.

“Designed” says that we are created beings, not the random product of blind natural laws. Going against our Creator’s intent can only diminish our lives and long-term joy.

“Walk” and “Christ” suggests that we follow Christ who not only gave the greatest moral teaching and example the world has known but also rose from the dead, showing that he is Lord.

At the center is “the Spirit.” Without the Spirit, our efforts at following Christ are limited to intellect: us finding principles in the Gospels, gaining knowledge in our heads of what we are supposed to be doing and then trying to do it. But with the presence of the Spirit, this walk is a vital, living relationship. Those principles we follow are not just in our head but also in our heart, because the Spirit of Christ is in our heart. We have the opportunity of going through life responding to the Spirit’s promptings, obeying them as we are aware of them. (We recognize the Spirit’s nudge by an accompanying atmosphere of peace—the exact opposite of the sensation of unsettledness in a bad conscience.) Our life is now an on-going encounter with Jesus by the Spirit!

Many times we genuinely are not aware of any nudging from the Spirit. We are asking for it and listening for it but sense nothing. But sometimes—quite often, I think—we do sense that God is asking us to do or to not do such-and-such. Let’s respond in obedience rather than be like the first-grade boy in this true story:

Dad: Max! Why didn’t you answer me when I called you?
Max: I didn’t hear you, Dad.
Dad: What do you mean you didn’t hear me?
      [Max does not respond.]
Dad: How many times didn’t you hear me?
Max: I don’t know, maybe three or four times.

Make space in your day to hear the Spirit. And then “walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16, 25). And experience life as God designed it!

Encountering Jesus…through hospitality

Our congregation’s theme or emphasis this year is “Encountering Jesus.” This is the central experience of our Christian life:

we are disciples or Jesus-followers, meaning we are led by Jesus, our lives are shaped by anything we know of Jesus;

we read the Bible, not simply to learn facts or to find eternal life but because it tells us about Jesus (John 5:39);

we pray and do other spiritual disciplines to create spaces in our days in which Jesus can speak to us through his Spirit;

we do missions or reach out so that that others can enjoy what we have enjoyed in Jesus—grace and truth and “life to the full” (John 10:10).

No one loves us like Jesus: dying for us. No one has power like Jesus: conquering death, hell, and Satan. No one understands life like Jesus: teaching with unequalled wisdom.

So I jump at any chance to interact with and experience this Jesus. Even if it might involve inconvenience or even sacrifice, I am willing, even eager, for it. Even if it might lead to only a glimpse of Jesus, I will do it.

That’s why I have been willing to set out on the “hospitality challenge” which we as a congregation have been doing for several weeks now: praying every morning for an opportunity to welcome and love someone God brings in our life. Perhaps it means I will simply listen to someone I meet, or do them some practical favor, or give words of affirmation and encouragement.

I anticipate encountering Jesus in three ways through this adventure:

the morning prayer (“Lord, please send me a hospitality opportunity today”) will make me more apt to notice any nudges from Jesus during my day;

the interactions with persons will let me see Jesus touching them with his love, power, understanding—perhaps through me;

and, as Jewel wrote in the last newsletter, sometimes I might look into the eyes of a stranger and see Jesus looking at me.

I will enjoy hearing the little reports of what happens as we pray this prayer!

Want books showing wise love and wonder?!

Ever since our honeymoon, spent surrounded by forested hills in northern Pennsylvania, back a two-mile lane, Karen and I have continually had a book we’re reading aloud to each other. At first we took turns reading, but soon settled into a pattern of me reading while Karen cross-stitched or quilted or, for a period in our life, nursed a baby or two. The first books that we read were by George MacDonald, a Scottish author writing in the last half of the 1800’s with an uncommonly robust imagination and singular commitment to live out the vision he saw in the Gospels. In fact, the first two dozen books that we read were all by MacDonald.

How could we not tire of a continual diet of only one author?!

One reason is that MacDonald wrote in diverse genres. So sometimes we were reading the beloved fantasies and fairy tales which he created for children and for which he received much critical acclaim—few writers can evoke wonder as vividly as MacDonald. And sometimes we were reading realistic novels or mysteries written for adults, giving rich glimpses into life in the rugged Scottish highlands or the cities of Victorian England.

The main reason we didn’t tire (don’t tire!) of MacDonald is that few writers can make goodness so lively or create characters of such wisdom and spiritual insight. Many authors find it easy to make evil full-bodied and highly textured. But for MacDonald, the goodness in his characters is what is multi-dimensional and compelling! Out of MacDonald’s own personal life and faith come characters who again and again draw readers like Karen and I by their calm, wise presence and great-hearted vision of God.

Electronic forms of MacDonald’s works (which are public domain) have recently become freely available on the internet. That gives opportunity to read the original unabridged versions of the books! These books often have numerous scanning errors and clumsy formatting. So one of my hobbies during the last couple years has been to give our favorites additional proof-reading and make their formatting more aesthetic and friendly.

I also find joy in sharing them with others! I have a webpage with seven of them available as ebooks in two common formats. Come visit!