29 January 2016

Of Peace in the Middle East

It is no secret that I have recently become enamored with the book of Colossians. What may be a bit of a "secret" is that, through this love and passion for the message of this book, God has prompted me to write a Bible Study on the four chapters of this powerful portion of Scripture. Now, what will become of this Study and who will actually get to read it is still unknown and, frankly, isn't the focus for me at the moment. What I know is that God has asked me to write, and so I do. It's up to Him what happens after that.

All that to say, I'm continually reviewing the lessons I've learned in recent months, holding dear and writing eagerly on the passages that spoke most to me, but then wondering what to do with the stuff "in between." While I prayed this morning over what there was to say, exactly, about Colossians 1:5b-8, He suddenly called to mind what struck me most when I was reading through this passage in the fall. Something which, in light of current events, is still striking me.

In Colossians 1:5b-6, Paul writes, "Of this [referring to the hope for believers that is laid up in heaven] you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing - as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth . . ."

All of this sounds pretty standard, right? He's encouraging believers in a growing little church in Colossae and reminding them this gospel that came to them has gone into the "whole world" where it is bearing fruit and growing.

I'm smiling now, because this is where my mind was blown a little.

Because, as one who sits in a comfortable chair in a warm sanctuary on Sunday mornings, organ playing, slides projected on the wall, just under the beautiful wooden cross to remind us all why we're there, I tend to separate my real world with the world of the Bible. Of course, I believe every word of it is true and this is an actual representation of History, but I'm really good at segmenting history history - like what we learn in schools or what relates to current events - from Bible history. As if they exist in two separate realms. And, as far as church history goes, it seems to feel like, yes, the New Testament church was our beginning, but then it jumps in my head from Paul to the English church, Martin Luther, etc. Sometimes it feels like that's where we began - this western church is our history.

But where was this New Testament church of Paul's day?

What was "the whole world." as far as Paul was concerned?

The footnotes on this passage from my ESV Bible Study say this: "It has now been roughly 30 years since Christ's death and resurrection and Pentecost. The gospel has indeed spread from Jerusalem into Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy and likely into Egypt, North Africa, and Persia as well."

Notice, it went to Rome, yes, but it didn't just head to Europe, but to Africa and the Middle East. As anyone familiar with modern western missionary efforts will tell you, North Africa and the Middle East is considered the most dangerous region to take the gospel today.

And I consider, then, the spread of the early church and the faith of early believers and I ponder, is it any wonder, or any coincidence, that these are the locations now most known as the seat of Islam?

Is it any coincidence that this is where Satan first planted the seed of this religion which is now the biggest combatant against Christianity?

Is it any coincidence that this region has had such a multitude of hearts hardened against Christ's followers that one cannot even bring the gospel into the very place it originated without threat to one's own life?

But, then, we must also see the further truth of this realization. Communities of believers in the Middle East - Syria, Egypt, Turkey - were born and were bearing fruit and growing the gospel long before King James ever ordained a single translation of Scripture. Would it not stand to reason, if the word which was spread into all the world and continues to grow and change lives, was growing and changing lives in the Middle East in those days, that communities of believers that can trace their lineage back to the Colossian church, or the Ephesian church, or the Philippian church, might still exist?

That maybe, when the gospel was spread, only 30 years after the death of Christ, to Syria, that descendants of those early Syrian believers, who have passed the truth of their faith and the hope laid up for them in Heaven, from one generation to the next, might have managed to reject false teaching, holding fast to the teachings of Paul, who so adamantly warned against "plausible arguments" (Colossians 1:4) that may have deluded new Christ followers, and withheld the spread of the new religion sweeping their nations. Is it possible that, maybe, there are those in the Middle East who have never been swayed by the words of a false prophet, but continue to cling to the cross?

A good friend tells of a time he met a Middle Eastern believer and, awed by his belief, despite his nationality, he asked this believer when he and family came to faith in Christ. The answer he received was, "In Acts, chapter 2."

We tend to forget, as Western believers, that these nations which present such a threat to our lives and our peace, were the birth-place of who we are, as a church, and as the Body of Christ. Yes, it is well-known that Satan has very thoroughly seemed to have accomplished his mission in these regions. But that does not mean God is no longer at work there, as well. His Word continues to grow, spread and change lives, even with very little influence from western believers.

So, maybe, when so many live in terror of those fleeing for their lives from war-battered nations, it could be recognized that some of these that seek refuge are, in fact, believers, who flee for their lives because their blood is demanded from them because they cling to the blood of Christ. And these are not simply new believers, rejecting any sort of false religion they once held, because someone has managed to sufficiently risk their lives to get into the region so many are seeking to escape, but these may be well-established believers because there remains a rich history and heritage of Christ in the very places where the church was born.

Perhaps, armed with this knowledge, we can change our perspective on the Middle East and see what is truly happening - nations torn apart by the ancient battle between spiritual forces. Not because a false religion wins, but because Satan still feels threatened by what God started in these places two millenia ago.

Perhaps when we encounter, then, or hear of those who follow a false prophet we can see them not as enemies, but as those who have been deceived by the one who has been waging war against God himself almost since time began. And our hearts can break.

And maybe we can cry out on our knees for hearts to be turned back to the Father, rather than bodies turned away from our shores.

Let us not forget, there was once Peace born in the Middle East. And if God has not abandoned them, neither, then, shall we.

27 January 2016

Of the True Presence of God

A friend recently told me that my finest quality was my willingness to stand by my convictions despite the consequences.

It was one of the most meaningful compliments of my life, though I doubt how strongly I stand by my convictions at times. I appreciated that somehow, despite what I consider failures, someone has seen this in me.

As I pondered this statement, it occurred to me that while I don't always stand proudly for things I believe are right, but I have a tiny twinge of doubt about, there are some things to which I hold firmly: that every life is valued, wherever or however it originated; that it is the Christian responsibility to protect life of any kind; and the reason I care about life is because I believe, without a shadow of a doubt in the One Who gave us life - God. And I believe He is intimately involved in the details of these lives He created.

While I have believed, as long as I can remember, this God existed, and while I have read His Word nearly daily for two decades now, I can point you to the exact moment I knew without one shade of questioning that He was there and that He has His hand constantly near to His creation.

It was the last day of August, 2004.

I had spent the entire summer working at a Christian camp for girls (an absolute dream) - which meant I had spent an entire summer in "worship" services that consisted of the camp theme song for that year and various other child-relatable songs. Perfectly wonderful for them, not quite enough to scratch my own soul-itch, though.

I longed for the type of worship service I had become accustomed to: contemporary songs, dim lights, hands raised high as I praised my Creator.

And on that last day of August, back in school again, our university hosted their first worship night of the new semester. I was so thrilled to be there.

Yet, in the dim-ness of our small campus chapel - the historic building that evokes the quaintness of 100 years of worship - surrounded by fellow students raising their hands to sing to God, I could not put my heart in that place. I felt stifled, surrounded by bodies, oppressed by heat and with a sudden urge to just escape.

So, I did - pushing gently past those lost in song, climbing over others bowed to their knees in prayer and heartfelt adoration, just shoving toward the door.

I stepped outside and breathed deeply. Fresh, cool air.

I had the sudden realization that the soul-drink I truly needed wouldn't be found in a room filled with bodies and sound, but in the quiet alone-ness of my own heart.

I walked across our dark, mostly deserted campus, to the steps of the much-larger chapel, the one in which the student-body gathered weekly as a mandatory qualification to attend this school.

I climbed up the steps, sitting near the top, looking out over the large marble cross towering over the walkway leading up to the building. In the distance was the small white chapel from which I had just escaped, and from which emanated softly the sounds of the continued worship set.

I held my Bible in my lap and I sat in silence. Listening. Waiting to hear God speak, as I had longed to learn how to do for many years after I once and for all invited Him into my life, to lead me as I followed.

And in the quietness of my soul, I heard "Habakkuk."

Now, I knew this to be an obscure book of the Bible - one of the "minor prophets" - a two-page book toward the end of the Old Testament. I knew that much.

But I didn't know anything else. I didn't know where, exactly, to find it - between which other small, obscure books it was sandwiched. I didn't know what it said. And I had certainly never thought to look there before.

For all these reasons, I felt maybe it was God asking me to turn there now. But, then there was that part of me that always speaks up when I think I hear His soul-whispering: Was that God? Or just one of my own random thoughts?

But, then, who randomly thinks of Habakkuk?

As I contemplated, I began to slowly sift through the pages of my Bible, vaguely trying to find my way there.

Of course, I was in Oklahoma - and we all know what comes sweeping across the plains of Oklahoma. And as I meandered through the tissue pages, the wind came along and began fluttering them swiftly by. I leaned back on my hands, simply watching the flitting pages of my Bible resting on my lap, wondering, bemused, if maybe the wind would carry me where I needed to go.

The pages stopped.

I looked at the top of the page on the left. Nahum.

Well, that's not Habakkuk. And that's where I was headed, right? So, I gently lifted the right side of my Bible, hoping the still-blowing breeze would pick up the pages once more to continue turning to wherever I felt called to be.

The pages would not move.

I wiggled the book a little more forcefully. Tried to slightly lift a page to give the breeze something to cling to, but there was nothing.

Still, the pages would not move.

They were held fast in place.

Well, fine, I guess my fingers would have to do the work.

The fingers of my hand began to lift the page on the right and I stopped.

Right there, opposite that final page of Nahum I had seen on the left, was the large, bold title of the next book.


I tremble as I type this now, as I do every time I tell this story, as I'm sure I did in that moment, when all I could do was sit in shocked silence, not even attempting to find a verse or passage, but giving the moment the full weight of what it was.

The God of the universe had come down, or at the very least, commanded the wind itself, to turn the pages of the Bible sitting in my lap to the exact place He wanted me.


I have never in my life felt as small as I felt in that one moment. I looked out over the darkness and saw tiny insect wings in flight, as is common on a late-summer evening, recognizing He designed every detail of that seemingly insignificant insect. His fingers formed the grass and placed the stars in the sky. And He knows them all by name.

And He knows me.

Who am I? Who am I that He would care to carry me to the place in Scripture He wanted me to be?

I was completely, entirely, humbled.

And in that moment everything I had ever believed was finally and ultimately confirmed. There is a God. And He is intimately involved in the workings of His creation. And He deeply cares for His children.

I am a child of God.

I know that I know that I know this - and I will cling to this truth for all of my life.

Now, a side-note, because while, for me, the importance of this event in my life is so much more about the way God showed Himself than the words I read on the page after, I know others will be curious.

Habakkuk, if you ever open your Bible to read it, is not an uplifting book.

There is a reason no one has heard of it.

It doesn't have the pretty poetry of the Psalms or the wisdom of the Proverbs. It doesn't tell a great story like Jonah or give us insights into the life, death or resurrection of Christ.

It's about destruction and despair and violence. It's a man crying out to God for vengeance for His people.

And it's in the Bible for a reason, but it's not a typical book to turn to when you're in need of some soul encouragement.

However, He did point me to Habakkuk 1:5 - which was the only verse I'd heard from the book up until that point:

“Look among the nations, and see;
    wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
    that you would not believe if told."

Again, this doesn't quite hold the same meaning in context as it does when it's read right there, all by itself. Because what God is referring to regarding what will happen among the nations is, yes, destruction of them. BUT - there is an amazing feeling knowing there are still things happening among the nations that we would not believe if we were told. Some wouldn't sound that great. But some would. And God is still working.

In fact, the very next day, on the heels of this passage, and of this humbling that fully convinced me to go wherever He would lead, He sent me on a journey I would have never predicted or seen, one that carried me all the way to Russia, where I fell in love with a people that most of the western world doesn't understand.

And, finally, at the end of the short three chapters of the entire book of Habakkuk, there are these verses, a prayer of the prophet who just delivered these words of destruction to God's people, verses to which I still cling, especially on the hard days:
17 Though the fig tree should not blossom,
    nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
    and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
    and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the deer's;
    he makes me tread on my high places.

So, there you have it - these are the words that most spoke to me that one dark evening in August - unexpected words of encouragement tucked deep in the Old Testament.

But mostly what spoke to me that night on the cold stone steps was the real, tangible presence of God, right there in our midst.