Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Technology and Missions (Part 1)

The thing that I had feared the most occurred to me this afternoon. My cell phone ended up in the wash. Needless to say, it came out clean but not worth the plastic and wiring that it is made up of. My wife felt terrible. I felt stupid for not emptying my pants pockets when I came home. But there it is.

When did we become so dependent upon technology that we feel naked and cut off when we lose the ability for people to contact us at any time? I refuse to even consider getting a Blackberry; I have enough trouble leaving the office behind without carrying it along with me like that.

The sad thing is that we impose this upon the people that we work with overseas. We want instant contact, instant answers to questions, instant updates on programs and stories that we are covering. What many ministries end up with is staff in the developing world who are not necessarily spiritually mature believers, but those who can speak English (usually) and who have access or the ability to adapt to our technology. Needless to say, these are not always the right people to work with.

Technology is changing the face of missions and we need to seriously think through the ramifications of it before we embrace all of its possibilities uncritically. The medium always impacts the message. More on this in the weeks to come.... Right now I have to charge my new cell phone.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Ministry Closer to Home

I received an anonymous letter today from one of our supporters today saying that they have decided not to support us this month. This letter disappointed me on a couple of levels. First, I have a problem taking anonymous letters seriously in the first place. I believe that if you have an opinion that you want others to take seriously, you should at least have the courage to identify yourself. It's easy to have convictions if you don't have to stand up for them.

Second, the reason why this supporter decided not to support us this week had to do with the fact that we mentioned in our July newsletter that we were financially helping Kevin Kisilowsky with his legal expenses though our Legal Defense Fund. Kevin is fighting the Manitoba government's order for all marriage commissioners to perform same-sex marriages or surrender their marriage commission license. He refuses to do so because of his Christian convictions, which we support. The government has no right to order Christian marriage commissioners to perform ceremonies that are contrary to their beliefs.

Most of our supporters would agree that this is a worthwhile cause. The amount that we are supporting him to is only a tiny percentage of our overall budget (less than .5%). We believe that to ignore cases like this in our own country would be a violation of our purposes as an organization. Our mission is to glorify God by being Canada's reliable source of information and support for persecuted Christians around the world (not everywhere but in Canada and not only for Christians in the developing world who are poor). If we want to continue to experience religious liberty here in Canada, we need to fight cases like what Kevin is facing. And he should not have to face it alone!

Unfortunately, our anonymous friend thinks that Kevin should go into debt and borrow money in order to fight this case and that our support should only go to help poor Christians in other countries. Hence, his check will go to support World Vision this month.

Well, I make no apologies for what we are doing here. If this were a symptom of our losing focus on the world and starting to navel gaze on our own problems here in Canada, I would take this letter more seriously. But given our priorities and the kinds of projects that we are supporting around the world, I believe that we are in no present danger of doing this.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Is the Three-Self Formula Still Relevant?

As a recently published article reminds us, the Three-Self Formula is much better known in mission circles than it is practiced. Most students of missions have heard of the principle that a newly planted church is mature or indigenous when it is self-governing, self-propagating, and self-supporting. But this belief is rarely or inconsistently applied in actual practice. Further, it has even come under attack in modern times for reasons ranging from it being impractical, unbiblical, stingy, a hindrance to partnerships, self-centred, or culturally questionable.

The latest edition of Mission Frontiers, the bulletin of the U.S. Center for World Missions, has published an article by Robert Reese, of World Missions Associates, entitled "The Surprising Relevance of the Three-Self Formula." For those of us who are concerned that the creation of dependency on Western funding actually hinders rather than furthers the advancement of God's kingdom, this article is a welcome addition to the discussion. I would encourage you to read it.

I would also encourage you to consider purchasing When Charity Destroys Dignity, the recently published book by Robert Reese's colleague, Glenn Schwartz.

Monday, July 23, 2007

VisionTV May Have Been Sorry But Not Enough Apparently

A day after saying it regretted broadcasting a lecture by Israr Ahmad, a Pakistani preacher who says that the Quran advocates violent holy war and the "extermination" of Jews, VisionTV aired another hour-long talk by the cleric on Saturday on the program Dil Dil Pakistan (click here).

Frankly, I could have told you that this was going to happen when I read the statement written by Vision's CEO, Bill Roberts, and printed in the National Post on Saturday. Twice in his apology, he used the word "may"; a word that should never appear in a sincere apology but which almost always appears in apologies that are made primarily in an attempt to pacify the public.

In the first statement he says that he condemns any reference to or suggestion of holy war or violent jihad by any group and regrets that Mr. Israr Ahmad's statements "may have conveyed such a suggestion...." The use of the word "may" here suggests that Mr. Roberts is not entirely convinced that Ahmad's statement really did convey the suggestion of violent jihad but since someone complained, it is best just to allow for the legitimacy of that opinion and apologize.

In the second statement, Mr. Roberts says, "VisionTV regrets that Mr. Ahmad's statements may have offended viewers' perceptions of our channel...." Obviously they did offend some viewers. There is no "if" or "may" about it.

When people use "if" or "may" in an apology, it is usually to provide an escape clause. It allows for the feelings of the offended to be acknowledged without really admitting to guilt. I urge VisionTV to come clean and admit that they knew of the content of Israr Ahmad's lecture and decided to run it anyway. These half-hearted apologies followed by actions that deny their sincerity (such as running the program again the very next day) speak only of hypocrisy or laziness in upholding their claimed values.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Calling for Jihad, Good. Reporting on Persecution, Bad.

VisionTV says it will monitor one of its shows more closely after some viewers complained when it broadcast a lecture last Saturday afternoon by an Islamic preacher who said the Quran requires Muslims to either fight jihad or finance it. At no point, however, do they admit that it was inappropriate for their station to broadcast this lecture.

Fine. What frosts my cookies, however, is that VisionTV absolutely refuses to allow programs to run our video reports such as The Overcomers on their network. Too divisive, they say. Promotes intolerance towards other religions.

So, I guess it is more acceptable to have a program call for jihad than it is to have one on that reports on the consequences of these jihads.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

We Would Rather Die Than Leave the Church

One of the bestselling books that The Voice of the Martyrs has published in recent years is the devotional book Extreme Devotion. In it are 365 stories and testimonies of men and women who are totally sold out for Christ. For many, this devotion to Christ cost them their freedom and even their lives.

A few days ago, the devotional was one that is especially meaningful to me because it recounts the testimony of Juan and Maria, a couple that I met in Colombia. The following came out of my meeting with them in Cali.

Juan and his wife, Maria, are missionaries among the indigenous people north of Cali, Colombia. Cali is controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a leftist guerilla group. Many Columbian pastors and missionaries have faced opposition from FARC and have fled the area. When Juan met with a group of fifty FARC guerrillas three years ago, however, twenty of them received Christ. As he says, "We exchange pistols for epistles."

Now, the National Liberation Army has been attacking Christian churches in the region. Recently, more than twenty churches were shut down, and many pastors fled for their lives. Guerrillas often come and demand all the tithes and offerings or take the pastor's life. Now Juan is the only pastor left in the area, and he receives no outside aid.

Still, Juan and his wife made a decision to stay and continue ministering to the people. They say, "If we are to die because we preach the Word of God, we would rather die than leave the church." Juan does not condemn those who have left, nor does he talk about the difficulties they have faced. He prefers to share what God is doing and his burden for ministry. His mind is preoccupied, not with danger, but with reaching Columbia's people for Christ.

Jesus describes an image of a pack animal burdened with a load. The animal does not struggle against the weight of the burden, however, for it is hardly heavy at all. Being burdened with the gospel is not the same as being weighed down with earthly concerns. The burden of the gospel simply means an awareness of others' spiritual needs. Juan has a "burden," but his burden is light. Following Christ's example, we must be burdened for lost people. This load is light because we are always giving it away. We are not supposed to keep the good news to ourselves. Have you been rejected when you share Christ? Perhaps you have considered giving in to the opposition. Let Jesus' burden for the lost motivate you to hang in there one more day.

To order your copy of Extreme Devotion, visit our online bookstore.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Strange Bedfellows in the Defense of Freedom of Speech

I never thought that I would find myself on the same side of a human rights issue with the national gay rights group, EGALE (Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere). But amazingly, I do in the case of Stephen Boissoin who is before the Alberta Human Rights Commission today. Five years ago, Boissoin, who was a youth pastor at the time, wrote a letter to the Red Deer Advocate in which he stated his belief that homosexuals and those who defend them were as immoral as pedophiles and drug dealers. The letter led to a complaint from Darren Lund, then a high school teacher in Red Deer. Lund is a married father who is not homosexual and a longtime human rights activist. He has asked the AHRC that Boissoin publish an apology and be fined $7000 ($5,000 in personal damages and $2,000 to be donated to EGALE).

Ironically, EGALE, however, has gone on record as stating that they will not support Lund and that they believe that Boissoin has a right to express his opinions in the public arena even though it vehemently disagrees with them.

This is an absolutely correct position to take. Nothing that Boissoin has said is illegal. He has not called for violence against homosexuals. He simply stated his beliefs. Strongly, to be sure. Perhaps more strongly than some of the rest of us would care to. But he does have the right to publicly state his convictions. To restrict these rights is to threaten the rights of others to do likewise, including homosexuals. EGALE understands this.

The problem is, there are those in our society who are increasingly demanding the right not to have to listen to someone whom they disagree with. We want the right not to be offended, not to have our feelings hurts, not to be made to feel sad because someone doesn't like us. We don't even want to be exposed to such opinions. This is intolerance of the meanest, pettiest sort. This is why I will not get upset every time someone says something stupid in the media about Christians or Christianity. I know that some believe that this (disinformation) is the first step towards persecution. Perhaps this is true (although this has yet to be proven, in my opinion) but I am more concerned that the restricting of freedom of speech is a far greater threat.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

More Than Just Words

I have been a Christian since I was 18-years-old and I am still amazed at how the so-called followers of the Prince of Peace can blast away at each other in the cause of self-righteousness. There is an old children's rhyme that goes, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Rubbish. Of course, words hurt. That's why people use them in this fashion.

Most of our readers, friends and supporters are wonderful, kind, and thoughtful people. They do not always agree with us and often express their concerns graciously and intelligently. I, personally, have learned a lot from such folks in the years that I have been a part of The Voice of the Martyrs. I am grateful to God for their role in sharpening my focus and skills, as well as those of my co-workers.

From time to time, however, we receive a particularly unpleasant letter and email; correspondence laced with false accusations, sometimes dripping in hatred, and always demanding in tone. Sometimes the criticisms are entirely valid and the critic is right in what he/she is saying. How it is said, however, it makes it so much harder to accept than it might have been, had they written less caustically.

I wish it were otherwise but we are not the only ones who are on the receiving end of such blasts, even if well-meaning. From what I understand from other Christian leaders of churches and mission organizations, the problem seems endemic. An increasing number of their supporters or congregants seem to feel little need to hold back in expressing their discontent with the service they receive or their disagreement with something said. Political leaders, too, have frequently noted that often the most bombastic, hateful, thoughtless and poorly researched letters come from those who call themselves born-again Christians. Is it any wonder that they don't take our concerns seriously on Parliament Hill?

I have nothing against strongly held and even strongly stated opinions. And I say this not in an attempt to stifle feedback from our friends and supporters. By no means! We welcome both compliments and criticism as we seek to continue to glorify God by being Canada's effective and reliable source of information and support of persecuted Christians around the world.

No, what I yearn to see is a greater degree of grace being evident in the words (spoken or written) of those who are temples of the Holy Spirit; an understanding that they are communicating with someone who is the image of God and that disrespect shown to any human being is disrespect shown to the Creator, Himself (James 3:9). The apostle James asks, "Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water." These words are reminiscent of those spoken by his Brother years earlier to a group of religious folks who seemed to think that they could say pretty much whatever they wanted to; "You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned" (Matthew 12:34-37).

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Carrying the Cross; Our first value

The following is a devotional memo that I presented to our staff here at The Voice of the Martyrs earlier this week:

This cartoon speaks far more truthfully to our lives than we are often willing to admit. The cross that we are called to carry always frustrates and undermines our efforts which is why we rarely want to carry it very far or for very long.

What does it mean to carry the cross? Unfortunately, I suspect the sense that the early church had of this saying is largely lost on us today. The "cross" of the believer has been trivialized into meaning pretty much anything that is unpleasant. But this is not the meaning that Jesus had when He said these words!

The "cross" is not ordinary human troubles and sorrows such as disappointments, disease, death, poverty, and the like. Nor, on the other hand, is the phrase "taking up the cross" to be completely spiritualized, like too many have done. Having never had to suffer persecution, we take the phrase and give it some mystical, existential meaning that is totally removed from the reality of first-century Christianity (and that faced by persecuted Christians around the world). Such examples of this would be referring to carrying the cross as "dying to self," "self-denial," or "giving everything to God," as important as these concepts are. The important thing for us to understand is, what did Jesus mean and how would the disciples have understood it?

There is no doubt that the cross was understood exclusively as an instrument of torture and execution. Jesus' call was to take up their cross (not Jesus' cross. No where in scripture are we called to carry Jesus' cross; we carry our own). We need to take Jesus' words very literally. The demand of Jesus is to tread the path of martyrdom.

If they are going to follow Him, Jesus told them, the disciples must deny themselves, renouncing their right to life, take up their cross and follow Him on the same path to death. They must be prepared every day to face death in their allegiance to their Master, after His example. Even more than that, they throw themselves into the purposes of God to such an extent that sacrifice at any level becomes the accepted norm. This is the cost of following Christ.

This is the same call that each of us face here at The Voice of the Martyrs. Jesus' call is for each of us to live each day in radical commitment to Him and His mission. If we are not prepared to pay that cost, we should not even start on the path of discipleship. Jesus has enough half-hearted "hangers on" who claim to follow Him but refuse to carry their cross.

This is why one of our values here at The Voice of the Martyrs is an Uncompromising Faithfulness to God. We are committed practicing and modeling the truth that a cross-centred gospel requires cross-centred messengers. Is your life characterized by the cross?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

God is Faithful

I am already working ahead on our September newsletter because I hope to be gone for much of August to Alberta for vacation (pray that this can take place, please). I am writing the feature article and have entitled it A Prayer in the Wilderness. It is a little more autobiographical than what we usually print. I hope our readers don't mind. As many of you are aware, I was diagnosed with cancer five years ago. I have received letters of encouragement, assurances of prayer, and words of advice from across Canada and around the world. I am humbled by the love and concern that has been showered on me and my family. The staff and Board of Directors of The Voice of the Martyrs have been more supportive than we could have ever hoped for, especially after I underwent a bone-marrow transplant late in 2006 that left me hospitalized for three weeks. Since I returned to the office at the end of January, I praise God that I have been able to resume most of my responsibilities apart from traveling (my immune system is still suppressed).

Having cancer has been a life-changing experience for me, mostly for the good, and I wanted to share some of what God has taught me though the testimony of His persecuted children and His Word. These two revelations have been foundational in my spiritual development over the past five years. God's Word is always foundational and paramount, of course. God has opened His Word to me in significant ways since my diagnosis. My book, In the Shadow of the Cross, was written during this time. But seeing how God works in the lives of His persecuted people around the world also prepared me for my own journey of suffering. The call to walk in faith is the same for God's people regardless of their circumstances. The persecuted demonstrate how it can be done in the harshest of settings; not always perfectly, of course, but we see how it is possible to trust God and love Him in the face of unchanging circumstances and seeming unanswered prayers. My testimony, like theirs is this: God is faithful...all of the time.

If you are interested in subscribing to VOMC's free monthly newsletter, you find out more about it by clicking here.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Inseparable Love of God

Look at this picture. The man behind bars is a Christian leader presently facing blasphemy charges in Indonesia. He is one of more than 40 Christian leaders who were imprisoned in April, after a video recording of them praying for Muslims was leaked to Islamic organizations. They have been charged under Article 156 KUPH. Under article 156 and 156a, "anyone who expresses hatred, opposition or insults one individual or groups of Indonesian citizens in public, will be imprisoned four to five years, or fined 4,500 rupiah. Muslims claim Christians blasphemed the Koran by placing it on the floor and praying for millions of people deceived by it. The Islamic organizations consider the video's content abusive and have released the video to the media.

Just as bars cannot separate this man from the love of his wife, neither can they separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:38-19). No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us - Romans 8:37.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Talking to a Great Wall

The question as to whether constructive engagement is actually an effective means of improving human rights (including religious liberty) in repressive regimes is still an open one, in my opinion. Little evidence can be pointed to support the idea, but it is an increasingly popular approach by those who occasionally portray a sense of superiority over the rest of us who continue to express our concerns in less sophisticated ways.

The latest edition of Macleans, however, will do nothing to support the cause of those who prefer the carrot over the stick. In the article, Talking to a Great Wall, Charlie Gillis notes that there is a growing consensus in Ottawa that closed-doors bilateral talks with China on human rights are little more than a charade, yielding nothing in the way of reform and providing a convenient forum for further Chinese abuses. Indeed, as Chen Yonglin, a former Chinese diplomat who spent 14 years working for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs before defecting to Australia in 2005, told Macleans, China has spent the last decade playing Western governments for fools. "We all knew it was meaningless. Everyone at the consulate general knew the talks were just a way to avoid international criticism. The notion that China would play a constructive role in international affairs was very deceptive."

To read this full article, click here. And then write our Prime Minister, thanking him for taking a firm position with China in regards to human rights.

(The Voice of the Martyrs has a number of resources on religious liberty in China. Go to our online catalog for more information.)

Monday, July 02, 2007

Hamas and its Mickey Mouse Approach to Martyrdom

In what is surely a low point in children's television programming, the Hamas-affiliated al-Aqsa channel aired the last episode of its program "Tomorrow's Pioneers" on Friday, showing the character, Farfur, being beaten to death by an "Israeli agent". Farfur was a controversial Mickey Mouse look-alike character who frequently made anti-US and anti-Israeli comments and encouraged children to martyrdom in the fight against Israel.

In the final episode an actor said to be an Israeli agent tries to buy the land of the squeaky-voiced Mickey Mouse look-alike. Farfur brands the Israeli a "terrorist" and is beaten to death. The show's host, a young girl named Saraa concludes, ""Yes, my dear children, we have lost our dearest friend, Farfour. Farfour was martyred while defending his land, the land of his fathers and his forefathers. He was martyred at the hand of the criminals, the murderers, the murderers of innocent children, who killed Iman Hijo, Muhammad Al-Dura, and many others." (to see the complete program with English subtitles, click here).

I can only imagine how the children who watched this final program felt seeing their hero killed before their eyes. Undoubtedly, the intent was to influence them towards greater hatred towards Israelis. Just what the Middle East needs...more hatred. To use children's programming in this way is despicable and unjustifiable. Western leaders who propose that Hamas should be treated as a legitimate organization that must be included in peace negotiations should seriously consider whether this is the kind of group that they really want to see in power anywhere. This is not a group that respects human rights or human life. Hamas is a terrorist organization and as such, cannot be trusted with the safe-keeping of anyone's children. Farfur is a prime example of what Hamas thinks children are really good for; martyrdom.