Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Grace to Forgive

The following is an edited excerpt from the upcoming feature article in the December edition of The Voice of the Martyrs Newsletter. To receive your copy, click here.

Dirk Willems was a Dutch Christian who was arrested in the village of Asperen in 1569 because of his religious activities. Lowering himself out of a window using a rope made of rags, he was able to escape but not before a guard had seen him. The guard began to pursue him, with the town's mayor in tow. As they ran, Willems came to a frozen pond. He was able to make it across it safely but as the guard dashed across the ice, he fell through and began to sink. Hearing the hapless guard's cries for help, Willems was faced with a choice. Would he see this as a sign of God's protection or would he do what he could to save the life of his persecutor?

He stopped, turned around and went back to save his pursuer's life. Extending a hand of mercy to his enemy, he carefully pulled him to safety. But no sooner had he saved the guard than the mayor arrived and insisted on having him burned at the stake. Martyrs Mirror reports that as Willems died painfully and horrifically, the wind carried his voice to the next village where the residents heard him cry out more than seventy times, forgiving those who were killing him.

The grace to forgive is nurtured by the Word of God and the testimonies of those who have gone on before. This is why The Voice of the Martyrs shares the stories of today's and yesterday's Christian martyrs in our newsletters, books and videos. Share them with your children. Read them for your own growth in grace. Include them in Sunday School classes, sermons, or devotionals that you lead. Don't rob yourself and others of the riches of what God has and is doing in the world through the lives of those who are prepared to give all for Him.
(You can purchase a print of this picture online. Click here.)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Right to Offend and the Right to do what is Right

Having been a subscriber to the weekend editions of the Toronto Star for the past ten years, I was not really surprised by the latest anti-Christian diatribe published in today's Ideas section. It is rare that the Star mentions Bible-believing Christians at all and when they do, it is almost always in a negative light. But so be it; that is their right as a vehicle of free expression (more on this in a moment).

But the comments by Ken Gallinger, the Star's ethics columnist struck a note particularly vehement, almost reminiscent of the ancient Roman accusations of Christians being immoral, incestuous, cannibalistic atheists. Responding to the question as to whether those who support the idea of a literal six-day creation should be called "stupid", Gallinger responded, "Creationism is not the first nonsense the Christian Church has unleashed upon the world. And, unless you factor in the risk of turning your brain into silly putty, it's considerably less dangerous than such other ecclesiastical offerings as anti-Semitism, misogyny, the ‘domination' of nature, or gay-bashing ... all of which are solidly rooted in Christianity's Holy Book."

Talk about unleashing nonsense upon the world! As a Bible-believing Christian, I (as have most of us) recognize how, throughout history, the Bible has been misused to support such terrible things as Gallinger mentions. But they are just that; a misuse. They are not solidly rooted in the Bible, contrary to Gallinger's assertion. Make no mistake, Gallinger is not criticizing how people have used the Bible; he is criticizing the Bible itself. One must question how an ethics columnist can justify the "rightness" of publicly calling one of the world's great, historical religions a repeated unleasher (i.e. promoter) of nonsense and accuse its sacred text (2/3 of which is also held sacred by those of the Jewish faith) of teaching anti-Semitism, misogyny, environmental destruction, and hatred towards homosexuals. He may have the right to say such things (the freedom of expression includes the right to offend), but is it right to do so? (I have posed this question to him, by the way. I hope that he will respond. Stay tuned).

How should we respond as Christians? First, we need to recognize that in a free society, Gallinger does have the right to say such things. As I said earlier, the right to free expression does include the right to offend (and he certainly exercised this right this week). But freedom of expression also includes the right to defend. We have the right and obligation to counter his accusations and correct such prejudicial comments. We do not protest that he has said such things but we can stand against what he has said. We protest what he was written not the fact that he has written it. This is the nature of apologetics, to expose the truth that has been hidden behind the lies, misunderstandings or misinformation of our accusers. Our call here is not to ask for an apology from the paper that such nonsense was written. The paper does not need to apologize for offending Christians; to call for this would be to call for the suppression of the freedom of expression. Our obligation here is to present the truth and call for ethical behaviour by the ethics columnist. The right to say something does not mean that it is always right to say it, especially if what you are saying is based on innuendo and falsehood.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

We Are In This Together

One of the reasons that I have been unable to update by blog for a while has been that, for the past week, I have been out of the country at a meeting of leaders from the International Christian Association, the association of missions begun by or through the influence of Richard Wurmbrand. We meet once a year to discuss business and hear how God has been working in and through our ministries. It is usually a very encouraging and enjoyable time when I get to sit down with partners and friends from around the world. Many of our missions are, like VOMC, experiencing growth both financially and in ministry. Others are going through some difficult times. We rejoiced together and we mourned together. But we are in this together.

I missed not seeing them last year. While I was assured of their prayers and received messages of encouragement from many, nothing takes the place of personally seeing those you care about.
The same is true of ministering to the persecuted, themselves. We can (and should) pray for them, send them notes of encouragement, demonstrate our love through acts and gifts of compassion and solidarity, but nothing takes the places of actually going, seeing, and speaking to them. So many times, I have had believers in restricted nations thank me not for the "things" we bring them, but simply for coming and being with them, listening to their stories, and praying for them. This is an aspect of ministry that I miss so much right now, as I cannot travel to many places due to my fragile health. But I rejoice that we can send others in my stead to let our brothers and sisters know that they are not forgotten. In the next month, a number of us from the Canadian mission will be traveling abroad. Remember them in your prayers, together with those whom they will be meeting with. We are in this together.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Refusing the Game of Religious Relativity

Allow me to preface this blog with the assurance that this is not an anti-Bush rant. There is quite enough of that going on without my contribution. I have, admittedly, mixed feelings about the current U.S. president and his policies and practices but not on the basis of ideology. I will stop there, but I wanted to make these points clear before I proceed.

On October 4, Arabic-language television news channel Al Arabiya interviewed President Bush in the White House. Early in the interview, Al Arabiya notes that in the Islamic world, Bush is seen as an enemy of Islam, as one who would like to destroy it. The President is asked if this is in any way true? He replied, "No, it's not. I've heard that, and it just shows [sic] to show a couple of things: One, that the radicals have done a good job of propagandizing. In other words, they've spread the word that this really isn't peaceful people versus radical people or terrorists, this is really about the America not liking Islam.

Well, first of all, I believe in an almighty God, and I believe that all the world, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or any other religion, prays to the same God. That's what I believe. I believe that Islam is a great religion that preaches peace. And I believe people who murder the innocent to achieve political objectives aren't religious people, whether they be a Christian who does that -- we had a person blow up our -- blow up a federal building in Oklahoma City who professed to be a Christian, but that's not a Christian act to kill innocent people."

There are parts of Bush's answer that are quite helpful. However, as a Bible-believing Christian (which the President also purports to be), I must take exception to his statement that "all the world, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or any other religion, prays to the same God."

What Bush is supporting here is the concept that behind the "gods" of the various religions, there is the true God. This may sound reconciliatory and open-minded but it is quite false and no true Muslim would believe it, nor should any Christian.

Both Christianity and Islam are revelatory religions, meaning that they are based on claimed special revelations of God. For Christianity, that special revelation is the Bible and the person of Jesus Christ. We do not believe that God is whoever or whatever we want Him to be but only who and what He has revealed Himself to be. We are not free to think of God however we like. We also know from Paul's writings to the Romans, that the religions of man are not a sign of people seeking to know God but evidence of mankind's rebellion against what God has revealed about Himself.

In short, we do not all pray to the same God and never have since the fall of Adam and Eve.

I understand why the President made such a statement. It was an attempt to be reconciliatory and to demonstrate religious tolerance. This is laudable. But no true Muslim is really going to accept the idea that their God is the same God as that of Christianity, just as no Christian should. Nor was it entirely necessary. It is not necessary to say, "Hey, there is really no difference between us" in order for people to get along with each and accept each other. True tolerance is admitting that there are significant differences; we do worship different gods but that does not mean that we have to kill or hate each other. We can accept the right of Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists to believe whatever they believe and still hold to our own convictions firmly and without apology. Believing in absolutes does not require that we force them on others.

But playing the game of religious relativity convinces no one ultimately and does nothing to win the respect of those who differ from us in creed and conviction. It pours contempt on our own convictions and denies the value of God's revelation to us.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Cynicism - An Intellectual and Spiritual Dead-end.

There was a time that I liked to hang around cynics. Scorning the simplistic answers that so many evangelicals seemed to spout off to complicated problems, it seemed that expressing doubt or inserting a measure of "realism" into the discussion was the intelligent thing to do. Cynics seemed to reflect a more balanced, intellectual approach to Christianity than the pietistic, naïve approach that I had grown up with.

A recent meeting with a friend, however, made me realize that I no longer find cynics such enjoyable company any longer. In fact, I find them down right unsettling and depressing for the very reason that I once took pleasure in them; they have no answers for anything, just doubts and questions. In fact, it now seems to me that cynicism is the lazy man's attempt to appear intellectual. Providing no real answers, they simply cast doubt when serious thought is required. Expert at picking holes in the opinions or lives of others, they can't be bothered to provide any possible solutions of their own.

I know that there is a cynical streak in my own heart that gravitates towards such individuals. But the sterility of cynicism has made me realize that it is an intellectual and spiritual dead-end.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Amish Grace

I am presently reading the newly released book Amish Grace, an examination of the forgiveness demonstrated by the Amish community after the horrific shooting of 10 girls while they were at school (5 died) at Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania on October 2, 2006. I can't remember the last time that a book has caused me to tear up with emotion like this one has. I will write more about this book in the December edition of The Voice of the Martyrs Newsletter, but suffice to say at this time that I was deeply moved to discover that the primary reason why the Amish believers were able to respond to such tragedy with forgiveness had to do with developing a culture where forgiveness was inevitable. And the two primary texts that helped develop this culture were the Bible (of course) and the book Martyrs Mirror, a thousand-page tome filled with accounts of early Christian martyrs and sixteenth century Anabaptist men and women who died for their faith. (Since this spring, The Voice of the Martyrs has been selling this book online.) These stories are commonly referred to in sermons in Amish services. As the authors of Amish Grace write, "In retelling the martyr stories, the Amish surround themselves with historical role models who not only submitted their lives to God but also extended forgiveness to those who were about to kill them" (page 100).

We will be selling Amish Grace online soon. Get it, together with Martyrs Mirror, and by God's grace, begin the process of creating your own culture of faithfulness before the Lord.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Room for Religion on Public Transit?

I recently came across a local news story about the city of Mississauga rejecting a Christian charity group's request to buy advertising space on public transit. The Christian ads in question are described as "inspirational, not preachy [and]... thought provoking." One example ad reads: "Don't worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need and thank him for all he has done. If you do this you will experience God's peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand."

The rejection was reportedly made in accordance with Mississauga's policy not to sell advertising space to any religious group on city-owned property. Mississauga's Mayor, Hazel McCallion, said on the matter: "(The city's) restrictions are reasonable and necessary for the purpose of providing good governance. The city's policy was established in good faith to ensure that the city remains neutral and refrains from implementing measures that could favour one religion over another or that might have an effect of imposing one religion over another..." (I find it amusing that she happened to use the expression "good faith").

Since Christians are not the only ones being banned, this obviously can't be called a Christian persecution story. However, I still think the story is worth discussing for the issues it raises about freedom of expression. To me, it seems to be yet another example of ‘political correctness' being taken too far for the sake of supposed ‘neutrality' (or perhaps a better word to use is the ever-interesting oxymoron ‘secular neutrality').

The Christian group, whose ads have been approved in Toronto as well as in other cities and provinces, is not taking the ban sitting down. In a letter to Mayor McCallion, the group's president pointed out that the Ontario Human Rights Code "prohibits discrimination on the basis of creed in the provision of services, such as advertising." He also referred to a recent British Columbia case that determined the Canadian Charter of Rights "is applicable to a publicly-owned transit authority in respect to freedom of expression."

Local citizens have had mixed reactions to the religious ad ban, according to a report from 680 news. Here are a few quotes:

"Whoever likes it they can look at...Who doesn't like it ... they don't have to look at it. It's up to an individual... [T]he same goes for all types of advertising."

"For me, I don't think that's something I really want to read about on the bus and I do read what's up there. I don't think I want to see it."

"There's a lot of things on the buses that will offend people anyways so if it's an inspirational message it's only doing good. I don't think it's going to do any bad."

Although this may seem like a small issue, especially when compared to some of the rights issues facing other countries, it is indicative of the attitude towards religious expression in this country. It makes me wonder if other public advertising venues might be soon stripped of religious messages. For example, what's to stop people from claiming there is no room for church ads in local newspapers or phone books? Could the time come when practically all Canadian religious groups are banned from public advertising because they allegedly tip the scale of ‘neutrality?'