Sunday, May 20, 2007

Forgiveness that Transforms

I got the call one week before the big training event was to begin. I had planned for months for this event and I was very surprised to get a call from a fellow worker from another agency asking for my help. He wanted me to include Thorin in my two month disaster management training program. I asked him why and he replied that Thorin had recently confessed in his local church that he had got a girl pregnant. His eldership in the church was removed and he was under church discipline. Ok, I thought, what does this have to do with me? My friend said that everyone knows that Thorin is a capable worker and some don't care about his sin. He has had several job offers from other agencies saying if he was not going to be a leader in his church then they could make him one in their organization. My friend said, 'Look Strider, just put him in your two month training program and I will pay the stipend. Thorin needs time and healing. If you don't take him I think he may go off and do something rash; either joining another organization or quitting everything altogether.' I am a big believer in redemption so I told him that I would add him to the fellowship. That made ten the total number in the training.

Thorin needed the time we spent together and I consider the effort I spent on his behalf to be one of the most important things I have done here in Gondor. As we studied together, worked together, traveled together over the next two months I learned alot about him. He was a middle aged man around 50 years old. He had come to faith in Jesus nine years ago. He had been divorced before he became a believer. His ex-wife lived in up in Arnor with a second husband but he still saw his teenage daughter on occasion. After his conversion from Islam he became a passionate evangelist. He and three other men started a Church here in Minas Tirith. He had been an elder in this church for four years. How did he fall?

When he told me his story I was shocked. He said that he had been single ever since his divorce and that since he had become a believer he had never even considered remarriage. He worked hard at his church and did not think about women. One day a woman from his same tribe up in Ithilien came and joined the Church. She caught his attention. They discussed marriage and she was agreeable. He approached her family and got their permission. They agreed. He was very excited. This would be the first marriage between two believers in their church. He met with the other elders and announced his plan. He asked them for help in planning the wedding and expressed his desire to make this event an opportunity for bold witness. They looked at him like he was crazy. What was he talking about? He could not get married because he had been divorced. They instructed him to call it off and tell the family. The family, who were not believers, were furious. He and the girl were heart-broken. A month later he took her anyway secretly without getting married and six months after that she was pregnant. It was a huge shame for them and for the church. He stood up in church and publically apologized.

I was pretty angry when I heard all of this. I really felt that the elders were as much to blame for this mess as he was. Did not Paul say it was better to marry than to burn with desire? But, there are a lot of verses and words from Jesus' own lips that indicate that remarriage is in fact, a sin. I didn't want to go off half-cocked (for a change) so I said nothing to Thorin and the guys for a while and I prayed about a response. It was tough for me to wrestle with the scriptures on this. I had been very legalistic as a young christian but I had swung way in the other direction during college days. This means that as I approach the Word I have presuppositions like everyone else but I am not always sure what they are. Is it the letter of the law- or isn't that what kills? I have seen remarriage be a key redeeming factor for many people, including my own father but does experience trump the Bible? I think not.

I prayed and studied and I worked with the team. One day as I was praying it seemed that God gave me the answer. So, I waited for the right time to give it to the guys. The last week of training we went down to a village and spent the week doing a pilot project on Disaster Preparedness. We set up the tent and field office. We began canvassing the village and working with the people. One night a small argument arose among the guys concerning this issue. We met the next morning and I took out my Bible and we began. This is what I gave them.

Jesus teaching on divorce is found in Matthew 5:31-32; 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18. Most all of these are the same so I will just quote Matthew 5 here:

It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

It is interesting to note that in the Mark passage he does not give the unchastity clause but the point is the same throughout Jesus teaching. Divorce is a sin against God's original design for man/woman relations. But of course, no one knows that like divorced people. It is a painful, horrible experience. But what then? Well, as I kept studying there were two other passages that interested me. In 1 Corinthians 7: 10-11 Paul says that a woman who is divorced should not seek to be remarried but remain single. Interestingly however, he goes on to say that if an unbelieving spouse leaves and refuses reconciliation then they are 'free' or as my version in verse 15 says, 'not bound.' So, to the original question and the situation with Thorin what is the Church to do with such individuals who have been divorced? Romans 7 became my answer. In Romans 7:1-4 NRSV it says:

Do you not know, brethren- for I am speaking to those who know the law- that the law is binding on a person only during that person's lifetime? Thus a married woman is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies, she is discharged from the law concerning the husband. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man, she is not an adulteress. In the same way, my friends, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit fo God.

We can see that this passage is not actually a passage about divorce per se, it is actually about sin and our relationship to God. But look at what it says! It describes us as being married to sin, death, and hell and that we were bound in this marriage. Death is the only release from this contract so someone had to die. Christ died for us! This is the bedrock of our faith, the reason for our hope, the truth of our salvation. Christ died to free us from our eternal contract with death. So, follow me here for a minute. We have determined clearly that divorce is a sin. Sin leads to death. Jesus died that death for us to set us free. Therefore, in my limited human logic I conclude that Jesus' death sets us free from even the sin of divorce and if we are free then what? Romans 8:1-2 is clear:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of Christ has set you free from the law of sin and death.

In all my teaching experience this is the hardest concept for people to believe. No condemnation. None, zilch, zippo, nada, it's not there, it's out the door, we are free. If you show up at a meeting of believers and they say here comes that murderer, you can say, 'No, I am not. You can not condemn me, I am free.' If they say, 'Here comes a liar and theif.' You can say, 'no, not anymore. I am forgiven, clean, free.' If they say, 'Here comes a divorced person.' You say,'No, I am not. I am forgiven, free, clean.' Don't beleive me? Look at the much stronger words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:17:

So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old is passed away (except divorce and homosexuality of course. Wrong!! that is not in there!); see, everything has become new.

New, free, a new creature. The old creature was a liar, was a murderer, was divorced but not the new creature. So, if this is true why do we see the new creature behaving as if he/she were bound? I mean, 75% of second marriages fail- even among followers of Jesus. Why? I think I know why. Would you walk up to me and ask me for $100,000? Of course you wouldn't. You do not believe I have that much money to give- and you would be right! We do not ask for that which we do not believe exist. The Church has taught that while divorce may not keep you out of heaven, there is no forgiveness here on earth. How many of you have said, 'Oh yes, you are forgiven but there are consequenses.' Brother, you can have that kind of forgiveness! Thanks for nothing. Either I am forgiven and the slate is clean or I am not. The answer from the Church has been 'not' and divorced people know this. We need to recover Jesus true message of forgiveness. Forgiveness that transforms us from death to life. Forgiveness that truly cast our sins as far as the East is from the West. Forgiveness that burries our sins- all of our sins- in the bottom of the ocean to be remembered no more. If we do this then the divorced among us can be set free to ask for transforming forgiveness that will set them free from the sin in their lives that killed their first marriage. Then they will be free to marry again and love and honor and cherish as a new creature in Christ. And brethren, when they say to you, 'You are divorced, you can not serve, you can not marry, you can not lead, you can not....' you tell them, 'I am set free by the blood of Jesus who died in my place. I am a new creature whom you have no right to condemn. I am free to live the life Jesus has called me to.'
And then friend, please, live free and set others free.

After teaching the guys this there was much discussion. The next day as they continued to argue about this Thorin rebuked them, "No condemnation means no condemnation! You can not bind me." He meant these words and he went on to marry the girl and raise the daughter in the Church. He has gone to Mordor itself and planted a church in a city where no Gospel witness has ever been known. He continues to serve faithfully and whenever he stops by to see me he hugs me hard with a big smile and thanks me again for teaching him the truth of the freedom he has in Christ. You can not set others free unless you are free yourself. Be free my friends and live a life of freedom. This will transform your life and our world.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Not Going It Alone

Many people have asked me how I can be here in Middle Earth when it is dangerous. The truth is that it is not very dangerous now but it was when I came. I brought my family, wife and two little girls at the time, to a country still fighting a civil war. How could I do that? Am I super spiritual? Am I full of Faith? Am I special? Am I an idiot? No, no, no, and I hope not- probably not, not a complete idiot anyway. No, what gave me the guts to come out with my family to a strange place where we had never been before was something the King had done in me. In a real sense, he has prepared me my whole life for this. But he set up an important lesson shortly before I left that would teach me something about His character that I really needed to know in order to be faithful to all He was calling me to. Which of course, leads me to a story.

In another lifetime ago I
pastored a small church on a mountain in southern West Virginia. I loved our little house on the mountain. It was in a really beautiful area with thick woods all around. One day I grabbed my fishing pole, my dog, and a Coke and headed down the steep slope of the mountain through the thick woods to a very remote little pond tucked away under a cliff. It took about an hour to walk down there. I fished for an hour or so with no luck- as usual. The very large bass would come to the surface and stare at me with their mouths open in disbelief that I thought they could be interested in anything I was throwing out to them. I drank my Coke and started back up the path. I was singing praises on a beautiful day and not really paying attention when I suddenly realized that my dog was gone and I was on a path I did not recognize. (The dog went straight home unlike his foolish master.) I thought I would back track a bit and start up again. How hard could it be? You go down to the pond then you go up to the top. Simple. Wrong. I went down but found nothing familiar, least of all the pond. I went back up and found nothing. Then it rained. Correction: It poured buckets and the storm was accompanied by loud thunder and spidery lightning. Normally this would be enjoyable but in this case it was just very wet. I was soaked to the skin and nowhere near anything familiar. I was praying hard. Sometimes I would just panic and start running wildly across an open area to see what was beyond the next ridge. Always something new and nothing familiar. Finally, I found the small stream that must be the one that fed the pond. As I came up on it I thought finally I would get my directions sorted out. The problem was it was flowing the wrong way! If I was where I thought I was then it was flowing backwards. So, was I 180 degrees out of my reckoning or was this another stream? Either was as likely. I walked up another slope and looked out over a vast valley that I had never seen before. Now I was really panicking. I had nothing. I was soaking wet. Those woods were full of wild pigs, bears, and the temperature would drop to 40 degrees that night. I did not want to spend the night in the woods.

I crossed the stream and walked up the other slope. I came out on an old logging path and looked up to the right and down to the left. I thought that I must go on down to the left and then up again. This made sense to me. I had been walking lost now for four hours. A voice in my head said, 'Go up to the right.' I replied out loud, 'No, I will go left.' 'Go right', the voice said again. It did not occur to me until much later that I was arguing with a voice in my own head. Finally I said, '
OK, I will go right as far as that tree up there but then I am coming back down and going left.' I walked up to the tree and stepped right out on to the path to my house. I couldn't believe it. I was singing praises loudly all the way home. But not just because an immediate problem was solved. God did not want me to spend the night in the woods. Let me say it again. God did not want me to spend the night in the woods. This was an epiphany for me. You see, I know that God allows suffering. I know that much evil happens in this world. You say you trust God? What does that mean? Trust Him to do what exactly? Trust Him to make you rich and successful? Trust Him to see you through a difficult relationship? Trust Him to take you to Heaven when you die of some horrible disease? Trust Him to.... what? He is sovereign. He is in control. But we don't understand His ways do we? We do not always know why something terrible is happening. And in the end we don't really trust Him to do what is best for us. We trust Him to forward His Kingdom but what if that means sickness? Prison? Death? Do you trust Him? In that moment when I stepped out on the path I knew that He really does love me. He really cares for me. He spoke to me to tell me the way to go. He did not want me to spend the night in the woods. I could go to Middle Earth. He was going with me. He was preparing the way and when I needed Him the most He would guide me and keep me. Terrible things happen in this world and He sees them all. He weeps and grieves for the suffering of all mankind. But He also knows me and loves me. He guides and directs me. I will face difficult days. But not alone. I can not go beyond His help, His guidance, His comfort, His love. Neither can you. Act on that.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Balin the Great

I have been down a lot lately. I think it has to do with a number of things. Spring is here and the heat is already rising and sapping my limited energy. We have begun several projects, which means that we have planned them but they are not up and running yet. And, my daughter Goldberry is struggling in Algebra and may not survive. We are far away as she is in boarding school and we can not help her. This makes us frustrated and sad. It is at times like this that we focus on our problems, on our shortcomings, on the difficulties. It is during times like this that I need to tell another Balin story!

Balin is my very evangelistic friend who has been working with our prison work. Now, he is sent off by his local church to Mordor for two months. Mordor is unfriendly to very evangelistic types and any of our workers will tell you that Balin will not be welcome there. They should be right- but they are not. Balin went to Mordor last year too. The man has less fear than he has sense. Fredegar went with him last year and I have a short video clip of Balin hanging off the back of a motorbike taxi shouting out to the surrounding Muslim crowds, "Jesus is Lord, Halleluia!" He went to a local prison and met the officials. He passed out hygene kits in the main prison in northern Mordor and asked the warden if he could speak to the whole prison population. The warden gathered everyone together- about 300 men- and Balin gave a straight-forward Gospel presentation and then prayed for them all. Honestly, if you or I tried this we would be killed on the spot. One of the prisoners called out, "So, what are you saying? Is Jesus greater than the Prophet?" The warden replied, "Who gave you the hygene kits?" That's just nuts.

Later he went to the women's prison and met all the women there. Again, you don't do this in Mordor! But this is Balin. He prayed for all the women. A guard was very ill and they took him to his house and he prayed for his healing. When they saw his boldness they told him about a man who had been deaf for years. He could only make out some sounds with an old hearing aid that some humanitarian aid agency had provided years before. Fredegar taped the encounter. Balin went in and prayed for the man. He then took the hearing aid away from him and shared Christ with him. His hearing came back slowly at first but by the end of the short tape the man could hear fine. The first thing he heard was Balin's testimony to the power of Jesus Christ.
Later that same afternoon Balin went around the bazaar in town and witnessed to all the shop keepers and several of the customers who would stop to listen. It is amazing how many were willing to listen in this very represive society. Balin exudes hope and joy.

When he came back last year I showed the tape and the pictures of him laying hands on the guards in prison to all our workers. It was very moving to me. Paul and Silas broke out of prison, Balin broke in by the same power. He is fearless and he is faithful. He is a maniac and I want us all to be like him. We all have different gifts and styles but I pray we will all have the same faith. A faith that moves mountains, prison walls, people's prejudices, and hard hopeless hearts. Jesus told us that all authority in heaven and earth belonged to him and then He commanded us to go. I need Balin to remind me that ALL authority in Heaven and earth is A LOT of authority. Maybe even enough to see me through the circumstances of this day. I pray it is for you as well.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Going Far to get Near

I am interested in people who are lost. What drives them? What touches them? If I could know that then maybe my demonstration of Christ before them could be more effective. It could have meaning to them and touch them in a powerful way. The sad truth is that too many of us are too good at making the old old story boring. If you want to lead a guy out of lostness you must first find him. I am not talking about prostituting Jesus for the masses, making him some kind of Santa Claus or anything like that. I am talking about sharing the real Jesus with real people.

A few years ago our family went camping high in the Gondor mountains. There is a beautiful blue lake up there and we set up camp and stayed the week almost alone. I say almost because there was one couple who was also up there. The day before we were to leave the guy came up to me and told me that the next morning he and his wife were going on a special hike. There was a cave high up in the mountains nearby and in that cave there was a mummy. He was hundreds of years old and they knew a guide in a local village who would take us up if we wanted to go. I talked it over with Arwen and we agreed; as long as the hike was not too long and not very dangerous it would be great for me to go while she stayed back with the kids.
At five the next morning we set out.

We went to a nearby village to get the Teacher and he took us up the mountain. It was very steep and as we climbed I realized that as we passed the 9000 foot mark there was no air up there for me. Walking became so difficult that it was all I could think about. One step in front of the other seemingly without end. We passed shepherds. We passed sheep. We went up and up. At one point our guide the Teacher pointed to a round bole miles ahead up on a sheer face of cliff and announced that that was where we were going. I knew he was joking of course. How could anyone get way up there after all? Yes, for the regular readers of this blog I was once again in over my head having completely misjudged the situation.

After a couple of hours we came upon some old men who were also traveling up. They were from a city in the north and had come just to climb up and see the mummy. I thought that strange. We came at long last to a small mosque. It was at the foot of a natural spring that came down the mountain. We stopped and rested. I thought we were finished, that the cave was somehow behind the mosque. I had a Snickers bar to celebrate. Now the Teacher, my camping friends, and the five old men were talking together. They were discussing me. The Teacher came over to me to fill me in on the deliberations. The woman could go no farther. She would wait here for us to complete the journey. She would receive her blessing just by coming this far. Then, in one of those 'whole world spins around and comes into focus' moments I realized that I was on a pilgimage. This was not a historically interesting sight. This was a holy expedition! Looking back I find it unbelievable that even I was that naive. The road ahead was dangerous. Only those with special strength from God could complete the journey. If I went would I obey the rules? Would I uphold the traditions? If I would not then I must stay behind because to come along could compromise everyone's safety. I agreed to do what they did as long as they understood that I was a follower of Jesus and He alone was my protection and strength. Yes, that was fine.

So, I washed myself in the spring- head to toe, which in spite of the fact that it was a purification rite felt great as I was covered in sweat after the already long hike. Then everyone went into the mosque and prayed. I stayed outside and did no small amount of praying myself. Then we went up the mountain. The road was rocky and we climbed using our hands as well as our feet in several places. The old men were determined. The youngest of them was 65 and the oldest was 84. After another hour of climbing we came to an open granite rock that sloped up for about two hundred meters. We took off our shoes and went barefoot from there. Yes, we were on holy ground apparently. After we reached the top of the rock we came along a ledge to a cliff face. This is the one I saw from down in the valley that I knew must be a joke. If it was a joke it was not funny, not close up. The cliff was sheer but at an angle and it was broken. We walked across the face of the cliff in the small crack which was no more than two to three inches wide. We leaned into the rock and walked like this for about 50 meters. Then the crack widened out and we stood straight up on a ledge that was about a foot wide. The drop off next to us was hundreds of feet down and it was so steep that I could not see the bottom. Of course, that may have been because I was trying very hard not to look. We stood in a line on that cliff for a while and then we all knelt down and said prayers one more time. I was praying fervently that God would not let me die doing something this stupid. The older men wept openly in fear. The teacher then held out a very thick rope that went straight up the cliff face about 30 feet into the cave. It was remarkable to see the old men go up that rope one by one. I had decided that this was as far as I was going. There was no way that I was going up that rope. I didn't have anything to prove to anyone. My camping friend went up and then the rope was passed to me. I said out loud, 'This is stupid.' I then laughed thinking that this was the first thing I had said in English all day. I went up. It was not as hard as I had thought it would be. It was twice as dangerous as I thought it would be.

Once in the cave we all knelt down. There in the middle of the cave facing out and buried up to his waist was a man. It was a skeleton but as I looked I could see the dried skin still covering most of his body and over half of his face. There are several stories concerning this man but the most likely one is that he was an Arab teacher who had come from far away Arabia in 1270 AD. He had made some enemies as he taught Islam along the way and they chased him to the Teacher's village below. They were very devout Muslims and he thought they could hide and protect him. But his enemies were too powerful and came after him. He was wounded in the shoulder with an arrow and then made the journey that I just made. He was doing his prayers here in the cave when he died of his injuries. He was not found until many years later and the local villagers left him alone since it seemed that God was preserving him.

The Teacher came up and we did prayers once again. We were then instructed to each take a rock from the cave- a small one- and that rock would give us whatever we wished for most. That is why these guys were all there. They needed something and they needed to demonstrate their dedication to God to insure that they got it. One guy wanted his grandaughter to be able to have children, another needed money to pay off family debts, still another wanted assurance for the afterlife. I of course, wanted to get down from this mountain alive and I didn't think this rock was going to help me much. I still keep it in my traveling vest pocket that I was wearing that day as a reminder of my foolishness and God's faithfulness.

I learned some important things that day about where I live and who I am sent to. These are normal people who live in a dangerous spiritual world. Evil forces surround them and they feel helpless and trapped. Their only chance is to be diligent and dedicated so that perhaps God will be pleased and take notice of their plight. Most of them don't believe that He will take notice. But they are very impressed with those who can be very dedicated. Everytime I mention where I went that day people are always amazed. One believing friend even said, 'Strider! You went there? Only people who have special power from God can go there!' I couldn't deny that. I came down that mountain safely. I had worn the skin off of both small toes coming down but was otherwise unscathed. It is incredible to me how very different Jesus Christ is to the God that these serve. He cares about us, loves us, and even died for us. He forgives us and calls us no matter how obstinate we are. We are faithless and yet he is faithful because he can not deny himself.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

More on Love

I think that I have forgotten who I am. Have you ever felt that way? God made me to be somebody. I think I was getting close to knowing who that was but now I am not so sure. Back in the West in another lifetime I was a Baptist Preacher. One day a great saint in our little country church came up to me and said something that defined me in a new way. She was one of those feisty women who had walked with Jesus for about seventy years and was full of strength, and wisdom, and grace. She came up to me and said that in all of her years of serving the Lord and hearing lots and lots of different preachers she had never heard anyone talk about the love of God like I could. I don’t know if that was true but I know that I want it to be true more than I want anything else.

Today as I sat with Arwen in a little village in the mountains of Gondor I wondered what I was doing there. I had known our host for many years. His wife’s cooking is awesome. But he is totally secular. He has no interest in God and never has had. Never will have. Ah-ha! Now I have said it and you have seen it. Never will have. This denies the fact that our God is great and can do anything. It also denies love. Love hopes all things. I can give up on this guy. Love never does. Oh, I have not forgotten the parable of the soils. I know that he might not be good soil. But a sower that does not sow in hope is not sowing seed worth coming up in the first place.

Love is incredibly powerful. One day Balin was visiting an old woman whose son he had ministered to in prison. The women received the letter from her son with great joy and tears as she had not heard from him in over a year and did not know where he was. As she poured out her hurt and her shame to Balin he comforted her. (Shame is a big issue for families with a relative in prison). He looked at her and said, ‘God loves your son and he does not want him in prison. God loves you and he wants to comfort and care for you.’ She looked at him and said, ‘He does?’ in complete disbelief. But she and her family were transformed by those words over the next month. Simple words. And more direct than I am comfortable with. After all, do we really know that God does not want her son in prison? The answer in the end is yes. God sent His Son to die to set us free. In the short term God doesn’t mind this guy going to prison if it turns his wayward eyes to Jesus but long term every child of God is to live free regardless of prison walls or Government decrees.

Jesus sees me as something I am currently not. Holy, righteous, redeemed, forgiven, powerful, unique, consequential. These words are who I am to Him. You would not use these words to describe me. But love does. Love sees through the eyes of faith to what we are not yet. It hopes- not vainly wishes- but really hopes. God sees us as He can create us to become. As His child I can see this too. I can see in others the goodness of God, the holiness of God, the glory of God that they do not possess for themselves. I am a lover. I long to recover this identity. I long to call people to freedom from the deception of sin and hate to the glory of life and love. I can not do this by a theological argument or a clever apologetic. People are transformed to love by love. That I had forgotten this is incredible since I teach it to others all the time. I am a lover. If I forget this again please remind me. Lovingly, of course.