THE TRIUMPH OF THE CROSS OF CHRIST

A Reflection for Easter of 2019

The West African nation of Niger is a somewhat out-of-the-way place. It is one of the poorest of nations, and, sandwiched between the African powerhouse of Nigeria, and the sparsely populated Sahara desert, it is easily ignored. Yet it is still home to a variety of different tribal peoples, all struggling to make a living in an under-resourced place.

Ekibala conference 2019Some friends of mine have supervised a project over more than a decade that supports Nigeri pastor-evangelists, to establish mission points for the church in remote villages where the name of Jesus Christ is often unheard. The Ekibala project team recently hosted a pastors’ conference in Niamey the capital city. 45 pastors who are supported and mentored through the project came together for several days of worship, prayer and teaching. By now they will have returned to their villages to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, that pivotal event in human history which makes the good news of Jesus make sense. In some of the villages the church has provided the only well, the only source of clean water for the community. In others they have provided opportunities for literacy, and in others food assistance during hard times.

An initiative in Niger is testimony to the importance of investing, prayerfully and then practically into the ministry of preaching good news through word and deed to men and women everywhere. It serves to advance the Kingdom of God in one of the world’s remoter places; it serves as testimony to the enduring message of the Cross of Christ.

Over a century ago French missionaries were the foremost missionary presence in Niger, an area that was part of the French Empire in West Africa. But the church in France has gone through a transition over the last century. Many faithful and elderly saints in that nation will have wondered why there has been such a decline in attendance at the Catholic Mass; why so many now identify as Catholic atheists. At the same time there has been renewal in some traditional church communities, and the evangelical presence in France has grown.

Some of the same discouraged may well have been deeply saddened to see the Cathedral of Notre Dame burning last Monday night. Yet, somewhat spontaneously, hymns were being sung in the streets of the capital. Across the nation, the hearts of people who never normally gave a thought to religion, were turned at the thought of losing a symbol of French history, a building that has stood witness to momentous events from the hundred years war through the World Wars of the twentieth century until the recent street protests by the gilets jaunes. Some, I am sure were reminded of the enduring presence of the church, with all its mysteries, in the heart of the French nation. On Tuesday morning, interviewed on American television, Archbishop Timothy Dolan said: I am already praying for revival in France!

And then, emerging from the aftermath of the fire, images of the nave toward the high altar of the church. There for all to see, the cross of Christ, central to everything, enduring and lacking little of its golden lustre despite the smoke blackened and fallen timbers all around.

notre-dame-fire-2019-04-16Throughout two millenia of human history, the Cross of Christ has been a dominant feature of our horizons. Christ continues to gently intrude into the life of a world that wants to ignore and reject him. May all who know and love Him continue to pray for the birth of the church in places where it is not yet physically present. Let us pray that the cross be held up high, and the resurrection power of Jesus, the conqueror of sin and death, be known among all peoples…. until He comes!

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SPEAKING OF HOMOPHOBIA: WHEN TO SPEAK AND WHEN NOT TO SPEAK

Social media is getting people into trouble. More than ever before, more people can say more things to a wider audience using Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And they are sometimes saying them without thinking of the consequences.

The freedom to express oneself declaring opinion and belief are a fundamental element of western democracy. The attitude: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to

the death your right to say it, ascribed to Voltaire by his biographer Evelyn Hall[i], has for more than two centuries expressed the sentiments of the liberal enlightenment toward freedom of thought and speech.

However, we seem to be experiencing a change in the twenty-first century. Last week, the Australian rugby player Israel Folau shared some statements on Twitter and Instagram. With reference to the decision of the Tasmanian legislature to permit gender optional birth certificates he tweeted the caution: the devil has blindsided so many people in this world, repent and turn away from your evil ways. He followed up on Instagram with the post of an image that proclaimed hell awaits drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters. He stated: those that are living in Sin will end up in Hell unless you repent and concluded: Jesus Christ loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him.[ii]

Folau has been stepped down from responsibilities with the Australian national rugby team. They stated their intention to sack him: “‘in the absence of compelling mitigating factors’, having previously warned the 30-year-old player against sharing material that ‘condemns, vilifies or discriminates against people on the basis of their sexuality’”.[iii]

Folau may have made his comments in an insensitive way, however the heart of what he said comes straight from scripture. Speaking to the Corinthian church and condemning the behavior of the wider community Paul says: Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.  And that is what some of you were.[iv] In addition to expressing scripture Folau underlined his belief in the redemptive love of Christ.

Folau’s words, along with those of many others who have spoken out against homosexuality and the homosexual agenda, have been described as homophobic. Now I always understood a phobia to be a fear of something, whether rational or not. The word comes from the Greek φοβια denoting an irrational anxiety inspiring dread or terror and inspiring flight. The word homophobia was coined by the psychologist George Weinberg who believed the hatred of homosexuals in 1960s America stemmed from that literal fear.[v] Unfortunately, regardless of the accuracy of Weinburg’s thesis, the word became associated with that hatred. Thus, fear becomes inextricably aligned with hatred among some.

I do not hate homosexuals, nor do I personally know any Christians who express hatred of homosexuals. I am however, deeply concerned about the homosexual agenda. Similarly, where the word Islamophobia is concerned, I do not hate Muslims, but I am concerned about the agenda of Islamism and radical Islamic movements toward non-Muslims. I am also not fearful of either of these categories of people. I therefore do not believe that if I speak out regarding these concerns, I should be accused either of homophobia or Islamophobia.

The Israel Folau story does not end with his remarks and censure. English national team rugby player Billy Vunipola liked Folau’s post. He was then asked by several of his friends to unlike the post. He responded on Instagram saying:

So, this morning I got 3 phone calls from people telling me to ‘unlike’ the @izzyfolau post. This is my position on it. I don’t HATE anyone neither do I think I’m perfect. There just comes a point when you insult what I grew up believing in that you just say enough is enough, what he’s saying isn’t that he doesn’t like or love those people. He’s saying how we live our lives needs to be closer to how God intended them to be.

Man was made for woman to procreate that was the goal, no? I’m not perfect I’m at least everything on that list at least at one point in my life. It hurts to know that. But that’s why I believe there’s a God. To guide and protect us and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

According to the Guardian, Vunipola now faces potential disciplinary action, though any action to be taken on the part of the English Rugby Football Union has been further confused by several other squad members liking the post and even posting replies in support of Vunipola’s right to express his opinion.[vi] [It’s also worth noting that the England team are one of the favorites to win this year’s Rugby World Cup]

As I read the remarks of both these men, I admire their courage in graciously speaking up about what they believe. We seem to be living in an age when objective truth, even when spoken in love, is regarded as intolerant. It is sad that some who regard it so often themselves complain of not being tolerated.

Folau, speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald stated: In Ezekiel, chapter 33, verse 11, it says, that ‘God has no pleasure in the person that’s living in sin,’ He’s a loving God and he wants people to turn away from what they’re living in and he’ll give them life. That’s the message I’m trying to share, even though it comes across as harsh. I can’t change what the word of God says. … those that live for Christ will be persecuted for his name. I have love towards everyone that might be saying negative things. I choose to love them because God loves me. [vii]

All of us who claim Christ as our Lord and Savior, need to remember that we should interpret the world around us through the eternal word of God, and not become guilty of interpreting that word through the prevailing whims of our culture.

[i] Hall, Evelyn Beatrice – The Friends of Voltaire, New York Putnam’s Sons, 1907, p.199

[ii] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-04-10/israel-folau-referred-rugby-integrity-unit-over-instagram-post/10990920 (accessed April 14, 2019)

[iii] The Guardian, April 14,2019

[iv] I Corinthians 6:9-11

[v] Weinberg, George H.- Society and the Healthy Homosexual, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1972, p.10

[vi] The Guardian online April 12, 2019 – http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/apr/12/rfu-will-speak-to-billy-vunipola-social-media-israel-folau-england-saracens (accessed April 14, 2019)

[vii] Sydney Morning Herald online April 14, 2019 – http://www.smh.com.au/sport/rugby-union/i-m-more-than-happy-to-do-what-he-wants-me-to-do-unrepentant-folau-20190414-p51dyw.html (accessed April 14, 2019)

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AND HE WILL BE CALLED … PRINCE OF PEACE

A Christmas Meditation

Most of us want to be left alone to live in peace. Peace, however, is elusive. What, after all, is it? Is it the calm after the storm? Is it that which is gained through a war-ending treaty? Is it simple stillness? Or is true peace, something which is far deeper, and far more life-sustaining?

At the end of worship this morning, Sunday 23rd December, 2018, the church choir, orchestra and any who chose to assemble with them from the congregation, sang the Hallelujah Chorus, from Handel’s Messiah. Passages of scripture, put together with incredible music, present a powerful reminder of the good news that we celebrate. Performances of this 18th century masterpiece have become synonymous with the great festivals of the Christian year. Part one of the libretto contains the words in which the prophet Isaiah assigns names to the savior who was to be born. His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

Oppressed Judaeans were looking for a political deliverance when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. They were looking for someone who would lead them out of the tyranny of Rome’s oppressive rule. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, it’s possible many expected him to establish a new rulership. And even after his death and resurrection, the disciples asked: Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel? (Acts 1:6)

As I have traveled this year I have been to several places where I have met people who are looking for a political deliverance. In Venezuela and Turkey autocracy has gripped the nation, oppressing opposition. The current regime in India is endeavoring to make that nation a Hindu community with the suppression of minorities, much as Muslim nations such as Iran and Saudi Arabia have long restricted those who do not embrace Islam. Meanwhile, the current leadership of China has frequently been in the news for its endeavors to control the expression of the Muslim communities of Xinjiang, the Buddhists of Tibet, and Christians in many of the places they gather.

The rule of the autocrat is often presented as a means to standardization. The subjugation of the individual to the collective is offered as a way to bring communities together in peace and unity. Yet there is no peace.

Even in our cosy, English-speaking world of the West, so long a beacon to the oppressed, we find ourselves challenged by societal division. Brexit threatens to tear Britain apart as fear is used to manipulate. In the United States the divisive rhetoric of the present administration feeds the partisan conflict of an already divided society. We all need a savior, our knight in shining armor who will ride in and make all things good again.

If that is the case, then we do well to remind ourselves that He already came. A baby in a manger; a teacher riding on a donkey; the Son of God, hanging on a cross. He doesn’t offer us an earthly peace. He offers us the power to become peace-makers in a world of conflict. He offers us a peace which passes all understanding; passing beyond politics into the realm of the deeply personal; passing beyond earthly kingdoms into the eternal.

Political change may be on our horizon. Political change may be part of our personal calling. However, political change will not bring the Prince of Peace into the lives of the people. As we enter 2019, may all of us who claim the name of Jesus, renew our commitment to live the life of the Prince of Peace, bringing unity in place of division, and calm in place of unrest.

 

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ONE HUNDRED – LEST WE SHOULD FORGET

100 is a number with powerful effect upon the imagination. It is the first occasion in ascending order where three numerical digits make sense. From Roman times the century as a description for this number has been applied conceptually in several areas of life. The name belonged to the military realm denoting the number of soldiers under a command, but it has become variously a standard measure of time, a sporting record, and a standard for naming, notably such things as the century egg, a cricketing score century, the Buick Century automobile, and Century City.

Numerically the origin of its significance lies with the decimal numbering system which over time has become the dominant counting system. Probably originating with the numeration of the ten digits shared between a pair of normal human hands, most of the world today counts in groups of ten.

One hundred years ago today Allied forces in Europe signed an armistice with representatives of the German government to end the Great War which became knows as World War I. The commemoration of the signing of the armistice has taken place every year since at the time when it took effect, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. It is remembered as Armistice Day, commemorated in the United States as Veterans Day, and throughout the British Commonwealth as Remembrance Day. As a boy I well remember the two minutes of silence observed at 11am, fifteen minutes after our worship service had begun on the Sunday closest to the 11th November. My mother could remember when road traffic halted for two minutes at that moment of commemoration.

The Great War was first remembered as the War to End all Wars, such were the horrors in collective memory. Its origins lay in residual animosity between France and Germany issuing from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and the ensuing emergence of the German State, mingled with statecraft since the 1880s between European powers competing for spheres of influence in Africa and elsewhere. It can also be viewed as a royal family feud, as heads of state, many descended from Britain’s Queen Victoria, allowed their petty differences to overflow in armed conflict.

Along with World War II, memories of wartime suffering were part of the collective memory of my family as I was growing up. So many relatives and neighbors had fought or lost loved ones to the fighting. My father, in his fifties when I was born, had grown up in London. He remembered hearing the massive explosion in 1917 when 50 tons of TNT exploded to destroy the Silvertown munitions factory at the cost of 73 lives. He also recalled being taken to visit his half-brother, twenty-five years his senior, during a hospital stay subsequent to being invalided out of the Western Front.

In the early 1990s I visited the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy in France. This massive twin obelisk limestone monument stands on Vimy Ridge dominating the landscape and records the names of more than 11,000 members of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces who died during the war. As I ran my hand along the wall of inscribed names, much as others do with the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, I paused. Without realizing where I had stopped I looked at the name under my hand. Walter John Heyburn was the name of my Uncle Jack’s father. Leaving his pregnant wife in England to follow him, he had emigrated to Canada in the Summer of 1914. With the war breaking out in August he had told his wife to stay put and joined the Expeditionary Forces to come back to Europe. He was killed long before the 1917 assault on Vimy Ridge by the Canadian Forces which dislodged the Germans from a rare piece of high ground in Northern France, but that location records his name for posterity.

The Great War took the lives of millions, armed and civilian. It had massive impact on the geopolitical map of Europe indirectly shaping the lives of future generations. It brought down Russian imperialism opening the way to another form of autocratic rule, that of the rise of communism and the suffering of millions of its subjects. The uneasy peace established at Versailles was a significant factor in the rise of Nazi Germany, the Second War and consequent holocaust.

All its surviving combatants are gone now. The last veteran died in 2011 aged 110. But there are still veterans of the Second War among us.

I’ve known Kal Skeirik for over twenty years. He’s a member of a men’s group at a local church where I have been a regular speaker since the 1990s. Six years ago I sat with him over supper before I spoke as he shared with me one of his memories. As he talked of the early morning sunrise over the river Meuse as he assisted the army chaplain with the baptism of several of his fellow soldiers I realized he was a lot older than I had thought. He was already eighty when I met him.

A few days ago, I was again speaking at this men’s fellowship. I sat with Kal and he told me more of his life story. With great humility and warmth, he spoke of his years working in Washington for the Small Business Administration, of his move to Richmond to be near a daughter and of his last fifteen years in a retirement community. Recently his wife of 68 years celebrated her 99th birthday and together they never imagined they would last a decade and a half in the retirement home. Committed to physical fitness he works out three times a week with a routine of walking, jogging, cycling and boxing for two to three hours. He’s published his war time memoir and is writing a memoir of his years in government service. At the age of 101 he is about to feature in a promotional video for his retirement community as the star of the gym.

Looking at him across the supper table it was hard to appreciate that I was looking at a man already alive when the armistice signatures were signed in a railway carriage in the Compiegne Forest of Eastern France. But he reminds me of the many who never came home from the fronts of both World Wars and subsequent conflicts, who laid down lives for the defense of societies that make us who we are today.

One hundred years on, the names, the images, the stories, serve as reminders that so many live on in our collective memory.

 

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SOCIALISTS AND CAPITALISTS – A STUDY IN CONTRASTS

In September I had the strange experience of traveling from a week in Venezuela to a Business as Mission Conference in Philadelphia. The contrast between a nation where an experiment in socialism has gone extremely wrong, and a gathering of joyful, and unashamed, Kingdom of God capitalists, was stark.

I was in Venezuela at the invitation of a Christian community that trains Venezuelans to be cross-cultural missionaries, both to the indigenous peoples of Venezuela and to communities in other parts of the world. I had visited several times before, most recently in March of 2017. On this occasion, however, the evidence of complete mismanagement of the economy was to be seen everywhere.

I was taken to a mall where numerous units were shuttered because the former occupants had gone out of business. I was taken to a supermarket where shelves had been rearranged to close off the empty part of the store, and where the main items for sale appeared to be bottles of soda, beer and other alcohol, dish detergent and ranks of tired looking fruits and vegetables. There was no meat, dairy or baked goods department functioning, dried goods were at a minimal supply, and this was in a middle-class neighborhood of the capital city.

The members of the mission community spend quite a bit of time chasing down food sources, giving testimony to the God who provides for them. On one occasion I was with one of the leaders as he drove to drop off a friend of the community. On the way we stopped in a side-street to collect a pack of twelve kilos of pasta from another friend. Going to the street market is always an adventure. Maybe there will be eggs; but probably not. Maybe there will be vegetables and fruit, if someone has decided to sell despite the restraints of government regulated prices. I ate a lot of corn pancakes (Venezuelan national dishes like arepas and cachapas) and rice and beans.

The Venezuelan currency is in crisis. With inflation running well into five figures, the government recently decided to drop the last five zeroes off every number and issue new Bolivar notes. Today there are 60 Bolivares to the US dollar. That’s 6,000,000 of the old Bolivar compared to an exchange rate of 4.6 old Bolivares to the dollar during my visit in the fall of 2012.

Walking the streets, I passed a bank with a row of ATMs. My companion told me that the average Venezuelan can withdraw just 10 Bolivares ($0.16) per day from the machine, and 50 Bolivares ($0.84) if they go into the bank. Yet a dozen eggs, if you can find them, costs 90 Bolivares. People are encouraged to use their bank cards for their transactions. However, a desire to be paid in cash that can be hidden means a discount of as much as 40% for those transactions.

In an endeavor to stamp out the black market a visitor or returnee can bring no more than $1,000 cash into the country. And they can’t legally change that without paying the proceeds into a bank account. Without dollars businesses can’t import what they need. Consequently, there are chronic shortages of medicines, spare parts, and basic supplies necessary for running the service industries.

Transport infrastructure is breaking down. As many as 90% of the nation’s buses are off the road because operators cannot afford spare parts and new tires. Buses through El Paraiso, where I was staying, used to run from the hillside barrios to the center of the city, providing transport for the working poor. Regulated, fixed-price fares, do not cover the cost of operations so operators have divided routes into sections. For the fixed price now, a commuter can travel a half or one third of his former journey, before having to change bus, pay another fare, and often, waste time waiting.

The lack of buses is moving people on to the metro. In July passengers were carried free of charge for several weeks because the operating authority ran out of paper for tickets. A preloaded electronic card system no longer works properly and so, since the reissue of paper tickets, long lines form as commuters endeavor to purchase no more than ten single tickets at a time.

Beef is rarely found on sale in Venezuela. The regulated price does not enable producers to cover costs. I heard of cattlemen who are herding their cows across the border into Brazil and Colombia. There they can get a far better price for their meat and get paid with the dollars that they need to buy the vaccinations and other imported assistance required to raise the next herd.

Gasoline has been heavily subsidized, and a low domestic price has historically helped sustain economic development. However, the government has now planned for gasoline prices to reach market levels. In July, before the currency change, a dollar, if exchanged in the black market could buy 875,000 gallons of gasoline (with the regulated gas price fixed at one bolivar per liter). Gasoline subsidies have cost the government $10 billion per year since 2012. Venezuela is also dependent on gasoline imports despite hosting the world’s largest oil reserves.[i]

Deregulating gasoline prices now means higher prices; still below international prices. To alleviate this added cost to the average consumer subsidies are available for holders of the ‘fatherland card’. This patriots card has been available to the poor as a means of obtaining subsidized food and medical care. However great concern is being expressed elsewhere that it will be used to control the population and subtly declare the support of subscribing opposition members for the regime. If someone requires the card to be linked to their bank account to receive their pension or their government salary, then how will someone who does not want to register receive any income.

However, the subject of the government salary and the minimum wage raise further concerns. The minimum wage, and therefore government worker salary, was recently raised 3,500%, however the government has no money to pay those wages. They are gradually mortgaging the nation to China, opening the doors to their vast mineral resources. As Venezuelans go without beef, I was not surprised that one of the main topics of social media conversation during my visit concerned an image of President Maduro eating a steak prepared by one of Istanbul’s top chefs, during a stop-over on his way home from China.

With my experience in Venezuela behind me I arrived in Philadelphia for the annual North American Business as Mission Conference organized by BAM Global [ii]. Business as Mission is viable, sustainable and profitable businesses; with a Kingdom of God purpose, perspective, and impact; leading to the transformation of people and societies spiritually, economically, and socially— to the greater glory of God [iii].

It was a wonderful experience to listen to the testimonies of businessmen and women from around the world sharing how their businesses are being used to impact communities for the gospel. Some of the businesses I learned about have direct social engagement as their goal, for example, job opportunities for women coming out of the sex-trade, or for victims of human labor slavery. Others have employment in a Godly environment as their goal, creating opportunities for people to thrive spiritually, socially and economically.

One of the overseas businesses I learned of is providing employment to two hundred people in a previously under-developed community where the major natural resource is coconuts. A factory uses every part of the coconut to produce coconut cream, dessicated coconut, shell pellets as a biodegradable additive to plastics, and a fibrous matting that can be used for erosion protection. Kingdom ethics and the gospel now provide a foundation for human development in this community.

Here in the US a business that manufactures seats for utility vehicles developed a creative approach to its need for a larger labor force. Instead of relocating the business, the directors approached the major local source of the under-employed; a federal penitentiary. A subsidiary plant has been developed inside the prison and employs over a hundred, giving them skills and enabling them to earn a state mandated wage that contributes to family support, alimony and their own prison upkeep. Some inmates have become Christians; some have been released into society equipped to succeed; and the project reports a rate of recidivism less than 8% compared to national averages over 45%.

Business as Mission is creating opportunities for the gospel of Jesus Christ to impact communities in new ways. Business as Mission requires Kingdom-minded capitalists, those who will unashamedly and boldly put their capital, financial and entrepreneurial, to work for God’s purposes in the nations.

Irresponsible Socialism and irresponsible capitalism have both caused massive human suffering throughout their history. While Venezuela suffers socialist and economic disaster it’s a great encouragement to know of those who are responsibly putting their capitalism to work on behalf of the good news of Jesus Christ in community development.

 

[i] Since my visit a colleague informed me he now gets his gas tank filled for free. The gas station attendant cannot be bothered to collect the tiny payment!
[ii] https://bamglobal.org/
[iii] Mats Tunehag
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KOPI LEWAK AND THE ENTICING AROMA OF FRANKINCENSE

[In 2007 I wrote this article. A colleague recently sent me a National Geographic Article about Islam in Mexico. It prompted me to return to these words and update them to publish here]

“Come, all you who are thirsty … and your soul will delight in the richest of fare”. Isaiah 55:1&2
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”. Matthew 5:6

There’s a restaurant in Australia’s New South Wales where you can drink coffee for $65 a cup. The world’s most expensive coffee, and possibly most expensive beverage, is named Kopi Lewak. Connoisseurs travel for miles to try a sample. London’s luxury department store, Harrods, sells it online for $340 for a quarter pound.

Over the last two decades Starbucks have done an incredible job of turning a common drink into an experience, and now, just as the London coffee houses first popularized the drink in eighteenth century Britain, today’s coffee houses are exploiting a worldwide addiction. Many, in search of their next caffeine fix are chasing after the new and trendy flavors on offer, getting their fill of fantasies before the next headache of withdrawal arrives.

But Kopi Lewak is not what one would otherwise choose to drink. In Indonesia and the Philippines coffee beans fall from the bushes and are feasted on by the civet, a small rodent. Unfortunately, the civet cannot consume them entirely and the half-digested beans, having been harvested from faeces, are ground up to make this most expensive of coffees[i]. Literally, something that should not pass examination by Health and Safety Inspectors, becomes, when passed by rats, acceptable!

There is a subtle spiritual agenda at work in the western world today. Secular communicators who make their living by sharing new ideas with a tired world are naively presenting Islam as the religious experience of the future. Whether writing about the order and discipline brought to troubled lives by the daily practice of the din (Ceremonial Duties) or communicating how Muslim refugees are making new lives for themselves in the West despite the suspicions surrounding them, they are presenting the face of Islam as acceptable. Describing the faith as the third of the great Abrahamic faiths, casually offers it as the latter and therefore, by inference, more complete form of monotheism.

It is this acceptable face of Islam that prompted the Muslim community in Swansea, South Wales to carefully communicate their plans to convert St. Andrew’s United Reform Church into a mosque during the first decade of the Millennium. In 2007 their web-page declared: Learn about the renovation of this 150-year-old landmark building, the protection of Swansea’s heritage, and how with your donations and prayers it can once again be utilized for the worship of God[ii].

Today, that same web-page has no reference to the past role of the building as a church and is filled with references to Islam that are unintelligible to the average reader.

The acceptable face of Islam was also presented in a 2013 episode of the CBS TV drama, NCIS Los Angeles. The agents of the Office of Special Projects team confront Islamic militants. An Afghan kills his own nephew to stop him from harming someone else. Sam Hanna, the character played by actor LL Cool J, who is portrayed as a practicing Muslim, is shown in the closing scene talking to the Afghan, whom he has known for several years. The Afghan says: The taking of one innocent life is like the taking of the life of all mankind. I made the decisions I believed to be right in my heart – Allah will forgive me![iii]

A colleague recently drew my attention to a November 2017 National Geographic article about Islam in Mexico where the Muslim population has grown over the last couple of decades (5,270 – up 40% since 2010[iv]). It stated: Converts are fueling the growth in Mexico City, while high birthrates and large families spur it on in rural regions. This is not new revelation; it is the experience of many communities, whether Islam is the majority or the minority.

The narrative follows an Italian photographer who lived with the Muslim community in Mexico City for a year and then visited a village of 400 in Chiapas State that has blended indigenous religious practices into their practice of Islam. What is pleasing about Islam is that it brings practical actions in daily life: You have to pray five times each day. You can’t eat pork and you can’t drink alcohol, stated the photographer, in a comment that would not be new information to educated readers.

The article represents another example of a media endeavor to present Islam as a benign religious presence. While relevant to any ethnographic study of the world, a community of 5,000 Muslims in a nation of 124,000,000 is barely worthy of comment. I felt disappointed that a magazine of the quality of National Geographic would invest space in such an article, so I did a few searches of their website. Entering the term Growing Muslim Community produced the Mexico article and another about Muslim minority communities thriving in the USA at the top of the search list. However, entering the term: Christian Minority Communities, revealed a 2013 article about the Boston Marathon bombings[v] while entering the term: Growth of Christianity, produced a list headed by an article entitled: How Early Islamic Science Advanced Medicine.[vi]

Regrettably, despite the acceptable face of Islam, and the peace-loving life-styles of the great majority of Muslims, there is a darker side to Islam that needs to be revealed. Christians are called to love their neighbors and their enemies. We love Muslims because we are commanded to do so, because they are our brothers and sisters and because we long for them to know the life in Christ that we experience. We want them to know true eternal life.

Graciousness and tolerance in the Western world are principles drawn from a strong Christian heritage. Our graciousness and tolerance should however never serve to obscure the truth. In 2013 I attended a conference at Georgetown University in Washington on the theme of Religious Pluralism & Freedom. Speaking to the issue of religious freedom in the majority Muslim world, Farid Esack, Head of the Dept of Religion at Johannesburg University and Professor of Islam, gave a rambling presentation. Regarding freedom of religious practice, he said: In the parts of the Muslim world which I am most familiar with, … We don’t affirm the value and centrality of religious freedom. …Notions of freedom do not come automatically to our religious language. And so, at the end of the day, … for the vast majority of people in the Muslim world, and Muslim authority figures, whether they are government or scholarly figures who interact with the non-Muslim world. … it is still very much the age-old principle that Islam is meant to dominate and Islam is not to be dominated.[vii]

It is the intolerant aspect of Islam that I find unacceptable. Unfortunately, it has become politically incorrect to present it. Our own western lens of tolerance seems not to allow us to accept that those of another religious or cultural heritage would not be equally tolerant in our increasingly globalized world. It is this intolerance that causes a nation like Turkey to so equate national identity with religious identity that the idea of a Turkish Christian becomes anathema. It is this intolerance that must factor into Arab views of Israel with an attitude among some that cannot accept the idea of land once Muslim being dominated by peoples of another religion[viii]. One scholar has described Muslim reaction to the loss of territory in Spain and the Balkans as Islamic lands, wrongfully taken from Islam and destined ultimately to be restored.[ix] In the words of Nobel Prize winner V.S.Naipaul: Islamic Fundamentalism has the basic cruelty of allowing only one people The Arabs, the original people of the Prophet, a past, and sacred places, pilgrimages and earth reverence[x].

A 2007 episode of PBS’ Globetrekker[xi] traveled to three states in the Arabian peninsular; Kuwait, UAE and Oman. In the latter, the viewer was taken to the Boswellia trees at a desert oasis in the Nejd. It is the slowly dripping gum-resin of these trees that produces Frankincense. The aroma produced by this resin permeates life in Oman. Government buildings are censed daily with it. Omani hospitality is delivered daily in an atmosphere perfumed by Frankincense. For millennia, this incomparable odor has carried the fame of Arabia around the world.

Drawing the program to a conclusion, Megan McCormick, the presenting journalist summed up her observations of the three nations. Though describing their differences, she ended with the words: Whatever the differences, these nations are held together by the common presence and practice of the Muslim religion. One cannot but be impressed by the beauty and power of Islam! Just as this mysterious fragrance has enticed and attracted millions down the ages, so Islam is being presented as a worthy attraction. Saddest perhaps of all is that the very scent that became synonymous with the gift of a wise man to the Christ child has subsequently become associated with a religious spirit of Anti-Christ!

The prophet Isaiah issues the invitation to: “Come, all you who are thirsty!” while Jesus tells us that those who hunger and thirst after righteousness are blessed and shall be filled. In a world where Western Christendom is in severe decline, the call to the church is to not only proclaim again the great truths of the Good News, but to live them to the fullest. In Christ is the only answer for the nations; in Christ is the only answer for the Muslim world.

In his letter, the apostle James tells us: “Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows”. (Jas 1:16-17) The coffee known as Kopi Lewak is from the ground, in more ways than one. The faith of Islam is from the dusts of the desert. The truth of God our heavenly father and his Son our Lord Jesus Christ, is from above and the invitation to “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34:8) extends to all.

[i] Kopi luwak or civet coffee, is the world’s most expensive and low-production variety of coffee. It is made from the beans of coffee berries which have been eaten by the Asian Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) and other related civets, then passed through its digestive tract. A civet eats the berries for their fleshy pulp. In the digestive tract, the civets’ proteolytic enzymes seep into the beans, making shorter peptides and more free amino acids. Passing through a civet’s intestines the beans are then defecated, keeping their shape. After gathering, thorough washing, sun drying, light roasting and brewing, these beans yield an aromatic coffee with much less bitterness. https://www.coffeebeanshop.co.uk/kopi-luwak-p-481.html (Accessed May 29, 2018)
[ii] www.swanseamosque.org (Accessed February 14, 2007)
[iii] NCIS Los Angeles Season 4 Episode 16 – Columbia Broadcasting System, Studio City, Los Angeles
[iv] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/proof/2017/10/muslims-mexico-indigenous-religion-islam/  & http://www3.inegi.org.mx/sistemas/TabuladosBasicos/Default.aspx?c=27302&s=est (Accessed May 29, 2018)
[v] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/search/?q=christian+minority+communities (Accessed May 29, 2018)
[vi] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/search/?q=growth+of+christianity (Accessed May 29, 2018)
[vii] The Boundaries of Religious Pluralism & Freedom: The Devil is in the Detail – Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University – April 13, 2013 –  video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHSZ7PbLO1o – accessed June 6th, 2018
[viii] See for example the Hamas Covenant 1988 Preamble: Israel will rise and will remain erect until Islam eliminates it as it has eliminated its predecessors. Hamas Covenant 1988 Article 11: The land of Palestine is an Islamic Holy Possession
consecrated for future Moslim generations until Judgment Day. No one can renounce it or any part, or  abandon  it  or  any  part  of  it. Hamas New Covenant 2017 Article 3: Palestine is an Arab and Islamic land, it is holy and blessed and it has a special place in the heart of all Arabs and Muslims
[ix] The Muslim Discovery of Europe – Bernard Lewis – New York: W. W. Norton, 1982 – p. 182
[x] Beyond Belief- Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples – V.S.Naipaul – Vintage 1999 – p.64
[xi] GlobeTrekker Season 9 Episode 1 – Pilot Film & TV Productions Ltd. London and Los Angeles
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OF NATIONS

“Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven”. Acts 2:5

I’ve been reading in the book of Acts recently. This book tells of the establishment of the church as believers in Jerusalem begin to form a community of followers of Christ, and then move outward to surrounding regions. Often the teaching focus of the chapter centers on the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the resulting empowerment of the early believers. I want here however, to explore the significance not of these events upon the early church, but of the nations gathered in Jerusalem.

The events recorded in chapter 2 take place on the Jewish festival of Pentecost, as the disciples of Jesus are empowered by the Holy Spirit and begin to preach the message of salvation. The gathering of Jews in the city came from many places and spoke many languages, yet all heard the preaching in their own language.

Pentecost is the Greek name for a Jewish festival known as Shavuot, or the feast of weeks. This festival, celebrated fifty days, or seven weeks, after the Passover, commemorated the giving of the law of Moses (which of course followed the exodus from Egypt which is commemorated in the Passover). It was also a celebration of the climax of the grain harvests, most specifically the first wheat harvest of the year, following the weeks since the barley was first harvested.

It was one of the festivals when Jewish pilgrims would come to Jerusalem for the celebration. Jerusalem was their special city, the home of the temple and an object of their earthly affections for their heavenly God. So, we read a list of peoples from every nation under heaven, within the worldview of the New Testament writer. Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome; Cretans and Arabs (Acts 2:9-11) were among those who heard the preaching of Peter. An example of such a visitor would be the Ethiopian eunuch, who had himself been to Jerusalem to worship when he encountered Philip early in his journey home. He was someone who had come up from the nations to visit Jerusalem.

God had called Abraham to become a great nation: a nation through whom all peoples on earth will be blessed (Genesis 12:3) Successive dispersions of the descendants of Abraham from their promised land meant that there were Jewish communities in many parts of the known world. These communities maintained their religious distinctives, even having converts from the surrounding peoples joined to them, yet presumably were also a blessing to the peoples among whom they lived. It would be from among these diaspora Jews that worshippers would go up to Jerusalem, fulfilling Old Testament prophecies[i].

Yet that fulfilment would be incomplete. It would be primarily from among those who already claimed to be God’s people, and not from among the Gentiles. However, in that way, the gathering in Jerusalem at Pentecost is a prophetic foreshadow of that which God has planned for the role of His people through the great commission. We are commanded by our Lord to go and make disciples of all nations. (Matt 28:19) Furthermore, New Testament prophecy confirms what the Old Testament has already spoken about, of people from every nation, tribe and tongue gathered before the throne of God in eternity. Revelation 7:9 echoes Daniel 7:13-14, as the great multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language worshiping before the throne and the lamb, remind us of all the peoples, nations and languages who are brought before One like the Son of Man to serve him.

There is a redemptive thread through this event that draws from even the pre-Abrahamic Old Testament experience. We find in Genesis chapter 10 a table of nations. Noah’s family have come out of the ark, a means of salvation from a sinful world. His sons have families from whom the nations spread out over the face of the earth. The names listed, with one exception, are not the same as those from which people came up to Jerusalem. However, Egypt, the regions of Mesopotamia, the coastlands and the Arabian peninsula are referenced. Reading chapter 11 alongside chapter 10 we come to the story of the Tower of Babel. The world had one language and a common speech. Working together men decided to build a city with a tower to make a name for themselves. God saw what they were doing and said: If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other (Genesis 11:6). Then He scattered them over the face of the earth.

Just as the sin of Adam and Eve, trying to be like God, had consequences, so the sin of the descendants of the Ark had consequences. Christ, not considering equality with God something to be grasped, appeared as a man to reverse the curse of Adam’s sin. So also, in this first moment of the history of the church the nations come together united in their worship of God, and, through the intervention of the Holy Spirit, able to understand one message across all language barriers.

In a moment commemorating the first appearance of the law, the message of the now delivered grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is first preached. In celebrating an earthly harvest, a heavenly harvest of the nations is heralded.

Paul tells us later in the Acts of the Apostles: From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him (Acts 17:26-27). Seemingly not part of God’s original plan, nations with all their diversity become an integral part of God’s redemptive plan to draw all peoples back into fellowship with himself.

[i] Isaiah 2:3 speaks of many peoples going up to the mountain of the Lord so that they may learn his ways; Zechariah 8:2 speaks of peoples and nations coming to Jerusalem to seek and entreat the Lord; Zephaniah 3:10 speaks of God’s worshippers and scattered peoples coming from beyond the Rivers of Cush to bring him offerings; Micah 4:2 speaks of nations going up to the mountain of the Lord where He will teach them His ways.
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