August 27, 2013

A Flaming Miracle: A Story of God's Deliverance

[This story took place on Tuesday, February 19th, 2013 in Niamey, Niger]

What a joy it is to be alive (although to be with Christ would be more glorious) and share with you the wonders of His protection and guidance. Recently, my brothers and co-workers Johnson and Jonny Hayes and I were driving into Niamey when our vehicle was attacked by a mob intent on burning the vehicle while we were still in it. It was a complete miracle that we escaped! What encouraged our hearts so greatly was the beauty of the Holy Spirit and the way He worked.
It was like any other day in Kwara Tagi, Niger. It was 9:00 a.m., warm and sunny. We had just finished our morning prayer meeting and were headed into town to drop off a mattress and to renew some government documents. Johnson, Justin, Jonny and I jumped into my Honda CRV (otherwise known as “Camilla”) and off we went. Little did we know of the coming adventure. 

To give you a brief preface, this region of West/North Africa has had its share of conflicts recently and consequently many students have been rioting over various issues. After dropping off the mattress, we continued on the Tillaberi Road toward the city center of Niamey. As we approached the Rond-Point Yantala (a main traffic circle), we noticed a car making an awkward wrong-way left turn (which is nothing new in a city with wild driving practices), but other cars kept going through the circle like nothing was wrong—until we pulled into the circle. After making it halfway around, we were all-of-a-sudden jumped by a mob of approximately 20 guys, though only three were really doing the job—the rest were yelling. One young man was pointing at my face through the windshield and screaming something. In seemingly a split second, they had thrown tires around the front half of our car (we were blocked in by cars on all the other sides), threw another tire up onto our car, and had one tire in flames ready to ignite the vehicle from underneath with the four of us still in it.

Knowing what was happening (that we were about to be burned alive in our car), I looked behind but there was a taxi on my bumper so I couldn’t back up, and I wouldn’t be able to go forward without injuring or killing one of the guys. After what seemed like an eternity of honking (probably about three seconds), the taxi managed to back up maybe five feet, all while the mob was preparing the car to be burned and waiting for it to ignite. Five feet was enough. Throwing “Camilla” into reverse, I backed up quickly into the taxi (yes, making contact, but not too much... that’s what a bumper’s for), pulled a quick three-point-turn into the jam of vehicles, managed to squeeze between two cars, and proceeded to tear around on the sidewalk, sending three people jumping out of the vehicle’s way. (Don’t forget, the horn was announcing our arrival.) Swerving between a couple of cars, we careened back onto the main road, heading the opposite direction and into oncoming traffic (which, praise God, was quite empty due to the spectacle of what was happening) before making it to our side of the road and veered off onto the first dirt road past the market. After making it about a kilometer down the back stretch,we pulled over and thanked God for the miracle He had performed.We prayed for the souls of these guys who were perpetuating the violence, that God would bring true peace to their lives. Then we called the embassy.

This is not a story about heroic guys, crazy driving, or the drama happening in this region. This is a story about God’s  deliverance and protection. We know that if we had been burned alive this morning, we were ready to meet God because of what Jesus has done for our salvation, but we are thankful to be alive and sharing this story of His deliverance.
After the incident, I posted on Facebook, “Wondering who was praying for me and the boys this morning at 9:30 a.m. Niamey time (3:30 a.m. EST). A complete miracle we weren’t burned alive in our car (or at the very least injured with the car destroyed) this morning. Mob attack. Praising God for His protection.”

In the words of my co-worker Johnson, “The Holy Spirit was ‘gossiping’ again!” I want to give you a few examples of how the Spirit “gossiped.” Let the following responses I received be of great encouragement to you on the power of prayer and ministry of the Holy Spirit...

It didn’t stop there. Another friend wrote, “My dad woke up to pray for you that night. Like me, he had no idea what he was praying for, but he describes it as a pressing, terrible blackness—a sense of urgency .” I’ve never even met this man. One of my closest friends, an Irish brother, had a different prayer that day. He prayed for the team in Niger that God would “send us through the fire ” that we might be purified. God has a sense of humor. There are more letters, but I just wanted to share a few to encourage your hearts that we have a Holy Spirit who is active. Thank you to everyone who wrote, encouraged, and reminded us that you are praying.We feel so blessed to be surrounded by the greatest team of prayer warriors. May this be an encouragement for us to “pray without ceasing,” recognizing that His promptings are not in vain. When God brings a name to your heart, stop, pray, and do not cease praying until the Holy Spirit gives you peace to do so. As I write this, I say more than ever,
we are co-laborers. He is worthy.

This is the first time I’ve been involved in an incident that temporarily shut down a US embassy.We have finished the police reports and such, but pray that, more than ever, we would be burdened for the salvation of this nation. He is doing great things. Pray as well for the perpetrators of violence (these are chaotic days), that God would bless them with the knowledge of Himself. They need their eyes opened to His light. May He use us to minister that Good News.

Allow me to say it once more—thanks for praying!

August 30, 2012

Stepping Back

Read the morning newspaper, watch the evening news...our world is chaotic and seems like we are caught on a merry-go-round spinning ferociously with no end in sight. Syria's bloodbath is at epic proportions (though it seems no one really cares enough to act). Israel and Iran are at each other's throats. Greece and half of Europe have forgotten how economic stability feels. Niger continues to ache for a bite of food, but with little to offer the global economy, they count themselves fortunate to be mentioned in a blog. Bleak report? Perhaps. Or maybe, it's time to step back and look at the whole picture

Walking into the American University of Cairo, I was welcomed by a mural of images from the 2011 revolution which radically altered the political atmosphere of the Arab world and beyond. The world's vocabulary expanded. Islamic Brotherhood. Mubarak. Tahrir Square. The Arab Spring. One particular mural grabbed my attention. 

On a close glance, the wall was covered with individual pictures of violence, blood, demonstrations, solidarity, and more. A vivid portrayal of what we remember and experienced during those days. Stepping back, however, the mural revealed a bigger image. The hundreds of tiny photographs came together to form a more complete image of a young boy, smiling, waving an Egyptian flag symbolizing freedom, hope, and joy. The thought of their painful days yielding the fruit of freedom brought a renewed spirit and great expectations.

How easily our minds can get bogged down with the present situations of life in such a way where we fail to look up and see the whole picture of what God is doing. We see a part, but it requires us to take a step back in order to see the big picture. We forget that God is working out a beautiful plan to draw out a people for His name from around the world. (Acts 15:14) How quickly we jump to conclusions of God's inactivity or lack of compassion when perhaps, the greatest blessing to our busy, self-absorbed lives is the reality check which reminds us of our temporal state on earth. We love asking the question, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" without considering who is defining good and bad. We assume our own goodness and we assume "bad" to be anything which harms our physical state and personal dreams. The Word of God tells us that "we look not to the things which are seen, but to the things which are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal." (2 Corinthians 4:18) What if the better question is, "Why do good things happen to wicked people?" What if the point of life is far more than what merely HAPPENS to us? (Clue: Jesus gives the answer in Luke 13:1-5) What if there is a purpose to our existence beyond the physical?

What if the most gracious thing God does is awaken our soul to man's most desperate need? Him. C.S. Lewis appropriately noted in his book Surprised by Joy, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."

Take a step back. There is more to the picture.

June 27, 2011

Embers of Restoration

Peter finds himself in an all so familiar place as Jesus gently calls his name from the shore. Immediately, his thoughts drift back to that day, some three years ago when Christ wooed him from his nets to follow Him. Ah, that voice. The same voice which in love commanded a little girl to wake from death's grip, in zeal cleansed the temple, in passion announced the kingdom, and in agony cried out, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me." (Matthew 27:46) Yet now, Jesus extends an invitation to breakfast. Fish and bread. But Peter notices something else. A charcoal fire. (John 21:9)

Jesus is up to something more. Don't miss this. Only two times in Scripture is this phrase, "a charcoal fire" used. Both found in the book of John. Here, and a couple chapters back, in John 18:18, "Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter was also with them, standing and warming himself." The last time Peter stood around a charcoal fire was on that fateful night of Christ's betrayal and it was around that very charcoal fire Peter denied even knowing the Man in the judgment seat. Upon glimpsing this seaside scene, no doubt a trigger of emotional pain shot through Peter's veins. But Jesus was not seeking retribution. Rather, this was about restoration.

Jesus re-created the setting of this night in Peter's past. Not to bring up his faults, but to enable him to move past his failure by recognizing his responsibility. Where only shortly before Peter denied Christ three times around a charcoal fire, here, Peter emphatically declares his undying love for Christ. Three times. (John 21:15-19) Where previously Peter refused to bear the consequences of being associated with Jesus of Nazareth, he now embraces the call to follow this King of Heaven. To the point of giving his life. Peter's fall was painful, but not final. Jesus had told Peter earlier, "but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers." (Luke 22:32) Darby translates it, "when once thou hast been restored…" Our very restoration is not for self-advancement, but for the building up of His church.

When Jesus called Peter and his friends from their life of fishing (Matthew 4:18-22) to "follow Him", Matthew noted that James and John were "mending their nets." They recognized a broken net catches few fish. Likewise, a discouraged saint catches few men. The word used for "mending" is the same word translated "restore" in Galatians 6:1. "Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness." Just as catching fish requires a mended net, fishing for men requires restored vessels. Webster's Dictionary defines "restore" as "to bring back to a previous condition."

Many find themselves in this same vortex of madness. Emptiness, despair, failure, frustration, and hopelessness define their days. Even in the very presence of those they know and love, loneliness characterizes their moments. In seeking to be known and vulnerable, they feel betrayed, distanced, and at times, cut off from acceptance. Mother Teresa said, "“Of all the diseases I have known, loneliness is the worst.” Like Peter, we go back to fishing. Back to that thing in which we think we'll find our identity, only to realize that was never who we were. Why? Because we were created with an eternal purpose satisfied only in the pursuit of the Eternal...never intended to be satisfied by the diversions of time.

Among Christ's followers, there is a great need for restoration. Not a mere passing over of sins committed, but a demonstration of Jesus' love which seeks to restore and renew lives which once were discarded as useless for the Kingdom. Are we looking to gently encourage and shepherd our brothers and sisters past their past, or are we condemning them based on their history? Nets are mended for the purpose of fishing once more. In God's economy, a broken net is a call for the Church to "…forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him."(2 Corinthians 2:7-8) Furthermore, Paul goes on to plead that we would not be “outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his strategies." (2:11) To withhold comfort and refuse restoration to a sincere, repenting sinner is to directly play into Satan's hand.

Never forget that, as a believer in Jesus, on the best day, our status is a sinner saved by God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ. For those trapped in a funnel of despair, know that Jesus calls you to His charcoal fire. Not to condemn, but to affirm His love and offer restoration. May our lives, as His lights in this world, reflect His attitude of restoration. As we seek to mend broken nets, let us lay aside bitterness, resentment and pride, and under a unified and unhindered banner, proclaim His restoration to this generation.

April 06, 2011

Forgiveness in the Ashes

Standing by their charred house and the heaps of rubbish piled up in front, a few of my friends (young kids) recounted their story of nearly being burned alive in one of Cairo's slums---just last month. Barred in their house by angry activists, they were able to escape the inferno by jumping from the roof to safety.  A bit later, after leaving them, I was greeted by a neighbor. He immediately asked me why I was visiting this particular family. Despite my saying nothing about the incident, he quickly threw out, “Don’t feel bad for them. They got involved in a situation and one must retaliate. If someone hits me, I must hit him back. That is the way it goes. As often as it happens.”

Is it? Must it be?

Jesus Christ taught a different form of responding to crisis. But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (Luke 6:27-28)

Such words ring absurd to most ears, yet could this be the very liberation for those who would hold onto the past? Could forgiveness be the path to freedom for the hurt and the offender? Is our world trapped in the downward spiral of escalating aggression due to man’s inability to comprehend Christ’s words? Does harboring bitterness and resentment only tighten the grip on unresolved stress, frustration, and anger? Mark Twain put it poetically. "Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”

Yet forgiveness is no mere change of mind. Rather, it’s an action; an action which reverses the trend rather than merely stopping the offense. It reaches out to the miscreant in love. It seeks restoration. It bridges the gap making a way for new life.

This is the message of Calvary. “But God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) We have offended a righteous God by our sins. Chosen to pursue our own path. Yet God, in true love, bridged the gap to offer us forgiveness and restoration. A forgiveness that brings freedom to those who embrace the gift His Son died to provide and rose from the dead to offer.

So the world will continue to war. True. But for those of us who have tasted Jesus' forgiveness, can we respond with any reply other than that of the apostle John, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” (I John 4:11)  Not once, nor twice, but with a love which refuses to count the wrongs of another. (Matthew 18:21-22) With such a love we were forgiven and with such a love the world will see our Savior.

It may be in the ashes of our dreams, expectations, and plans, but there we must find and offer love's response. Forgiveness. For it is there we find freedom and there restoration begins. 

April 01, 2011

Choosing Love

That four-letter word. Love. Lightly and frequently used today. We "love" everything from pizza, to our favorite clothing brands, to a certain someone. For many, the word has casually become a conversational closer. It's thrown around in our vocabulary as fish in Seattle's Pike Place Market. The media world permeates our society with its broad definition of love. From Everybody Loves Raymond, I Love Lucy, Love Actually, or Elvis' Love Me Tender, the word is used to encapsulate our emotions.  

But is love the feeling painted by Hollywood OR is it a choice of commitment and self-sacrifice? Webster's leaves it as
"an intense feeling or deep affection" but could it be something far more? What's the deal? What is love? Paul defines love as an action which is "patient, kind...always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres. Love never fails." (I Corinthians 13:4, 7-8) Always. Consistency. A bit different than the world's portrayal, huh? Are you [am I] actually prepared to "love"?

Interestingly, the Scriptures identify love as much by what it is not, as much as what it is. It does not "
envy, it does not boast, it isn't proud, it does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps NO record of wrongs...does not delight in evil." (I Corinthians 13:4-6) Such actions are not controlled by our emotions, but by a choice. A choice to submit to the Spirit of God. The chaos, frustration, and stress of life will push us to our emotional limits, but are we choosing to "love one another as Christ has loved us"? (John 13:34) This is NOT a natural response.

Love exposes us. Makes our life vulnerable for the sake of another, and at times, requires our life. C.S. Lewis may have said it best. “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless--it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable." Love hurts. But love is also the ultimate gift we can give another, for in it, we experience freedom. Freedom to model Christ. Freedom to know Christ. Freedom to know ourselves in a way we never knew existed. Love frees.

Jesus taught,
"Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13) The apostle John reiterated, "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers." (I John 3:16) Perhaps saying, "I love you" is actually a statement of sacrifice and self-denial. Not a license to lust, but a call of commitment. 

So before you unleash that four-letter word, pause.
It's a choice.

March 24, 2011

Thank You Ronald Finson

Guess I'm gonna quit work. Or at least take a vacation. I mean, after receiving news like this, why not?Among the many e-mails I received this week, this gem found it's way into my inbox. From some guy named Ronald Finson. Decent fellow. He wrote,

G-20 board of trustees comprises of twenty finance minister and representative
all over the world head a meeting at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in January 5th 2011
regarding the economical meltdown affecting the world, so they decieded to engage
in an email eletronic ballot system through an email open ballot email selection
which your email came out as one on their beneficairy and they instructed Mr RONALD FINSON of Money Gram to keep send you $5000 USD twice a week untill the sum {$820,000} is completed

I mean, please don't be jealous, but it looks like I'm going to be making $10,000 a week for doing nothing. All I have to do is send my bank details, etc. Great news!

Or is it?

It's easy to absorb what we want to hear. Whether its encouragement coming from the mouth of a friend, a good recommendation of a boss, or the words of a philosopher, we embrace that which is conducive to our life. But my question is simple. Is something "good news" when unfounded, misleading, and ultimately, a lie? Sure, it might feel good to believe it for a time, but its end is destruction, loss, and hurt. But how can we know what is true and what is counterfeit?

As followers of Christ, we must return to our source. The gospel being propagated today is one of self-absorption. One that contradicts Christ's first command in Luke 9:23, "If any man desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me." With books hitting the shelf promoting universalism, pluralism, financial prosperity, and self-enrichment, we have made the good news about us, rather than truth. About time, rather than eternity. Salvation is by faith in Christ's work alone. Period. Yet such love will produce a concrete response and life change. In the words of Bob Hayes, ‎"The decision to be a disciple of Christ is a decision to put aside our double life." When Jesus' disciples were confronted with hard truths, Jesus asked them, "Do you also want to go away?" Peter answered Him saying, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also, we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." (John 6:67-69) 

Could it be many hold a counterfeit faith? A Ronald Finson promise? Webster’s Dictionary has defined counterfeit as “made in imitation of something else with intent to deceive.” Whether intentional or unintentional, could many have picked up a counterfeit version of Christ? A version that sells self-advancement, prosperity, and worldly happiness when Christ, preached denial, sacrifice, and death? Are you dissatisfied with the status quo of life? With the meaningless pursuits of the present? With the frustration life's rat race? I'm not suggesting we ought to move to some remote location, rashly make life transitions, or emphatically change who we are. No. Rather, adopt the midset Jesus taught us. "Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you." (Matthew 6:33) A new priority which trumps all else. May I suggest the greatest sacrifice one could ever make is to reject the authentic call of Jesus Christ for in this pathway, we find hope, purpose, acceptance, and fulfillment.

Identifying a counterfeit is a process. The United States federal government trains fraud investigators to know every mark of the authentic in order that the counterfeit will be identified in its failure to match the genuine. They are taught to look for differences, not similarities when distinguishing the fake from the real. This is contrary to the world’s mindset of pluralism. In knowing and understanding the authentic call of Christ, the counterfeit emerges under the microscope of the real. "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." (John 8:32) Focusing on the many deviations of Christ’s call may create an debater, but what this world desperately needs is devoted imitators of Jesus. Followers whose lives conform to message of Christ. 

Is Christ an addition to your life OR is Christ your life?

December 06, 2010

A Crowded Christmas

Ah, the beautiful bustle of the Christmas shopping. Store promotions. Wish lists. Lights. Tinsel. Trees. Carolers. Snow. Food. Family. Love. Gifts. Parking lot gridlocks. Seemingly endless checkout lines. Crammed food courts. Screaming children. Stressed mothers. Frustrated fathers. (With the gentle strains of ♫ Silent night, holy night! Shepherds quake at the sight. Glories stream from heaven afar. Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia. Christ the Savior is born! Christ the Savior is born. ♫ playing in the background.)

We return home with armloads of gifts for others. In a frenzy, we wrap the last of the presents only to have them ripped open moments later. Then, we rush off to catch the next family gathering.

And here we are again. Christmas. It's not that we don't want to hear the angels singing. Yes, we need a star to follow, as the wise men did, and if you're like me,
we desperately want to kneel at the manger. We truly long to adore that child wrapped in swaddling clothes, just as Mary did. And we yearn to worship with the shepherd and bring our gifts beside the magi. It's just, time. 

Not much has changed.
It was crowded then...even Bethlehem had no room available. Just too crowded. And it still is. 
"He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God." (John 1:10-12) God doesn't force His way into crowded lives. He knocks. Sends an invitation. That invitation is Jesus. 

Interesting. We have time for other things. Work, friends, sports, food, sleep, TV, family, Facebook. Yet when it comes to time for the Author of Life, a few minutes is a sacrifice. No room for the very heartbeat of our existence. Maybe it's time to stop. To stop and ponder, wonder, worship, adore, bring your the nucleus of Christmas. "For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." (Luke 2:11) It's Christmas. Time to follow the star to Bethlehem. Time to leave your sheep and head to manger. Time to open the door to your inn. Stop.

As a ten year old, I participated in a Christmas Cantata, entitled Noel, Jesus is Born. A particular number impacted my young life. 

♫ No room, no room for him. No room, to let Him in. No room for Jesus in the world He made. No room. No room, for the king of kings. But room for others, and for other things. No room for Jesus in a world he made, no room. 

Room for houses, lands and pleasures, room for things that pass away. But for the one who reigns forever, there's no room today. No room, no room for Him. No room, to let Him in. No room for Jesus, in the heart He made, just for Him. 

No room for the King of Kings. Room for others and for other things. No room for Jesus in the heart He made, just for Him. He just keeps knocking, but He hears you say, "No room." 

I know. You're life is busy. He still is knocking. Any room?