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While Scripture passages such as Romans 8:31-39 assure us that nothing can separate us from God’s love, there is always the temptation for us to accept God’s eternal salvation in which our sins are forgiven and we are assured a place in heaven, yet be reluctant to go deeper in our walk with Jesus because he might demand too much of us in this life.

We enjoy the benefits of our Christian faith and participate occasionally in church events—Sunday services, Easter and Christmas celebrations, weddings, baptisms, funerals or memorials—but often avoid commitments that demand more of us than we are willing to give.

Unwilling to move out of our comfort zone, we give minimally of our time, our resources, and ourselves to God, the church, and to others, leaving the bulk of God’s Kingdom work to the very few dedicated souls among us.

To all of us who claim to be followers of Jesus, he says, as he did to his disciples:

“So why do you keep calling me ‘Lord, Lord!’ when you don’t do what I say? I will show you what it’s like when someone comes to me, listens to my teaching, and then follows it. It is like a person building a house who digs deep and lays the foundation on solid rock. When the floodwaters rise and break against that house, it stands firm because it is well built. But anyone who hears and doesn’t obey is like a person who builds a house without a foundation. When the floods sweep down against that house, it will collapse into a heap of ruins.” (Luke 6:46-49; see also Matt. 7:24-27)

Jesus is not comparing Christians and unbelievers, but two types of Christians—those who listen to his teachings and obey them, and those who listen to his teachings but do not obey them.

What we do with the words of Jesus—especially his Sermon on the Mount teachings about the characteristics of being his disciples (Matthew 5-7)—determines how we respond to life’s hurricanes of crises:

• Obedience to Christ’s teachings creates a strong foundation that will withstand life’s crises.

• Disobedience to Christ’s teachings inevitably leads to major collapses amid life’s crises.

While life’s storms and hurricanes are sure to strike every one of us at some time or another, obedience leads to protection in the midst of these crises. Disobedience doesn’t.

When we read Matthew 5-7 and understand what Jesus teaches and what he calls us to become and to do as his followers, we soon realize that he is calling us to be a unique people whose values are a complete reversal of the world’s value systems.

For example:

• Jesus calls us to both care for people who are poor in spirit, heartbroken, and powerless, and be willing ourselves to be poor in spirit, heartbroken, and powerless, for to such belong the kingdom of God. However, those who are not poor in spirit—the proud, the self-assured, the powerful, the arrogant—are not in God’s kingdom.

• Jesus blesses those who are gentle, meek, and lowly. But the world rejects such qualities as weakness, and places no value on such people.

• Jesus teaches us to seek God’s praise. The world teaches to seek its praise.

• Jesus calls us to seek the Father’s eternal treasures. The world entices us with money, fame, and earthly success that soon fade.

• Jesus calls us to purity of heart and truth. The world persecutes the pure of heart and opposes the truth.

How seriously do we consider such teachings of Jesus? Do we see them as impractical in today’s fast-paced, complex, and sophisticated world? Do we see them as unrealistic? Irrelevant? Too hard?

Or do we, like Peter, consider Jesus’ teachings and respond, “Lord, you alone have the words that give eternal life.” (John 6:68)

Yes, through the love, grace, and mercy of God as expressed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Savior, we have eternal life—now and forever. And yes, we have Jesus’ assurance that no one can snatch us out of his hands (John 10:28).

But we must never forget that not only do the words of Jesus give eternal life, they also contain many warnings to those of us who are prone to ignore them.

There is grace in “once saved always saved,” but there is also the caveat: “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

The Christian journey, therefore, involves the duality of living with both certainty and caution; assurance of eternal salvation and warnings; balancing God’s gift of grace with our individual responsibility to live obediently in response to that grace.

This duality is expressed beautifully by the New Living Translation of Philippians 2:12-13 where Paul writes:

“Dearest friends, you were always so careful to follow my instructions when I was with you. And now that I am away you must be even more careful to put into action God’s saving work in your lives, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire to obey him and the power to do what pleases him.”

May we embrace the duality of following Jesus as today’s disciples—assured of our salvation but always careful to live obediently with deep reverence and fear.

As I write this, I was supposed to be on a United Airline flight from Los Angeles to Montreal, with connections to Brussels, and finally to Entebbe, Uganda. There I was to join the rest of my team on medical aviation flights to two cities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Instead, I am here in Los Angeles, along with most of our team, all deeply disappointed that our mission trip was postponed at the last moment because of terrorist threats aimed at the Entebbe International Airport and nearby areas bordering the Congo.

Sixteen of us from our church were scheduled to join Congolese church leaders at a major two-week conference in two cities to speak to groups of women, youth and religious leaders, business owners, entrepreneurs, civil servants, army and police officers, and educators. The goal was to help them to rebuild their communities and bring about reconciliation among Congolese whose lives, families, and communities were shattered by war and the loss of over six million of their men, women, and children.

The decision by our California church leaders to postpone the trip was made out of concern and responsibility for the safety of our members, but it meant that our Congolese co-leaders—who had spent months mobilizing churches, business owners, military and police officers, teachers, taxi drivers, and other groups, along with arranging air and ground transportation in two cities within their state—faced disastrous consequences if they were to cancel the conference.

So they decided to proceed with the conference with the hope of bringing in additional Congolese speakers, along with four of our team members who were already in transit from European layovers to Entebbe.

In the midst of our deep disappointment at the postponement, a few of us in Los Angeles briefly considered getting on our scheduled flights and continuing on the trip. But we nixed that thought, deciding that it was more important to abide by and respect the combined wisdom and decision of our church’s leadership.

So we consoled ourselves with Paul’s words in Romans 8:28,

“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” (NLT)

God willing, we will be in the Congo at a later date to continue our mission with our Congolese Christian brothers and sisters with whom we have been working over the past five years.

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To understand the ongoing crisis in the Congo, please watch the following video:

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And now for an update on Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, the 27-year-old Sudanese Christian woman who was sentenced to die after refusing to renounce Christianity:

In late June, an appeals court in Sudan ruled that a lower court’s judgment against her was “faulty” and released her after much international pressure. Thank you to those of you who were among the more than one million people who signed the petition to release her. I am convinced that your prayers and social media petitions played a part in her release.

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In my last post, I reported that Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, a pregnant 27-year-old Christian Sudanese mother, is awaiting execution because she has steadfastly refused to deny her faith in Jesus Christ.

But Meriam is not alone in her willingness to remain faithful to Jesus Christ, even if it means being killed. Recently I saw gruesome online videos showing Muslim extremists slaughtering men who had left the Muslim religion to follow Jesus Christ—scenes captured succinctly by Hebrews 11:35b-37a:

But others trusted God and were tortured, preferring to die rather than turn from God and be free. They placed their hope in the resurrection to a better life. Some were mocked and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in dungeons. Some died by stoning, and some were sawed in half; others were killed by the sword.” (NLT)

How do we account for the fact that these former Muslims—living in “closed” countries where the Christian Gospel is forbidden and not known—are willing to die for Jesus Christ?

As I reported in a previous post (http://wp.me/p1fMZH-dI), Jesus has been appearing to many of these Muslim men and women in dreams and visions in such undeniable and powerful ways that once they accept him as their Savior, their faith in him becomes unshakeable—for they experience him as real, living, and encouraging amidst the persecution.

Would you and I—we who live in “open” and free societies where the Christian Gospel is preached and followed—deny our allegiance to Jesus in order to save our lives?

It is easy for us to say that we’d never deny our Lord, but until we are faced with the actual threat of death, we really don’t know how we would respond.

While the vast majority of us will never face such extreme situations and life-or-death decisions, are we denying Jesus in other ways?

Are we denying him by hiding our Christian faith at work…at school…from people…or in the way we operate our businesses?

Are we denying him by giving more importance to people and things over him—to our love of money and material things…to building financial security…to seeking popularity and fame…to getting ahead in our careers…to putting our families before him…and to chasing our dreams at all cost?

While our faith in Jesus Christ has not been tested so far by the threat of death as have our Christian brothers and sisters in Muslim societies, many of us take our faith lightly or for granted, and we chip away at that faith in countless, seemingly benign ways through compromises here and there.

Is our faith genuine? Has it taken root in the good soil mentioned in Jesus’ parable of the four soils (Matthew 13:1-23)?

Or is it rooted in the rocky soil that “represents those who hear the message and receive it with joy. But like young plants in such soil, their roots don’t go very deep. At first they get along fine, but they wilt as soon as they have problems or are persecuted because they believe the word.”? (13:20-21)

Or is it in the thorny ground that “represents those who hear and accept the Good News, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the cares of this life and the lure of wealth, so no crop is produced.”? (13:22)

I pray that none of us will ever be forced to make a life-or-death decision over our allegiance to Jesus Christ. But if we find ourselves in such a position, I pray that we will trust him to sustain and empower us to remain faithful in life and in death.

In the meantime, may we remember our Christian sisters and brothers around the world, some of them at this very moment offering the ultimate gift—their lives—to express their allegiance to Jesus their Lord.

Pray for them daily, especially for Meriam who gave birth to a baby girl in a Khartoum prison hospital wing on May 29.

And thanks to those of you who are among the more than 849,000 who have so far signed the petition to the Sudanese Government to free Meriam.

Grace and peace.

 

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Mariam Yehia Ibrahim and husband Daniel Wani

Meriam Yehya Ibrahim and husband Daniel Wani


Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, a pregnant 27-year-old Sudanese mother, doctor, and Christian, has been sentenced to 100 lashes and death unless she renounces her Christian faith. Her 20-month-old son is in jail with her.

She was born to a Christian mother and a Muslim father, but after her father abandoned the family when she was six years old, her mother raised her as a Christian.

Meriam later married Daniel Wani, an American Christian from South Sudan. However, under Muslim law in Sudan, she is considered to be a Muslim, based on her father’s religion, and is therefore considered guilty of forsaking her religion of birth. The penalty for such apostasy is execution. And the penalty for a Muslim woman marrying a Christian man is flogging.

So, under Sharia law, she was arrested and put in jail with her 20-month-old son last week on Mother’s Day, and is scheduled, upon the birth of her second baby in about a month, to be flogged with 100 lashes, then hung.

Please join me and over 120,000 other people so far in petitioning the government of Sudan to respect the right to freedom of religion and to release Meriam! Please follow this link to sign the petition started by Emily Clarke.

And pray for Meriam and the untold numbers of others all over the world who are daily being persecuted and killed for their faith in Jesus Christ. May they have the boldness to remain faithful to their Lord and Savior.

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The movie, Heaven Is for Real, opens today in theaters all across America and I would encourage everyone to go and see it. Back on July 6, 2011, I wrote about how the book, on which this film is based, impacted my wife and me, so I am reposting that account here today. Grace and peace to you all, and may your hope and assurance of a heavenly reality be rekindled and strengthened.

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I was shopping at Costco recently when I stopped by the book section and spotted the book Heaven Is for Real, about a little boy, Colton Burpo, who underwent emergency surgery for a misdiagnosed appendicitis that nearly took his life just short of his fourth birthday. His story had been featured on several recent TV programs, so I bought the book and read it in one sitting.

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 9.42.29 AMWhen Colton made it through surgery, his family was overjoyed at his miraculous survival, but they were surprised and astonished during the following weeks and months as he began to detail his extraordinary experience of going to heaven during surgery.

He described leaving his body while under anesthesia during surgery, and described exactly what his parents were doing in separate parts of the hospital while he was being operated on. He described being in heaven, meeting people whom he had never met in life, sharing events that happened even before he was born, and described details about heaven that matched the Bible, even though he had never read the Bible because he had not yet learned to read.

One of the events in the book that affected me deeply was when Colton’s father, Todd, described the evening when Colton came into the living room and stood in front of his mother, Sonja, and said to her, “Mommy, I have two sisters.”

His mother replied that he had only one, his older sister, Cassie, but Colton was adamant. “No, I have two sisters. You had a baby die in your tummy, didn’t you?”

“Who told you I had a baby die in my tummy?” asked his mother.

Colton explained that when he was in heaven a little girl ran up to him and wouldn’t stop hugging him. “She did, Mommy. She said she died in your tummy.”

Todd and Sonja were very surprised, for two years after Sonja gave birth to Cassie, she became pregnant with a second child, but miscarried two months into the pregnancy. Eleven months later she gave birth to Colton, but neither Todd nor Sonja had ever told their son about the miscarriage, figuring that he was too young to understand.

Seeing his mother’s bewildered expression, Colton assured his mother, “It’s okay, Mommy. She’s okay. God adopted her.”

“Don’t you mean Jesus adopted her?” Sonja said.

“No mommy. His Dad did!”

Sonja was overwhelmed to learn that the baby had been a girl, and asked Colton a number of questions, including what she looked like (answer, like Cassie, but with dark hair like Sonja’s) and what her name was.

“She doesn’t have a name,” replied Colton, “You guys didn’t name her.”

“You’re right, Colton, we didn’t even know that she was a she,” Sonja said.

At this point, I paused in my reading as tears began to stream down my cheeks. I went into the living room and asked my wife, Diana, to read the four pages describing Colton’s account of meeting his sister in heaven.

While Diana read the pages, I went back into my study and my tears came freely as I thought about our own experience losing two babies to miscarriages.

I had been married twice before meeting Diana, and had produced two daughters from the first marriage and a son from the second. When I married Diana, she was 37 and had never been married nor had she ever had a child. She was hoping that we would have children, but I had been unwilling to have any more children.

But three years later I relented and we decided to try to have a baby. We were joyful when we learned that she was pregnant and for the next two months we lived in anticipation of this addition to our family. But after these two months the baby miscarried. The cause—fibroids in the uterus.

We tried again, she conceived, our hopes rose, but again the same thing happened. For the second time, Diana was devastated by the news, and mourned the losses for months.

After Diana finished reading the four pages, she came into my study and I could see that she, too, had been crying quietly. We hugged for a long while, until Diana said, “I’m glad that I named our babies.”

“You did? I don’t remember. What were their names?” I asked.

“Katherine Elizabeth Coy and Andrew Daniel Coy. The doctor told me that the first baby was a girl, and even though we didn’t know for sure the gender of the second baby, I felt very strongly that it was a boy.”

She paused for a while, and then added, “Even then I knew without a doubt that some day we’ll meet Katherine and Andrew in heaven!”

What was it about reading Colton’s experience meeting his sister in heaven that moved Diana and me so profoundly?

We had always believed that young children who die—including both wanted and unwanted unborn babies—have a special place in heaven. Though there is no direct Scripture passage to support this, a passage such as Psalm 139: 13-16 inspires us to believe in a heavenly Father who loves and cares for us, and has a plan for each of us, even from as early as our beginnings in the womb:

“You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body
and knit me together in my mother’s womb.
Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
your workmanship is marvelous—and how well I know it.
You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion,
as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.
You saw me before I was born.
Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out
before a single day had passed.” (New Living Translation, NLT)

Though we had always believed that we would be united with our babies and other loved ones in heaven, reading the eyewitness account of Colton moved us emotionally and joyfully, and intensified our faith that we would some day meet and recognize our children, Katherine and Andrew.

Most comforting to us is our belief that Katherine and Andrew, along with Colton’s unnamed sister and all the other named and unnamed babies are okay, for Jesus’ Dad adopted them!

Best of all, are Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:14, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.” (NLT)

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Here’s a movie trailer for Heaven Is for Real:

Waiting for the Verdict

Waiting for the Verdict

On my visit to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles a few months ago, I was drawn to a pair of 1859 paintings by the British artist Abraham Solomon because of the biblical implications I saw in them.

The first painting, Waiting for the Verdict, depicts a family waiting outside a courtroom while their loved one is being tried inside for a serious charge. By the expressions and body posture of the family, the wait is long, tiring, and reflects the seriousness of the charge, suggesting that a guilty verdict could be devastating to the family.

The other painting, Not Guilty, shows the relief of the family as they are united with their loved one who has been found innocent of the charges against him.

As I gazed at the paintings, my thoughts went to another court—the divine court that will take place upon the return of Jesus who declared, “I, the Son of Man, will come in the glory of my Father and with his angels and will judge all people according to their deeds.” (Matthew 16:27, NLT)

The Bible states that every person who has ever lived has sinned (Ecclesiastes 7:20), that the punishment for sin is death (Romans 6:23), that all our attempts at being good and righteous are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6), and that every person will be judged for their sin.

But the Bible also shows that many people, despite being guilty, will be pardoned and declared “Not Guilty,” and they will be blessed with eternal life in God’s Kingdom.

The Apostle Paul explains it this way:

“For all have sinned; all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet now God in his gracious kindness declares us not guilty. He has done this through Christ Jesus, who has freed us by taking away our sins. For God sent Jesus to take the punishment for our sins and to satisfy God’s anger against us. We are made right with God when we believe that Jesus shed his blood, sacrificing his life for us.” (Romans 3:23-25a, NLT)

In today’s culture in which the word “awesome” is used so freely and flippantly for almost everything, the implication of this passage is that God is truly awesome and amazing in his love, mercy, and kindness toward us!

He is awesome in that while most other religions require their followers to earn their god’s favor and acceptability, it is only what God has done for us through Jesus Christ that matters.

He is awesome in that even though we are all guilty of our sins, he declares us “not guilty” because of the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

He is awesome in that although all our good deeds could never measure up to his holiness, yet he makes it possible for us to have a right relationship with him simply through our faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:27-28).

The wonderful and powerful message of the Bible is that we no longer have to wait for the verdict on that great Judgment Day. God stands ready to pardon us now—if we are ready to trust Jesus to take away our sins and follow him as Lord.

So, dear reader, where are you today? Still waiting for the verdict? Or are you a “not guilty” believer who follows Jesus?

Not Guilty

Not Guilty

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Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 6.10.10 PM

Between 1998 and 2007, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was ravaged by violent conflicts as tribal warlords and invading rebel armies fought over the country’s rich mineral resources needed by international corporations for the manufacturing of electronic products in cellphones, computers, and cars.

Over six million people died from these conflicts and from malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia, and malnutrition brought on by war conditions. Even today there are still some 1.5 million Congolese who have been displaced or are in refugee camps.

The Evangelical Church—co-pastored by Rev. James Byensi who oversees more than 1,400 churches in Central Africa—is at the forefront of efforts to rebuild communities, resolve conflicts, reconcile enemies, train pastors, teachers, and Christian leaders, and teach good governance to business owners and political leaders, especially in fighting corruption and injustice.

In July—thanks to God and generous friends who donated money on my behalf—I’ll be part of a mission team that will travel to the DRC to work with the Evangelical Church to help individuals develop small businesses through training and micro financing, and by providing a variety of local leaders with advanced training in healthcare, nutrition, and K-12 education.

My role will be to use my background in teaching and curriculum development to train and encourage high-school teachers trying to rebuild their school system shattered by civil war. Many of them are not much older than the disinterested pupils they are trying to teach, and some of the teachers and pupils were once forced by warlords to become child soldiers during the war.

Please keep us in your prayers as we join the Evangelical Church to bring about reconciliation and rebuild the communities of Bunia and Butembo in the DRC.

And please click  the following link to view my photo essay on the Congo.

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