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Early last month I was invited to write a guest post for ReDEFINE, a blog about race, religion, justice, and culture in the United States. Below is a version of that post.

 

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When I immigrated to the United States from Jamaica in 1969, one of the first challenges I faced was selecting the racial categories on college, government, and job forms and applications. One could check the box labeled “Negro,” “White,” “Hispanic,” “Native American,” or “Asian,” if one were one of those, but there was no category that allowed me to accurately list my racial makeup. So I always ignored the boxes and wrote in the margins “OTHER.”

I am of a black-white-Chinese mixture: My maternal grandmother was black, a descendant of Maroons—former runaway slaves who fought and won their independence from Britain 170 years before that country abolished slavery in 1808 and emancipated slaves in Jamaica and other British colonies in 1838; my maternal grandfather was a Hakka Chinese immigrant from the Kwangtung province in South China, who immigrated to Jamaica in the early 1900s and became a grocer; my mixed-race paternal grandfather was a descendant of an English barrister who came to Jamaica in the early 1800s and became a plantation owner and magistrate; and my paternal grandmother was white, a descendant of German immigrants to Jamaica.

My mixed race is a common characteristic of many in Jamaica, a small Caribbean island nation whose national motto is “Out of many, one people”—people whose Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 3.02.09 PMfaces and skin colors reflect the intermingling of the races of our ancestors from such diverse countries as Africa, England, Whales, Scotland, Ireland, China, India, Germany, Spain, Lebanon, Syria, and from the Jewish diaspora, some coming to the island under the Spanish control in the 1500s, others coming under the British in the 1600s, and still others coming under the indentured program that Britain started in 1838 to fill the sudden labor shortage on plantations after the emancipation of slaves.

My first encounter with racism was in 1967 when our Jamaican youth choir toured America. While in Washington, D.C., the members of our choir stayed in the homes of various American families. My hosts were a white couple who welcomed me to their high-rise apartment, and, at one point during my stay, invited me to go swimming in the pool on the building’s ground floor. However, when I entered the gated area of the pool, the building’s manager stopped me and told me that I could not swim in the pool because it was a “whites only” pool. When I went back up to my hosts and told them what had happened, they were embarrassed and very apologetic.

Two years later when I returned to the U.S. and enrolled in my denomination’s small, predominantly white liberal arts college in Indiana, I was surprised by the reaction I received half way through the semester—not from the whites on campus, but from a group of black students. They were highly critical of me and other foreign students of color because we did not choose to sit exclusively with them in the cafeteria and at other social events. They accused us of being “uppity” or “Uncle Toms” for associating so much with white students. The parents of a black student went so far as to warn her not to date African students because they acted as if they were superior. This was at a time when there was a segment among the black population in America, including some of these students, who had grown impatient with the pace of the civil rights movement and had become more militant and separatist under the “Black Power” slogan and intolerant towards any minority who fraternized with whites, whom they called “Whitie” or “The Man.”

While we foreign students of color understood the defensive mindset of the black students because of the centuries of white racism against blacks and other minorities in America, most of us were from countries where we were in the majority and were far less likely to be defensive about our relationship with whites. The biases and prejudices of our home countries were more about differences in social class, religion, clans, or tribes. So as someone from a multiethnic family and culture, I was unwilling to take a separatist approach to my new life in America.

However, what defined me was not so much my multiethnic Jamaican heritage, but rather my personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I fell in love with him as a result of a dramatic spiritual conversion at age 17 when he led me from out of a life of violence and juvenile delinquency to follow him in a life of discipleship, and of loving and serving people. During nearly five decades living in the United States, the image of myself as a beloved and valued child of God was the main factor that sustained me through the ups and downs of finding my way in a society and culture that sometimes could be harsh, cruel, and racist.

This image sustained me through the lean college years as I pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees by working a combination of part-time jobs supplemented with education loans and grants; through entry-level jobs, job layoffs, periods of unemployment, including one that lasted 23 months; through bankruptcy, divorce, depression, near-homelessness; and through racist encounters with people, including a white former father-in-law who refused to acknowledge or speak to me and never accepted his first grandson, the only child of his daughter and me. Throughout all this, I have tried to mirror the grace, love, and forgiveness of Jesus Christ to all individuals I encountered.

Screen Shot 2014-11-20 at 1.04.02 PMThat approach has served me well, for at 71, I can truly say that life in the United States has been good for me and has allowed me to achieve my version of the American Dream—a solid educational foundation, university degrees, fulfilling jobs and careers, home ownership, U.S. citizenship, strong family and church ties, community leadership and respect, a healthy lifestyle, worldwide travel, and a comfortable retirement that is allowing me to volunteer with faith-based partners to serve the poor in Los Angeles, India, and the Congo.

Although much of America’s overt racism of the past has disappeared, it still exists inconspicuously in hiring, job advancement, housing, and in various levels of society. While I live in a very racially diverse San Fernando Valley suburb of Los Angeles, and often take four-mile power walks at various hours of the day or night in my neighborhood, even sometimes at 4 a.m. when I cannot sleep, I would not risk such an early morning walk in nearby Beverly Hills because I would surely be stopped and frisked by the police. And while I enjoy playing golf at various courses around the country, there are still certain courses where I would not be welcomed or allowed because of my color.

Yes, while I am thankful for the opportunities that America has given me, I am also very aware that for millions of individuals of various races and colors living in
the U.S., the American Dream is still not a reality. They still face prolonged unemployment, poverty-level wages, injustice, police profiling and brutality, discrimination, suppression of their voting rights in various cities and states, and part of a political system that favors the rich over the poor. Recent events in Ferguson and in major cities around the country reflect the anger and discontent that people feel over these conditions.

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Nevertheless, I remain hopeful for my adopted country, for just as she has progressed to where there is now a space for “OTHER” on application forms, and “WHITES ONLY” signs have officially been removed from public places, I’m optimistic that her growing racial and cultural diversity will eventually reflect Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream in which our “children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

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As you celebrate this Thanksgiving Day, may you take a moment to enjoy this song of thanks by our friends and fellow singers at our partner church, Christian Assembly, Eagle Rock, California, and may you be inspired by the prayer, “The Canticle of the Creatures,” by St. Francis of Assisi.

May the words of the Apostle Paul encourage you to remember each day to “Always be joyful. Keep on praying. No matter what happens, always be thankful, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.” (I Thess. 5:16, NLT)

The Canticle of the Creatures

Most High, all-powerful, all-good Lord,
All praise is yours, all glory, honor and blessings.
To you alone, Most High, do they belong;
no mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.

We praise you, Lord, with all your creatures,
especially for Brother Sun,
who is the day through whom you give us light.
He is beautiful and radiant with great splendor,
and bears a likeness of you, Most High one.

We praise you, Lord, for Sister Moon and the stars,
in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair.

We praise you, Lord, for Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather,
by which You cherish all that You have made.

We praise you, Lord, for Sister Water,
so useful, humble, precious and pure.

We praise you, Lord, for Brother Fire,
through whom You light the night.
He is beautiful, playful, robust, and strong.

We praise you, Lord, for Sister Earth,
who sustains us
with her fruits, colored flowers, and herbs.

We praise you, Lord, for those who pardon,
who, for your love, bear sickness and trial.
Blessed are those who endure in peace,
for by you, Most High, they will be crowned.

We praise you, Lord, for Sister Death,
from whom no one living can escape.
Woe to those who die in their sins!
Blessed are those she finds doing your will.
for the second death shall do them no harm.

We praise and bless you, Lord, and give you thanks,
and serve you in all humility.

– St. Francis of Assisi

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As a young American Muslim, Dr. Nabeel Qureshi was very knowledgeable about the Quran and was trained to defend the Islam religion against Christians. Yet, in his search to know God more personally and deeply, he went on a search to critique both the Christian Bible and the Quran. The result was that he became disillusioned about what he found in the Quran and Islam, and became convinced that the claims of Christianity and the Bible were true.

In this interview, he tells how a college friend and a series of dreams from God became the major influences in his conversion to Jesus Christ, and how his conversion cost him the loss of his family:

In this next video, which was recorded at Biola University were he was teaching a course on Christian apologetics and Islam, Nabeel goes more in depth about his journey from Islam to Christianity, especially the differences between Islam and Christianity, and how to communicate correctly, confidently, and respectfully the Christian Gospel to Muslims.

In I Peter 3:15, Peter admonishes us to always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks us to give the reason for the hope that we have in Christ. However, Nabeel found that very few Christians could give a reasonable and informed response in defense of their Christian faith. Can you?

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Dear brothers and sisters,

You are not forgotten. We see the horrible, graphic pictures on the Internet of those among your ranks who have been slaughtered because they chose to follow Jesus as their Lord and Savior. And we know that you, who remain in areas controlled by Islamist extremists, live under daily threat of being beheaded or raped. Even your little children are victims of these horrors.

I write to remind you of Jesus’ encouragement to all who would follow him:

Don’t be afraid, but be glad and rejoice

“Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill you. They can only kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt. 10:28)

So when your persecutors demand that you renounce Jesus Christ or you die, remember that your physical death pales in significance to the eternal consequence of denying Christ in this life (Matt. 10:32-33). If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give it up for Christ, you will find it (Matt. 10:39).

Jesus assures you that even in the midst of danger and in death, your Father in heaven is aware of you and everything that is happening to you. So don’t be afraid, you are more valuable to him than even a single sparrow that dies in his care (Matt. 10:31).

Moreover, Jesus encourages you to be glad and rejoice in the midst of your persecution, for not only is he blessing you with his blissful presence that fills you with joy and peace as you face your persecutors, he assures you that your reward will be great in heaven. So, yes, rejoice! God’s kingdom is yours—now in this life and in eternity! (Matt. 5:10-12)

Be wary and wise as snakes and harmless as doves

In this current climate of Islamist terrorists of a variety of stripes—ISIS, IS, ISIL, Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda, and others—you are as vulnerable as lambs in the midst of wolves (Matt. 10:16a), so Jesus offers you these specific ways of conducting yourselves:

• Be wary and wise as snakes (Matt. 10:16b)—Be alert and observant about what is happening around you, and don’t be impulsive and gullible. Avoid premature martyrdom, and flee to safety when possible. Don’t be afraid to speak in defense of your faith in Christ, for the Spirit of the Lord will tell you what to speak. (Matt: 10:19, 20, 23).

• Be harmless as doves (Matt. 10:16c)—Like Jesus, you are to be nonviolent, peaceful, and harmless. It is Jesus’ deliberate will for us to live in weakness so that we might flourish in his strength (2 Cor. 12:9-10).

While Jesus does not forbid his followers from having weapons, presumably for defense (Luke 22:36), in almost every other instance he tells us not to resist when persecuted. For example, when Peter used a sword to defend Jesus, Jesus told him, “Put away your sword. Those who use the sword will be killed by the sword.” (Matt. 26:52; Luke 22:47-51; John 18:10-11)

So when they bomb your churches, you are not to bomb their mosques; when they invade your homes and chop off the heads of your children, do not attack their homes to do likewise to their children, nor should you render evil for evil. Vengeance belongs to God alone (Rom. 12:19).

Love your persecutors and pray for them

You have heard that the law of Moses says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you. In that way you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5:43-45, NLT)

Loving your enemies, especially those who seek to harm and kill you, is not something that is a natural human ability, but Jesus gives you the divine ability to love your enemies, even your persecutors. How?

By praying for them—As followers of Jesus, you are instructed to seek the welfare of your enemies through prayer and forgiveness. Follow the examples of Jesus and Stephen who, as they were being killed, prayed that God would forgive their killers (Luke 23:34; Acts 7:59-60).

By blessing them—If people persecute you because you are a Christian, don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them (Rom. 12:14).

By heeding the warning about forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer—Jesus taught us that when we ask our heavenly Father to forgive our sins, we must also forgive those who sin against us, and if we refuse to forgive others, God will not forgive our sins (Matt. 6:14-15).

Take heart, Jesus has overcome the world

The mission of Islamist terrorists is to use hate, violence, fear, and murder to intimidate peoples and nations into submission, and make the entire world into an Islamic State. However, God will not allow this to happen.

When Jesus was about to return to heaven, he told his disciples to expect hardship, trials, and persecution because of their allegiance to him, but he assured them that he has already won the ultimate victory over those who would oppose him:

“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NLT)

“Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean that he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or are hungry or cold or in danger or threatened with death? (Even the Scriptures say, ‘For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.’) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.” (Rom. 8:36-37, NLT)

From Genesis to Revelation, our Scriptures tell us that Jesus, the perfect Lamb of God who died to take away our sins, will return as the Conquering Lion of God and defeat Satan and his evil forces.

So brothers and sisters in Christ, you who are being persecuted because of your faith in Jesus Christ, take courage and be strengthened in the knowledge that God is about to destroy ISIS and the myriads of similar Satanic forces that seek to persecute the body of Christ. Their days are numbered, and God will defeat and destroy them as surely as he destroyed Hitler’s murderous Nazi regime and other tyrannical forces throughout history.

May you be encouraged in the knowledge that millions of Christian believers throughout our planet are praying for you that, whether you live or die, your faith and witness remain strong and unmovable, and that the Lord will be pleased with your life of worship, praise, and sacrifice.

And may our Father’s grace, love, and peace bless and sustain you. Amen.

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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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