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Archive for the ‘Christian’ Category

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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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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Proponents of the prosperity gospel use selected Bible verses to support their claim that if you follow a series of faith principles, Jesus Christ will bless you with financial wealth, health, and amazing success in all areas of life.

The problem is that these preachers and teachers often use verses such as Psalm 1:1-3 or John 10:10 out of context and twist them to build self-aggrandizing ministries that emphasize financial wealth and success, but neglect a more comprehensive range of Biblical teaching. They become rich through the financial support of gullible followers who blindly fund their ministries in the hope that they, the followers, will experience material and financial success.

Paul calls these people “false teachers” for whom “religion is just a way to get rich” (I Tim. 6:3, 5, NLT), and he warns that:

. . . people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is at the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.” (I Tim. 6:9,10, NLT)

Psalm 1: 1-3 describes the joy of people who delight in God’s Scripture and do his will:

They are like trees planted along the river bank, bearing fruit each season without fail. Their leaves never wither, and in all they do, they prosper.” (NLT)

These false teachers interpret “prosper” to mean primarily material and financial prosperity. However, the real meaning of the passage is not that people who delight in God will be blessed with material prosperity—but that they, being deep-rooted in God’s Scripture and in obeying him, will have everything they’ll need to sustain their lives and bear fruit in all circumstances.

And what is this fruit? According to the Apostle Paul:

But when the Holy Spirit controls our lives, he will produce this kind of fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23, NLT)

The prosperity preachers and teachers also use John 10:10 in which Jesus says,

I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (NKJV).

While they interpret “abundantly” to primarily mean financial and material success, the context of this verse does not imply that. John 10:10 must be seen in the wider context of chapters 8, 9, and 10 in which the Pharisees are seeking to kill Jesus because he has been exposing them for what they are—blind leaders, thieves, and robbers who lead people astray with their false and burdensome teachings and requirements.

In contrast, Jesus describes himself as (a) the “Good Shepherd” (Jn. 10:14) who protects and cares for his true flock (his followers), and (b) the “gate” through which his sheep must enter the sheepfold and find protection and nourishment:

Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. Wherever they go, they will find green pastures. The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give life in all its fullness.” (John 10: 9-10, NLT)

Here Jesus asserts that he is the only way to eternal life and salvation and that he alone can infuse in us a fullness and superabundance of life and vitality for our here-and-now.

Other passages provide additional expressions of our fruitfulness, prosperity, and abundance from God as expressed through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit:

• Answered prayers, fruitfulness, love, and overflowing joy—John 15:7, 8, 11, 12

• Godly lives that are rich in faith, moral excellence, knowledge of God, self-control, patient endurance, love for everyone, and productive living—2 Peter 1:3-9

• Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—Galatians 5:22-23

• Overflowing hope, happiness, and peace—Romans 15:13

• Wonderful divine peace beyond human understanding—Philippians 4:7

• Contentment in whatever state we’re in—Philippians 4:11

So, does faith in Jesus Christ lead to health, wealth, and success?

The answer is “Yes” and “No”—no, in the sense that faith in Jesus Christ does not guarantee material wealth, health, or success; but yes, in the far more important sense that all who are rooted in God through faith and love in Jesus Christ are blessed with spiritual fruitfulness and “filled with the fullness of life and power that comes from God.” (Ephesians 3:14-19)

With such fullness of life and divine fruitfulness, we are indeed wealthy with God’s richest blessings—whether we are sick or healthy, rich or poor, absent in body or present with the Lord.

And yes, it is good for us to make plans about succeeding in our health, education, career, business, and making a profit, but it should always be with the attitude—“If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-16)

And may our journey with Christ reflect the prayer expressed in Proverbs 30:8-9:

. . . give me neither poverty nor riches! Give me just enough to satisfy my needs. For if I grow rich, I may deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ And if I am too poor, I may steal and thus insult God’s holy name.” (NLT)

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Steve Chalke, often called the “Billy Graham of the UK,” on January 15 came out in favor of committed, faithful, same-sex relationships, and posted the following video that explained how, as a long-time evangelical Christian and Baptist pastor of a network of Oasis churches in England, he came to this controversial decision about same-sex relationships and the church:

After the video was published, the BBC interviewed Chalke, and followed up with an interview with American conservative Baptist preacher-educator-sociologist Tony Campolo about his reaction to Chalke’s announcement. Campolo posted the following excerpts of these interviews on his website, Red-Letter Christians:

Click photo of Tony Campolo to listen to radio interviews

Click photo of Tony Campolo to listen to radio interviews

I bring these interviews and video to your attention because, as Campolo writes in a supplemental post on his website:

Steve’s public declaration . . . represents the first time that a major evangelist and leader in the Evangelical community has come out in support of same-sex relationships.  Discussions about what he has done will reverberate from churches, youth groups, seminaries, Bible schools and denominations.  Both those who support same-sex partnerships and gay marriage as well as those who oppose such developments will look upon Steve’s declaration as a watershed.  It is one more evidence that a major shift is taking place on this controversial subject, not only within mainline Christianity, but among Evangelicals.

Indeed, same-sex issues that are upfront in our society, in the voting booth, in the military, and on television shows are also confronting us in our families and in our mainline and evangelical churches.

Last year I had to face this issue as a church leader who was part of a committee that was commissioned to explore and recommend the direction that our congregation should take in response to our denomination’s decision to approve the ordination of gay clergy—a decision that had already resulted in some congregations choosing to leave the denomination.

While our 3,000-plus-member congregation eventually voted not to support our denomination on the ordination issue, we chose to stay within the denomination and be “salt and light” (Matthew 5:13-16) to our denomination and mirror the grace and love of Jesus to gays within our families, churches, and our society.

In a similar vein, Campolo ends his post with:

For my own part, I remain conservative on the issue, but I agree with Steve that the attitudes of many churches are homophobic and cruel.  Whether or not we change our positions on accepting same-sex relationships or even gay marriage, we Evangelicals have to face the reality that the time has come for many of us to change our attitudes towards gay people, and show something of the love and grace of God in the name of His Son Jesus.

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In my memoir, A Jamaican’s Journey to Time and Patience, I reflect on my personal odyssey to discover and fulfill God’s call in my life, heal family wounds, and share Christ’s message of redeeming grace and love. Set against the historical background of 470 years of Spanish and British rule (1492-1962) over Jamaica, the memoir portrays my family whose African, Chinese, and European roots merged in Jamaica during the 1800s, then scattered across the globe in the 1900s. This post is the fourth in a series that will reflect on my Jamaican heritage and how it has shaped my Christian journey.

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In 1960, when I was 16, my mother left me behind in Jamaica and returned with our family to Hong Kong where my stepfather was a linguist at the University of Hong Kong.

She had had enough of my juvenile delinquency and bad grades in Hong Kong, and she accused me of being the cause of her shaky marriage with my stepfather. She also made it clear that they would only support me for one more year of high school in Jamaica until I took the school-leaving General Certificate of Education (Ordinary- or O-Level) exam for fifth-year students.

They would not provide any financial support for me to go on for two more years of advanced (A-Level) studies in preparation for entrance to a university, because to them, I was not university material.

A year later while waiting for the results of my O-Levels, I was faced with either dropping out of school to find a job, or returning to Ardenne High School to pursue Advanced Level (A-Level) studies.

I missed the first week of school for A-level students as I hunted for a job, but Miss Mary Olson, principal of Ardenne, contacted me to find out why I wasn’t in school. When I told her about my parents’ unwillingness to support me beyond the O-Level exams, she said, “Derrick, I will pay for your tuition for the next two years. You get yourself back in school and make the most of these two years. You show too much potential to stop your education now. God has a plan for your life, and I believe that he wants you to be prepared academically for the doors that he will open for you.”

Her generosity and her belief in me surprised and deeply moved me, especially since she saw something in me that my parents didn’t, nor had I seen in myself. Yet, I should not have been surprised, for she and her parents had dedicated their lives to helping the people of Jamaica develop their God-given potential.

Her parents, George and Nellie Olson, were Church of God missionaries from Anderson, Indiana, and had come to the island to establish congregations soon after the 1907 earthquake devastated the city of Kingston. Rev. Olson went on to plant over sixty congregations by the early 1960s and, with Nellie, co-founded Ardenne High School and a Bible institute with the purpose of developing indigenous Christian leaders in Jamaica. Nellie was the first principal of Ardenne High and turned that post over to Mary in 1944.

Could I accept Miss Olson’s offer? Did I have the ability to successfully complete two years of Advanced level studies, and go on to study at a college or university? In the end it was a desire to prove my mother wrong, along with Miss Olson’s generous offer and belief in me, that inspired me to meet the challenge.

So I thankfully accepted Miss Olson’s offer to pay for my tuition. I returned to school the following week to begin A-level studies. I passed both the O- and A-Level exams, and went on to graduate from theological seminary and earn bachelor and masters degrees at universities in the U.S.

Although George and Nellie Olson were born in America, they lived most of their adult lives in Jamaica, and considered themselves Jamaicans, so much so that they chose to be buried there. Mary Olson was born in Jamaica in 1913 and studied at Wolmer’s Girls School before transferring to Ardenne High when it was founded.

Other Jamaicans who influenced me were:

•     Barbara Beckles, an Ardenne student who stood before the class and shared how Christ had changed her life. Her testimony touched me deeply and caused me to yearn for that life of peace and joy that she found in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

•     John Harrison, another Ardenne student, invited me to Constant Spring Church of God a week after Barbara’s testimony. It was there that I committed my life to Jesus Christ during my first visit.

•      Mrs. Lilly Brown and Mr. Beckles were two Ardenne teachers who opened up the treasures of the New Testament teachings for me as a young believer and instilled in me a love for the Scriptures.

•      Rev. Cleve Grant was the pastor of Constant Spring Church of God, under whose preaching I matured and was inspired to become a minister.

•      John and Lena Fisher opened their home and cared for me for three years after my parents left me.

•      The elders of Constant Spring Church of God provided me with a stipend during four years of studies at the Jamaica School of Theology from which I graduated and became a pastor.

•      Mrs. Vidal Smith and Mr. Noel Dexter trained and mentored me in choral singing, and it is because of them that I have continued in music ministry for over five decades.

I am thankful to these individuals and to God for the ways in which they touched my life during the nine years I spent in Jamaica before immigrating to the United States to pursue further studies.

And I have sought over the years to be used by God to touch the lives of people through my roles as a former pastor, businessman, filmmaker, educator, mentor, and writer.

As a volunteer mentor to at-risk teens and as an educator to the high school students who came through my classrooms during my years of teaching, I have especially been vigilant in helping them to believe in themselves and develop their potential, echoing for them the words of Mary Olson:

“God has a plan for your lives, and he wants you to be prepared academically and spiritually for the doors that he will open for you.”

May God grant abundant fruit from the seeds that Mary Olson and others planted in me and through me. Blessed to be a blessing.

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George W. Olson &  Nellie Olson; all three pictures of the Olsons are courtesy of the Outreach Ministries of the Church of God, Anderson, Indiana.

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In my memoir, A Jamaican’s Journey to Time and Patience, I reflect on my personal odyssey to discover and fulfill God’s call in my life, heal family wounds, and share Christ’s message of redeeming grace and love. Set against the historical background of 470 years of Spanish and British rule (1492-1962) over Jamaica, the memoir portrays my family whose African, Chinese, and European roots merged in Jamaica during the 1800s, then scattered across the globe in the 1900s. This post is third in a series that will reflect on my Jamaican heritage and how it has shaped my Christian journey.

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 In 1960, I returned to Jamaica from Hong Kong in time to experience the tail-end of a style of music known as “ska,” and the birth of two new styles called “rocksteady” and “reggae”—all three coming out of Trench Town, a slum section of Kingston.

I often rode my bicycle into Trench Town to visit my high school sweetheart and future wife, Joetta, whose father had a home and business in that part of town. She and I would sit on her verandah and talk of marriage, children, and my becoming a pastor.

And it was on that verandah on Friday and Saturday nights that I first heard the sounds of the deep, thumping bass lines from ska music being played on gigantic sound systems at nearby dance halls. The music was raw, fresh, and all together different from the usual American music played over the Jamaican radio stations.

Music and vocals were being created daily by the local youth of Trench town, their words reflecting the patois of the mean streets and harsh poverty of the unemployed and unemployable. They sang of romance, of sex, of oppression and injustice, and, if they were Rastafarians, of their devotion to their god, Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia.

The rhythm of Ska soon shifted to rocksteady, which in turn evolved to a new form known as reggae, exploding out of the dance halls and onto local radio before gaining international popularity by the ’80s and ’90s.

The story of the musicians behind all three styles is captured in the documentary, “The History of Jamaican Music,” which I have included in the music video section of this blog. The most famous of these musicians was a young man I once met before he became famous—Bob Marley.

Although reggae is more readily identified with Bob Marley and a host of musicians usually associated with the Rastafarian movement, there is another music movement coming out of Jamaica—and it’s called “reggae gospel.”

REGGAE GOSPEL

The driving force behind reggae gospel are musicians and singers who grew up loving reggae, but experienced the life-transforming power of Jesus Christ.

And just as Jesus Christ forgave their sins and called them to a life of holy service in his Kingdom, so, they feel, he has called them to commit their musical instruments, voices, and talents to him and in service for his Kingdom—to proclaim his gospel and sing his praises.

These are the men and women who, with Paul, now proclaim:

“My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20, New living Translation, NLT)

They are also inspired by Scriptural passages such as:

“Sing to Him a new song; Play skillfully with a shout of joy.” (Psalm 33:3, New American Standard Bible, © 1995)

Sing your praise to the Lord with the harp, with the harp and melodious song, with trumpets and the sound of the ram’s horn. Make a joyful symphony before the Lord, the King!” (Psalm 98:5-6, NLT)

“He has given me a new song to sing, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see what he has done and be amazed. They will put their trust in the Lord.” Psalm 40:3, New Living Translation)

The following is a sample of some of these reggae gospel musicians. I hope that you’ll enjoy and be inspired by their music. Please click to view and listen:







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“God, please kill my parents!”

I was sixteen when I uttered that prayer in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I was in the midst of my teenage rebellion and I hated my mother and stepfather, so when they drove off across town to visit friends, I asked God to kill them in a car accident!

Hours later when they returned, I was disappointed that God had not answered my prayer.

I was not a Christian then, but even Christians are sometimes disappointed in the ways in which God responds to prayers.

Our pastor recently shared a true story of a group of Christian women who, while on a retreat in the mountains, decided to hike to the top of a nearby peak during the afternoon. However, a fierce rain and lightning storm blew in suddenly while they were on the peak. Fearing that they would be struck by lightning, they prayed repeatedly that God would stop the lightning, but the lightning continued as they made their way back to the retreat center. They were greatly disappointed that God did not answer their prayers when their lives were in danger.

But another group of women was rejoicing at the center. They, too, had been caught in the storm and had been trapped in a river ravine where the rising waters of a flash flood threatened to sweep them away to their death. It was so dark that they prayed that God would show them a way to safety out of the ravine, and God answered their prayer by providing lightning that illuminated a path to safety!

To the women in the ravine, the series of lightning was an unexpected miraculous answer to prayer.

But God also answered the prayers of the women on the mountain peak, for although they prayed specifically for the lightning to stop, their real, unexpressed prayer was, “God, please don’t kill us on this mountain!” And God didn’t.

It’s been said that God always answers prayers—sometimes with a “yes,” sometimes with a “no,” and sometimes with a “not yet.” Obviously, God’s answer to me that day in Belfast was a definite “No!”

It was a “no,” because it was a prayer asking that harm be done to someone.

It was a “no” because it was being asked out of hate.

It was a “no” because it was being asked by a boy who did not understand who God is.

And it was a “no” because God wanted to give my parents and me time to one day discover how much he loved us and wanted to bless us with eternal life through Jesus Christ.

Less than a year later, I found forgiveness and eternal life through Jesus Christ, and I soon began to pray for the salvation of my parents.

My prayers were answered fifty years later in August 2010, when I had the privilege of praying with my mother as she committed her life to Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, my prayers for my stepfather were not answered in the way I hoped, for he died seemingly rejecting Christ.

And the prayers of many others for the healing of loved ones, even for babies and children, have sometimes gone unanswered, leaving families and friends disappointed, bewildered, and angry at God.

Such disappointment is often intensified when those who prayed did so in faith (Matthew 21:22; Mark 11:24), in the name of Jesus (John 14:13-14), and with thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6-7).

So how do we pray in a way that does not leave us disappointed?

Several passages have guided me over the years on how to pray, and the one thing that they have in common is the emphasis to pray for something if it is in line with God’s will, in harmony with God’s will, or if it is the will or purpose of God.

The first is Matthew 6:10 in which Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “May your will be done here on earth, just as it is in heaven.”

The second is a pair of passages (Matthew 26:39; Luke 22:42) that describe the scene in which Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and he knew that he would be crucified the following day. He told his heavenly father that he did not want to go through with the crucifixion, but then added, “Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” (New Living Translation, 2007, NLT)

The third is Romans 8:26-27 (NLT) where the apostle Paul, knowing how confused we can become about praying, tells us:

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our distress. For we don’t even know what we should pray for, nor how we should pray. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s will.

And recognizing that even when the answer is not to our liking (think of Jesus accepting his crucifixion), Paul assures us that “ . . . 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.” (Verse 28)

The fourth passage is 1 John 5:13-14 (NLT), where the apostle John states:

I write this to you who believe in the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. And we can be confident that he will listen to us whenever we ask him for anything in line with his will. And if we know he is listening when we make our requests, we can be sure that he will give us what we ask for.

Only when we are committed to truly seeking to live in line with God’s will and purpose—and not our own—will we not be disappointed in how God answers our prayers, for we know that whatever happens, God causes everything to work together for our good.

It’s then that we’ll be confident that he will listen to us whenever we ask him for anything in line with his will.

****

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During the recent Thanksgiving week as church members and I were in our church parking lot preparing boxes of food for needy families throughout Los Angeles, I looked out over the fog-covered San Fernando Valley below and saw the distant and majestic snow-capped peaks of the Hopper Mountain Wildlife Refuge to the north west and the Angeles National Forest to the north east.

Those mountaintops and the San Fernando Valley are constant reminders for me of our spiritual journey during which we encounter mountaintop experiences of joy, victories, and celebrations that are often followed by spiritual valleys of deep discouragement, hardship, and failure.

I think of Elijah’s experience on Mount Carmel when he, through God’s mighty power, was victorious over the 450 prophets of the pagan god, Baal, yet how quickly Elijah became fearful, depressed, and fled from queen Jezebel when she sent soldiers to kill him. (I Kings 18-19:18)

As in Psalm 23:4, the valley has come to represent the spiritually dark, harsh, sometimes dangerous places of life in which we experience failure, danger, defeat, despair, and depression, and where death is sometimes just a breath or a decision away.

I’ve journeyed through several of those valleys, the most difficult one in the early 1980s when I was out of work for 23 months and was almost homeless. In the midst of the ensuing depression, death seemed very inviting.

But like many Bible figures going through their own dark valleys, it was my willingness to cry out to God in my despair and to hang on to his promises found in his holy Scriptures that saved me from giving in to despair. Most importantly, it was God’s promise that he would not leave or forsake any of us that kept me going one day at a time.

These Bible characters, for example – Joseph (Genesis 37-50), Moses (Exodus through Deuteronomy), Joshua (Joshua 1-24), David (I Samuel16-I Kings 2; Job (Job 1-42), Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 1-12, especially chapters 3 and 6) – always turned to God in their crises and held on to God’s promises.

And we see in the following passages the many occasions during which David despaired for his life when various people tried to kill him, yet he cried out to God and clung to God’s promise of faithfulness to those who trust him:

The Crises                  David’s Responses
• I Samuel 19                Psalm 59
• I Samuel 21                Psalms 34 and 56
• I Samuel 22                Psalms 52 and 142
• I Samuel 23                Psalm 54
• I Samuel 24                Psalms 57 and 63
• 2 Samuel 22               Psalm 18
• 2 Samuel 12                Psalm 51
• 2 Samuel 15                Psalms 3 and 7

Mountaintop experiences are few and far between on our spiritual journey. Most of the time we live on spiritual plains where things are normal with every-day experiences. It’s here that we are content to go through our routines with few ups and downs. It’s here that we are safe in our comfort zones.

But every now and then our lives are suddenly interrupted with an unplanned crisis along our journey—sickness, death, unemployment, divorce, loneliness, abandonment, or some other unwanted event, some so severe that we wonder if we’ll ever survive. This is the dark Valley of Psalm 23:4!

Yet it is in the Valley that we have the opportunity to grow spiritually and be strengthened for life’s arduous journey ahead, for it is here that our self-reliance is likely to fail us and, like David, we have to rely on God to protect and guide us through the dark days.

Whether this Valley breaks us, embitters us, and defeats us, or whether it transforms and strengthens us to meet the challenges and become well-adjusted survivors of the crises, depends on how willing we are to seek God with all our heart throughout the whole Valley experience.

Some of us give up in despair if God doesn’t rescue us quickly, and we end up being bitter or angry with God. Some stop believing in him. Sadly, some take their own lives if they cannot find their way out of the Valley.

But we can be sustained, comforted, and strengthened during our Valley sojourn by relying completely on God through our fellowship with Jesus Christ and by being nourished through the daily study of Scripture and prayer.

And it helps to have a community of caring Christians who love and support us through our travail.

For any among us who might be going through the Valley at this time, take courage with these words from the apostle Peter:

Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange is happening to you. Instead, be very glad—because these trials will make you partners with Christ in his suffering, and afterwards you will have the wonderful joy of sharing his glory when it is displayed to all the world. (I Peter 4:12-13, New Living Translation, NLT)

These trials are only to test your faith, to show that it is strong and pure. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—and your faith is far more precious to God than mere gold. So if your faith remains strong after being tried by fiery trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world. (I Peter 1:7, NLT)

Now, you might be thinking, Come on! How can we be glad or joyful when we are in the midst of suffering and trials?

As someone who has gone through the Valley at various times in my six decades of life, I can testify to the fact that it is in the midst of the pain, tears, brokenness, and despair that we can experience a very special, deep fellowship with the living Christ, and it is he who blesses us with his joy and peace—and it is for this that we can be glad and rejoice!

I have always found great comfort, strength, and joy in God’s Word, from such passages as James 1:2-4 (NLT):

Dear brothers and sisters, whenever trouble comes your way, let it be an opportunity for joy. For when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be strong in character and ready for anything.

. . . Romans 5:3-5 (NLT), where Paul reminds us that because of our faith in, and fellowship with, Jesus Christ:

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us—they help us to endure. And endurance develops strength of character in us, and character strengthens our confident expectation of salvation. And this expectation will not disappoint us. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.

. . . and I Thessalonians 5:16-18 (New International Version, NIV):

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

So, no matter where we are in our spiritual journey at this time as we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior—in the midst of a mountaintop high, on the pleasant plains where all is well, or in the dark Valley—

Rejoice and give thanks!

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