Sunday, January 31, 2016

Paying Back Old Debts, and Christian Persecution Today

George Weidenfeld died on January 20. 

I’m embarrassed to say that, until my friend Belle Jarniewski of the Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre drew my attention to his passing at age 96, I had no idea who he was—or what this Jewish Holocaust survivor had done to help Christians in danger from the Islamic State.

Born in Austria in 1919, Weidenfeld escaped to Britain in 1938 before the Nazis invaded Europe and launched their “final solution” against Jews.

In those early years in a new country, he credited British Christians—especially the Plymouth Brethren—for helping him escape and for providing food and clothing.

Weidenfeld went on to become a successful publisher, building Weidenfeld & Nicolson into one Britain's most influential publishing houses. He was also a passionate supporter of Israel and Jewish causes.

What caught my attention was the Weidenfeld Safe Havens Fund, an initiative he created last year to rescue Syrian Christians from the war in that country. In launching the fund, he said he had “a debt to repay” to Christians who had helped him.

That debt, he added, also “applies to so many of the young people who were on the Kindertransports. Quakers and other Christian denominations brought those children to England. 

"It was a very high-minded operation and we Jews should also be thankful and do something for the endangered Christians.”

Last summer, the Fund helped the first group of 150 Syrian Christians escape to Poland, where they will receive up to 18 months of support.

They are the lucky ones. The same week that Weidenfeld died, Open Doors USA, which tracks Christian persecution around the world, released its annual report of the top 50 countries where it is dangerous to be a Christian.

The organization, which defines persecution as imprisonment, torture, death, the loss of home and assets, loss of a job or rejection from a community, said that 2015 was the most violent for Christians in modern history, rising to "a level akin to ethnic cleansing."

In total, more than 7,000 Christians were killed in 2015 for "faith-related reasons," up from 4,000 in 2014. 

At the same time, about 2,400 churches were attacked or damaged, a figure double the number of churches attacked in 2014.

"The levels of exclusion, discrimination and violence against Christians is unprecedented, spreading and intensifying," said David Curry, president and CEO of Open Doors USA.

For the 14th consecutive year, North Korea ranked as the most dangerous place to be a Christian. Open Doors USA estimates that between 50,000 to 70,000 Christians are imprisoned in labour camps in that country.

But most of the persecution faced by Christians today occurs in predominantly Muslim nations, the organization said.  Rounding out the top ten are Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Iran, and Libya.

But it’s not only radical Islamic groups like ISIS, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab that are victimizing Christians.

"Less well known are the tens of thousands of Christians leaving the 12 sharia states of northern Nigeria, where 27 million Christians remain second-class citizens," the organization stated.

"In Kenya, many Christians are fleeing from the Muslim-majority areas. Tens of thousands continue to brave desert and trafficking gangs to leave Eritrea.”

By releasing the report, Open Doors USA hopes Christians in the West will be reminded to not only pray for fellow believers worldwide, but also call on Western governments to put pressure on countries like Saudi Arabia and India—both in the top 50 of the organization’s list of countries where Christians are persecuted.

"We believe in religious freedom for all," Curry said, "and that does not happen in countries that we do business with every day."

A report like this reminds those of us who are Christians in Canada that, compared to the experience of Christians in many other nations, things are very good in this country.

And while we might not be able to emulate George Weidenfeld’s example by peronally rescuing people who are endangered because of their beliefs, we can be like him by praying for everyone who is being persecuted and suffering because of their religion.

From the Jan. 30, 2015 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

What is the Future of the Church? The Church Guy Has an Idea or Two

“Change is always occurring. But when that change appears more dramatic than usual, it can feel frightening . . . I think that the Christian Church across Canada is experiencing such a time of dramatic change.”

So began a Church Guy blog post by Willard Metzger, Executive Director of Mennonite Church Canada, one of the largest Mennonite denominations in Canada.

He went on to write about recent conversations with friends about the state of the church today.

For many, church feels like "spending energy keeping things alive, 
just for the sake of keeping things alive."

“For many, it has often felt like spending energy keeping things alive, just for the sake of keeping things alive,” he wrote. “This has become a tough sell for many people.”

God is still “very active in redeeming the world,” he went on to say.

“But has sharing the Good News of Jesus become a means to assure the ministry and financial sustainability of an institutional church? That would seem misguided to me.” 

Instead, he wrote he sees “a future where people are invited to discover their own vision through Christ rather than keep the dream of the church alive.”

Intrigued by his post, I asked Metzger to share more about how he viewed the changes facing his church, and the church in general Canada today—what was causing it, and what he thought it meant for organized Christianity in this country.

“In broad strokes, it’s the dynamic of post-Christendom context,” he said. 

“In Christendom, all good people went to church regularly, supported the church and shared financial resources with it.”

But that context has changed, he said. Church attendance is falling, people no longer want to serve on church committees, and many aren’t interested in supporting church structures and institutions—structures that “just don’t fit into this post-Christendom context.”

But if these structures and denominations are on their way out, what’s next? For Metzger, it’s too early to tell.

“I would say that it’s a couple decades before we really see what the new sense of church life will look like,” he said.

And what’s the role of denominations during this time? 

For him, their role will be to help individual Christians and congregations “navigate a sustained period of uncertainty and confusion.”

This won’t be easy, he says; most people are by nature very uncomfortable with uncertainty—they want to know where they are going. But trying to come up with answers too quickly isn’t the solution. 

What does God want for the church? To recover "trust in God."

Doing that, he said, “will short-change a very important process that God wants to take the church through.”

And what is that thing God wants to do? It will be “a recovery of what it means to trust in God,” he said.

Instead of trusting in their own abilities, skills, gifts and ideas for what is the best thing to do during this time of change, this time of uncertainty will give Christians a chance to recover their “need to wait and rely on God.”

He acknowledges that this time of uncertainty will be especially hard for those who are employed by churches, such as pastors and denominational staff, or those who work for church-supported organizations and schools.

“There’s clearly a pastoral role for people losing jobs,” he shared of the need to come alongside and offer support.

Despite the changes and the uncertainty facing his denomination, Metzger is excited for the future.

“I think there will be a strong ownership at a congregational level,” he says of a recommendation going to his denomination’s summer assembly to reconstitute and re-imagine the purpose, shape and role of the national body.

“It’s not an end of the national church, but a pretty significant restructuring of our national priorities.” It will “require a reduction to the bare essentials before we can see the new growth that will emerge.”

As for his role as a leader, he thinks this is a time to model “non-anxious confidence.”

"When we need to know what we need to know, God will let us know."

This isn’t a “passive letting of whatever happens happen, but a confidence that when we need to know what we need to know, God will let us know,” he said.

“We are being invited to recover our sense of trust in God,” he added. “We can’t do that if we know where we are going . . . we can’t see the future, but we can develop a confidence in a God who knows the future.

You can read more of Willard’s reflections on his Church Guy blog.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Tired of all the Bad News in the Media? So is the Pope

Muslims protecting a Christian church in Pakistan, 2003

Tired of all of the bad stories in the media? Are all the reports about terrorism, crime, tragedy and suffering wearing you down?

If your answer is yes, you’re not alone—Pope Francis feels that way, too.

In his year-end address, the Pope called on the media to tell more positive and inspirational stories to counterbalance all the evil, violence and hate in the world.

He noted that 2015 had been a difficult year, what with all the “violence, death, unspeakable suffering by so many innocent people, refugees forced to leaves their countries, men, women and children without homes, food or means of support,” the Pope said.

But, he added, there have also been “so many great gestures of goodness” to help those in need, “even if they are not on television news programs (because) good things don't make news.”

It’s not true that good things don’t make the news—all media outlets carry many stories of how people do things to help others. 

But it is also true that most news line-ups feature a preponderance of what many would consider bad stories. And a lot of those stories are about radical Islamic terrorism and violence.

So, with the Pope’s words in mind, here’s a good news story about Muslims that didn’t make a splash locally. 

It happened in Kenya on December 21 when armed al-Shabab extremists stopped a bus carrying more than 60 passengers, mostly women, near the town of Mandera in the northeast part of the country.

According to news reports about the incident, after stopping the bus the terrorists ordered the passengers to form two separate lines. One line was for Muslims, and the other for Christians—who they would then kill.

But something unexpected happened: The female Muslims on board the bus gave the Christian women headscarves to prevent them from being identified. They also helped other Christians hide behind some bags on the bus. And they refused to get into separate lines. 

They told the attackers if they wanted to kill Christians, they would have to kill all of them. 

Unfortunately, two people were killed in the attack: A Christian man who tried to run away was shot, as was the driver of a truck behind the bus. But everyone else survived.

That wasn’t the only good news story involving Muslims at Christmas; another happened in Lens , France when Muslim men stood guard outside a church to protect Christians from any potential attacks during a midnight Christmas Mass. 

There were other stories like these as well last year, in places like Norway , Egypt and Pakistan . But stories like these don’t get the same coverage as terrorist attacks.

Part of me understands why; death and destruction usually attracts more readers and viewers, as the click counts on media websites often shows. But another part of me is sad. Wouldn’t it be great if the media spent as much time covering these acts of kindness and solidarity?

In his book The News: A User’s Manual, British author Alain de Botton asks why we get so many stories about disaster and celebrities, but not as much about ordinary people doing kind an decent things.

“Our nation isn’t just a severed hand, a mutilated grandmother, three dead girls in a basement, embarrassment for a minister, trillions of debt, a double suicide at the railway station and a fatal five-car crash by the coast,” he writes.

“[Our nation] is also the cloud floating right now unattended over the church spire, the gentle thought in the doctor’s mind as he approaches the patient’s bare arm with a needle, the field mice by the hedgerow, the small child tapping the surface of a newly hardboiled egg while her mother looks on lovingly, the nuclear submarine patrolling the maritime borders with efficiency and courage, the factory producing the first prototypes of a new kind of engine and the spouse who, despite extraordinary provocations and unkind words, discovers fresh reserves of patience and forgiveness.”

We need the media to report challenging, difficult and tragic news. But the next time you hear about another radical Islamic terrorist attack—and there will be more—or about crime in the inner city, political malfeasance at any level, or any other number of bad, tragic and painful things, remember these aren't the only stories out there.

They are just the ones that made it into the media. 

From the Jan. 9, 2015 Winnipeg Free Press

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God? For that Matter, Do Christians?

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

That question was brought into sharp focus last month when Wheaton College, the premiere evangelical university in the U.S., suspended professor Larycia Hawkins for suggesting that members of the two great faiths worship the same deity.

Hawkins, who teaches political science at Wheaton, made the claim in a show of solidarity with American Muslims.

In a statement, she said that she stood with her Muslim neighbours because of their human dignity, because we are all human beings, and because “they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And . . . we worship the same God.”

In putting Hawkins on leave, Wheaton stated that “while Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, we believe there are fundamental differences between the two faiths, including what they teach about God's revelation to humanity, the nature of God, the path to salvation and the life of prayer.”

I suspect that Wheaton’s decision had as much to do with not offending major donors as it did with doctrinal orthodoxy. Whatever the reason, the suspension sparked a debate across the U.S. and throughout the media and the Internet.

As I read about the controversy, I thought: Forget whether or not I, as a Christian, worship the same God as my Muslim friends. 

The bigger question is: Do I even I worship the same God as some other Christians in the news these days?

Take, for example, the Republican candidates vying to become the next President of the U.S. 

Many evoke faith in Christianity. Yet some are stoking anger and hatred against Muslims, calling for them to be deported from that country. They also take a very unChristian stance towards Syrian refugees, not wanting to let any into their country.

I have to say I don’t recognize the God they claim to worship.

Then there's Jerry Falwell Jr., President of Liberty University, who told students in December that they should, like him, carry guns on campus.

“I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in, and killed them” he said to applause from students and faculty at the university. 

I don’t recognize his God, either.

Or consider Franklin Graham, son of Billy and president of the evangelical Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief and development organization. 

In addition to saying hurtful things about Muslims, he has voiced support for Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on the rights of LGBT people in Russia.

Graham’s God is also foreign to me.

And what about the God worshipped by the Westboro Baptist Church, a group that preaches hate towards gays and Jew?

Or the God worshipped by the prosperity gospel preachers like Joel Osteen—people who tell their followers that God is like a spiritual ATM who wants them to be rich?

Then there’s the God worshipped by Scott Lively, the American church leader behind Uganda’s brutal crackdown against gays, and the God worshipped by Robert Lewis Dear, who claimed he was following God by attacking the Planned Parenthood office in Colorado Springs, killing three people.

These people all call themselves Christians. They claim to be worshipping the same God I do.

But if that’s the case, I can’t see it.

For me, there are a couple of takeaways from this whole thing.

First, it’s a reminder to those of us who belong to other religions that we need to be careful not to lump all Muslims together. If Christians can’t agree about what God wants, why should we expect them to be any different?

Second, instead of worrying about whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God, I’d rather ask a different question. 

The question I’d like to ask is found in the book of Micah in the Jewish scriptures, or what Christians call the Old Testament. 

In chapter 6, verse 8, it says: “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

If more people of faith did that, regardless of which God they worship, maybe this world would be a better place for everyone.

From the January 2, 2016 Winnipeg Free Press.