Monday, December 29, 2014

A Politically Incorrect Christmas in Baghdad

I have a close friend who recently wrote a very telling reflection I would like to share with you. I attended college with this committed man of faith and even worked for his organization for a time when I was in my early 20s. Amir George is an Assyrian Christian who now splits his time primarily between Baghdad, Iraq, and Washington, DC, advocating for a homeland for persecuted Assyrian Christians. Because he works at least part of the time in one of the world's most dangerous cities (and does so without a "minder"), he wrote his book, Liberating Iraq: The Untold Story of the Assyrian Christians, under a pseudonym. I know him by a different name than "Amir" but for obvious reasons won't reveal that here.

Anyway, my friend's words (below) really set me to thinking about the interesting contrasts between a place like America, founded as "one nation under God," and a place like Iraq, whose people have again and again suffered under the brutality of despotism, war, privation, and terrorism.

So, without further adieu, here is my friend's note. I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments section.

- Larry

A Politically Incorrect Christmas in Baghdad!

Walking the streets of Washington DC in the days leading up to Christmas, a few years back, a most interesting realization slowly dawned on me.

Nowhere, and I mean absolutely nowhere, was Jesus to be found in the midst of all the extensive Christmas decorations and celebrations. In the stores, on the streets, wherever you turned, it was Christmas, but Christmas without Christ!

I started talking to people and asking them a simple question: "Isn't Christmas the birthday of Jesus?"

The answers I got were quite amazing.Literally everybody I talked to paused and said, "You know, you`re right! It is supposed to be Christ's birthday. What happened to Jesus?"

It is the most amazing thing. Imagine if you had a birthday ... your friends all came over, they partied, they ate, they exchanged presents and everybody acted if you didn't even exist.

Well, after a few minutes of that you would want to stand up and shout, "Hey! What's going on here? It's my birthday!"

After speaking with dozens of people, I began to get angry.

No matter what faith, creed, color — and you can find just about anything in Washington DC — they agreed, there was something wrong with this picture.

It's Christmas, celebrated as the birth of humanity's central historical figure, Jesus, and amazingly, there appears to be a very studied attempt to completely ignore Him.

Contrast That to Baghdad

I am an Assyrian Christian and my family is originally from the Iraqi village of Mahoudi, in Northern Iraq.

I was there during Saddam's time and remember the sheer terror that reigned 24 hours a day. The constant fear that you could be hauled off by one of his "goons" and never seen again.

In Iraq, the poor Iraqis have apparently not yet learned that you are supposed to ignore Jesus on Christmas.

Sponsored by the Iraqi Government (I repeat, sponsored by the Iraqi Government ... there is no "separation of Church and State here) there was a special Christmas celebration in downtown Baghdad.

Guess what the main attraction was?

  • A huge Christmas tree topped by a Star?
  • A massive Santa Claus?
  • Fake snow?
Nope! The focus of the celebration was a huge picture of ... Jesus!

There it was! A huge, beautiful color painting of Jesus, the center of the Christmas celebration, some four stories tall.

Iraqi Government spokesman Abdul Karim Khalaf took it all one step further when he announced, on behalf of the Iraqi government: "All Iraqis are Christians today."

Say what?

What Can We Learn From Politically Incorrect Iraqis?

After meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki on behalf of the Assyrian Christians, I asked him, "Prime Minister, would you mind if I prayed for you?"

Maliki beamed, then ordered the beefy (and now somewhat confused) security guards surrounding us to bow their heads. We had a wonderful time of prayer.

Meeting later with Iraqi President Talabani on the same subject, I asked the question again. He pointed to his chest and told me, "I just had surgery on my heart — pray here!"

I wondered what kind of a reception I would get on Capitol Hill, at the State Department or a dozen other government agencies, if after a meeting I asked "Would you mind if we had a word of prayer together?"

A cold silence, mass panic, or perhaps a straight NO ... with a couple of exceptions, that would surely be the response.

Well, Washington and all of us this Christmas can learn something from the poor, politically incorrect Iraqis.

Christmas celebrates the birthday of Jesus, and the Iraqis got it right. He should be exalted, front and center.

The Iraqis at least know this much: They know they need Jesus and all the blessings they can get.

- Amir George

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Is Jesus Asleep in Your Boat?

Recently I led a Bible study in Mark 4:35-41. To set the scene, Jesus has spent a very long day teaching "by the lake." The lake referred to is the Sea of Galilee, also known as "Lake Gennesaret" or the "Sea of Tiberias."

The Sea of Galilee is currently 13 miles long and about 8 miles wide. At nearly 700 feet below sea level, it is the second-lowest lake on the planet, the Dead Sea (further south) alone being lower.

Today the Sea of Galilee is about 3 feet higher than it was in Jesus' day. Which means it is also slightly wider and longer. But one thing hasn't changed, and that is that the sea is subject to sudden, violent storms, due to its position ringed by mountains (updraft and air flow patterns can cause furious storms, particularly at night ... in 1992 Tiberias, a town on the western shore, was flooded by 10-foot waves. Significant damage was sustained).

In Christ's day, fish in the Sea of Galilee were relatively plentiful. Josephus noted that shortly after the time of Christ some 230 fishing boats regularly plied the lake. Only recently has it been nearly fished out.

At an average depth of over 70 feet, the lake contains a lot of water, and it is this weight that keeps a natural tendency toward salinity (due to extensive water evaporation) at bay. Gennesaret provides most of Israel's water supply, so the government zealously controls its depth to keep salinization at bay.

In addition to teaching some popular parables (related to farming ... focusing on the role of the Word of God, truth, and faith) Jesus spent his time on that day healing and casting out demons. It was a busy day, and by evening everyone was tired. Jesus dismissed the crowds and instructed his disciples to prepare boats to "pass over the lake to the other side."

Fishing boats of the day probably held about a dozen passengers, and Mark says there were several other boats in the party. Jesus probably climbed into the boat with the apostles, and other boats were filled with various disciples. Mark says He promptly fell fast asleep on a cushion in the boat's stern.

As they were crossing, a sudden and furious squall arose. Waves were cascading over the sides of the boats, and the disciples, many of whom were veteran sailors, felt they were in danger of being swamped. Finally, apparently as a last resort after all their best efforts failed, they awoke Jesus.

"Don't you even care that we are perishing?" they shouted in frustration.

Christ's response was to stand up, face the sea, and call out to the winds and waves to "be still!" (or quite literally, to "muzzle yourselves!" ... which was the same language He used when calling demons to silence).

Scripture says the storm immediately ceased and the seas became as still as glass.

He then turned to His disciples: "Why are you still afraid? Do you still have no faith?"

Over and over again, Scripture exhorts us to trade fear for faith. Fear seems natural to us in a situation like the one confronting the disciples, where their very lives felt threatened. One wouldn't have blamed them for retorting, "You obviously know nothing about sailing, and how dangerous a situation we were in." Except that, He had just demonstrated unequivocally that He was Lord and Master over the wind and the waves! So, maybe not.

A couple of observations

First, the disciples were doing exactly what Jesus had asked them to do when the storm arose: they were attempting to cross over the lake. Some "prosperity preachers" teach that if we would only do what Jesus says, all will go well and we will face no storms. Not true for these disciples.

Second, Jesus was in the boat. He was not out walking on the water (this time). And He was not afraid. He had promised them they would cross over. He also shared: "I don't say anything but what I have heard from the Father." So the God of the Universe had promised they would reach the other side. Despite the storm, there was in no reality any danger that they would end up in the drink.

So, what would have happened if the disciples had simply given up? Not bailed? If they hadn't woken Jesus up? We don't know exactly how it would have happened ... but we do know they would have crossed over to the other side. Jesus said so.

And, if the disciples were afraid, why did they wait as long as they did to awaken Jesus? Obviously there was some pride involved. He was a carpenter, they were fishermen/sailors. They ought to have been able to handle a storm. Only when they came to the end of their wits were they finally willing to call out for help. (Sound familiar? I've been there.) The only problem was, by that time they were wracked with fear and far away from faith.

How can you possibly sleep at a time like this?

But I think the most interesting thing about the whole episode continues to be that Jesus slept. Surely He was very tired. But, how could you possibly sleep when the wind was howling and waves were crashing over the sides of your storm-tossed boat?

I don't know about you, but there are certain places I absolutely cannot sleep, no matter how tired I am. One is in a plane being buffeted by storm turbulence. In 1978 I was in a small plane in a storm in Alaska, and the turbulence was so bad I ended up with seatbelt bruises on both hips. Sleep? Fuhgedaboudit. It was all I could do just to keep breakfast down.

Even though we spend approximately one-third of our lives sleeping, most of us have never heard a sermon on sleep. But sleep figures prominently in the Bible. God obviously made us fallible, weak, requiring this resort each day to a very vulnerable state of unconsciousness in order to continue healthy functioning. Writing in the Desiring God blog, Jonathan Parnell says that sleep is "the midwife of humility," and by that he means it is impossible to think it all depends on us and our brilliant activity, and forego sleep so that we can do it all. If we try, we fail miserably. Sleep deprivation is a form of torture. Each of us desperately needs sleep.

And when we do sleep, we become vulnerable, don't we? My wife and I recently had something die in the walls of our house, probably a squirrel or a rat, which caused an infestation of flies. We killed as many as we could possibly kill each night before going to sleep, because we thought, Lord knows we don't want any nasty flies crawling on our lips while we slept! We had no fear of such a thing happening to us while we were awake. But when you sleep you give up certain pretenses of self-protection.

We ended up praying, "God, please keep the flies off our lips!" And we slept.

David viewed sleep as an opportunity to trust God. In Psalm 3:5-6 he wrote, “I lay down and slept and woke again, for the Lᴏʀᴅ sustained me. I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.” Then again, in Psalm 4:8: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lᴏʀᴅ, make me dwell in safety.”

David knew that sleep was an act of faith in the Lord's protection. In Psalm 2:12 he said: "Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you perish in the way. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” He committed himself fully into the hands of Him who sleeps not. Jesus, the Son spoken of in Psalm 2, knew this too, which is why He could sleep in the storm-tossed boat.

Parnell ends his message with this beautiful exhortation:
When we sleep we are saying — in that same spirit of faith — that God will protect his Anointed and all those anointed in him (2 Corinthians 1:21). We are saying that no matter how many thousand enemies surround our soul, because of the Father’s commitment to his Son, we will not be destroyed. We will not be condemned. Nothing will ever be able to snatch us out of his hand (John 10:28). Nothing will ever separate us from his love (Romans 8:38–39). When we go to bed, we are saying that.

Christian, life is short. You should get some sleep.
Okay, then! I'm going to bed now. Good night!