A little bit broken.

Note: This is a therapeutic blog post for me.  I write to release things in me, and this just needs to get out.  And as I start writing this, I don’t know where it’s going…kind of stream of consciousness going thing going here, so forgive any typos.

Sometimes there are things that just break you.  Break your mind.  Break your will.  Break your heart.

And then sometimes there are things that break all the different parts of you.  I remember when I got the call that mom had breast cancer…I tried to stay upbeat on the phone with her, but when I got off, I just sat down and…well, I just sat.  It felt like every part of me was just breaking.  Thankfully, I have a strong and amazing mom who didn’t let herself, or any of us who love her, feel like that long.  She was going to beat it, that’s just how it was.  And she did.  More than five years have passed and no sign of any return.

That’s kind of the way I feel with this whole situation with Iraq.  I’m invested, due to Iraqi friends and due to my work with The Great Need.  There have been lots of people that see the pictures and say, “That just breaks my heart.”  I don’t doubt that at all.

But I know that there are some, who truly are broken for these kids like I am.  When you see the pictures, then know the names, then hear the stories…it just breaks you a little bit.  Not just “broken hearted” but broken in your soul.  That when you see a little blonde haired, blue-eyed three year old girl at the grocery store, you think to yourself, “That looks like Nihal.”  Or you see a 10 or 11 year old girl with dark a dark complexion, you think “That could be Rana…how would Rana’s life be different if she were born in the US, instead of in Iraq.”

I think in some ways, this is how life is supposed to be.  A little bit broken.  The loss of a loved one, a family crisis, an illness, a broken relationship.  Once sin entered the picture of human existence, God could certainly still make life easy on us, make it so that there is no brokenness in our lives.  But I think God pulls us to Him through those moments.

I’ve seen it in my own life and in countless lives of teenagers I’ve worked with.  I’ve seen a middle school girl lose her mom and then watched as God pulled her to Him to heal that brokenness. And in the midst of the mess, He’s forming a masterpiece.

I love Ephesians 2:10.  I’ve heard sermons taught on this passage that use verse 10 as a “command” to go and do good works, but I see it as a promise.  One of the most amazing, earth shaking promises in the Bible.

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.

We are God’s masterpiece.  How cool is that. From this mess, He’s made a masterpiece.  A masterpiece that can do the things He’s already set in motion.  From my brokenness, comes this “Humpty Dumpty put back together again” rebirth into something that can DO something.

I always hate to say things like “One of the problems with Christians today is…” because a) who am I to judge those things and b) I don’t want to be that guy.  And so I’ll say it like this:  I feel bad for those people who never allow themselves to be a little bit broken.  Sometimes God doesn’t give you a choice…sometimes He drops a bomb on you to break you.  But many times, He lets us choose to be broken or not.  And many, many people avoid it like the plague.  They walk away from things that might break their heart before they let it “get to them.”

I don’t believe that is “one of the problems with Christians today” so much as I believe it’s one of the things that Christians are just missing out on.  They’re missing out on the “Humpty Dumpty experience.”  The rebirth into something amazing.

I’ve heard from so many people say, “I don’t think God can really use me to do anything great.”  And while God can do anything He wants, I believe He wants to take a person’s brokenness, turn it into wholeness, then do something amazing.  And if people avoid the brokenness, then, who knows…maybe God won’t use them.  I think the “prosperity gospel” message has infiltrated our way of thinking…that God wants us to live in our perfect little houses, in our perfect little neighborhoods with no problems and no heartache and no hurt and no drama.

I’ll pass on that.  I’ll take the heartache, in the hope that as God puts me back together, that from those broken pieces, God makes a masterpiece that is able and willing to do the good things He has planned for me.

Desperate

It’s funny how God uses my son’s bedtime to teach me.  It happens a lot.  I mean A LOT.

Every night, we read.  For the first 4 or 5 years of his life, I read to him at bedtime.  From a variety of Bible storybooks.  My favorite was probably the Jesus Storybook Bible…I just loved how it tied every story back to Jesus.  I’ve read on mission trips to Middle School students.  I’ve read it by myself when I need to reminded of the simplicity of God’s ridiculous love for me.

After he learned to read, he started reading to me at bedtime.  The book he has now, I can’t remember the name of it, is actual scripture section, not just a retelling of the stories.  I think he’s read each of them to me twice, but he still loves it.

Last night, after he read about Jesus walking on the water, he asked me to find the one where the woman touched Jesus’ robe and was healed.  So I found it and we marked it for tonight.  Little did I know then that God was picking that story for me.

I’ve been reading The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning.  Great book.  I’ve been chewing on it the past week or so.  The simplicity of faith, of grace, of love.  And how we over-complicate God’s plan by trying to be good enough or by beating ourselves up that we’re not good enough.  And how sometimes these two extremes are separated by a span of seconds.  And so I’ve been chewing, praying, meditating…asking God, “So what’s the key to getting past that.”  The answer has been consistently, “Pursue Me.”  But of course, I need more than that…because I’m not good enough, or I’m too good, or something.

So, tonight, my eight year old son preached a sermon that cut straight to the heart.  The story of Jesus healing Jairus’ daughter is cool for a bunch of reasons.  There’s a dead girl that comes back to life.  There is a woman miraculously healed (and seemingly randomly thrown into the middle of the story).  But even though I’ve heard and read this scripture dozens of times, it never struck me the common thread between the woman and Jairus coming to Jesus.

In Luke 8, it says:

41 Then a man named Jairus, a leader of the local synagogue, came and fell at Jesus’ feet, pleading with him to come home with him. 42 His only daughter, who was about twelve years old, was dying.

Jarius was a leader of the synagogue.  A man of influence and power in the “religious elite” of the town.  These were the people who all the through the gospels rejected Jesus.  These were the people who killed Him.  But here comes Jairus.  He falls at Jesus’ feet and begs Jesus to come with him. Why?  Because his daughter was dying, and he had no other options.  He was desperate.  Jesus was his only hope.

As Jesus is going to Jairus’ house, the woman interrupts Him.

As Jesus went with him, he was surrounded by the crowds. 43 A woman in the crowd had suffered for twelve years with constant bleeding, and she could find no cure. 44 Coming up behind Jesus, she touched the fringe of his robe…

This woman, who was “unclean” because of her bleeding according to Jewish law, came and touched Jesus.  According to the law, she could have been punished.  Why would she take that risk?  For twelve years, she had tried everything to stop the bleeding and had no luck.  She, like Jairus, was completely and totally desperate.  Jesus was her only hope.

The stories continue on with the amazing miracles of Jairus’ daughter being raised from the dead and the woman being healed.  But I’m not there yet…don’t get me wrong, I’ve got places in my life where I need miracles to happen.  Lot’s of them.  I’ve got plenty in my life that is dead and needs to be resurrected and places that are unclean that needs to be healed.

I’ve been trying to perform CPR on those dead areas and it just ain’t working.  And I’ve been scrubbing those stains but they’re just not coming out.  And I keep beating myself up over it, trying to figure out why I just can’t be good enough.  As if being good enough is good enough.

But, tonight, God smacked me upside the head and said, “Ok…here’s the deal.  You want those things cleaned up…that’s great and all.  But what I want, is for you to be desperate for Me.  Why don’t I just magically *poof* that stuff away?  Because after you try everything else, you’ll realize you can’t do it yourself and I will be your only Hope.”

It’s funny…it’s a little scary to say, “Alright God, do what you need to do to make me desperately in need of You.”  What if God takes away the things that I think I “need?”  Or the things I like?  What if I He takes my job away?  My security?  What if takes away someone I love?  Or my health?

But then I remember the countless ways that God has shown Himself to me.  And in every single one of those ways, I’ve seen that He is good.  And that He loves me.  And then suddenly that fear begins to wither away.

It changes the way I view myself and my struggles.  Where once I saw my own inadequacy, now I see a reminder of His grace and forgiveness.  Where once I saw my own shortcomings, now I see Him drawing me to a place of dependence on Him.  And I see the need for desperation.  And I have a desire for desperation.

So I pray that God will use whatever is needed to give me a single minded focus to pursue Him.  My only Hope.  To risk everything I have to get close to Him.  And in that, I know that He will do some crazy cool stuff.  Because God is still in the resurrection business, and there are some parts of my heart that need it.

Who is IS/ISIS? – Part 3 — The ISIS Flag

In my two previous posts on IS (Here and Here), I talked a little about where they came from and the differences between the Sunni and Shia beliefs.  Today, I want to talk a little about their flag and the symbolism of it.

ISIS-Flag

Just the Facts

The IS flag is a pretty simple, unassuming design.  But there is a lot of symbolism in it.  I’ll try to explain some of it here (though, as I said previously, I’m not an Islamic/Arabic expert, even though I can read and write Arabic relatively well).

First, the top line says لَا إِلٰهَ إِلَّا الله or (roughly transliterated) “La ‘ilaha ‘illa-llah” (in Arabic transliteration, the ‘ is symbol for a hard, glottal stop…a sound we don’t really make normally in English, but think of saying “The End” and really accentuating that they are two distinct words…the E in End has a hard edge from the back of your throat to it when you really purposefully say it as two words, that is a glottal stop).

What this phrase means is “There is no God but God(Allah).”  This is the first part of what is called the shahada, or Islamic statement of faith or creed (the second part is “Mohammed is God’s messenger”). This shahada is used as a proclamation of faith and for both Sunni and Shia Muslims, it is one of the “pillars of faith” that you must do to convert to Islam.  It has also been used to separate Muslims from non-Muslims in certain terror attacks (such as the Westgate Mall in Kenya).

The big white circle with writing in it contains three Arabic words, the first is “Allah,” the second “messenger,” and the third is “Mohammed.”  The roughness of the circle and Arabic script is intentional in the design because this is the seal (signet ring) that Mohammed used to sign letters and official documents after the foundation of Islam (think using his ring to impress wax on a letter to prove the origin).

Symbolism in the Flag

The flag itself is very simple and plain in design.  However, the symbolism that is missed by most “Westerners” or non-Muslims is what makes it so powerful.  Here I’ll break down a few of the larger symbolic meanings of the flag.

First, including the shahada on the flag, makes an immediate appeal to all Muslims, but especially the Sunni.  Reciting the shahada is the “First Pillar” of Sunni Islam, it’s the first step, the first requirement.  It is the very foundation of their belief and it has immediate appeal to them.

Second, the very inclusion of the word “Allah” immediately makes the flag sacred.  This means that it is heresy for anyone to desecrate the flag in any way.  It is considered by Muslims to extremely sacrilegious to burn, tear or in any way harm an object that has the word “Allah” written on it.  So the inclusion of that one word suddenly marks the flag as something to be revered.  Not all Muslims are strict adherents to this, and many ISIS flags have been burned by Muslim protesters in the MIddle East, but it at least causes some degree of hesitation with many Muslims.

Third, the inclusion of the signet seal of Mohammed creates a very intentional historical and theological reference point for ISIS. They are making a not so veiled claim of Mohammed’s approval/endorsement of them as the legitimate heirs to his caliphate (see post #1 for information on the caliphate).  Essentially, they are publicly proclaiming across the Muslim world that they are seeking to establish a global caliphate where the entire world will a) convert to Islam or die and b) be ruled by the caliph under theocratic rule.  They are seeking to throw out the current world order and create a new one by their own rules.

Fourth, the nature of the font speaks volumes.  This isn’t the fancy, beautiful calligraphy that is present in so many Islamic flags and symbols.  The Saudi national flag contains the shahada as well, in a beautiful, intricate script (on a green background).  This script is intentional an ancient variation of Arabic from the 7th and 8th century.  A symbol that ISIS doesn’t want to take the world forward, but take everything back in time to when the caliphate ruled much of the world.

Lastly, the stark black and white colors of the flag are probably the most symbolic part of the flag.  Unlike other Muslim groups who have colorful flags (such as Hamas that uses a green flag or Hezbollah that uses yellow), ISIS uses a solid black background for intentional reasons.  The solid black flag was the war banner (“raya”) used by Mohammed as he was conquering the Arabian Peninsula in the name of Islam.  It is a war banner, pure and simple.  While this is missed by most non-Muslims, the vast majority of Muslims will recognize it as such.  Their goal is not peace, not coexistence; it is simply to conquer and/or kill, in the name of Islam, following the example set by Mohammed.

Another thing that is interesting about the flag that ISIS uses is that they didn’t actually come up with it. Al Qaeda in Iraq (the origin of ISIS and Al Shabaab in Somalia) have used variations of it.  The flag in its entirety is a bit of a throwback, laden with historical and Islamic conquest references.  As Americans many of us take great pride and show great respect and honor for our flag, but the ISIS flag is intentionally designed to go many steps beyond that.  It is designed to rally Muslims to their cause and to demean and subjugate Muslims who don’t follow.  It goes beyond pride and honor, to the very core beliefs of Islam.

And it is a war banner, pure and simple.

Springs of Living Water

I’ve always loved the image of what Jesus does in John 7: 37-39.  There is this whole big festival going on and at the pinnacle of the festival (with the priests carrying the “living water” from the pools below up to the temple and circling the altar), Jesus stands up in the middle of the huge crowd and shouts.  Here is what it says in John (New Living Translation):

37 On the last day, the climax of the festival, Jesus stood and shouted to the crowds,“Anyone who is thirsty may come to me! 38 Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.’”

To me, I think it must have been driving Jesus a little nuts.  To see this big, noisy, joyful celebration going on.  And for the people there to not realize who was standing in their midst.  And so He finally just cries out.  Perhaps there was a hush to the crowd.  Perhaps most of the people ignored Him.

But what Jesus says here is so important.  And so multifaceted that whole books have been written about it.  But one thing that recently hit me really hard about this scripture and verse 39:

39 (When he said “living water,” he was speaking of the Spirit, who would be given to everyone believing in him. But the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus had not yet entered into his glory.)

…is the “Rivers of living water will flow from his heart,” part.  Understanding John’s parenthetical explanation that this living water that Jesus gives us is the Holy Spirit flowing into us, then the Spirit flows OUT of us, too.  And yet we fight it from flowing out.  And suppress it.  We downplay it.  We push the Holy Spirit back into a little corner and only allow Him to flow out at church (if then) or in special, “safe” situations.

Tonight, my son read to me at bedtime from his Bible about Jesus saying in Matthew 25:35-36:

35 For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. 36 I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

And so after he read it, we talked about what that means.  And how doing we can do those things TO Jesus.  It struck me that doing those things is the very nature of “Living water flowing from [our] heart[s].” The problem is that we get freaked out about letting the Holy Spirit “do His thing.”  Because we’ve seen something weird on TV with some televangelist.  Or we’ve heard some story about a cousin’s uncle’s best friend.  And we don’t want people thinking we’re a fake.  Or that God is fake.

I’ve seen the Holy Spirit do some amazing things.  Some things that rocked my world.  Physical healing.  Emotional healing.  Complete transformation of lives.  Worship times that changed lives, where the tangible presence of God was evident to everyone there (even people who weren’t believers who said, “God is in here…I need to leave.”).  But I’ve also seen the Holy Spirit move someone to speak up and offer a word of encouragement to someone when no one even knew they needed it.  Or to offer a helping hand.  Or to love someone who doesn’t expect it.

So why do we push back?  Why do build a dam to contain this “living water?”  As followers of Christ, we have the life changing, world altering, history making power of God INSIDE OF US.  And we suppress it?  Really?  What the heck?  But man we sure whine and complain about how the world needs to change.

I for one, am a little tired of fighting that fight.

 

Who is IS? – Part 2

From my previous post (Here), I got a bunch of questions emailed to me.  I’ll do my best to answer some of the more common ones, though I admit that I’m not a Middle East or Islamic expert.  My answers comes from research on my own, my own interest in the area and people, my 13 year study of the Arabic language and from Arab and Muslim friends.  In my previous post, I tried to stick to facts only, not offering my opinion on things.  I’ll try to do the same here, though maybe I’ll throw in some opinion in a future blog entry.

Question: What is the difference between Sunni and Shia?

For the answer to this question, you have to go back to the foundation of Islam.  When Mohammed died in 632A.D., he had conquered and converted most of the Arabian peninsula and had established the first Islamic Caliphate (theocratic empire).  Upon his death, there arose a bit of a power struggle over who would take control of the empire.  One side (those who would become the Sunni sect), wanted Mohammed’s disciples and those close to him to take control.  The other side (those who would become the Shia sect) felt only those who in Mohammed’s family had the authority to lead Muslims (In Arabic, it is  البيت‎ أهل or ahl al-bayt, literally “The Family House” or “the People of the House”).  The root of the split lies in who is considered worthy to lead all Muslims.  Essentially, the Sunni’s believe that leaders can be elected, the Shi’ites believe they are appointed by Allah from within the family lineage of Mohammed.  There are more difference between the two, but line of succession is the fundamental root of the difference,  This of course then leads to differences of whose teachings (hadiths) are considered worthy of inclusion as having come from Allah and must be followed.  Which over the past 1400 years has led to some substantial differences in viewpoints.

It’s important to note that while there is a very vocal Shia population, the Shia sect accounts for only about 10-12% of all Muslims.  Sunni’s are the overwhelming majority throughout the Middle East, though many leaders have effectively used the split to their advantage in different ways.  Saddam Hussein, himself a Sunni, often “played up” Iraq’s Sunni minority as being the rightful majority in Iraq, to stir up the Sunni population against the Shia (particularly against Shia dominated Iran).

Question: Which side (Sunni or Shia) are the “violent” group? / So, which side are the terrorists?

Neither and both.  There are groups within both sects that are violent and/or terrorist groups and factions within both that are not.  It’s like asking whether Republics or Democrats are the extremists…there are certainly extremist elements within the Republican party that have bombed abortion clinics and violent extremists on the Democratic side of things (e.g., extremist environmentalists attacking fishing boats). Like most things, it comes down to individuals.

That being said, most of what we call “terrorist groups” are Sunni, but the breakdown is pretty similar to the ~90% – ~10% split between Sunni and Shia anyway.  But to say one side is good, and the other side is bad is a gross generalization.

Does IS stand a real chance of accomplishing it’s goal of a caliphate?

Yes and no.  Will they be able to accomplish their goal of taking all Muslim lands and people under their leadership?  No.  Their stated goal is to conquer all of the Middle East (including a nuclear equipped Israel), all of Arabia, all of North Africa, northwest into Turkey (and they have even claimed as far as Rome), east all the way China (including a Iran and and a nuclear powered Pakistan and India) and then into the Pacific islands of Indonesia and the Philipines.  That pretty much can’t happen.

But can they carve out a piece of land that they control indefinitely from Iraq and Syria?  Probably.  There is very little to stop them actually.  The Iraqi government doesn’t have the cohesion to put up a serious fight.  The EU doesn’t have the stomach for a fight, and the US is so war weary that putting boots on the ground to fight them doesn’t seem likely.  If no one takes the fight seriously to them, when they have shown that they are willing and capable to fight, then they will not go away on their own.

The general consensus is that the Kurdish Peshmerga will probably stop them, with the help of US airstrikes, from taking over the Kurdish lands in northern Iraq, but with the momentum from Iraq, it could lead to a more serious attack on the Syrian government’s power in Damascus.  Whether they take Syria or not, they will probably still have a sizable chunk of Iand (they currently hold about roughly 30% of Iraq).  They are well funded by looting, but also by oil sales and from wealthy benefactors in other Sunni countries (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, U.A.E).  They could easily setup a “safe zone” for training and recruiting.  They will get bombed occasionally by Iraqi and US forces, but that happened in Afghanistan when bin Laden was there and they learned to live with it.

 

Introduction to IS/ISIS/ISIL

There’s been a lot of talk about what is going on with “The Islamic State” in Iraq.  If you’re not sure what this group is, here’s a little primer about them, their history, their goals and their tactics.

What is “The Islamic State?”

The Islamic State (IS) is a militant Sunni Muslim army that formed out of the remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).  They have grown to the point of being an organized, disciplined and well funded army of an estimated 20,000 soldiers.

What is the difference between IS, ISIL and ISIS? 

Nothing.  The group has gone through a name change to become IS after the initial ISIL / ISIS (which is just a translation difference).  Initially, they were “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” or “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” The problem comes from the Arabic word الشام (transliterated as al-Sham).  Al-Sham was originally a general word for the area around Damascus, Syria.  But it has come to mean a large stretch of land from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates, including Syria, much of Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank and parts of Jordan.  Basically what Western geography refers to as “The Levant” (from French colonial times)  Regardless of the translation, IS dropped the geographical specificity and changed their name to just “The Islamic State” when they declared themselves a caliphate (see below).

Where did IS come from?

After the US military “surge” of 2006, Al Qaeda in Iraq was more or less defeated as fighting force and resorted to terrorist / guerrilla tactics.  Their tactics were so brutal and indiscriminate that the main Al Qaeda organization started to distance themselves from AQI.  AQI leaders, along with the leaders of the Al Qaeda affiliated group Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, publicly refused to follow orders from AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. In February 2014, AQ officially “kicked out” AQI from AQ and AQI became ISIS/ISIL.  After storming several prisons in Iraq and freeing senior leaders, they have grown in both numbers and power.  Numerous times, the Iraqi army has retreated from a head to head fight, leaving behind vehicles and heavy weapons, which has bolstered the fighting strength of IS. At the same time as IS was starting in western Iraq, the various Syrian opposition groups were coming together under one banner.  These groups merged with IS in the border regions and they became one fighting force.

What is the goal of IS?

The initial goal of IS was to implement a Sunni dominated government in both Iraq and Syria.  With their successes in taking land in Iraq, their aspirations have grown and they have declared themselves a caliphate.  They have claimed all of the Middle East, the northern half of Africa, and a wide stretch from Spain to Pakistan as part of their caliphate.

What is a caliphate? What is the significance of declaring a caliphate?

A caliphate, in simple terms, as a Muslim theocracy, led by a caliph who is both religious and political leader.  However, declaring a caliphate brings with it historical significance in that it brings all Muslims under the rule of one leader.  The first caliphate was establish by the disciples of Mohammed and went on to control all the Middle East, the northern half of Africa and modern day Spain and Portugal.  The leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has declared himself caliph, thereby saying he is both the political and religious leader of all Muslims and all Muslims must swear an oath of loyalty to him and to the caliphate, or face execution as an apostate.

How are they gaining power so quickly?

IS taking ground in Iraq very quickly mainly because there isn’t much opposition.  The Iraqi government is weak to begin with and the soldiers on the front lines don’t have much of a desire to fight.  Some are Sunni sympathizers, with some even switching sides, some are Shia who oppose IS but they just don’t have the desire to fight.  The central government in Iraq is comprised of 40+ political parties, coming from many different ethnic groups, religions or religious sects (such as Sunni and Shia), etc., and they rarely can agree on courses of actions to take.  IS has taken advantage of this weak central government to gain ground quickly.  As they have taken over cities, they have looted banks, stores and civilians to continue to fund their army. Additionally, they have captured many military bases and taken control of artillery, tanks, armored personnel carries, etc.  They have grown from being a small terrorist group to being an army.

What are their tactics?

While IS has grown from a terrorist group into an army, they have not forgotten their roots and the power that terror has over a population.  When they have conquered villages and towns, they have systematically marked houses of non-Sunni residents and forced them to either convert to their brand of Islam, pay a tax (everything they own) or die.  In many cases, they have collected the tax, then killed the people anyway to instill fear in the populations.  In Mosul, they methodically killed Christians, beheading several dozen Christian children and mounting their heads on spikes in public parks and marketplaces. Because of the brutal reputation that they have and the lack of response by the Iraqi military, hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled their path.  Most have gone to northern Iraq to the area controlled by the Kurdish population, which is creating a refuge crisis there.

Because of their brutal tactics and willingness to kill even other Sunni Muslims as collateral damage, there is great concern over the fact that IS holds several key dams along the Tigris River as well as chemical weapons factories that once produced Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons (some with non-weaponized chemical weapons stored at them when IS took control). IS blew up two small dams along the Euphrates River to flood towns already, and a failure of the Mosul Dam has the potential to wipe Mosul off the map and send a wall of water 12-15 feet deep 200 miles to Baghdad, killing tens of thousands of civilians.

Who is fighting against IS? 

The Kurdish defense force, the Peshmerga, is currently engaging IS on a limited scale, but as IS moves north Kurdish lands, the fight will expand.  The Peshmerga is larger than IS, but is not as well equipped, thanks in large part to IS taking over Iraqi military bases and their armored vehicles.  As of August 7, 2014, the US has begun limited air strikes on IS to assist in taking out some of the IS heavy weapons with the hopes of tipping the scales in favor of the Peshmerga.  However, IS is a very disciplined army that is growing rapidly, and their ideology is supported by large numbers of Muslims (even if their tactics are not).

Iran has been largely silent, but they see IS as an enemy of the Shia theocracy there.  They have their top special forces (the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard) in Iraq working with the Iraqi army, but their total involvement is probably less than a few hundred soldiers.  Currently, IS is keeping their attention to the northwest of Iraq and Syria, but if they turn east, Iran would not hesitate to attack.

Summer Week 1

First a few notes…this isn’t a “Bible Study” or “Bible Commentary” or anything like that.  It’s not really even a devotional guide.  I hope it’s a little bit of a kickstart…kindling for the fire of the students in my 7th grade Bible class as we move into summer. Something to help them either get started digging into the Word or to help them stay in it through the summer.

It’s not something I’ve gone through a ton of time digging into and writing.  This is just what I’m studying in my own time in the Bible and so I’m just passing it along (delayed by a week…I studied this last week) and occasionally I’ll throw out some questions or comments that these scriptures brought up in me.

This follows my basic approach to studying a specific book.  Read one small section each day for a few days, then go back and re-read it all together to make sure I’m getting the context right. Sometimes, I go back and re-read the small sections again after reading the full passage, or even a chapter later because something later can bring out something I read earlier.  Anyway…this is how I’m doing it…if you have a different plan, that’s great. 

So…with that being said, let’s jump in.

 

I’m studying Ephesians right now, so here is the first week:

 

Monday: Eph. 1:1-8

Tuesday: Eph. 1:9-14

Wednesday: Eph. 1:15-23

” I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms.”  My two main prayers for my students are: A) that they get just a glimpse of the relentless, crazy love that God loves them with, and B) once they see and respond to that love, that they get this verse…that the same power that raised Christ from the dead is in us.  That the Holy Spirit is aching to work in us and through us…but we so often live our lives in complete fear of failure.

Thursday: Eph. 1:1-23

Friday: Eph. 2:1-10

Ephesians 2 is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible.  I LOVE verses 4-7 of chapter two.  Especially verses 4-5 (from the NLT): “But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!)”  How amazing is that!?  When I read this verse, I think about Jonah saying in Jonah 4:2 (of course, Jonah was a little angry about it…), “I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people.”

 

Saturday: Eph. 2:11-18

Sunday: Eph. 2:19 – 3:13

 

 

Faith Bigger Than My Fear

Ok…so maybe a long story here, so I may break it up into parts.  And this is my first time to try to put it down in words, though I’ve spoken about it to small groups, or at least sections of this story.  I usually write like I speak, so bear with me if it isn’t beautifully written prose, but this is just me…a little bit raw, a little unrefined, and a little too passionate at times.

This is the story of who I am, right now and where God has brought me, right now. I’m a very different person than I was a few years ago, and I’m thankful for that.  God has done a lot of work in me, though I’ve got a long way to go…anyway, here we go.

When I was a kid, my grandfather was the pastor at our church.  And, I’ll say right off the top that being a pastor’s grandkid was good and bad.  Everyone in town knew me.  EVERYONE. It didn’t help that my dad was on the city council and then served as mayor, and that it was a typical small town where everyone knew everyone anyway.  But there were some really cool things about being a pastor’s grandson, too.  One of my favorite things was getting to talk to some of the missionaries that came through our church, hearing their stories of far away and exotic places.

One particular missionary just completely enthralled me with his stories of Africa.  His name was Ernest Green, but all of the kids called him Uncle Ernie.  One Sunday when I was about eight years old, he came and spoke to our church and told his amazing stories of life in the African savanna.  Towards the end of his talk, he mentioned that he would have his books for sale on a table in the back after the service.  He had a book called “Uncle Ernie’s African Stories” that I HAD to have.  Not wanted, not really wanted, but I HAD TO HAVE IT.

So, once he started praying to close out the service, I started making my plan.  For an eight year old, I had to have a plan…I had no money on me and I could see that there were only a few copies of each book.  So, as soon as the prayer was over and we started singing “He Lives” (we closed every service with that), I quietly slipped out of the pew and made my way to the table and waited.  After the song, when someone came to man the table I asked how much it cost.  Five dollars, maybe…I don’t remember, but anyway, I ran, bobbing and weaving through the crowd of elderly people making their way to the exit to get to my parents.  “Mom, I need five dollars to buy the book.”  Of course, she had questions…”What kind of book?” “Is it exactly five dollars?” “Where did you get that stain on your shirt?”

“Mom, I don’t have time, he’s only got three copies of the book, I need to go NOW.”

“I don’t have any cash, you’ll have to ask your dad…”

I was gone before she even finished…more bobbing and weaving…”Dad…five dollars…book…hurry!”

He gave me a five dollar bill and I sprinted.  I probably caused an old lady to break a hip or something, I don’t know…I was focused.  I was on a mission.

But I failed.  By the time I got to the table, they were sold out of “Uncle Ernie’s African Stories.”  I was crushed.  It was the end of my eight year old world.  So, I went and sat down in a pew and tried not to let anyone see that I was crying.  I failed at that, too.

After a few minutes, I felt a large hand on my shoulder and heard someone say, “What’s wrong, son?”  I looked up and saw Uncle Ernie himself, looking down at me.

“I tried…*sniff*…to buy Uncle Ernie’s book…*sniff*…your book…but there weren’t any more.”

He smiled a big smile and said, “You’re Brother Shiflet’s grandson, right?”  I nodded.  “Well, I have something for you here…” And he reached into his big leather satchel and pulled out a copy of “Uncle Ernie’s African Stories.”  I was in shock.  There was another one!  He opened it up to the title page and started writing, then closed the book and handed it to me.  I tried to offer him the five dollar bill, but he refused and said, “No, son, this is a gift for you.  Who knows, maybe God will call you to the mission field some time and you’ll end up in Africa like I did.”

His words kind of soared past me because I was too busy digging into the book already. He tussled my hair and walked away to answer questions from the grown ups.  I was on cloud nine, showing everyone how he had signed it (without actually reading what he wrote), telling them the story of how the real Uncle Ernie had given me the book.

A week or so later, after reading the book a hundred times, what he said to me that day hit me.  What if I do end up in Africa? What he wrote on the cover page was simply, “May God lead your steps to where He wants you to go.  – Uncle Ernie”  The sudden realization that God could just pick me up and move me to Africa scared the crap out of me.  Big time.  I wanted no part of that.  The biggest fear for eight year old me was picturing myself alone in Africa, no family, no friends, just people in tribal clothes, speaking a weird language…and the crocodiles.  Especially the crocodiles.

So after a few days of my parents trying to calm my fears, my dad called in the big guns when it came God.  My granddad.  So, I was handed the phone and just told, “Here, it’s for you.”  And my granddad, who was one of the most approachable, loving and kind grandfathers anyone could ask for, said in his deep voice, “This is Brother Shiflet.”  So, this is was Pastor granddad, not granddad granddad.

I don’t remember exactly what all he told me (it’s been 33ish years), but I do remember one thing he said, “God will never call you somewhere that He hasn’t already prepared for you to want to go.”

Aside: I still have that copy of the book.  I’ve saved these 33 or so years.  

Ok, so now…fast forward 30 years or so to 2011.  My brother had been on mission trips to Russia, Latvia, Lithuania and other places in Eastern Europe, but I still had this deep down fear of the whole idea of missions.  But I was asked by the campus pastor at Liberty Christian School to go on the school’s Spring Break mission trip to Guatemala.  I would love it, he said.  It would change my life, he said.  We could really use your Spanish speaking, he said.  I finally decided, that yes, it would be fun.  It’s missions, but it’s just a week.  God’s not going to hang me out to dry in the middle of Africa for the rest of my life, so I think I can do this.

The day before we leave, I see my brother in the parking lot of the school and he calls me over to his car and says, “Hey, I want to pray for you before you leave on your trip.”  So I kneel down beside the car and he starts praying.

It goes something like this: “God, I pray that you make this trip as hard as possible on Tom.  That you put obstacles in front of him every step of the way, that you bring resistance to everything that he tries to do and generally make his life a living hell.”  Ok…so maybe that’s what I heard…but not actually what he said.  But at the end, he prayed, “I just ask that Tom realize that he can’t do anything without you…do whatever it takes to bring him to rely completely on you and not on his own strength.”  That part I remember for sure.  But whether Rob knew it or not, all those fears from my childhood came flooding back to me as he prayed.  And whether he knew it or not, he prayed for exactly what I needed.

Aside #2: Yeah…I’m definitely going to need to break this up into parts.  This is already getting long…

Ok, so I go to Guatemala.  God broke me very quickly.  I stood up in front of a crowd of a few hundred kids and promptly forgot how to say hi in Spanish.  I just looked down and said, “God, I can’t do this, but I believe you can…help me.”  I then spoke for 8 minutes in Spanish without thinking about it, quoting verses in Spanish that I didn’t have memorized (in any language), and was able to pray with a group of kids as they committed their lives to following Jesus. Over the course of that week, I watched as a kid who had been lame from birth was miraculously and completely healed, able to walk without crutches for the first time in his life (as his teacher turned to me and said, “I want that Jesus…the Jesus that can make him walk.”).  But for all the ridiculously amazing things that God did that week, I still had fear that was bigger than my faith. 

Then, we went to a school in Chimaltenango. And there, for the first time on that trip, we faced real resistance.  In the middle of the drama presentation that our group performed, the kids at the school were laughing and cursing and insulting our kids.  When the drama showed the crucifixion of Jesus, many of the kids cheered.  When Jesus was resurrected, they boo’d. This was a stronghold of the native Mayan religion and they didn’t want Jesus…even the Jesus that completely healed a boy the day before.

But as I was speaking after the drama, looking at the faces of the 1200 students at that school, I kept coming back to this one particular girl.  She was listening.  Intently.  Her friends weren’t, hardly anyone else was, but she was.  So, by the end of my talk (which was shorter than normal, because of my stupid fears), I was just talking to her.  As soon as I finished, I went straight to her and said, “Hi, I’m Tom, what’s your name?”

“Sonia Delila and I want to follow Jesus.”

Bold, I thought. But she was just getting started. Her friends were laughing at her, calling her names, cursing her (literally, I think, because they were using the names of the some of the Mayan gods). I asked if she wanted to move away from her friends so we could talk more privately and she said, “No, they know who I was, they need to see this moment right so that they see who I become and know why.”

She completely ignored every comment from her friends, except one.  One of her friends said, “Your dad is going to kill you.”  Not like, “Haha, your dad’s gonna kill you! Hahaha…”  No, this was dead serious, straight faced, “Your dad is going to kill you.”  That comment stung her, I could see it in her face.  She hesitated for a second before continuing, “Will you pray with me?” I asked if she needed me to lead her in a prayer, and she said, “No, I know what I need to say to God.”  So she prayed.

God, I know I’ve done a lot of bad things.  I know I’ve been far away from you for my whole life, but I believe that Jesus died for that.  And I believe that Jesus died so that I can come home to you.  So, here I am.  I give you my life, and I ask only that you give me a new life so that my friends can come to see how much you love them, too.  Amen.”

I’ll admit, I was a mess by the end of her prayer.  After she prayed, her friends had mostly moved on to torment our students.  So I asked Sonia about the comment her friend made about her dad.  Her dad was the local Mayan priest.  He was powerful, influential and not someone who be happy for his daughter publicly committing her life to follow Jesus.  I asked if she would be safe if her dad found out and she just said, “Maybe…but he’s going to hear all about it, so I’ll find out tonight.”

In all that day, there were three people who publicly chose to follow Jesus while we were at the school.  Far cry from most of the schools where we saw dozens, if not hundreds, giving their to follow Jesus.  But that school made a HUGE impact on me.  In all honesty, it was a bigger impact that watching a lame boy walk for the first time.  And I can’t even say why.

I can still close my eyes and picture that fourteen year old, sitting on her knees wearing a floor length, homemade Mayan skirt, on a dirty, extremely hot basketball court at that school, beaming with life.  And joy.  And faith.  There was no fear, at all, even though she had every logical reason to be afraid. She had faith bigger than her fear.  And my fear was still bigger than my faith…I was still letting Satan push my buttons.  But God was setting all the pieces in place for a breakthrough still yet to come.

Ok, so this is a good stopping point for now.  I’ll pick up here another time, soon I hope.

Aside #3: Due to making close friends with some of the Campus Crusade for Christ people in Guatemala, I was able to communicate with Sonia twice and hear how she was doing.  The first time was about 6 months after our visit and she had led almost all of her friends to Christ, many of her teachers, her two brothers and one sister and her mom.  She was teaching a daily Bible study at her school where about 150 people attended every day.  The second time I heard from her was a little over a year after I met her.  Her Bible study had more than 300 people each day, including about 30 teachers.  Her dad had stepped down as priest because he wasn’t convinced any more that their religion was right…he often went to the Bible studies to hear his daughter teach about a perfect, powerful God that loved, instead of the gods he taught about that were vengeful, faulty and ultimately powerless.  She would be 18 now…I haven’t heard from her in almost 2 years, but I can tell you that she is likely to impact her country and her culture in amazing ways.  And I can’t wait to meet up with her in heaven to hear of the amazing things that God did through her.  

 

Uncomfortable

Uncomfortable

adjective

1. causing or feeling slight pain or physical discomfort.

2. causing or feeling unease or awkwardness.

Bringing up the discussion of certain things causes people to be uncomfortable.  You know, things like hungry people in their hometown.  Things like abortion.  And things like millions of orphaned children around the world.  It makes us uneasy…maybe even hurt a little or a little sick to our stomach.  

And it should.  It’s heart wrenching if you think about it.  And so we look away, cruise right past it, and carry on.  The social media of today is a telling example.  A penguin riding a skateboard gets four million hits.  A post on the plight of AIDS orphans in Africa gets two.  Because people don’t like to be uncomfortable.

But our lives weren’t meant to be comfortable.  They were meant to be full of life, but life is hard sometimes.  Jesus said it in John 16:33, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows.”  Life isn’t all sunshine and skateboarding penguins.  But here’s the deal.  You want joy.  Real joy?  It’s not in the 30 seconds of laughter on Youtube.  It’s in diving headfirst into the things that make us uncomfortable.  The rest of John 16:33 says, “But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”  So, us being uncomfortable is temporary.  And it matters.  It matters in an eternal way, and it matters in a here-and-now way.

So, yes, laugh at the penguin.  But let your heart break now and then too.  And let that broken heart stir you to action.  And I promise you, you’ll find joy you never knew existed.

What the future holds…

There’s an old churchy cliche, “I don’t know what the future holds, but I know Who holds the future.”  Yeah, it’s trite, maybe even a bit hokey in the today’s world.  It’s true, of course, but it’s old and tired…like singing “Amazing Grace” or something.

But here’s the thing…I don’t know what my future holds.  But I do know Who holds my future.  Oh, crap…I tried to get all serious and went cliche.  Let me try again.

I’m tired of trying to control my future.  Heck, I’m tired of trying to control my present…the now is too much for me, and yet I still try to control tomorrow.  So I’m giving up…I’m giving in…I’m letting go…whatever way you want to word it (more cliche’s, I know).

Over the past few years, what started as a small fire of passion has been fanned and fed.  Over the last year, instead of sticks and logs being put on it, it feels like gasoline has been dumped on it.  And in the past three months, it seemed like a few hundred pounds of dynamite were thrown into the fire, resulting in a volcanic explosion.

In the midst of that explosion, God opened my eyes to something that He was calling me to do.  A vision.  A calling.  A plan.  A whatever.  And it was big.  Like crazy big.  Like change the world big.  Like, afraid to even talk to my wife about it because she would think I’m crazy big.  For a couple of months, I chose to do my best Moses impersonation, “No, God, you want someone else…I’m not that good at talking to people…you want someone more holy than me.”  Just when I felt like I had my last chance to relent to God’s call, I finally came to my senses.  I don’t know what my future holds, but I know Who…oh, you know.  If I was going to obey, I had to obey then.  So, I fell on my face and said, “Ok, Father…but I don’t know what I’m doing so you lead.”  And He is…quickly.

So, here we go.  I believe that God is about to do something amazing.  Not because of me, not even with me, but in spite of me.  If God can do something amazing with this plan in spite of the mess that I am, then it will be obvious to everyone around that HE did it.

Over the course of the next few weeks, we will be unveiling a new movement and a non-profit organization called The Great Need.  The vision of The Great Need is to END the global orphan crisis (200+ million children).  To change the human race’s way of “doing business” when it comes orphaned and abandoned children.  To change attitudes and cultures on a world wide scale.  To change government policies in every country around the world.  To work until every single child has a forever family.  Every. Single. Child.

I told you it was big.  And I’m freaked out.  But I’ve never felt more at home than now.  And I’ve never felt more comfortable with Who holds my future than I do right now.

Please join us in prayer as we pray for God’s movement through us and as we pray for all the amazing organizations in the world that are boldly fighting for the same victory…that amazing day when all orphanages are out of business.

 

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