Thursday, August 25, 2011

Things fall apart

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Feeling a little unstable lately?

I’m not talking about the earthquake that rattled America’s East Coast the other day — though it symbolizes other forces currently shaking things up.

Financial markets lurch up and down with the latest bit of hopeful or gloomy news, while a dazed global economy hangs on for dear life. Once-stable governments in the so-called developed world, including our own, struggle to contain deep social and economic divisions tearing at the foundations of their nations. Flash mobs randomly assault people on the streets for fun and profit.

Long-term regimes have fallen — or are falling — in the Middle East, but no one is sure what will follow them. Perhaps something worse? Scenarios range from a new dawn of freedom and democracy to the rise of Islamist theocracies across the region.

“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” W.B. Yeats wrote in “The Second Coming,” one of the most-quoted poems of modern times. “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. …”

We can hope “mere anarchy” holds off for a while, but things sure seem to be falling apart, for better or worse. Of course, things always seem to be falling apart. That’s the problem with supposedly indestructible human institutions: They aren’t.

A recent newspaper editorial discussing U.S. defense requirements argued that many military bases overseas “serve little purpose in a post-Soviet world.” The writer thoughtfully added an explanation for those who might be puzzled by the word “Soviet”: “The Soviet Union was an empire of communist states in Eastern Europe, led by Russia, that constituted the principal enemy of the U.S. in the second half of the 20th century.”

Here was an imperial colossus that bestrode half the world for generations — and periodically threatened the rest with nuclear extinction. It crumbled only 20 years ago. Yet the editorialist feared, probably with good reason, that some readers are so historically uninformed or forgetful that they wouldn’t know the Soviet Union had ever existed. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” thundered King Ozymandias of old — long forgotten except for his shattered statue, half-buried in the desert sands.

Even the seemingly eternal institution of bribery in India, as predictable as tea and the rising sun, trembles before the protests of one man, Anna (“elder brother”) Hazare. An ascetic who has galvanized the nation in recent days through his Gandhian tactic of fasting for change, Hazare calls for a “second revolution” to rid Indian society of corruption.

“Graft has long wracked India’s public life and society, running the gamut from small-scale bribes to the police in exchange for dispensing with traffic tickets to massive payoffs to politicians and political parties to acquire complex weapons systems,” reports the journal, Foreign Affairs. “The country’s citizens have frequently complained about this malaise but have rarely, if ever, resorted to organized public protest to register their frustration and anger about this pervasive phenomenon.” This time, many are joining Hazare to demand real change.

Nothing is permanent in human affairs. Changing an institution is pointless, however, without changing hearts. The new institution inevitably sinks into the same swamp as the old.

No wonder Jesus Christ refused to be pressured into leading a political or revolutionary movement to liberate the Jewish nation from the Roman Empire, as some misunderstood his Messianic mission to be.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said when He stood before Pontius Pilate, Rome’s military prefect, before His crucifixion (John 18:36a).

“So you are a king?” Pilate asked.

Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice” (John 18:37, NASB).

Our mission as His followers, then, is to proclaim His truth in every culture and give every searching heart the opportunity to hear His voice. The millions who search for something permanent in this ever-changing world deserve to know there is a kingdom that will outlast the stars.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Ramadan and the summer of discontent

In Syria, Muslims seeking to pray in some cities are dodging shells lobbed at their mosques by the military.

In other Muslim-majority nations swept by recent political change, the hopes raised by the “Arab Spring” are sagging in this summer of doubt and fear about what will happen next as factions struggle for power. “Now Yemen, Libya, Syria, Egypt and Tunisia are all [attempting] similar transitions — at once — but without a neutral arbiter to referee,” observes Thomas Friedman. “It is unprecedented in this region, and we can already see just how hard this will be. … [T]he new dawn will take time to appear.”

In Somalia and its neighbors, meanwhile, masses of Somali Muslim refugees are unwillingly observing a grim Ramadan fast: famine-induced starvation.

Ramadan, the annual month of dawn-to-dusk fasting observed throughout the Muslim world, began Aug. 1. This year, it found millions of Muslims struggling for political freedom, for a better future — or for basic survival.

But Ramadan itself calls Muslims to higher things, things beyond this material world. “Ramadan helps us become conscious of our souls,” explains one Muslim. “Fasting helps us to separate ourselves temporarily from our worldly needs and pursuits so as to become aware of higher needs and pursuits.”

So why should Christians care about a Muslim observance? Because Ramadan is a priceless opportunity to lift Muslims in prayer to God — and to love them in action by His grace — whether they live across the globe or right next door.

The month of fasting isn’t easy, even for Muslims who don’t face political turmoil or life-threatening hunger.

“It is a time when Muslims try to spend more time focusing on [Allah] and learning about patience and humility,” says a Christian worker in South Asia. “We have seen the opposite effect as the month wears on for the millions around us. There are often fights in the traffic jams as people’s patience is frazzled by lack of food and water. There is also the feeling by many that they just are unable to keep the fast and are therefore unable to please [Allah]. Pray that Muslims … will realize their deep need for a Savior. Pray that they will experience the grace and love of God that will forever replace the rules and works of man.”

Make no mistake: Many Muslims eagerly want to know more about Jesus.

A college student from my church has spent the summer ministering to Iraqi Muslim refugees in the Atlanta area. In the course of providing practical help, she’s had many opportunities to share stories from the Bible about Jesus and His Lordship. Nearly everyone listens; several have decided to follow Jesus as Lord.

One 22-year-old Muslim “jumped into this spiritual discussion with us the first time we met him,” my college friend related. “I told him the story about when Jesus calmed the storm. He listened very quietly and was very curious. Once I was done, he said something we’ve kept in our minds: ‘Why do Christians only tell other Christians about Jesus? They should teach the followers of Islam these things, because the Christians already know.’”

Good question. Whether believers assist Him or not, however, God is moving among Muslims.

In Washington, D.C., a group of Christians regularly visits shopping malls to share the Gospel with Muslims. Yet after years of ministry, they “have yet to find a church, of any denomination, who will partner with them,” says a long-time worker among Arab Muslim peoples. “Without a doubt, there have been more people incited to pray, and they are praying. The net result is that, in the absence of Christian obedience to go and make disciples, God is still working and calling Arab Muslims to follow Him in greater numbers than at any other time in history.”

He speaks through His followers when they are faithful to lift Him up. He speaks through His Word. And He speaks through dreams and visions, as countless testimonies from throughout the Muslim world continue to confirm. Here is an account of one such dream from a Kashmiri Muslim woman in India who now follows Christ:

“I was in a beautiful garden, and an old woman dressed in white came up to me and said, ‘Come with me.’ She then took me to a place where I saw Him … Jesus … dressed in white and glowing with love for me. He hugged me and took me in His arms. He set a crimson rose in my lap and then said to me, ‘You are my daughter.’ And all I could do was cry. Then I turned around and saw a huge crowd of hundreds, thousands, all coming to be baptized.”

During the closing days of Ramadan, and particularly on the “Night of Power,” (Aug. 26 this year), many spiritually hungry Muslims will stay up all night, seeking divine forgiveness and praying for a vision. Ask God to answer their prayer with a vision of Jesus, the “man in white” so many other Muslim seekers have encountered. Pray that they will hear His unmistakable voice calling them to Himself — and that they, too, will follow Him.

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For videos, stories and other resources exploring how to love and pray for Muslims, visit