Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Three Books to Capture Your Heart and Mind

Have you read a good book lately?  I find winters to be a great time to turn on the fireplace, grab a cup of hot chocolate, and open up a good book.  I would highly recommend the following three books for your reading pleasure.

The first book is titled, "41", and was written by former President George W Bush.  It is the story of his father, former President George H.W. Bush, our 41st president, thus the title.  George W writes in a style that is very readable.  You almost get the feeling that he is sitting in a chair opposite you and just sharing a personal story with you.  As one reads this book, the respect, love, and admiration that George W had for his father becomes very apparent.  As he writes in his introduction he is not writing an objective story, but a very subjective one.  Three facts stood out to me about the life of George H.W. Bush.  First, he was a man who was not afraid of hard work.  It seemed that whatever the position he held, he always performed it with zeal and dedication.  Second, he was a man who showed respect toward others.  It began with the respect that he showed, as a young boy growing up, toward both his father and his grandfather.  This would carry over as George H.W. grew in his political service: as ambassador to the United Nations, as director of the CIA, as U.S. liaison to China, as Vice President under Ronald Reagan, and finally as our 41st President.  He was bold, yet respectful of others.  Third, he was a man who was committed to his family and to the values that he had grown up with.  He was more than just a father-figure to his children; he was their mentor, confidante, and friend.  As I read this book my appreciation for our 41st President grew.  Distance has a way of bringing reality into a better perspective.  And I believe history will show a kinder view of George H.W. Bush.  After reading this book, I feel like I know him as a person, more than just a former president.

A second book I strongly recommend is the new political thriller from the pen of Joel Rosenberg.  The book is titled, "The Third Target."  This is the first volume in a new series Joel is writing, therefore, you can expect that this book will leave you hanging on the edge of a cliff.  Joel is a gifted story teller.  His characters seem life-like. And, what distinguishes Joel's novels from others, is their connection to the events in the real world today.  This story centers around a young reporter for the "New York Times" who seeks an interview with the one of the leader of ISIS.  He understands that the mission is fraught with dangers, yet he is driven by the urgency of seeking confirmation to the story circulating that ISIS has captured weapons of mass destruction in Syria.  And he also seeks an interview with the inspirational leader behind ISIS.  The story moves at a very fast pace.  There are moments of excitement.  There are moments of suspense.  There are moments of disappointment.  There are moments of profound tragedy.  Yet, although the story is fictional, there is a sense that it could become a true story.  ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the White House, the CIA, the Mossad are all very real today.  Beheadings, sarin gas, suicide bombings are terms that we have grown too accustomed to today.  One word of warning: When you begin reading this book, you will need sufficient time to complete it; it is one you will not want to put down. 

A third book I highly recommend is the latest from one of my favorite writers, Philip Yancey.  The book is titled, "Vanishing Grace: Whatever Happened to the Good News?"  I think I have read nearly everything Phil Yancey has written and have always grown spiritually through those readings.  This book is no exception.  The author begins by noting that in a recent survey, created by the Toronto sponsors of a debate between Britain's former Prime Minister Tony Blair and the atheist Christopher Hitchens, and asking the question "Is religion a force for good?", an amazing 52% of people said religion was not a force for good in the world.  Where is the impact that the Gospel of Jesus Christ once had upon culture and society?  What happened?  Can it be corrected?  Thoughtfully Phil begins to explore the causes for the decline in the influence of the Gospel.  Of importance is the hypocrisy within the Church itself.  We have been guilty of preaching and teaching one thing on a Sunday morning, but then leave to do what we have always done the other days of the week.  Our one-hour of weekly religion has had little impact upon our lives.  Young people have especially noticed this hypocrisy and have bailed out of the Church.  Yancey writes: "The uncommitted share many of our core values, but if we do not live out those values in a compelling way, we will not awaken a thirst for their ultimate Source.  Christians can do no better than to follow the example set by Jesus, who specialized not in techniques and arguments but in spirit and example."  Perhaps Stanley Hauerwas, named as America's beat theologian by "Time" magazine, summed it up best when he said, "I have come to think that the challenge confronting Christians is not that we do not believe what we say, though that can be a problem, but that what we say we believe does not seem to make any difference for either the church or the world." 

Throughout the remainder of the book, Phil Yancey seeks to present options and opportunities for the Church to rediscover the impact the true Gospel of Jesus Christ can have upon our world.  There will be those whom he describes as activists - those who crusade for one cause or another.  "A skeptical world judges the truth of what we say by the proof of how we live.  Today's activists may be the best evangelists."  A second group is described as artists - these are those who use the visual and auditory arts to proclaim the message of Christ.  A third group is described as pilgrims - those who minister to others with hugs and tears.  Yancey writes, "Consistently, I have found, the uncommitted respond best to someone who leads from weakness rather than one who appears to have it all together."  This is a book that is best to be chewed on and digested slowly.  I believe it would make an excellent book for a small group discussion but only if that small group is open to any changes that God might want to make within their group. 

What I have always appreciated about the writings of Phil Yancey is that you cannot ever read those works and remain on the same square from which you began your reading.  This is another of those books.

So, turn the TV off for an evening or two.  Lay aside that ipad with its multitude of apps.  They can wait for another day.  Grab a good book and begin to grow both your heart and your mind.  Someday you will look back with gratitude that you did just that.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Charlie Hebdo: Why the Outrage?

The world is still recoiling from the massacre that occurred two weeks ago in Paris when Islamic militants entered into the editorial rooms at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed twelve cartoonists and editorialists.  On their way out they cried that they had now avenged the prophet Mohammed.  The response was swift as the world came together - or, I should say, most of the world came together - in a show of solidarity with the victims.  (I did find it interesting that the President of the Palestinian Authority and the Turkish President were in Paris for the march.  One can hardly say that religious toleration is accorded a strong place in either the West Bank or in Turkey these days).

The publishers of Charlie Hebdo added fuel to the debate when, a week later, they published an edition of their satirical magazine with a cartoonish portrait of Mohammed on the front cover.  Instead of a limited publication run - usually in the 30,000 copies per issue - this particular issue had a multi-million copy run.  And what has been the response within the Muslim world?  Violence!  In the former French colony of Niger in West Africa, dozens of churches have been destroyed and many Christians have been killed - just to cite one example.

I have been pondering why Charlie Hebdo would even publish something that they knew might cause such an outrage and why would the Muslim world respond as it did?  The answer is found in an understanding of what we know in the United States as our "First Amendment Right of Free Speech."  We understand that people have a right to express themselves as they see fit.  I remember back in 1987 when the Christian community was outraged when Andres Serrano created a picture showing a crucifix in a jar of urine.  He had entitled the picture "Piss Christ."  For those of you who are old enough, remember the outcry from the Pope down to the local pastors.  To be sure the picture was scandalous and horrific.  It created a deep-seated anger within many of us who had a love and passion for the Lord Jesus.  Yet, I do not remember anyone attacking the creator of the picture nor the museum where it was housed.  There was no violence in the streets.  No one was killed, no property destroyed, no lives devastated.  And yet, the Muslim world's response to a picture of their prophet Mohammed - a portrait that was as hurtful to those faithful followers of Mohammed as was Serrano's picture of Jesus in a jar of urine - resulted in untold violence. 

Why the difference?  As often as it is distasteful, Christians understand that one of the foundational truths upon which Western civilization is based is that of the freedom of expression.  I may not like what you say, but you have the right to say it.  Has America always been faithful to those "First Amendment Rights?"  Sadly, the answer is no.  We just celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this past week.  I remember those tumultuous days of the 1960's when the Civil Rights debate was raging.  Although I disagreed with some of what Dr. King was saying, I respected him enough that I listened to what he had to say.  Sadly, others reacted to his message as did those who attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo and Dr. King was murdered. 

You might way, "Max, I understand the importance of those "First Amendment Rights."  So, why doesn't the Muslim community have such rights.  Here is where it gets very interesting.  Those foundational truths, which include the freedom of expression, are deeply embedded within our Constitution and those of other Western civilizations because they have roots within Judeo-Christian teachings.  In fact, friends, as one reads the Bill of Rights attached to the United States Constitution, the roots of biblical teachings are inherent.  Would you find a "Charlie Hebdo" magazine in Saudi Arabia?  Absolutely not!  Would you find a "Piss Mohammed" picture in a museum in Iran?  Absolutely not!  Why?  Because freedom of expression is not a foundational truth. 

Can "freedom of expression" be hurtful?  Can it be insensitive to the deep heart-felt desires others?  Can it create an inner rage?  Absolutely, it can and often does.  Censorship of speech and expression must be guarded with care.  For when we are forced to think like everyone else, then the world indeed becomes a very disturbing place. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Violence Continues; Will It Stop?

This past week the world was preoccupied with the terrorist attacks in Paris.  Two armed men violently attacked the downtown offices of a satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo.  Twelve cartoonists and editorialists were murdered.  The gunmen, upon leaving the building returned fire on some police officers, wounding one officer and then, in an execution style, killed him before driving away.  Two days later, law enforcement officers discovered the hideout of the two terrorists and, in the ensuring exchange of gun fire, the two were killed.  At the same time, another armed terrorist had taken hostages at a kosher Jewish food market on the outskirts of Paris.  Before he died, four of the hostages were murdered.  The terrorists had strong connections with AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) - in fact, reports indicate that two of them had been trained in Yemen.  The terrorists had sought to revenge the Prophet Mohammed because of the way the magazine had portrayed him, and the Jewish community was attacked simply because it was Jewish. 

So, who is to blame for the attack.  I listened to a news program on the radio returning from a class I taught last night, and one of the people interviewed, a Senator Murphy from Connecticut, said that the blame for the attack could be laid at the feet of President George W Bush, for after all, it was President Bush who began the occupation of Iraq.  Then, I was reading one of my Jerusalem online sources, and it was reported that former President Jimmy Carter blamed the attack upon the failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.  The former President, who, by the way, is not a good friend of Israel today in spite of his leading the Camp David Accords back in 1978-1979 that led to peace between Israel and Egypt, said: "Well, one of the origins for it is the Palestinian problem.  And this aggravates people who are affiliated in any way with the Arab people who live in the West Bank and Gaza, what they are doing now - what's being done to them."  According to the article, President Carter when on to say that "the West was seeing 'a new evolutionary development in terrorism,' in which Western Muslims are trained to fight by jihadists in the Middle East before going home and bringing terrorism to their home countries." 

I believe what we are seeing today is an increasing boldness upon the part of radical Islamic terrorists to attack the foundations of Western Civilization.  In Nigeria we have seen the violent assaults of Boko Horam upon schools, churches, and villages that have refused to bend to their radical Islamic ideologies.  Because of the horrors in Paris, few papers reported the massacre of nearly 2,000 people in northeastern Nigeria by this radical group.  And, we are learning, that they are now using young girls as suicide bombers, infiltrating market places in villages and blowing themselves up to cause as many deaths as possible.  The goal of Boko Horam is the creation of an Islamic caliphate in Western Africa.  The Nigerian forces seem almost powerless to stop them.

Then, look at what the Taliban has done in Pakistan.  Recently, terrorists from that group attacked a school for the children of those serving in the Pakistani military, killing dozens of unarmed children.  The reason: these children should not be going to school, especially the young girls.  Education of young children, including young ladies, is a foundation of Western Civilization. 

Look at what ISIS is doing in Syria and northern Iraq.  I was reading this morning an article that instilled horror into me.  You can find the article at:  "A shocking video posted online Tuesday appears to show ISIS using a young child soldier to execute two alleged Russian spies in Syria. ... In the forced confession one of the men, a Kazakh national, says he was ordered to gather intelligence on a particular ISIS leader and use a flash drive to steal sensitive information to pass on to the FSB.  The other alleged spy confesses to having been sent to assassinate a senior ISIS commander.   Although it is unclear whether their confessions were genuine or not (the confessions were clearly made under duress), the video itself does appear to be authentic - as does its grisly end.  After extracting the confessions a burly ISIS fighter previously hidden off-screen appears in the video's final 'scene', standing in a field behind the two kneeling suspects and delivering a speech against 'disbelievers,' a Kalashnikov assault rifle slung across his shoulder.  Standing next to him is a young boy with shoulder-length hair, apparently from the Caucuses.  The boy, who is no more than nine or ten years old, casually brandishes a pistol.  After quoting from the Koran, the adult terrorist adds in Russian: 'Allah has gifted the Islamic State's security agency with the apprehension of these two spies. ... By Allah's grace, they are now in the custody of the lion cubs of the Caliphate.'  At that point the young boy is gently nudged forward, pistol in hand, and calmly shoots the two men repeatedly in the head." 

Friends, what happened in Paris, in northeastern Nigeria, in Pakistan, at Fort Hood several years ago, and even with 9/11 has nothing to do with the failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.  They have nothing to do with whether American forces went into Iraq or Afghanistan.  No, the reason these attacks are happening, and will continue to happen, is for two reasons, I believe.  First, the Bible tells us that "in the last days, lawlessness will increase and men's hearts will fail them because of fear."  Second, Satan is preparing the world for a one-world order.  Some prophetic scholars believe that an Islamic Caliphate might be that one-world order.  (Read some of the works of Joel Richardson, for example).  Radical Islamists see the need for a one-world system under a radical interpretation of Sharia Law.  The Bible certainly affirms that Satan will devise a one-world governmental system under the Antichrist.  Europe is in disarray today, as is the entire Western World, searching for leadership.  I believe that, standing in the wings today and ready to make his first curtain bow, is that one individual, energized by Satan, and permitted to rule by the authority of God.  The greater the threat from the radical Islamists, the more critical becomes the need for a leader to unite the world.  Who will it be?  I don't know, but I am certainly glad that God is in control.  I trust your confidence is always in Him.  Let Him be your foundation.  Let Him be your daily bread.  Let Him be your daily strength.  Let Him be your guide.  Don't be afraid.  Our God is in control.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Another Year - But Little Has Changed

We are now a week into the new year.  The cold has descended upon us here in Minnesota as it has to so many in our country.  Classes were canceled today because of excessive windchills - in the minus 25 to minus 40 degree range.  The risk of frostbite to little folks certainly was not worth having a day of school.  So, although the sun is shining, the winds are howling and the temperatures will soar to about a minus four today.  But, such is January in Minnesota.  As one old-timer told me on Sunday, "These are the days that make us hearty." 

I want to report on several news items that you might have missed this year.  The first is an article from the Independent Paper.  The article, written by Steve Connor, can be found at:  "Controversial regulations effectively legalizing so-called 'three-parent' IVF babies are expected to be debated and voted on by MPs before the general election, and could even be passed within weeks. ... Mitochondrial donation uses genetic material from the eggs of two women, combined with the sperm of a man, to produce IVF embryos that are free of serious mitochondrial diseases, which currently affect about one in every 6,500 children.  Supporters argue it will help women carrying mutations in their mitochondria - the tiny 'power packs' of the cells - from passing on the inherited conditions to their children, as the 37 genes of the mitochondria are inherited maternally."  Was it God's original intent that a child have three biological parents?  Read Genesis 1 and the answer is very obvious.  One man and one woman were to create a family.  This story is just another reminder of how far down the slippery slope of moral degeneration we have come. 

A second article, written by J.J. Green, can be found at:  "Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is warning Americans that they've been working long and hard on a new tool to attack the U.S.  In the latest issue of the terror group's Inspire electronic magazine, an individual called the AQ Chef was quoted as saying they developed a bomb in 2009, but 'the brothers in the external operation committee did not give us the green light until recently.'  AQ Chef indicates that lessons learned from failures in past assassination attempts and plots to attack U.S. airplanes and buildings have fed the development of a new generation of what it calls 'undetectable' bombs."  The article then quotes former TSA Administrator John Pistole, who said, "What gives us greatest concern are the non-metallic improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that can go through a metal detector."  Perhaps one of the most alarming statements in the article was this: "AQAP (Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula) is betting a wave of lone jihadist attacks taking place worldwide will be sustained.  So the organization is promoting a new strategy for attacking the West - developing individual extremists who act alone."  Don't intend to frighten you, but there are people in our world whose lives are bent on the destruction of others.  But I remember Jesus saying that "in the last days, evil will grow worse."  And we certainly see it proliferating at an alarming rate, even within our own country.

A third article was published by the Middle East Forum - by the way, this is an excellent website, one that I highly recommend.  It was written by Raymond Ibrahim, one of their principal writers.  You can find the article at:  Friends, this is a very important article, featuring a report on a speech given by Egyptian President al-Sisi on New Year's Day.  Ibrahim reports: "Among other things, Sisi said that the 'corpus of [Islamic] texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years' are 'antagonizing the entire world'; that it is not 'possible that 1.6 billion people [reference to the world's Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world's inhabitants - that is 7 billion - so that they themselves may live'; and that Egypt (or the Islamic world in its entirety) 'is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost - and it is being lost by our own hands.'"  I am not certain why the American media did not report this amazing speech.  We have long asked for moderate Muslims to step forward and speak out against the radicalization of Islam.  And, when the President of Egypt does just that, it is ignored.  Al-Sisi is not turning from his Islamic practice.  He is just saying that there was a need to think of the impact radicalized Islam is having upon the world.  This may have been one of the most courageous acts of an Egyptian since President Sadat went to Jerusalem and addressed the Knesset in 1979. 

One final article attracted my attention, quite possibly because 8 weeks from Friday I will be leading another tour to Israel.  And I am hoping that we can stop at this site while in Jerusalem.  The article can be found at:  "Archaeologists in Jerusalem say they may have uncovered the remains of Herod the Great's palace, the site where the trial of Jesus Christ may have taken place prior to his crucifixion. The Washington Post reports that the remains are being opened to the public through tours organized by the Tower of David Museum, which is located close to the site."  If we can squeeze this into our itinerary, I will be sure to let you know of what we see there.

2015 has started much like 2014 ended.  There are new faces in Washington, but business seems to proceed there as usual.  The police whose lives are put on the line every day, now find themselves targets for those who oppose anything that has the stamp of government upon it.  Life is filled with heart-ache and disappointments.  But praise God, Jesus Christ never disappoints.  Jesus Christ calms the troubled spirit.  Jesus Christ replaces despair with His joy.  Oh to trust Him more in 2015.