Sunday, 26 January 2014

Refugee for Christ- The story of Joshua

The following is a part of the story of Joshua who has been a refugee for the last 20 years primarily for converting to Christianity. Josh has discerned a call from God to seek out formal theological education. If you would like to support him please contact St. Timothy's. 

St. Timothy's Anglican Church 

8420 - 145 Street NW 
Edmonton, AB 
Canada T5R 0T2 
Ph: 780-483-5506 

It's an honour to be standing here and thanks again for sponsoring me. I am very grateful and thankful.

My family is a Muslim family. My father used to be an Imam, which is a Muslim leader. My destiny as a Muslim was to live as my father did and his grandfathers did. Islam to us is not only a religion it is a way of life. It's everything. It's a life and a law and a pride as the children of Abraham and of the prophet Muhammad, who was the founder of Islam.

This is how I became a Christian. It all started when I was five and a half years old, when my mom heard of a lady who could tell the future. In Islam people believe that anyone who has the power to tell the future has been given this power by God. (How she received this power is an amazing story.) My mom went to see that lady, and because I was five years old at that time she didn't want to leave me at home alone so my mom took me with her.

My mom asked her about my brothers’ and sisters’ futures and what they will become and what they will face, and when mom asked her about my future the blind lady said, “I can't see his future because he is going to another kingdom”.

When mom heard that she was shocked. Mom and I went home and I still remember my mom crying. My mom told my dad and they both were very sad. They both thought that I was leaving the kingdom of the living and was going to the kingdom of the dead. They thought I was going to die.

My dad suggested that I should study in the Islamic school so that if I died while I was studying there then I would go to paradise, but if I didn't die and God chose me to stay alive then that meant God chose me to be the next imam and take over from my dad leading the mosque .

My mom took me to a city where the shrine of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson is. She talked to an imam there. Later, she gave my little hand to him. I cried and screamed. I asked her to not leave me there. I promised her I would be a good boy. My mom cried and she left me. That man took me to a school, which was basically a big house where I saw a lot of kids my age and bit older studying the Koran. They memorize the Koran, study Islamic law, and Islamic history.

After a few weeks of crying I accepted that this was my new life. I started to memorize the Koran and study with the rest of kids in the school. Teachers used to hit our hands with a bamboo stick when any of the kids made a mistake.

My life was very hard at that school. I never saw my family. I even forgot what they looked like. We had very little food to eat, and we had a lot of beatings. My only dream at that time was to see beyond the school walls. I lived there for about seven years.

Seven years later the president of the school called me to his room and I saw another man there with him. The president of the school pointed at that man and said to me, “this is your father and he is here to take you home”. I went and kissed my father’s hand and left the room to take my books and the Koran with me. My father and I went home on the bus. We didn't talk much. He looked like a stranger to me. I forgot what he looked like after seven years in that school, but I was very happy that to be out of that school.

When I arrived home my dad opened the door, and I saw my family- my mother, sisters and brothers. I didn’t remember their faces, but it was a nice feeling to know that I was finally not alone and had a family that cared about me. It was beautiful day. That day we had a big meal and had lots of family and friends over to celebrate.

The following day my father took me with him to the mosque that he was leading, and he told me that from now on I would help him lead the mosque. He also told me that his father led this mosque and his father before him and that one day I would be leading this mosque. He asked me to teach a class of young children who wanted to memorize the Koran. I started teaching the kids who came daily to learn how to memorize the Koran. I made sure none of them were beaten like I was. I remember my father’s face full of pride and happiness when he saw me teaching in the class.

As I was teaching the Koran, I started to understand it more than when I used to memorize it. As I prepared for the next day’s class I would study the subject I was teaching. That's when I started to see all these verses in the Koran that spoke highly about Jesus. Many of these verses said that he is a good prophet and he is not the son of God, and other verses said he is the son of God.

When I found that I started to get confused and I started to ask myself how it’s possible for the Quran to have a mistake in it. Because it's a holy book that is written by God himself and the prophet Muhammad. When they asked Muhammad to prove that he is a prophet and show a sign from God just like Moses did he answered that his only sign from God is that the Quran has no mistake in it, and that if anyone found a mistake in it, then he is free to leave this religion.

I spent about four years teaching in the mosque helping my father, but at the same time during these four years I use to go back home at night and when I went to bed I used to speak with Jesus and ask him to come to me and help me understand God more and help me to know if Islam is the right way to God or if Christianity was the right way. Some verses in the Quran seemed to hint that Jesus was more than Islam wanted to admit and some verses seemed to contradict. The Quran was supposed to have no mistakes. If I have found a mistake in the Quran that means Mohammed has nothing stand on as prophet. That made me scared. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if I should tell my family what I was thinking. I wondered if I told them if I would get beaten up, or if my family would stop loving me. To Muslims Mohammed is a holy subject and the teaching of Islam is unquestionable.

What the Quran said about Jesus made me wonder who this holy man was, and why he needed to die and rise again. I started to think that he must be more than just a prophet because no other prophet rose again, not even Muhammad himself. Then when I started to read more in the Quran I started to find many more words that spoke of Jesus. I truly started to love this man and that started me thinking, “If I change my religion and follow this man I will get killed”. The teaching of Islam says that if anyone left Islam then he must be killed by cutting his head off and if I managed to run away and not get killed then I would lose my family and my friends and my country and I would have to find another life. That’s if I was still alive. But, if I don’t follow Jesus I will lose eternity. Every night I would close my eyes and pray to Jesus and ask him to show me who he is and what he wants me to do and if he is the way to follow. I did that almost every night for about a year.

One night I went to bed after I talked to Jesus for a while then I fell asleep and I felt like I left my body. I believed I had died and was going to God to be judged. I was scared that I would go to hell because I didn’t believe I was holy. I started to cry and beg and pray to be returned home, but none of my prayer was heard. (There is much more to this dream, but I will keep it short). When I called on the name of Jesus and asked him to save me a light appeared, and then the light became a man in front of me. I saw both his hands bleeding and I asked him to save me. I said he was my last hope, and then he said “this man belongs to me”. Then I woke up in my bed terrified. I couldn’t move or speak. The following day I went to tell my mom. She told me not to tell anyone, and that it’s probably just a nightmare. But, in my heart I couldn’t forget that dream.

A few months later I become seventeen years old and the 1990 Gulf War started, the Iraq government asked very male between 17 to 55 to join the war, and anyone refusing to go would be shot to death. So I didn’t have much choice but to join the army. I went to the army center and my first day they gave me an oversized army uniform and an AK47 gun, and later that day they taught us how to use it. Then they put us in trucks and drove us into the desert.

When the war started we were bombed day and night and many of us died. I was injured and I saw a lot of people die. I was very lucky to be alive. All this made me wonder what would happen to me if I died. I thought I would die in this war. I knew that I had to take a step and tell my family that I am Christian, or I didn’t know where I would end up if I died.

When I got back home for a holiday, my father, like always, asked me to go to the mosque and pray with him and help him with his work, but in my heart I couldn’t do it. I knew in my heart that’s not what I was supposed to do. I belonged to Jesus and after almost a year and a half serving in the army I told my father that I am no longer Muslim and that I am a Christian now who believes that only through Jesus Christ heaven’s door will be open for us. I also asked him about his thoughts when he read the verses that spoke about Jesus in the Quran. My father became mad and he shouted at me and fought with me. He told me if I leave Islam it's leaving the family and am no longer part of this family and am no longer his son. I left home and went back to the army early.

About six months later my commanding officer asked me into his office. He asked me to have a seat and told me that he just got a call and that my father had passed away. I couldn’t believe it because I knew my father was very healthy. He had never been to the hospital as long as I remember. He never even complained about any sickness. My commanding officer gave me 3 days holiday to attend the funeral. I went, but I was not welcome at my father’s funeral. Many blamed me for my father’s heart attack. Food was brought to the tent, but I was not allowed to eat with them because in Islamic law nonbelievers can't eat with Muslims because the nonbelievers are unclean and if they eat with believer then food will be unclean too and Muslims will not eat it. Three days passed and no one spoke to me.

As I was leaving I went to say goodbye to my mom. She told me to not come back for a few months because my brothers had sworn to kill me. My father had been removed from his job as an imam (Muslim leader) after they discovered I left Islam. It was after this that he had his heart attack. When I heard that my father died because of me, the news was worse than when I first found out he had passed away.

When I finished my time with the army I wasn’t sure where I was going to go. I could not go back to my family. They hated me and wanted to kill me because I became a Christian. I had never even been in a church and I had never read the Bible, but I left Islam and I proclaimed my faith as follower of Jesus Christ. When I had finished my last day in the army the military police came and arrested me. I was shocked because I hadn’t not done anything wrong. They told me that I have been put under arrest because my family cancelled my citizenship and that I left Islam and became Christian.

I was in jail for about two months not knowing whether I would be killed, or if I would just stay there forever. Eventually they put me in a car and drove me seven hours to the border with Jordan. I was told that I was not allowed to stay in Iraq because I was no longer an Iraqi citizen. The Jordanian side refused to let me go in to Jordan because I didn’t have a passport. I was between the Iraq and Jordan borders for three days.

After three days sleeping at the border between Iraq and Jordan, the United Nations office in Jordan sent a representative to talk to me. They gave me an entry visa to enter Jordan. When I entered Jordan I had no money and I didn't know anyone. I hadn’t shaved my beard for three months and I looked like a homeless person. I was a homeless person. At night I used to look in the garbage bins to find food and I would find a garden to sleep in. It was a difficult time. I felt sorry for myself. I felt angry at my life. I asked myself if I was a bad person and if God hated me? After a few weeks I found a big box which became the room I slept in.

I was very unhappy and a very angry person and I had every reason to feel that way. One day I was very sad and angry and I started to talk to Jesus. I asked him if he was happy seeing me sleeping here being useless and if that's what he wanted me to do. I told him I gave everything to follow him. I gave my country and my family and even my citizenship to him and now I am homeless in a country where I know no one. Then I had the feeling that someone was talking to me telling me that he will give me a better country to call home, and a better family to call my family.

The rest of Joshua's story includes his journey from Jordan to Yemen, then to Malaysia, and finally to Macau (China) before he came to Canada

Monday, 20 January 2014

The "E" word- Evangelism

Margret Atwood in her book of short stories, Bluebeard’sEgg, tells a story where a woman named Christine is out on a date with a man she has just met and everything seems to go fine until her date asks her a question “Do you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?” Then she writes this:
“Religious people of any serious kind made her nervous: they were like men in raincoats who might or might not be flashers. You would be going along with them in the normal way, and then there could be a swift movement and you would look down to find the coat wide open and nothing under it but some pant legs held up by rubber bands. This had happened to Christine in a train station once”[1]
Margret Atwood is describing the discomfort that often goes along with evangelism. She, or at least the character in her story, feels like the action is not appropriate to the relationship. It is a private thing that is suddenly made very public.  What should be an intimate moment is instead a form of violence. And, the person on the receiving end of the action, evangelism or flashing, feels violated and dehumanized.   

            This is the kind of evangelism that makes us uncomfortable. We think of someone with a bullhorn and a sandwich board handing out tracts. Or, someone knocking on the door and handing you material to read while repeating a memorized sales pitch as if they are trying to sell a vacuum. We think of Televangelists and their tearful or angry overly-dramatic pleas for converts and money. There is no real relationship, and in some ways we are left feeling used. It feels manipulative. My evangelism professor, John Bowen, calls this kind of evangelism “Flasher Evangelism”. Evangelism has become a dirty word. So no wonder it isn’t an activity we want to engage in. There is no way we want to be associated with that word. The major reason we don’t want to engage in evangelism is that we associate it with the examples I just mentioned.
But there are other reasons we don’t want to do it.  Maybe we have never seen a good example of how to do it well, so we just don’t feel like we know how. We might worry that someone might ask us questions we don’t know the answers to. We feel like we don’t know the Bible well enough and don’t know enough theology to respond with good answers. We might worry that we aren’t faithful enough and so would look like hypocrites talking to someone about Christianity when we feel like we don’t follow its teachings very well. Maybe we aren’t really sure what we believe. Plenty of us hang onto our faith by our fingernails. Our worries and doubts can leave us wondering if we really are Christians. With those kinds of doubts we feel like we are in no condition to share our belief with anyone else.
Another reason might be that because of the postmodern culture we live in evangelism can seem like we are saying that the Christian way of looking at the world is better that other ways of looking at the world. The postmodern culture says that that is arrogant and that all ways of looking at the world are equally valid. It has become unpopular or even offensive to imply that someone should become a Christian. This can lead to us feeling pretty socially awkward or embarrassed about talking to someone else about what we believe.
There is a YouTube video by Penn Jilette, who is one half of the illusionist duo “Penn and Teller”. Penn is a strong atheist and in this video he tells the story about how a man approached him after one of his shows and had a conversation with him that led to the man giving him a Bible. What would you think an atheist would have to say about that kind of a conversation?

 …. Penn says this, “he was really kind, and nice, and sane, and looked me in the eyes, and talked to me, and then gave me this Bible. And I’ve always said that I don’t respect people that don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there is a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell, or not getting eternal life, or whatever. And you think that, well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward. … How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming to hit you and you didn’t believe it and that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that. … This guy was a really good guy. He was polite and kind and honest and sane and he cared enough about me to proselytize and give me a Bible, which had a little personal note in it… and like five phone numbers for him and an email address if I wanted to get in touch. Now, I know there’s no God and one polite person living his life right doesn’t change that. But I tell ya, he was a very, very, very good man.  And that’s real important. … I still think religion does a lot of bad stuff, but man, that was a good man who gave me that book.”
That video made me think differently about Evangelism. I think Penn is maybe oversimplifying the situation a bit, but I think he also makes a strong point. In spite of the various issues that scare us off of evangelism, Penn has a point. If we really do believe in God, and that He has something to offer us in this life and in the next, then we need to think seriously about sharing that news, and that is evangelism.
If the word “evangelism” still leaves a bad taste in your mouth try thinking about it as “Spiritual Direction” instead. Spiritual Direction is about standing with someone and helping them take their next step in following God. It’s something we are called to do for each other. “Evangelism” is just what we call spiritual direction for those who haven’t taken made the decision to follow Jesus.       
There is a lot of Evangelism in our Gospel reading today. It’s not going to answer every “how to” question about evangelism, but it will give us some helpful hints. First, John the Baptist has an epiphany. He sees Jesus, in a new way at his baptism. John points to Jesus as the “Lamb of God”, the Son of God, and as the one who will baptize others in the Holy Spirit. John has an epiphany about who Jesus truly is and he doesn’t keep the news to himself. Like John, we will not be able to share what we believe about Jesus if we haven’t encountered him in some profound way. That doesn’t mean we have to know everything about him, but it is important that we have had some kind of encounter with him for us to be able to point others to him. If you don’t believe you’ve had an encounter with God that is worth praying about and seeking guidance about. This kind of an experience can also be subtle.

 John points two of his disciples to Jesus and they then leave him and follow Jesus.  John was preparing people for when the messiah would come. He was a voice in the dessert preparing the way for the Lord. John said that his whole mission of baptism was to lead to the day that Jesus would be revealed to Israel. His disciples trusted him and they knew he cared about them. So when he pointed to Jesus they trusted that relationship. They believed they could trust John. John spoke about Jesus to people who he was in a relationship with. For most of us, evangelism, or Spiritual Direction, will take place with those who we are already in relationship with. They are family members, friends, or people we work with. They are people we care about. People might not always be ready for a discussion about Jesus. Sometimes we also need to help people deal with road blocks that might get in the way of them being able to hear us properly. John baptized people repenting of sin which was their road block. Sometimes our job is to help someone understand what they believe about the spiritual life. So preparing might just be asking questions about what people believe about spirituality and just listening.
Questions like: Did you grow up with a church back ground? Most people these days don't go to church, why do you think that is?Can you imagine a church you would like to attend? What would it be like?What helps you grow spiritually?
What would a church that would help you grow more look like?What do you know about Jesus Christ?
What do you understand the heart of Christianity to be?
If you could ask God one question what would it be?
 When the two disciples left John and starting following Jesus, he asked them what they were looking for and they asked, “Teacher … where are you staying?” and Jesus responded “Come and see”. They spent a day with him getting to know him. When John pointed his disciples to Jesus, Jesus invited them to come and get to know him and see where he lived. They spent time with Jesus and were then able to make their own judgment about him. When we point people to Jesus we are inviting them to investigate.  Jesus was more than just a statement about a truth. He was, and is, a person. When we follow him it isn’t just about holding ideas in our head, it is about living a particular way of life, in relationship with a particular person. Becoming a Christian is about entry into the way of Jesus and deciding that he knows the best way for me to live. When we are baptized we are not just baptized into a set of truths like the Apostles’ Creed. We are also baptized into a way of life. Spiritual truth is lived truth. It is a particular way of life as well as a particular belief.

One of the two disciples that left John to follow Jesus was named Andrew. Once he had his own epiphany in encountering Jesus, he went to tell his brother Simon that they found the messiah.  Simon, would be renamed by Jesus “Cephas” or “Peter” which means “Rock”. … What if Andrew didn’t tell his brother? Can you imagine the early church without Peter? Peter, who led the early church after Jesus ascended into heaven. It would have been a tremendous loss to the church, but it would have been a tremendous loss to Simon. In following Jesus, Simon finds out who he truly is- Peter. When we think about evangelism we often worry that we will be annoying people, but what if pointing someone to Jesus means that they find out who they truly are? What if Andrew didn’t tell Simon? Simon would have not found his true self as Peter.   
Evangelism, for most of us, will primarily happen in the context of a relationship. It is about pointing to Jesus, not about having all the answers. And it is about the person of Jesus and the way of life and the story he invites us into. Evangelism has become an offensive word in our culture. But, without it there would be no St. Peter and we would not be here together now. All of us had someone point us to Jesus. It might have been a grandparent, or parent, or spouse, or a friend. I, like Peter, and like you hopefully, have a greater understanding of who I am and why I am here on this planet because I have been pointed to Jesus and Jesus has invited me to “come and see” and know him better. 

[1] John Bowen explores this story in his book, Evangelism for Normal People

Monday, 13 January 2014

Jesus was baptized, why?

For those fathers who are hockey players they remember moments like when their child first puts on skates and they state around the rink holding their hand. For those fathers who are car guys they remember things like when their child first helps them change the oil. For me as a priest I remember reading a children’s Bible with my oldest son Zander, who was 3 or 4 at the time. We just read about Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist and Zander turned to me and asked why Jesus had to be baptized if he didn’t have sin. It is a question that rolls around in the minds of all those who have spent any time really considering Jesus’ baptism.  Those who have considered it over the years have given us a few responses.

Jesus was baptized to continue his work of incarnation. The mission of the Son of God was to become one of us so that he could lift us out of our sin into a greater relationship with God. Jesus couldn’t do that from the sidelines. He had to get into the mess of humanity with us.

It is a bit like a team shaving their heads to support a teammate that has cancer. Only one of them really has cancer and has lost their hair, but out of solidarity, to let that one person know they aren’t in this alone the team shaves their heads. Jesus’ Baptism is a bit like that. John’s baptism was about repentance and the desire to lead a life of renewed commitment to God. Jesus’ baptism shows us that we are not alone in our repenting, or in our attempt to commit ourselves to God. He is there with us. He’s not on the sidelines, he is in the water with us. Walking with us side by side. Just as the son of God took on human flesh when he was born, so now Jesus joins humanity in its struggle to be free from sin that enslaves us and keeps us from a joyful relationship with God.
So for those who worry that they can’t do it on their own Jesus assures us that in our repentance we are not alone, but he also gives us an example to follow. For those who might think they don’t need to be baptized, if Jesus is baptized, how can any of us say that we don’t need to be? He is our example. If we are to follow him we need to be baptized. If he is our image of the life we strive to have, then his baptism shows us clearly that baptism is a step in our journey. Right from the beginning of his ministry he show us that following him means a life of repentance and humility. It means living a baptized life. And that is not a life of depression, or low self-esteem.  It is a life of honesty- where we see ourselves clearly.
Humanity is in continuous need of repentance. We will not be able to correct our mistakes and take on a new life until we clearly see what we have done wrong and repent. Jesus walks into the baptismal water as one of us. He walks into the waters and is baptized as a representative of the people of Israel to repent of her sins. He walks into the water and reenacts leaving slavery in Egypt to enter the wilderness on the way to the Promised land. 
The author C.S. Lewis says there is a bit of a paradox to repentance. Only a bad person needs to repent. The more bad one is, however, the less able a person is able to do it well. A person that is filled with pride, anger, and self-righteousness cannot repent well, if at all. You might notice this about yourself during the confession. How often do you feel like you are really confessing? How often does it seem like just words and going through the motions?  So the more a person needs to do it, the less they are actually able to do it. A good person is able to repent well, and only a perfect person can repent perfectly, but a perfect person is not in need of repenting. In a sense this is what Jesus has done for us. He, in his baptism, has repented on our behalf. He has done perfectly, what we cannot do well because of our sin. In our sin, we bumble through our repentance, we half-heartedly declare our sin. Sometimes we bring to mind real, deep sins that we wish to be free from. That sin floats in the baptismal water. We wash it off in repentance as imperfect as it is and Jesus, as he repents on our behalf and comes out of the water, picks up our sin. It sticks to him as he leaves the water. He has identified himself with our sin. He has made our sin his to deal with.       
But there is also something else going on in Jesus’ baptism. John’s baptism isn’t just concerned with personal sin. John is concerned with repenting from the sinful reality of the world- All the ways of the world that are not the way they were meant to be. In Baptism we repent of the brokenness that leads to oppression and war and cruelty and arrogance. We turn away from an empire of greed and corruption that is willing to crush the vulnerable in its selfishness. John’s baptism is about preparing the way for a new reality- a new kingdom. Baptism is about entry into this new reality where the highest values are not the values of the cruel empire. The highest values are of God’s kingdom, which is marked by love.
And so, when Jesus is baptized we see a new reality. “As he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:16-17). When Jesus is baptized something is revealed. We see the Trinity- the Spirit is present as the dove, the Father is present in the voice, and the Son is present in the water. This is possibly when Jesus really begins to understand who he is. And it is probably the first time we get a clear picture of what is hinted at throughout scripture- the threee persons of the Trinity. 
May we, with Christ, identify with the sins of our brothers and sisters, and even with all humanity. May we say not only, "Lord, Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me", but "Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us". May we stand together in the Baptismal waters, with our Lord and Identify ourselves as one body of humanity with Christ as our head, who has perfectly repented on our behalf. And may we stand there in those waters not obsessed with what has been washed away, but transfixed by the vision of a torn-open heaven revealing a tri-personal God who loves us so much he became one of us and identified, not only with our flesh, but even with our sin. 

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Importance of Theology

Those who are idle in the pursuit of righteousness count theological terminology as secondary, together with attempts to search out the hidden meaning in this phrase or this syllable, but those conscious of the goal of our calling realize that we are to become like God, as far as this is humanly possible for human nature. But we cannot become like God unless we have knowledge of him, and without lessons there will be no knowledge. Instruction begins with the proper use of speech, and syllables and words are the elements of speech. Therefore to scrutinize syllables is not a superfluous task. Just because certain questions seem insignificant is no reason to ignore them. Hunting truth is no easy task; we must look everywhere for its tracks. Learning truth is like learning a trade; apprentices grow in experience little by little, provided they do not despise any opportunities to increase their knowledge. A person who spurns fundamental elements as insignificant trifles will never embrace the fullness of wisdom.
~ St. Basil the Great
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