Before We Wish We Could Turn Back Time: Confronting New “Crusaders” and Combatting the Roots of Bitterness in our Own Hearts

Where does it begin, the hatred that wants to hear women and children scream in terror? What kind of narrative makes one willing to cause their suffering?

If America is “ever going to get turned around, it will be a bloodbath,” Patrick Eugene Stein is quoted as saying. He is one of three conspirators arrested last week for plans to attack a Somali Muslim community in Kansas, according to the Department of Justice.

They called themselves the “Crusaders.”

Beyond killing this particular group of Muslims, their hope was to ignite a “religious war.” The assumption was that other groups with mindsets like theirs, scattered around the country, would engage in similar atrocities. And “atrocity” is the only word for it. Even the “babies” of this community were not to be spared, according to the Washington Post article on the incident. Their motivation was allegedly that “these” (Muslim) “groups represent a threat to American society.”

They were caught, and stopped, before blood was spilled. Praise God.

But we must ask again: Where does such murderous hatred begin?

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Somali refugee boys in Florida. (Source)

These men, determined to destroy a small community they are convinced doesn’t belong in the U.S., call themselves Crusaders. The original Crusades, which took place over the course of several centuries in the Middle Ages, often involved masses of European Christians manipulated by religious leaders to march to the Middle East and free Jerusalem or other cities from Muslim control. Muslims, and sometimes Jews, were often slaughtered. Many, many Europeans died in – they thought – the service of the cross. Yet most Christians of other eras would look back on this time with deep grief, acknowledging that these were no heroes, and that they certainly weren’t furthering the Kingdom of God or following the teachings of Christ (which they likely didn’t have the access or ability to read for themselves). It’s sadly appropriate that a group seeking to kill Muslims in America would claim the “crusader” title for themselves.

But we don’t have to go back that far in history to see a reality similar to the one that almost played out in Kansas, one we should want desperately to avoid.

During my few years here, I’ve gradually learned and understood more about the still-too-recent, fifteen year civil war that pitted the citizens of religiously diverse Lebanon against each other, based often (although this is much too simplistic a summary) on religious divisions.

One horrific incident stands out in my mind, as I consider the haunting remarks of these three men from Kansas. I see a connection because of the nature of the violence they were motivated to carry out, and because of the way I hear them justifying it.

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Mentioning the words “Sabra and Shatila” will make many who know what they mean wince at the dark memory. In 1982, a Christian milita in Lebanon inflicted a truly horrific massacre on Lebanese Shi’ite Muslims and Palestinian refugees. The ways they brutalized children and women, that night, are unimaginable. The bodies of mutilated civilians were piled in the streets. The cruelty was limitless.

 

Where do atrocities like the Sabra and Shatila massacre begin? I have met one man in Lebanon who lives with regret about his participation in and leadership of a Christian militia of that era, and who can explain exactly where it began in his own life, years before the horrors actually unfolded. Assad Chaftari notes that the root of the violence could be traced back to his childhood, to attitudes about Muslims within his own family. His repentance has involved a changed attitude toward the Muslim population.

“I started off disliking the Muslims and Palestinians, then I hated them, and eventually I was afraid of them and wanted only to destroy them.”

“Everyone around me would describe Muslims as ‘dirty’, ‘poor’, ‘lazy,'” he shares. “They would say: “Look at the ridiculous way they pray…look at all the children they have….We believed Lebanon had been given by the French to the Christians and that we were the rightful inhabitants while the Muslims were invaders and traitors.”

Chaftari and others now lead out in a movement of humility, repentance, reconciliation, and peacemaking in Lebanon. This video highlights the testimonies of those, both Christian and Muslim, whose mindsets had allowed them to justify horrific actions during the war, who look back on them with deep grief, and who are attempting to steer this generation away from the perspectives that could lead there again.

Let’s reconsider the new “crusaders” in Kansas, and the many they hope are like them. How can we work to prevent an American version of Sabra and Shatila?

First: perhaps you, like many Americans, are sick of politically correct speech, of feeling like you have to walk on egg shells to avoid offending others, and of words like “islamaphobia.” Resistance to all things “PC” is a rising sentiment. But hear this: I’m not suggesting that anyone mimic a vocabulary that carefully submits to new societal norms imposed on you by an elite you don’t identify with, or that you or others censor and filter yourself so that your opinion is contained or hidden below the surface. I’m praying and begging for disdain, superiority, and hatred to be rooted out of hearts – all of our hearts – because it leads to horrors that we wouldn’t have imagined our friends and neighbors and communities are capable of. The blinders grow thick over our eyes, unless we help each other be aware of and remove them (Hebrews 3:13). The self-deception and group-think becomes so unquestioned and convincing and self-affirming that we can’t see which way is up, anymore. We must – we must – look at the bloody, mutilated horror of Sabra and Shatila and know that when any group of human beings, in the mountains of Lebanon or the suburbs of America, allows this kind of hatred to quietly grow unconfronted, we are  capable of creating this same nightmare.

Friend, if you must consider Muslims in America your enemies, ok. But you and I, Christ-follower, are commanded to love anyone in that category (Matthew 5:43-45). And love will stand up for our Muslim neighbors’ good and safety. Love will advocate for and defend them. Love will not be silent when they are threatened. Love will give the benefit of the doubt and realize that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists, although we’ve grown to assume so over the last fifteen years. Love will create an outcry when men like these modern “crusaders,” with their plots and murderous words and hatred, make the news.

 

Do the hard work of choosing words and actions that make for peace (James 3:17-18). Refuse silence, but also choose to converse respectfully and winsomely. Combative and polarizing language will not change hearts or positively influence these delicate dynamics. Stand boldly in advocacy for our Muslim neighbors. Champion the only legitimate religious liberty, which is for all. Realize that there is no previous version of America worth stooping to hatred and violence to retrieve.

Root out any rhetoric (question one-sided, inflammatory websites, demonizing Facebook memes, and polarizing talk radio hosts) that causes you to perceive Muslims as monsters instead of human beings, or make you think you understand a whole group when you don’t know even one Muslim personally.

Friends, horrible, cruel, devastating events begin in individual and collective attitudes and in human hearts. Will the conversations you’ve participated in, or ignored, contribute to a tumbling, seemingly inevitable outcome that the world will grimace and grieve over? Let’s learn from Sabra and Shatila, and from men like Assad Chaftari, before it’s too late. Let’s follow his lead in humility and repentance for attitudes and assumptions now, urgently, and not face the need to collectively repent of some horrors we could have worked together to avoid.

 

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Nour Lydia

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Dear Nour,

Your name means light in Arabic – the beautiful, ancient language already floating around you and piercing your consciousness as you explore and get acquainted with  this new world.
We hope and deeply pray that this word will characterize your existence, not because we want you to be a source of light, yourself, but because we pray you’ll be one who is drawn to, basks in, and reflects the Light. Your Mommy and Daddy believe the words of 2 Corinthians 4:6 in the Bible: “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” He is the light, sweet one: Jesus. And when He was born, this was the purpose and context of His coming:
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    in the forgiveness of their sins,
 because of the tender mercy of our God,
    whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:77-79
Oh, little light, you were born, like the rest of us, needing the One who came into our darkness like a long-awaited Sunrise. And He came. And because He did, you’re not only born into a world characterized by much darkness and brokenness, but one characterized by much hope. The Light has come, and you can know Him and God’s “tender mercy” through Him and, point others to the Light as well.
Be to your generation, we pray, like the light of the moon: reflect the Sun, precious. What a joyful role to play! Follow the light. Turn your face toward Him. Delight in Him. People will be helped and healed if who He is emanates from you.

Dear Nour Lydia,

We chose your sweet middle name (an American tradition!) for two reasons.
When God became flesh and walked among us, the Bible says that “the true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…” (John 1:9-12). 
There was a woman named Lydia, after Jesus lived and died and lived again, who did just that – who “received Him” and “believed in His name.” We’re told that she was a “worshiper of God” already, before ever hearing the good news of Jesus. But when the news of Christ came, “the Lord opened her heart.” (Acts 16:14) We want this for you too, sweet one. We’ve been praying over you since before we felt your first kicks that you would be a worshiper and that, someday when you can understand the reality of who Jesus is and what He has done for us, that your heart will be opened to Him, too.
There is a Lydia in your family heritage who followed that pattern. Your great-great-grandmother (your mommy’s mommy’s daddy’s mommy) was named Lydia. She was a faithful and strong woman living as a loving single mother in the difficulties of Depression-era America. And she had a heart that loved the whole world, even though she never got to travel around all of it, because she deeply loved the Savior of the whole world. Her heart reflected His heart. And she spent many years praying and helping so that more and more people, people she had never met in cultures she’d never been exposed to, would have the chance to hear the name of Jesus. This amazing woman, of the many remarkable people in your heritage, is someone we want to honor with your life.
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Dear little one, 

born unexpectedly on September 11, a day that embodies so much pain and darkness, and that sparked such depths of fear in the United States – one land of your heritage – and which marked the beginning of more war and suffering in the Arab World, the region of your birth. Dear child who came a little early to arrive on such a notorious day, your Daddy and I pray that among the many gifts you give the world in your generation, you will be known as a peace-maker and bridge builder, one who contributes to the spread of hope and harmony and understanding as you follow Jesus, who teaches us to love our enemies and call “neighbor” those we would instinctively assume distance from. You have made this date suddenly a beautiful and happy one for your family. May we get to see you play a part in some further redemption of the dark memories associated with it.

Welcome, precious gift. We’re stunned by your tiny, but powerful and life-changing presence in our arms and hearts and home. We’re eager to learn how to nurture and shepherd and protect you, and we’re asking your Maker for lots of help to serve you well.

Welcome, beautiful girl. Welcome home.

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(These photos were taken by your daddy just a few minutes after you were born.)

One Soft Spring Day

The big Texas sky was bright blue on the day we took a deep breath and promised ourselves to each other forever. There were cherished friends and loved ones, and sentimental piano music, and lace, and candlelight, and a nostalgic tribute to stained glass remembered from the church I grew up in. There was cake, and laughter, and a rush through a crowd of dear ones to escape to the honeymoon.

The Bridal Party

But mostly, that day as always, very near and very faithful and very worthy, there was Jesus.

We wanted to invite those we love most to worship Him and bask in His love, displayed at the cross, with us. And deeply, as deeply as I’ve ever needed it before, I needed many moments to gaze at Him in the intensity of such a significant day. The truth that we wanted to run through the day like a thematic thread was the anchoring declaration of 1 John 4:9-11:

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

A dear, gifted young friend danced to an Arabic worship song, moving with worshipful expression to the sweeping music of “Qousatol 7obbi,” from the album “Strongholds and the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.” (Check out this beautiful worship album here!) We offered our guests the lyrics in Arabic in the program, along with the English translation, so that they could grasp the meaning of the song her movements were so beautifully expressing.

The story of the wondrous love,

which manifested itself on the cross.

My Beloved recounted it to me

when everything was so terribly silent,

when His heart was crushed,

when His forehead was wounded.

My Beloved recounted it to me through the precious, costly blood.

Only yesterday He was walking, doing great good.

He was calling for life, healing the wounds of the weary.

His love was wondrous because He loved the wicked,

because Jesus has loved all the time.

When Love was walking,

the spiteful people’s thinking was about how to kill Jesus,

because He loved the guilty ones.

Until the story ends, the story of the wondrous love,

Until the ending is written. He died between the guilty ones.

The love was rejected unjustly, rejected on the cross.

The understanding of people faded away,

when the pouring love appeared.

It is a love that will stay, forevermore.

There is no love like this, honest & always compassionate.

What love has appeared so clearly like His wondrous love?

What love similar to this love has appeared after the cross?

All the love in existence springs from the love of Jesus.

All the love in my being stems from the love of Jesus.

Maddie Dancing to Qousatol Hobbi

And as we stood and watched Maddie dance, and sang quietly along with the words to the only Arabic song I had learned so far, my heartbeat slowed down to a restful pace and whispered “Amen.” (Or “Ahmeen,” as I say with my Lebanese brothers and sisters.) It was true, that day and always: “All the love in my being stems from the love of Jesus.” His love was first: pursuing, transforming, saving… perfect. I was His, first, and He could teach and enable me to love the one who had my arm cradled snugly in his as we watched and sang.

Later in the ceremony (…after I started having an asthma attack mid-sermon, to the horror and concern of my bridesmaids who almost bolted for my inhaler, and to my deep embarrassment. Let me suggest, if you are an allergy-ridden asthmatic, that you breathe deeply of your bouquet for the first time at some point other than during your wedding ceremony. I would recommend some place away from a big crowd of watching people, surrounded only by your inhaler and lots of water. Sheesh. I think my dad brought a water bottle up from the front row, and we carried on, but I struggled to control the wheezing through the rest of my pastor’s important message. Awkward.)

Communion

Later in the ceremony, while a couple who are like family to me sang true, Gospel-rich words of worship over us, we retreated further back into the stage, knelt, took communion, and worshiped. We bowed, not in reference to any particular denominational tradition, but because that was a day, and a moment, that called for reverence and humility before God our Savior, and focused worship of Him. For those of you unfamiliar with it, communion is a simple, two-thousand year old practice that Christians follow out of obedience to one of Jesus’ final commands. He said that the broken bread is to be taken as a symbol of His body, broken for us, and the wine (or juice) to be taken as a symbol of His blood, spilled out in sacrifice for us. He called us to do this together in remembrance of Him, and of what He was about to accomplish for us through His execution on a cruel cross. As the 1 John passage we focused on that day declares, He was the propitiation, the wrath-bearer standing innocent before God in the place of guilty ones, me and you, to satisfy God’s good and perfect judgment on our rebellious sin and reconcile us to Him again in mercy. So in that moment, on that day, we did. We remembered and, with deep gratitude, we worshiped. These are the words that drifted over us as we knelt and forgot everyone else in the room:

Before the throne of God above,

I have a strong and perfect plea.

A great High Priest whose name is Love,

who ever lives and pleads for me.

My name is graven on His hands.

My name is written on His heart.

I know that while in Heaven He stands,

no tongue can bid me thence depart.

When Satan tempts me to despair,

and tells me of the guilt within,

upward I look and see Him there

who made an end of all my sin.

Because the sinless Savior died,

my sinful soul is counted free.

For God the just is satisfied to look on Him and pardon me.

Behold Him there the risen Lamb,

my perfect spotless righteousness,

the great unchangeable I AM,

the King of glory and of grace.

One in Himself I cannot die.                                                                                                

My soul purchased by His blood.

My life is hid with Christ on high,

with Christ my Savior and my God!

After that we rose to begin making vows and speaking promises, to each other and before God, that will command us the rest of our lives. I heard him say, and heard myself say, sweet, traditional phrases, like “with this ring, I thee wed,” and “forsaking all others, cleave only unto her.” We uttered “I do.”

And then we spoke vows to each other, from our memories and our hearts, that were derived from Ephesians 5:22-33, Ruth 1:16-17, Proverbs 31:11-12, and Song of Solomon 8:6. He promised to love me as Christ loves the Church, His Bride, and asked me to set him as a seal on my heart. It was beautiful, and emotional, and intense, and there was a lifetime of weight in his words, and unmistakeable sincerity in his eyes.

And then it was my turn. I had told him, months before, that I wanted to learn my vows in Arabic because I wanted to make promises to him in the language of his heart. (English is my groom’s third language.) He had quickly responded that my voice in any language was the language of his heart.

He seriously said that. And he won the conversation, and even more of my giddy loyalty. 😉

Under the Veil

But on that life-altering day it was my turn to look him in the eye and promise sacred things, first in Arabic and then, as my posture relaxed, in English. Just like my Momma did when she spoke vows to my Daddy (wearing the same dress I was wearing that day) and using powerful words from the book of Ruth, I also slightly altered the passage for our purposes. The only place I will never follow Wissam is away from God, as He is revealed in the Bible. So in that way, I made a promise a little different than Ruth’s those few thousand years ago.

And so I uttered, “Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit will be my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Far be it that anything but death part me from you. Let it always be true that your heart can trust in me. May I do you good, and not harm, all the days of my life. So set me as a seal on your heart, as a seal on your arm, for love is as strong as death.

Wherever he goes. Those words were echoing in my mind as our plane lifted off in Houston a little over a year ago and I asked him (with an intentionality that knew my heart needed to hear myself say this out loud) to take me home. But I think it’s the phrases from Proverbs 31:11-12 that I have needed (and will always need, I’m sure) the Holy Spirit to continually remind me of and transform me with. I want my sweet husband’s heart to be able to trust in me, not in the ultimate way that belongs only to his trust in Christ. Another human would never be worthy of that. But I want him to always be able to entrust himself to me. With me should be when he is most safe and secure, in a human sense. Who I am should be a refuge to him on his hardest days, as a small reflection of the refuge Christ is to him. And I am deeply convinced of the fact that one of the greatest callings of my life is, now, to do him good all my days, and all of his, as long as we’re both still breathing. To do him good. And yet in the formative days and weeks and months since our wedding, I’ve found myself snapping at him in impatience in moments of stress and strain, or retreating into self-protective brooding and processing as he sought to resolve a misunderstanding. And I’ve watched Him live out the “love your wife as Christ loves the Church” command of Ephesians 5, showing me grace and patience in ways that I wish I didn’t need.  What a picture of the Gospel, marriage has already proven to be. I have so much to learn, and I so long to love this man well. Thank goodness for God’s transforming work in us.

But the promise was “may I do you good, and not harm, all the days of my life.” That was the promise, and this is the privilege: there is one man in all the world to whom I have a specific, daily, mission. I am to do his life good with mine, over and over again. I get to explore what that looks like “til death do us part.”

Somewhere after the hushed stillness of those moments, there was an announcement, and a kiss, and a fun Jimmy Needham version of “How Sweet it Is,” and a collective gasp from the audience as I almost caught my veil on fire with one of the sources of sentimental candlelight, and then the moments tumbled and blurred together until it was time to rush away through a crowd of our loved ones.

…And we were off, to begin an adventure of loving each other and serving each other and knowing each other, from that day forward, as long as we both shall live.

The Getaway

Live, and Rejoice, and Rest: There’s So Much More to Life than a Valentine

My hands had cramped from writing such long, handwritten-notes to attach to the little bundles of flowers for the bouquet toss, but my heart was so full. As my wedding day approached almost a year ago, a little detail that had me feeling the most compelled and excited and purposeful was one last opportunity I’d get before we rushed away to the honeymoon. I treasure the young women that I knew would be celebrating with us that day, and I wanted to point their gazes far above weddings and romance. A well-loved tradition like the bouquet toss was the perfect moment.

We can be controlled and ruined by a constant state of longing and waiting and dissatisfaction, ladies. We can identify the possibility of a guy, an ideal romance, as the climax of our lives and answer to all our desires and to that sometimes-imperceptible hunger to be tethered securely to something lasting and beautiful. The entertainment we feed ourselves doesn’t help. And I’ve seen girls and women live with a persistently enduring hope that the next guy will finally be right, and will heal the wounds left by the last one, and that they’ll finally be home. It’s often a tragic, confusing, desperate cycle.

This Valentine’s Day will be a unique one in my life. For the first time, I’ll wake up next to the one with whom I’ve made sacred vows, vows we’ll be living out the rest of our lives. And so I can echo again what I suspected to be true when I wrote those handwritten notes as a giddy bride-to-be. There is not a man, not a romance, not even the most perfect love story, that will satisfy you in the way so many voices in your life have programmed you to think it will. Don’t misunderstand me – my husband loves me consistently in tender, humble, romantic, unexpected ways that I couldn’t have known were possible before we said “I do.” He is so good to me, and marriage is an incredible gift, and I’m deeply grateful to be one with him, navigating life side by side. But I wasn’t created for him, and he does not complete me. That has only, ever been a place reserved for God Himself.

…there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.  1 Corinthians 8:6

And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. John 17:3

So dear, cherished, un-valentined friend, don’t waste a single moment longing for what isn’t in front of you in this season. Live. Live to love God and love those around you with an engaged passion and intentionality that demonstrates the purpose that is your birthright as an image-bearer of God. Rejoice, because you’re not missing out, if you consider that the richest, deepest, most valuable Treasure (Christ Himself, and oneness with God in Him) has not been withheld from you. And Rest. Our Shepherd is wise, despite our fickle hearts’ tendency to doubt and deny it, as foolish sheep are prone to do. He will lead a willing heart through a life journey that is bigger and fuller and more beautiful than any chick flick can come close to comprehending. Rest, because you’re His, and He is good, and trustworthy, and near, and ever-guiding.

And so this Valentine’s Day weekend, let a satisfied and confident and grateful smile break across your face. Live, and Rejoice, and Rest. Christ is real, and you can know Him, and He is the Treasure your heart was made to find satisfaction in. Below are the words that I hoped would express my heart to yours last year.

 

My dear,

Today, I want to use the sweet tradition of the bouquet toss to point you, not to some future season of your life, but to the beauty and stewardship of the season you’re in right now. I want to honor you with flowers, not in the hope of a wedding for you someday, but in celebration of who you are in Christ in this moment, and in joy over the Treasure He is to us now and forever. I’m so glad that our wise Shepherd orchestrated my life exactly as He has. I’m getting married at 30, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I wouldn’t rewrite the story to have met Wissam sooner. The alone-ness of my twenties was valuable, not because of some freedom that you lose once you tie the knot, but because that decade offered me a unique opportunity to do what each of us exists for: to know and follow Jesus, and implore others to do the same (2 Corinthians 5:14-21). Knowing Him is, truly, “surpassingly greater” than everything else (Philippians 3:8) We embrace the stewardship and challenge and gift of marriage only if it is a way to bring our Savior more glory. In the meantime, we make the most of every single second of life that God has entrusted to us as we walk the way of the cross, where “in His presence there is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11). So, now and always: stare at Jesus. Savor His Words and let them “dwell richly in you” (Colossians 3:16). Abide in Him. Delight in Him. Put your trust in Him. He is what we’re living for, not a wedding day or a human romance. Pray for me as I learn to love Wissam as one expression of my love for our Savior, and I pray that your sense of purpose, urgency, mission, and joy in Christ will only keep increasing. All of these flowers and dresses will pass away, but not Him. Not our Rock. 

Depending on His grace with you,

Ashley

Fear and What it Reveals, Danger and What it Can’t Steal

There was blood on the streets of Beirut, last night. Families are stunned with grief, today; people who, like me, were scurrying around their neighborhood during the early evening to gather what was needed for dinner; human beings who were walking  toward the neighborhood mosque. And then two suicide bombers made their last choices, and forty two human beings are dead, and the trauma for those who witnessed it all will never be erased. It’s tragic evidence of our close proximity to a complicated war raging nearby. Maybe, if you don’t live here, it was barely noticeable on the evening news. Maybe it sounded like more death and carnage in a region that is too often characterized by it. But here, the nation responded by pausing from school and many other activities for a day of mourning for the Shi’a families that will never be the same.

It was another reminder, for me, that I live in an unstable place in dangerous times. Fear was certainly a potential experience last night, as it is for any of us when the illusion of immortality is shaken a little bit, when we are reminded that death can come for any of us at any moment.

Lebanese Hillside at Sunset

Fear is an interesting phenomenon, though. It’s rich with insight for us, when we observe it closely. It will often help us identify what we value most, if we examine the moments that we react with strong emotions like fear or anger. Fear is typically a sign that something I deeply value is being threatened.

Maybe my comfort or sense of control are at risk. Maybe a position or reputation that has become my identity is in jeopardy of being lost, ruined, or tainted. Maybe a dream I’ve chased for years seems to be slipping through my fingers. Maybe a person is my whole world, and that relationship feels rocky or that person’s health or safety is at risk. We live by our desires, you and I. We seek to attain and then defend what we consider most valuable, what we treasure. It’s natural and unavoidable, really. And I’m generally oblivious to those things that drive my life because my heart so values them, until there arises the possibility that I might lose them for a moment or for forever.

We serve those desires, too. We act based on those values. When control is my treasure, the whole world is my enemy, to be used, fled from, or fought against. When a particular achievement is my greatest desire, I might obsess about it to the detriment of other responsibilities, or manipulate others to ensure I get it. And I’ll find out that safety is my greatest good if I sculpt my life to try to maintain it.

Maybe we can conclude that most of these values, these treasures, are really good things. After all, we’re foolish if we don’t value safety, to some extent, and the wisdom that can keep us from unnecessary danger. Goals and dreams won’t be achieved if they aren’t deemed worthy of our time and energy and focus. Certainly, we’re missing one of the greatest privileges and callings of being human if we don’t cherish our relationships.

But when my strong reactions, fear or aggression, reveal to me what I value and treasure, it’s an opportunity to observe if I value them too much. To put it pointedly, if I sin against God and man to get this thing, or to keep it, then it has become too treasured. It has taken a place it doesn’t have a right to. I’ve elevated it, probably unknowingly, to a level that has become God-dishonoring and life-stealing. (Even an impulse to preserve life can in fact steal it from me! Jesus said that to us…) If I will lie/cheat/manipulate to gain it, or if I find myself resenting God when I lose it, it had too much claim on me.  And if I run from what God commands in order to guard it, then I’ve allowed something good, like safety, to gain a place of prominence in my life that even a good thing shouldn’t have. If I value my safety more than I love God and love people, then something has gone very wrong in my heart, somewhere. If I’ll neglect love and the actions that flow from it to ensure my own security, then I cherish security too much.

But danger, and the fear it could catalyze, can also bring sharpening clarity about what is truly valuable and truly lasting. If I choose to, I can use the moment to see with unique clarity what cannot be taken from me. I can be reminded that, while the treasures we fear losing (health, safety, comfort, achievements, titles, possessions) are not necessarily bad or invaluable, there’s something far greater to live for.

All I could think about this morning was how much the message of hope, the message of the good news of what God has done for us in Christ, is needed in this time and this place. If you’ve known me long, you know that fear, sometimes paralyzing fear, has never been very far from me. When I was a little girl, just the knowledge that a family member had been in close proximity to to a fatal shooting made me not want to leave the house for weeks. In my twenties, I battled panic attacks. But this morning, instead of being gripped with fear, I felt very grateful to be living in Beirut. Instead of feeling the urgency to leave before it gets worse, I felt an urgency to walk in love and cultivate relationships and speak the truth about Jesus. Because Jesus has robbed death, and the fear of it, of its power over me, I can be compelled toward the suffering of others instead of away from them toward an illusory refuge for myself.

He’s transforming me, this Savior-Shepherd of ours. He’s, a little at a time, making me what I’m not naturally. One thought process at a time, He’s revealing to me what’s valuable and lasting and worth living for. So today, love won instead of fear. There will be many other days that I need God’s grace and truth to re-align me again. But today, a tragedy was a catalyst for love of others instead of fear that focused on my self and my safety. Today was evidence that I’m being changed.

Please pray with me about some eternal things:

  • Plead for comfort for the grieving today, and for a knowledge of why Christ’s death reveals that God is for us, and not against us. Pray for hope that will hold them tightly. Pray for Jesus to reveal Himself and our Father’s love.
  • Intercede for an end to this war. Pray big prayers for radical changes in the minds of rulers and influencers and shifts in the variables that make people think good can come from massacring other human beings.
  • Pray for Christ-followers, here where I am and there where you are, to be compelled by His love to live honestly, sacrifically, and creatively among hurting people in dark times. Pray for us to live as mercy-showers and peacemakers and truth-tellers. Pray for all of us, more and more, over and over again, to see clearly what is valuable and lasting, and what is not. Pray that we’ll live for what lasts: our Savior, His Gospel, His Kingdom, our Neighbors.

*Many of the concepts above were topics covered in conversations with Dr. Nicolas Ellen, or in lectures by and writings from Drs. John Henderson and John Piper. For much wiser insights than mine on these and other topics, see their writings.

Echoes of Mercy, Whispers of Love

This is a guest post by my little sister, Amy. She, along with my mom and the rest of my family, have spent the last several months lovingly offering round-the-clock care to my grandmother at the end of her long journey with Alzheimer’s. My grandfather has been her devoted caretaker through the duration of her illness. The following is an account Amy wrote two months before my grandmother passed away.

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She’s lost. Lost somewhere in the deep passages of her mind. Just a shadow of who she was. She doesn’t know me or recognize most anyone else. She rarely recognizes her surroundings, and is quite often wondering where she is. Always waiting for a familiar face to come pick her up and take her home. She feels all of the emotions I would feel if I didn’t know where I was, or who I was with… If I felt as lost as she does. But when I sat down and started to play old hymns on the piano, she quickly came up behind me and started singing. Her sweet voice echoing through the rooms louder and stronger than I’ve heard in a long time:

“…angels descending bring from above, echoes of mercy, whispers of love…”

It’s incredible to me that she remembers the words and simple melodies. She started singing the last verse of ‘Blessed Assurance’ and I was flooded with peace and gratefulness.

 “…I in my Savior am happy and blessed. Watching and waiting, looking above, filled with His goodness, lost in His love…”

Because regardless of her fear and confusion, and even on her darkest days – the days that she believes she is utterly and completely alone – her soul still knows Her Savior and He still very much knows her. In those sweet moments, He was piercing through her darkness and loneliness, and He was comforting her. Reminding her she is loved.

The moments are all too quick and fleeting when she is with us again; when suddenly, just for an instant, she’s my Meme. The Meme I grew up with. She was back long enough to know my name, gently touch my face, and grin as she comments on my darker hair. I told her I loved her and have missed her; hoping somehow her mind keeps that as a memory. We locked eyes, mine desperately searching hers, and silently pleading with her to stay. Her eyes twinkling as she smiles back simply and peacefully. And just like that, she was gone again.

I don’t know where her mind and memory disappear to, and I don’t know why this is the road He’s asked her to take Home. But I am confident of these things – He still knows her; the Father does not forget His child.
He still loves her.
He still carries her.
He has not abandoned her.
She is still His, and her soul still praises Him and cries out to Him.

And He is still good.
 
“I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me…” John 10:14

“As Seeing Him Who Is Invisible” (How My Suffering Brothers Are Reminding Me To Savor and Stand on Scripture)

There was pain in their voices when they shared the stories of their suffering. They didn’t offer platitudes or shrugs about the evil and cruelty they’ve seen. Their tears were real. Carrying each other’s faith, at times, reminding each other of truth that brought a firm nod of the head, they stood on their conviction that God is still the good, wise, sovereign Creator and gracious Father that His Word reveals Him to be.

I was so humbled to watch them cherish and drink deeply from Scripture together, last week.

Gonder Ethiopia - 400 Yr Old Church

My husband and I got to travel to Ethiopia for a small gathering of pastors from another African nation. It was dangerous for them to come, but they valued the fellowship with each other enough to risk it. And the fellowship was rich not only because of their friendships and common burdens, but because of the way they gripped each other’s shoulders, figuratively and spiritually, and rooted each other in the unfailing truths of Scripture.

It says we’ll need to do that.

The God-breathed text urges us to implore each other, to remind each other, to reassure each other with statements that so many scoff at from a distance, but that bring such mind-renewing clarity and comfort to us as we bow our thoughts and perspectives there. God knows that we not only need His Word, but that we need to hold it before one another’s faces and hearts often, on this long journey Home.

It’s so hard.”

I knew it was most appropriate to be quiet in this setting, to listen, to absorb, to pray, because even though they kindly welcomed this foreign sister, I knew they had the right to speak to the issues at hand in a way that I don’t. In our small groups, they would pause mid-sentence to let their vocal chords relax from the grip of the cries they were stifling. And they had humble chastening, at times, for the few Westerners who were among them. “It’s so hard to hear people on the outside say things about persecution maturing us, or making us better Christians,” one man said with a mixture of sorrow and frustration in his eyes. “It’s hard. It’s hard. We can endure our own suffering, but when it’s the people in our churches? When it’s our wives and children?” He gulped and winced. “It’s so hard.”

They also commented that there are too often promises to pray from Christians in contexts of peace, but little willingness to act or advocate on their behalf. But as these men spoke honestly, each one would return again and again to old, faithful truths that the atrocities they live among haven’t negated. Instead of finding the truths (of God’s power, His place “on His throne,” His plan, His purpose) faulty after the deep suffering they’re enduring, they’ve found them proven. Their families and churches have had to test these truths in ways that I haven’t, and they’ve found them to be steady under their feet.

What passages did they cherish together? Oh, the meditation on Scripture was so rich! It was real, and vivid, and enduring, and refreshing. I found my heart so strengthened as I listened to them encourage each other with it.

Here are phrases that seemed especially to leap from the page as they read them together:

  • “…the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession, and an abiding one.” Hebrew 10:34
  • “Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance… Yet a little while, and the Coming One will come…” Hebrews 10:35-37
  • “…and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on earth…” Hebrews 11:13
  • “He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.” Hebrews 11:26
  • “…he endured as seeing Him who is invisible…” Hebrews 11:27
  • “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword…of whom the world was not worthy.” Hebrews 11:37-38
  • “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” 1 Peter 4:19
  • So we do not lose heart…as we look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:18
  • “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
  • “…knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” 1 Peter 5:9-10

I am not the same, and will not be able to read these passages in the future as I did in the past, because I have meditated on them with these brothersThe pages of my Bible record the place and date of this gathering in the margins. If you just skimmed the sacred words above, perhaps pause and drink more deeply of them. Imagine each statement bringing peace to the wrinkled faces of faithful pastors. Imagine the deep, joyful, sincere, “Amen. Amen,” that they couldn’t stifle as someone else read.

So We fix our eyes

From among the many passages we read together, there was a cherished theme that arose from the pages of Scripture and from their hearts. Do you know how they are enduring, these brothers of mine who gathered with their wisdom and their fears and their sorrows and their still-remaining faith? The same answer arose from different voices at separate moments:

“We must look upon Jesus Himself.”

“I meditate on the life of Jesus.”

“Jesus is the only peace.”

But how can they and how can we, who were not “eyewitness of His majesty” along with those of the 1st century, gaze upon Him now? How can we fix our eyes on Him?

Ahh, “and we have something more sure” (2 Peter 1:16,19).

My battle-weary brothers told me how they see and know Him, now. They “read the Bible intensely” in the midst of their suffering, they said, and “know that God is still alive.” They “endure as seeing Him who is invisible,” like Scripture says of Moses. Through affectionate and humble reading of the Bible like what I observed in them in that hotel conference room, they gaze on “the face of Christ” and, there, see “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 4:6). And they’re strengthened, as any of His disciples are when they behold Him, as any sheep is when it hears it’s shepherd’s voice. And, although not without pain or fear, they keep following Him.

The effect of the Word of God on their hearts reminded me of another pastor on the other side of the world. He, too, is suffering with his family, but not from a persecution that attacks or breathes fear from the outside. My brother’s enemy and gift of grace (as they’ve described his tumor here) is underneath his own skin. This brother is even dearer to me than the ones we spent a week with in Ethiopia, because I’ve done so much life and ministry with him and his wife. They’re two of my dearest friends. And the week he faced the greatest risk and unknown of his life, his brain surgery, I heard him struggle to read a passage of Scripture to a crowd of friends and strangers that had gathered in the lobby of the hospital’s hotel. Over the years of ministry we’ve experienced together, I’ve heard him preach a lot of Scripture. But he’s never ministered to me more than he did in that moment, as his weakened body still delighted to be the carrier of the most powerful message in the world.

 

The commonality between my suffering brothers, this power in the midst of weakness, is a strength and clarity derived from a dependence on the “words of life,” the “whole counsel of God,” the text that is “breathed out by God” as Scripture describes itself. The line of those who question its validity or relevance or divine origin is long, now, as it has been throughout history. But my brothers, gripping it firmly with humble and desperate and faithful hands, know it to be the timeless revelation of a very living God, as it declares itself to be. The endurance it produces in them is the fruit, the proof of it as a life source. By God’s grace, His people will be sustained through His Word in the future as they have been throughout the history of the Church. And sustained, they will endure. And enduring, they will sing.

(Please enjoy this clip of the gathering of pastors worshiping together. The basic message of the song is, “Hallelujah. We can worship even during war.”)