As the world celebrates Jesus’ birth, Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani faces the threat of execution.
Those of us in the West who are blessed with religious freedom think of Christmas as a cheery occasion. But how would you like to spend the holiday in a dark prison cell in Iran—where inmates without any legal protection are sometimes rounded up at night and hanged in secret mass executions?
Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani has been in the Lakan prison, near the city of Rasht, Iran, since October 2009. He was arrested after he complained to authorities that the local school was forcibly teaching Islam to his two sons, Daniel, 9 and Yoel, 7. (The Iranian constitution supposedly guarantees religious freedom.) The charges against the pastor, who leads a 400-member congregation in Rasht, were later changed: He was accused of apostasy and evangelism.
I wonder if more people would believe in Jesus if His birth had been a trending topic on Twitter.
Matthew and Luke are the only Gospel writers who wrote about Jesus’ birth, and we aren’t sure who provided them with firsthand reports. Jesus’ mother was among the earliest Christian disciples, so we assume she shared her story with them. All details were passed down orally, without the aid of technology. There were no radios, televisions, tape recorders, iPads, walkie-talkies, cameras, cellphones or fax machines in first century Israel. The only form of “instant messaging” required a guy to run from one king to another over a period of days.
I wonder: What if the key players in the Christmas story had access to wireless devices? Pardon my literary license as I imagine the script:
The virgin birth contradicts the laws of science. But our faith rests on the miracle of the Incarnation.
My wife and I have four girls, and I was in the hospital room for each birth. There was a normal amount of blood, but no serious complications. Our oldest took forever to be born. Our second was in such a hurry that we thought she might end up on the floor of a hospital hallway. Our third tied her umbilical cord in knots in the womb. And our youngest calmly slipped out as if to say: “OK, I’m born. What’s next?”
I had very little to do in the delivery room. My wife was the hero. She sweated, strained, pushed and gasped for hours. I stroked her arm a few times—and ate some doughnuts.
“The concept of a woman giving birth to a baby without a man’s involvement is ludicrous to unbelievers. It contradicts all the laws of biology.”
The devil is busy trying to abort God’s promises. Hang on and keep believing.
Here’s a trivia question: Which building project took the longest to complete?·
A. The construction of the Pentagon. B. The carving of Mount Rushmore. C. The digging of the Panama Canal. D. The building of the Empire State Building. E. The carving and assembling of the Statue of Liberty.
The answer is C. It took 31 years to dig the Panama Canal, mainly because that superhuman task was started and stopped several times due to floods, mudslides, unexpected costs (the total bill for the United States was $375 million in 1914) and a horrific death toll (20,000 French workers and 6,000 Americans died on the job site.) The moral of that story: Expect delays when you cut a 50-mile-long canal to connect two oceans.
When I said to God, “Here am I, send me,” a real adventure began.
More than 12 years ago I found myself at a church altar in Orlando, Fla. God had been dealing with me about leaving my comfort zone. I had a great job with nice benefits, yet I felt spiritually unfulfilled. I knew there was an amazing adventure in front of me, but I had placed serious limitations on my obedience.
As I buried my head in the carpet in that church, I realized God was requiring unconditional surrender. He wanted me to wave a white flag. I knew what I had to say, but it was difficult to form the words. Finally I coughed them up. I said the same thing the prophet Isaiah prayed long ago: Here I am, send me! (see Is. 6:8.)
Jesus just wasn’t into titles. We shouldn’t be either.
I am often asked if I have a title, and my answer doesn’t satisfy some people. I travel a lot, so I don’t consider myself a pastor. All kinds of labels have been pinned on me: Reverend, prophet, apostle … even bishop. Once I was introduced to a church as “Dr. Grady” and I almost crawled under my seat. I only have a college degree. There are no letters after my name.
I tell people: “You can call me Lee. Or if you want to sound formal, you can say, ‘Brother Grady.’”
Many healing evangelists have fallen from grace. This humble giant, at age 88, is finishing well.
I heard T.L. Osborn preach when I was a college student, and at the time I thought, That guy looks pretty good for an old man. That was 31 years ago. I sat down with this spiritual giant for an hour in his office in Tulsa, Okla., two weeks ago, and I thought, I hope I can keep up this guy’s pace when I’m his age.
Osborn, who is 88, was born 29 years before the first commercial airliner took flight. Yet he and his immediate family have preached in 90 nations, and he took a trip to India last January. He is remarkably agile (he is strict about a healthy diet), his intellect is still sharp (he spoke fluent French and Spanish to international guests when I was with him) and he is as spiritually intense as ever.
In honor of Reformation Day, here are some complaints I’m nailing on the Wittenberg door.
Long before there was an Occupy Wall Street, Martin Luther staged the most important protest in history. He was upset because Roman Catholic officials were promising people forgiveness or early escape from purgatory in exchange for money. So on October 31, 1517, Luther nailed a long list of complaints on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany.
Luther’s famous 95 theses were translated from Latin into German and spread abroad. Like a medieval Jeremiah, Luther dared to ask questions that had never been asked, and he challenged a pope who was supposedly infallible. Through this brave monk, the Holy Spirit sparked the Protestant Reformation and restored the doctrine of grace to a church that had become corrupt, religious, dysfunctional, political and spiritually dead.
Visiting ministers can be a great blessing to any church. But if you don’t do your homework, you could be inviting disaster.
A friend of mine recently told me that the leaders of a ministry invited a prominent American preacher to speak at a conference. During discussions about the engagement, the preacher’s handlers explained two of the terms of his visit: (1) he was always to be addressed as “apostle” by anyone who spoke to him; and (2) he was to be ushered out of the auditorium and into a green room immediately after he delivered his sermon, to guarantee that he would not have to fraternize with the audience. He needed his privacy.
If I had been on the other end of the telephone conversation that day, I would have offered this reply: “Please tell Apostle Arrogance that since he is so concerned about being bothered by the little people, never mind. Just don’t come. We don’t need the disease he is spreading in the body of Christ. God bless you.” Click.
The prophet Habakkuk knew the secret: When circumstances look bad, we should hit the “rejoice” button and turn up the volume.
I have never been into country music. Nothing against Loretta Lynn, Kenny Chesney or Alan Jackson, or any of their fans, but I just don’t like twangy songs—especially the sentimental ones that drip with sadness about divorce, alcoholic husbands, wife abuse and rural poverty. Here are some of the worst examples of these heartbreaking tunes:
“I’m Drinkin’ Christmas Dinner (All Alone This Year)”
“How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?”
“I Bought the Shoes (That Just Walked Out on Me)”
“This White Circle on My Finger (Means We’re Through)”
“If You Won’t Leave Me (I’ll Find Someone Who Will)”
“Thank God and Greyhound (She’s Gone)”
“When You Wrapped My Lunch in a Roadmap, I Knew You Meant Goodbye”
“If you are in a difficult place today, I invite you to cancel your pity party. Stop singing sad songs about how bad it is. Instead, go in your secret place, shut the door and raise the roof with some Shigionoth praise.”
I know it can be strangely therapeutic to listen to someone sing about their problems when you have the blues. But even Elvis Presley could tell you that sad music will not pull anybody out of depression. You need to change the channel.
Centuries ago, the prophet Habakkuk composed what sounds like a syrupy country ballad. The entire third chapter of the book that bears his name is a song. Part of it says:
Though the fig tree should not blossom / And there be no fruit on the vines / Though the yield of the olive should fail / And the fields produce no food / Though the flock should be cut off from the fold / And there be no cattle in the stalls / Yet I will exult in the Lord / I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.
Those first lines sound awfully sad—so much so that you expect to hear the words accompanied by a steel guitar and crooning background vocals. But the Bible gives clear instruction about the instrumentation of this song, and it is not a melancholy dirge. The musical notation at the beginning of chapter 3 says, “A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth.”
There is some debate over the exact meaning of this musical term, but scholars translate the Hebrew as “a highly emotional poetic form.” Shigionoth is not slow, whiny or sad, and Habakkuk 3 is not a cry-in-your-beer ballad. Shigionoth is a high form of praise—wild, rhythmic and exuberant. It is praise with pumped-up volume and no limits; it is worship punctuated with exclamation marks!
Before I had my own life-changing experience with the Holy Spirit, I sometimes heard people criticizing Pentecostals for being “too emotional.” The assumption was that if somebody laughed, cried, shouted, swayed, jumped, danced, waved his hands in the air or acted remotely undignified in a worship service, he was theologically off base and maybe even mentally unstable.
Then I discovered the power of praise, and learned that King David (who literally wrote the book on exuberant worship) believed in getting “highly emotional” when he was with God. Not only did he sing, shout, clap and dance to rhythm—he was accused of being a religious fanatic. Habakkuk apparently understood this same musical principle. He knew there are times in our lives when we need to go overboard in our praise.
Habakkuk 3 has specific application for all of us today as we pass through a difficult season of national crisis, economic uncertainty and spiritual challenge. We are in a day of distress, and we will be tempted to sing the blues if we focus on barren fig trees, empty fields, lost jobs and shrinking family budgets.
Habakkuk instructs us to shift the mood by creating a noisy soundtrack of praise. This prophet refused to let the failures of the present dictate his future. He was not in denial of the facts, but he saw clearly that God was above his circumstances. He broke out of depression with a loud declaration. He chose to Shigionoth instead of sulk. He sang with deep emotion: “Yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.”
If you are in a difficult place today, I invite you to cancel your pity party. Stop singing sad songs about how bad it is. Instead, go in your secret place, shut the door and raise the roof with some Shigionoth praise.
J. Lee Grady is the former editor of Charisma. You can follow him on Twitter at leegrady. His most recent book is 10 Lies Men Believe (Charisma House).
Many people struggle to believe God loves them because of a dysfunctional mom or dad.
This past weekend I spoke to some students at a college in New Hampshire. Knowing that many young people today come from broken homes (more than 1 million children today are the victims of divorce), I felt I needed to talk to them about the fatherly heart of God. I wasn’t surprised when several people’s eyes got misty as soon as I mentioned the word “father.”
This Sunday is Pastor Appreciation Day. Here are six specific ways to pray for your spiritual leaders.
Often when I speak to a group of aspiring ministers, I greet them by saying: “Welcome to the war.” I also remind them that when they signed up to join the front lines of spiritual battle, a bright red target was painted on their backs. Ministry can be wonderfully rewarding, but let’s not kid anybody: Most of the time it’s a thankless job full of headaches, disappointments, conflicts, loneliness, frustration, petty complaints and tight budgets.
And while we might assume all pastors lead megachurches and drive new cars, keep in mind that the average church in this country has 75 members and the average pastor makes less than $34,000 a year—and may work an extra job to feed his or her family. The statistics are alarming: 90 percent of pastors work more than 50 hours a week; 70 percent say they don't have any close friends; and 45 percent say they've had to take a leave of absence from ministry because of depression or burnout.
Pennsylvania pastor Bruce Ladebu pays up to $500 each to free children from cruel exploitation.
My friend Bruce Ladebu is a pastor, but he has never been comfortable behind a desk or a pulpit. A former adventurer who has explored Arctic islands and tracked timberwolves in the Canadian Rockies, he prefers to take his faith outside the American comfort zone. That’s why he ended up in Central Asia two weeks ago on a daring 12-day mission to rescue chidren from slavery.
Bruce’s work is not for the squeamish. He has watched 4-year-old children work 14 hours straight in 120 degree heat in crude brick factories or fabric mills. Some of the children are chained to looms and forced by their owners to urinate in pots so they won’t run away. On his most recent trip Bruce met a boy who had been burned with acid by his owners. The child had developed an infection and was given no medical care.
Jesus called us into friendship, not just with Him but also with His followers.
I don’t like goodbyes, especially on the mission field, because sometimes I get emotional. Last week it was really bad.
I had spent six days with a church in Tarapoto, Peru, and I invested a lot of time and energy encouraging the people—especially some young adults who are emerging leaders. When it was almost time for me to go through the security checkpoint at the airport, about 18 of these men and women burst through the lobby doors and gathered around me and my translator, Diego.
An earthquake rattles Washington, D.C., and a fierce storm ravages the East Coast. Is God speaking to us?
I’m not a doomsday prophet, and I don’t believe every hurricane, earthquake or drought is God’s judgment. But I did pause to ponder the significance of the freakish 5.8-magnitude quake that jolted the East Coast last week. The White House was evacuated, the Washington Monument was closed indefinitely because of cracks, and the National Cathedral’s central tower was seriously damaged.
Francis Chan’s book Erasing Hell is a prophetic reminder that we can’t compromise the gospel.
California pastor Francis Chan is one of my heroes, partly because he has given most of his book royalites—reportedly $2 million—to charity. Another reason I admire him: He’s written a new book about hell at a time when many Christians are questioning the idea of eternal punishment. The guy has some chutzpah.
His new book Erasing Hell (David C. Cook) is a direct response to Love Wins, the controversial book by celebrity pastor Rob Bell of Michigan. While Bell’s book flirts with universalism and suggests that a loving God would never send anyone to hell, Chan’s message is blunt and biblical—yet without a hint of self-righteousness.
God has something sobering to say to us through the death of this popular preacher.
Zachery Tims’ story had a great beginning. As a young man he met Jesus and was saved from a life of crime and drugs. He and his wife, Riva, moved from Baltimore to Orlando, Fla., in 1996 to launch a church that aimed to restore families and pull teens out of trouble. New Destiny Christian Center grew fast, mostly because of Tims’ passionate preaching. He was soon a regular on Christian television.
But things unraveled in 2009 when Tims was caught carrying on a yearlong affair with a stripper he met in France. He admitted to an “indiscretion” and got a few weeks of counseling, but he didn’t take serious time off for rehabilitation. Riva divorced him for his infidelity. The billboards that once featured photos of the happy couple were changed. By 2011 the roadside ads featured a shot of Tims by himself, with this slogan: “A Family Church Meeting Family Needs.”
I learned some important lessons about courage last weekend while I was dangling in midair.
I am not a daredevil. I have never bungie-jumped off a cliff, parachuted out of an airplane or spent any time in a shark cage. But when my friend Michael Cole from Christ for the Nations Institute (CFNI) asked me to speak at a leadership retreat in Ohio—and he informed me that we would be participating in a high ropes course on Saturday afternoon—I said to myself, Bring on the challenge! I thought it would be fun!
Two elderly missionaries inspired me this week to value character so I can finish well.
You’ve probably never heard of Hobert and Marguerite Howard. They didn’t write best-selling books. They aren’t rich. They don’t preach on television or pastor a megachurch. Fame was the farthest thing from their minds when they both surrendered their lives to serve God on the mission field.
In 1951 this Pentecostal couple boarded a steamship and sailed for 50 days to India, where they built orphanages, schools and churches and trained Christian leaders. This week the Howards officially retired, and I had the privilege of attending a special reception to honor them for 60 years of service.
Many young adults today are abandoning biblical faith or mixing it with other religions. How should we respond?
Since the Wild Goose Festival was held in North Carolina’s mountains, you might be tempted to think it was a typical bluegrass festival. Think again. The organizers of this event, which attracted 1,500 people in late June, say their quasi-Christian conference “is going to grow into the largest, best run, most dynamic religious happening in the U.S.”
If a slick-haired TV evangelist had made such a pompous statement we would have rolled our eyes and laughed the guy off the stage. But the founder of Wild Goose, a peace activist from Northern Ireland named Gareth Higgins, is convinced his movement will capture the hearts of young Americans who are questioning their evangelical faith and exploring other options.