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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Whatever Happened To Honor? Part I

Why is it that after almost 40 years of being a follower of Christ, I still feel out of step with most of American Christianity and feel as if there is something wrong with me? Why is it that as much as I tried, I could never sacrifice relationship over the American Church’s corporate mentality?

These questions were always running in the back of my head like one of those looped videotapes you see in stores that keep showing the same thing over and over again. Often my response was, “You are too sensitive. Don’t be so petty. Get over it. You can’t expect everyone to be wrong so it must be you?” And so on.

Let me give you couple of examples of what I am talking about.

If I was in my office working on my computer and a friend walked in, I would stop everything I was doing to attend to the person who was sitting across my desk. I wanted him/her to know that at that moment they were the center of my attention and nothing else mattered. Yet, if five minutes later I walked into the same person’s office, it would deeply hurt and offend me that my friend would continue banging on the keyboard without once looking up to listen to what I was saying. No, this had nothing to do with one’s ability to multitask or lack of it. To me, this all had to do with giving importance to a friend over an email that could be sent 10 minutes later.

If a friend needs a job, that need becomes my need, especially, when I know some people who might be interested in giving him/her a job. Unlike so many people I know, it is not good enough for ME that I can refer the friend to the right people. I take it upon myself to make sure the people know he/she is my friend and expect them to treat my friend with utmost respect. For, how they treat my friend is a reflection of their treatment of me.

I can imagine what kinds of questions might be going through your minds. What if the email couldn’t wait for 10 minutes? Don’t you think just directing the person to the right people should be good enough? Whose got the time to do follow-ups? Exactly, you are hitting the nail on the head. These were my questions too, yet I hardly ever remember an email that could not wait for 10 minutes and I could always make the time to follow up with my friends’ job hunts.

Does that make me a people pleaser? Am I an insecure person who wants to make sure everyone around him is happy with him? Believe me, I continually scrutinize myself over my actions. Did a desire to give people importance make me an “airhead”, as the president of the Christian organization I worked for once called me? He believed that only an “airhead” would give so much attention to just anyone.

It was only a few years ago, while teaching a seminar on honor and shame, the building block of most Oriental cultures, that I realized how much my culture of origin has to do with who I am today.

The formative years of my life in Iran was shaped under a Shame-Based culture—shame vs. honor. I really don’t want to take the time to talk about that culture. However, it is sufficient to say that within that culture, honor is the greatest attribute one can seek. Giving honor brings a person more honor. I was taught that taking care of my friends or my community was an honorable act.

By the way, the Bible, having been written in a Shame-Based culture is filled with passages dealing with this issue. Consider the following passages.

Leah said, "God has presented me with a precious gift. This time my husband will treat me with honor, because I have borne him six sons." Genesis 30:20

Genesis 45:13 "Tell my father about all the honor accorded me in Egypt and about everything you have seen. And bring my father down here quickly."

Luke 9:26 "If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels."

Revelation 21:27 "Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life."




Unfortunately, honor is an attribute, which, for the most part, has lost its importance within the American church. Most of my experience has taught me that taking the time to honor people of God is not conducive to the American corporate church mentality. Unless, of course, you are a mega-church pastor, an accomplished author, the president of a Christian organization or a televangelist with a funky hairdo, then we better honor God’s anointed or His wrath shall come upon us.

Recently, a friend told me the following story. He had been working for a missions organization for several years giving it all he could. Even though he had a Masters degree, he worked for a minimum wage because, like most of us, he wasn’t in the ministry for the money, but to make a difference for God’s Kingdom. For all the year he was there, along with other co-workers, he never got a raise because, according to the president of the organization, due to financial hardship, they could not afford to give any of the employees any raises. However, later on, my friend found out that through all those lean years, the president of the organization never stopped making his six-figure salary.

But even that was not as dishonoring as what happened to him during the last Christmas he was with that organization. I will let him tell the story.

“I was sitting at my desk when we were all given an unwrapped brown box.”

“What is this?” I asked.

“It’s your Christmas gift.”

“As soon as I opened it, I was about to scream. Inside the box was a gift that, two years earlier, I had designed for the board members. The management had not even bothered to change the two year old calendar that was left in the box.”

Talk about being dishonored. Yet, the management of this Christian organization, which was supposedly spreading the message of Jesus all over the world, had no idea why my friend and other co-workers were not grateful for getting a second-hand Christmas gift. To the management, this act of gift giving should have been received as something magnanimous where, in fact, the employees felt it to be so demeaning.

I literally can recount scores of incidents like this told to me by Christians from all types of denominations and backgrounds, but I finish this blog with one of my own stories.

A few days ago, just a week after my radical prostatectomy operation, I received a call from the producer of a popular Christian radio show in Los Angeles area. He had received an email from a dear friend of mine who had suggested me as a guest on the show. After introducing himself, the gentleman asked if I would be willing to do a radio interview the following day at 5:00 PM. I happily and graciously accepted the offer.

In the past 30 some years of being a believer, because of my unique background, I have been on numerous radio and TV programs. For five years I produced a Persian TV show which was aired among the Iranian community in the Los Angeles area. All that to say: I am not new to radio or TV interviews. I know how quickly a daily TV or radio show can switch directions and bump a guest off the show. So, after I got off the phone, I told my wife about the interview, but I also told her, “I am not holding my breath.”

The next day the same gentleman called to inform me that my interview was pushed back 30 minutes and a few hours later, the interview was postponed to the following Thursday at 5:30 PM.

Thursday came and went and, yes, you guessed it, I never heard from the producer. I waited till mid-day Friday hoping I would at least receive the customary phone call telling me why I was bumped or that they were not interested in interviewing me any longer, but it never happened. So, I called the producer and this is how the conversation went:

“Hi Danny this is Shah.”

“Shah???” It was obvious he couldn’t immediately remember who I was.

“Yes, the guy you were supposed to have an interview with yesterday.”

“Oh, Shah! I never told you we were going to interview you on Thursday. I said if we needed you, we were going to call you.”

“No, you did not. You called me last Monday to tell me I WAS going to be interviewed on Thursday. Do you remember?”

“Well, sorry. I forgot to tell you that we didn’t need you.”

“Couldn’t you at least, out of courtesy, call me and let me know so I could run some of my errands yesterday rather than sitting by my phone waiting for your call?”

“Well, sorry!”

We said our goodbyes and I hung up.

What bothered me the most was his tone of voice. As if he was annoyed that a peon like me would even dare ask why he thought I wasn’t worthy of a lousy phone call. All through our conversation, I wanted to ask producer Danny the following question. Again, to some the question might make me look like a sore loser, but to those who know me well, know that to me it is a matter of HONOR.

“Danny, would you have forgotten to call me if I was Pastor so and so?” I was going to name a popular mega-church pastor. We all know what his answer would have been and that is my point of contention.

Any more, just like the secular world, the corporate church has divided the people into, as an old Christian boss of mine used to say, “major leaguers” and “minor leaguers”. The “major leaguers” are the famous ones, God’s anointed, the mega-church builders. They are the ones who have written all the “how to” Christian books. They are the only ones who have something to offer to the rest of the church. And the rest of us, who don’t have the above qualifications, are the “minor leaguers”. And producer Danny was not any better or worse when it came to assessing people’s value. To him I was a “minor leaguer” who should have been grateful that his radio show even considered interviewing me. However, the story didn’t end there.

Just a few minutes after I finished talking with Danny, the phone rang again. It was him.

“Shah, I need to apologize to you. I dropped the ball. I SHOULD HAVE called to let you know that we were not interested in interviewing you.”

“Danny, this means the world to me. My upbringing demands that we honor each other. You dishonored me by not calling me back originally. And I want you to know that had nothing to do with you deciding not to put me on your show. But now you have restored my honor by apologizing to me,” I told him. He went on to apologize again, but it wasn’t needed.

Today I don’t question the validity of my feelings and actions any more. I have come to realize that my feelings are not only valid, but also they are very much biblical. Those who are made in God’s image are worthy of my time and attention. But, I am also not as bent on expecting that everyone treat me the same way. However, this does not mean that we, as those who are called to be God’s ambassadors in this world, should not learn how to treat people, regardless of their status, with a level of honor due to them.

I have to admit that Danny’s second phone call left me with another nagging question, “Would he have ever admitted to his wrong doing if I had not confronted him and if so, why do so many Christians allow the leadership to dishonor them with regularity and yet not confront them?” which forces me to look at the issue of honor and shame from another point of view.

Stay tuned for my next blog.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

What if?

A few days ago, the president of Iran, whose name is pronounced, Mah-mood Ah-mad-ee-neh-jaad (I got tired of listening to scores of American reporters pronouncing the name ten million different ways) arrogantly, declared that there are no homosexuals in Iran. Well, as one who was born and raised there, one who still has his parents and most of his relatives living there, I, assuredly, declare that he is a liar and there are many homosexuals living in Iran. Of course, this should not come as a surprise to any of you. What is shocking is the way these poor souls are treated. Please click on the following link, but I have to warn you, this is very graphic:
http://www.foxnews.com/photoessay/0,4644,2396,00.html#1_0

By their silence, Christian leaders in the united States are missing a great opportunity to demonstrate the love and compassion of Christ to a persecuted people group. Christians have often complaint that the secular media fails to recognize persecuted Christian minorities globally. On the other hand, the popular Christian phrase , “love the sinner hate the sin”, is seen by the world as being disingenuous. What if the Church of Jesus Christ seizes the day with Ahmadinejad’s hideous statement by supporting that very group of persecuted people? Can you imagine, the bridge, all be it small, that could be built to the homosexual community and broader liberal community if, for example, Dr. James Dobson called the church to pray and speak out against this persecution? No, this would not mean that Dobson is agreeing with homosexual life-style, rather it would clearly show an act of love and concern on the part of the followers of Christ.

I believe God is giving us and will give us opportunities in the future to show his mercy to this fallen world. May we be wise enough to take advantage of these opportunities

I would love to hear your comments.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

I CE-LIBRATED LIFE TODAY

A few years ago I read, Why Jesus Went to Parties? by Max Lucado.

This is how Max starts the article:

Why would Jesus, on his first journey, take his followers to a party?

Didn't they have work to do? Didn't he have principles to teach?
Wasn't his time limited? How could a wedding fit with his purpose on
earth?

Why did Jesus go to the wedding?

The answer? It's found in the second verse of John 2. "Jesus and his
followers were also invited to the wedding."

Why did they invite him?

I suppose they liked him.

He then goes on to say that Jesus went to parties--are you ready for this--to have fun! As Chris Farley used to say on SNL, “whoop dee freaking do!” How low has the state of Christian faith in the western world sunk that one of the most prolific writers of our time has to scripturally prove that it is ok for Christians to have fun because Jesus took time to have fun.

I don’t blame Mr. Lucado. At least he is trying to take Christians out of their organizational attitude and get them to enjoy life and have fun just for the sake of fun and not as an end to another church sponsored program. He, like most western Christians, is a victim of reading the Bible through his own eyes.

Let me clarify a few things as one who is from the part of the world Jesus came from.

Please note that according to the Gospel of John, all the books in the world could not contain what Jesus did while on earth. So, to assume that our four gospels contain all that Jesus did is very naïve. In other worlds, in most probability, this was not the first time that Jesus and his disciples were attending a wedding. The only reason John reports this wedding is because this is where Jesus performed his first miracle.

Second, unlike a majority of western Christian teachers who spend most of their time teaching things about God in a didactic style, Jesus lived God before his students, and what better place than a wedding to show his disciples that the Gospel is all about RELATIONSHIP.

Third, Jesus went to the wedding because He was invited. In the Middle East culture, if you live in a small community, as I did in Iran, when someone in the neighborhood gets married, the whole community is invited. Not to invite your neighbors is a sign of disrespect. Unlike so many Christians leaders I know, Jesus went to the wedding with no agenda but to love and respect his neighbors and not looking to see what was in it for him. He went to the wedding to celebrate the new life a couple in his community was about to start.

And finally, Jesus went to the wedding to have fun. He never separated the Gospel from FUN of celebrating life. You have never experienced a true wedding celebration until you attend a Middle Eastern or an Armenian wedding. Where as in an average American evangelical wedding the main focus is on the religious ceremony, in the eastern culture, it is the celebration afterwards that truly is considered to be the wedding. No, you are not given a piece of cake and a cup of punch and sent home. Maybe, that’s because we don’t separate a wedding into a religious ceremony and a secular celebration. To us, the whole thing is about celebration.

Where did we, Christians, lose it? “How could we,” as one of my old professors at the seminary used to say, “take the most joyous religion in the world (Judaism) and turn it into boring western Christianity?” I know, historically, there are many reasons why we got to where we are today, but that is not the subject of this article.

I am sorry to say that within a few years of leaving Islam to follow Christ, I became one of those Christians who forgot how to celebrate life. I was too busy trying to make a church grow to have fun. I thought to enjoy life while there were so many hurting people around me was not godly. Today I regret spending so many years of my life not having more fun.

All our married life (33 years), my wife, Karen, wanted to learn how to Swing dance. Although I was never against dancing and was probably the only Iranian pastor who always wanted to incorporate dancing as a part of worship, I just could not bring myself to take lessons in Swing. For some reason, I was taught that my enjoyment of life should always involve some kind of religious activity and Swing certainly was not in that category. After all, where is Swing mentioned in the Bible?

My attitude towards life has changed drastically in the last 10 years. Little by little I had to admit to myself that one of the reasons I so often feel out of step with my western leaders is because of my up bringing in Iran. I came to realize how much of the corporate culture of America has crept into the church and has become a part of our Christian life; the culture that demands every action of one’s life to be navigated by its outcome. Everything in life has to be goal oriented. Any more, our best pastors and Christian leaders are not those who necessarily had much passion for people, but organizers with great administrative gifts. Next time you meet a pastor in his office, take a quick look at what he/she keeps in his/her library. Don’t be surprised to see the number of books that are about administration, organizations and goal setting. After all, Capitalism teaches that there should be a return for your investments. You shouldn’t do something just for the sake of doing it. There has to be a positive and tangible return for your efforts, otherwise, as my ex-leader called me, “You are an airhead.”

I can’t tell you the delight and the freedom I experienced when reading Simon Tuglwell’s, the Beatitudes. In dealing with Matt. 5:4, Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth, he makes these life liberating remarks:

…Does it really make sense to say that God ‘has a purpose’ in what He does? God is his own purpose. And in that He is entirely sufficient to himself… God acts without a reason…If we are to be and to act like God, if we are to appreciate the act of God, we must come to appreciate the point of pointlessness, the joy of unnecssariness. We must learn to pay due attentions to the satisfaction there is sometimes in just doing something for its own sake, and not bias our view of life too much in the direction of those things which are always a struggle and which are always justifiable in terms of some solemn intention.

I will never forget the amount of shock and disbelief I experienced several years ago when a dear friend told me she had taken motorcycle lessons at her local CHP office to learn how to ride a motorcycle. “But you don’t even own a bike.” I said and asked; “Why did you do it?” “Just because,” she responded.

What does any of this have to do with me celebrating life today? Well, to get there, I need to set the stage. I got an iPod for my birthday this past June. I had just downloaded Santana’s first album when I went to work on the front yard. As I began to listen to the album, something came upon me.

Was it the Latin beat of the music, the fact that the song took me back to over 30 years ago when my faith was simple and my theology nonexistent, the days when I was naïve enough to trust my leadership as those who were put in their position to serve God’s people and not their own personal ambitions, the days when I trusted my tithe money to go towards spreading the Gospel in the world and not being wasted on remodeling an unneeded church office at the tune of $600,000, the time when I thought the measure of a man was in his Christ likeness and not the size of his church or how many books he has written, or maybe all of the above? Whatever it was, it made me want to dance and I did.

I took the shovel, just like Fred Astaire did with the hat rack in one of his movies, and began to do the Salsa with it. I didn’t care what the neighbors or passersby thought. I wanted to love the moment for no reason. I wanted to dance just because. I didn’t need a mandate or scripture to justify myself in the fact that I finally listened to Karen and four years ago started taking dance lessons.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Drive-by Evangelism

I live in the San Fernando area of Los Angeles. Some of the most notorious gangs in Los Angeles live just a few miles from our house, so, for us, the news of drive by shootings is something very common. In fact, we have witnessed two rival gang members shooting at each other just a few feet in front us as we were driving home one night. And even though they shot at each other, neither one of them was hit. The way these gangs shoot at each other, very much, describes the way American Christians do evangelism.

As some of you know, I was a professor at a Bible college for five years. One of the classes I taught was Evangelism and Discipleship. When I first started teaching that class, one of the assignments was for the students to witness to three people in the course of the fifteen-week semester and write a one page report on it.

Most of my students would wait until the night before the assignment was due, run to the local Starbucks, buttonhole a poor sucker who was trying to get himself ready for his graveyard shift by drinking a Venti Americana with an extra shot, and ask him, “Sir, do you know Jesus loves you?” or, “Where would you go if you dropped dead tonight?” to which he would usually reply, “No, and I don’t care.” Or “I really don’t give a *&^%”. And then, my students would proudly write their reports on these heroic acts of evangelism.

Within a semester after I started teaching that class, a colleague, who taught the same class, and I changed this assignment to the following requirements:

1. Each student had 15 weeks to make one new—someone they had never met before—pre-Christian friend,
2. Journal everything he/she could about the person and their relationship every time they met, and
3. If the person was to ever become a follower of Christ, what would the student do to disciple his/her newfound friend—an eight week course of action?

Please note that the object was not to, as our professional Christians would say, “close the deal” (have the person repeat THE SINNERS’ PRAYER”), but to just make a friend. After four years of teaching the same class, do you know how many of my several hundred students were able to make one friend in fifteen weeks?

Only a handful.

The majority of my students would rather spend fifteen weeks parsing words in Greek and Hebrew or study Systematic Theology than befriend a pre-Christian because most of them had never been taught the value of having non-Christian friends. After all, a prevalent belief among most Christians today is, “At best, a non-Christian has nothing good to offer Christians and at worse, they can take you away from your faith; so why bother making friends with them.” Therefore, rather than looking at those outside the church as men and women made in God’s image and worthy of their friendship, most my students looked at non-believers as their Drive-by Evangelism projects.

Often, out of shear frustration, I would yell at my students, “What in heaven’s name is your Greek and Hebrew or your Orthodox theology good for if you don’t even know how to share your faith with an unchurched person?”


The Christian motto: “Don’t go there, don‘t see that, don’t touch this and certainly DO NOT associate with those people,” makes us look more like Pharisees than Christ; whom by the way, went there, ate and drank that, touched this and most definitely spent a great deal of time hanging out with people who were considered to be the cesspool of society by the most religious people of his time.


Someone might say, “Well, we need to protect our young ones from the evils of this world. Yes, I agree! But, creating an unrealistic bubble of protection around them, for the most part, will neither protect them from the evils of this world nor will it cause them to be the salt Jesus commanded.

Even worse is the fact that this attitude is not just limited to young Christians, but throughout our Christian society.

I recently read an article by Christianity Today, titled Friends Outside the Faith, http://www.christianitytoday.com/tcw/2007/002/7.36.html, where four Christian women discussed their attitudes towards evangelism.

The article was so shallow and condescending that a friend wrote the following to CT:

"I cannot believe you published the article, “Friends Outside the Faith.” I am absolutely aghast at the perceptions these women have, both of themselves and those who they encounter. Throughout this article the only people these women are truly concerned about are themselves. They have an implicit belief that they are better than non-believers; and they believe all non-believers are searching for truth, i.e. Jesus Christ. Both beliefs are a fallacy.

Let’s look at the first and last examples given in this article. First is Kim; she talks about her realtor who is gay and has invited her to a party. She is only concerned with herself—if she will feel weird, what she will talk about, how it might look bad for her to go. Then there is Eva. Who is she praying for? Herself. She is praying not to mess up something, and then has the realization that God could actually bless someone through her. Me, me, me, me, me.

Lou and Lisa are no better; they believe that they are to be positive influencers of society and to associate with immoral people, just as Jesus did. However, they think that all non-believers are “desperate for something that’s honest, true, and real—and that’s Jesus.” How do they know what non-believers are searching for? When do they ever take the time to listen to what others want? They have their agenda: tell others about God. I don’t see too much listening in that agenda…"

To me, the blame rests on the leadership. I know Christian leaders who shine when given a mike and put in front of a couple of thousands people. They will preach the Gospel like Jesus himself. Yet, you put the same leaders across from one unbeliever and they would look like a deer caught in the headlights, especially if the unbeliever has nothing to help further the leader’s personal cause. Believe me, I have seen it.

The Church in America has to realize that the era of mass-evangelism is over. Today, more than ever before, people are looking for authenticity, transparency and someone they can trust. We must quit looking at those outside the faith as if they have nothing good to offer and, therefore, not worthy of our friendship unless we make them some type of evangelism project. We will become influential when we are willing to be their friends, listen to their stories, and not offer Christian cliché answers to their problems.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

CONFESS YOUR SINS TO EACH OTHER THAT YOU MAYBE HEALED OR…HUMILIATED

All Evangelicals are familiar with the passage in the book of James 5:15 that says: Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.

Do you ever wonder who and how many constitute the "each other" in the above verse? To whom and to how many do I have to confess my sin, so I can be healed? No matter how you feel about the Catholic Church, this is how they interpret the above passage. Once a catholic sees the need for confessing his sin, he goes to the perish priest, makes his confession and, for all practical purpose, that is the end of the issue. Most priests would rather go to jail than reveal what was confessed to them. But, for the most part, the Evangelicals still struggle as how to implement this verse in their everyday life. Let me give you couple of examples.

I met Scott, a well-educated, deep thinking and very attractive man, seven years ago. By that time he had been a follower of Christ for about five years. His greatest desires in these past seven years were to serve God and find a woman who would fall in love and marry him. To stay true to his love for God, he lived a celibate life. Following his pastor’s suggestion he had made a list of what kind of woman he wanted because, after all, if you pray hard enough and live a pure life, God will give you the perfect woman He has chosen for you.

Scott and I spend this past seven years praying, fasting and taking every practical avenue we could to find him a wife. He joined an on-line Christian dating service, went to singles’ meetings and allowed friends to introduce him to different eligible Christian women. Nothing worked! Probably because, we either did not pray hard enough or had sin in our lives (As usual, sarcasm is all mine).

About a year ago, not being able to find a Christian woman, he started dating a musician lady who was not a believer. Before attacking me for allowing it or Scott for going against God’s word and dating a non-believer, let me ask you a question, what is your solution? Do you have a better suggestion for a man in his forties who longs to have the arms of a loving woman around him so he can feel like a man God has called him to be? And please don’t you dare give the cliché that, “God alone should have been enough in Scott’s life.” Even God himself didn’t believe that bullcrap the church has been feeding the Christians for it was He who said, “It is NOT good for man to be alone.” If I remember correctly, at the time when God said that, Adam had God ALL to himself and it was long before he sinned. So, apparently, when it comes to being alone, though God is sufficient, He is not enough.

Scott started to take his girlfriend to church. Finding out that she was a musician, Scott’s pastor hired her to play on the worship team. Everything was going well until Scott gave into temptation. Yes, he slept with his girlfriend once and his life has never been the same because he wanted to be obedient to the Scripture and confess his sin.

My friend happened to be working for a rather large Christian organization. Feeling convicted, he made the great mistake of confessing his sin to his boss. You would think with a little grace that would have been the end of the issue. No, the boss promptly demoted him and demanded that Scott go to his pastor and confess his sin to him also, upon which he was rebuked and striped of all his duties at church. But that was not enough. This horrible sinful act was reported to the president of the organization and eventually the whole executive team had to be informed of it. Knowing the power of gossip, I would not be surprised if within a few weeks the whole building knew what my dear brother had done.

I recently heard of a Bible college student, Mary, who, as they say it at that school, “broke covenant”; she slept with another student. Again, wanting to be faithful to the above verse, she decided to confess her sin to her female RA. The RA promptly demanded that Mary go before her overseers, a couple, and confess her sin to them too. After wanting to know the most intimate details of Mary’s relationship, the overseers made her go before a committee of three confessing her failure. I wish I could tell you that that was the end of the ordeal, but NO. Mary, then, had to go to the president of the college who made her go before the student body at chapel time and announce to the whole school that she had “broken covenant.” Of course, she was not expected to go into all the details (how generous of them!), but I can imagine all the rumors that started because of her confession. One more thing, she also was required to go to her Christian boss and several other people at her job and confess to them also, which cost her the job.

Going back to my friend Scott, out of humiliation and embarrassment, he left his church and quit his job and to be honest, today, he is facing a crisis of faith. As for Mary, whom I have known for a year, she didn’t fair out any better. As I was having lunch with her this past week, my conversation with this young lady who is about the same age as my daughter, 20-21, went something like this:

“You have aged, Mary.”

She smiled and replied, “That’s what my mother said too.”

“What have you learned from this experience?“ I asked

“Not to trust the authority,” she replied.

This is what one of my favorite authors, Brennan Manning, in his book, Ragamuffin Gospel, says regarding the prodigal son,

“for me, the most touching verse in the entire Bible is the father’s response: ‘While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly’ (Luke 15:20).

I am moved that the father didn't cross-examine the boy, bully him, lecture him on ingratitude, or insist on any high motivation. He was so overjoyed at the sight of his son that he ignored all the canons of prudence and parental discretion and simply welcomed him home. The father took him back just as he was.”

In the same book, concerning the woman caught in adultery in the Gospel of John, Brennan says,

“Jesus didn't ask her if she was sorry. He didn't demand a firm purpose of amendment. He didn't seem too concerned that she might dash back into the arms of her lover. She just stood there and Jesus gave her forgiveness before she asked for it. The nature of God's love for us is outrageous.

Why doesn’t this God of ours display some taste and discretion in dealing with us? Why doesn't He show more restraint? To be blunt about it, couldn't God arrange to have a little more dignity?

Now, if we were in His position, we'd know perfectly well how to behave. The prodigal son would have recited his speech down to the very last word. And when he got finished we would have said, "Well, you go away, prodigal son, and I'll think about this for a couple of weeks. Then you'll be informed by an e-mail whether I've decided to let you back on the farm or not.

I don't think anyone of us would have approved of throwing rocks at the poor woman caught in adultery, but we would have made sure she presented a detailed act of repentance and to be firm in her purpose of amendment. Because if we let her off without saying she was sorry, wouldn't she be back into adultery before sunset?"

Why is it that if I work for a Christian organization, everyone above me is supposed to be my spiritual leaders too? Where does it say that a Christian should spiritually be accountable to his floor manager or even the director of his department who are nothing but a couple of paper-pushers or at best administrators who never try to connect with the their employees on any other level than business? In front of how many people does a Christian have to be humiliated and disgraced before he is presumably handed his forgiveness?

Please, don’t for one minute think that I am suggesting that we are not responsible for our actions or that one should not be accountable for his mistakes. No, we reap what we sow. My issue is with a leadership that has been placed in authority to build up the body of Christ and not their own kingdoms by tearing down people who God has put under them.

May God have mercy on us for taking a passage, which is supposed to bring healing and restoration to the body of Christ to YET AGAIN another tool of destruction, humiliation and above all, control. Maybe that’s why, as Barna says, there are 13 to 15 million unchurched born again Christians in America. Maybe the unchurched are not longer longing for another mega church pastor, but for a leader who will accept and forgive them as and where they are.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Size DOES Matter

In 1978, I started the first Iranian Christian organization, the Fellowship of Iranian Christians (FIC), in the US. Although, for the first ten years I kept FIC as a loosely-knit group of house churches—yes, I believed in the idea of house churches long before it became popular—eventually, due to our size, we needed to move into a church building.

At the time, that church was considered the flagship of her denomination. Out of the kindness of his heart, the pastor of the church decided to treat me as a part of the staff, even though I was never put on his payroll. And in many ways, our Iranian congregation was treated the same as the English speaking congregation. The Iranian church was never required to pay for any cost we incurred in all the years I pastored there. What a sweet deal, you might say.

For years I felt the same way until the night of the Presidential election in 1998. 1998 was probably the worse and toughest year of ministry for Karen and me. A great split had taken place at our church and Karen and I were desperate for any spiritual support we could receive. At the time Karen worked for the above pastor’s assistant, who we will call Bill.

Bill felt our Iranian congregation could spiritually be benefited if, at a Wednesday night service, we had the English speaking church pray over us. Unfortunately, he picked the night that President Clinton was re-elected for a second term.

I got all the members of my church I could muster up and brought them to the service. The pastor showed up on the platform quite angry because, earlier, a nationally broadcasted TV reporter, Brinkley, had called Clinton, a “Goddamn bore”. So he preached a firey message on respecting those God has put over us, even if they are Democrats, which went on and on and on for way over an hour.

As soon as he finished, the offering was taken and the pastor was about to dismiss the people when Bill leaned over and reminded him the reason why the Iranian church was at the service. I know what was said next in front of my wife, children, the Iranian church members and not to mention 900 English speaking church members might shock some of you, but it did happen.

“Well, I guess we now are going to pray for our TOKEN Iranian pastor,” the pastor announced to the audience. I can’t tell you the amount of shame I experienced at that moment. But after talking to Karen, we decided to drop the issue for two reasons. One, because of his generosity towards our church and second, we considered his statement a harmless AIR-HEADED remark, that any pastor could make in the heat of the moment and he really did not mean anything by it. But as you will see, there was nothing further from the
truth.

Now, let’s fast forward to January 2006. I had requested to meet with the same pastor to discuss some of the problems with a leader I was serving under at our denomination’s headquarters. Unbeknownst to me, our beloved pastor had spent an hour talking to the leader I had a problem with and he had given the pastor some false information about me.

No sooner had I entered the pastor’s house, than he began attacking me for something I had not done. Among other harsh words he used to describe me, he said, “I always knew you were an airhead. That is why you were not able to grow your church any larger.”

According to this great and anointed man of God (I hope you feel the sarcasm), the measure of a pastor is directly related to the size of his membership. It was then when I realized that his remark made nine years earlier was not an air-headed remark, but a calculated and purposefully malicious one.

By the way, it took me almost two hours to show him he had been given some wrong information about me. And when he finally realized he had misjudged me, he began to soften his tone and back peddle. But by then, the damage was done and once again, this TOKEN Iranian pastor was reminded that he was also an AIRHEAD.

Yes, my dear pastors, do not let them fool you. Size does matter. That is, the size of your congregation. You know, in all the years of attending my old denomination’s annual conventions, for once, I would have loved to see, as our main speaker, brother “Doodad” whom his greatest accomplishment in the past three years was to have successfully closed down five churches. I wanted to hear the pain of a man who had done all the right things and yet ended up with all the wrong results. I wanted to hear someone I could identify with. Hey, the Bible says something about the last days and old men dreaming dreams.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

The Appearance of Evil

1 Thessalonians 5:20-22

Don't suppress the Spirit, and don't stifle those who have a word from the Master. On the other hand, don't be gullible. Check out everything, and keep only what's good. Throw out anything tainted with evil. (The Message)

Do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil. (New American Standard Bible)

Despise not prophesyings. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil. (King James Version)

Do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil. (New International Version)

A while back, a Muslim leader in Iran demanded that while riding a bus, the women should leave their seats a few stops before their destination so, in case, a man sat where they had been sitting, the warmth of their seats would not arouse him sexually.

Recently, I heard another leader tell his staff members that while having dinner on one of his flights, he was suddenly horrified to realize that he was having dinner with a woman (the passenger next to him) who was not his wife.

Reading the above two incidents, what is the first thought that might come to your mind?

a) What a bunch of psychos
b) Pharisees
c) Give me a freaking break

What makes it even more sad is the fact that the latter incident was conveyed, not by a Muslim cleric, but a Christian leader while pontificating on Abstaining from all appearance of evil. Somehow, to this man, sitting next to a strange woman on a plane, while having dinner, was equivalent to going out on a date with her. As if the poor woman, who had never met this man, deliberately arranged to have her seat next to him so she could have dinner with him because, after all, every woman in the world has the hots for the Evangelical leaders. Talk about arrogance…

Hearing this ridiculous story took me back to seven years ago when I had first started working for a Christian organization. At the time, two of my coworkers and I who lived in the same area decided to carpool.

There were two men and a woman in the carpool. My guy friend made it very clear that if there were a day when I was not going to carpool with the gang, not wanting to be alone with a woman in a car, he would drive alone to work. I, on the other hand, having not directly worked for a Christian organization prior to this job, found carpooling with a woman besides my wife, a non-issue till the first time I did it. What happened next was something that haunted me for the following seven years of working in that place.

Apparently, on the day only two of us carpooled, another coworker saw me pull into the parking structure with a WOMAN who was not my wife next to me. Promptly, he reported me to the boss who immediately called me on the carpet to let me know that what I was doing had all the appearance of evil. I don’t know what they thought I was able to do with a woman while driving seventy miles per our on the freeways of Los Angeles—talk about multi-tasking on the freeway—nevertheless, it was still considered to have all the evil appearances.

Those who know me know that I do not rollover and play dead in the face of injustice and stupidity. Being from the Middle East, more than anything else, the above was an issue related to my honor. Something that most of my, so-called, leaders, did not, could not and, frankly, were incapable of understanding. Needless to say neither me, my wife or our lady friend backed down from carpooling together. I say my wife so my readers would know this was a non-issue for her also. After 32 years of being married, we both have proven our faithfulness to each other and rather spend our energy on things that matters to the Kingdom.

The issue continued till the day someone told the boss that the president of the organization had been carpooling alone with his secretary for almost twenty years. It was then that, suddenly, my carpooling with a woman, who was not my wife, no longer had the appearance of evil. Not because my friend and I had tried to remove all appearance of evil from our lives, but because, now, God’s anointed, the president of the organization had set a precedent for all of us. After all, if the president weren’t perfect, God would not have allowed him to be in that possession. Therefore, he has the power to make, that which looked evil one day, perfectly innocent the next day (sarcasm is all mine).

Unfortunately, even after that, the stigma never left me. As far as my superiors were concerned, at worse, I had an agenda for carpooling with women and going to lunch with them and at best I was continually guilty of giving the appearance, which was evil.

I started this article by giving you four different translation of the same verse. As you might have noticed, only King James Version says anything about the word appearance? I am not sure, but I am willing to bet that 400-500 years ago the word appearance in the English language did not mean what it means today. Maybe, that is why the other more correct translations do not say anything about appearance. But for the sake of the argument, let’s stay with the King James translation. After all, our anointed teachers still insist on using this version.

Suppose I tell you that yesterday, while passing by a bar next to my house, I noticed that a very well known pastor was sitting at the bar with a drink in front of him, deep in a conversation with a gay man. But wait, as the ad on TV says, there is more. While the pastor was sipping on his drink, there was a strange woman applying hair gel to his head and working it into his hair. Now, with all honesty, what do think of this pastor?

As Chandler, the character on the TV show, Friends, would say, “Oh my God”, talk about the appearance of evil. However, before passing judgment, look at the following passages from the Gospel of Luke: 7:36-39

Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner."

Yes, I twisted the story a bit. It wasn’t his head that was being worked on, but his feet. He was not sitting on a stool in a bar, but reclining on a couch in someone’s house. And the woman was not working on his hair with her hands but on his feet with her hair while kissing them (talk about a sensual appearance). However, the outcome is the same.

According to the Pharisees, Jesus should have known better than to hang out with a bunch of drunks and allow a prostitute to touch him, but apparently Jesus didn’t give a crap about how this might have appeared to them. He was more concerned about the people who were made in God’s image than his own reputation. And that is what he demands of ALL of us.

No, I am not advocating foolishness. I am not telling you that no one has the right to set guidelines and boundaries for you and me. What I am having a problem with are those Christian leaders whom, having struggles with a certain issue in their own lives, assume that everyone is suffering from the same weakness.

My beef with the “appearance of evil” is that it takes away from the real point: of abstaining from evil. By focusing on the “appearance” it puts such ridiculous constraints on people, constraints that limit people’s freedom and take away our better judgment or common sense. It is ridiculous for two people not to carpool because of the “appearance of evil or women needing to get up from their seat so that men won’t feel their warmth and be aroused.

Once again, we need to ask ourselves, “How much of the popular teachings being fed to people from the church pulpits in America is aimed to control and not guide the sheep?” Could this be the reason why there is such a great movement of “out of the church Christians” who find the church in her present form not relevant anymore?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Why Can’t I Touch God’s Anointed?

I used to be on the staff of a Pentecostal mega-church where, at the time, they had a very popular deliverance ministry. One of the greatest components of their ministry was based on Generational Curse. Without getting too far into it, (I am planning to write about it later on) they believed that much of our problems in life were related to some kind of a curse that was brought upon us through a sin committed by someone in our lineage. It didn’t matter if the proverbial sin was committed two days ago by your father or two hundred years ago by your great, great, great cousin who was the stepson of your great, great, great, great aunt.

Since I considered the teaching to be false, I wrote a paper showing its fallacy and presented it to the pastor of the church hoping for a dialog between the leader of the ministry and the pastoral staff.

As is common for the church leaders who are still caught up in Modernity, instead of getting a dialogue, I got a lecture. These leaders do not allow a conversation or an exchange of ideas. As far as they are concerned, it is a privilege for you and me to be on the receiving end of what they dictate to us. And God forbid if you question what they have to offer.

On top of that, one false teaching was defended by another. “Look at how God is blessing this ministry! Don’t you know you are not supposed to touch God’s anointed?” I was told.

The above statement brought up several questions:

1. Who is God’s anointed?
2. Where did this teaching originate?
3. What does touching God’s anointed mean?
4. Why can’t I touch him/her?

In the Bible, the word anointed is usually related to pouring oil on someone or something. The first time the Bible refers to this act is when Jacob pours oil on a heap of rocks.

Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz. Gen. 28:19-19

This tradition was a sign of consecration and, in the case of Aaron and his sons, a sign of ordination.

After you put these clothes on your brother Aaron and his sons, anoint and ordain them. Consecrate them so they may serve me as priest. Ex. 28:41
The prophets of Israel followed the tradition of pouring oil on men as a sign affirming that God had ordained a particular man to be the king over the people of Israel.

Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on Saul's head and kissed him, saying, "Has not the LORD anointed you leader over his inheritance? 1 Sam 10:1

Hence, the kings of Israel were called God’s anointed. And it was within this context that David called Saul, The Lord’s or God’s anointed.

He came to the sheep pens along the way; a cave was there, and Saul went in to relieve himself. David and his men were far back in the cave. The men said, "This is the day the LORD spoke of when he said to you, 'I will give your enemy into your hands for you to deal with as you wish.' " Then David crept up unnoticed and cut off a corner of Saul's robe. Afterward, David was conscience-stricken for having cut off a corner of his robe. He said to his men, "The LORD forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the LORD's anointed, or lift my hand against him; for he is the anointed of the LORD." With these words David rebuked his men and did not allow them to attack Saul. And Saul left the cave and went his way. I Sam 24:3-7
This is what is happening. David finally has a chance to KILL Saul who had every intention of killing David. But David refuses to “lift his hand against or touch God’s anointed”. Any honest person should be able to see that the issue here is not criticizing Saul, but doing him in. Touching God’s anointed, as the above pastor tried to convey to me, has nothing to do with telling someone, “sir/madam, I don’t agree with you.” But, it has everything to do with saying, “sir/madam, I am going to KILL you.”
Today, with no kings around and all the Old Testament prophets gone, how can we tell who is God’s anointed is?

Well, according to everything I was ever taught by my Pentecostal mentors, God’s anointed are the Christian leaders with great accomplishments. So, if one is the pastor of a mega-church, a great preacher, a successful televangelist, a popular faith healer (usually with a bad comb-over), or the president of a denomination, you are God’s anointed. So, the anointing is directly related to your status within the church. And because you are God’s anointed no one should criticize anything you do. For to do so is to touch God’s anointed which, after all, even David wouldn’t do.

If the above is true then our Lord, Jesus Christ, was guilty of a grievous sin of criticizing some of the most anointed people of his time, the Jewish teachers and leaders. Yet, you and I both know that this was not so in Christ’s case.

Then, why such a blatantly erroneous teaching, you might ask?

To control the people who dare to ask questions.

If a Christian leader can convince his followers that his accomplishment is related to him being God’s anointed, then by questioning him you have committed the sin of touching God’s anointed. Yet, one of the mandates of Jesus to his followers is to ask questions and to knock on doors for answers. As Rob Bell says in Velvet Elvis, “A Christian does not avoid questions; a Christian embraces them. In fact, to truly pursue the living God, we have to see the need for questions.”

The aforementioned teaching is the brainchild of a group of insecure and control-freak Christian leaders whom, out of the fear of losing control, could not tolerate anyone questioning their motive or behaviors and believe me, after almost 30 years of being in the ministry, I have seen many of these so-called anointed people of God.

For the five years I thought at a Bible College, one thing I demanded of my students was to challenge and question what I was teaching them. I was there to learn from their questions just as much as they were there to learn from me. I would always finish a semester by telling me students, “Be a rebel. Not just to be different, but to make a difference for the Kingdom of God.”

Monday, January 15, 2007

Spiritual Warfare and the Desert Fathers

As a Pentecostal, I was taught that spiritual warfare was directly related to the binding and loosing of Matthew 16:19 where Jesus said:

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

As a Christian, I was told, in Christ’s name we have the power to come against Satan and bind him and all his demons preventing them from operating in some particular circumstances. And by the same token, we had the power to loose the power of the Holy Spirit to operate in the said circumstances. So, you put on the full armor of Ephesians Chapter Six and off you went to bind Satan and his cohorts.

Like many, for years I followed this formula. However after a while I came to the conclusion that, like the many other formulas my mentors had taught me, this one didn’t work either. I was perplexed by the fact that if indeed this verse is referring to binding Satan, then why is it that as much as we have bound him, he is still running around freely and creating so much misery in this world? And if this is not the way to do spiritual warfare, then how does a follower of Christ conduct such warfare?

The answer came to me over ten years ago while sitting in my Early Church History class at Fuller Seminary. Quite in passing, my professor, Mel Robeck, mentioned something about the Desert Fathers, “who went out to do spiritual warfare, but not the way we do it today.” That certainly caught my attention and I began to study the so-called Desert Fathers and Mothers.

Around the end of the third century, when Rome was becoming Christianized and the Church was becoming more and more Hellenized, a group of godly men and women said, “now that the world is no longer persecuting and waging war against us, WE are going out to wage war against the world or the spiritual darkness”. Having believed that Jesus faced Satan in the desert, they also went to the desert to face the enemy, thus the title, Desert Fathers.

If I was to ask a room full of Christians, “how did Jesus over come Satan?” the majority would say, “by the word of God”. Yet, we all know that we can quote the scriptures till the cows come home and still give into whatever temptations we face. Which brings me to the conclusion that the word was only a tool and not the means by which Jesus defeated Satan. Jesus defeated Satan by defeating temptation.

But where do temptations originate? Our thoughts. No man wakes up one morning and says to himself, “today I am going to commit adultery.” No, the act was the end result of something that had started with a simple thought long before the action took place.

So, these men and women of God came to the conclusion that in order to defeat Satan, one has to overcome temptation in himself. And in order to overcome temptation one has to control his thoughts or as Paul says, “bringing them into captivity”. For the Desert Fathers, the spiritual warfare was an ongoing inward discipline and not something that is accomplished by yelling at Satan and attempting to bind him.