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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?